Marty McFly never had to perform as many space-time errands as Link

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Legend of Zelda, The: Oracle of Ages (2001)

I’ve already done a spiel on the changing of the seasons in my look at The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons. In it, I mentioned how Ireland pretty well has two seasons, cold and less cold, and lately we seem to be getting hit by an awful lot of storms and genuinely lethal weather. After all, picture yourself in a rural cottage, ready to sit down by the fire with a hearty mug of tea. Then suddenly the wind of the gods blows all your roof-tiles away and spits a load of asbestos in your face.

Makes me wonder were things this bad hundreds of years ago. Just what kind of effect have humans had on the climate since the Industrial Revolution? The hurricanes we get today, have they always occurred? I was on a lovely Greek island before, and I got woken up at 5 AM by the most surreal tropical storm.

The sky flashed like crazy every three or four seconds, and there were certainly some strong winds but you could hardly say it was that bad a storm. Honestly, you couldn’t even hear any thunder. When the wind quelled, it was almost serenely calm even though the clouds above were quite literally, as the Greeks would put it, Chaos.

Was this madness happening four hundred years ago? Four thousand years ago? When the sky is flashing bloody murder every three seconds, it’s little wonder that the Ancient Greeks believed the gods were angry at them. Now you know why Zeus always threw around peals of thunder.

No way to know any of this for sure unless you’re a time traveller, which Link just so happens to become in the blue half of the Oracles duology of Zelda games. Having dabbled with the time-space continuum in Majora’s Mask over a mere three-day period, Link will be straddling a whopping 400 years here in Oracle of Ages. It’s enough time to see some substantial changes occur in the two overworlds you’ll be travelling between.

Like Seasons, Ages started out as something a little bit different. The games were planned to be a trilogy, and while Seasons’ roots as a remake of Zelda 1 are quite evident, Ages takes some ideas from the scrapped third installment. Specifically, the third game was going to have an emphasis on the use of colour in puzzles, portable colour gaming having been invented in 1998. Well, it was probably invented when the Sega Game Gear or the Atari Lynx or some terrible Tiger Gaming Watch came out, but you know what I mean.

There’s plenty of colour-related puzzles in the dungeons, a bit similar to the Color Dungeon in Link’s Awakening DX, and it’s why the world of Labrynna in the Past looks faded and washed-out somewhat. The drab effect is a bit depressing really, and Ages certainly isn’t as juicy looking as the multi-paletted Seasons.

What we are left with, supposedly, is an Oracles game that places more emphasis on puzzles. Honestly, Ages can best be summed up as a game of faffing. Obviously you’ve got two different sets of NPCs to speak to between the Past and Present of Labrynna, and you’ll be going back-and-forth between the two, carrying items and making physical changes to each overworld that allow you to make progress.

Sounds great if the game had a sensical flow, but it doesn’t. The juice in Zelda always lies in the dungeons, as we know. The overworld stuff in-between can be nice, but only if it’s not too intrusive and the fetch quests necessary to get to the next dungeon set-piece aren’t too ridiculous.

In Oracle of Ages, you’ll be tracking down the right NPC between Past and Present to hear that one precious line of dialogue that allows you to access somewhere else, but that only occurs if you get the right item from the Present and bring it back to the Past… but you can only get back to the Past by finding a time portal hidden under a nondescript rock, and to even get to that rock you need to talk to someone who won’t appear in the Present until you’ve sorted something in the Past and… eventually the whole thing gets far too cryptic and trial-and-error for its own good.

What really rankles the most is that a lot of progress through the overworld comes by way of minigames, each more terrible than the last. You usually need keys to get into the dungeons, see, and these priceless, ancient keys tend to be held by crooked mini-game operators for some bizarre reason. Things all come to a head with the Goron Dance minigame that has gone on to be infamous.

Obviously, because I’ve got soul and rhythm in abundance, I aced that one and even kicked the original dance instructor out on his rocky bum. But if you ain’t got my moves, then it’s a harshly unforgiving rhythm game that you’ll need to trump twice before being able to get to the next dungeon.

Seriously, the Goron Dance wasn’t so bad for me but there’s another one where you’re locked in a tiny room and approximately ten thousand bombs come flying at you – get caught in the explosion of one and you lose. That one’s a real beauty. In fact, I would say that there isn’t a single mini-game in Ages that you’d have any desire to play once they’re no longer mandatory.

At least the Subrosian Dance in Seasons could be a bit of a laugh. The Ages minigames are a bit like when your mother or teacher would sign you up for football or some other activity that you wanted no part in, activities you quickly turn out to be horrendously bad at. But you still feel as if you have to participate, since expectations have now been placed on you and it’ll be scandalous if you don’t even try.

The dungeons go a bit downhill as well. It has to be said that the soundtrack for a lot of the dungeons seem just that bit more monotonous and dirgey than in Seasons, and the dungeon items aren’t as good. The music throughout the game isn’t so hot in general, actually. Limited as the Game Boy Color’s sound-chip was, so much more could have been done.

I’ll point to a ghastly overworld section between Levels 1 and 2, where you enter the Fairy Forest, a green hellhole that takes the complex maze gimmick of the Lost Woods and multiplies it by ten. You may solve the maze in two minutes, or two hours. And God help you if it takes two hours because while you’re trundling around looking for any kind of sense to be made, you’ll be subjected to possibly the worst song in the Zelda series blaring in the background. Look it up, an extended version if you can. It is heart-stoppingly awful.

And speaking of monotony and senselessness, the game hits its watery nadir around the time of Level 6 and Level 7 – in Level 6 you’ll get the Mermaid Suit, which changes the swimming mechanic completely. You’re capable of going much faster through the water, but instead of just holding the D-Pad buttons where you want to go, which I was quite fine with, that worked for me, you now have to mash the D-Pad in the required direction.

Imagine a racing game where you had to keep tap-dancing on the accelerator with your thumb and do your left and right turns in instalments. Your thumb and your Game Boy ends up groaning at you, and anyway the only thing this item allows you to do is to take part in underwater sections and solve puzzles that involve the flow of water, the absolute last things any normal person wants to be doing in a game.

Level 7 then takes you into Jabu Jabu’s Belly, just like Ocarina of Time, and that’s where things really come to a head with the water. And I’m not joking you, this dungeon is even more of a head-wrecker than the notorious Water Temple. It’s probably one of the most obtuse dungeons in the series, and it doesn’t get anywhere near the level of hatred or fear that it deserves.

By the end of it, you’re left with a game that came up against Seasons and lost, going home with only the leftovers. It’s certainly not a bad game, and you’ll definitely get some good enjoyment in fits and spurts. But by every conceivable metric, Oracle of Ages seemed to come off worse than Seasons. Inferior overworld, dungeons, items, music, setting and gimmick. Not one for the ages, then.

17 May 2019

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