In utilizing its time-traveling mechanics to bring puzzle-solving out of the dungeons and into the overworld, The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages expands the gameplay boundaries of the franchise’s top-down games
Link’s Awakening, the first handheld entry of The Legend of Zelda franchise, had as its target the showing that adventures as big and expansive as those undertaken by the hero in green could be reproduced effectively on a system with limited capabilities. At the time of its release, the bar that had to be reached was the one that had been set by the Super Nintendo’s A Link to the Past, and although Link’s Awakening – aware of the simplicity that was inherent to the Game Boy – did not attempt to conjure the epic feelings of that game, it – by betting on a humbler setting – succeeded in putting together a gaming experience that left nothing to be desired in terms of quality and content when compared to the classic that preceded it. With that matter settled and with no doubts standing regarding the enjoyment that could be found in a handheld quest starring Link, eight years later, the portable branch of Nintendo’s most ambitious property was revisited as, alongside Capcom, the company would add not one, but two intimately connected leaves to it, and they came in the form of The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages and The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons.
Developed for a console, the Game Boy Color, which held approximately the same processing power of its predecessor, the Game Boy, and that had as its most distinctive feature the capacity to move beyond black and white visuals, it is clear both Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons could not rely on sheer hardware advances to significantly move past Link’s Awakening. As such, the weight of evolution was left hanging on the shoulders of gameplay developments, and in that sense neither of them disappoints. Because where Link’s Awakening, albeit undeniably great, felt a little bit like The Legend of Zelda by the numbers, with none of its lovable additions making a mark big enough to serve as the adventure’s core theme, Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons – as if understanding their position as well as their precursor’s central shortcoming – are almost entirely built around game-changing mechanics.
In the case of Oracle of Ages, as bluntly stated on its title, the gameplay quirk it chooses to call its own is time. Given its release happened a meager three years after that of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, which also ventured onto that terrain, it would be reasonable for an outsider to view it as repetitive or unimaginative. However, both games approach the concept quite differently, for where Ocarina of Time uses it as a plot twist whose main effect is seen in major alterations occurring to the overworld; Oracle of Ages mines it in the search for clever puzzles. Consequently, even if it does turn the same stone and finds the same hidden treasure, it views it from a perspective that is unique enough to generate an adventure that besides presenting gameplay that is a visible step up from the one seen in Link’s Awakening, is also separated by miles from that of Ocarina of Time.
Link is hurled into the events of Oracle of Ages when he is summoned by the Triforce, which peacefully rests inside a shrine in Hyrule. Upon coming close to the artifact, he is mysteriously transported to the land of Labrynna. There, he encounters Impa, who has been sent by Princess Zelda on a mission to bring the Oracle of Ages, a young woman named Nayru, back to Hyrule. Given Nayru has the power to control the flow of time and to travel between distinct eras, Zelda fears for the oracle’s safety, as well as for that of all kingdoms, when she senses that dark powers are closing in on her. Link and Impa proceed through the forest and find Nayru singing by her house. Suddenly, Veran, an evil sorceress, emerges from Impa’s body – which had been secretly under her possession – and takes control of the Oracle of Ages herself, quickly disappearing into a portal that leads to the past. Link gives chase. Sadly, by the time he reaches old Labrynna, the possessed oracle has befriended the queen and convinced her to build a tall dark tower with an ominous purpose. The building’s construction advances quickly, especially because the sorceress does away with nighttime and has citizens working relentlessly, and as it climbs higher terrible happenings start unfolding in the present.
As it is to be expected, Link vows to stop the tower from reaching high into the sky. And, in a very unsurprising turn of events to those who went through A Link to the Past and Link’s Awakening, the success of his quest relies on finding eight dungeons, beating their respective bosses, and acquiring the trinket that lies within them. In the case of Oracle of Ages, those particular assets are the Essences of Time, which need to be brought together so that the guardian of Labrynna, the Maku Tree, can have her memory restored and find a way to stop the sorceress’ plan. Although by no means brilliant, as the idea of building a tower to better summon the forces of evil may seem too silly, it is a serviceable plot; one that not only inaugurates an original setting, but that also features interesting punctual developments and ends up launching Link towards meetings with a handful of nice characters.
