Price: £5.39 each / $5.99 each
I’m going to start this one off with a confession: I was not always a Nintendo fan. I started gaming on Atari (with the 2600), then moved on to the Commodore 64 and the Sega Megadrive (or Genesis to most of you) before finally jumping on the Nintendo bandwagon in 1997 with the N64. Sure, my brother had a SNES, but I basically missed out on the early instalments of most of the greatest franchises to appear on Nintendo systems. Metroid 1 and 2, Kirby, Ice Climbers, Kid Icarus, Punch-Out, Megaman and Castlevania… Zelda 1 and 2.
The Wii’s Virtual Console (and later, the 3DS Ambassador Program) looked to remedy that by finally allowing me to play all the NES titles that I’d missed. The only problem was… well… NES games, for the most part, didn’t age very well, did they? As an adult at the tail-end of this century’s first decade, I had neither the time nor the desire to go around bombing every single wall on planet SR388 or in Hyrule. I also found myself to be lacking in both the skill and patience departments when it came to fighting Kraid, or just about anything in the side-scrolling parts of Zelda II.
Of course, there’s more to retro Nintendo gaming than just NES titles, and the 3DS Virtual Console has been doing a great job of keeping us supplied with games taken from across all of the big N’s early handheld consoles, Including, as of the 30th of May, the Gameboy Color’s twin Zelda adventures: Oracle Of Ages and Oracle Of Seasons. The question is: how well do these games hold up today? Actually, were they any good to start with? And one more just for good measure: will the design sensibilities of the games – which are now 12 years old – come back to haunt the modern gamer?
Well, any Zelda fan will tell you, the answer to the question over the games’ quality should be a foregone conclusion: originally released in 2001, these games were immediately preceded by Majora’s Mask (fan favourite), Link’s Awakening DX (contender for best handheld game), and Ocarina of Time (contender for greatest game of all time). The Zelda team were on a roll. You can imagine my surprise, then, to discover that Nintendo’s Zelda team did not make these two games. That’s right: one of the first things you see when you boot up the Oracle games is a Capcom logo. That kind of thing may not be so unusual in these times of third-party collaborations, but trust me, in 2001, this was a big surprise.
As if to reassure you, one of the first things you hear is the familiar Zelda overture, seemingly ripped right out of A Link to the Past’s overworld. It’s as if Capcom were saying “see, you can trust us with Zelda. We’re not going to shake things up too much.” Or at all. They really bludgeon this point home with a Megaton Hammer when you start playing the game, though. Knowing that I had to play through both games for this review, I rolled a d20 and started with Oracle of Seasons. I have to say I was surprised by just how familiar everything looked. Link’s character model is the exact same one from Link’s Awakening DX, all of the objects on screen (tables, bookshelves, doorways etc.) look the same, the running animation is the same, the way the screen scrolls is the same…
The map screen is also presented in the traditional 2d Zelda grid – mountains in the north, seashore in the south, and you just know there’s got to be a graveyard in there somewhere – but the Oracle games at least show a little more ambition in scale than Link’s Awakening, with the land of Holodrum & Subrosia (Seasons) weighing in at 344 screens to Koholint’s 256, and Labrynna (Ages) featuring two versions (past age and present age) of each of its 196 screens.
If you’re familiar with A Link to the Past’s Light and Dark worlds, you should have no trouble imagining the kind of dimension-hopping puzzle-solving antics that await in Oracle of Ages. If you’re not familiar with A Link to the Past, clear your schedule because you’ve got some serious catching up to do, and in the meantime I’ll explain. Oracle of Ages is set in two different time periods, 400 years apart. In practical terms, this gives you two world maps that are generally very similar, but just different enough to allow for some wickedly inventive navigational puzzles. Also, actions you take in the past can have consequences in the present. Honestly, it’s one of the best things about these Zelda games: the rare Eureka! moment when you realise that moving that boulder in the past will divert a stream and open up a new path in the present, and I always love the paradox of taking an item from the present and giving it to someone in the past so that it will be there for you in the present.
Oracle Of seasons does things slightly differently, with a single map that is affected in different ways by the seasons. In winter, a tree might wither away to grant access to a new area while in summer, a lakebed may dry up to reveal a previously hidden cave. And as you gradually acquire the abilities to control the seasons (just as you gradually take control over time in Oracle of Ages) more and more paths and possibilities open up. It’s one of the key mechanics that makes these two games so great (spoiler alert: these two games are great) and, for me, it is the foundation on which a lot of the greatness of the entire Zelda series is built.
When so much is familiar, when you’ve played the majority of the games in a series, it becomes difficult to be surprised by anything that another entry in the series does. For the most part, yes, the Oracle games are Zelda-by-numbers. The graphics neither impress nor disappoint; the same can be said for the sound. The recycling of music and sound effects at least gives the games that authentic Zelda feel. The reappearance of many familiar characters from Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask may be interpreted as lazy, or even as demonstrative of a lack of creative freedom within Capcom, but I prefer to see it as an opportunity for a good game of spot-the-cameo. Malon and Talon: check. Happy mask salesman: check… I think?!
