August 28, 2017
It seemed like a very short time after my initial discovery of the Zelda series that the Oracle games released. Being somewhat new to the series, this was the first time I had actually been aware of a new game before its release, and can scarce describe the level of excitement I had. I have now experienced a similar excitement many times over, but none have touched me quite the same way.
This release was unique for many reasons. Originally the project began as a remake of the original Legend of Zelda, Oracle of Seasons accidentally acquired a number of fun throwbacks, adding to the inherent charm of this instant classic. As the project grew beyond the limits of a single game, the team actually envisioned a third release. Though this got cut, many of its elements were transferred to the two we know. They were released simultaneously, and though each title is a worthy standalone, neither can be experienced to the fullest extent without the other. For this reason I will consider them as one for this Lens of Truth. Come along and let us see if its graphics, sound, story, and gameplay can match up the the rest of the series.
Many basic sprites were reused from Link’s Awakening DX, including Link himself. On top of these was added a colorful cast of characters and an enthralling entourage of enemies, and I mean colorful literally. The only two Zelda titles exclusively for Gameboy Color, these had to bring a lot to the table simply because the series had never had an original game on the system, and it had to compete with other hard-hitting handheld games of the time like the first two generations of Pokemon, (plus a trading card game simulator, pinball and the world record biggest hype train) Kirby Tilt ‘n’ Tumble, and many others that were taking advantage of the color display. That and these had to live up to the Zelda name, which had only a few years previously released the highest rated game of all time.
This all in mind, the original enemies and boss designs was much clearer than its predecessor. Though I loved Link’s Awakening’s surreal bosses as a reminder that one is in a dream, that style would not have fit as well going forward, and in turn, the sprites that were added added to the game. This included several rehashed and re-imagined foes from previous, including a handful of enemies from the original game like Lynel, Aquamentus, and Gleeok, none of which are enemies that recur very often. It was great to see such throwbacks to the original, even if it was just because the project had leftover bits from when it began as a remake.
Beyond just the gameplay pixel art, these two games featured an animated cutscene at the beginning of each, briefly explaining how Link found himself in various non-Hyrulean locations. At the time, this was not seen in many handheld titles, and I literally just popped the game in to remind myself of whether or not it was well done, and I sat for a moment awestruck at a pixelated castle that looks as real as it can get on a two-inch screen. Here I am sixteen year later and it still looks good.
In the end, the game did borrow some from past titles, but honestly reusing these assets made a lot of sense since the tech was virtually identical, just you know… in color. The flawless execution of Ages and Seasons set the standard for mobile gaming at the time. Perfect ten.
I want to go into a long spiel about the sound design, but largely the sound effects were copied from Link’s Awakening as well, so there is not really much to say that hasn’t already been noted in that Lens of Truth. It was good, but so few unique sounds were added to the game that I honestly cannot think of a specific case.
Music, on the other hand, brings up a plethora of possible points to pursue. From the moment you insert the cartridge, you are greeted with an array of tunes from the duo of Kiyohiro Sada and Minako Adachi. Each tune had a quality about it that I love about old games. It had to be played on repeat, sometimes for hours, but it never got old. Partly this was due to their creativity in designing tunes around the theme of the area they played in. There are very few games I would say come close to capturing as much character within the music as these. From Maple’s quirky and whimsical theme to the light-hearted town music and dungeon themes which had surprising variation for a handheld game, each one sends a vibe that really sets the tone for what is about to play out.
With what I consider to be the best score for the console and a sound design that did not need to be changed, I cannot help but welcome a second perfect ten into my review of this game.
So what is so great about these games? They were just following a formula established by A Link to the Past, right? Find an item, kill the boss at the end of the dungeon with it, obtain a MacGuffin, repeat until you win. Well yeah, they did that, but they did it in such a way that it did not feel like they were doing the same thing again. The Oracle series added so many mechanics that even this formula, which many have argued over the years is getting stale, could feel new again.
Between the two games, you are given seven worlds to explore. Seven? Did I count correctly? Well I cheated a little, but you are clearly given two very different takes on the same world of Labrynna in the past and future in Oracle of Ages, and the four seasons change each square in Holodrum, and beneath you will find an underworld inhabited by the Subrosian race which is almost as large as the original world. Are these really different worlds, though? I would say they are, my reasoning being the same as saying the Light world and the Dark world are two different worlds in A Link to the Past. They converge and intersect to bring us the whole of the game, but they feel so explorable on their own that each one could conceivably have been used for a standalone game. Combine that with the fact that these worlds mingled together and could not be traversed without travelling between one another and you have one of the best overall world designs gaming has ever seen. Suck it, Skyrim.
Beyond the most immersive and explorable game world in a mobile title (possibly excluding Breath of the Wild) the Oracles also granted us access to the most diverse library of items in franchise history. Between the two games, no other Zelda has had more items, and since they were intended to be played as one, I believe it should be viewed as that. Many of these items were also brand new to the scene, such as the Switch Hook, Magnetic Gloves, and the Seed Shooter. Admittedly, the Seed Shooter was basically just a slingshot that could be aimed better in two-dimensional graphics, but it still opened the door for a ton of puzzles unique to these games.
