Personal Score: 8.5
It’s difficult to mention the Gameboy Color without conversations drifting towards the Oracle games. The Gameboy Color saw the release of two original Zelda games, released at the same time in 2001. Oracle of Ages and Seasons were the first two Zelda games to be produced by Capcom, followed by Four Swords and The Minish Cap. Since the release of Link’s Awakening DX in 1998, fans had been waiting patiently for the next original handheld Zelda title to arrive, and the announcement of the Oracle games sent a buzz of excitement through the community. A return to the overhead 2D style of Zelda found in Link’s Awakening, the Oracle games were greeted with open arms and stand as the second best-selling handheld games in the franchise behind Phantom Hourglass, selling almost 4 million units each. The artwork for the series was taken in a new direction, featuring more manga-esque styles of character art and over-the-top costume designs we’ve now come to expect from the series. The Oracle games succeeded in injecting even more whimsical spirit into the franchise, spearheaded by the efforts of Majora’s Mask. Familiar faces and new characters all managed to exude copious amount of personality, despite being mere sprites on a tiny screen, thanks to the charming artwork and the occasionally tongue-in-cheek dialogue. The games also featured linked features, adding a final chapter of narrative material to the story once both games had been completed and linked. Along with Link’s Awakening DX, the Oracle games made it a necessity for Zelda fans to own a Gameboy Color.
Oracle of Ages distinguishes itself from it’s counterpart through the use of The Harp of Ages that allows Link to travel through time and a greater focus on puzzle-solving. Additionally, Ages features a more robust cast of characters and a deeper narrative. Ages focuses on the plight of the land of Labrynna and the Oracle Nayru, as the malevolent Veran possesses the Oracle and throws the passage of time into chaos by altering the past. Woven into the main conflict are two other memorable characters, Queen Ambi and Ralph. Both of them are memorably written characters with excellent development, which is a rarity in the Zelda franchise. The stand-out narrative, combined with exemplary dungeon layouts and brain-bending puzzles, makes for one of the best handheld Zelda experiences to date. In almost every way, Ages stands head and shoulders above Seasons in terms of overall quality.
I bought Ages before Seasons for very trivial reasons: I felt bad that the Link in Ages had to use a Harp. My young mind felt a compulsion to support Ages, as it seemed to me that nobody wanted to buy a game that featured a Harp-playing protagonist (let’s face it, Link is already asking for it by wearing an outfit often interpreted as a skirt). I felt bad for the little guy. Unwittingly, I had purchased the better of the two games first, and was very impressed with what Ages offered. I’ve recently completed the game for the third time through the 3DS Virtual Console, and my opinions of the game have not changed much. While not the best handheld Zelda game, Ages makes a strong case for itself, and can rightfully be mentioned on the same breath as Link’s Awakening and Phantom Hourglass.
Walk softly, and carry a pretty pretty harp.
For a breakdown of how great the controls are in Ages, I’ll refer you to my review of Seasons. The two games are practically indistinguishable in this regard, and I don’t feel like repeating myself. Whatevah, I do what I want.
The story of Ages takes place after Seasons as a direct sequel. While Seasons presents a simple story with little-to-no complexity/character development, Ages weaves a more complicated tapestry of narrative material with interesting characters contributing to the story-telling process. Ages doesn’t have a massive cast, but the core cast of characters are refreshingly developed and feature their own histories and arcs. Veran, the primary protagonist, possesses the Oracle of Ages Nayru and travels through the past where she subverts the authority of Queen Ambi under the guise of ‘concerned counselor,’ resulting in the oppression of Labrynna’s citizens and the perversion of Queen Ambi’s ideals. Queen Ambi is a tragic figure, pining over the loss of her lover while attempting to rule over Labrynna in a just manner (a vulnerable character easily manipulated by Veran into creating disharmony between past and present). Ralph is a descendant of Queen Ambi with a fascination with Nayru and a reckless abandon similar to Link’s. Forming the core cast, the above mentioned characters drive a tight-knit narrative, highlighted by streamlined character development and novel arcs. The very core of Ages’ narrative isn’t a major departure from the rest of the Zelda franchise, but it does manage to stand out thanks to its commitment to interesting characters and light alterations to the ‘collect the things, save the sages, save Zelda’ formula.