On the rare occasion when these games do surprise you, it makes for some of the best moments in gaming. I was happily making my way through Seasons’ fifth dungeon, thinking to myself, “I’m totally going to get the hookshot soon. Yeah, I’m definitely going to have to use the hookshot to cross that gap. Oh look, there’s the chest… and here it is… the hooksh-wha?” And the game threw a curveball at me in the form of a new and very cool item I’d never seen before in the entire Zelda series (hint: the only other game it appears in is Four Swords on the Gameboy Advance). The best thing about this is the fact that the same item can keep surprising you as you learn more about it. When you acquire it, and this goes for all items, the game gives you the briefest of briefings on how to actually use it. Basically, it gives you the basics then leaves you to figure out more complex uses for the same item all on your own. This demonstrates the greatest level of expertise in game design, as the game is always gently nudging you in the right direction towards figuring things out, ostensibly through your own great problem-solving skills, but in reality through a great deal of hard work on the part of the developers to teach you things without realising you’re being taught. This, I feel, is becoming something of a lost art these days.
Of course, it’s not all plain sailing – my concerns over the differences in design ethos over the years came to the fore for much of the early going in Seasons. Yes, it’s the tricky subject of game difficulty. Now, I don’t think that Zelda games in general are very hard, and I don’t think I’ve ever actually had Link die in any 3D Zelda, but the older 2d games were always harder, and Seasons seems to want to take that to certain extremes. I don’t recall any instances of cheap insta-death tricks in other Zeldas, but Seasons has one. It also has a very strange and unlikeable lack of knock-back or invincibility after taking a hit, which makes it all too easy to have multiple hearts burned off in quick succession by even the least formidable of adversaries. A distinctly parsimonious approach to the distribution of recovery items compounds the problem, as does an equally distinct absence of fairies in bottles. And just in case a high level of skill-based difficulty wasn’t enough for you, the Oracle games also employ an often bewildering level of complexity in dungeon design (Jabu Jabu almost pushed me over the edge), and an occasionally frustratingly obscure and convoluted train of logic.
I find it amusing that these shortcomings actually help to demonstrate the superiority of the 3DS re-releases over the GBC originals. To put it succinctly, thank god for Restore Points. They make failure so much more palatable. And failure in these games is like the gruesome death of your favourite character in Game of Thrones – sooner or later, it’s going to happen. If you’re about to go up against a dungeon boss, create a restore point, and when the inevitable happens, you don’t need to traipse all the way back through the dungeon again for a rematch. Or if you want to jump down off a ledge but you’re not sure if it’s the right way to go, create a restore point and potentially save yourself 6 minutes of disgruntled back-tracking. The games also automatically create a restore point every time you quit to the 3DS home menu, so you can effectively play through the whole thing without ever having to save, and without ever losing your place – you will always find yourself in exactly the spot where you left off.
The stories of each game mirror each other in their perfunctory opening: Holodrum’s oracle of seasons, Din, is kidnapped by the evil General Onox; Labrynna’s oracle of ages, Nayru, is kidnapped by the evil sorceress, Veran, and in both cases, Link seemingly falls out of the sky to be tasked with their respective rescues. The Maku tree somehow manages to be the guardian of both lands and, taken as separate entities, that is pretty much that: get the quest, find the magical McGuffins, save the
princess oracle. But I really wouldn’t recommend taking these two games as separate entities. Their greatest selling point – and the reason why you really need to get both, for the very reasonable price of £5.39 each – is the way in which they can be linked.
A password given on completion of one game can be used to turn the other into a direct sequel. This will result in a couple of minor alterations in gameplay, but the effect is felt mostly in the story. Extra cutscenes are woven seamlessly into the narrative to create a much grander overarching plot, and a much more satisfying climactic final battle to close out the duology. You will also encounter extra characters in Labrynna who have some connection to characters in Holodrum (and vice versa), and passing messages (passwords) between the two will result in new and upgraded goodies for yourself, including some of the most iconic items in the Zelda series, which you can’t get any other way. It’s one of the few great examples (along with the very nice RPG-lite Rings system that I haven’t mentioned) of Capcom doing something new and innovative – and most importantly worthwhile – in the Zelda series. Which is very nice to see.
The Capcom development team must have felt quite a bit of pressure in taking on one of the biggest franchises in Nintendo’s portfolio, but there’s no question that they managed to put out a game (correction: two games!) worthy of the name. They perhaps relied too heavily on series staples, but it’s great to see that whatever fresh ideas they did bring to the table were very much worthwhile and fitting additions to the Zelda template. As for playing these games again (or even if it’s your first time) in 2013 – I say go for it! Aside from the (very much expected) minor quibbles over difficulty, the last twelve years have been very kind to the Oracle games, and they still add up to 40+ hours of classic gaming that you really can’t get anywhere else.