Links to the Past: The Development Timeline of Ocarina of Time, Part 1

02/01/2021 - 13:00 | By: Robert Grosso
Developer
Nintendo
Publisher
Nintendo
Release Date
November 21, 1998
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A Chronological History of Zelda 64's Development

Recently, one of the biggest finds in gaming history occurred; several beta maps and assets from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time were discovered on a few Nintendo 64 dev kits. For a whole generation, Ocarina of Time has captured the imagination of players over its well-known, yet at the same time mysterious, development cycle. Dozens of pre-release screenshots and beta images showed us an Ocarina of Time we never received, a glimpse of a game in development slowly shown to the public over four years.

It is easy to get cynical today about features and content cut from games, but in the ‘90s, it was a form of rumor and speculation that fueled the imaginations of many young minds. Yet, the question of what these items did and when they were implemented or abandoned is only part of the story.

With the recent discovery of the beta versions of the game, coupled with previously released bits from the Gigaleak last year, fans and historians alike now have a more complete look of Ocarina of Time than ever before. This article then will be the first in a multi-part series that will chronicle the development timeline of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

Sources of Information

F Zero X Dec Cart Zelda Spaceworld 1997
The F-Zero X dev cartridge that would contain data from what is believed to be the Spaceworld 1997 version of the game's development.

History and archeology are effectively the study of what sources we have. There may be a trove of information waiting to be uncovered, but based on what we know, experts use that knowledge to piece together a full picture of what is available to us. 

 
 

The development of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is perhaps one of the fullest pictures imaginable now. Pre-release screenshots and videos are well documented at this point, but the physical sources to help carbon-date the pre-release stages of Ocarina of Time are invaluable. 

It is important to understand where these sources come from for two reasons: firstly, to catalogue the source material and timestamp it to the supposed time of production with pre-release images; secondly, to provide clarity of where the source material is coming from. 

The Debug ROM: One of the earliest—and for a long time, only—looks into what Ocarina of Time was, the Debug ROM was based off the European version of Ocarina of Time/Master Quest for the Nintendo GameCube, released in 2002. The Master Quest disk contains both a copy of Ocarina of Time and the Master Quest version of the game (also known as Ura Zelda by members of the fanbase), which are both emulated versions of the Nintendo 64 game. Though technically not the Nintendo 64 version, several aspects of the game, most notably a few unused and beta maps, were found in the Debug ROM years prior to the other major discoveries.

The Gigaleak: Perhaps the most well known leak at this point, the Gigaleak (also known as the iQue Leak) refers to a series of dumps of stolen material from the Nintendo archives throughout 2020 that contained source code for various Nintendo consoles, code for multiple games, scans of in-house artwork, and, most dubiously, the personal information from employees at Nintendo since the early 1990s. 

Many of these files are believed to be from an iQue version of Ocarina of Time. The iQue Player was an emulated all-in-one Nintendo handheld released only in China in 2003, with Ocarina of Time being one of 14 games made for the player. Technically, the iQue files are considered a separate leak from the full Gigaleak, but many archivists use the terms interchangeably because both were dumped online at the same time. 

The Spaceworld 97 Overdump: Also known as the Late 1997 Overdump, this is one of the two recent ROMs found on Ocarina of Time. The data comes from an overdump from a dev cartridge for F-Zero X. The larger and arguably more juicer of the two recent dumps, the Late 97 Overdump contains tons of assets believed to be based off the demo version of Ocarina of Time shown at Spaceworld 1997, putting most of its assets squarely in Stage 3 of development. 

 

The Release Candidate Dump: The second ROM dump from a few weeks ago, this version of Ocarina of Time is believed to be a version of the game three days before release. Hundreds of minor differences have already been documented, from different sounds and in-game text to location changes of items, enemies, and more. 

For our look into Ocarina of Time, we will focus on cross-examining interviews, pre-release material, the above dumped ROMs, and concept art to attempt to match it with the already-established timeline of pre-release information. Multiple sites and archivists have already begun piecing this together, with key sources including The Cutting Room Floor, Forest of Illusion, and Z64Me.

