The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages

Introduction

The second of the two games developed by the Capcom-affiliated Flagship under the supervision of Yoshiki Okamoto was released on the exact same day as its counterpart title in February of 2001 under the name The Legend of Zelda: Fruit of the Mysterious Tree – Chapter of Time and Space. When localized and released in other regions later in the year, it was renamed The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages. Both games were released in the final days of the Game Boy Color’s lifespan, as its successor, the Game Boy Advance was slated to launch mere months later. As the first 2D installments since Link’s Awakening, they managed to garner acclaim from critics and fans alike. Did this game alongside its sister title end the Game Boy Color’s run on a high note?

Analyzing the Experience

WARNING: This review will contain unmarked spoilers for both games.

One day, the hero of this story, Link, was beckoned by the essence of the Triforce. Upon entering the shrine in which it is housed, the sacred relic transports him to the distant land of Labrynna.

Awakening in a forest, he investigates the area when he hears a scream for help. He finds an older woman being accosted by monsters. The monsters run from Link upon seeing him. Thanking him, the woman tells him that her name is Impa. She is a nursemaid to Princess Zelda of Hyrule. She has been searching for a singer named Nayru and wants Link to escort her in case any more creatures appear. Discovering a strange stone with a triangle mark on it, Link pushes it out of the way, allowing the two of them to enter the grove beyond.

After setting foot in the secluded area, they happen upon an entranced audience composed of humans and animals alike listening to a woman singing. A man formally introduces himself and the singer. Their names are Ralph and Nayru. Ralph has been Nayru’s protector since the two were children. Pleased to meet Hyrule’s messengers, Nayru tells them it was foretold that Labrynna will face many troubles. Ralph is confident he will be able to smite anything that dares harm his childhood friend, yet Nayru worries what has been predicted will come to pass.

As if on cue, Impa begins laughing manically. Calling her the Oracle of Ages, Impa is impressed that Nayru was able to catch on so quickly. A shadow leaves Impa’s body just after she tells them something bad would happen right before their very eyes. The shadow takes the form of an evil sorceress. Thanking Link for allowing her to pass the barrier, she calling herself Veran, the Sorceress of Shadows. Before anyone can react, she once again assumes the form of a shadow and flies toward Nayru.

The sorceress is now in control of the signer. Branding his sword, Ralph demands Veran release her hold on his friend, but the latter points out that Nayru will die if he makes good on his threat. He reluctantly sheathes his sword, and Veran uses Nayru’s ability to manipulate time to open a portal into the past. Before she enters, she claims that she will usher in a new age of darkness.

Strange things begin to happen; a child is turned to stone, a man rapidly ages, and several animals simply disappear from existence. These horrific alterations spread untold sorrow throughout the land. Blaming Link for allowing Veran to reach Nayru, he storms off to the portal by himself. Before Link can follow him, Impa comes to. She had journeyed to Labrynna to find Nayru, but was found by Veran and subsequently possessed. Apologizing for being unable to resist Veran’s influence, she tells Link that he must save the land from Veran before the fabrics of time are irreparably damaged. Giving him a wooden sword entrusted to her by Princess Zelda herself, Impa asks Link to meet the Maku Tree, the land’s guardian who exists in the nearby Lynna City.

Being the counterpart game to Oracle of Seasons, Oracle of Ages plays in an identical fashion. Lifting basic controls, sprites, graphics, and sound effects from Link’s Awakening, this game too is a return to the top-down, 2D perspective after the pioneering Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask. A majority of the mechanics introduced in Oracle of Seasons such as the rings, Gasha Seeds, and the seeds from the Mystical Trees are present in this installment as well. Therefore, to avoid repeating myself too much, I will mostly cover the aspects unique to Oracle of Ages.

As Link speaks to the Maku Tree, she vanishes from reality. Her last words before her existence is erased suggest that something was happening to her past self. With no other leads to go on, Link finally enters the portal.

Emerging from the other side, he finds that he has travelled four-hundred years into the past. In this era, the land’s central community is known as Lynna Village, and its ruler is Queen Ambi. The townspeople claim that ever since a woman named Nayru appeared, the sun has never set. They have been tirelessly working to build a tower on the edge of the community, and the endless day ensures they cannot stop toiling.

