In letting Link manipulate nature itself, The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons uncovers a charming world-changing mechanic, opening up the door to a clever brand of exploration that nicely counterbalances its action-focused dungeons
Simultaneously released as the result of an unexpected partnership between Nintendo and Capcom, the two The Legend of Zelda games published for the Game Boy Color share a whole lot of similarities in terms of general presentation, structure, and spirit. However, the strongest of all the connections that can be traced between The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages and The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons is certainly their purpose. After all, given they mark the second time Nintendo’s biggest franchise would be brought to a handheld console, their goal was to expand upon what had been achieved by their portable predecessor: the classic and highly regarded Link’s Awakening.
And if that title landed as a remarkable triumph thanks to how it showed the world that the hero in green and his action-adventure exploits could work perfectly and produce an epic quest even when supported by humbler hardware, then it was up to Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons to move beyond that starting point and seek, somewhere, enough inspiration so that they could find their own signature and stand out within a saga that, by then, had already yielded a good share of classics.
The developers at Capcom were outsiders touching a heavily guarded well-established franchise. And it is natural that, given the sensitivity of the material that was being handled, Nintendo oversaw the project quite tightly. As a consequence, partly due to that surveillance and partly due to the fact the formula of The Legend of Zelda had more than proved its worth, no considerable liberties are taken.
Unsurprisingly, therefore, Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons operate within the framework of Link’s Awakening: they take place away from Hyrule, the legendary kingdom that is usually the setting for most titles of the series; they have virtually the same charming simple art style, with the distinction that, since Link’s Awakening was originally released for a black-and-white system, Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons were built from ground zero with the usage of colors in mind; they present some light sidescrolling segments which are mostly nowhere to be seen in the franchise’s home console entries; and they have Link going around some world looking for eight relics that, guarded by bosses, are hidden inside dungeons.
Yet, fully aware that simply putting together a well-designed The Legend of Zelda package along those lines would lead them right towards the limbo reserved for forgettable games, Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons do more. Namely, each one of them sprinkles the exploration of the overworld with their own touch, effectively changing the way in which Link interacts with the world around him. Where within the confines of Link’s Awakening the hero’s actions were restricted to the very varied pieces of equipment he carried in his bizarrely huge pocket, in Oracle of Ages and in Oracle of Seasons that paradigm is if not broken, at least enlarged, because while during the former Link gains the ability to manipulate time itself and travel between eras, in the latter he toys around with nature and can call forth whichever season he desires.
Such power is acquired because the Triforce, now resting inside a sacred temple, summons the hero and, upon approaching it, Link is transported to a forest in the kingdom of Holodrum, one of the lands that neighbor Hyrule. After briefly walking through it, the character stumbles upon what seems to be a troupe of traveling artists, led by a dancer named Din. Suddenly, though, thunder falls from the sky and Onox, who introduces himself as the General of Darkness, captures the beautiful girl.
When he does so, the seasons of the land fall into disarray and, with that natural cycle broken, the gifts yielded by nature are endangered. Impa, Princess Zelda’s servant, who was on a mission to take Din back to Hyrule for protection, explains that the girl is the Oracle of Seasons and that her disappearance will send the place into utter chaos. As Onox takes his precious captive back to his castle and makes the Temple of Seasons sink to the depths of Holodrum, Link sets out to find guidance with the Maku Tree, the kingdom’s protector.
Those events make up a pretty solid story that, even if not impressive, does a good job in setting up an enjoyable adventure. And following them, Link learns that he must look around Holodrum for the eight Essences of Nature, which will open up the way to Onox’s castle. Like its sibling, The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons features a very guided sort of progression. After going into a dungeon, finding a new piece of equipment, beating the boss, and finally collecting the Essence of Nature within it, Link will receive a message from the Maku Tree telling him in which of the kingdom’s regions the next one lies. And, almost invariably, reaching that new area can only be done with the tool found in the previous dungeon.
