With their most recent Zelda title, Nintendo won the hearts of fans and critics alike with their innovative new approach to the highly successful Zelda formula. They gave gamers an open world to explore without any hand-holding, stunning and beautiful graphics, and voice-acting for the first time ever in a Zelda game. Breath of the Wild feels fresh and innovative, very much like Ocarina of Time did way back in 1998. Or, perhaps, even more so?
On Metacritic, the current score for the original Ocarina of Time is 99/100 — basically the perfect game with most magazines/sites having given it a 10/10 rating. Breath of the Wild, on the other hand, holds a score of 97/100, similarly having reviewers around the world raving and dishing out 10/10 reviews. The scores are so close that it’s almost impossible to judge which is really better, especially considering that the overall score for Breath of the Wild is based on roughly 3-times the number of reviews.
It’s clear that Breath of the Wild is the first Zelda game in a long, long time to reach the same heights in quality and innovation as the mighty Ocarina of Time. But whether or not it has truly surpassed what was long held as the greatest Zelda title is a difficult question to answer. I’m going to do my best to get to the bottom of this here in a showdown between these two titans.
To make this a fair fight, I’m going to take the typical aspects of game reviews and consider them for both games in their respective context, meaning that Breath of the Wild will be compared to current games while Ocarina of Time will be measured against titles from the late 90s.
Fasten your seatbelts; this is gonna be a wild ride!
An Epic Adventure in Every Iteration
I want to start with the story. Both games tell the tale of a Hyrule in distress because of Ganon’s malice. In both stories, our protagonist “awakes” to his destiny and embarks on a journey to save Hyrule and Princess Zelda who is being held hostage by Ganon. The telling of the tale evolves differently in each game, though.
Ocarina of Time tells the story of a young Link who matures into his role as a savior for Hyrule. In the beginning you’re only a child. As a kid, you have to overcome different trials and temples that test your strength and endurance while being limited by your young body. The real game begins when you finally claim the Master Sword and travel through time (becoming older and much stronger) to face Ganon. Throughout your journey, you encounter many friendly characters and evil monsters that make the journey diverse and fun to play through. Your goal is always clear, and the fairy Navi is always with you as your sidekick — though she’s obnoxious and nerve-wracking at times (“Hey, listen!!”).
Hyrule in this timeline is filled with memorable characters and various creatures like gorons and zoras that fit perfectly into the different settings and themes throughout the game. The final battle and conclusion to the game is satisfactory and includes one of the most iconic credit scenes in video game history, showing all of Hyrule overjoyed and celebrating your great victory.
Breath of the Wild, on the other hand, let’s you play as a mature Link who awakens from a 100-year slumber. You were rescued during the war and kept safe so you could survive and awaken again as the last hope to save Zelda and Hyrule which is befallen by Calamity Ganon. In contrast to Ocarina of Time, Ganon is depicted here as formless dust that reminded me of the monster from the TV series Lost.
In Breath of the Wild you travel a vast world with a lot of similar characters to past games, such as the zoras and gorons. The game also introduces a new type of town with bird people reminiscent of Falco Lombardi from Star Fox. You learn the game’s story through flashbacks and tales from people that you meet. It is a lot less straightforward than Ocarina but still very effective in conveying a message of legacy and urgency.
Without going into too much detail, it feels vast yet comparatively empty in direct comparison to Ocarina. Yes, you have a lot more to explore and find, but the people you meet don’t often seem that important. In my opinion, Ocarina offers a more memorable story and characters.
Also, Ocarina may have only a fourth of Breath of the Wild‘s average playthrough time of 50-60 hours (without 100% completion), but it’s a lot denser, making the story more enticing and constantly captivating for the player.
I love to ride through the open wilds of Breath of the Wild, but the more concise map of Ocarina of Time gives me more joy to travel through because every location has much more meaning. Lon Lon Ranch, for instance, is an unforgettable location. And this becomes especially intriguing when places totally change as you travel through time. Breath of the Wild lacks that kind of dynamic development.
