Oracle of Ages Replay Thoughts

NA Release Date: May 14, 2001 (GBC)
Initial Playthrough: c. 2001-2002 (GBC)
Replay: c. January – March, 2021 (3DS Virtual Console)

Relative to when I started it, this is overdue. The longer it takes to play these games, the more they fade from my short-term memory, and the harder it is to collect my thoughts as some cogent whole. Despite a month-long break (thanks, Stardew Valley) I was able to push this one across the finish line. I’m glad I didn’t wait on OOS and do a super review, since this only would have exacerbated the problem, but at the same time its really tough to evaluate the Oracle games separately from one another. At least here at the end we can discuss some the characteristics of a Linked Game.

Despite being a little lax on playing the game regularly, I actually enjoyed it a bit more more than OOS, which tracked with my expectation. OOA is billed as the ‘puzzle one’ and as I’m learning more about myself, that’s the facet of the Zelda franchise that I value and prioritize most. It’s on par with it’s companions in terms of narrative/story, though in the case of OOA I found a few things lacking.

An Uneven Narrative
I suppose some of these are really just nits, but there were enough that irked me sufficiently that they’re getting aggregated here. Firstly, I was pretty annoyed that my beloved Moosh from OOS did not remember me. When you stumble upon him in the Yoll Graveyard getting bullied by Ghini, and save him, his reaction is… pretty generic?

Mooshy, don’tcha know me???

After all the good times we had ground-pounding enemies into oblivion back in Holodrum, now this guy acts like he doesn’t know me from Adam? What gives?! On its face this might seem like a minor thing but given that the Oracle diptych is supposed to be about an interwoven story this feels like a major oversight. Recall that the game already knows which companion you had from the prior game: you can’t pick a new one here, but are still required to go through all of their introductory segments anyways. Imagine if your chosen pal from the prior game greeted you with excitement and relief, as opposed to just another ambivalent NPC introduction…? Feels like a wasted opportunity.

Another minor quibble is that you have Maple encounters in the present and the past. She does make some comment about ‘flying through a portal’, but are the Maple encounters really so mission-critical that we’re to believe she idly travels through time just to periodically bump into you and let Link take all her things? I guess she also upgrades to a saucer-shaped UFO ride, so maybe I’m taking this bit a little too seriously…

Lastly would be the oft-maligned causal loop issue with the Goron vase sub-quest. Link gets the vase, a treasured family heirloom, in the present (exchanged for Rock Brisket), and winds up trading the vase to the ancestor (exchanged for another Goron foodstuff, Goronade). I know it’s small-ball to point this stuff out (“it’s just a game!”) but this feels like it was purposefully done, though to what effect I can’t quite figure. Especially when some of the other instances of leveraging the time travel mechanic are done quite well (Mermaid’s Cave, the Book of Seals in the Eyeglasses Island Library), it just hits weird.

Enough complaining though- there’s still a lot to like about OOA. One of my favorite parts were the ‘cutscenes’ showing the progress on the Black Tower. They pace the game in a way that racking up key items and Essences don’t quite capture. Everyone knows the inventory slots will all be filled by the end, but there’s some legitimate suspense surrounding if Ambi will finish the tower, and what it would mean if she does. It’s a bit chilling in the endgame when she finishes it, though immediately underwhelming when just a handful of random Labrynnans turn to stone briefly…

I also appreciated some of the smaller narrative through-lines, such as Patch being able to fix not only the Tuni Nut, but also the Broken Sword you receive at the end of the trading quest. When the nut is fixed earlier in the game, it’s an ordeal to find Patch and go through his trial to progress the plot… and it’s so weird it completely feels like a one-off. That much more satisfying then, when you nearly complete the trading quest, and you already know where to find the one guy in the overworld who can fix things that are broken!

Mr. Fix-It; also, a lunatic.

Paragon of 2D Dungeon Design
The other aspect where the game really shines would be the stellar dungeon design. An excellent example of this is the Moonlit Grotto, where throughout the early portion Link encounters several crystals which when broken suggest “There was a loud sound far off, like something being knocked loose!” Upon destroying the final crystal, the turnstile controlling your access through most of the first floor drops down into a chasm in the basement, completely altering how that space is navigated. This ingenious gatekeeping of the latter half of the level actually makes you excited about a little back-tracking.

A similar gimmick is used with the water-level mechanic in Jabu-Jabu’s Belly, wherein the whole terrain is radically altered with each adjustment to the water. It forces you to begin thinking in three dimensions to properly navigate the space, which really elevates the play is what is nominally a top-down 2D game. On the other hand, it does force an excessive use of the Mermaid Suit, and I really didn’t care for the swimming mechanic. Speaking of the Mermaid Suit though, the namesake dungeon where it’s acquired is yet another instance of the high bar set by these levels in OOA.

