The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages & Seasons

Developer: Capcom/Flagship
U.S. Manufacturer: Nintendo
U.S. Release: May 17, 2001
Format: Game Boy Color Cartridges

Based on: Hiroshi Yamauchi's utter disdain for sequels... no, wait, that's not right.

Games | Game Boy | The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages & Seasons

Article by Jeremy Parish | Originally posted June 2001

Video game reviews usually start with a lengthy and often totally irrelevant discourse in which the reviewer makes some random observation and then cleverly posits his thoughts regarding said game, smoothly paralleling his opinion with what originally seemed like a non-sequitur. The actual meat of the review (i.e., is it good or bad?) doesn't come until the next-to-last paragraph or so. Although I normally abide by this time-honored tradition with my own reviews, in this case I feel compelled to speak my peace in a very straightforward manner. So without further navel-gazing: the Zelda Oracles games -- Ages and Seasons -- are the perfect example of how to make truly great portable games.

If the Oracles had appeared on a robustly-supported system such as PlayStation, both titles would be considered great. On a platform inundated by incalculable piles of truly unplayable crap -- namely, the GameBoy Color -- they stand out like the proverbial cities on a hill. I have to thank both Nintendo and Capcom spin-off Flagship for their roles in creating these little 2-inch-square masterpieces, because they're perfect ammunition to use when I'm forced to stomach yet another ill-advised console-to-handheld direct port or choke down still more feculent licensed mediocrity.

Both chapters of Zelda: Oracles demonstrate a remarkable grasp of things like "good design sensibility" and "respect for consumers." It's a nice change of pace to play a game (or two) whose creators very obviously sat down and said to themselves, "Why are GameBoy Color games usually so terrible? And how can we avoid these problems?" Even better is that fact that for the most part they succeeded in achieving this goal. And it's all somewhat miraculous when you consider that golden child Shigeru Miyamoto had only the most cursory involvement with the games -- which I personally think is a welcome sign that he's focusing on new ideas, but will inevitably give some people massive heart failure as they come to grips with the idea that Miyamoto's not the only person on earth who actually understands the principles of making excellent games.

By their very nature, the Oracles titles are instantly superior to most titles on GBC (and quite a few on GameBoy Advance, at that). The NES-level horsepower of the colorized GameBoy made for quite a few direct ports of NES classics, which seemed a good idea until the world realized that the GBC lacks NES-level graphical resolution, resulting in games with an unfortunate degree of visual cropping. As most developers are too lazy to compensate for the resulting complications of losing a third of the viewable area, the effect on gameplay in such direct conversions is deleterious.

Conversely, the Oracles infamously began life as a conversion of the original Legend of Zelda? to a handheld form, but co-developers Flagship and Nintendo wisely concurred that there were substantial drawbacks to creating a game which was markedly inferior to its previous incarnation. Flying in the face of corporate wisdom, they chose to scrap the original project and begin anew, creating not one but two entirely original Zelda adventures. Well, mostly original - the games' origins are clearly evident throughout Oracle of Seasons, from the way the first dungeon is located in a tree stump on a small island due north and one screen west of the game's starting point, to the fact that the stage bosses are turbo-charged versions of the original Zelda dungeon masters. Nevertheless, these loose trappings belie the fact that the developers skipped out on the easy path and did things the hard way, much to the benefit of gamers everywhere. Or at least the gamers who have the sense to curtail the popular kneejerk reflex of wrinkling their noses in disgust at icky handheld games.

Especially since the Zelda: Oracles games also manage to dodge the second major pitfall common to modern handheld gaming: useless multiple versions. Although the idea of enhancing collectibility by offering games in very slightly minor variants was very clever for marketing purposes and lucrative for the people who profit from sales, it was also rather rapacious and unfair to gamers. There's nothing quite so offensive as discovering that after paying $35 for a new game you can only experience the full thing by purchasing its alternately-colored companion version featuring tiny variants in code for another $35. If Nissan had tried telling me I could only have air conditioning if I bought a second Sentra, I'd have taken my business elsewhere. Unfortunately, gaming companies seem to get away with this entirely too often, which makes the Oracles all the more remarkable. After all, these games are coming from Nintendo, whose Pokémon series embodies the very concept of this unfortunate marketing lure. But the two Oracles are not simply the same game with insignificant tweaks; each of these Zelda titles is in and of itself a complete game with unique dungeons, items, goals and puzzles.

In fact, it's entirely possible that the Oracles suffer from being a little too much Zelda all at once. Each game's dungeons are easily as large and intricate as those in any other game in the series (except maybe the CDi games; those were massively engaging works of art!), and by the end of the ordeal you'll have experienced about 20 different dungeons as well as the usual interstitial puzzle-solving and item-trading indigenous to the Zelda series. That's a lot of effort to expend for what ultimately amounts to a rather poor payoff (see spoiler-iffic sidebar), although (the surprisingly large number of) gamers who adamantly believe that video games should drag on and on to allow them to eke every last penny's worth of value from their purchase will be high on the hog. In my mind, this fact is the single best defense for Nintendo releasing this series as a pair of games rather than as a megalith-sized single cart: considering the sheer amount of game contained herein, it's a mental relief to have a natural break point. What's really frightening is to consider that the Oracles were originally supposed to be a trilogy; luckily the third oracle, Farore, was demoted to the status of a mere secretary and didn't require her own adventure. More importantly, the Link system is so much more satisfying to the crusty gamer in me when it entails swapping out carts and jotting down some good old-fashioned 8-bit-style passwords, complete with easily-confused characters (though sadly little opportunity for randomly-generated obscenities, more's the pity).

