Thanks to Cart Boy for edits.
One of the most important moments in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, the seminal 1998 adventure game that helped define how action games worked in 3D, comes in the first few minutes. After the hero Link finds a sword and shield in a quick tutorial to explain the movement, he has to kill a creature infesting the forest’s protective Great Deku Tree, whose body functions as the game’s first dungeon. The very first room is this massive, three story hall in the center of the trunk, so tall Link has to climb up huge sections of vine to get to the ceiling. There are a few mostly optional rooms in the tree’s limbs, but the thing to focus on is a large hole in the center of the floor, covered with webbing. Unlike the hard, stable polygonal ground on which you’ve been walking, the webbing moves, bouncing Link up and down. It’s hard to tell how “obvious” it is that you need to leap off the top floor and burst through the net, but the camera automatically positions itself at the top level, once you walk over natural diving boards.
So you jump. You can’t automatically break the webbing; it’s not a cutscene, and you have to physically maneuver Link to the center (I’ll confess to having tried it about six times on my most recent playthrough for this article). But it’s also exciting, in a way an Assassin’s Creed hero leaping perfectly, automatically into a bale of hay isn’t. And it tells you before anything else that you are are going to have to pay attention to verticality, and how higher and lower spaces interact with each other. There’s another hole a little later whose webbing you have to burn with a stick, but this first jump tells you so much: verticality and height will be central to the adventure, from the way you move to how spaces and rooms are laid out. It’s not just a feature of the Nintendo 64 but something with which you have to engage.
We should step back for a bit. To understand how Ocarina of Time works, it’s important to understand the environment games were in during the mid- to late Nineties. 3D carried huge possibilities, but it was still difficult to fully grasp or move in. Nintendo decided to approach it from an almost educational perspective for both developers and players: their two main 3D games would each present how to imagine, create, and navigate what were at the time incredibly complex spaces. So while 1996’s Super Mario 64 decided to explore 3D as a large jungle gym, with every world a little “garden” meant to encourage friendly exploration, Zelda cultivated more naturalistic open spaces while creating more structured “puzzle boxes” in nine dungeons.
Those dungeons are typically a Zelda highlight; these trials where you crawl throughout an interconnected space, find keys and locks, acquire a tool necessary for exploring, and fight a boss with the skills you’ve developed have featured some of the series’ greatest ideas. They’ve been used to create fiendish traps, show off the technical specs of Nintendo’s latest hardware, and challenge players’ reasoning. In three of the older games (Adventure of Link doesn’t fit the mold), dungeons were set in their games’ top-down view, and while two of the games had multiple levels, each floor was mostly independent. There were a few exceptions, like the floor busting Eagle’s Tower in Link’s Awakening or the many pits of A Link to the Past’s hellish Ice Palace, but for the most part, rooms were treated as a series of easily separable levels.
The move to 3D had to change that. While Ocarina of Time could have simply replicated the architectural design and have the floors be more independent (and some dungeons, such as the Fire and Shadow Temples, largely function in that way), Nintendo smartly focused instead on the idea of the dungeons as these integrated, interconnected spaces. And it was from this that the series began to develop a unique spin on the series’ image of what a dungeon could be, viewing them more as elaborate puzzle boxes. The twisting hallways of the Forest Temple or the bifurcated branches of the Spirit Temple would be taken further in successor games, and I strongly doubt that would have been able to happen as extensively if Ocarina didn’t force the idea and make interior environments that didn’t constantly lead into each other. It leads to these places which twist and weave and fall back on themselves, where you’re constantly turning corners only to see or stumble back only rooms you left only a few minutes ago. It also resonates with the plot of Link saving Hyrule as both a child and an adult, in multiple instances setting up events in one time to affect the other.
The addition of more easily represented vertical space also leads to some indelible moments throughout the adventure, like breaking the webbing in the first dungeon. After crossing from one wing of Dodongo’s Cavern to the other on rope bridges suspended over the entry room, you have to open a bridge on the first floor by positioning and dropping bombs into the eye sockets of an imposing statue right underneath one of the bridges. The Fire Temple is mostly fairly “normal,” but its central (and underused) idea of slamming a pillar down all the way to the main floor is really cool. The Forest Temple has twisting hallways which turn some normal pathways into massive holes, and one bizarre room features a dangerous chessboard repeatedly crashing down on Link from above. And the moment in the Spirit Temple where one errant door leads you to the outside of the dungeon, dozens of feet over the entrance you just used, is a genuine shock.
More than almost any other, though. the notorious Water Temple is aggressively based around exploring height. The dungeon has three floors and a basement centered around one single tower in the central hall, and to progress you activate switches to raise the water level from just below the first floor to everything but the third. You constantly have to engage with how you can access each area of the game, something emphasized by the fact that, as you can only either float or sink while in the water, you have to essentially shove Link up and down. This creates an experience of judging and dealing with not just vertical space, but how that can both help and limit your exploration; you have to think about navigating not just the room you’re currently in, but the ones afterwards. The Water Temple, and its earlier counterpart the Forest Temple, are also important in how much they are built around the game’s best and most exciting tool: the Hookshot.
The Hookshot – a sort of grapple gun that can drag Link or something (or something to him) – was first introduced in A Link to the Past, where it allowed players to move with a speed and explore dungeons to an extent that hadn’t been possible at the time. It’s a fun weapon in the 2D Zelda games as both an offensive and exploratory tool. But I think it’s most compelling in the 3D ones, because of both the potential and limitations of the additional dimension. With the Hookshot, you can shoot yourself across rooms, onto ledges, or past deadly spiked traps. However, you can only shoot yourself to these spots by hitting a wooden target, some creeping vines, or a few mesh gates; nothing else counts. There was no way the obsessive focus on freedom Breath of the Wild employed would have been possible back then, mechanically or stylistically; attempting something like that would have likely broken the strong difficulty curve and sense of progression. But it does lead to this weapon carrying a somewhat odd weight, a symbol of both what games could and could not do.
