I’d like to kick off my new blog with a review an often overlooked installment of a classic series; The Legend Of Zelda, Oracle of Ages/Oracle of Seasons.
So it’s actually two games. Kinda.
The games star Link (surprise surprise), journeying for some untold reason through the land of Labrynna in Ages and Holodrum in Seasons. The goddesses Nayru and Din appear as the oracles in each land, and are very soon after beginning the game are kidnapped by their respective baddies. Someone spots the Triforce symbol burned onto Link’s hand. They send him to talk to a tree, who tells him to find eight underworlds to find the eight macguffins to advance the story. In said dungeons he finds eight useful trinkets, he uses them, he solves puzzles, and fights bosses. It’s not exactly an innovative story line.
These games were released at the end of the life span of the Game Boy Color, which, please note, is a system that had only gone minor technical and aesthetic changes since it was released in 1989. Yes, the Game Boy Advance was released the same year, but it’s easy to see how Link’s adoring fans may have overlooked this game in favor of bigger and better systems. Even Nintendo didn’t want to give it much attention, as evident by the fact that they farmed the game out to Capcom for development.
Usually I’d shake my head in shame over an artist relinquishing control over their series–prime example would be how by casting George Clooney as Batman, Joel Shumacher effectively killed the franchise until they could reboot it into something that wasn’t embarrassed to call itself “Batman.” (And do you remember the Adam West TV series?)
Capcom, though, chose a different approach. The Oracle games play from a top-down perspective, Gannon is a pig again, bosses from the original game return en masse…I can’t help but think that they’re trying to make a statement. This is, after all, the company that created Megaman, where the most creative changes were eight new themes for robots which were cleverly named “insert-that-theme-here”-Man. This is why I think Capcom may actually understand the Zelda series more than other potential third-party developers. Change and innovation can spice up old series, well enough, but if players enjoyed a game, chances are they’ll enjoy more of the same in the sequel. No the Oracle games done push the envelope of storytelling, but I still go back and play the original NES game about once a year, and the only story that had was the paragraph or two you read out of the instruction book before your kid brother tears it to shreds and slobbers on the pieces. Even Ocarina of Time didn’t change all that much beyond the over-the-shoulder perspective and a more highly developed Hyrule than previous games. They certainly didn’t need to contrive some stupid gimmick to please fans, like, for example, turning Link into a werewolf.
As much as these games give off a more-of-the-same vibe, they’re generally fun to play. Capcom added their own flair, allowing you to play through the games sequentially a la Resident Evil 2, with a Link To the Past style fight with Gannon (who often avoids handheld games, probably out of fear of making them seem too much like a Legend of Zelda game) for those who complete both games. As I mentioned, they bring back all the bosses from the first game like Manhandla, Gleeok, and Dodongo (among others) that those of us who have had nothing better to do since the 1980s will remember fondly. Boss fights are constructed simply, yet cleverly, and having two of them in each dungeon actually improved the game. Even the retro bosses have new–or at least variations of old–attack patterns that Link can exploit using the dungeon’s item.
The game offers the usual trinkets: a boomerang, bombs, an upgradeable sword. And some of the new items–such as the magnet glove–are inventive enough that I’d like to see it return in the main series.
The roc’s feather, however, returning from the first handheld installment, Link’s Awakening, probably deserves to be locked up in a dungeon guarded by a ferocious beast. Yes, it’s a very interesting way to access new locations, but the game relies too much on complex use of it, jumping over pits, spikes, and onto moving ledges that are often placed over lava. Part of the appeal of the Zelda series has always been that it’s NOT A PLATFORMER. If I want to simulate the feeling of waterskiing through a hurricane wearing nothing but a broken skii and a live ferret, I have a copy of Super Mario 64 collecting dust. I don’t want experience points in Resident Evil, complex puzzles in RPGs, and I don’t want platforming in Zelda. Furthermore, the upgraded version has some serious mechanical issues, especially in the games’ side scrolling sections, which often end up with Link making a beautiful 9.0 entry into a pool of lava.
The concept of traveling between two different maps separated by time travel, dimensional shift, or what have you, has long been a defining element of the series. While the ability to interact with the environment–literally–by changing seasons provides the opportunity for new puzzles, the time travel in Oracle of Ages feels like a clunky mash-up of Ocarina of Time and Link to the Past, not to mention each transition requires Link to play a five to ten second little ditty, followed by a sequence of wavy lines and warpy noises. This can tend to be obnoxious when accidentally triggering use of the harps, and ate up more of my time than I care to admit as I tried to place myself in the right age.
Capcom did try to shore up a frequent annoyance of the Zelda series, which earns them brownie–er, fairie–points. All too commonly, the player finds themselves just nearing the end of the dungeon when all their hearts runs out, and they’ve used up all their bottled deus-ex-machinas. Introduced to the game over screen, they find themselves whisked back to the continue point, only to find themselves with three hearts, ill-equipped to actually continue the game. The Oracle games make an attempt to fix this by giving you a percentage of your total life upon continuing, which certainly reduces tedium, however, when all you have to do is grab a shovel and start digging until you kick up enough hearts to keep going, it makes the attempt fall flat. There’s no reason not to start off the player with full life at that point, and partial life doesn’t add to challenge; it just sends them off on pointless errands they have to accomplish before getting back to the part of the game they really want to play.
For the most part, the game is challenging, but not beyond hope of solving problems yourself. A few sections, mostly near the end of the games, demanded a walkthrough, which earns a big red mark on their report card, That and the odd mechanic that Link has to equip and use his shield like an item pretty much wrap up my list of annoyances with the games. Other than that, they’re worth playing through.
Games in the Zelda series have always been fairly simplistic, and the Oracle games definitely embrace that simplicity. While I like to encourage pushing the envelope, I also enjoy games like this. The value that you’ll find in these games depends on exactly how much you like to stick with an unchanged idea versus how much innovation you demand.