Oracle of Seasons: A Mild Summer

Score: 7

Personal Score: 6.5

It’s difficult to mention the Gameboy Color without conversations drifting towards the Oracle games.  The Gameboy Color saw the release of two original Zelda games, released at the same time in 2001.  Oracle of Ages and Seasons were the first two Zelda games to be produced by Capcom, followed by Four Swords and The Minish Cap.  Since the release of Link’s Awakening DX in 1998, fans had been waiting patiently for the next original handheld Zelda title to arrive, and the announcement of the Oracle games sent a buzz of excitement through the community.  A return to the overhead 2D style of Zelda found in Link’s Awakening, the Oracle games were greeted with open arms and stand as the second best-selling handheld games in the franchise behind Phantom Hourglass, selling almost 4 million units each.  The artwork for the series was taken in a new direction, featuring more manga-esque styles of character art and over-the-top costume designs we’ve now come to expect from the series.  The Oracle games succeeded in injecting even more whimsical spirit into the franchise, spearheaded by the efforts of Majora’s Mask.  Familiar faces and new characters all managed to exude copious amount of personality, despite being mere sprites on a tiny screen, thanks to the charming artwork and the occasionally tongue-in-cheek dialogue.  The games also featured linked features, adding a final chapter of narrative material to the story once both games had been completed and linked.  Along with Link’s Awakening DX, the Oracle games made it a necessity for Zelda fans to own a Gameboy Color.

In terms of controls and graphical presentation, Ages and Seasons are virtually identical.  The gameplay of Seasons centers on the use of the Rod of Seasons, allowing Link to change the seasons and alter the landscape.  Seasons is also more focused on the combat aspects of the Zelda franchise than its counterpart, dialing back on the amount of puzzle solving required to progress.  Oracle of Seasons eventually sold more copies than Ages by a small margin, making it the more popular of the two (in terms of sales, at least).There are many reasons why this could be the case; the difficulty level is not as high, the story is simpler, and the cover doesn’t feature Link playing a harp (what 13 year old boy wants to buy a game with a harp on the cover?), making it arguably more fit for mass consumption.

For me, the ease of access instead served to make Seasons the less enjoyable of the two.  I purchased Seasons following a completed playthrough of Ages, and was eager for more of the same experiences I had enjoyed during my time with Ages.  However, Seasons proved to fall short of my expectations.  The plot is bare-bones and uncomplicated, limiting the amount of excitement I felt during the narrative’s progression.  The gameplay is similarly straightforward, and does not often require players to strain their puzzle-solving muscles.  The world itself is every bit as gorgeous and endearing as the world of Ages, but something feels less…alive in Seasons.  Despite being nearly identical to Ages on a technical level, Seasons feels somewhat hollow compared to it’s counterpart and stands as a mid-level Zelda game at best.

The Pros:

The land of Holodrum is a delightful display of pixilated beauty.  Sprites carry on their endless routines with goofy animations and manage to display endearing personalities despite the limits of the Gameboy Color’s hardware.  The map is comprised of traditional Zelda landscapes (deserts, forests, swamps, coasts, etc), all of which ring of familiarity for fans of the series.  Using the Rod of Seasons, players get varying eye-fulls of Holodrum.  This mechanic is obviously meant to lend itself to travel and puzzle-solving, but it also serves to keep the visuals fresh.  Between the two Oracle games, Seasons is the more aesthetically pleasing in the visual department.

That’s the look of pure joy on Link’s face, if I’m a competent judge of facial expressions

The character design and artwork of the Oracle games are major contributing factors to their overall charm.  The citizens of Holodrum and Labrynna are mostly independent of each other, each as colorful and unique as the other.  In Holodrum, we see diverse group of characters as well as the inclusion of a new race; the Subrosians.  While not featured in any game since the release of Seasons, they are an interesting race within the game, displaying their own unique culture and charm amidst the established races of the Zelda series.  Maple (the witch featured in both Ages and Seasons) is a fun distraction throughout the game, flying across the map and colliding with Link, resulting in a scramble to retrieve lost items before she can steal them from you.  The design elements of both the characters and the landscape in Seasons combine to offer players an indisputably charming experience in Holodrum.

The controls of both Seasons and Ages are identical to the controls featured in Link’s Awakening, and as such are completely sublime.  One would be hard-pressed to find any fault with the layout of the controls.  Moving Link, using items, piloting Link’s steeds (a boxing kangaroo, flying bear and red dinosaur respectively), and managing inventory are all a piece of cake.

Seasons presents itself very much like The Legend of Zelda and The Adventure of Link, with the primary focus being action and combat sequences.  As such, many of the enemy encounters are quite challenging and a test of gamer’s combat mettle.  Standard Zelda enemies populate the majority of Holodrum, all of which aren’t much different than the enemies featured in previous games, providing the same sense of urgency and danger that’s expected of the top-down Zelda games.  For fans of the combat found in early Zelda game, Seasons is a feast of enemy engagements and provides endless opportunities to hack and slash your way across the map.  In a series that occasionally becomes bloated with puzzle-solving mechanics, it’s somewhat refreshing to be able to focus mainly on gutting enemies instead of pushing blocks.

