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[personal profile] dorchadas
I'm not sure I had even heard of Oracle of Seasons--in Japanese, fushigi no kinomi -daichi no shō-, "The Mysterious Seed -Land Chapter-"--before I set out on my Zelda chronogaming quest. It was twinned together with Oracle of Ages and released in 2001, the height of my anti-console snobbery. My loss. But the march of time and technological progress means I can go back to those games that I missed and play them now, when I'll appreciate them. Truly, we live in the the golden age of gaming.

Oracle of Seasons is another weird portable entry, starting a trend that began with Link's Awakening and continuing to this day. The mainline console entries, with the exception of Majora's Mask, are the traditional Zelda games where Link fights Ganon and rescues the Princess, and the handheld games are the ones where he talks to a psychedelic winged whale, rides trains, and plumbs the depths of the same dungeon a dozen times. Or here, uses the progression of the seasons to save a land where the seasons have been thrown into disorder.


Link's dancing was already disordered.

The game starts without much fanfare. The Triforce summons Link and tells him that it has a quest for him, after which he is hurled into the land of Holodrum and meets a group of itinerant performers led by a woman named Din, suspiciously the same name as the Goddess of Power from Hyrule. This is a Legend of Zelda game, so soon she's kidnapped by the forces of evil and Link has to rescue her by speaking to the "Maka Tree," guardian of Holodrum, who explains that the Shōgun Gorgon has ruined the Temple of the Seasons and thrown the land into disorder. Link must collect the eight Essences of the Land and rescue Din, bringing peace to Holodrum once again. The usual.

It's a bit disappointing, because one of the best parts of Link's Awakening was the ambiguous narrative. The monsters on Koholint arose from the Wind Fish's nightmares, but they were self aware in a way that the island's other inhabitants were not. They knew their existence was tied to a dream and warned Link that he was making a mistake. And he was, for a while. He was trying to save the island, but in the end, he destroyed it.

There's none of that tension here. The inhabitants of Holodrum mostly don't even know Hyrule exists, and the question of whether they're independently real or just a world made by the Triforce is left unaddressed. The only connection for most of the game is the recurring character Impa, who shows up to tell Link that Zelda knows about his mission and sends her blessing. She also offers hints about where to go if you get confused, though how she knows is left unexplained.


You live alone in a cave. Who did you hear it was east of the village from?

The wholly new location in Oracle of Seasons is the other world where the Temple of Seasons fell into when Gorgon banished it from Holodrum, the imaginatively named land of Ura (ウラ, "The Underneath"), called "Subrosia" in the English. The Ura are weird, always wearing full body-concealing robes, bathing in lava onsens, holding dance competitions and giving out boomerangs as a prize, and taking advantage of the arrival of the Temple of Seasons to collect red iron and blue iron, the two most valuable materials in Ura and the basis of their currency. Link is thus unable to purchase anything from them until he acquires some iron. Fortunately, with all the lava around it's close to the surface, and all that's necessary to participate in the Ura economy is a shovel.

Ura takes the place of something like the Dark World from A Link to the Past, with portals scattered all over Holodrum and some areas only being accessible by taking a portal to Ura, traveling across the pits and lava, and taking another portal back to Holodrum. This is a valuable game element, serving to make the originally small-seeming Holodrum map much larger and more intricate in the same way that the Dark World fundamentally changes your understanding of A Link to the Past once you discover it after defeating Aghanim. Unfortunately, I didn't connect with Ura the same way that I did with the Dark World. Some of it is just because the Dark World was clearly a mirror of the Light World, so there was an always the question of what any particular Light World area would be like in the Dark World and an element of discovery in exploring the Dark World to find out. Pretty much all of Ura looks the same--rocks, lava, more rocks, and more lava. There are a few trees, and I smiled when I first saw them and recognized the Dark World tree sprite they used, but they're mostly concentrated in one area.

And the Ura themselves aren't much more interesting. There are more of them than there are people in Holodrum, but perhaps because of that their characterization suffers. The majority only talk about the iron they're collecting, or how they like hot temperatures. Other than Ura-chan, the lone Ura woman, most of them aren't memorable, and Ura-chan is only really memorable for being the Smurfette. There's a pair of thieves who steal Link's roc feather and an Ura who wants to bomb a rockfall in the Temple of Seasons to get treasure, but none of them even have names. They're all identical, shapeless figures in green or blue robes. Mysterious, sure, and kind of quirky, but not interesting.



Other than travel to and from Ura, the main mechanic in Oracle of Seasons is the Rod of the Four Seasons, which Link can use at special stumps scattered throughout Holodrum to change the seasons. This is absolutely necessary for progression throughout the game. In winter some trees lose their leaves, allowing Link passage between them, or snow falls and provides a ramp up higher platforms. In summer plants grow and the heat evaporates water, creating vines up cliffs and exposing some lake bottoms and the secrets that lie hidden beneath.

