Monday, December 21, 2009

25 Days of Christmas - #5: The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages

When Nintendo takes to creating a sequel in one of their flagship franchises, they – as well as Microsoft and Sony - generally concern themselves first and foremost with the platform systems over the handheld systems. After the release of The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask on the N64, there was a rather lengthy hiatus until The Wind Waker came out for the Gamecube. To help bridge this three-year gap, as well as try and keep fans who were turned-off by Majora’s Mask interested, Nintendo partnered with Capcom to create three intertwining games for the Gameboy Color. When three games working in conjunction with one another proved to be too great a challenge, the companies decided to scale down the ambitious project to two titles. Their stories still interwoven, The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons were both released on May 14, 2001.

As far as I’m concerned, the two titles are two chapters to one gigantic story. However, they were released as separate games, and as such only one of the two titles will be making my top 25 list. While Oracle of Seasons arguably had more variation in the overworld design and was more visually captivating with its lush colors, I personally found Oracle of Ages to be more enjoyable overall.

The story begins with Link travelling to Labrynna to meet with the Oracle of Ages, Nayru. He encounters Impa, Zelda’s aide along the way. As soon as the two meet Nayru, things go awry as it is revealed that Impa’s body was host to the evil sorceress Veran. Veran then uses Nayru’s body as a medium to travel through time and create her own twisted version of Labrynna.

Link is forced to travel to the past in order to track down the now-possessed Nayru. After meeting with Queen Ambi in the past, Link learns that she has been fooled into Veran’s plot to build a massive tower reaching to the heavens, which she will use to complete her transformation of the world. Link, devoid of much assistance from anyone but Impa and Nayru’s friend Ralph, begins his trek through each dungeon to retrieve items necessary to enter the Black Tower.

Oracle of Ages requires players to use the Harp of Ages to travel back and forth between the present and the past in order to access dungeons, complete quests, and travel around the world of Labrynna. The world is fairly sizeable, though players will only be able to access certain areas early on, with more of the world to be explored as they progress through the game. There is a great deal of variety in the environment types (though this doesn’t particularly affect gameplay), from the underwater kingdom of the Zoras, to the high cliffs where the Gorons live, to the volcanic area upon which Symmetry Village is founded.

Each weapons/tool in the game has multiple uses. Roc’s Feather can be used to avoid projectiles as well as traverse gaps. The Switch-hook allows players to bypass enemies or travel across large gaps within a dungeon. The Seed Shooter is applicable as both a ranged weapon as well as a solution to some switch-based puzzles. In contrast to some titles in the Zelda series, no single weapon in Oracle of Ages is outdated or rendered useless after its initial use. The Many weapons/tools, including the Harp of Ages, can be upgraded as the game progresses. Those weapons that are not upgraded will have consistent practical throughout the game.

As an added inclusion, players can collect rings and have them appraised by Vasu. Some rings affect the player’s offensive and defensive capabilities. Others make Link immune to certain attacks. There are also incredibly rare rings in the game that allow Link to transform in Like-Likes, Moblins, and other creatures.

The side quests in the Oracle titles are unusual when compared to other titles in the Zelda series. There are some side quests that take place only within the confines of the separate games. These are generally meant to reward the player with rings, Gashu seeds, potions, or any other nonessential items applicable for later use. The most important side quests, however, stem from the games’ interconnectivity. When interacting with characters in one game, you will occasionally receive a code from them or instructions to meet someone accessible only in the other game. Players must then complete that side quest as they journey through the second game. Both games are filled with these lengthy side quests, and the titles can be played in either order to acquire the items and upgrades from them.

Most Zelda titles have their small snags that they hit here and there; little issues that could have been avoided in an otherwise fantastic game. But with the Oracle titles, I am unable to find any flaws. The story is by far the most creative of any Zelda title. The soundtrack – though comprised entirely of MIDI files – is classic Zelda with a slightly new spin. The graphics are 2-D, but the colors of each area are bright and lively. The enemy AI is fantastic, with grunt soldiers putting up a decent challenge and bosses dealing out some major pain. The final battle against Veran is much more difficult than the battle against General Onox in Oracle of Seasons, and twice as long. The story is very involved and is fairly moody for a Zelda title (though nowhere near as dark as Majora’s Mask). It’s rare that a handheld game would surpass many of its console counterparts, but The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages goes the extra mile and is one of Nintendo’s best handheld titles ever released.

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