So, all things considered, I think Ocarina of Time delivers a better overall story experience.
Ocarina of Time 1 — 0 Breath of the Wild
Graphics and Art Direction
When you compare the art style of both games, it must be noted that Ocarina of Time was the first Zelda entry to employ a detailed 3D graphic style. It was state of the art in 1998, an amazing step forward in the game industry, and the birth of modern-day open-world design.
Breath of the Wild, in contrast, went with a more painting-like art style, a link between (pun intended) the cell-shading look of Wind Waker and Twilight Princess. It made me feel at times like I was playing a Studio Ghibli production rather than a video game (and that’s a good thing).
I adore Ocarina‘s art style. The Forest Temple in particular gave me shivers each time I went there when I was a kid. But, for the Zelda series, the art direction seen in Breath of the Wild feels much more fitting.
To be clear, you of course can’t compare these games simply by their graphical capabilities with two decades between them. But Breath of the Wild feels more magical thanks to its art style, and that, to me, works best for Zelda. Consider, for example, Twilight Princess: It shares the art style of Ocarina of Time but with a much more powerful modern console behind it. I still prefer the art styles of Breath of the Wild or even Wind Waker. This is, of course, a personal opinion, as there’s no way to truly decide which is best visually, but Breath of the Wild just amazed me with its gorgeous world in a way that even a remastered version of Ocarina couldn’t.
Ocarina of Time 1 — 1 Breath of the Wild
Level of Innovation
Ocarina of Time came shortly after Super Mario 64, which had already introduced a new way of experiencing 3-dimensional space in games. What made Ocarina stand out was the amazing level of innovation it brought with it. A coherent 3D world, lock-on targeting that revolutionized camera mechanics in games, a day and night cycle, 3D platforming puzzles, and so on. Ocarina of Time was made in a time when none of that existed (or at least didn’t exist and function well).
Combined with the game-changing N64 controller, the game was a blast to play and a joy to control. It was easy to learn and fun to master. What Super Mario 64 started, Ocarina of Time brought to perfection.
Breath of the Wild is a different story. It may be an evolution for the Zelda series, but it lacks real innovative ideas. It’s an amalgamation of existing and established mechanics from other games that have simply been introduced into a Zelda game for the first time. We’ve seen vast and beautiful open worlds many times, we’ve seen physics-based puzzles in various games, we’ve seen map exploration/discovery with the help of towers, we’ve seen interactive environments, and so on and so forth. Breath of the Wild has drastically changed the Zelda formula (to incredible effect), but it’s a far cry (pun intended) from being anything totally new to the industry.
Moreover, Ocarina of Time had to deal with many more unknown variables than Breath of the Wild because nothing was established in its time. They came up with entirely new ideas and unique ways to leverage a 3D environment. Where Breath of the Wild took the known and perfected it for its purposes, Ocarina of Time was a pioneer bringing new things that were never before seen.
Ocarina of Time 2 — 1 Breath of the Wild
Considering gameplay, it’s easy to see that Breath of the Wild took cues from former Zelda games and brought everything a whole new level.
Ocarina of Time had wooden sticks that could break if used as weapons that were also useful as torches if lit, and wooden shields could be destroyed by fire if you weren’t careful. Breath of the Wild takes concepts like these further and improves on them to the point that all items and aspects of the world have realistic details that you need to consider. Wood can still be burnt, but not just wood in your inventory: Trees and even grass will catch on fire. Furthermore, fiery grass will then create an updraft that you can use when parachuting in the air.
Series of logical events like these happen all throughout Breath of the Wild, and understanding how objects in the world work is an essential part of the game. You can use fire arrows on enemies’ weapons to break them. Metallic items attract lightning that can kill you instantly if you don’t unequip them. The list goes on. Breath of the Wild improved on the gameplay of the past and gave it a boost with an almost ridiculous level of realism and detail.
The only thing I really missed in Breath of the Wild was something like the Iron Boots from Ocarina. We get this incredible open world but don’t get to explore under water. This would have been such a nice addition to the game. They could have added some tedious water shrines just to mess with us old-school fans, but they didn’t.
