Review: The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages (3DS eShop / GBC)

A song for the ages

Ever since The Legend of Zelda released on the NES, Nintendo has played the franchise relatively close to its chest. Series creator Shigeru Miyamoto has had a hand in almost every release to date, and before the new millennium, Nintendo EAD handled development of each and every Zelda title. But when Nintendo wanted an all-new Zelda trilogy for the ageing Game Boy Color, it reached out to Flagship, a Capcom development team specialising in creating game scenarios and story development. It was the first time a third-party developer was entrusted with the official Zelda canon.

Hence Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons were born. Originally conceived as a trilogy, each title was to be based on a single piece of the triforce: Power, Courage and Wisdom. The games would each have a unique world and story, but could also be played together — in any order — via a code system, revealing an over-arching storyline and extra boss battles. Implementing such a code system across three games proved too cumbersome, so a time-strapped Nintendo had Flagship scrap the Courage game, transforming the remaining two into the Oracle games. All these years later both titles arrive on the 3DS Virtual Console, with that code linking system intact.

Based off the Wisdom element of the Triforce, Oracle of Ages remains one of the most puzzle-heavy games in the series. That's because like Ocarina of Time before it, the story jumps between two timelines but, unlike Ocarina, Ages’ time mechanic is central to gameplay, requiring the player to constantly shift between past and present to solve puzzles and advance the game. This makes the simple act of navigating the world all the more entertaining, as you'll be manipulating time in order to change landscapes and alter the present day.

The power to do so comes from the Harp of Ages, an instrument Link receives when Nayru — the Oracle of Ages herself — leaves it behind after becoming possessed by the evil sorceress Veran. In order to stop Veran from using Nayru’s body to travel into the past and alter history, Link must use the harp to flip-flop between eras, enabling him to traverse areas that might have become impassable due to the ravages of time, but are easily overcome in the past.

Like any good Zelda game, Link’s powers are limited at first, allowing him to only activate portals to the past by playing the Tune of Echos. This means in order to navigate across dual timelines, the player must seek out more portals, which are frequently hidden. This gives the player a solid reason to partake in one of the most beloved Zelda pastimes — cutting grass. Beside netting the player hearts and rupees, mowing the lawn also periodically reveals portals, a necessity for advancing the game. Portals become increasingly harder to find, giving the game a strong emphasis on exploration. Thankfully, Oracle of Ages' zany characters and diverse world make that a very good thing.

The cast of characters that drive the plot are lovably finespun. Staples like Zoras and Gorons offer the expected levels of levity, but it's the characters unique to Oracle of Ages' story that really shine through. One of the best has to be Nayru's overly-idealistic bodyguard Ralph, who regardless of being painfully ineffectual is still seen frequently rushing into the next area ahead of Link. Then there's Queen Ambi, the leader of Labrynna's past whom Veran seeks to control, seen transforming from a forlorn romantic into a deranged tyrant. Finally, there's the pesky Maple, daughter of Syrup who both steals items from Link and doles out some of the best treasures in the game. Dutiful adventurers will discover even more connections between characters, as new items open up areas that can fill in even more of the story.

While mainstay items like the boomerang and Master Sword return, the game can actually be completed without the player ever even obtaining them. That's because aside from acquiring items from dungeons and treasure chests, you also can complete games and trade with NPCs to gain new equipment. There are all-new items for Link to use, like the ricocheting Seed Shooter, which can angle off walls to solve puzzles and activate distant switches. But if Link hopes to receive and upgrade each weapon in the game, he needs to explore the game's side-stories across both eras.

On top of that, it implements a ring system that can augment Link’s power, adding an extra level of strategy to the game. Rings can increase attack power when life is low, boost your defence and even transform Link into a Like-Like. Some will actually decrease your powers though, so make sure to get your rings “appraised” by the game’s quirky, snake-training ring collector Vasu. While many rings can be obtained from treasure chests, the rare ones are gained by playing games and planting Gasha seeds (which grow treasure-bearing trees in the future), giving you even more incentive to explore Labrynna.

Aside from items, the Oracle games also introduce all-new mounts for Link to ride. Instead of Epona, there’s Ricky the boxing Kangaroo, Dimitri the swimming Dodongo and best of all the lovable Moosh, a big blue bear with comically tiny wings that grant him limited bursts of flight. These mounted segments are confined to just a few scenarios — some of which can be missed on a single playthough — but they serve both as comic relief and a way for the game to shoehorn in additional puzzles. One instance has you rescuing Moosh from the Lost Woods, then using him to traverse a previously impassable area to gather up some lazy carpenters, enabling them to finish a bridge and get you access to the next area.

Graphically, the game certainly wasn’t blazing any trails in 2001; borrowing from the engine used in Link's Awakening DX, Oracle of Ages shares many visual similarities with the GBC remake. Enemy sprites are reused and the colour spectrum is rather limited, but nevertheless the game still delivers an engrossing world thanks to the careful design of Labrynna and the powerful dichotomy between time eras, with past Labrynna's dreary upheaval clashing with the colourful and cheerful present day.

Zelda games are well-known for their boss battles, and Oracle of Ages doesn't disappoint. The bosses here are varied, intricate and — for the most part — fantastic. The first few may be a breeze, but later in the game you'll have to use a slew of items and equipment to win. The limited interface can make this endeavour a bit muddled, especially when you need to use multiple items in succession, as frequently pausing to remap your buttons really breaks up the action. Regardless, the strategies required to defeat later bosses may have you stumped for a bit, but figuring out the formula and overpowering your opponents feels as rewarding as ever.

Once you've finished the game, you're treated to some pixel cut scenes and teased to play the other game in the pair, which you'll hopefully have nestled on your 3DS SD card. The story of Ages is all wound up and comes to a satisfying end, but it's hinted that another villain may have play a role, and to stop them you'll have to play Seasons as well, linking your next game with the code you receive at the end. If you beat Oracle of Seasons first, the same would happen vice-versa.

Conclusion

Oracle of Ages somehow feels both new and familiar at the same time. While many beloved Zelda tropes remain, the game still takes plenty of chances, many of which really pay off. Link may have already done some time-travelling in Ocarina of Time, but in Oracle of Ages it becomes the central aspect of gameplay, making way for a puzzle-heavy adventure nuanced by colourful characters, interesting items and a plot much unlike those previously seen in the franchise. Link's Awakening may have given birth to its game engine, but Ages feel like a game all its own. While it may not be the most traditional Zelda game out there, that's certainly not a reason to avoid it: if anything, it's revival on the 3DS provides the perfect opportunity to experience what it has to offer.