In the Mermaid’s Cave, you start out exploring it in the past, accessing it with the Old Mermaid Key (which you end up acquiring by way of the previously-mentioned Goronade, of all things). The space has all the typical hallmarks (Map, Compass, etc.), but at a certain point you just can’t move forward to the boss. With no prompting from the game, you have to return outside, travel to the future, acquire the (not Old) Mermaid Key, and resume your exploration of a totally different version of dungeon that exists in the future (with its own Map and Compass). There you acquire the Mermaid Suit which enables you to return to the past and complete exploration of the space in which you originally started.

Even though it opens up all of the little causal annoyances discussed earlier, at least the time mechanic is being used to do something quite interesting that changes your typical interaction with a dungeon. These types of meta-puzzles where the space you’re traipsing about can be modified and changed, even in very predetermined ways, really imbues the experience with a great deal of depth you don’t expect for these ‘simpler’ entries.

This Oracle’s Got Personality
I wasn’t quite sure where to tuck this, but I made several notes while playing about some of the small but effective animations that would crop up from time to time. I’ve attempted to ‘gif’ some of my favorites, starting with the sick Tokay who Dr. Link (Not A Real Doctor) decides to medicate with the Stink Bag to clear his congestion. The reaction of bouncing around the room is totally unexpected, and offers a really nice light-heated moment. A++, Would Stink Again.

Contact your doctor if jumping lasts for longer than 4 hours after using Stink Bag.
Use As Directed (???).

The second one comes just after Nayru/Veran has been monologing pretty hard about how gullible Link was to both open the Triforce-sealed barrier at the start of the game, and to bring the Mystery Seeds to her in this scene. Come to think of it, I’m not sure it’s ever explained what she ends up doing with those? After Ambi leaves, in any case, Vayru has a nice little chuckle to herself at Link’s expense, and I found the subtle little animation right as the screen fades to black was a nice touch. It adds to the idea of Veran as a plotter, hatching schemes and manipulating everyone as she works towards LIGHTING THE FLAME OF SORROW, etc. etc.

Link does not get the joke.

It’s also interesting to note we don’t get a lot of dramatic irony in Zelda games, in which the player knows information that Link does not. It struck me as odd too, to show a scene in which characters converse in Link’s absence. I’m sure there’s some precedent for this elsewhere, but here it stood out to me.

While we’re on the topic of characters and personality though, let’s spare a minute for Queen Ambi. She’s feeling a little low back in Ye Olde Labrynna, and so she gets her subjects working on a tower to lead her boyfriend back (little does she know however, though ♪ Ambi’s a fine girl ♫, the Cap’n’s life, his love, and his lady is the sea). Then Nayru shows up, possessed by Veran, and seemingly on a dime convinces her to utilize an endless day to work her subjects to death building the tower they were already building… Faster? Taller? Blacker? I keep looking for some canonical explanation that Veran uses some magic to control Ambi, but from what I can tell she’s really that impressionable and is readily persuaded to do such a horrible thing?

Supposedly Ambi has some quasi-redemptive arc where she sends the soldiers to help Link… after he’s defeated Veran’s final form and escaped the Black Tower? I’m not buying it. Ambi did some pretty awful things pre-possession, and while there’s potentially an interesting character study there, none of the other characters even pretend to hold her to account for it, so we’re all just moving on from her crimes in the past? And in Linked Games starting with OOA, she gets to travel time and shows up in Holodrum? Talk about rewarding bad behavior… Maybe Nayru realized she’d never stop until she got some catharsis with her skeletal beau?

Sorry for the tangent. One last animation to share:

Everyone’s a comedian.

In another moment of levity, Link tells the Funny Joke to Lynna Village’s resident Smiths fan Dekadin. Some of the animation frames are reused: the ‘arms up singing’ pose makes an appearance in the Goron/Subrosian dance routines; the ‘both arms straight up’ is used when Link gets a special item like an Essence; the ‘single fist pump’ and vertical/horizontal ‘squish’ frames though I couldn’t place from any other point in the game. That they might have animated additional sprites for this silly little humor bit tickled me. It works, too- this bit is pretty funny, and more humorous still is Dekadin’s lackluster reaction to the tour de force of physical comedy Link performs for him.

I bring up all these little animation touches because they catch the eye since they’re clearly not ‘standard’ actions. They are never reused, and presumably have to be specially coded into the scenes where they appear since they never occur anywhere else. They go a long way to making the inhabitants of Labrynna feel more like real characters than simply sprites who happen to be placed near dialog boxes. Again, OOA here seems pushes the boundaries of what’s possible from an immersion standpoint for a ‘2D Zelda’, and in its own way, it really pays off.

As a final note on characters, our OOT cameos here included: the Head Carpenter and his Lazy Workers, the Happy Mask Salesman, Jabu Jabu, King Zora, and of course Twinrova once again (also bombchus and Biggoron’s sword, which are not a characters, but help me make this point). Still seeing too many of them, too soon, for my taste.