In the joining of its inhabitants and landscapes, Labrynna comes off as a very alluring world. Both its present and past variations offer a nice number of notable environments that, although not exactly refreshing within the franchise, are a joy to explore. It is particularly visible how Capcom made use of the Game Boy Color’s most remarkable capability in order to bring life to these scenarios, because the colors jump out of the screen with brightness, and they are employed marvelously in covering the land’s regions with differing vibes. The forest is covered in vivid shades of green and yellow; the graveyard emits somberness with tones of purple; the isolated Crescent Island exudes an exotic tropical aura in its orange; and the entirety of old Labrynna is covered in a reddish hue that is a perfect fit for its standing as a past that is being slowly corrupted by evil forces.
In terms of general progression, players that are familiar with The Legend of Zelda franchise will not be too surprised by how Oracle of Ages organizes Labrynna. More specifically, Link will be sent by the Maku Tree to one of the kingdom’s regions, as she will tell him she senses the next Essence of Time is there, and inside the dungeon of that area – after engaging in a battle against a mini-bosse – he will collect an item that will be key in not just clearing the maze but also in opening the way to the next piece of land that will have to be explored. As a consequence, Oracle of Ages has a pretty narrow route that must be followed towards its ending, one that is much more defined than those of Link’s Awakening and A Link to the Past, as the obstacles in the map that stop the hero’s advance into each region when he does not yet have the required item are very present and really obvious. However, instead of being some sort of hindrance that detracts from the satisfaction one will have when going through the game’s quest, that very clear subdivision into individual areas is closely related to Oracle of Ages’ defining characteristic: its omnipresent puzzle solving.
And that is because to a far greater degree than all 2-D efforts that preceded it, Oracle of Ages is about puzzles, and although they do walk hand-in-hand with exploring the areas, the riddles take a hold of the steering wheel so strongly that the exploration is left to play second fiddle. All of the eight areas that house the game’s dungeons are self-contained puzzles and stories that have to be figured out if players are to gain access to the mazes. And that is when time-traveling comes to the forefront, because there is not a single one of these sub-plots that can be overcome without toying with the relations between past and present. Essentially, by playing Nayru’s Harp of Ages in the present, Link energizes nearby time portals that take him to the past version of the very same place he is standing on, and the same goes for the other way around. And it is with that straightforward tool that Oracle of Ages reveals its most brilliant facet.
Sometimes the problem is a dungeon whose entrance is irremediably blocked in the present; sometimes it is a deceased Zora king who would have just loved to lend a hand if he were still alive and kicking; and sometimes the obstacle seems so large that only an environmentally sized shift in the past could make it get out of the way. Regardless of the issue presented, Oracle of Ages surprises in how it brings puzzle solving, an activity that was before it almost exclusively reserved to dungeons, out into the overworld itself. And the game marries it quite smartly with not just exploration but with plot development, because Oracle of Ages ends up revealing numerous minor situations across Labrynna that, although not as pressing and grand as the queen’s construction of a tower for evil purposes, are almost equally engaging. Truthfully, not all of the dungeon-unlocking puzzles are thoroughly enjoyable, as the game does hit a couple of frustrating segments; nevertheless, even in those cases, the effort in writing interlocked relations between past and present is impressive and the results inspire awe.
To further drive home the point that it is extremely dedicated to the art of puzzle-crafting, Oracle of Ages also goes for the utterly mind-bending in its dungeons, which are uniformly stunning and include a couple of mazes that have design traits that are highlights within the saga itself. Like A Link to the Past, it builds dungeons that challenge players to figure out how to proceed via their intricate structure, as they often require backtracking, a good analysis of the building’s map, and a whole lot of sharp reasoning before one discovers where to go. Differently from it, though, its individual rooms, rather than being focused on combat or on the pressing of switches, many times veer in the direction of more sophisticated puzzles.