The edifice was originally intended to guide Ambi’s long lost lover back from the sea, but ever since the endless day began, the citizens began calling it the Black Tower.

After getting this information, Link is able to access the cavern leading to the Maku Tree. Like the Hero’s Cave, this serves as a basic tutorial for how dungeons work in this game, introducing the basic puzzle elements. Link then rescues the younger Maku Sprout from the monsters sent by Veran. When he returns to the present, she remembers Link, but due to the distortions in spacetime caused by the sorceress’s machinations, the guardian has many gaps in her memory. Giving him a satchel with which to carry the various Mystical Seeds he may find, she asks him to find the eight Essences of Time. Only by recovering them will she be able to fully aid Link and stop Veran.

Much like how Oracle of Seasons allowed you to manipulate the environment, Oracle of Ages also revolves around a gimmick as you explore the land of Labrynna. As is suggested by the events leading up to the player being informed of their ultimate goal, it involves time travel. After completing the first dungeon, Link is told where the second essence is. As he reaches the dungeon, it collapses, barring his entrance. By searching Nayru’s house, he finds an artifact called the Harp of Ages.

When you obtain the harp, you learn the melody capable of opening time portals – the Tune of Echoes. They appear in fixed locations, depicted as brown patches with a circular pattern in the center. Later on, you will learn two more melodies: the Tune of Currents and the Tune of Ages. In a similar vein to the Magic Mirror from A Link to the Past, the Tune of Currents moves Link from the past to the present. When he does this, a sparkling tile is left at his point of ingress. Stepping on it allows him to travel back to the past to where he originally played the song. Oracle of Ages then goes a step further with the original idea with the Tune of Ages, as it allows Link to freely travel between eras. If Link accidently winds up on a cliff face or any other natural barrier, he will be sent back to the era he left automatically.

As Oracle of Ages boasts an identical interface to that of Oracle of Seasons and Link’s Awakening, the three games share a lot of flaws. Once again, maps are difficult to read due to conveying an insufficient amount of information, having been exacerbated by the fact that dungeons now have multiple floors. Moreover, only having two buttons to work with can be cumbersome in any situation in which you need three items. It’s especially irritating in overworld exploration, as you will have to disrupt the flow of the game by pausing several times. If anything, Oracle of Ages is worse off in this regard than its sister title, for it combines the dual-world design of A Link to the Past with the mechanical way in which Link’s Awakening opens up with each new ability you obtain. It’s especially noticeable when trying to use the Gale Seeds to teleport only to realize that some trees don’t exist in the past or present, meaning you have to be in a specific era to reach certain areas. This comes to a head shortly after obtaining the Tune of Ages when you come across an irritating maze that requires traveling back and forth through time to navigate.

Though I give Mr. Okamoto’s team credit for coming up with a new batch of items for each of the games they developed, I feel Oracle of Ages has the overall worse selection. Oracle of Seasons gave us the Roc’s Cape and the Magnetic Glove, which rank as some of the most creative power-ups in any of the 2D installments. The only truly disappointing item was the one found in the final dungeon simply by virtue of the game affording you few opportunities to meaningfully utilize it.

Meanwhile, Oracle of Ages has the Power Glove, the Long Switch, and the Mermaid Suit. The Power Glove, much like the upgraded Power Bracelet from Link’s Awakening, is practically useless outside the dungeon in which you find it. The Long Switch merely extends further than the Switch Hook, this game’s equivalent of the Hookshot. Finally, the Mermaid Suit allows Link to navigate pools of deep water, even giving him the ability to breathe when submerged. While underwater, he can defend himself with the sword. It’s a great idea marred by awful execution. This is because to move using the Mermaid Suit, you must repeatedly tap the direction you wish to swim. To make matters worse, one dungeon has you raise and lower the water levels, meaning you will be doing it constantly just finding your way around. This often causes you to shake the screen as you move, and depending on the device you’re using to play this game, it has the potential to make your thumb sore. The only saving grace is that it is much faster than swimming with flippers.

