When you ask people about The Legend of Zelda, I’m sure a few titles immediately jump to mind. Games like Ocarina of Time and A Link to the Past hold a special place in the memories of many as they each revolutionized the gaming landscape. If they’re old enough they might speak with wistful reminiscence about the original game, lost in hazy thoughts of flickering CRT monitors blaring light on young eyes. Even though it’s a recent release, it’s impossible to overstate the reach and presence of Breath of the Wild, which seems to have managed to capture the imaginations of entire generations as it transported Zelda to a sprawling open world and let players loose. But Zelda isn’t just a franchise of massive, industry-altering console games; it’s also a series buoyed up by myriad smaller releases. Often these are the games which preserve the old-fashioned approach to the franchise, and they carry with them just as much creativity as their grown-up cousins. I was a console kid; I grew up chiefly with games like Ocarina, Majora’s Mask, and especially Wind Waker, and as a result I never did look into the handheld releases beyond, say, Link’s Awakening. The twin Oracle titles, then, sit first on my list of these games.
The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages (GBC)
Released Feb 2001 | Developed: Flagship | Published: Nintendo
Genre: Action-Adventure | HLTB: 17 hours
The first question that no doubt jumps to mind when looking at the Oracle titles is: which one do I play? Oracle of Ages and Seasons released simultaneously on the Game Boy Color, so a reasonable question might be is this a kind of Pokemon situation, where both games are the same with some minor differences? If so, does it really matter which one I play? The answers are, respectively, no and yes.
The reason why lies in one of the Oracle games’ most interesting and unique features. The two games are linked; that is, once you beat one you get a passcode which you can punch in when you start a new game on the other game, letting you unlock improved versions of the items you find, trade certain items over to the other game, and, ultimately, access the true ending of the Oracle duology. What this means is that both games are capable of being played separately from one another, or as functioning as a sequel of the other. It’s an intriguing system, although I’m sure it probably also cost a fair whack to develop two connected games alongside one another, and while it sounds good on paper, what the developers also did was create a situation where players really do need to have access to both games in order to get a complete story.
But what about that story, then? We’ll begin with Ages, since that’s the one I played. Our hero, Link, travels to the land of Labrynna. There, he meets a young woman named Nayru, who is the titular Oracle of Ages. However, just as Link arrives she is suddenly possessed by Veran, the Sorceress of Shadows, who immediately uses Nayru’s magic to travel to Labrynna’s past, altering the present day as parts of the world grow wilder and more dangerous and people turn to stone. True to form, Link dives into the past after Veran, where he finds that the local queen, Ambi, has taken on the possessed Nayru as an advisor and is now building a massive great tower, reaching far into the sky. Obviously this is a bad omen, so Link is charged with seeking out the 8 Essences of Time and using their power to stop the villainous sorceress.
It’s a pretty straightforward story, as far as Zelda narratives go. Ages released 3 years after Ocarina of Time, so trying to carry a time travel story was ambitious and no doubt ran the risk of seeming passé in the wake of what was the franchise’s most formidable release. Thankfully Ages takes a slightly different tack to Ocarina in its approach to and presentation of time travel; mainly that Ages has a far less dark tone. While Veran’s schemes do result in some of the present day winding up worse off, it can’t help but lack the impact of heading to the twisted, dreadful future of Ocarina of Time; there are no screaming redeads to terrify you, no swirling, darkened storm clouds shrouding the world in darkness, and no communities cowering in fear. Instead, Labrynna’s past generally feels peaceful; although folk do express some worries about the growing tower in their midst, there’s never a sense of terror or urgency. That said, I do actually rather like the way the time travel is incorporated into Ages; often your actions do have clear effects across time periods, and it’s quite satisfying to see the way Link’s heroics in the past become enshrined in legend during the present day.
As we’ve mentioned, an important part of Ages’ identity is that it is one of a pair, twinned with Oracle of Season. At the time of writing I’ve not yet played Seasons – that’s the next Zelda game to go for me – but I understand one of the ways in which Flagship distinguished Ages and Seasons from one another was in the core gameplay focus. Seasons is apparently more built around combat; in contrast Ages is decidedly more puzzle-heavy, and therein lies one of the major roadblocks to my fun that I encountered. Every Zelda game has puzzles as part of the gameplay loop, and I like a good puzzle as much as the next person, but I also enjoy feeling like a sword-swinging hero and Ages has rather too much of the former and not enough of the latter.
There was a conscious decision taken here to make the game very much weighted towards a puzzle-based experience, and as a result every single dungeon and boss has a gimmick to be worked out. There are only so many puzzles you encounter in the dungeons and it doesn’t take too long before they start repeating, only in harder forms – or, more often, in simply more laborious forms that take longer to sort out. One repeating puzzle is a particular offender of the crime of wasting my time as many dungeons feature a revolving door mechanic that always, without fail, requires you to do circles of rooms through the dungeon to get back to the door in order to make it revolve in the direction you need to go, and frankly that’s a needless ballache.
You have to get used to what is a relatively thin selection of dungeon puzzles, to be honest; things like switches that change floor elevation, rooms with invisible floors, rolling a dice so the correct coloured side falls into the relevant slot, and floor-tile puzzles where you can only step on each one once are all recurring trials. The bosses were also a little torturous as far as I’m concerned. Each one, especially the dungeon end-bosses, were all puzzle bosses, requiring you to work out a gimmick in order to damage them. While they were all definitely really smartly designed I just don’t get a lot of joy from constant puzzle bosses.
The puzzles aren’t just restricted to the dungeons though; the nadir of the game came maybe ⅔ through when you’re forced to complete several utterly tedious minigames to satisfy a mini trading quest for the Gorons, which involves traveling back and forth through time to find different game houses, as well as having to do a really badly timed rhythm game – twice! The end result was an experience I’ve never had in a Zelda game, where I found myself forcing play sessions and trudging along until I’d beaten another boss or found another dungeon, whereupon I would breathe a sigh of relief, save, and turn it off until the following day.
I don’t think I ever really expected to reach a Zelda game that I didn’t thoroughly enjoy, but there you go; Ages broke new ground there, I suppose. Still, it would be remiss of me not to emphasize that Oracle of Ages is genuinely really well-made; I certainly wasn’t expecting the sheer level of quality that is present in it, and especially for a humble Game Boy Color title. While the puzzle-heavy format simply isn’t my cup of tea, it’s fair play to you if this is more your speed; ultimately though I think that the Zelda formula suffers from the excision of a stronger combat focus.
4/7 – GOOD.
Sure, maybe something doesn’t quite work but at least it has heart, or a spark of excitement that makes it worthwhile despite the faults. Definitely worth a go if you can at least find it on sale.