On that note, the puzzle design was great. Every dungeon felt like the epitome of what a Zelda dungeon should be. Those in the early-game had some linearity, but that worked well to allow the game to present itself before it really tripped you up with more complex designs sometimes instigating multiple hours of mind-bending backtracking. These dungeons were very closely tied to the items found within, and I have seldom been so astounded by the mechanics of a dungeon and its item as I was with the Magnetic Gloves in the Unicorn’s Cave. Puzzles involved so many elements from moving large objects to pulling and pushing yourself across chasms to attacking the dungeon boss, Digdogger, with a large spiked ball. Its uses are endless, and I feel that its spiritual successor is Breath of the Wild’s Magnesis rune. Few elements from previous games were remade in Breath of the Wild, so to be among these solidifies the Magnetic Gloves position amongst the series’ best items.
Even better than one dungeon is two dungeons. Better than that? Four? Eight? Between the two games, there were sixteen full dungeons. This outclasses every other game just by sheer volume, and if you eliminate the simple early dungeons, you still have at least as many satisfyingly intricate mazes to master. I consider this aspect as a combined effort because of the dual release. These games are each individually large enough to be their own game, but they were released together and meant to be played as one, so why not treat them that way?
One final mechanic in this game is overlooked by many gamers because they did not know anybody else with the game, did not have a link cable, or played it way later than it actually released and were just too far behind the ball. Of course, I am talking about ring trading. This simple multiplayer addition really gave me a kick being able to help out my friends as well as discover more rings for my collection. I have fond memories of sitting outside my middle school waiting for class to start while I swapped stories of dungeon fights from the opposite game and enhanced my collection to better prepare myself for areas I had trouble with. It is strange, but I actually played more Oracle of Ages with my buddy and his copy of Seasons than I ever did with people in-person in Tri-Force Heroes. This social aspect seemed insignificant, but it really added something, at least for me personally.
With the best designed two-dimensional world I can possibly imagine, puzzles as clever as any Zelda, and a fun little multiplayer mechanic as a cherry on top, the gameplay scores a third perfect ten.
This is the reason I decided to rate these two together. If you do not play one game using a code from beating the other, you are missing out on the overarching story connecting both. This is one of very few games where Link visits a new place rather than remaining in Hyrule, and the fact that they made two equally intriguing worlds and had them both ready for dual release is just impressive. I find that each world, Labrynna and Holodrum, has an intriguing and ever-changing story. Depending on what you do in Oracle of Ages’ past world, the future will be affected, sometimes positively and other times not so much. Still, the world changes basically every time you see a major plot point, like clearing a dungeon, and sometimes just with side-quests. The same thing happens less depending on the season of Seasons’ world, but not to this extent.
Overall, the story of each game has its own theme, pace, and honestly neither one of them is bad. Maybe not the greatest stories ever told, but they are solidly explained enough to keep interest through the entirety of the game, and give meaning to the gameplay. Once you see the two begin to intermingle, though, things really get interesting. Behind the scenes in each game is an elaborate scheme headed by none other than the classic Zelda villain, Ganon himself. Only by colluding with Princess Zelda can Link discover the true powers at work behind all that is going wrong with Holodrum and Labrynna and bring Ganon to his knees.
Even without Ganon, though, the two games had very believable characters to be found within the Dark Dragon General Onox and the wicked sorceress, Veran. Each had motives of self-promotion, which drove them to follow a dark path to achieving their ambitions. While Onox attempted to rule through an iron fist, (or rather a giant ball of iron on a chain) Veran goes a different route and ensorcells the Queen of Labrynna to force the townsfolk into slavery and uses her political position to rise to power. Political intrigue always tickles a special fancy of mine, and though this was not a huge part of the game, nor was it the best political story ever written, the fact that this is a concept so seldom touched by the Zelda series gives it some bonus points for using elements they normally don’t get to.
Honestly, I cannot think of a complaint about the story. It is not my favorite story of all time, but it has no major plotholes, is completely original, and gets you through the game with a huge replayability factor from the parts hidden behind continuation codes. Perfect ten number four: achieved. Also, fun fact, the image above is concept art showing that at some point the team considered adding Ganondorf to the story. Wouldn’t that have been something else?
Oracle of Seasons began as a simple remake of the original and became a superb standalone, but that was not enough. They had to make another game that was just as good and combine the two to enhance each other. I can scarce imagine how much better they might have been if the initial plan to have a third installment was the case today. My tiny mortal brain is incapable of comprehending the potential epicness.
It is often said that there cannot be a “perfect game,” but the only problem with this game I can even think of is how annoying the Goron dancing minigame is. These are the most underappreciated titles in the series by far, as they brought more dungeons to the table than any other game, a spectacular story spread throughout seven worlds, and the best looking animation the Gameboy Color ever received. The Oracle series is now tied for first in my rankings with Ocarina of Time and Link’s Awakening with a perfect forty. Bet you didn’t see that coming.
Again, this is all my opinion, but trying to be as objective as possible, I see an incredible game. Am I wrong to rate these two together? Did they borrow too many elements from Link’s Awakening? Was the Goron dance game totes adorbs and the only part of the game worth playing? Let me know what you think in the comments or on Twitter and keep the conversation flowing.