Patriarchy is built on epic time. Learned male history requires exhaustive documentation of political kingdoms and dynastic successions. The Chosen Warrior-Hero God-King must come of age, become anointed, take a throne and lead his people to victory in battle before retiring and passing his crown on to the next generation. Rise, fall and rise. In our language, we call this canon, and the canon of the aristocratic literate patriarchy stands in stark contrast to the cyclical deep time of the feminine and feminine understanding. This is, in fact, the true first war in the world, and its battle scars have played out across the visage of our ideaspace since the start of all time.
And so, deeply fraught and conflicted is The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Like the Celtic mythology from which it draws its inspiration, the tune this Ocarina plays is a melancholy one, a lament for a world that was lost before history began. Its story opens as if a folk tale (perhaps a fairy tale). The narrator speaks in the voice of a storyteller relating events to an enraptured audience, presumably comprised of children. Ironically, or maybe inevitably, this is a story about having childhood ripped away from us and mourning the shock and trauma of its loss throughout a grieving adulthood. One does wonder about the mental state of young-at-heart Shigeru Miyamoto during this game’s development period.
Although it has the shape of an oral narrative, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time immediately lurches straight back into the epic history of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. There are Golden Goddesses, and mysterious, beguiling boys with great destines laid out before them. And, fittingly for a game originally conceived of as a straight remake of A Link to the Past, Hyrule’s Genesis by way of the Golden Goddesses is rendered with the flashiest and most impressive graphics tech 1998 could give the Nintendo 64. The canonical origin story of The Legend of Zelda, perversely conveyed by a storyteller, just as male storytellers have co-opted feminine voices and feminine spaces since the war began in order to assimilate and suppress them. This is the new origin story; the game that singularly defines Zelda and her canon from now until the rest of time infinite.
Or at least, this is the story we are expected to hear.
For there are secret songs here, just as there are everywhere. We just need to learn not to overlook them. It is, for one thing, deeply strange that the supposed ur-Zelda would put such a focus on the mutable artifice of time and therapy for the trauma of a seemingly inescapable oncoming eschaton. For this is the real face of the Demon King: Aristocratic patriarchy and its learned literary teleological history. Ganondorf’s rise to power is foretold, documented and canonized, and, in contrast to the unnamed and inconsequential King of Hyrule who exists only as a piece of worldbuilding trivia, Ganondorf has a defined backstory, character, set of motivations and epic narrative shaped for him, one which would plunge Hyrule into darkness and strife if allowed to come to pass. He’s even the lord and ruler of an all-female band of warrior nomads purely by virtue of being male. But though Ganondorf would have his generation-long plan to dominate the land be a teleological inevitability, it is not: There is no set past, present, future or arc of history in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, with the many tongues of potentiality speaking in tandem. Even the iconic titular Ocarina evokes Marin, and thus the heretical portability of The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, and Marin herself makes an appearance of sorts. This is not a story of conquest and assimilation, this is a story of ephemeral syncretism yearning to be heard.
The fairies are always there, watching.
Link, famously, does not have a fairy. The Link of this game is a Kokiri, one of a magical race of pixielike children who live in an enchanted forest tucked safely away from the vast expanses of Hyrule Field under the protection of the guardian Great Deku Tree. Should they ever leave the forest, they are doomed to die. Every Kokiri save Link has the protection of a fairy, but at the beginning of the game the fairy Navi is sent by the Great Deku Tree to seek out the one Kokiri who doesn’t have a partner, for that person has a destiny. Right from the start The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time powerfully invokes any number of formative children’s fantasy works and presumptuously announces its intent to carve out a niche alongside them. Or rather, it would be presumptuous if it wasn’t so self-evidently successful. In spite of its grim and melancholy plot, Ocarina of Time is astonishingly, deservedly confident in itself and its own gravity, making a grand show of hinting at greatness and wonder.