Despite those limitations, the device still gets a lot of use, mostly within the temples adult Link explores. Many of those grapple targets are high in the air, far away, or at odd positions that demand greater spatial reasoning. Many Zelda dungeons work by having you realize you have the ability to bypass one obstacle or another with some ability you’ve either just gained or almost forgotten about, but having that obstacle be nothing more than distance itself gives the puzzle an element of tangibility that’s sometimes missing from dungeons. The Hookshot is so cool that the Water Temple’s item, an upgraded version with twice as long a chain, is fun. It’s literally nothing more than an better version of a tool you’ve been carrying for hours, not interesting in the slightest, but the thrill is still there.
Now, I’ve been discussing how this works exclusively through dungeons, and while they are the biggest examples of how much the game could do with that Z-axis, they’re far from the only space. The overworld, towns, and various environments of Hyrule all use height in different ways. Take Kakariko Village, for instance. The town is laid out on a number of elevations, arranged seemingly haphazardly. There’s a tower you can use to look down on everything, some fences are set up to randomly block you; there are even logs set up during the young Link years, almost like a jungle gym (in the adult Link time, they’ve finally been turned into a mini-game building). It makes no sense for a town, but it’s brilliant as a space to play around in and explore. It’s also good for the tone, with the village mostly being a place of small town comfort and respite; the obvious counterpart is the intensely flat Castle Town, which goes from a crowded city to an apocalyptic waste in the adult time.
Places like these are littered throughout Hyrule, almost as though the developers were trying to make every environment into a space for experimentation. Gerudo’s Fortress is set up like crypto- Pueblo architecture, a series of rooms stacked on top of each other that force Link to Hookshot up and jump down various floors. Goron City is a giant downward cavern, a crater surrounded by twisting hallways that connect each ring-like floor. Kokiri Forest, the first area in the game, has all sorts of areas that teach you the basics of climbing, swimming, jumping, and looking at higher spaces via first-person aiming or Z-targeting. Zora’s River is filled with nonsensical fences and mashes of tall landmases that almost turn it into an obstacle course.
Hyrule Field, the overworld of the game, also merits attention. It was Nintendo’s first large scale, open environment in 3D, and their largest single environment in any game they made by a sizable margin. Unlike many of their mini-sandboxes that were the dungeons or Mario 64 worlds, it’s a gigantic space designed more for the purpose of conveying size and encouraging exploration. The map is littered with various tiny things: boulders to break down, secret holes, odd patches of trees, and fences that exist for no other reason than to encourage you to employ the aid of Link’s trusty horse Epona. But it’s also very much not a single, flat plane but a massive hill whose light but steady elevation means you’re never able to quite see everything in the area. It all creates this sense of indelible scale that simply could not be replicated on a two dimensional plane. This is a great example of how valuable the marriage of technological evolution and artistic vision can be; the power the game had, somewhat diminished though it is due to future games polishing it up, needed both. On a purely mechanical level Hyrule Field can be somewhat bland; as a space for unabashed movement it’s excellent.
Vertical orientation comes up even in odd, minor ways, like how one of the very first things you do in the game is descend Link’s treehouse (the platform outside his door is gated, forcing you to do so and see how the game will use multiple levels). That moment is minor and immediately forgotten, but it’s designed as the first lesson that multiple vertical levels both exist and interact with each other. There are a few of them throughout the game, these little forgettable moments that just enforce the way the game was working with height and verticality. There are larger equivalents, too, like the optional run up the top of Death Mountain that involves dodging falling boulders, shooting spiders crawling on the cliff, and climbing it up.
Now, like Mario 64 this is a game building and experimenting with an environment that was still unique and new at the time, and that did lead to a number of features that implemented or expressed verticality poorly. Probably the most immediate issue is that Ocarina is poor at presenting space or elements above you during gameplay, with how much the camera’s focuses downward struggles with tighter spaces. There is a necessary first-person camera available to help with that, but it often feels awkward to move around. Enemies that fly are deceptively difficult and hard to easily hit. There are also a number of spaces or puzzles with incredibly poor architecture, like a “pillar room” in Dodongo’s Cavern that’s incredibly claustrophobic and demands a level of spatial reasoning the game can’t quite match. Ocarina tries to deal with these issues with Z-Targeting (a fascinating topic I could have also written about), a now widespread mechanic it invented in which the camera will zero in on a target, but the system occasionally feels janky. These are all very clearly growing pains of a game and development team that are very much in new territory. That it’s held up as much as it has is more than respectable.
Later 3D Zelda games would polish these ideas extensively. Majora’s Mask, made on the same engine, largely kept the same things but took the concept of vertically imposing dungeons to a new level. The Wind Waker, Twilight Princess, and Skyward Sword used better architecture and level design to make its spaces easier to navigate and more grandiose. Breath of the Wild is the series’ greatest paean to the concept of verticality and height, with a massive world built for being climbed up and glided over. And to an even greater extent, the level and environmental design of many action games in general drew extensively from Ocarina of Time, working to make spaces that could intimidate, inspire, and feel deeply “real.” But for all its issues and snafus, there is a power unique to this 1998 classic in how it tries to handle this entire new dimension. It’s filled with constant ideas about how to explore vertical space, and it’s got a lot more hits than misses. As much as Zelda has often tried to experiment as a series, few of those have ever been as big as shifting into a whole new dimension, especially in an era where it was unclear how 3D games were “supposed” to play. We often praise Ocarina for its great combat, its interesting puzzles, its grandiose plot, but it’s hard to fully account for how influential and brilliant its level and environmental design was.