It was only a matter of time before I reviewed a game in the wonderful, magical, beautiful Legend of Zelda series, my undisputed favourite thing. I first fell in love with the series when I was about eight years old and my mum bought me a copy of The Legend of Zelda – Link’s Awakening for my Game Boy. I had played the game at a friend’s house before and was immediately intrigued by the top down perspective, the various items and weapons and the open-ended world at a time when I was used to playing linear side-scrollers. Being a young kid and a novice to the series and its logic it took me a very long time to finish Link’s Wakening, about four years I think but I never lost interest even when I was stuck. Nintendo accomplished miracles with the title crafting a beautiful world with deep, rewarding gameplay, an unforgetable soundtrack and real dream-like atmosphere, which, for anyone who knows the story is totally appropriate, all this on the very limited hardware of the Game Boy. The game remains one of my all time favourites (if you’ve seen my Top 100 Games 2011 post you’ll see it comes 5th) and holds up superbly well against the rest of the series. My second Zelda game was Ocarina of Time itself which cemented the franchise as the highest in my esteem. There’s nothing quite like playing a Zelda game. You get all the immediate fun of exploration and combat and using items in the perfectly balanced gameplay, the mystery and atmosphere of the stories, brilliant freedom to explore the detailed worlds and every aspect of video game design including graphics, script, music and challenge is never less than stellar. The series is a model of consistency with fourteen quality titles released to date only one of which failed to make my 2011 Top 100. Now that I’ve finished playing the three new games I got for Christmas it’s back to replaying classic oldies and there’s nowhere better to start than Zelda.
With both Skyward Sword and Ocarina of Time 3D incoming the prospect of two Zelda releases in one year is about as exciting as things get but back in 2001 we had two released in one day. The Legend of Zelda – Oracle of Seasons and The Legend of Zelda – Oracle of Ages were both released for the Game Boy Colour and exist side by side as sister titles that interact with each other in a lot of innovative and clever ways. Unlike the Pokemon twin sets which are basically the same game with very minor distinctions the two titles are completely different adventures in different worlds with seperate stories, a fact too often forgotten as they’ve been listed together as one game in various articles I’ve read. The games can communicate with each other using link cables allowing players to trade items and whatnot but more significantly upon completing either game you are given a code you can use when starting a new game for the other title that unlocks extra content including the best ending.
It seems to be arunning theme for this blog because in a similar way to my failing to keep up with the Redwall books or try the Fire Emblem series when it first arrived in the UK I actually missed both of these titles when they were first released, something that, being a confirmed Zeldaphile, I’m rather ashamed of. It was a good four or five years before I got round to tracking down copies of the game and I found Seasons much earlier than Ages. When I did finally get Ages I used the code given to me upon completing it to play the secondary version of Seasons. Now, when you complete one of these additional playthroughs you don’t get another code for the first game, instead you’re forced to play the game in the regular way, which is precisely what I’ve had to do here. I’ve seen Seasons’ best ending but not Ages’ so I’m playing the two games side by side to complete the cycle at last some ten years after the titles’ release.
The Legend of Zelda – Oracle of Seasons sees the evergreen young hero Link, ever the quiet one, sent by the Triforce to the land of Holodrum where he meets Din, the fiery dancing beauty who also happens to be the Oracle of Seasons. Before you can say ‘damsel in distress’ Din is kidnapped by general Onox a crime that has a huge effect on Holodrum sending the seasons into disarray and causing the Temple of Seasons to sink below the earth. With the help of Impa, Princess Zelda’s attendant and the Maku Tree, a relative of Ocarina of Time’s Deku Tree no doubt, Link sets off in search of the eight Essences of Nature that will allow him to rescue Din and return Holodrum to normal.
As per the Zelda formula you need to explore the world of Holodrum insearch of the eight dungeons one by one wherein you are challenged to explore a carefully constructed maze engaging enemies and puzzles building up an arsenal of weapons, taking down bosses and completing side-quests. Using this formula both Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages present their stories with the same tools first seen in Link’s Awakening. The graphics are identical to the earlier game with Link’s character model and a number of NPCs returning unchanged. The same goes for much of the landscape though there are some new designs. The sound too is largely recycled but all of these elements were strong enough the first time round that they hold up very well. Many tunes from Link’s Awakening recur but there are plenty of new tunes that do their job very well from the chirpy and cheerful Horon Village theme to the haunting echoey Tarm Ruins tune. The controls too are unchanged with the various items assignable to either button. All in all it wasn’t broke and Capcom, who made both games for Nintendo, didn’t fix it.
