A little while ago I reviewed Oracle of Ages, a Zelda title released on Game Boy Color. I remarked on its puzzle-centric design, and commented that it, with its heavy emphasis on increasingly tricky repetitions of puzzles and gimmick bosses, wasn’t entirely to my taste; I guess I just prefer my Zelda games a bit more on the sword-swingy side. The thing about Oracle of Ages though is that it’s only one of a pair, and this isn’t some sort of Pokemon-style, basically-the-same-game-but deal; instead, Oracle of Season is a fully different adventure, so naturally I have to dive in and check it out.
The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons (GBC)
Released Feb 2001 | Developed: Flagship | Published: Nintendo
Genre: Action-Adventure | HLTB: 16 hours
Before going into Oracle of Seasons, the only thing I knew was that it was the more combat-focused game of the pair. That alone gave me some hope that I might enjoy this a bit more than Oracle of Ages, which ground me down with the puzzle-heavy gameplay. I think though the way I would describe it now, after having beaten it, is simply as a Zelda game. Seasons, far more than Ages, adheres to the general franchise formula, albeit by sheer dint of not trying so hard with its puzzles.
That formula, if you’ve somehow completely missed the nearly 40 years of Zelda products we’ve had so far, is as follows. You are Link, destined to constantly be a hero beating up various baddies, and you’re plonked down in a world in peril. In order to save it you’ll need to search the land for a series of sealed dungeons, grab whatever magical items are hanging around while you fight your way past enemies and hazards, have a showdown with a boss or two, and collect some mystical doodads that help you save the world. To many the Zelda franchise represents a pinnacle of action-adventure games, and each new game that releases largely tends to play around that central formula to great effect.
I found it surprising, then, that Seasons felt so safe. Given that it was sold as the more combat-based game out of the Oracle duology, I suppose I was expecting it to be a kind of constant barrage of swordfights and challenges, in a similar way to how Ages integrates puzzles into every aspect of the game. In reality though, Seasons didn’t really like it was any more combat-heavy than any other Zelda than Ages, and even then it’s not like it had a focus on fighting. There’s a small sidequest where you’re tasked with hunting down a bunch of special miniboss versions of regular overworld enemies, and there’s maybe a few more enemies than usual cluttering up the screen, but I can’t say I noticed that enough for it to constitute a broader design or theme of the game. The result was a game which felt more like the average Zelda game, and further pushed Ages out as a slight outlier.
Playing the two Oracle games back to back really served to highlight the issues both games share, as well as their strengths. One thing Zelda games often live or die on is the quality of their dungeons – makes sense, given you’re going to be delving into plenty on your adventure. However, I think that the dungeons represented some of my clearest bugbears with the Oracle duology, and that was probably more so in Seasons than in Ages. While I didn’t enjoy Ages’ dungeons because I’m a bit of an idiot who doesn’t enjoy constant puzzling, Seasons were almost more frustrating because they were so bland. By this point in the Zelda franchise we’d already seen games with some fantastic dungeon design, with games like the N64 powerhouses of Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask, but also in the 2D Zelda space with A Link to the Past. All of these games grasped a fundamental idea: that the dungeons have to have character. I can still recall many of the dungeons in A Link to the Past; each one felt inextricably linked to the places they were found, and often integrated many elements of the location into their design. This helped to cement the sense of everything happening in a larger, connected world. In contrast, the dungeons in Seasons lack this; the visual design is very standardized, built of non-descript blocks and the same array of enemies littering the floors. It all works together to create a tangible sense of disconnect between the land of Holodrum outside and the dungeons, shattering the immersion of the adventure.
Outside of those instances, I do genuinely think Oracle of Seasons (and indeed, both Oracle games) are impressively immersive. The land in which Link finds himself this time, Holodrum, is gorgeous; in fact, it’s easily one of the best looking worlds that I’ve ever seen on the Game Boy Color. The effort put into the sprites is phenomenal, with a huge range of varied locations to see, and all of which are rendered with wonderful popping colours and, occasionally, some remarkably complex animations. Obviously Zelda games are pretty much always quite high-budget affairs, but to see the same care and attention given to a set of titles developed by an ancillary studio rather than Nintendo’s main internal developers is a welcome joy. #
Of course, one of the things which really shows off the graphical work put into Oracle of Seasons is the central gimmick of altering the seasons to help you explore Holodrum. At the outset of the story a young dancer named Din is kidnapped by the villainous General Onox; unfortunately for Holodrum, Din was the titular Oracle of Seasons, meaning her absence causes the seasons to start cycling wildly, bringing freezing winters and burning summers in mere seconds. As a result, whenever Link travels between areas in the overworld the season changes, and with that comes new hazards and changes to the environment. For example, in winter many of Holodrum’s lakes and rivers freeze over, allowing Link to slip and slide across them, and the snows pile up in huge banks that can be walked across if you can scale high enough to get on top. Each season has different effects, from the rivers drying in summer and revealing new pathways, to mushrooms growing in fall that can be uprooted and thrown aside to clear routes. As much as I enjoyed Ages’ time-traveling between past and present Labrynna, I think I prefer this approach; not only does it show off Holodrum in a more visually exciting way, but it also feels like we get a little more on offer, with areas sometimes drastically changing across the four seasons.
Naturally though we need some way of controlling and mastering the seasons in order for Link to recover the scattered essences of the seasons and confront Onox. To that end, early in the game we’re given the Rod of Seasons, a mystical artifact with the power to control the changing seasons (obviously). The way this works is simple: by standing on a tree stump (Holodrum has a lot of these, so presumably they also have a ruthless logging industry) Link can wave the rod around and force the season to change. At first the rod can only change us to winter, but as the game progresses and we acquire more power, we soon are able to manipulate all four seasons. Just as with the Harp of Ages in Seasons’ sister game, this is used to fully explore the overworld although it is useless in dungeons, further adding to that sense of disconnect I mentioned earlier.
The rod is also useless in Subrosia, Seasons’ secondary overworld. At points during the game Link uncovers swirling portals on the ground, and stepping into them transports our hero to the underground realm of Subrosia. I figure we get a sub-world like this for parity with Ages, which has two extensive overworlds in the form of Labrynna’s past and present, and although Subrosia isn’t quite as big as Holodrum, it is actually surprisingly large, with an array of areas which form slightly warped, underground equivalents to the surface world. In a logical but slightly frustrating turn, Subrosians use a different currency to the surface dwellers, so Seasons manages to feature a bit of additional item grinding that doesn’t usually make it into Zelda games.
Having now played both Oracle games and crossed them off my backlog, I’m left with some mixed feelings. There’s an inescapable bottom line for me, which is that I simply didn’t enjoy either game as much as some of the other Zelda titles I have played, and even when placed into their release order context I don’t think these games necessarily come out that strongly. The closest point of comparison is Link’s Awakening, but although these games are, on paper, an upgrade over it visually and in terms of having more complex interactions with its gameworld, I wouldn’t rush to pick either over it. I think it’s the lack of a whimsical sense of identity which hurts them; both Seasons and Ages are defined in quite nebulous, mechanical terms – one’s the puzzle Zelda, and one isn’t, and that’s hard to get all that excited for. Still, it would be wrong of me to say I didn’t get any enjoyment from either game, and both are interesting curiosities in the Zelda franchise. Obviously you get the most from them if you can get a hold of both games and play them as linked experiences, but it’s perfectly possible to simply play each one and enjoy them without seeing the true end.
4/7 – GOOD.
Sure, maybe something doesn’t quite work but at least it has heart, or a spark of excitement that makes it worthwhile despite the faults. Definitely worth a go if you can at least find it on sale.