Now that I’ve gotten the bad aspects out of the way, it’s time to focus on what the game does right. One advantage Oracle of Ages has over its counterpart title lies in its story. A big reason for this is readily apparent in how each game sets itself up. Oracle of Seasons had a plot that wouldn’t feel out of place in an NES-era title; the eponymous oracle is kidnapped, and Link must find eight important items to save her. Strictly speaking, Oracle of Ages features a similar plot, but there are far more steps involved.

One of my favorite aspects of the story involves the character, Ralph. He provides an interesting foil to Link that the character has rarely received up to this point. He effectively serves as a rival of sorts, as he and Link both share the same goal of rescuing Nayru, yet his hotheaded, impulsive nature ensures the two of them couldn’t work well together. Ralph is focused entirely on this mission whereas Link travels the land to recover the eight essences of time, knowing that he would be powerless to defeat Veran without them. Nearing the end of the game, he gets a surprising amount of development when it’s shown that he would have no problems erasing himself from existence if it meant saving Nayru and the world. It’s not the kind of thing one would expect out of a character starring in a handheld game from 2001.

I also like that you’re actually shown the effects Veran’s actions have on the land. Onox plunged Holodrum into chaos by tampering with the seasons, but beyond sparse snippets of NPC dialogue, the extent of his destruction wasn’t made clear. In fact, despite catalyzing the plot, he ended up being a nonentity, only meeting Link at the very end of the game while doing nothing to directly oppose him. This is not the case with Veran; you can see the toll her actions have taken on the world. She is also a much more proactive villain than Onox due to her plans relying more on cunning manipulation rather than sheer brute force. This shift is reflected in where the final dungeon of each game is located. While Onox’s fortress is far away from where Link awakens in Holodrum, the Black Tower is in Labrynna’s central hub.

Oracle of Ages throws a curveball by having Link confront the main antagonist roughly two-thirds of the way into the game, allowing him to successfully rescue Nayru from Veran. Considering how many times rescuing the damsel marks the completion of a game, this was a refreshing development – especially when she helps you out immediately afterward by teaching you the Tune of Ages.

Though I have to admit I don’t like travelling through time quite as much as being able to change the seasons, there is one advantage the former has over the latter. Innovative though the ability to manipulate the environment may have been, it only ever came into play when exploring the overworld. In Oracle of Ages, there is one dungeon called the Mermaid’s Cave that exists in both the past and the present, requiring you to take advantage of your unique ability to solve it. Though the dungeon’s layout changes drastically in the four-hundred year gap, among other things, you can bomb a crumbling wall in the past and the damage will persist to the present. Coupled with a great accompanying theme, this is often considered the best dungeon in the duology, and it’s easy to see why. Though the prospect of exploring a dungeon twice sounds tedious on paper, it’s a very clever gimmick that showcases a lot of ambition on the part of Mr. Okamoto’s team.

Even having said everything I could about both games, there’s still one more feature I haven’t discussed. The box hints you into the secret behind these games by encouraging players to “play both for the ultimate adventure”. This is reinforced when you complete the game and you’re given a password called the “Secret to Holodrum”, referring to the setting of Oracle of Seasons. Conversely, if you clear Oracle of Seasons first, you will receive a “Secret to Labrynna”, referring to this game’s setting. On the file select screen, you can elect to enter a password in lieu of starting a new game. By inputting the password into the appropriate game, the true selling point of the duology gets a chance to shine.

Linking the Games

The Oracle duology was originally conceived as a trilogy with each subtitle corresponding to a component of the Triforce: Chapter of Power, Chapter of Wisdom, and Chapter of Courage. Mr. Okamoto wanted the games to be able to interact with each other. By playing one game, the player could build an ongoing narrative when playing the remaining two. At first, they thought to use a cell phone adapter to transfer data before deciding on a password system. This made it extremely difficult to coordinate, as the storyline would have to take into account if each installment was being played first, second, or third for a grand total of six permutations. The staff didn’t want to give up on the idea, as playing the games in a different order would add replay value due to having multiple endings. Shigeru Miyamoto then suggested for them to scale back to two games to make the process less of a hassle. As a result, Chapter of Power became Chapter of the Earth (Oracle of Seasons), Chapter of Wisdom became Chapter of Time and Space (Oracle of Ages), and Chapter of Courage was canceled outright.

