The Legend of Zelda series tends to be late to the party when it comes to Nintendo’s newest technology. The only exceptions I can recall would be A Link to the Past and Twilight Princess. Twilight Princess should come with an asterisk though considering it was in development as a Gamecube game (and even released on that platform too) before being ported to the Wii to make that system’s launch. Typically gamers have to wait a couple of years for Link to grace their latest console or handheld. That was especially the case when it came to the Gameboy Color. Nintendo, partnered with Capcom, focused on making a set of three games that would take place in the world of Zelda and interact with one another to form one grand adventure. This would take time, and to placate eager gamers to have a Zelda adventure on the go and in color Nintendo re-released Link’s Awakening with some minor color enhancements and a new dungeon (which took full advantage of the new color palette). Development was delayed on the series with Capcom, and eventually the three titles became two. Worse still, they didn’t arrive to market until after the Gameboy Color’s successor hit retail; the Gameboy Advance. Did this stop people from picking up the old tech? Of course not, this is Zelda after all, Nintendo’s most consistent franchise. And for those who upgraded to the Gameboy Advance, the system was backwards compatible so as long as gamers could get passed the fact that they were playing a fairly low tech set of games it was a pretty easy thing to convince them to go out and pick up the latest Zelda titles.
There are exceptions though, and for whatever reason I became one of them. I was a day one purchaser of a Gameboy Advance and I was eager to upgrade my portable gaming. I had a Gameboy Color and primarily only used it for Pokemon (I had a copy of Shantae and never got into it, and I ended up trading it in at Gamestop which proved to be a mistake). After over a decade of playing sub-NES quality games on a Gameboy I, and many others, were more than ready for the GBA. Plus I knew the eventual A Link to the Past Advance was on the way and figured I’d get my Zelda fix then, so I completely overlooked the two GBC games, Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons. It took a long while, but finally Nintendo has released both titles on its e-shop and both are playable on the Nintendo 3DS. A good portion of my summer has been spent on these two titles, and in short, they’re quality Zelda experiences. You don’t want short though, so feel free to read on for more!
If you’re an owner of a 3DS and are thinking of playing these games I would recommend that you play Link’s Awakening DX first, if you have not done so already. While the games are not connected in a narrative sense, the three play pretty much identically to one another with the Oracle games feeling like sequels. I imagine the fact that the groundwork was laid with Link’s Awakening is what allowed Nintendo to feel comfortable about handing the series over to Capcom. These portable Zelda games all feature diminished visuals when compared to most of the series, with the only exception being the original Legend of Zelda. Link can have two items equipped at any one time via the A and B buttons, and they can be any two items the player wants making it theoretically possible for Link to go thru the bulk of the game without a sword. These games also are unique in that they allow Link to jump once a certain item is obtained. Link could jump in the side-scrolling Adventure of Link, but not in his other top-down adventures. The portable games also bring back the side-scrolling screens present in the first game often as a basement of sorts throughout the various dungeons. There are some sequences where Link has to swim and some familiar faces from the mushroom kingdom make appearances. I actually prefer Link’s Awakening to the Oracle games in large part because of all of the Mario references which just give the game this offbeat feel. There’s even a sequence where Link needs to take a chain-chomp for a walk.
Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons distinguish themselves from the prior games with their special items, the harp of ages of rod of seasons, respectively. In Oracle of Ages, Link is able to use his harp to move thru time. Early versions of the harp only allow him to do so at certain patches of soil but later versions allow him to move thru time at will. Since there are only two versions of Labrynna, where the game takes place, it’s bound to evoke a similar feel to the light and dark worlds from A Link to the Past. As expected, changing things in the past affect the present, which is sort of the nature of the game. It’s not real specific though, and sometimes the past or present is different from each other seemingly just for sake of it (sometimes a wall is bomb-able in the past, but not the present, which doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense). As such, I was actually kind of disappointed with the whole time-traveling aspect of the game and it started to feel like a hassle. In Oracle of Seasons, Link is able to manipulate the seasons with the rod of seasons. This has obvious applications such as lakes becoming frozen in winter or dried up in summer. A weird type of mushroom is only harvestable in the fall, and certain special flowers only bloom in the spring. Having to cycle thru each season one at a time is a bit of a chore, but overall I felt the application of the seasons worked better than the time-travel in Ages and it also offered a fun visual change as well. The only thing I didn’t like about it was that sections of the overworld map are arbitrarily broken out and are assigned a default season. This results in the player changing the season on one screen, and then having it switch to another season by going as few as one screen over. The designers obviously did this to make it easier on them to block off certain sections of the map until Link obtained a certain item, but it feels lazy.
In addition to their gimmick, Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons are often distinguished by type of gameplay present. Ages is often described as being the more puzzle-centered game with Seasons being more action-oriented. I found this to mostly be the case, but make no mistake, both are tried and true Zelda experiences. There are still plenty of enemies to take down in Ages, and there’s also plenty of dungeon puzzles to solve in Seasons. I expected to enjoy Ages more as I usually like the Zelda puzzles, but I actually ended up preferring Seasons. The problem I have with Ages is just that a lot of the puzzles felt really drawn out and the constant switching between items (since there are only two action buttons on a GBC, everytime you need to re-assign something you have to go into the menu and do it) could get tiresome. There are also plenty of “Zelda Puzzles,” which to me mean puzzles with no logical solution that forces the player into trial and error mode. These types of situations seem to crop in every Zelda title and are often the result of the game just not being consistent. There was one dungeon where I got stuck for a while because I couldn’t figure out how to get a pot onto a floor switch that needed to be pressed in order to open a door. I tried all kinds of different things and just couldn’t get it. Then I just stepped on it with Link and walked off and the door stayed open. Every other switch in the game necessitates an object being placed on it to keep the door open. I was so annoyed. That’s a Zelda puzzle. There were some of these in Seasons too, but they just felt more prevalent in Ages.
Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons share many of the same dungeon items. Both also have a trading game which leads to an improved sword for Link and both feature seeds. All around the map are soft patches of soil where Link can plant a seed. After a certain amount of enemies are slain a tree with a nut will sprout and inside the nut will be an item. Usually this item is a ring, which is the only equip-able accessory for Link in both games. They usually add some function or improve another such as Link’s throwing distance or damage output. They’re not all that essential to the experience, and both games seem to have the same rings. There’s also a password system that allows players to transport items back and forth between games. This is the only way to get some traditional Zelda items like the mirror shield and master sword. These items just make the game easier, and to be honest, they’re easy enough as is, so I never did much with them. I did take advantage of the game-link where beating one game provides a password for the other game which alters the story. The story in both games is basically crap, but if you want to face the ultimate boss you have to link the games and it does add a little more fun to the experience.
I’ve been a bit nit-picky with these games, but both are enjoyable and worthwhile entries in the Legend of Zelda series. If you were to play only one, I would recommend Oracle of Seasons as I found it to be the better overall experience. One thing I liked about Seasons over Ages is how it’s a total nostalgia trip for gamers who played the original Legend of Zelda. Oracle of Ages is basically just as good though, and if you can, you really should just play both. These two games, together with Link’s Awakening, are among the best portable games ever created and are still the best portable Zelda games ahead of The Minish Cap, Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks. Hopefully, the upcoming A Link Between Worlds is able to give them a run for their money as these games have reigned supreme for long enough.