I freely admit that I’m a nerd. But just how big of a nerd is about to be revealed as I lavish ridiculous amounts of praise on a pair of creaky old Game Boy Color cartridges from 2001. The games in question are The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages, and The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons. And I’m talking about them because they were both given a new lease of digital download life on 3DS virtual console a few weeks ago, and have been plucking at my gaming heartstrings ever since.
Here’s why. Back in 2001, I wasn’t paying any attention to the Game Boy Color, or indeed any older systems. Instead, I was focused on the emerging new generation of consoles – PS2 and Xbox – while spending whatever other spare time I had obsessively playing the first-generation PC MMOs. There was no time for anything else, and consequently, this duo passed me by completely. I was pretty much unaware of their existence until I was given two review codes a few weeks ago. That was a very nice surprise – it’s not often I get two brand spanking new old classics to play.
So to make the most of the experience, I did a little research to catch up on this “lost” pair of Zelda titles, and was surprised to find that they were supposed to be a trilogy, each game representing a different aspect of the Triforce. I was also surprised to find that these were the first games in the franchise’s history to be created by a third party developer – Capcom-owned Flagship. I didn’t know much about the team, but I certainly knew the history of its lead, Yoshiki Okamoto, whose resume looks like it was cribbed from a list of my all-time favorite coin-ops. Amongst many games, he created Gyruss, Time Pilot, Gun Smoke, Final Fight and Street Fighter II.
All that piqued my interest immediately, and I became even more intrigued as I read that Okamoto and Miyamoto had worked closely together to create an ingenious password system that enabled each game in the trilogy to interact with one other. The idea being that whichever game the player started with, he or she could use codes they found in that game to unlock secrets and items in the other games. Unfortunately, this system turned out to be more of a challenge than was initially anticipated, so the trilogy was downsized to a duology that was eventually released in May 2001, a mere month before Game Boy Color was consigned to history by the newer, more capable Advance.
Jumping into these games completely fresh, I was immediately struck by the retro-ness of their presentation. These are classic, top-down, NES-style games that I imagine felt a bit out-of-date in 2001. But now, thanks to the fact that retro games are looked upon as products of an era rather than obsolete technology, both these games feel like treasured artifacts from the 8-bit era. And it’s at this point my legs start going all wobbly and I begin to come over all sentimental-like.
Experiencing Oracle of Ages for the first time left me in an odd kind of emotional turmoil. Here I am playing something that’s brand new to me, but at the same time is punching me in the face repeatedly with a fist that has “nostalgia” tattooed all over it. I’m feeling the old-school love, but enjoying the discovery of something familiar, but totally new. As I watch the clunky, stilted text fly by, and guide my tiny little Link sprite around the simplistic landscape, poking at stuff with his trusty sword, I slowly, but surely begin to slip back into an earlier gaming mindset. Oh right, this is a classic arcade adventure, with lots of exploring, and tons of tricky, yet slap-your-forehead-obvious-when-you-solve-them puzzles. There are all sorts of secrets sequestered away in obscure corners of the game that I need to find, so I must leave no tufty bush unshaken. And oh right. This game comes from a time when adventuring was dangerous, and where the foolhardy got mashed by monsters if they weren’t careful. Yep. This ain’t easy, and my repeated boss battle failures almost resulted in muscle-memory flinging-of-controller to the floor, until I remembered that I’m holding a 3DS, and not an indestructible joypad of yore. It took a while to adjust to this old-schoolin’ style, but it came back soon enough.
Oracle of Ages is more puzzle-heavy than I expected, and makes full use of its dual timeline scenario, forcing you to think very creatively to solve some devilishly tricky conundrums. It reminded me a lot of the similarly functioning Ocarina of Time, which my mind was fooled into thinking was newer, even though this older-looking game is actually three years its junior.
I’m still hacking my way through the game as I write this, eking out the experience into nightly chunks so I can savor it. I’ve had to look up some of the puzzles I’ve encountered because they confounded me, but each time I’ve done that, I’ve cursed myself for doing so. Because in classic Zelda style, the answer was always staring at me in the face.
I did have a quick go of Oracle of Seasons, for the purposes of this review. But I didn’t get too far, as I really want to play through Ages first. My immediate reaction is that it seems more action-oriented, and definitely a lot harder than its twin. Almost like Ages is the more cerebral of the pair, while Seasons is more focused on brute force. As such, I’m glad I ended up starting with the slightly less reflex-intensive game, because I’m hoping that the gear I’m getting while on my travels in Ages will stand me in good stead for Seasons’ seemingly more dangerous adventure. Plus the slightly more forgiving Ages is also helping me rediscover my old-school skillz without quite the frustrations I’m sure I’d have had should I have started with Seasons first.
Together, these games comprise two very complete halves of a greater whole. Both parts Venn Diagram fairly closely in terms of boss battles, puzzling and general exploring, but separate when it comes to their approach and scenarios: the thinker is centered around two time lines, where the brawler focuses on overground and subterranean environments.
To me, both feel like the gaming equivalent of classical literature or music. They have a style, presentation and design that represent gaming from a past era: they look old, but yet they’re timeless. They’re amongst the best of their breed, and perhaps will never be bettered – because ultimately, anything that tries to be like them is either an homage, or a knock-off. Perhaps I’m waxing way too lyrical here, but I believe these games will be enjoyed for decades to come by hardcore gamers curious about the secrets and machinations of the design and structure of these minimal, classic games.
Sure, they look simple. Their sound is crude. They’re sometimes almost unfairly hard, and can be frustrating and fiddly to play. But damn, they’re just so brilliant and involving, and so incredibly rewarding. On the surface they are rudimentary, yet they create an experience that transcends the limited technology upon which they were built.
These are true classics, and I love them. Deeply love them. I’m not even going to bother to rate them, because you already know the score – and you already know whether or not you need to buy them.