Ocarina of Time - Stages of Development

OOT Screens Dev Stages
Top Left, Stage 1 of Development | Top Right, Stage 2 of Development | Bottom Left, Stage 3 of Development | Bottom Right, Stage 4 of Development

Development for Ocarina of Time would then take about 3.5 years, from 1996 to 1998, and go through what archivists have deemed four distinct stages of development. The names of these development cycles are based on the mapping of the controller buttons found on the top-right corner of various screenshots, and are as follows:

Pre Footage - Pre-production to the Spaceworld 1995 demo.

 

A+B - Stage 1 of development, which only used the A and B buttons for items, seen in screenshots and video from October 1996 to April 1997.

A+C - Stage 2 of development, which used the A button and the C buttons only, seen in screenshots and video from May to July 1997. 

A+B+C Beta - Stage 3 of development, which had all button combinations, seen in screenshots and video from August 1997 to August 1998.

A+B+C Final - Stage 4 of development, which switched the A+B button functions (Sword was on A previously), seen in screenshots and video from September 1998 to final release. 

To put some of this in perspective, much of what was recently uncovered from the Ocarina of Time ROMs is content cut from Stage 3 of development, which was arguably the most prolific in terms of what was shown to the public. Some of the juicer changes include the beta versions of the game’s maps and landscapes, the loss and redesign of items, and cut dialogue attached to lost items. 

FX Zelda and Pre-Production

Link Pre Production Look OOT
From Left to Right: The 1994 FX graphics Zelda; the 1995 Spaceworld Tech Demo; Concept Art art of an early Link design, seen in the Hyrule Historia

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time had a long development cycle, which began around 1994 concurrently with the development of what would eventually become Super Mario 64. We know now, through interviews, that plans began for Zelda back in the waning days of SNES, when Shigeru Miyamoto wanted to create a Zelda-style game with 3D graphics using the FX Chip. 

It is unknown how far into development the FX version of Zelda really got, as very little evidence of it seems to exist at this point. One of the only images confirmed to be from this time is a very early model of Link in FX graphics that has surfaced due to the Gigaleak. 

The FX Link can possibly be a relic of another possible version of Zelda at this time, a pseudo 3D remake of Zelda II.

An Iwata Asks article with Yoshiaki Koizumi, one of the five directors of Ocarina of Time, spoke about this Zelda II remake. Koizumi worked with Miyamoto to create a polygonal Link that would be viewed from the side back for the Super Famicom, and before earnest development for the Nintendo 64. 

“Yes. We were experimenting with a thin, polygon Link seen from the side and fighting with his sword. Chanbara was a pending issue at the time. We couldn't really bring Zelda II: The Adventure of Link into form at that time, but I kept that desire to achieve a sword-fighting Zelda game until I joined this team."
—Yoshiaki Koizumi

The plans for this Zelda II game were eventually dropped, with both Koizumi and Miyamoto moving onto development for what would eventually become Super Mario 64. Both Mario and Zelda would be developed concurrently at first and were both based on the same development framework, though later Zelda 64 would go through so many changes it is now considered by Nintendo to be on a separate game engine. 

Much of the pre-production and early concept work on Ocarina of Time (often referred to as Zelda 64 before it was officially named in December 1997) was handled by a small skeleton team, namely two developers: Jin Ikeda and Takao Shimizu. This early pre-production stage focused heavily on swordplay, which became the focal point of most of the game’s development. The chanbara-styled fights—which are a genre of samurai sword fight films in Japan—are credited to be the ideas of Shimizu and would be on display in the early Spaceworld '95 tech demo. 

Project Reality and Spaceworld 1995

The Shoshinkai trade show, known by many as Spaceworld, was a Nintendo-owned trade show that began in 1989 to be a showcase of games and development for various Nintendo products. Throughout the mid 1990s, Spaceworld became the stuff of legends as being one of the few places where Japanese consumers can come and play in-development products for the SNES, Nintendo 64, Game Boy, and eventually the Nintendo GameCube. 