Although without a fairy from the start, Link is remarkably fairy-like already. The elfin-pointed ears of the Hylian people have never been more fitting: Kokiri Forest and its denizens instantly evoke fairies and fairyland on their own merits, or at least the romanticized, westernized children’s fantasy idea of what such things are supposed to look like. But The Legend of Zelda is children’s fantasy, has never been anything else and can never be anything else, so this is only fitting. More to the point, Ocarina of Time is the first iteration of The Legend of Zelda where Link has a real-life voice actor, albeit just for grunts and other general exclamations. And Link’s very first voice is that of a woman, one Fujiko Takimoto, portraying the child version of Ocarina of Time‘s timewind-blown hero. It is, of course, a convention of Japanese media that young male characters are to be voiced by female voice actors, so this would be easy enough to disregard on those merits were it not for the fact that this Link, the Hero of Time, is so deeply, deeply androgynous. Far more, in fact, than any previous incarnation of Link…Or indeed any subsequent one.
Once more the secret story of Link and Zelda is hinted at. Link and Zelda, in fact, have a very complex relationship in this game: At once purely business (as is to be expected from children’s fantasy, only the children know the true severity of the threat to the world) but also oddly nuanced, Link and Zelda seem to know each other intimately already even though they’ve never met before and are implicitly capable of reading each other’s minds (for the quickest mind to read is one’s own). And just like Link, Zelda has never been more androgynous than in Ocarina of Time, and she never will be again: Visually she’s paralleled with Young Link from the very outset, appearing very fey and boyish, but also (and famously) after the seven year time skip that is this game’s version of A Link to the Past‘s climactic reveal of the Dark World, Zelda returns incognito as the (presumably male) ninja bard Sheik, last of the nomadic Sheikah people. Sheik plays the role of warrior poet and mentor to Link, appearing at critical times to dispense advice and philosophy, though only by speaking in riddles. Sheik is at once Link’s mirror image and aspirational role model, a fitting metaphor for one’s True Self.
Yet even so, it is ironically telling that Zelda is only ever at her strongest while she is presenting as Sheik. As a young girl, she appears in visions meant to guide Link and reveals the nature of the quest in conversation. As a young woman, she is immediately captured and sealed away in a magical crystal by Ganondorf. As Sheik, Zelda spends seven years travelling the wilds of Hyrule seeking knowledge and wisdom and searching for the seven sages of the Golden Land. Sheik and Sheik alone rescues Princess Ruto from a frozen Zora’s Domain and keeps the forces of evil at bay while waiting for Link to reawaken, then continues the fight at the hero’s side as an invaluable mentor and partner. A hero in his/her own right. The Legend of Zelda will only ever be a coming of age adventure for boys.
But on the other hand, it could also be argued that Link is strongest while presenting as female, or at least in touch with a sense of feminine identity. Link’s gender fluidity constantly confuses matters in a positive and constructive way, especially when taken in the light of the heavy debt The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time seems to owe late-1990s harem anime like Tenchi Muyo!. Such series generally tended to feature a hapless and cheerfully oblivious young male lead surrounded by a gaggle of slightly older, lustful young women, each of whom inexplicably wants him as her own. The humour is supposed to come from the girls’ thinly veiled pickup attempts, and the boy’s utter indifference. In Ocarina of Time, this very obviously happens to the Hero of Time: Just about every major female character in the game save debatably Zelda herself and Cucco Lady Anju (who doesn’t even get a name until the next game) has a bizarre fixation on Link, most notably Navi, Saria (Link’s childhood friend from Kokiri Village and the Sage of the Forest), Zora Princess Ruto (the Sage of Water) and rancher Malon, the reincarnated Marin from The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening (and thus another, more approachable version of Zelda). But it’s Link’s androgyny that puts a far more defensible spin on this stock and dated plot, offering an explanation beyond youthful innocence and mild sexism as to why the constant advances are meant to be off-putting.
And it is also Link’s androgyny that contributes very highly to The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time‘s greatest legacy, that of its widespread critical and commercial success. There are, of course, technical and artistic merits to this as well: The game is, from a mechanics and gameplay perspective, a watershed. This is the first “open world” video game of the sort we think of when we hear the phrase, even if the actual progression of the game is far more linear than Zelda no Densetsu. Games like those of the Grand Theft Auto franchise and the modern Elder Scrolls series would not exist without The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and its way of rendering space in a three-dimensional environment. And when Link walks out of Kokiri Forest into Hyrule Field for the first time, we are swamped with a swell of emotions as the world literally opens up before our eyes: The dawn breaks and swells to a crescendo alongside Koji Kondo’s score. There is a real feeling and sense of presence to this Hyrule: Ocarina of Time‘s setpieces are unprecedented, and that they would become iconic moments in the history of the medium is almost a foregone conclusion.
