There Is No “Tears of the Kingdom” Without “Ocarina Of Time.” Here’s Why.

After more than six years of waiting, we are at long last getting our hands on the latest title in the iconic Legend of Zelda franchise. The internet feels like it’s about to burst. And despite last week’s news that the game leaked online, enthusiasm and excitement are running high. And for good reason. 

Tears of the Kingdom is a sequel to Nintendo’s equally groundbreaking Breath of the Wild, which thrust both new and longtime fans into a breathtaking (see what I did there?) new iteration of Hyrule. The game was lauded for its design, gameplay, and rich new narrative direction for the series. But what makes Breath of the Wild so successful is not a new formula for the Zelda franchise. Sure, the story beats across the games are roughly the same; a great evil (usually some iteration of Ganon) threatens the existence of Hyrule and/or its counterpart, and Link must rescue Princess Zelda from the clutches of this evil so that she can restore peace and balance to the land. It’s textbook “Hero’s Journey” storytelling. 

But what made Breath of the Wild so compelling was not the reuse of this formula, it was the way the formula was reinvented. Link awakens in a Hyrule that has already been ravaged by a century of chaos wrought by Ganon. All the Champions that stood against him are long dead. And the only thing preventing Ganon from fully consuming the land is Zelda, locked in a century-long battle to contain him. Link must recover his memories as one of Zelda’s Champions to fully realize his power and vanquish Ganon, but doing so exacts a heavy toll; a reminder of the friends he has lost, and the Princess he failed to protect. There is a cost that Link must pay to be the “Hero,” and it’s the kind that forces all of us to ask if such a cost, such a toll, is worth it. 

Screenshot from Breath of the Wild depicting Link from the back as he stares up at a looming one eyed monster.
There is no shortage of foes in Breath of the Wild, including the ones that see you as a tasty snack.

It’s a beautiful story, even if it’s been told before throughout the ages, because it’s a story that we, as players, get to live. But Breath of the Wild was not the first Zelda game to demand a reckoning of its players. And perhaps the game that did it the best, and through what editor and essayist Javed Sterritt calls “a masterclass in subtext,” is Ocarina of Time. 

Released in 1998, Ocarina of Time was the first Zelda title designed for the Nintendo 64, and 25 years later, it is still regarded as one of the greatest video games ever made. Its use of music as a core gameplay mechanic, the interactive puzzle design, quirky characters, and with the advanced graphics of its time, it’s no surprise. Players take on control of Link, chronologically an ancestor to Breath of the Wild’s Link, as he traverses through time to save Zelda from Ganon and recover the Triforce, to restore balance and peace to Hyrule. 

Honestly, if you haven’t played Ocarina of Time before, do it. While there are quite a few elements (mostly of the graphics variety) that don’t hold up in 2023, it remains a masterclass in storytelling, musical design, and gameplay. It’s one of those games that those of us who remember its release (a bunch of millennial dinosaurs, as it were), remember it fondly. I know I do. I’ll never forget being 10 years old and spending hours at my next door neighbor’s house as we took turns with the controller, traversing Hyrule atop Link’s trusty steed Epona. As I write this, I stare up at the replica Master Sword hanging on my wall, and I can’t help but smile and recall the childlike wonder and excitement of the vast expanses of Hyrule that were suddenly open to me. It was what made Breath of the Wild feel like such a rush of nostalgia, a breath of fresh air in a saturated market of open world RPGs. 

A close up shot of Link as a child playing his Ocarina. Hyrule field is behind him in the background, with Lon Lon Ranch to his right (viewer's left).
Link’s ocarina is one of the most critical tools at his disposal in the quest to save Hyrule.

It wasn’t until I was older that the shocking and dark undertones of Ocarina became more apparent to me, and the older I get, the more I realize that this was likely intentional. In his video essay, Sterritt breaks down Ocarina’s use of subtext into three distinct categories: Good vs Evil, Nature vs Man, and Childhood vs Adulthood. All three are concepts that Link wrestles with throughout his journey. I’ll only briefly summarize here because honestly, Sterritt’s work is remarkable and everyone should watch it, but I will say this: the fact that this is a concept most of us did not grasp until our adulthood, until the wonderment of childhood had long left us, is evidence enough of the fundamental truths of Ocarina of Time.