Free concert for the birds (1 million points to the people that understand that reference)
In addition to the core characters, Ages features a quirky cast of supporting characters, similar to the cast of Seasons. Instead of the Subrosian race seen in Seasons, Ages introduces the reptilian Tokay race of island-dwelling people. The Tokay are a simple race, content to deal in item-trading in place of currency and worship a massive statue as a divine entity. While the Tokay aren’t as interesting in their culture subtleties as the Subrosians, they are endearing in their own way, and featured in an enjoyable section of the game. Since Ages, the Tokay have been MIA in the Zelda franchise…which could point to negligence on the part of Nintendo, or perhaps the Tokay slowly went extinct. Perhaps their stubborn adherence to the economic practice of trading in goods rather than engaging in the monetary system of the Rupee contributed to their downfall. Perhaps their dogmatic practice of idol worship caused them to reject any form of social/political revolution, turn inwards, and eventually implode.
…or perhaps Nintendo just forgot about them.
Definitely a species of survivors. You can see it in the eyes…
What I stated in my Seasons review regarding the gameplay applies to Ages as well. The controls are as tight as one can expect from a Zelda game. Where Seasons focused on combat, Ages highlights puzzle-solving elements in and out of dungeons. Ages can stand among the best in the series when it comes to cleverly designed dungeons and interesting items. While Zelda is not exactly known for providing a high level of challenge (at least in the latest entries), Ages offers up ample opportunities for gamers to flex their puzzle-solving muscles and presents the occasional brain-bender. I found the dungeons of Ages to be among the most challenging and memorable in the series. Jabu-Jabu’s Belly (the token water temple) is among my favorite temples in the series, providing a close-to-frustrating challenge and incorporating two of my favorite items (the Long Hook and The Mermaid Suit). Where I find myself hard-pressed to recall the subtleties present in the dungeons of Seasons and other Zelda titles, the dungeons of Ages prevail as almost archetypes in my memory.
In my review of Seasons, I praised the colorful and sprite-heavy visuals of Seasons. Ages uses the same graphical presentation, with equally pleasing results. Labrynna differs slightly from Holodrum in that the environments are a bit less varied. Where Seasons offers up four different environmental presentations of it’s landscape, Ages’ alters its landscape in only two ways, distinguishing the past and present of Labrynna. While Ages is certainly not unpleasant to look at, it’s not as creative as its counterpart.
With such a heavy focus on puzzle-solving, combat falls to the wayside in Ages. Most enemies in the game are simple sprite renditions of classic Zelda enemies, some of which are ripped straight from Link’s Awakening. When it comes to the bosses, Ages does little to stand out amongst its peers. Head Thwomp takes the ‘timed bomb throw’ sequence of Ocarina of Time and turns it into a boss fight, resulting in the most clever boss fight in Ages. Beyond this early boss fight, Ages features little else apart from the very familiar ‘dodge and attack’ encounters seen in every Zelda game. Where Seasons has a very unique and memorable final encounter, Ages falls flat in this area. After your initial fight with Veran-possessed Queen Ambi, Veran reveals herself to be little more than a giant bug/turtle creature, not unlike the rest of the Boss creatures in Zelda games. The final fight with Veran feels anticlimactic and even a bit lazy in it’s design/concept.
…almost as intimidating as Lavos from Chrono Trigger
Ages not only stands as the superior Oracle game, it makes a name for itself as one of the best handheld Zelda games to date. It’s difficult to believe that Ages and Seasons released at the same time, considering the difference in quality. A strong narrative, some of the best puzzle-solving elements in the franchise, and tried-and-true gameplay elements make Ages an essential entry in the series and certainly one of the best games on the Gameboy Color (perhaps THE best). The characters in Ages are among my favorites in the franchise, and I would be thrilled if Ralph, Queen Ambi and Nayru were featured in future Zelda games. 3DS owners ought not pass this game up.