(Although in many ways the game never truly arrives into its own until it is *actually* rendered in 3D. Like Super Mario 64 before it, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was really designed with *stereoscopic* 3D in mind, not the polygon graphics gamers are wont to *call* 3D. Shigeru Miyamoto once described his vision of Zelda no Densetsu as a fantasy world one could fit in a drawer and gaze in upon, a poetically abstract analogy that is really only truly conveyed for the first time in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D, this game’s superlative remake on the Nintendo 3DS.)
But cutting-edge graphics and processing technology is not enough to convey your truths to a real audience, and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time did. This was a mainstream breakout the success of which rivaled, perhaps even surpassed, that of the original Zelda no Densetsu, and it was not the tech specs that did this. Simply put, this version of The Legend of Zelda was accessible in a way the series had never been before, not even in the guise of Link’s Awakening. Everyone, boys and girls, men and women, instantly fell in love with Ocarina of Time‘s version of Hyrule, and the characters like Link, Zelda, Impa, Saria, Malon, Darunia and Ruto who lived in it. This was the first version of The Legend of Zelda to attract a sizeable *fandom*, and fandoms, steeped in lore as they are, tend to be the domain of women first and foremost. And it is very hard to imagine that Ocarina of Time‘s offbeat romance, powerful setpieces and themes of overt androgyny did not play a large part in that success and admiration.
Yet transformative power is never a clean causal link. That would be the stuff of patriarchy and its books, not the bubbling cosmic cauldron of hearsay and lore. Zelda opens up in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarnia of Time, yet in doing so Zelda is permanently sundered and her identity shattered. The masculine coming of age rite of passage children’s fantasy the Legend began as traumatically collapses in Ocarina of Time: The dashing, princely fan-favourite adult Link whom players gain access to in the latter half of the game is a hollow mask, behind which dwells a scared genderfluid child, and is even furthermore bishōnen (as, in fact, is Sheik). The game’s happy ending involves literally undoing and erasing the rite of passage so the Hero of Time can experience the childhood the events of the game itself stole from and denied them. Far from being portrayed as an inevitable reality, the rite of passage is not just described as something horrific and traumatic, but also something evil to be outright avoided. Childhood, aging, trauma, loss and grief are major themes in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and seem to henceforth enter into Shigeru Miyamoto’s repertoire during this period, but will only be fully examined and dealt with in Metroid Prime four years later.
(There may be yet more 90s anime themes here: This transformative power, coupled with the gender fluidity exhibited by both Link and Zelda, might be argued to invoke some of the awesome energy of Sailor Moon.)
But as the Legend falls apart under the untangling of the patriarchal tapestry, the dark magick seeds of the reactionary counter-revolution are sewn. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time becomes the Greatest (Zelda) Game Ever for gamer culture specifically because they are told it is, and gamers’ entitlement is matched only by their insecure desire for external validation owing to their latent fear of ego death. In spite of its own radical nature, Ocarina of Time will still lay down a Master Narrative of its own that will not be fully excised for almost twenty years. But as much as The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass and The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks will reaffirm Ocarina of Time‘s Ganon’s Timeline, the game itself will, inescapably, remain subject to its own mutability. The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap and then The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword supplant it as the “canon” Origin Story of Zelda, which writes itself back into the text of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D (at the expense, alas, of some of the original game’s oversignified connection to Super Mario Bros.). The game can now finally, and once again, be enjoyed merely for what it was, is and always has been.
At the end of its telling, the story of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time remains unfinished. One more way in which Link and Zelda are paralleled and contrasted is that while Zelda grows up and matures into Sheik (to the point, in fact, she is harmed when her identity as Sheik is taken away from her), Link is not afforded this same chance. A child forced to pretend to be a man, Link’s own growth is paradoxically stunted, a protagonist of a coming of age story who is not allowed to ever come of age. As such, the fate of the Hero of Time remains uncertain. I heard a story about that once, but all I know is what I heard back then, many long years ago.