As astute fans may have noticed, elements of what could have been remain in the final product. Din and Nayru share the names of two of the goddesses who created Hyrule. The goddess representing courage, Farore, remains unaccounted for. It’s especially jarring considering that it’s the Triforce component most commonly associated with Link. Make no mistake, there is an oracle named Farore to be found in these games.

Specifically, she is the Oracle of Secrets. She is found inside the Maku Tree, and it is through speaking with her that you can receive the full benefits from playing both games. The first change is obvious as soon as you begin the second game; you start with the Wooden Sword and an extra heart container. This means in Oracle of Seasons, you no longer have to traverse the Hero’s Cave to obtain the former. In its place is a difficult bonus dungeon you can only complete once you’ve amassed a majority of the power-ups. A corresponding dungeon appears in Oracle of Ages, and each has a ring that cannot be obtained by any other means.

The reason this matters is because you can transfer rings between games. To do this, you must visit Vasu’s shop and speak with his pet snakes. The Blue Snake can transfer rings via the Game Link Cable accessory. You need two consoles to successfully conduct the transfer. Meanwhile, the Red Snake allows you to transfer rings without the use of a cable. To do this, you must speak with him in the game you cleared first to obtain a password. You can then take the password to the Red Snake in the second game, and you will transfer your ring collection if you input it correctly. Though being able to transfer rings would theoretically shatter the game’s difficulty, the developers cleverly circumvented this problem this by creating boss fights which don’t rely on high amounts of swordplay. Most rings power up the sword in some way when increasing Link’s offensive capabilities, so you can’t win against bosses by mindlessly attacking them. This ensures that you will still have to consider your tactics carefully.

During your travels, you may find people who will give you shorter passwords after speaking with them. When you have obtained such a password, you can visit the NPC alluded to in the other game. You will know you’re speaking to the right one if a prompt to enter a password appears. This is usually followed up by having to fulfill a sidequest. Upon completing it, the NPC will give you a reward along with another password. You can then take the latter to Farore. Once you do, the reward for completing the sidequest will appear in the room, allowing you to use it in the second game.

This is the development that makes the duology such a novel experience. Though the dungeons remain the same, you get slightly different experiences playing Oracle of Seasons first then Oracle of Ages or vice versa. When you clear one game, important characters will appear on your travels. To wit, the reason Queen Ambi wanted the tower built is because she wanted to guide her long lost love back to Labrynna. This plot thread is resolved if you play Oracle of Ages first, as she will journey to Holodrum, and the two of them reunite near the end. It’s an interesting idea because it provides a lot of extra context in both games’ narratives.

The only downside to this idea is that switching games is a little cumbersome. You have to turn the console off, insert the other cartridge, find the NPC, and switch back to the game you were working on. It’s not so bad these days with electronic word processors more readily available or the ability to take a picture of the screen, but back in 2001, this was a tedious process. It involved having to write passwords down on a sheet of paper, hoping that you don’t copy any of the characters wrong.

Fortunately, it’s a minor issue because the payoff for seeing both games through is quite good. Roughly around the halfway point, you’re informed that Princess Zelda has been kidnapped. After rescuing her, she becomes important to the plot when she brings hope to the people. It’s a short-lived reprieve from the antagonist’s deeds, as she gets abducted by Twinrova.

These two witches used Onox and Veran as part of a dark ritual to revive their master, Ganon. To do this, they needed to light three flames embodying negative attributes and sprinkle the blood of a holy sacrifice on the deceased.

The first flame is lit when Onox throws the seasons of Holodrum into disarray, resulting in catastrophic destruction.

The second flame is lit when Veran’s interference of the past causes sorrow in the present.

The final flame will be lit upon Zelda’s sacrifice as losing her would cause the people to fall into despair.

