Ocarina’s Image: Formulas Etched in Stone


Ocarina of Time was a seminal masterpiece. It was a model for how to make a third-person, 3D adventure game that was approachable and ambitious. It broke new ground in camera control, 3D melee combat, 3D level design, and immersive worlds. It maintained a high standard for readability and approachability. It sold 7.6 million copies on the N64 and 11 million altogether. Nothing like it had ever been made before, and it set a high-water mark that wouldn’t be surpassed for years.

And it etched in stone, in gamers’ expectations, and in developer’s minds a blueprint for what a Zelda game was supposed to be. It cemented formulas that Nintendo would follow for fifteen years.

“…Ocarina of Time became the standard for me for home console Legend of Zelda games. The series built up from there and nothing ever got made from scratch. I think subconsciously there was a strongly conservative voice saying, ‘This has to be this way,’ and, ‘If you change it too much, people won’t like it.’” – Eiji Aonuma, 2011 ¹

The crux of the problem

In Part One we covered how difficulty, readability, and complexity must be balanced to create approachability, and we examined the readability and complexity challenges of 3D Zelda. Nintendo did not have strong solutions to the complexity problem, and so, to meet their goals for approachability, they had to balance elsewhere.

There are four areas where this is apparent in Ocarina and its descendants:

  • Combat difficulty was reduced.
  • Dungeons de-emphasized spatial thinking.
  • Emergent gameplay was avoided.
  • Trust in player agency was lost.

But first, there was an exception: Majora’s Mask. It was developed in a single year, and they didn’t worry about approachability:

“The game was made for those who have played Ocarina of Time, so I felt like there wasn’t a need for step-by-step instructions. … It’s all a challenge to our players. It’s like we’re saying to them, ‘Can you clear this?’” – Eiji Aonuma, 2015 ²

Majora had difficult combat, dungeons that required lots of spatial thinking, and an immense trust in the player to deal with complexity and nuanced storytelling. Miyamoto may have regretted this:

“Miyamoto-san feels quite strongly that there are quite a lot of people … who gave up on [Majora’s Mask] … part way through the journey. He probably felt that it was such a shame in how we put in so much in the game, but then people aren’t able to see them because they weren’t able to get there.” – Eiji Aonuma, 2015 ²

Majora is useful as a counter-example. It offered an early glimpse of a 3D Zelda that didn’t emulate Ocarina. It looked like an Ocarina clone, but it avoided Ocarina’s compromises.

Let’s dig into those compromises.

Combat difficulty was reduced

Combat difficulty usually boils down to one thing: margin of error. How many mistakes you can make and still succeed. This manifests in many ways: how easy it is to read enemy tells, how much time pressure there is, how many hits you can take.

Compared to A Link to the Past or Link’s Awakening, combat in Ocarina was very forgiving. Deadly foes, like Stalfos, only attacked one at a time. Enemies left big openings after attacks, such as Iron Knuckles. Most attacks dealt little damage.

The Wind Waker, notorious for being trivially easy, was next. Although enemies were more likely to attack quickly or in groups, they didn’t do enough damage to threaten Link. Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword pushed back on this trend, but didn’t buck it entirely.

“We have tended to lower the difficulty of recent Zelda games because we want everyone to reach the goal. … But Miyamoto-san has been complaining that without anything to get stuck on, the games don’t stick with you as memories.” – Eiji Aonuma, 2011 ³

Dungeons de-emphasized spatial thinking

The secret to Zelda dungeon design is simple: They push the player to think spatially. As you explore, you build a mental map of the dungeon and its landmarks. When you get a key or alter the dungeon, you intuitively consult your mental map to decide your next step. See Mark Brown’s superb Boss Keys YouTube series for more detail on this.

Many dungeons highlight this strength by presenting the player with branching navigation decisions, reasons to backtrack, and macro puzzles that require thinking about multiple rooms and how they relate to one another.

You may see the problem: mentally mapping 3D spaces is more taxing. The Ice Palace and Eagle’s Tower were the hardest dungeons in A Link to the Past and Link’s Awakening because of their multi-floor spatial puzzles. The Ocarina team was wary of this; their dungeons had fewer navigation choices and more emphasis on single-room puzzles. But they broke this rule at key moments: the pillar you needed to smash in the Fire Temple, or twisting the hallways in the Forest Temple. This boldness led to Aonuma’s great regret: the Water Temple. The Water Temple required the player to understand it as an interconnected 3D space that could be manipulated, and its confusing puzzles and layout are infamous.

“Everyone talks about it [the Water Temple], so it’s been a longstanding wish of mine these 13 years! … The worst thing was thinking about how many people may have given up there.” – Eiji Aonuma, 2011 ³

An isometric map of the water temple.

