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The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time artwork Nintendo

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Zelda: Ocarina of Time’s Hyrule Field changed how we think about game worlds

It’s been 20 years since we fought our way from one end of the world to the other

Video game creators have spent the last 20 years trying to fill players with the same sense of wonder they experienced the first time they set foot into The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time’s Hyrule Field.

Some have come close. There was the slowly dawning realization that you could go practically anywhere in Grand Theft Auto 3’s Liberty City, provided you didn’t mind being shot at if you wandered into the wrong neighborhood. Riding on horseback into Red Dead Redemption 2’s breathtaking wilderness at a slow saunter. Climbing to the peak of the central tower in Crackdown and taking in the city below. Activating a quest marker in Fallout 3 and promptly walking a mile in the other direction.

Such video game moments have created a sense of immersion and immediacy, placing us into vast, open virtual worlds and letting us do our thing. Still, in terms of sheer reach and impact, nothing will compare to the way millions of people felt as they struck out into the overworld of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time back over the Thanksgiving holiday in 1998.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time - character art of Sheik playing a lyre Nintendo

In hindsight, Hyrule Field is laughably tiny. You can sprint across its furthest extremes in a matter of minutes — less, if you go by horse. That’s nothing compared to Skyrim’s icy peaks and fields, which span nearly 15 square miles of digital real estate. By contemporary standards, Hyrule Field would barely even register on most in-game open-world maps. There are plazas larger than Hyrule Field in Assassin’s Creed games. Ocarina’s “vast” world is downright adorable in its diminutive scale.

That wasn’t the case in 1998, however.

Cast your mind back 20 years and you’ll recall how much Ocarina of Time did to advance the state of art in game design. It helped solve the vexing challenge of prioritizing camera orientation and player combat focus in 3D spaces with its “Z targeting” mechanic, allowing players to keep protagonist Link facing an opponent by locking onto that foe, even while in motion. It streamlined 3D control interfaces by giving players an all-purpose contextual action button — its function changed according to the needs and priorities of a given scene. It presented players with the idea of dungeons as elaborately constructed 3D action puzzles, turning the simple act of virtual navigation into an item-driven interpretation of Tomb Raider’s design.

And sitting at the center of it all, you had Hyrule Field. A wide expanse of gently rolling grass, trees and roads, Hyrule Field functioned not unlike Peach’s Castle in Super Mario 64 and the hubs seen in other contemporaneous 3D titles, like Spyro the Dragon. Unlike those games’ hubs, however, Hyrule Field had a distinct coherence about it. It wasn’t a mystical room containing portals to other realms, but rather, a flat expanse of land situated at the heart of the kingdom of Hyrule.

True, it didn’t connect to the rest of the game in a perfectly seamless fashion, but the quick fade-out-fade-in transition you experienced when moving between, say, Lake Hylia and Hyrule Field was no different than the quick fade you saw when you moved between sections within other regions of the world, or even between individual rooms within dungeons. This enhanced the perception that the field belonged to the same physical space as the rest of the game; it even housed Lon Lon Ranch, a stand-alone location fully contained within Hyrule Field.

Zelda in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time Nintendo

That cohesion set Ocarina apart. It was hardly the world’s first 3D action game, but it was built of more individually distinct pieces that fit together more elegantly than in anything that had come before. Immersive games tended to consist of small, densely designed space (think Mario 64 levels or Doom maps) or else sprawled across enormous but generally empty expanses (think Infogrames’ Drakkhen or the first couple of Elder Scrolls titles).

Few games had combined these design concepts in a meaningful way. Core Design flirted with it in Tomb Raider, occasionally breaking up Lara Croft’s puzzle-room capers with relatively open vistas accompanied by inspirational music cues and the certainty that you’d have to figure out how to get to the other side of that waterfall or coliseum somehow. In Ocarina of Time, Nintendo seized that sensation and turned it into a central component of the adventure by setting Hyrule Field dead center in the game world, and forcing you to navigate it and its roaming monsters over and over again.

Crucially, Ocarina doesn’t drop you into Hyrule Field right away. The adventure builds up to its introduction. You only reach it after several hours of play, which includes having completed your first full dungeon. Ocarina builds slowly out of necessity, having been designed in an era where many people would never have grappled with video game mechanics in 3D space. Link slowly works his way around his village, talking to his peers while simultaneously giving players a chance to experiment with Ocarina’s control scheme. The first dungeon, set in the interior of an enormous tree, introduces both the realities of combat and the need to be mindful of vertical spaces in this new 3D perspective.

It’s only once you’ve gotten a handle on these fundamentals that Ocarina plants a hand on your back and firmly pushes you from the safety of Kokiri Woods and into Hyrule Field, whereupon you realize all that’s come before is merely a prologue to a much larger quest. The concept of size and scale factors heavily into Ocarina of Time, as is fitting for the first Zelda game to use an immersive camera perspective. In fact, Ocarina’s central gameplay twist sees Link shifting back and forth from childhood to adulthood, literally shifting his scale and his relationship with the world and its inhabitants. You first experience Hyrule Field in Link’s child form, which subtly but significantly feeds into the sensation that you’ve embarked upon a truly enormous adventure.

By holding back your arrival in Hyrule Field until after the first dungeon, Ocarina sets itself apart from its own predecessors. Every Zelda before it had dropped Link into the thick of things from the very beginning, with the NES games in particular offering no real clues as to how you were meant to navigate your way through the sprawling world around you. Even the somewhat rigidly structured Link to the Past, where Link is hemmed into a small space prior to leading Princess Zelda to a sanctuary in the woods, allows players to get a taste of Hyrule’s full size as they make their way from Link’s home to the castle. Ocarina, by contrast, sets up certain expectations about the game by forcing you to explore the confines of a village, a dungeon and a wooded maze reminiscent of other 3D games of the era. As a result, the sheer immensity of Hyrule Field hits even harder.

Link in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time Nintendo

Not coincidentally, Breath of the Wild makes use of this same trick in its opening hours. The wide plateau where the adventure begins seems absolutely vast ... but once you complete your assigned tasks there, you sail into the rest of the world as the realization dawns that you’ve explored only a tiny fraction of Hyrule. It’s a pretty good bait-and-switch trick, but it can only work on players so many times. Ocarina used it to great effect, but it worked in large part because no one else had ever done anything like it before. It had the advantage of being a pioneer — a benefit that games following in its wake cannot, by definition, enjoy.

Open game worlds existed before Ocarina of Time. And in truth, Ocarina’s rendition of Hyrule isn’t even really all that open. But the game explored the relationship between its environments, the camera’s 3D perspective and Link’s place in it all to create a realm that felt far more like a real location than the game worlds that had come before it. Surreal platform playgrounds and grim shooter corridors were all well and good, but Ocarina gave you a seemingly massive kingdom to run around in. And it was Hyrule Field that sold the illusion.

From its diurnal cycle to the musical themes that swelled to a rousing crescendo to match the time of imaginary day, from its roaming monsters to occasional encounters with wandering characters, Hyrule Field bound Ocarina’s universe together like no virtual setting before it. Two decades after Ocarina’s debut, the game still finds itself dominating lists of the greatest games ever, and deservedly so. But it’s impossible to say how much of that affection is wrapped up in the collective memory of looking across the expanse of Hyrule Field for the first time and drinking in the world Link was about to save.