We are first introduced to Link as a child, being raised among the Kokiri, children who never grow up. Link himself is not a Kokiri child and is therefore considered “other” by many of his peers, especially since he does not have his own fairy companion, which is the true mark of a Kokiri child. The spiritual guardian of the forest, the Great Deku Tree, is dying, and imparts the fairy Navi on Link as his guide before sending him on his quest to save Hyrule. This first half of the game presents with lots of “childlike” wonderment, bright colors, upbeat and whimsical music, and endearing characters. Despite the gravity of his quest, Link is still a child, and the world is presented and interpreted through the eyes of that child. It’s not until Link the child pulls the Master Sword from its pedestal in the Temple of Time, sleeps for seven years, and awakens to a decimated landscape, that the veil is lifted and the stakes become realized. The once beautiful and vibrant castle square is reduced to ashes and infested with blood sucking zombies. The sun is shrouded beneath a dark, toxic cloudscape, and the air of music is replaced by an eerie silence broken only by the sound of wind and crows. 

Link travels across the lands of Hyrule and rescues the Sages that represent its different biomes; forest, fire, water, desert, and shadow. Each quest tests the hero’s mettle, his mind, and his heart. Though his ultimate quest is to reunite with Zelda to face Ganon, it is only through the power of the Sages, the representatives of the very life force of Hyrule, that Ganon can be sealed away. Herein we see the true quest; on the surface, it’s a textbook story of good and evil; but at its heart, Ocarina of Time is a story about the natural balance of an ecosystem. Ganon represents corruption, a violation of the natural order, and through his corruption, Hyrule falls into decay. When power is restored to the Sages, the natural forces of Hyrule, that balance is also restored.

Screenshot from 2011 3DS remake of Ocarina of Time, depicting Link delivering the finishing blow to Ganon with the Master Sword.
Link delivers the final blow to Ganon, saving Hyrule from destruction once again. 

Link’s quest in Breath of the Wild is quite similar. While the landscape is not as outwardly corrupted by Ganon’s influence, it is in the literal disruption of the natural cycle that we see the disease; the rivers are bottlenecked, the volcanoes are in a constant state of eruption, the deserts wracked by deadly storms. Much like in the saving of the Sages, Link must cleanse the corruption of the ancient Champion machines which represent the biomes they protect. Cleansed, they unify and provide the foundation upon which Zelda and Link can face Ganon and end his plague once and for all. It’s soothing, actually, to an intuitive lover of stories. To see the formula that shook up the very foundation of video game storytelling so many years ago, still do the same in 2023. 

But there is a final element to Link’s story in Ocarina of Time that sets it apart from its successors; that of the consequences of Link’s heroism. 

After defeating Ganon and sealing him away, Link returns the Master Sword to its pedestal in the Temple of Time and thus returns to his childhood; before all the events of the story ever happen. As the camera pans out, however, we see Navi, Link’s vital connection to his home in Kokiri Forest, fly away without a word. The consequences of this are heartbreaking; without a fairy, Link can never return to Kokiri Forest. He would become hopelessly lost in the woods if he tried. And in a world where Ganon never seized control of Hyrule, the populace is entirely unaware of Link’s heroism; he is the hero forgotten by time. Link is now a lost child, carrying the memories of his adult self and wrestling with the death of his childhood innocence, in a world that does not know who he is. 

In 2006’s Twilight Princess, which saw the next reincarnation of Link fighting to cleanse both the lands of Hyrule and Twilight, Link comes face to face with the Hero’s Shade. This shade is a Stalfos, a skeleton warrior who reveals himself to be the Hero of Time; the very same Link that saved Hyrule in Ocarina of Time. This can only mean one thing; despite knowing it would be impossible to return to Kokiri Forest without a fairy, Link ventured into the woods anyway and became lost, thus losing his humanity and turning into a Stalfos. Driven by his intense grief, loneliness, and resentment that he would never be remembered, it’s easy to understand why Link would do this; what else did he have to lose? But seeing this realized exalts a heavy price on the player, something many players did not fully realize until many years after playing Twilight Princess. 

The Hero's Shade, a skeletal entity wearing rusted armor and holding a sword and shield as he looks forward at an unseen enemy. A forest looms behind him.
The Hero of Time dies alone and filled with regret, redeemed only upon passing his knowledge and skills down to the Hero of Twilight.

In the end, there is no “hero’s reward” for Link. He does what he does for the sake of duty, and in service of the perpetual cycle that has existed in Hyrule for generations. A Great Evil will spill across the lands, disrupt the natural order, and it will be up to Zelda, the reincarnation of the goddess Hylia, and her Chosen Knight to restore the natural order and preserve peace. On and on the wheel will turn, as it has before and will again as we get our hands on Tears of the Kingdom. All that remains is this; how will the formula be reinvented this time? And what price will we pay as Link to see it through once again?

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