Block of Ages
Posted by Kris Randazzo on Mar 13th 2019
If you listen to the Stone Age Gamer Podcast, you probably know I’ve been trying to play through The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages for the last few weeks. You also probably know that I haven’t been enjoying it very much. That's not to say I haven’t been enjoying it at all, just that it just isn’t clicking with me. These games have been rubbing me the wrong way ever since they first released on Game Boy Color way back when, and I haven’t been able to properly articulate what it was that made me quit every single time I tried to complete them. But I’m going to try and give it a go now.
The Legend of Zelda is without a doubt my favorite video game franchise. Mario and Metroid come a very close second, but no game series has affected me quite as much as Zelda. That’s not to say I adore every Zelda game. Far from it. I’m definitely fascinated by all the Zelda games, the good and the bad. But for all my fascination, I’ve never really been able to get into a small handful of titles in the series, and they’re the only ones I’ve never played through to conclusion. That list consists of Hyrule Warriors, Tri-Force Heroes, Spirit Tracks, Phantom Hourglass, Minish Cap, Oracle of Ages, and Oracle of Seasons. Technically I haven’t finished Zelda’s Adventure for CD-i, but I’ve put several hours into it, and the rumors are true. It’s dreadful and shouldn’t be played by anyone, so i’m giving myself a pass on it. I’m also giving myself a pass on Tri-Force Heroes because the only reason I haven’t finished that one off is because of a lack of friends to play it locally with. Hyrule Warriors is its own animal, and one I don’t particularly enjoy, so I can go ahead and leave that off the list too. (It’s not a proper Zelda game anyway). That just leaves the 2 DS games, the Oracle games, and Minish Cap.
Minish Cap I will play through one of these days. That game’s biggest problem has always been the platforms it’s on and timing in my personal life. If that game comes to Switch in some form, I’m confident I’ll plow through it. Heck, I even bought it on Wii U Virtual console with every intention to play it, but no. There it sits, nearly unplayed. The DS games I just don’t enjoy on a very basic level. Phantom Hourglass in particular I really don’t think is a very good game. Though I'll admit to not having given Spirit Tracks a real sit down, that’s mostly due to the fact that I didn’t want to tackle it until I had finished Phantom Hourglass, which again, is not very likeable.
The Oracle games, though, should be right up my alley. I love Link’s Awakening. I love weird stuff in Zelda games. I love Capcom. They’re pretty widely regarded as outstanding games, and most people I talk to who have spent time with them love them. So why don’t I? Why have I never made it more than a few dungeons in before I give up? Honestly, I think that’s more on me than the games themselves. It seems to me the reason most folks love them and I don’t comes down to what it is about Zelda games people enjoy. I think, and this is just a theory, that most folks who play these games focus more on the game itself than I do. The actual game mechanics, I mean. Meanwhile, I can be very quickly turned off to a game if I don’t like something about the way it looks or sounds. That may sound superficial, and I guess it kind of is, but it has a lot to do with the immersion factor. It doesn’t have to necessarily “have good graphics” so much as it needs to look “right” for lack of a better word. It’s a big part of why it took me years to beat Majora’s Mask. That game is ugly as sin. But once I played it long enough, it clicked with me and understood it. It will never be my favorite, but I came to appreciate all the good it did. It just took me a long time because it’s greatness is hidden under ugly, chunky Nintendo 64 geometry, muddy, gross textures, reused character assets from Ocarina of Time for characters who are absolutely not the same ones from the previous game even though they look and move identically, some very questionable character designs (why do the big headed fairies look like that, and Tingle… oh Tingle…), and it’s constantly barfing that putrid N64 trumpet sample out of my speakers. On all surface levels, that game is awful. But it redeems itself with a great story, that cool 3-day mechanic, and Ocarina’s inherently fun foundation. It’s my theory that if I were to ever sit down and give these remaining Zelda games on my list a serious attempt that I would eventually find a reason to love them.
So here I am, pressing onward with Oracle of Ages, and while I do have my issues with it, I can’t say I’m not having any fun. I am. I usually don’t want to put the game down, because at the end of the day it’s a pretty fun game that plays like Link’s Awakening, one of my favorite games of all time. But it’s a real challenge. Unlike Majora’s Mask, I’m having a hard time finding what it is that makes these games unique enough to see past their faults, and those faults are really big with me.
First, I hate the way this game looks. I really do. I wasn’t nuts about the look of Link’s Awakening DX either, but I gave it a pass because it was just colorizing an existing game that consisted of sprites created to be viewed in black & white. Well, black & green, but you get what I mean. The original Link’s Awakening was a great-looking game on the original Game Boy, but when they went about colorizing it for the GBC, they did it in a super weird way. In almost all cases, every sprite and tile in the game was given exactly one color each, in addition to this pukish beige for some reason. This made the game look colorful in the sense that there were colors on the screen while you were playing, but it was completely lifeless, and more importantly, thoughtless color. Take Link for example.
If you look at the NES Link sprite, you can see the sacrifices that were made to make it work, but it looks so much more colorful than the Link’s Awakening sprite because of how they chose to use the three colors the sprite had. Link’s skin tone is the same brown used for the shading on his shield, and the whites of his eyes are inexplicably green, but it comes together in a way that tells you he has a green outfit, light skin, brown boots, brown hair, and a brown shield. In the original Link’s Awakening sprite, it was all black & white anyway, so they instead focused on just making sure you could see the details of the character clearly with no consideration for color, and it looks great. When it came time to colorize, they just replaced the gray bits with green, and that’s it. So, sure, Link’s hat and clothes are green, but so is the shadow on his face that gives it dimension. His skin tone is the same as the light hitting his clothes. He doesn’t look like he’s in color, he looks like he’s being viewed through a green filter. This goes for every sprite and object in the game as well. There wasn’t any sort of thoughtful color distribution, which left the game looking like it was just colored in instead of being in color. Link’s Awakening had some really charming art direction, and seeing it done up like this was painful to look at.