As such, there is a linearity to how Oracle of Seasons approaches the exploration of Holodrum because even though it is one big open piece of land, the regions are unlocked one after the other in an orderly fashion. That setup, however, which is notably more restrictive than the one seen in A Link to the Past, does not mean locating the dungeons and entering them is an easy task. Sure, ultimately players will be looking for them inside relatively narrow perimeters, but – smartly – Oracle of Seasons uses that tighter scope to its advantage.
And that is when Link’s newest tool, and Oracle of Seasons’ defining trait, comes in. When the game starts, the Rod of Seasons is nothing but a glorified stick; reportedly, it allows the character to step on a tree stump, swing it, and change the season of the area he is currently in. However, it arrives into his possession powerless, as the spirits that lend their magic to it are locked inside the Temple of Seasons, which is – thanks to Onox – so deep underground it landed in the subterranean magma-ridden world of Subrosia.
Connected to Holodrum via pairs of linked portals, Subrosia – in a way – works like the Dark World of A Link to the Past and the past era of Oracle of Ages; in other words, it is an extra piece of land that needs, in conjunction with the main kingdom, to be explored little by little as Link’s adventure goes along, as besides holding the spirits that will eventually fully unlock the power of the rod, enabling it to summon all four seasons of the year, it also contains other valuable items and shortcuts that are vital to the clearing of the game. However, where the Dark World and the past era were alternate versions of the original kingdoms of their respective games, Subrosia is entirely new, albeit much smaller.
It is inside those two core quirks that Oracle of Seasons operates during much of the exploration that precedes the finding of its eight dungeons. Although the directions given by the Maku Tree are quite specific, they do not paint the whole picture, as within the boundaries of the region he is told to go to he will have to toy with the seasons or go into Subrosia in order to gain access to the maze.
Consequently, those segments end up working like engaging puzzles that require as much reasoning as exploration, and if the concept of traveling to a parallel land with the goal of clearing obstacles or finding useful assets is – even if employed rather well during the course of the quest – not new to the franchise, the manipulation of the seasons is delightfully refreshing: the environmental changes each one of them produces and the way those alterations come into play in finding a way to advance through Holodrum effectively catapult Oracle of Seasons to a realm of its own.
In summer, smaller bodies of water dry up and vines, which allow Link to climb, grow on openings found in cliffs; in autumn, mushrooms that are rock-solid around the rest of the year can be picked up and leaves cover holes; in winter, parts of lakes and rivers freeze, snow piles up in certain locations (acting either as bridges or blocks), and a few trees become thinner due to the losing of their leaves, hence opening up new paths; and in spring, the water level rises and flowers that blast Link upwards flourish.
Although the hero only gains the power to summon all seasons close to the game’s halfway point, therefore leaving puzzles that involve the combined usage of the four of them to the later portions of the adventure, the mechanic is very well-utilized, having an influence not just on opening the path to the dungeons, but also in the gathering of some of the quest’s extra content, including heart pieces, a trade sequence, extra equipment, and collectible rings that when equipped give Link a variety of added powers, which are an interesting feature introduced by Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons. Besides adding an alluring new flavor to the exploration of Holodrum, the seasons also bring a pleasant cosmetic effect to the table. For while both Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons are, notably, very colorful games, certainly a consequence of the excitement over hardware that moved past black-and-white visuals, the latter carries an extra layer of exuberance thanks to the shifts in the tones of colors that are used as seasons change.
When Oracle of Seasons moves into its dungeons, players will be greeted by the usual level design brilliancy and great boss battles the franchise is known for. In conceiving both games, Capcom envisioned Oracle of Seasons as the most action-oriented of the pair, and nowhere is that aura more clearly felt than inside the mazes. Naturally, those buildings are still packed to the brim with riddles that demand a good deal of thought when it comes to the navigation of their multi-floored structures and to the use of Link’s diverse equipment.