A Link to the Other Game
I have to start my comments here by saying that I really mucked up the game linking feature. I beat OOS and dutifully noted my Secret to Labrynna, which starts you off with an extra heart in OOA, something that made the game a heck of a lot easier. Throughout this game I met lots of goobers with SECRETS for me to share with folks back in Holodrum. Near the end, having collected almost all of them, I decided it was time to head back and collect all those goodies in anticipation of the final dungeon and confrontation with Twinrova.

…but I guess I just used the save-state feature right before the last boss, and didn’t save the game to the local file? Or something? So no big deal, just gotta beat the last boss again, and get to the ‘endgame’ to travel the land spreading some juicy dish from Labrynna, yes? No. Those secrets are inextricably linked to my original completing-OOS secret, and they do not work in a post-game which did not yield an identical secret. This was deeply disappointing to miss out on all that good stuff like sword and shield upgrades and Biggoron’s sword. The latter-most of which takes up both button-slots when you equip it, which was an excellent design detail.

Turns out though, there are special variants of the secrets which you can tell to Farore to get the goods back from Holodrum into Labrynna that work regardless of what your personal secret was. Nominally used only for debug/cheating, I was super relieved to find these and claim my well-earned secret rewards, in spite of kinda screwing up the mechanic.

My Virtual Console snafu aside, the ‘true conclusion’ of the Oracle series afforded by a Linked Game (also, that pun…) proves to be slightly underwhelming. You get a reasonably engaging battle with Twinrova before Ganon shows up in all his pig-man glory. It’s mostly worth the extra effort to secure the ‘mega happy ending’ where Din, Nayru, Impa and Zelda all show up to tell you what a great job you did. Zelda even gives you a kiss, with your crush the Maku Tree (who has held a torch for Link for literally the past 400 years) looks on with her sad sprite as Link swoons.

Eventually, after the credits roll, there’s a bonus scene of the three Triforce segments hovering in the sky just as a blinding flash of light hits. As it resolves again we see instead three… birds? This made some sense in LA with all the time devoted to developing Marin, but here…?

I give up…

Winner: This game’s Maku Tree is far more endearing and sweet than its OOS counterpart. At the very least, she doesn’t sleep through much of the plot with a snot-bubble. The fact that she spends basically her whole life pining after Link makes me a little sad for her, but at least she had some time to figure out some strategies for navigating life as a Hylian-Magical Tree couple.

Loser: The Essences of Time seem to have just been named things purely because they sound sort of cool. Very few have anything to do with the passage or flow of time. Some of them… maybe, but every last one has some silly fortune-cookie nonsense for a description. This seemed like a weird thing to phone in, particularly when it’s just a couple of sprites and a few lines of text.

Winner: Farore finally gets to do something in a Linked Game! I always felt bad for her that her game MAGICAL SEED OF COURAGE got canceled and so she had to live in the other two games… inside a tree. Behind a desk. But picking up all your hard-earned Secret Loot is pretty fun, and she’s a good sport to write down all those dang secrets people tell you along the way. Which I will definitely recall in the future and not bother to actually write them down on paper like a Luddite.

Loser: Link’s nautical skills. At one point in OOA, after he’s gone on a pretty lengthy mini trading quest to get some rope for a raft and a map, he finally sets sail. Only guess what? A storm comes and shipwrecks him on Crescent Island where he promptly loses all his stuff. JUST LIKE ON KOHOLINT (mostly). And at the very end of the bonus scene for the Linked Game where do we find him again? ON A SAILBOAT. Guy never learns!

Pretty sure he will never see these people again.

Winner: Capcom. These games were actually pretty solid. Loads to enjoy, even if they do have some weird quirks. Consider, however, that they were released not eight years after the travesty of the Philips CD-i games (and development would have started well before). That Nintendo again turned the keys over to one of their most celebrated properties to an outside developer is pretty surprising. Fortunate for everyone the result was excellent, even in the company of the other entries in such a storied franchise. Capcom would also go on to produce MC which more than holds its own with the other 2D entries.

Loser: Impa, in probably her least-awesome appearance since the NES days. She gets possessed at the start of the game, tricking Link into allowing Veran to kidnap Nayru, setting all of her nasty plot into motion. She’s a far cry from the imposing, indomitable force she proves to be in nearly every 3D entry of the series. That she is sidelined twice, similarly in each game, really erodes her standing and proves to be kindof a disappointing NPC.

Final Thoughts
Ultimately, despite all my whining, I really do like OOA. It’s frustrating because technically it’s an improvement on LA, especially with the scope and complexity of the dungeon design, but (for both Oracle games) the story never reaches the same heights. This lands OOA firmly in the good-not-great class of Zelda entries. Some characters like Maple and the Animal Companions leave an impression, and the time travel mechanic is generally executed in a satisfying fashion. The game linking is truly unique, and gives the Oracle series a special flavor all their own, which makes them worth the work.

Up Next
A Link Between Worlds (2DS)

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