But like I said, Link’s Awakening at least had an excuse. They weren’t exactly going to re-draw the whole game just so it would look better in color. And it was fine. It wasn’t great, and often looked quite garish, but the underlying game was good enough that I didn’t let it kill the experience for me.
The Oracle games absolutely do not have that excuse. Instead of making Zelda games that actually took advantage of what the Game Boy Color was capable of, the folks at Capcom/Flagship took the laziest of all possible routes and reused as many assets from Link’s Awakening DX as they could. This is a practice that Zelda games don’t normally do. The closest other example of asset recycling can be seen in Ocarina of Time to Majora’s Mask, but even then they did a lot to make the games feel intrinsically different. The Oracle games are just remixed Link’s Awakening games, and, well, no. Just no. This doesn’t work for me. One of the coolest things about playing a new Zelda game is discovering the new world to get immersed in. Holodrum and Labrynna could very easily just be unexplored areas of Koholint because they look exactly the same, and I hate it.
This actually extends to the “original” stuff in the games as well. It’s almost like Flagship wanted to challenge themselves to create new Zelda games while creating as little new content as humanly possible. Every character you loved in Link’s Awakening has been repurposed here, regardless of how unique they were in their original game. And the new stuff is often just cheap repurposing of existing sprites. Take the Moblin King, for example.
At first glance, you would be forgiven for thinking he was a new creation. But in reality he’s just a mishmash of Mamu and Hinox from Link’s Awakening. Like Wart hasn’t suffered enough indignity already! What’s worse is he’s still a prime example of the thoughtless way these games apply color. His crown and necklace thing have a different set of colors not seen anywhere else on his character, but the shading on his cape/coat thingy is still the same color as his skin! I’m no professional artist, but I took a few minutes and did some basic color correction stuff and this is what I came up with.
That was 5 minutes with a free art program online. A few minutes of being thoughtful with color distribution and they already look worlds better to my eyes. Because they look like they’re actually in color. Even the Moblin King’s reused assets look less offensive with the simple application of better colors. I constantly look at these games and get frustrated by the lack of effort put into something as basic and important as color.
Just to drive the color point home a little further. Have a look at those games there. I know the GBC had its limitations, and said limitations would have made the colorizations I did to the sprites not exactly 100% feasible as-is, but that really underlines the problem of using them in the first place. These games and many other GBC titles that were designed with color in mind don’t suffer from that problem. Because the sprites were made to look good with only 2-3 colors each. Okay. I’m done.
Moving on, it doesn’t stop at the visuals. No, the audio is pretty terrible too. Not the stuff they lifted directly from Link’s Awakening. That stuff is all still great. But every original composition I’ve come across for these games has been just awful, or middling at best. None of it comes close to stacking up to the music the franchise is known for. So when I’m lost in the woods looking for a bear with tiny wings and this obnoxious 6 second loop keeps blaring over and over again, it really takes makes me want to shut the volume off, which isn’t something I should want to do in a Zelda game except for when I’m low on health and the alarm sound won’t shut the hell up. And not for nothing, but I love hearing new renditions of the Zelda tune. But no, they took this rendition whole hog from Link’s Awakening too.
For both the visuals and the music they should have started from scratch. I know creating all-new assets would have made the project far more ambitious and expansive to produce, but it’s the Legend of freaking Zelda. Be ambitious. Or at the very least if you’re going to go in and reuse existing stuff, improve on it. Don’t leave its glaring flaws so you don’t have to do any more work than you absolutely need to. A fresh art style and new takes on the music would have done these games wonders.
Looking back, I can tell that this is going on way too long, so I’ll wrap it up. I do have to say that since I started writing this I’ve played some more of the game and while it isn’t clicking with me the way Majora’s Mask eventually did, I’m finding a lot to like about the game’s dungeon designs. I still think the overworld is trash, and all the stuff I said before about its audio and visuals still stand. When Link’s Awakening reused aspects of Link to the Past like the caterpillar boss, the magic mushroom, etc., I didn’t like that much either, but by the time I finished the game those things and weirder stuff like the Mario enemies, Anti-Kirby, Dr. Wright, Prince Richard, made a degree of sense. SPOILER ALERT: It was a dream. It being weird and pulling references from other Nintendo games as well as Link’s previous adventures lined up. Seeing Cheep Cheeps swimming in the water in these non-dream games isn’t cool. The hand from Majora’s Mask asking for paper isn’t cool. The Maku Tree reusing the “I’m going to marry Link when I’m older” joke from Ocarina of Time isn’t cool AT ALL. The game is riddled with poorly recycled elements that just kind of ruin it for me. Not completely, but enough to make me mad it wasn’t better, because the games themselves are pretty good ideas. But again, those are the things that ruin a Zelda experience for me. I’m all about the world and its charm. Take that away and it’s still enjoyable enough, but it will never resonate the way the best in the series do for me.
I know I’m nuts, but exactly how crazy am I? What do you think of Capcom’s Zelda games?