This new/modified editorial series is an evolution of sorts of Favorite Zelda Moments, where, instead of simply discussing my favorite moments and talking about why I like them so much, I’m going to examine notable moments in the series in general — whether I’m personally fond of them or not — and give my thoughts on them. I’d like to start off with something I’ve talked about a bit before, which is Epona in Ocarina of Time.
And, you know, I’ve actually criticized Epona in that game a lot. As an item or ability — which is essentially what Epona is — the horse honestly offers very little. She’s not very useful and definitely not needed. I also think this applies to her later appearances. I discussed all this a while back in a podcast segment, and I won’t bore you to tears by repeating it all here.
Instead I want to show at least a little appreciation for what Epona does offer. Obviously she’s a big deal to a lot of Zelda fans because she does have quite a bit of popularity. So what is it about this darned horse-named-after-a-goddess that people like so much?
Well I’d say there’s two facets to it. The first one is only relevant to Ocarina of Time: She’s played up for appeal. Her initial owner, Malon, is a notable if not major character in the game whom Link will meet twice before even seeing Epona. And along with her, her father Talon, Epona, and Lon Lon Ranch itself are all included in multiple moments of the game, even a trading sequence later in. But from the first point the player helps/gets helped by Malon at Hyrule Castle, to the first time they visit Lon Lon Ranch, the tune needed to control the horse is ever-present: The super-appropriately titled Epona’s Song, a beautiful and relaxing theme in its own right. The main theme of this horse is introduced under conditions where the player first meets some of the game’s most beloved and charming characters, leading into the first meeting with the horse, and even into the rescue mission of sorts that Link pulls to get the horse away from the briefly deranged Ingo. It’s almost like a textbook example of mental conditioning, except instead of conditioning the horse to run when it hears the starting bell, she’s doing it when fed carrots… no, I mean… we warm up to the song and the lovable animal it’s theme to.
Of course that’s probably reading too much into it; put plainly, the characters whom Link and Epona interact with together are charming and lovable characters — especially that Malon, rawr — and moreover the stories surrounding the Ranch and Epona are charming themselves. As a character — as opposed to as an item, which I stick to my arguments about — Epona is someone you’re designed to warm up to and love.
The second reason I think people like Epona so much is actually universal; it’s just as applicable to her appeal in Majora’s Mask and Twilight Princess as it is to her appeal in Ocarina of Time: Epona is part of the game’s fantasy. Among all the different things video games can offer people, from awesome and exciting competitive experiences, to interesting player vs. game scenarios that challenge mind and reflexes, one thing they excel at is creating worlds and fulfilling fantasies. This is why player choice can be such a powerful thing in virtually any genre, because it gives the players tools with which to play out their fantasies. If I’m playing a shooter, you can be sure I’m going to hook myself up with the best stealth gear and assassination equipment I can get my hands on to become a sneaky jerk. In a medieval fantasy game like Zelda, what’s one of the biggest fantasies people will aspire to play out? Hell, what’s the main fantasy all of the games and Link himself are geared towards delivering? Why, that of the knight, journeying to save the princess… Nay! The entire realm, from some great evil atop his… wait for it… mighty steed.
On top of all of Ocarina of Time’s other successes — presenting a beloved series with the latest in 3D technology and pioneering such important advances such as freaking targeting — one thing it delivered on that no prior Zelda game managed to was the fantasy of the galloping knight. This was the Zelda game where you could ride, and I think that doubtlessly blew people’s minds a bit. In some ways perhaps Twilight Princess delivered on this better since the horseback combat was totally fleshed out — if underused — and there were a few epic fights to do atop Epona, but it will never overtake Ocarina of Time’s legacy on that front. The “best game of all-time” brought the horse to the series, and it’ll always be known for and loved for that. I mean come on, she’s on the title screen for god’s sake! Whether or not there were mistakes made with the gameplay of the horse will never change the appeal of the idea, of the fantasy of the thing, and that’s just fine.
Let’s ride, girl.