Welcome to the first instalment of a new column, where we’re going to be doing a deep-dive into some of the most memorable moments in gaming – good and bad. We’re starting off strong with a moment that cemented the Zelda series as one of the all-time greats, in celebration of Link’s 35th birthday or something. Happy birthday, Link. You are now old enough to get a mortgage and stop mooching off the Kokiri.
There’s something magical about cathedrals. Perhaps it’s the way their vaulted architecture elicits a silence so deep you can almost hear God. Perhaps it’s the knowledge that generations of old bones rest beneath your feet, waiting for you to join them. It’s no surprise that games like Dark Souls and Bloodborne revere and fear them in almost equal measure: they’re places of awesome beauty, in the original meaning of the word. Honestly, it’s not hard to make an eldritch horror out of the Christian mythos, packed as it is with blood, relics, death and rebirth.
The literal legend of Zelda has often centred around these places of worship, from Skyward Sword’s Goddess Statue to Link to the Past’s Sanctuary. Religion, and the awe it inspires, are vital parts of Link’s various quests, and having churches and cathedrals in the games is a shorthand for the way they make us feel.
From the very first moment you enter the Temple of Time, an echoing, unnerving chant fills the room. There’s a sense that this is hallowed ground, despite the Temple having no seating, no pulpit, and no tombs, as you might expect from a church
Most famous of them all is the Temple of Time, which often stands as a symbol for Hyrule’s eternal quest to vanquish – or at least banish – the darkness that keeps returning. In Ocarina of Time, its first appearance, it houses the Master Sword, the tool which will help Link to bring back the light once more – but it also becomes his prison.
From the very first moment you enter the Temple of Time, an echoing, unnerving chant fills the room. There’s a sense that this is hallowed ground, despite the Temple having no seating, no pulpit, and no tombs, as you might expect from a church.
It’s reminiscent of legal offices in London, where huge reception areas are left purposefully blank, as a show of wealth and prestige. “Look how much space we can afford to waste,” they say, in a city where a single room filled with mice and misery will run you a grand a month. The Temple of Time, on the other hand, is not a show of wealth, but of power. You don’t need to know anything about the theology of Hyrule to know that something great dwells in the place between things, and that this is a sacred space – a literal sanctuary from the evil outside.
Once you place the three spiritual stones, and the Door of Time is pulled open, the theme of hallowed hollowness continues: inside the room is nothing but a pedestal and a sword. It’s not the first time we’ve seen this – Link to the Past’s Master Sword is enshrined within the ethereal Lost Woods – but the same mysticism and importance is conveyed here, whether the Sword is in a woodland glade or a strange, octagonal stone vault, lit by a well-placed sunbeam.
Of course, everyone knows what happens next: Link pulls the sword, accidentally gives Ganondorf the key to the Sacred Realm, and gets locked away in the Temple of Light for seven years, because children can’t be the saviours of the world until at least Majora’s Mask.
As it turns out, seven years is a long time, and Hyrule is no longer the pastoral paradise of Link’s youth (of two minutes ago). The contrast is stark: upon leaving the Temple of Time, day has turned to night, the sky is dominated by Death Mountain’s terrifying halo of storms, and Hyrule Castle Town – previously a place full of happy villagers – is now overrun with moaning, screaming ReDeads, and the only remaining inhabitant is the opportunistic Poe Collector, who is so creepy that Ganondorf was probably too scared to evict him.
The moment of emerging from the Temple into a hellscape is an undeniably effective one, even despite the N64’s technical limitations. Sure, nowadays it looks like a big brown smear, but at the time it was a masterpiece of visual storytelling. You don’t need Navi to tell you that everything’s gone to hell – although she will anyway – because the sunny, music-filled world of Hyrule has been replaced with a simple, ominous wind track. That wind was so effectively unsettling that we used to have nightmares about it.
The moment of emerging from the Temple into a hellscape is an undeniably effective one, even despite the N64’s technical limitations
Link’s exit from the Temple of Time and the transformation that happened within are a strangely excellent representation of growing up. Puberty for most of us may not have come with zombies and megalomaniacal evil man-beasts, but the feeling of being unable to put the metaphorical genie back in the bottle is real. It’s not until you’re past childhood that you come to realise that the days of no responsibility were the sunshine before the Ganondorf of hormones came to kick you, unwilling, into the world of adulthood.
This moment, from entering the Temple as a kid to exiting it as an adult, carries with it a sense of mystery and reluctancy, of Link being forced into something he didn’t even know about, and of being the weapon for a bunch of people trapped by time, duty, and powerlessness. Link has no voice, and he never has, so he is carried along by the currents of honour and destiny to continually be the Hero, the Saviour, the Chosen One. It’s been said before, but the Legend of Zelda is very rarely about Zelda’s Legend – it is always about Link’s story, and the inexorable march of his divine fate.
We began this column talking about how Zelda draws on religious symbology to elicit certain emotions in its players, and if the Temple of Time is a cathedral, then Link is Hyrule’s perpetually reincarnated sacrificial lamb, the only thing that can hold back the darkness, whether he knows it or not. There are many brilliant moments in Zelda’s history, but the Ocarina of Time is perhaps the first time we ever appreciated the holy tragedy of the series.
Did the Temple of Time have a similar impact on you the first time you experienced it, or do you have different feelings? What other key gaming moments would you like to see covered in this series? Leave a comment to let us know.