It was at the November 1994 Shoshinkai trade show that ‘Project Reality’ was first revealed to the public. Project Reality was a partnership with Silicon Graphics Inc. and Nintendo. Project Reality, the codename for what would become the Nintendo 64, has a long history with its own development, but by early 1995, Nintendo staff had begun developing on the SGI hardware for game development for their new console, titled the Ultra 64 at the time. 

Spaceworld '95 was held in early December 1995. The show was a major showcase for the Ultra 64, with multiple games shown for the first time to the public. For Zelda 64, no gameplay footage was shown. Instead, a tech demo, designed by Shimizu, would focus on the swordplay in a short,12-second video clip that depicted Link fighting a silver knight in a dark, cave-like room. 

The release of the tech demo generated tons of buzz, but not just with the impressive (for the time) visuals of Link fighting in 3D. The big announcement at Spaceworld 1995 was that a Legend of Zelda game was currently in development for the Ultra 64 Disk Drive (DD), while the other killer app, Super Mario, was being developed for the Ultra 64. The decision to develop Zelda 64 for the Ultra 64 DD would be a major influence for the game’s next few years of development. 

Chanbara and Early Ideas

Shimizu would eventually move to work on Star Fox 64, but Ikeda was not left alone on development for Zelda for long. He would be quickly joined by Toru Osawa, one of the writers for Ocarina of Time, and eventually Yoshiaki Koizumi would return to development on Zelda 64 from Super Mario 64

It is well documented that the early pre-production stage focused heavily on swordplay. The influence of Shimizu, along with the previous FX Zelda II version by Koizumi, would guide early planning into a singular direction: a focus on chanbara-styled swordplay. 

Typically, chanbara films emphasize quick, frantic action between two combatants at a time, displaying a measure of skill between the combatants that provides fast action and movements. Many early concepts for gameplay come from this chanbara focus, some of which would become major innovations not only in Ocarina of Time, but for future games as a whole. 

The invention of Z-Targeting by Koizumi, for example, was influenced by a stage show Koizumi, Ikeda, and Osawa viewed at Toei Kyoto Studio Park. The show, involving a samurai fighting several ninja, saw a ninja using a kusarigama that the samurai would grab and pull tight, forcing the ninja to circle the samurai while in combat. The fights between the ninja and samurai in the show were always a one-on-one battle, despite the samurai facing off against multiple ninja at once. Both of these observations by the development team would influence the direction of not only combat in Zelda 64, but solve several problems with action-based combat in a 3D space. 

Zelda OOT Sword Action
The visual cues to chanbara, as seen in a Stage 1 (A+B) screenshot from Nintendo Power #94, January 1997. 

The focus on chanbara-styled fighting would eventually influence other aspects of production for Zelda 64. One of the more interesting additions to Nintendo was an early motion-capture studio that was built specifically to capture some of the animations that would eventually be seen in the final game. One of these would include a professional stuntman who was hired by the team to capture the attack animations Link would perform in game, to future smaller animations such as how Link would open treasure chests. 

This early pre-production phase of Zelda would last until early 1996. By this point, development for Super Mario 64 was finishing, and Nintendo EAD, with its team of about 50 employees at the time, were put on task to work on Zelda 64. Full development from start to finish would take about three and a half years, with many concepts from Super Mario 64 being reused for Zelda 64

From the tech demo in 1995, it would take nearly a full year before the general public would see the first visuals of Zelda 64, and the first stage of development would then be in full swing.

Tomorrow, we will begin to go through the first stages of Zelda 64’s development, including the shift to a more mature design, the troubles with the 64 DD, and the original incarnation being incredibly similar to Super Mario 64. Be sure to join us then!


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Staff Writer

A game playing, college teaching scholar who happens to write some articles every so often. Enjoys penning long-form articles that few probably read. Love the art of gaming, preservation, collecting and RPGs. Have worked as a journalist, critic, educator and blogger for over ten years now, with articles published (as user editorials) on Game Revolution and Giant Bomb as well as a contributor for the websites Angry Bananas and Blistered Thumbs. Now making TechRaptor my home.