The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages Hands-On

Nintendo's new duo of Zelda games is out in Japan. Time travel, weather manipulation, and embittered sorcerers are just a few of the many things to expect when both Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons hit US shores this May.

Nintendo's latest Zelda release, a two-game series for the Game Boy Color named The Legend of Zelda: Fruit of the Mysterious Tree, is now out in Japan. Developed by Capcom's Flagship group (the same group responsible for the Resident Evil and Illbleed series), the series has two chapters: Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons. Contrary to what was assumed when the series was announced, neither chapter is a remake of any preexisting Zelda game, NES or otherwise. Although the storylines for both games intertwine and a password feature allows item sharing between the two chapters, each is its own stand-alone experience and each has its own unique blend of story, characters, and items.

Regardless of which chapter you choose, the beginning is the same: Link is transported to a faraway land by the ever-omnipotent Triforce. In the Ages chapter, Link awakens in the land of Laborennu, just in time to see the Sorceress of Time, Nell, abducted by an evil witch known as Veran. In the Seasons chapter, Link is instead thrust into the land of Holodrum, right on cue to witness the abduction of Din, the Sorceress of Earth, by the evil wizard Gorugon. Although Nell and Din are two different people, the effects of their kidnappings on their respective lands are the same: chaos and death. As Link, it is up to you to rescue Din and Nell, figure out how their kidnappings relate to one another, and uncover the dreaded plot twist that links Laborennu and Holodrum to Link's home of Hyrule.

Just as each chapter in the Fruit of the Mysterious Tree series has its own villain and damsel in distress, both chapters offer different populations, hidden tribes, and guides who come to Link's aid. In Ages, the Rennu people become Link's main benefactors, while a lizard tribe known as the Zora helps him out during a time of great crisis. The central guides of this chapter are a female Maka tree and a medicine woman named Impa.

In the Seasons chapter, however, Link must save the Holon people, while an underground race of Gorons known as the Uura eventually bequeath to him the power to control the seasons. In this chapter, your Maka tree guide is a male, while Impa is replaced in cheerful fashion by a saxophone-playing wise man named Socra. Regardless of their differences, the two chapters share enough cameo appearances and similarities to keep you wondering what it is that binds the worlds together. Neither game is necessary in completing the other, but Nintendo is hoping you'll purchase both anyway in order to fill out each half of the story.

In terms of gameplay, the Fruit of the Mysterious Tree series will seem familiar to anyone who's played Link's Awakening DX. Both chapters feature the same top-down action-RPG battle system, the same inventory system, and the same general focus on dungeon crawling that became standard with Link's Awakening. Similarly, while there are many new characters and enemies to discover within either chapter, both Ages and Seasons borrow heavily from all six previous Zelda games in order to fill out their respective enemy and boss cast lists. Molbins, Goriya, Stalfos, Pol's Voice, and Octoroks are just a few of the many returning enemies you'll encounter, while Gleeok, Aquamentus, Dodongo, and Smasher return as boss characters. Additionally, while some weapons, such as the peashooter and Dodongo flute, are new, old favorites such as the boomerang and Roc's feather return as integral parts of Link's arsenal.

Longtime fans of the Zelda series will also find much to like within the two new chapters. From the NES Legend of Zelda, the old men who exclaim "pay me for the door repair charge" return. From the SNES A Link to the Past, it's the beating of chickens and destructible route markers. For those just polishing off Majora's Mask, the masked Gorons and lizardlike Zora should spark feelings of familiarity. Each game has its own smattering of such déjà vu-style ingredients to experience.

Even though they borrow from a successful formula, Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons aren't just formulaic sequels to Link's Awakening. Both chapters feature many new enhancements that should please both veterans and newcomers alike. Right off the bat, each has its own unique environmental gimmick that plays into the story. In Ages, the Harp of Time allows Link to travel between past and present time periods, which in turn gives him the power to fix the many calamities caused by Veran and allows him to form partnerships with formerly lost tribes. Since Seasons is based on weather phenomena, the tool of choice in that chapter is the Rod of Seasons, a staff with the power to bring about the instant return of winter, spring, summer, or fall. In this manner, swamps can be drained, rivers can be frozen, and vinelike ladders can be grown in order to give Link access to new areas.

Further separating the two games, the items you collect and the weapons you'll find differ between the two chapters. Thus, each has its own unique charm. While the slingshot and boomerang are integral to the completion of Oracle of Seasons, it is the peashooter and hookshot that ultimately become necessary in Oracle of Ages. The Seasons chapter even takes things a step further, introducing a second ore-like currency for use in the underground Goron village. Unlike the Pokémon pairs of the past, the Fruit of the Mysterious Tree series fights hard to feel like two different games.

Other new additions in both chapters include minigames, animal partnerships, and Pokémon-style ring collecting. Item collection and trading remains an integral part of this latest Zelda series. However, random discovery and shop purchases aren't the only way to fill out your inventory. Within either chapter, the successful completion of a variety of minigames, such as rhythm dancing, Zora feeding, and hitting balls in a batting cage, is required to obtain necessary items. On a physical level, there are times where the Harp of Time or Rod of Seasons are useless for passing by an obstacle or gathering an item, which is where animal partnerships come into play. In Ages, you'll initially pair up with a kangaroo named Ricky in order to leap over cliffs, while a lasting bond with a swimming Dodongo makes you seaworthy for the rest of the game. Similarly, in Seasons, the Dodongo and a flying bear make brief appearances, while Ricky is your companion throughout most of the story. Building on the status-enhancing clothing dungeon from Link's Awakening DX, Nintendo has taken a page from Pokémon for the game's jewelry collecting aspect. In both games, there are 64 different rings to collect and modify, each of which has its own unique status enhancement, such as quarter damage, double strength, health recovery, or resistance to a certain type of monster.

Visually speaking, Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons retain the same graphical foundation established in Link's Awakening DX. As such, terrain, character, and item sprites remain the same. It is important to realize, however, that Capcom has made a number of visual enhancements that aren't readily discernable from screenshots alone. Of greatest significance, the way the game scrolls from screen to screen is greatly improved. Instead of the stall-move-stall screen scroll from Link's Awakening, the majority of areas in the Fruit of the Mysterious Tree duo are multiple screens in size and scroll smoothly as you walk around. Not only does this give Link a greater depth of movement, but it also allows for complex bosses that are many screens in size. Additionally, thanks to the addition of facial characteristics and increased terrain interaction, character response and environmental animation also have a more personal feel than they do in Link's Awakening.

As a special bonus to those purchasing Game Boy Advance systems in June, Nintendo and Capcom have included a few GBA-only enhancements in these two new Zelda games. When played in a GBA system, both chapters feature high-color cutscenes and overworld visuals that utilize a slightly improved color palette. The differences aren't major, but a few extra shades of color here and there do increase the overall depth somewhat. The games also feature a special GBA-only picture shop.

Both chapters in the Fruit of the Mysterious Tree series, Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons, are slated for a mid-May release in the US. Each game will feature three battery-backed save slots, a link cable option for trading rings, and a password link system for those aiming to join the two stories.

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