However, even if there is a very satisfying level of challenge to be found in this particular quest, it is noticeable how the dungeons of Oracle of Seasons are, on average, easier to figure out than those of Oracle of Ages. They cannot be qualified as simple, for there is plenty of complexity in the way they are set up; likewise, they cannot be called unremarkable, because one or two of them do stand out within the saga itself. It is just that many of their rooms lean towards defeating enemies and skillfully avoiding traps, consequently giving the dungeons of Oracle of Seasons a feel, only lightly perceived, that is distinctive from that of its sibling, and allowing those places to nicely counterbalance its puzzle-centered overworld exploration.
When it comes to the dungeons, the actual difference between Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons is more clearly perceived through the array of items Link will earn and use inside the mazes, for although there is a good bit of overlapping, the tools that are unique to each title are very noteworthy. Like Oracle of Ages, Oracle of Seasons will see the character acquire bombs, a power bracelet for lifting heavy objects, a boomerang, a feather that allows him to jump, and a seed satchel that carries an assortment of different grains that can let him run faster, interact with hint-giving statues, lure enemies, efficiently warp around the overworld, and light up torches.
In Oracle of Seasons, though, the boomerang gains an upgraded version that can be have its movement controlled; the feather that enables jumping and that lends the games the power to toy with the platforming elements introduced by Link’s Awakening eventually becomes a cape that gives Link the ability to double jump; and a slingshot that fires three seeds simultaneously in different directions as well as a magnetic glove that can either attract or repel objects also come into play. Choosing which game has the best group of tools boils down to one’s preference, but it is a fact that Oracle of Seasons unlocks very unique puzzle opportunities with the magnetic glove and quirky boomerang, and that the double-jumping supported by the cape fits the title’s inclination towards action quite well, paving the way to thrilling platforming moments – either from a top-down view or from a sidescrolling perspective – and creating great challenges related to avoiding traps.
Despite their numerous distinctions in a myriad of areas, there is one particular set of traits that Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons share entirely, and those are their tiny flaws. The first problem, which also plagued both A Link to the Past and Link’s Awakening, is the absence of a warp point in the dungeons that leads straight back to the boss’ room. Given being defeated by the bad guy causes one to be kicked back to the place’s entrance, having to retrace one’s steps back the battleground just for the sake of getting another shot at bringing the boss down can get annoying.
Truth be told, Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons do try to remedy that issue to a certain degree by offering a warp point that takes Link to the room where he fought the mini-boss, but even though that measure diminishes the backtracking it does not eliminate it completely. The second shortcoming stems from the Game Boy Color’s limited number of buttons. Given only two of them are available for Link to assign his equipment to, having to pause the game to switch between the tools that are selected happens very frequently, breaking the game’s flow.
The links between both games, however, go beyond shared qualities, common shortcomings, and the fact they sprinkle some puzzle-solving on their exploration component by giving the starring hero world-altering powers. As siblings with very distinctive personalities that were, nonetheless, born from the same mold, Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons were conceived as titles that would communicate with one another. More specifically, after clearing one of them players will be given a password that can be entered into the other before the start of the quest.
By doing so, the second game suffers alterations in plot, dialogue, and the placement of some items in order to become a sequel, eventually revealing a new ending that besides tying both together neatly under the same evil plot, also includes characters that are a staple in The Legend of Zelda franchise, such as the princess herself, the witches that form Twinrova, and their dark master, Ganon. Furthermore, passwords uttered by characters during the course of the second game can be given to NPCs of the first one in exchange for prizes.
Similarly to its counterpart, The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons is a considerable step-up for the franchise’s handheld line of games following the impressive Link’s Awakening. And that is because even though it is built over the same framework as that game, which proved without a drop of doubt that the adventures of the hero in green could work in a smaller scale, it is not merely satisfied with achieving greatness through similar means. As such, it chooses to evolve and take risks by bringing puzzle-solving into its overworld via a remarkable mechanic that allows Link to control the seasons; by exploring new items that are smartly used in the creation of refreshing challenges; and by giving its impressively designed dungeons an action-focused touch in filling them up with rooms where killing enemies and avoiding traps work as the main course. And those pieces come together to form a unique and charming quest that still stands as one of the series’ strongest outings.