So the joy of exploration and puzzle-solving are present and correct but the game needs to stand on its own and do more than rinse and repeat the formula. Seasons shakes things up with a couple of neat variations on the dual world mechanic first pioneered to spectacular effect in A Link to the Past. As you travel around Holodrum the current season, spring, summer, autumn or winter fluctuates between areas as you move between them. Some regions have a preset standard season that will always arise whenever you arrive there while other places have a random season. Aside from the pretty colours and some of the features of the landscape looking different a number of important things change between seasons in such a way as to block or open up a path for you to follow. For example in summer you might find vines growing up a cliff that you can climb that won’t be there in any other season. All this is is another way of restricting where you can go until you have the right tools, which is nothing new to Zelda but it’s great to see imaginative new ways of achieving this. Of course this means that you need to be able to have an effect on what season it is which is where the Rod of Seasons comes in. When standing on a tree stump you can swing the Rod of Seasons to change the current season. Cleverly the game restricts what season you can switch to to begin with. When you first get the item you’ll only be able to make it winter but one by one you unlock each season. It’s a pretty great frame for the game and really draws you in to its unique character but Seasons’ tricks don’t end there. The dual world mechanic is reimagined again in the sense that there is literally a second world to explore in the form of Subrosia, an underground realm a fair bit smaller than Holodrum but still sizeable enough. You access Subrosia via a number of portals found throughout the world. There are no seasons to worry about here but there’s plenty to see and do and it’s fairly well integrated into the game.
The dungeons are strong on the whole and offer a high level of challenge and some decent puzzles but lack some of the soul of those found in Link’s Awakening. The dungeons don’t seem to have a clear thematic distinction in the same way but they’re always atmospheric and highly immersive. Aside from the usual side quests including a trading sequence the like of which we again first saw in Link’s Awakening Oracle of Seasons has some new ideas such as rings which can be found throughout. The rings you wear have various effects such as improving the effectiveness of some of your items and can be traded with an Ages cart via a link cable. There are new items of course one of the most prevalent of which is you seed bag. You can carry five varieties of seeds which can be used for different effects such as making you run fast or warp you to a different part of the map and you later get a slingshot that lets you fire them at enemeies. The best new item however is the Magnetic Gloves which work like a hyperevolved hookshot. You can use the gloves to manipulate metal objects either by drawing them towards you or pushing them away by holding the button. Each time you let go of the button the polarity of the gloves changes allowing you to achieve the opposite effect on the objects which have a standard polarity that never changes. Better still you can move Link by positioning him towards unmoveable metal objects and using the gloves to move him across a room either towards or away from the object allowing you to croos large gaps. The item is used brilliantly well and makes for the best puzzles in the game.
One way in which the two games differ is in their focus on the gameplay. While Ages is more geared towards challenging puzzles Seasons is more about the combat throwing all kinds of aggressive emenies at you. It can get pretty intense at times and even a veteran of the series like me was killed many times in this playthrough. The bosses in particular are very tough, especially the final battle with General Onox. It’s never unfair though and represents exactly the sort of challenge a dedicated gamer craves.
The formula of The Legend of Zelda is so strong that it never really goes wrong but each new iteration needs something to make it shine. Capcom did a fine job with Oracle of Seasons but this isn’t the kind of game to challenge the best of the series. It’s a tremendously well-rounded experience, perfectly paced with plenty of variety and a strong identity and is one of the best Game Boy Colour games and among my favourite original handheld titles. That a game of this high quality is among the less brilliant games in the series should give you a fairly emphatic idea of how great this series is.
Presntation – 9
The superb formula is treated very well here with plenty of new ideas and everything feels as it should. That said it borrows a heck of a lot from the much older Link’s Awakening.
Gameplay – 10
Miyamoto got it emphatically right with The Legend of Zelda and the various improvements to the outstanding gameplay in sunsequent iterations most notably A Link to the Past built the foundations for Oracle of Seasons which takes up the mantle perfectly with some neat ideas of its own. Timeless.
Graphics – 8
Featuring immensely likeable character sprites and pretty collour schemes for the changing seasons it’s a strong graphical package but not a huge upgrade from Link’s Awakening.
Sound – 9
Again following the lead of Link’s Awakening the tunes and effects are superb throughout with plenty standing out and the right moods evoked at every moment.
Difficulty – 9
The heavy combat focus makes this one of the most challenging games in the series post NES. It’s ideal for challenge jumkies and makes completion a rewarding feat.
Longevity – 9
A pretty big overworld and eight dungeons make it a long game that taken time to complete and the added bonus of the extra content unlocked by codes and side quests only make it better.
Oracle of Seasons is just another classic Zelda game and one that fits into the canon very nicely indeed and while it stands brilliantly on its own the best thing about it is that it’s just half of the story. Any Zelda fan who might have missed this and doesn’t mind the outdated graphics sould definitely pick it up.
out of 10