It's been quite a while since I last played a Zelda game; since I never got an N64, I didn't get the chance to enjoy Ocarina of Time or Majora's Mask. Fortunately I DO have a GameBoy Advance, and thus I could finally play the latest installment of the series: Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages.
Link, intrepid Hyrulean elf and princess-saver extraordinaire was taking a ride on Epona one day when he felt the Tri-Force calling him. Arriving at the castle, Link walks up to the mystical golden triangles and is transported to the land of Labrynna. Walking around a bit, Link encounters Impa, nursemaid to the princess Zelda, who asks him to take her to see the songstress Nayru.
After passing through a magical barrier that only Link could open, the two encounter Nayru and her guardian, Ralph. The peace lasts 5 seconds as the evil witch Veran jumps out of Impa's body and into Nayru's, who we find out is actually the Oracle of Ages, the one with the power over time. Using Nayru's powers, Veran goes back in time and gums up things in the present. Ralph hurries off to save Nayru, followed soon after by Link, and thus the real story begins.
Save the girl, it's been done to death, nowhere more so than in the Zelda series. Fortunately there is a lot of character interaction this time around, as well as a few plot twists accessible after playing both Oracle of Ages and its sister title Oracle of Seasons. There are quite a few people to chat with and a quest to recover the 8 essences of time before the present is destroyed by Veran, which is a nice twist to the old tale, but like most of the Zelda games, you don't play it for the story.
If you've played any Zelda games from Link to the Past onward, you know how the gameplay works. You get items ranging from a swords and bombs to hook shots and seed shooters, which you can equip, one to the A button and one to the B button. You then use these items to progress further and open up more of Labrynna, the object being to unlock the 8 essences of time in the 8 labyrinths across the land. True, it's been done a lot, but it's still damn fun.
The new additions to this installment are the rings and secret system. Throughout the game you can find magic rings, which you can take to Vasu the Jeweler in the present to get appraised. Once appraised you can use their effects by placing them in your ring box and equipping them. Ring effects range from taking half damage from certain traps to being able to throw things farther. While I didn't find many of the rings at all useful, it's a nice bonus.
The secret system, on the other hand, is really interesting. By playing through Oracle of Ages and linking up to a friend who has played through Oracle of Seasons, you can unlock secrets that make new items, places, and enemies accessible. It's fun to do and inspires cooperation with (or at least toleration of) your friends.
The overworld map is similar to Zelda DX, Link to the Past, and the first Legend of Zelda game, and if you have to have it explained to you, just stop reading now. Enemies killed leave behind anything from rupees to bombs and seeds (which manage to replace many of the classic Zelda items such as fairy powder and Pegasus boots).
Oracle of Ages is also heavy on puzzle action. Most of the puzzles I managed to solve pretty quickly, but there were a few which taxed my noodle. Puzzles usually involve pushing blocks to reveal chests or using your items to span distances, though unique to Ages is the necessity to travel between the past and the present to reach new areas. There's also an ongoing fetch quest and scores of mini-games to keep you busy all the while. It's classic Zelda gameplay, but it's fun.
The controls are incredibly intuitive and fluid. The only downside is when you get the mermaid flippers, which force you to keep tapping the direction pad to move in water, something that annoyed me to no end and hurt my thumb. Otherwise, no complaints.
Graphically, Oracle of Ages looks more or less like Zelda DX, though obviously with new character designs. They're 8-bit graphics, for sure, but since it's a smaller medium, the sprites don't look as horribly pixilated as 8-bit console games did.
For some reason Capcom did most of the programming and development work, and it shows in the various anime stills sprinkled throughout the game. The color palette is bright and vaguely pastel, which was very nice. Link no longer looks like Pinocchio, so I've got no complaints.
As far as music goes, most of the time you'll be listening to the classic overworld theme, which is nice, but hey, it gets played out. Fortunately there are certain areas of the overworld which have original tracks, such as Crescent Island and the magical forest, both of which are very upbeat and cutesy, as is the theme of Maple, the out of control teenage witch who loves bumping into Link and taking his rupees and such.
What I liked most, though, were the classic sound effects. They weren't new or inspired, but I knew when I found a secret door or got a special item just by the sound effects, and it's very comforting.
Oracle of Ages if a fun romp, especially when you consider that you can play it all over again in a whole new way using a link cable and a friend's Oracle of Seasons saved game. There are scores of secrets to discover and puzzles to solve, making this the thinking man's Zelda (as opposed to Seasons which is considered to be the fighting man's Zelda). I personally was addicted to this game for the few days it took me to beat it. Don't pass this title up if you love the Legend of Zelda series or puzzles.