On this day, 20 years ago, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was released in Japan. Its arrival is the closest players have come to feeling the awe felt by the scientists in 2001: A Space Odyssey – its N64 cartridge looming like the monolith, imparting extraterrestrial knowledge and whisking game design forward in evolutionary leaps. A vast world, graphics as humbling as holy frescoes, byzantine controls, and the lusty feeling of latchkey freedom: not bad for a game about a big-eared boy, dressed in tights and a tunic, who can scarcely lift his own shield.
At least, he has trouble with it at first. Later on, after a handy bit of time travel, he emerges an adult, seven years older and able to hoist it aloft with the ease of a knight. Which is a good job, as there is much in need of guarding against. His land, Hyrule, is similar but different, the familiar roll of its hills marked by change. A lot happened in those seven years. A lot has happened in the last twenty, but playing this year’s stratospheric open world opus, Red Dead Redemption 2, much, it seems, has stayed the same.
As well as the game’s launch, today marks the twentieth anniversary of anyone knowing what on earth an ocarina is. The weird little wind instrument looked fit for a fairy, and, sure enough, its melodies were magic. It was painted purple and shaped like a speech bubble, which was fitting because it was the closest our hero, Link, came to vocally expressing himself – outside of the odd pained yelp.
There were tunes for summoning the sun, the rain, and your horse; for shifting blocks, and wafting you to the world’s far-flung corners. There was even a song that opened a door. Not since Gene Wilder’s turn as Willy Wonka has a wind instrument been used in such commanding fashion. Mastering all these meant doing battle with a foe more fearsome than any conjured by the game’s villain, Ganon. It meant going to war with the N64 controller, a snarling Cerberus of plastic protrusions. It meant navigating the game’s menus, each screen the face of a cube whirling queasily by.
It was with a smile I greeted the radial menus in Red Dead Redemption 2, which carry a similar initial confusion. I have to profess a love for the stubbornness of both systems. They suggest a will to conquer their respective worlds through excessive organisation. They collect all the mysteries you unearth until they could tell comprehensive histories of Hyrule and New Hanover. There are no more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in these menus, and it can all be niftily folded away.
The Zelda series creator, Shigeru Miyamoto, once described Hyrule as “a miniature garden that you can put into a drawer and revisit anytime you like.” It’s no wonder so many Zelda games hinge on a duality mechanic; Miyamoto’s childhood was spent in two worlds. He has talked about his love of exploring the caves around Sonobe, Japan, and you can imagine his heartbreak at being called back indoors for dinner. Hence his desire to enclose one world within another. When it came to Ocarina of Time, what stupefied me was how that miniature garden had grown. It was as if the drawer would no longer shut, and soil was spilling into our world’s bland carpet.
From the 64 colours offered on-screen by the NES, to the 254 boasted by the SNES, each Zelda game seemed more faithful to our imagination. It was if Hyrule wasn’t being built so much as uncovered; the fog was burning off and we could see what we had always half-glimpsed. With Red Dead Redemption 2, and the 3,000 names in its credits – including ten ‘vegetation artists’ – we have a world that makes imagination unnecessary.
But some things never change. I chuckled early on in RDR2, when it dawned on me that Rockstar's frontier was being lassoed with the same tool the 3D frontier was: L-targeting (or Z-targeting, for those that played it in 1998) was back! Granted, things had progressed. Once upon a time I accidentally targeted a nearby road sign for conversation, instead of a villager; now, conversation was mistakenly sawn-off by a shotgun. Nevertheless, each time I bid good morning from on top of my horse, I think of greeting the girl in Kokiri Forest, as she perches above that doorway.
That strange juxtaposition, of fairy children and folks with their guts blown out, is what feels surreal about today. Despite these mishaps, the fiddly controls bore a rigid precision; it felt like they were analogue in a digital world. It still does sometimes in Red Dead. In Ocarina of Time, L-targeting was useful for gleaning information, for canvassing the townsfolk and figuring out where to go. Now, it’s there for you to decide what sort of man you want Arthur Morgan to be – ‘pat’ or ‘scold?’; ‘Greet’ or ‘antagonise?’ How’s that for grown up?
What was a fairytale is now the sort of dark-stained drama that unreels late at night on HBO. And Rockstar peddles the cowboy fantasy to kids that have grown older, and put their imaginations into a drawer. The link between worlds is simple: promise. Both games understand that delivery is far less important and powerful than the bloom of a promise. Twenty years ago I looked up and saw Death Mountain – a cardboard crater, holding court over Hyrule like a bad film set. It meant the world that I could climb it. Just last week, I saw the Grizzly Mountains, jagged like teeth, and I smiled the same old smile; only now, I looked down at the dirt.