Boss fights in Seasons stand out as the most challenging part of the game.  Boss encounters are tests of brute force and reflexes.  Most of the bosses are familiar faces from previous entries, with a few new faces sprinkled in for flavor.  Medusa’s Head, the eighth boss, is a new face that appears quite wicked in sprite form and proves to be a vicious opponent.  Mini-bosses are similarly challenging and a joy to overcome.  One boss, Agunima, is a homage to the wizard Agahnim seen in A Link to The Past.  General Onox, the game’s primary antagonist, is a visual splendor as well as a challenging final encounter.

Here’s Link summoning Bahamut…er, fighting Onox…

The Cons:

Seasons may be largely identical to Ages in terms of presentation and control, but it is a far cry from challenging and laughably simple in the realm of storytelling.  While Ages features a more complex story with several characters influencing the narrative’s direction, Seasons sticks to the basics and makes no attempts to offer a unique story.

Chronologically, Oracle of Seasons takes place before Ages, though the two stories occur back-to-back on the ‘Hero is Defeated’ timeline, following A Link to The Past.  The story focuses on Twinrova’s attempts to resurrect Ganon by lighting the flames of Destruction, Sorrow and Despair by throwing the realms of Holodrum and Labrynna into disarray.  In Seasons, the story begins with Link awakening in Holodrum, having been found and cared for by the oracle Din and her traveling troupe.  After brief moments of frivolity, Din is whisked away by General Onox, thus plummeting the land’s seasons into fluctuation.  Link sets out to rescue Din, and enlists the help of the Maku tree (Holodrum’s Deku Tree) and obtains the Rod of Seasons in order to find the eight Essences of Nature (sounds gross, to those of us with f*cked up imaginations), which will allow him to enter Onox’s castle.

…aaaaaand that’s it.  The story consists of Link finding the eight Essences (still sounds gross), defeating Onox, and rescuing Din.  No twists, no turns, no real development.  Just a simple introductory sequence and you’re off to the races.  Compared to Ages and Link’s Awakening, the story told in Seasons is a disappointing plod through an overdone, cliched plotline.

In this scene, Twinrova discuss the validity of Stephen Hawking’s proposals regarding black holes, displaying complexity comparable to the plot of the game.

The bare-bones story is accompanied by similarly simple gameplay throughout.  While some may find the combat of the Zelda series more enticing than the puzzle-solving, I myself find the puzzle-solving elements featured in Ages and Link’s Awakening more of a draw than endless sword-fighting.  Seasons features no particular challenge in the puzzle-solving department, both in and out of dungeons.  Many find the Subrosian Dance sequence to be challenging, but for someone with a good memory, it’s hardly a brain-bending endeavor.  Within the dungeons, players are tasked with very cookie-cutter puzzles to solve that usually only require block pushing, switch pressing, and more enemies to cut down.  This makes it difficult to feel excited when entering a newly discovered dungeon, knowing that another series of almost brainless puzzle solving stands between Link and the boss encounter.  The dungeon progression is also painfully familiar, as players are tasked with overcoming cliched use of various elemental hazards, in addition to having to return to the Temple of Seasons on a regular basis.

Although the characters of Seasons are colorful, they are not particularly complex or interesting to interact with.  Link is the same Link we’ve seen before, with little to no personality to speak of.  Din presents as a cliche free-spirit with a love for dancing.  Onox is a very typical, very cliche villain complete with maniacal laughter and tired diatribes.  The Maku Tree doesn’t distinguish itself from any of the other ‘wise guide’ figures found in other Zelda games, and exists only to point Link in the direction of his next objective.  None of the characters I just mentioned experience any development, remaining the same from start to finish.  The rest of the characters populating Holodrum display no development throughout the narrative as well, and are content to repeat the same two lines over and over again.

Because of the simplicity presented in both the gameplay and story, Seasons plays out with an uncomfortable feeling of emptiness.  The end-goal is outlined in the opening moments, and the destination is set at the end of a very straight road.  The Zelda franchise isn’t known for it’s overly complicated plotlines (with a few exceptions), but since A Link to The Past, players have been treated to at least a few surprises during the course of the narrative that kept the plot feeling fresh and engaging.  Where Link’s Awakening and Ages take a few steps forward for the series’ writing, Seasons takes a few steps back toward the non-existent plot of the first two games.

*Gasp!* An interesting plot point!

*Leap* Phew, avoided it…

Unfortunately, because of the lacking complexity found in the story and gameplay of Seasons, my overall enjoyment of the game was severely limited.  While there’s not much wrong with Seasons in the technical sense, it still feels sorely lacking when compared to its counterpart and other Zelda games.  The combat is solid and the land of Holodrum is brimming with color and memorable characters, but it’s merely a distraction from the dullness of the overall experience.   Standing next to Oracle of Ages, Oracle of Seasons only succeeds in providing the foundation for the superior experience of its counterpart.  For those of you in a position to experience the Oracle Games for the first time, I’d recommend you play Seasons first.  That way, your experience with Ages will be all the more transcendent of the subpar experience found in Seasons.

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