In The Wind Waker, they dramatically overcorrected. Every dungeon was linear, and puzzles were self-contained. The dungeon layouts looped you to where you needed to be after earning a key or item. Spatial play was completely absent. Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword hit somewhere in the middle.

Emergent gameplay was avoided

“Ocarina of Time feels handmade. Usually, programmers like to make a system and rules, but The Legend of Zelda isn’t a game to quietly conform to those things. The source program itself feels handmade down to the finest details.” – Takashi Tonooka, 2011 ³

“Emergent gameplay” arises when simple rules combine to give the player options to solve problems creatively. Physics systems are highly emergent; when players can move everything or push enemies, then they’re likely playing in a rich “sandbox” with strong emergent gameplay. A benefit of emergence is that it can be driven by few rules but still lead to surprising results.

Bouncing shells to hit a Goomba in Super Mario World is a simple example.  Setting up a chain of exploding barrels to set fires and make foes flee towards crocodiles in Far Cry 3 is an extreme one.

Some games are chock full of emergence, like Minecraft. Others have none whatsoever, like Ace Attorney. The Zelda series falls somewhere in the middle, leaning towards lower emergence. Zelda designers have a history of preferring to hand-craft and polish every interaction in their games instead of relying on emergence.

“The way we had been building games thus far … the objects that made up each of these puzzles were made specifically for those puzzles. This of course allows us to fine-tune and polish the gameplay experience, but unfortunately it requires a lot of resources.” – Hidemaro Fujibayashi, 2017

With Ocarina, they erred more towards constraining emergence, preferring tight control to prevent unexpected behavior. For a concrete example, look at the Hookshot. In A Link to the Past and Link’s Awakening, the entire games were built from few objects. You could learn which ones were Hookshot-able and then apply that knowledge everywhere. In Ocarina, the Hookshot could only be used on some wooden things and certain special targets. Each game since has reduced the number of Hookshot-able objects further until we could only use it on specific, hand-placed Hookshot targets.

The games have grown faster than the developers’ ability to handcraft a rich set of interactions. This has gradually led to the worlds feeling less reactive, alive, and surprising.

Trust in player agency was lost

“Agency” is the ability to make choices that have consequences. A game with low player agency is likely linear, scripted, or otherwise holds the player’s hand. A game with high agency gives the reins to the player and empowers them to make decisions.

We can finally answer the question from Part One. Why did Aonuma ever think that letting players get lost was “a sin”?

“I thought that making the user get lost was a sin.” – Eiji Aonuma, 2016

Spirit Tracks screenshot, of the train on a track in the woods.

The use of the word “making” in Aonuma’s quote betrays a distrust in player agency. He viewed whether the player was lost or not as something that his team directly controlled. Trusting the player to be self-directed, make decisions, and play through the consequences wasn’t the philosophy. Instead, carefully guiding them along tracks was.

The Zelda series had been trending in this direction in every game since Zelda II in 1987, but Ocarina of Time was a strong inflection point. Most of the design trends that feel like hand-holding can be traced back to Ocarina: exhaustive tutorials, a guide that frequently gives hints, linear dungeon order, a linear story with story events blocking progression, and the three trends we covered earlier.

Some of this was justified! Some trends, like greater emphasis on story, are beloved by fans. Some of these design trends were solving real problems. After all, Ocarina was very complex for a Nintendo game in 1998. But the price was a loss of player agency. Letting players make decisions meant letting them make painful mistakes.

“I don’t want to make games where the player is just a puppet in the hands of the creator, playing exactly as scripted.” – Shigeru Miyamoto, 1989

Ocarina’s legacy

There are 20 years, 5,000 miles, a culture, and a language separating me from the Ocarina team. Everything I’ve outlined here is my best guess.

My best guess is that the Zelda team stopped looking at these design choices as solutions to specific problems posed by 3D, and started looking at them as design rules that were expected in Zelda games because it was the Ocarina way. In short, Ocarina of Time redefined what Zelda was too narrowly and too strongly, and old visions for the series and how it related to its players were lost.

Until Breath of the Wild.

In the final part of this series, we’ll examine how Breath of the Wild threw off the shackles of Ocarina’s design and solved the problems of a 3D Zelda from first principles.


  1. Iwata Asks: The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword Volume 8
  2. Iwata Asks: The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D
  3. Iwata Asks: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D
  4. Breaking Conventions With Breath of the Wild
  5. A New Creative Force Brings a Vast New World to Zelda
  6. Shmuplations (TV Game: denshi yuugi taizen)