Combining incredible realism with the best-practices of past action-adventure games, Breath of the Wild delivers one of the best gameplay experiences in any game ever. Everything works logically, realistically and predictably.
Ocarina of Time may have invented many of the gameplay tropes of the action-adventure genre, but Breath of the Wild has taken those tropes (and many others) and absolutely perfected them.
Ocarina of Time 2 — 2 Breath of the Wild
Original Score and Sound Design
I consider the music of the Zelda series as some of the best in the industry, only rivaled by other great games like Final Fantasy or Grand Theft Auto.
Breath of the Wild does a fantastic job of providing variety in its music that matches all the different areas and scenarios throughout the massive game. The themes are usually well-known songs from the Zelda universe altered in speed, pitch or instrumental composition. You cannot help but feel calm when riding a horse through the wild or terrified when you are spotted by a guardian thanks to the spot-on soundtrack.
When it comes to Ocarina of Time, I can’t help but marvel at the fantastic scores, catchy tunes and nearly almost perfect sound design each time I pick up the game. Even opening a simple chest is made exciting by the music that’s played. Ocarina gave birth to the Hymn of Time, the Deku Theme, the Bolero of Fire, and more — songs I catch myself whistling to this day while cleaning my apartment or sitting on the train.
While Breath of the Wild re-imagines old Zelda themes, they never feel as impactful and iconic as the original Ocarina of Time music. (Just writing about it makes the Lost Forest theme play in my head.) Breath of the Wild may capture a sense of freedom much better, but its music is just not that memorable. Try to sing one melody from Breath of the Wild — you’ll probably find you have a hard time doing so. Meanwhile songs from Ocarina of Time are still stuck in my head even after 20 years…
It’s more than clear to me that this point goes to Ocarina. If you don’t believe me, just listen to both games on their title screens. Close our eyes and listen. Listen!
Ocarina of Time 3 — 2 Breath of the Wild
Lasting Impact on the Game Industry
This is the last and final category I would like to discuss here, and you might have already guessed who’ll win this.
Breath of the Wild was a game changer for Nintendo. It brought the franchise back to its feet and made clear that Nintendo still has the guts and talent to pull off what only they can do with their IPs. They totally reinvented Zelda, forsaking much of what was consistent in past games like linearity, hand-holding, easy combat difficulty, and simple puzzles that were no-brainers. Instead they transformed the game into a modern masterpiece.
But as I mentioned before, they didn’t invent something new, they took familiar and established concepts and adapted them to fit their game perfectly — something they should have done with Skyward Sword (or even an earlier release). It is the right approach, just a little too late for my taste. And admittedly, many of the things Nintendo has so masterfully perfected in Breath of the Wild will continue to heavily influence games in the years to come, but will any of it compare to the kind of influence Ocarina has had over these past 20 years?
Breath of the Wild is the result of a perfectionist approach towards the current market and competition. Ocarina of Time, on the other hand, was the gold standard in gaming without any competition for at least a few years. It took gaming to a new level, introduced never before seen game elements, delivered a genre-defining experience to gamers around the world, and set the bar for all games for years to come. Its core features are still present in modern games with even Breath of the Wild using them, not as an homage but out of necessity because the mechanics were that timeless.
Ocarina of Time 4 — 2 Breath of the Wild
A Timeless Hero
It is true, comparing games that are almost two decades apart is not usually fair or useful. But regarding the Zelda franchise, and especially with these two titans, the conversation is necessary.
Even 20 years after its initial release, Ocarina of Time is still an incredible game and in my opinion the best Zelda game ever created. Of course, Breath of the Wild is a brilliant addition to the series and easily the best Zelda game since Ocarina. But, to be truly innovative and game-changing in the game industry, Breath of the Wild simply came too late. It’s still one of the greatest games ever made, but it doesn’t compare to the timeless classic that was released in 1998.
All things considered, I have a feeling that the hero of time will always be our favorite version of Link.
Thanks for reading!