In September 1991 a man in Pennsylvania found a copy of the Declaration of Independence hidden in the backing of what he called a “dismal painting.” He’d purchased it because he liked the frame. This version of the Declaration of Independence was from its first printing and was only the forth known to exist.
For almost 215 years that painting floated around until it was discovered for what it truly was— a historical relic. It’s almost unbelievable. How can something so fragile and important go undetected and unnoticed for so long?
In January 2021, a different sort of discovery was made, hidden behind a different sort of painting. Retro-archivist Forest Of Illusion has recovered and dumped an early build of a game which would become The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.
What is the Ocarina of Time beta dump?
The data, which would come to be called “the Overdump,” was recovered from a development cart for F Zero X and appeared to be 50% of a 1997 build of the game— presumably the version which appeared at Spaceworld 1997.
It’s not rare for an archivist to find partial data on a development cart (they were flashed and re-flashed regularly to test games after all). What is rare is finding data from a first-party Nintendo title. Nintendo was, and still is, notoriously protective of it’s intellectual property.
The treasure trove of data that Forest Of Illusions put online contained entire maps, textures, dungeons, dialogue and even an unused item— all of it dating to a crucial part in Ocarina Of Time’s development.
We have a prototype Nintendo 64 cartridge of F-Zero X that contained data from an early build of Zelda 64 that used to be on the cartridge. We're estimating it's from Spaceworld 1997. We're going to look into this more. Of course everything will be released. pic.twitter.com/Q5SoAbsdWM
— Forest of Illusion (@forestillusion) January 19, 2021
Plus, just a few months prior, an earlier leak allowed modders to re-create a test dungeon and test enemy only seen in grainy magazine shots from perhaps an even earlier build. Suddenly there was an entirely new way to look at the history of Ocarina of Time.
As one of the most beloved video games of all time, Ocarina of Time maintains a massive fanbase. For as long as I can remember people spread rumors amongst friends and on early message boards about hidden dungeons, secret fairy fountains, or being able to obtain the Triforce.
For years, fans of the game have been trying to understand the development history by combing through old Nintendo Power or IGN magazines for statements and screenshots. Others took to exploring the game’s official code in attempts to gleam new truths from unused assets. Some fans had even begun collecting and digitizing Nintendo VHS and laserdisc promos to get the cleanest images of how Ocarina of Time looked during its development.
For the Ocarina of Time community the scope of the recent events were revelatory.
What does the beta reveal about the game’s development?
But, what does The Overdump tell us about the development of Ocarina of Time? By 1997 the team had decided on core concepts, the overall order of events, and by what means Link would defend Hyrule. But many things were still up in the air. Screenshots tell us Ocarina of Time’s development team didn’t decide on which button would swing the Master Sword till a few months prior to release.
This data shows us a team still deciding the best way to present all this to players and wrestling with the scope of their adventure. Many of the designs featured a simpler and more “cartoony aesthetic” compared to their darker or serious final versions. Many maps recovered from the Overdump are truly massive compared to what appears in the release cartridge.
Almost as soon as the Overdump build was online, modders started getting to work implementing this information into a workable, playable experience. It only took a few hours before modders had implemented the maps into a model viewer, and from there into a playable form using the game’s final engine.
I asked one modder, Zel, what their goals are now that this data is in their hands. Zel told me that they plan to “restore the entire demo experience that players at Space World would have explored…” and even with only 50% of the 1997 build Zel believes a re-created demo is “entirely doable.”
It’s worth noting that no one in the community benefits monetarily from any of their labor. For most, the primary motivator is preservation. Because of their efforts, we are able to finally grasp at something tangible, when it was previously locked behind mystery.
I think there’s a lesson about human nature in all of this. Our obsession for this information reveals a desire to see behind the curtain and to understand how this great work came to be. The archival and restoration work is humanity’s innate desire to solve mysteries made manifest.
In 2011, a copy of a seven minute film from 1914 starring Charlie Chaplin— thought lost to history— was found at a Michigan antique sale. It wasn’t even known Charlie Chaplin was in the film until it was discovered for what it was.
Who knows what’s still out there waiting to be discovered and preserved?