This seasonal manipulation is absolutely necessary to progress, because of the aforementioned disorder of the seasons. Every individual area of Holodrum has a different season in effect, and some places have different seasons seemingly at random. Horon Village randomly changes what season it is every time Link enters, for example. The inhabitants seem to take it in stride, though. There's a boy who uses a flower in spring to hurl himself up onto a ledge over and over again, and an old woman who stoically keeps tending her garden even as the seasons change wildly around her.

I had a lot of fun with this mechanic, because Nintendo made the most out of the Game Boy Color's palette. Summer looks hot, spring looks green and full of life, and winter looks like Link should be wearing a fur coat. Often when I found a stump I would change the seasons just to see what the terrain would look like and what would change in each of the four seasons.


In this season, that's camouflage.

This also ended up being one of the most frustrating parts of playing the game, however. Sometimes it's obvious what the seasons needs to be in order to progress. The places where vines grow are clearly marked recesses into the cliffs, and the mushrooms that are impassable barriers in other seasons but can easily be picked up in autumn are always visible no matter what season it is.

This is not always true, however. Snow is obviously only visible in winter, and it's never clear what's underwater until summer when some of the lakebeds lay exposed. Furthermore, there's some optional sidequests where there's simply no indication of where the location is and no way to find it without extensive searching. The golden monsters is the worst such sidequest, where an old man tells Link to hunt four monsters and the only way to find them is to search all over in every season--or to use Zeldadungeon.net, which is what I did. I have other things to do with my time and I wanted that super ring.

Also, much like in Link's Awakening, there are only two item slots because there are only two buttons available, so a huge portion of game time relative to other Zelda games is spent in the inventory swapping out the sword for the gloves, the roc's feather, or the "pachinko" (パチンコ), which is basically a slingshot. And the boomerang is good here but not an auto-win weapon, so there's even more switching back and forth. It's an unavoidable part of the game being on Game Boy Color with its two buttons, but that doesn't make it less time-consuming.


This was right before I realized my approach was wrong.

Another aspect of the game that wasn't frustrating so much as disappointing was the combat. Other than knowing about the seasons, the one thing I knew about Oracle of Seasons was that this was the game in the duology that focused on combat, whereas Oracle of Ages focused on puzzles. However, it turns out that when the game takes place on a top-down 2D plane with two buttons available and no ability for the developers to rely on the player having their sword equipped at any moment, combat simply can't be that complicated. The only way to make combat more tactical and interesting is to require the use of other items, like how Medelock is vulnerable to Sassa seeds or how Link needs to use the metal spiked ball to hit Digdogger, so that's what every boss battle was. They were interesting and fun to fight--once I figured out what I needed to do against Digdogger, running around and shooting the metal ball back and forth was a great challenge--but they felt like puzzle bosses. Use this specific item at this specific time to win. There's no real sword-based challenge, and sword-based combat is just "swing until the other guy falls over." This is especially evident in the battle against the golden beasts, which don't have any special powers, just inflated hit points. They did what they could with what they had, but it wasn't very satisfying.

I really liked the actual boss battles, though. Especially the nostalgia bosses from the original Legend of Zelda. I don't know where the Oracle games fall in the timeline, and anyway we should all listen to Miyamoto and just forget about it , but it makes sense that the Triforce's challenge to Link would include famous monsters from the past (future?) like Gleeok, Digdogger, Aquamentus, or Manhandla. And even if they were puzzle bosses rather than a combat skill challenge, fighting them was a ton of fun. Dodongo still needs bombs to defeat him, but Link also has to pick him up with the Power Bracelet and hurl him onto the spikes in the middle of the room. It didn't match my expectations going on, but it turned out for the best.


Sunbathing.

So I'm left with conflicting feelings on Oracle of Seasons. The changing seasons are fantastic for a Game Boy game, with four possible states for every screen and vibrant colors, and I really enjoyed using the Rod of the Four Seasons and seeing what happened to the landscape. I loved the boss battles. But I didn't see any pay off for the supposed focus on combat, and I really think the decision to include both the season-changing mechanic and Ura short-changed both of them. It was fun to use Ura to move around the map and I liked the way it created added complexity, but Ura itself wasn't well-tied into Holodrum. It's just kind of there, existing without context, and I think that cutting it completely and focusing more on the seasons to traverse the map would have been better. Especially since in the game focused on combat, Ura has no combat at all.

And I haven't even mentioned the rings, which tells you what I thought of them.

Perhaps it will all come together once I play Oracle of Ages. When Twinrova showed up at the end and talked about the flames of destruction that would cover the world, I realized that there was some greater plot that both games would be working toward. And Oracle of Ages involves time travel, so I hope it does more with the concept than Ocarina of Time did, but taken by itself, Oracle of Seasons has a few too many missteps for me to really love it.

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