By Robert Ward . June 16, 2013 . 3:00pm
The video that got me excited for The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword back in November of 2011 wasn’t Link’s showdown with the Ancient Automaton Koloktos, or even the discovery of Zelda’s lullaby hidden in the game’s main theme; no, instead, it was a short clip featuring a curious creature named Batreaux.
Skyward Sword was making big promises—it was the biggest Zelda game to date, and the origin story for the entire series—but that clip of Batreaux reassured me that the iconic charm of the Zelda franchise was making a comeback. Skyward Sword would come to represent the best parts of all of its predecessors—just as the Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages represent the absolute best of theirs.
In today’s world of HD graphics and open, three-dimensional worlds, it’s easy to succumb to the thought that a two dimensional adventure game from the Game Boy era is inherently limited by its hardware.
The Oracle games had the misfortune of being the Game Boy Color’s closing act in the midst of a rapidly changing generation of consoles, and represented a return to the traditional, top-down, screen-by-screen format that Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask totally scrapped—ultimately leading them to fall beneath the shadow of their N64 predecessors. The first few minutes of Oracle of Seasons proved to me that it was the context of their release, and not the quality of the games themselves, that caused them to be overlooked.
Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages have been re-released on the 3DS eShop, now during a time where they can be both remembered by an older generation and discovered by a new one. I myself started with Oracle of Seasons, so let’s start there.
The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons begins when the triforce summons Link to Hyrule castle, sending him to the land of Holodrum where he meets Din and her eccentric troupe of performers. The game wastes no time setting up the plot—and one awkward dance later, Din is hastily kidnapped by the evil General Onox. Her true identity is revealed to be the Oracle of Seasons, who went into hiding with a troupe of Hyrulean knights after Princess Zelda felt a presence of evil looming over her kingdom.
In a matter of minutes, the introduction is over—no tutorial, no elaborate set-up to establish characters, and no needless hand-holding. Impa tells you that the Temple of Seasons has been cast into the earth by Onox, the seasons have spiraled into chaos – and that you must consult the great Maku tree for guidance regarding what you need to do to restore order to the world of Holodrum.
The originality of the seasons mechanic is staggering—as you make your way through the game, you’ll gain the power to change the seasons by visiting their respective spirits who are housed in the now subterranean Temple of Seasons. By swinging the rod of seasons upon a tree stump, you can call forth the biting chill of winter or nurturing winds of spring to unlock previously unexplored areas. Snow will pile up and let you access higher ground, while the summer heat will dry up creeks and cause climbable vines to grow rampantly. Oracle of Seasons gives you the power to access all four seasons by the end of the fourth temple—it devotes itself to the mechanic, and the results are extraordinary.
Even in a two-dimensional plane, the world of Holodrum feels rich and alive. Finding patches where Gasha seeds (which produce magic rings and heart pieces among other things) can be planted, or areas where heart pieces are hidden, are enough to inspire you to search every nook and cranny of Holodrum’s overworld. The seasons mechanic alone had me wishing that Nintendo went the extra mile to make the Oracles games 3D classics instead of direct ports. I’ll even go a step further and say that, more so than Majora’s Mask, the Oracle of Seasons is worth revisiting on a modern console. Game design like this, though, just wouldn’t fly in today’s market.
In order to restore order to the seasons of Holodrum, Link must collect eight different “essences of nature” to break the magic barrier protecting Onox’s lair to the north. After collecting an essence, Link will be contacted by the Mako tree and given vague direction on where to go next. How you get there, though, is left to you and you alone. It gives enough direction for the player to not feel overwhelmed by having four different seasons to venture through across a sprawling world map, but still enough freedom to avoid feeling like the game is holding your hand. The direction feels even more natural when, while traveling through Subrosia—a city inhabited by curious, hooded citizens underneath Holodrum—you’re given subtle hints about what’s in store for you future.
Although Oracle of Seasons is supposed to be more combat-oriented than Oracle of Ages, it’s still riddled with the kind of confusing puzzles that, when you solve, will have you grinning with satisfaction. One of the first places I explored in Holodrum was the shore, where I met a skeleton pirate (called a “Piratian”) guarding a mysterious wall of skull-shaped buttons that, no matter how hard I tried, I could not open. Discovering the cleverly hidden method by which to unlock the gate on Holodrum’s shore required an eye only weathered Zelda fans will have.
Another area that stood out was a booby trap that appears in the Ancient Ruins. After opening a chest containing just one rupee, the surrounding Armos come to life and chase you out of a small enclosure – then, in true Indiana Jones style, you’re cut off by two more armos and forced to enter a room filled with wizrobes. The only way you can get back to the previous room is by defeating them – and your victory yields no reward, only an escape route.
All of Seasons’ subtleties are intuitive puzzles wrapped in charm, and make it timeless experience—but the experience wouldn’t be complete without completing a linked game in The Oracle of Ages.
The password system has been preserved in the eshop version of the Oracle games, so if you beat one, you can move right on to the other. Taking the password you receive from beating either game to Farore will unlock a variety of new items, characters, and quests for Link to undertake in his second adventure. Some of these events will generate new passwords you can bring back to an old, or new, save file to expand the gameplay in another play through. If you want to bet the real “final boss” of the two oracle games, you’ll need to take full advantage of this password system, otherwise your final struggle will be a futile one.
While Oracle of Seasons is a heavyweight in the visuals department, Oracle of Ages focuses primarily on story delivery. In this title, Link is sent to the land of Labrynna to save Nayru, the oracle of ages, who has been possessed by the evil sorceress Veran. To do so, Link is given the harp of ages—a musical instrument that allows Link to travel between the present and the distant past. This concept, you might think, was played out in full in A Link to the Past—but like a fine seamstress, Oracle of Ages uses the thread of time to create its own unique tapestry.
The decisions you make in the past will impact the lives of characters you meet (or meet again) in the present. While Seasons had me exploring every corner of Holodrum’s changing wilderness, Ages sucked me into its narrative. It introduces a small cast of characters and sticks with them, so the journey through Labrynna is far less solemn than the one through Holodrum and Subrosia. I was eagerly awaiting jumps into the distant past to see how my actions would affect the story in the present. Moreover, all of the item counterparts (like the seed launcher as opposed to the slingshot) always find a different way to be utilized.
Food For Thought:
1. To summarize, The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons easily houses the most impressive mechanic of any to-down Zelda game to date. If Nintendo was brave enough, it might even be worth reviving in a future console installment.
2. Although I played Oracle of Seasons first, I recommend making Oracle of Ages your first adventure. The story of Seasons isn’t inadequate in any way, but, it is fairly more straightforward than that of Ages’. Playing a linked Seasons game will make the charming encounters you have with characters even more memorable.
3. Although Seasons takes place in Holodrum, a land thought to be foreign to Hyrule, the spirit of fall refers to the “great calamity” that’s befallen Holodrum as a “dark cloud over the land of Hyrule,” so maybe there’s some connection between the two?
4. The game makes several nods towards Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask, and they never feel of place, even with a graphical downgrade. The Oracle games are a perfect example of how an idea can be more powerful than its presentation.