But don't be fooled by the throwback, here; only one of these games -- Oracle of Seasons -- actually plays like an 8-bit title. Ages, on the other hand, manages to display a remarkable resemblence to the design principles of the 64-bit Ocarina Of Time. Unfortunately, when played in tandem with its linked counterpart it helps throw the reasons for my ambivalence toward the series' N64 installments into high relief. While Seasons offers a quick-paced and frequently challenging adventure with a respectable amount of freedom (I inadvertantly cleared the fifth dungeon before I even located the fourth), Ages subscribes to the philosophy that every step of the game must be mired in a puzzle of some sort. The net result is that progress is meted out slowly and, at times, with much frustration. After a while a person wants to yell at the game, "Get on with it already!" The stick-and-carrot approach can be effective, but it's generally disheartening when you know that the bait at the end of the currently-proffered stick is only going to lead to another dangling carrot.

On the bright side, Ages has the benefit of being a 2D game, which means that its tedious portions move at a much swifter pace than those in the 64-bit titles. After all, scooting about in a tiny world made of small, precise tiles is much faster than moving about in a large world with interactive environments and an extra dimension to navigate. The Tokay trading game in Ages takes a good 30 to 40 minutes to complete; in Ocarina it likely would have taken at least twice that long simply because of the lethagic pace necessitated by a more realistic presentation. But even at the handheld game's accelerated pace, progress in Ages sometimes crawls to a slow, grinding halt as you suffer through the latest fetch quest or town crisis that only you can solve. In pleasant contrast, Oracle of Seasons provides a far less toilsome experience, generally maintaining a pleasant balance of action, exploration and brain-teasing.

As far as plot goes, there's not much to speak of. Which is par for the Zelda series and perfectly acceptable, since the meat of the game is hacking and puzzling your way across the overworld and through deadly underground dungeons. And there's plenty of that here: a steaming heap of succulent Zelda goodness with only a few small imperfections -- for instance, there are a few places where it's possible to become stuck in a maze and have to reset the game to continue ahead. If you can deal with the sheer amount of Zelda gaming contained within these tiny carts, there's really no reason not to snag both titles and enjoy the cleverly-named Link system (which allows a continuous flow of story from one game to another regardless of the order in which you play them). Unless you just happen to have some sort of bias against handheld games, in which case lots of gamers who are wiser and less finicky than you will have a good laugh at your expense.

Of course, quite a few people think I'm an idiot whose opinion is worth less than a plugged peso. So how can you trust what I say? Your only real recourse is to purchase both of these games and decide for yourself if they really are good, and which of the two is the better game. You should also send a letter to Nintendo telling them that they need to continue to abide by the principles of handheld game design laid down in the Oracles series. A vicious harangue directed at Majesco and THQ and every other company that complacently churns out middling-to-poor fare for handhelds is not entirely out of the question, either.

The unbearable lightness of being a tool

Aside from label color and, oh yeah, the entire contents of each game, there's one major factor that distinguishes each game from the other: the cool doodads Link finds and uses during his quests. Obviously each game has its own special gimmick device (the Rod of Seasons and the Random Musical Instrument of Ages, each belonging to its logical, respective Oracle), but the dungeon treasure items vary from game to game. This gives each game a nice touch of replay, but also makes the other seem a bit lacking in comparison when some of the more interesting items never appear. Does anyone really care about the Staff of Somaria? Ages would be so much cooler if it had the Roc's Cape instead. And whose idea was is to stick the seed slingshot into Seasons when the Seed Shooter is so much more enjoyable? It's so sad to see a great game trip up in the trifles.

The canon of Ganon

If there's one element of Oracles that truly disappoints, it's the fact that the "big secret" -- the culmination of the brilliant link system used to connect the two games -- is just another stupid rehash of Zelda II. How many times can we fight Ganon before the whole thing turns into a ridiculous farce? I'd say four... unfortunately, Oracles marks the fifth iteration of Battle Royale: Link vs. Ganon.

It's not a coincidence that Megaman 5 was where that particular series started to go south, and you'd better believe that the fact that it marked Dr. Wily's fourth asinine and woefully repetitive attempt at revenge was the primary reason. And unlike Zelda, Megaman knew better than to take itself too seriously - so the retreading of a tired (and not particulary remarkable to begin with) villain in a series with unfortunate pretenses of High Drama is even worse. If you needed irrefutable proof that Capcom had their nefarious hand in these games, this would be it.

In my mind, the most interesting games in gaming's longest-running series are the ones that gently break beyond the stagnant boundaries which inevitably encase any extended saga: Yoshi's Island, Mega Man Legends, Final Fantasy VIII, Symphony of the Night?. That's probably why Link's Awakening is still my favorite in this series - not only is it an exceptionally well-designed adventure, it also gave Link a brief (and ultimately bittersweet) respite from the terribly persistent yet easily defeated pig dude known as Ganon.

Unfortunately, for all that the Oracles follow in the footsteps of Link's Awakening, they fail to take a cue from the game's excellent storytelling and ultimately rely on the inevitable crutch of saving Zelda and slaying the freshly-resurrected Ganon. Yawn.

Still, considering Nintendo could have simply settled for tepid ports of Zelda I & II, it's sort of hard to complain. Which doesn't mean I won't complain, just that my irritation is slightly mollified.