And Oracle of Ages does so with a varied array of items. Those original to the game are the Seed Shooter, which can expel different types of seeds that produce distinct effects; the Switch Hook, a hookshot with the interesting twist of making Link change places with whatever movable object or enemy it touches; and the Mermaid Suit, which lets the hero swim underwater. At the same time, Oracle of Ages features numerous pieces of equipment taken straight from Link’s Awakening and A Link to the Past, including the boomerang; Roc’s Feather, which allows the character to jump; the Cane of Somaria, which creates blocks; and bombs. Yet, with a set of tools that balances the new with the borrowed, Oracle of Ages is able to achieve more than those two games when it comes to puzzle design: simple block-pushing riddles gain new dimensions; conundrums one would expect to come across in a puzzle game become rooms of their own; and players are constantly being asked to think outside the box, and in doing so they will find answers that are satisfying and fair.
It is possible to say that, here and there, as it happens in the case of Link’s equipment, one can find instances where Oracle of Ages is quite blatantly recycling ideas, elements, and even bosses from Link’s Awakening and A Link to the Past; and, in rare occurrences, it even ends up copying itself. Most of the time, though, what it does is considerably advance what can be done by a 2-D The Legend of Zelda game, whether it is inside the dungeons or outside them. Furthermore, it brings a noticeable extra level of polish to a few traits of its handheld predecessor. The sidescrolling segments that were an integral part of the personality of Link’s Awakening, for example, are not only more prominent in this quest, but their design feels sharper. Meanwhile, that game’s lackluster warp system is replaced by a very effective mean of transportation, which has Link using a special kind of tornado-creating seed to be taken to the uncovered warp point of his choice; and, likewise, time-traveling is never cumbersome, because not only are portals plentiful but as the game advances Link learns new songs that let him move through time without having to find one.
There are two problems, however, that Oracle of Ages is unable to escape from. The first one, and an issue that reappears after having plagued both A Link to the Past and Link’s Awakening, is how dungeons lack a warp point that leads back their boss room. Since falling in battle causes one to be kicked back to the first room of the building, defeat forces players to walk all the way back to where the boss lurks, which can be greatly annoying. Sure, the smartly designed bosses are not too tough, sometimes verging on being excessively easy, but that issue is bound to frustrate many players nevertheless, especially beginners. Meanwhile, the game’s second issue is a limitation related to the Game Boy Color’s hardware, which – like the Game Boy – only has two buttons available for the use of Link’s equipment, including his sword and shield. As such, pausing the action to switch tools is a need that is too frequent for the good of the game’s flow.
In addition to a quest that is bound to take most gamers somewhere between twelve and twenty hours to complete, The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages, as it is traditional, packs a few optional collectibles; namely, twelve heart pieces that increase Link’s health; extra tools; a nice trade sequence that yields a powerful sword; and, as a creation of its own, rings locked away inside chests and that, once appraised, can be equipped for special effects, such as added strength, longer throws, and protection against certain enemies. By far, however, the biggest and more praiseworthy additional content of Oracle of Ages is found in its connection to Oracle of Seasons. The completion of any of the titles produces a password that, when entered into its counterpart, alters portions of its dialogue and story so that one can work as a sequel to the other, eventually culminating with a whole new ending and boss battle that ties the two together neatly. Moreover, also through the use of passwords, it is possible to transfer rings between both titles, and side-characters will utter codes that, when typed into the first game, produce new items.
Perhaps understanding the stellar quality of the 2-D efforts that came before it, Oracle of Ages is – therefore – not satisfied with being just another The Legend of Zelda game that uses a top-down perspective to give players a glimpse into its world. Given that Link’s Awakening had already solidly proved that adventures as big as those of the hero in green could work on a handheld system, it is clear that Oracle of Ages sets out to expand upon that game’s achievements. And it does so marvelously well not only by utilizing its time-traveling mechanics to bring puzzle-solving out of the dungeons and into the overworld, but also by magnifying the testing nature of its mazes in shifting the focus of individual rooms from combats and switch-pressing to riddles of a more demanding nature. And through marrying this inclination for puzzles with the joy of exploring the colorful world of Labrynna and the pleasure of meeting the many amusing characters that are involved in its time-related conundrums, the greatness of Oracle of Ages is fully realized.