At the end of the second game, Link confronts Twinrova before the rites can be completed. Though they succeed in reviving Ganon, the ritual was stopped before Zelda could be sacrificed, causing a shadow of his former self to be revived in his place.

What I like about how Capcom handled this is how it provides a degree of replay value that not many games have. When you decide to revisit the games one day, you could choose to play them in the other order, allowing you to access new content both times.

Drawing a Conclusion

Pros:

  • Good level design
  • Creative boss fights
  • Dual world mechanic makes a return
  • Interesting story beats here and there
  • Catchy music
  • Helped pave a path for portable gaming
  • Reasonably challenging
  • Novel ability to link to sister title
Cons:

  • Maps are difficult to read
  • Limited buttons for advanced gameplay
  • World is a bit difficult to navigate
  • Switching games is a bit cumbersome

While Oracle of Seasons could be construed as a reinterpretation of The Legend of Zelda, Oracle of Ages manages to escape the shadow by forging a completely new identity separate from both the original game or Link’s Awakening. Indeed, Oracle of Ages is also an experience I would consider more polished than that of the game from which it lifted assets. It’s easy to dismiss the story as simplistic, which it is compared to the scenarios of the three games leading up to it, but for those willing to give it a chance, there’s a lot of ambition to be found. Oracle of Seasons demonstrated Mr. Okamoto’s team was aware of what made the series’ gameplay so appealing while Oracle of Ages showcased that they knew why the lore is held in such high regard. Apart, they provide decent, standalone experiences. Combined, they managed to accomplish something few other creators have managed to successfully pull off.

Which installment is superior or if they can even be considered separate titles is a minor point of contention among certain fans. While I like the gameplay of Oracle of Seasons slightly more, I feel Oracle of Ages edges it out in terms of story. Either way, I feel the question, “Which one should I get?” isn’t one you should ask. Both are worth looking into, and playing through them creates an experience greater than the sum of its parts. If you can, I recommend getting them on the 3DS Virtual Console, as it makes switching between games much easier. The Game Boy Color may not have been on the market for long, but these two titles provided a good sendoff for an era when handheld gaming was starting to become a full-fledged force in its own right.

Final Score: 6/10

12 thoughts on “The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages

  1. I’d have to agree there. The items unique items in Oracle of Ages were painful (that mermaid suit changing your controls whenever you were in water, aigh), but the story definitely has the edge here. Veran was a more interesting villain than Onox, and I think getting to see more of the effects of what she was doing definitely helped. I also found the time traveling mechanic to be more intuitive that the season-swapping, and I was able to navigate things better, I feel.

    Linking games was fun as well. Got to carry over the ring that makes me take half damage, made a lot of the early game a fair bit easier. I appreciated having these woven into a continuous narrative, seeing the other villain pop up and get their deeds wrapped up in the total plot was really interesting to me.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I like that the Mermaid Suit lets you swim faster than you could with the flippers, but otherwise, yeah, using it for an extended period of time is beyond annoying. I still like the dungeon it’s found in, but the one that immediately follows is the worst dungeon in either game. That’s why I can say Seasons is better from a gameplay standpoint; it’s a lot more consistent when it comes to its dungeons.

      Between Link’s Awakening and the two Oracle games, Oracle of Ages has the best villain by far. With Onox, I think they were going for a callback to Ganon’s minimalistic presence in the original game, but considering that we always know what Onox looks like and we see him kidnap Din, it didn’t work out as well. Granted, one could argue that he achieved all of his goals right away whereas Veran needed to take her approach because hers were a bit more complex, but it still made for a bland villain.

      The Blue Ring or the Level 3 Armor Ring are great for boss fights because most bosses can’t be defeated with the sword alone. Then again, as a kid, I would clear Seasons first so I could transfer the Red Ring to Ages right away and make the first few areas a joke.

      I wouldn’t learn until later that games had been doing something like this since the early eighties (i.e. transferring characters in the Wizardry series), but the Oracle games upped the ante slightly by having a definable narrative change to reflect which game you completed first. Most games that do this follow a chronological order, so this one is interesting in how you determine which game happens first. Granted, I can see why such a project like this would be difficult to pull off nowadays with big-budget releases, but I wonder anyone else will try it again someday?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Nice retrospective. I replayed the Oracle games a few years back, and still found them really playable.

