It plays the saddest music, of course. If there’s one theme that ties together all of the Legends of Zelda, in all their different tellings across the 28 years since the saga first began, it’s the tug of sweet melancholy that goes hand in hand with the bristling excitement of adventure, and that undercuts the sense of discovery in a mystical landscape brimming with princesses and goblins.
For an audience that has grown up alongside the hero Link, it’s a toxic blend of nostalgia; a yearning for the long summer days of childhood spent exploring local forests, built upon the creator Shigeru Miyamoto’s own adventures and now immortalised in pixels, as well as a yearning for the long summer days of childhood spent behind drawn curtains with an N64 controller in hand.
So it’s inevitable that the instrument central to the Legend of Zelda is a woodwind renowned for its mournful sound: a sense of wistful longing carries on the trill, hollow notes of the ocarina. Its music has become totemic of the spirit of the series, and from its introduction in 1991’s A Link to the Past it’s been intertwined with the soft, everyday tragedies that underpin the Legend of Zelda.
Our hero first hears the ocarina’s notes echoing through the leaves of the Haunted Grove, and the themes of loss and longing are explicit in the instrument’s debut. You learn of the music’s source from a concerned father in Kakariko Village who tells you of his son’s quest to discover the very Golden Power that you seek, an adventure from which he never returned.
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Deep in the Grove you discover an apparition of the boy entertaining an audience of woodland animals, only for it to shimmer away as you approach. Only later does his fate become apparent, casting you as the inheritor of the ocarina - and it’s only through sharing that fate with his grieving father that you can unlock the ocarina’s power.
The ocarina would cameo in Link’s Awakening, playing the magisterial Ballad of the Wind Fish, but its power is central in its starring role in 1998’s The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, perhaps the greatest of the series and, in turn, perhaps the greatest game of all time. It’s certainly one of the most downcast, the tale of the only Kokiri in the forest without his own fairy letting go of his childhood, and saving the kingdom beyond the woods in the process.
At a time when video games were just beginning to step away from binary, two-dimensional worlds and towards the endless possibilities of three-dimensional space, the ocarina serves as a brilliant analogue of the medium’s own journey; it’s arguably the first playable instrument within a video game, its notes expressed in fluid analogue motion that underlined how much progress had been made from the rigid dungeons of the first Legend of Zelda. Thematically, too, it touched on much more.
The ocarina first appeared in A Link to the Past but a mistranslation led to it being known as a flute.
The instrument is what binds Link to his youth, as well as what helps whisk him away from it. As he leaves Kokiri Forest for the first time, a fairy ocarina is handed to Link by Saria, his childhood friend. Those tentative steps he makes upon the rope bridge that leads to Hyrule Field upon receiving the ocarina tell so much; there’s apprehension, and a young boy’s confusion as a member of the opposite sex expresses sentiment towards him. Finally, there’s the compulsion for adventure that sends Link sprinting to Hyrule Castle.
Link’s own connection to the forest, and to his friends, is tied into that fairy ocarina, and into the upbeat leap of Saria’s Song, the first piece he learns to play on it - a connection mirrored in the ocarina’s appearance in Majora’s Mask. Later in his adventure, Princess Zelda later gives Link the eponymous Ocarina of Time, an instrument that opens up the ability to propel him eight years forward into his adult self, and into the disastrous future awaiting Hyrule that he must work to prevent.
Saria playing her ocarina
Other instruments would appear throughout the Legend of Zelda - the harp of Skyward Sword, the conductor’s baton of Wind Waker or the bell of Link Between Worlds - but none of them have so perfectly embodied the spirit of the series as the ocarina, and none of them have so perfectly mirrored the themes of any particular game as the Ocarina of Time.
The passing of years in an instant is a magical ability with a bitter edge, as the devastating climax of the 1998 game illustrates with quiet economy. The passing of time has lent that moment, and the wider sense of loss, greater resonance. The Ocarina’s position at the centre of Ocarina of Time seems perfectly fitting: there’s a reflection of music’s ability to transport you to a particular place or time, or to a certain set of emotions. Over time, and thanks in no small part to the Legend of Zelda’s many recitations, it’s an ability video games have inherited, too.