Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages/Seasons - Thoughts

I vividly remember the astronomical levels of hype I had for The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages and Seasons on the eve of their release. Having played and adored Link's Awakening to death, I was understandably stoked for two more games being released in its style, developed in part by Capcom no less (who, at the time, could do absolutely no wrong in my eyes). I bought Oracle of Ages while my brother purchased Oracle of Seasons, and though he didn't get much play time out of his game I obsessively played both of our copies, completing them each four times over a period of a few years. While I ardently enjoyed the Oracle twins I have some kinda spotty memories of both entries looking back on them; I remember the entirety of Link's Awakening like the back of my hand, while the Oracle games are more like a hazy dream I can only recall bits of pieces of. Yearning for more clarity, I decided to replay the games once more, wondering how well they stand compared to their wizened monochrome ancestor.

As a minor aside, I'm grouping both games into one entry because for the most part, the titles are pretty similar. Though they feature different dungeons, items, and stories, their mold most closely resembles Link's Awakening, rarely straying far from its take on the traditional Zelda formula (a huge amount of sprites and tunes are taken directly from Awakening, after all). That's not to say the two titles are indecipherable from one another, but it's probably best for me to compile my thoughts into one big text dump rather than rob the second entry of any pertinent notes I'll make here.

Both Ages and Seasons are relatively meaty adventures for a handheld device. Not only are the dungeons bigger and more complex, but the intermittent journey you go on to reach your next dungeon can be pretty lengthy as well (Tokay Island in Ages is the best example of this). Whereas Link's Awakening feels compact and humble, the multiple means of traversing the overworlds in both Oracle games provide them with a grander sense of scale and exploration, even if at times it feels like unnecessary padding (something that I've become less and less tolerant of as I've gotten older). There's a host of minigames to play, NPCs to chat with, and some utterly pointless rings to collect; there are things to fault the games for but lack of content is not one of them.

Feel free to fault the games for a lack of personality though. Besides a few items and Subrosia, the Oracle games don't really bring a whole lot of new material to the table. A big part of it is that they share a bit too much DNA with Link's Awakening—the overworld themes being exactly the same is a really unfortunate oversight. The plot of both games are your typical fare of "evil person desires chaos, chosen hero must defeat them" with little to no poignant insight into the denizens of each land. The Oracle games take on a decidedly lighter, more formal tone than Link's Awakening; you're here to save the world, not to listen to sad backstories. And to be fair—that's okay! Majora's Mask and Link's Awakening are the only Zelda games that dive into malaise affairs, but the problem is that every other Zelda title in comparison has something going for it; the Oracle games really don't amount to much more than "don't you wish that Game Boy game you liked so much was longer?"

Since my original journey through the duology began with Ages, this time I decided to swap the order around and start with the action-oriented Seasons—and by "action-oriented", I mean many of the rooms in dungeons will simply require you to vanquish your enemies in order to unlock progression. The original Legend of Zelda throwbacks are a cool touch, especially since the bosses get a considerable face-lift. The dungeons themselves are inferior to their Ages counterparts however, as many of them lack individuality that separates them from the last (barring Level 8 and its latent gimmick). The overworld is a bit more fun to traverse since you don't have to deal with the brief but extremely repetitive time travelling cutscene, and I feel the magnetic gloves rival the mermaid suit in ingenuity (both items are a great addition to Link's repertoire). Subrosia is a bit cumbersome to navigate but as I stated above, it provides some much needed individuality to Seasons.

Ages remains my favorite though, largely thanks to the more cerebral puzzles it offers. The tile treading and colored cube challenges are extremely satisfying problems to solve, and a majority of the dungeons attempt to have a central conceit for you to tackle. The game peaks at the brilliant Level 7, which is basically "the Water Temple part two"—a phrase that would strike fear into most but is a delicious task to undertake for the intrepid. I'm also a lot more fond of the final boss fight in Ages, as it feels more like a traditional Zelda battle compared to its slightly unfair brethren in Seasons. I generally find the content in the overworld to be more interesting as well, except for the never-ending Goron section at the top right of the map.

There's a bunch of linked goodies that the player can tap into if they possess both Oracle titles, but having gone through the games so much in the past I opted to skip out on most of it this time. I did transfer my save data over and give the optional dungeons a go, which I enjoyed considerably since those weren't as strongly embedded into my memory as the main campaign. The password trading and ring transfer stuff is neat but ultimately strikes me as shallow, barely adding anything to the game besides more menial tasks to undertake for completionist's sake. In a way I'm kinda glad that the third game in the Oracle series was scrapped, as these two titles offer more than enough roughage for any Zelda fan to digest.

The most damning praise I can offer the Oracle games is that they feel like expansions to Link's Awakening. They're full of competent ideas, shiny new items, and plenty of cool areas to explore, and yet they don't feel quite as "must play" as Link's Awakening does. I applaud the work Nintendo and Capcom put into the titles, but I suppose my honeymoon phase with these games has ended; it was honestly kinda difficult to write this entry because there wasn't a lot of material I felt required elucidation. They're fun Game Boy games that don't really amount to anything more than just that—fun Game Boy games.

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