    I like that you pointed out about the Mermaid’s Cave. Oracle of Ages was definitely for me the tougher of the two games – the puzzles were trickier. Mermaid’s Cave has the time puzzles thing going on. The the Jabu Jabu’s Belly dungeon I remember has lots of raising and lowering water levels. For me, these were harder than the Water Temple in Ocarina of Time. And they’re probably why I enjoyed Oracle of Seasons more, but Ages is still a great game overall.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! I myself ended up downloading this game last year along with Oracle of Seasons and Link’s Awakening to see how they hold up. It was an interesting process because since I originally played them, Link’s Awakening became celebrated as one of the greatest games ever made. I remember as a kid thinking the Oracle games were better, but hearing such compelling cases for Link’s Awakening made me think that there might be something about it I would appreciate more as an adult. After playing all three games again, my reaction was, “Nope, I was right the first time,” and as much (admittedly deserved) praise as Link’s Awakening gets for its scenario, there were several execution issues that weigh the experience down (such as the fact that the narrative really does not benefit from having a silent protagonist).

      Even with the Mermaid Suit and Jabu Jabu’s Belly, these games manage to be an improvement over Link’s Awakening, boasting more ambition and having better level design overall. But it’s exactly as you say; I prefer Seasons over Ages myself because while its plot is a lot more basic, it has more polish as far as its gameplay is concerned.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Interesting review.
    Funny story, this is actually the very first Zelda game I played, I remember seeing a cousin of mine playing Ocarina of Time and being amazed by it and with my birthday approaching I urged my parents to get me a Zelda game (that’s what my cousing told me the game was). Because I didn’t know much about the series and neither did they I got this game instead of Ocarina, I remember feeling dissapointed but I still played it and had a lot of fun with it, it really cemented in me the impression of just how different each game can be.

    Later I met a guy who actually had Oracle of Seasons, after chating and learning about the games’ password system we became friends and exchanged cartridges. I didn’t finish Oracle of Seasons though and the battery of the cartridge is dead so I lost the save file with the password, later my friend moved away and haven’t seen him in years I still have his copy of the game and I wonder if he still keeps mine.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I never exchanged cartridges with others, though I heard some kids did that. I can see why they thought it would be a good idea; it would allow them to experience more games without spending too much money. Considering the internet didn’t exist to tell you when a game was a piece of trash, I can imagine it was very helpful. Then again, I also heard some kids would just take the games and never return them.

      That’s an interesting story. Did you end up getting a new battery for it? I ended up playing Ages first, and though I didn’t like it as much as the 3D Zelda games that preceded it, I felt both it and Seasons managed to accomplish a certain something Link’s Awakening didn’t.

      Thank you for reading! I’m glad you liked it that much.

      Liked by 1 person

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  5. Amazingly well-done. You were able to capture how ambitious these two games were. I agree with your complaints regarding the lack of buttons (which is a problem that affected Link’s Awakening as well) and how annoying it occasionally is to try to go to another time period only to be sent back because you ended up landing on a tree or another object of the sort.

    I love the Oracle games, but it has been quite a while since I last played them. Your review makes me think they should be up for a replay soon.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! I didn’t really appreciate how ambitious this project was until I began researching it. As early as 2000, I did hear of the Triforce trilogy and distinctly remember hearing about The Legend of Zelda: Mystical Seed of Power/Wisdom/Courage, but didn’t make the connection between them and the Oracle games until a quite a while later.

      That problem about getting sent back was worse in this game than it was in A Link to the Past because of the linear overworld design, which meant less open space to teleport into.

      Honestly, I feel it’s a shame these two games get passed up in favor of Link’s Awakening because even if they share the same problems, the Oracle games have a bit more polish to their design. Plus, the unique items you can find in dungeons were much different than the ones found in Link’s Awakening which, with one exception, exclusively gave you power-ups featured in older games (mostly A Link to the Past).

      Liked by 1 person

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