The central combat mechanics of The Legend of Zelda series has seen several iterations over the decades. The classic top-down gameplay of the original was morphed into a faster, action heavy side-scroller in Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, only to be abandoned itself for a return to form in A Link to the Past. While the promise of 3D worlds and Z-targeting eventually led Nintendo to abandon the classic top-down approach on consoles (Four Swords aside), traditional Zelda design lived on in the handheld realm. From Link's Awakening to Minish Cap, Link's overhead adventures continued, and sandwiched between the two were the interlinked Oracle games on the Game Boy Color.
Now arriving on the 3DS Virtual Console at the same time, Oracle of Ages serves to highlight the puzzle elements of this classic design, while Oracle of Seasons zeroes in on the action. Based off the Power element of the Triforce, Seasons goes for a much more straightforward adventure, keeping puzzles light and pitting Link against tougher enemies much earlier in the game. If you play this game second out of the two, you'll notice right off the bat just how much more aggressive and durable your enemies are compared to those found in Ages.
While the battles won't really compare with the slick scuffles of Link's 3D quests, Oracle of Seasons combat certainly feels more challenging than its handheld cousins, especially when compared to the tap-and-attack gameplay of the DS entries. While the touch controls of those portable adventures felt refreshing, it's always nice to return to that classic Zelda action, with a trusty sword mapped to one button and your item of choice mapped to the other.
Yet while combat is enjoyable, the story may fail to impress, especially when compared to the tale found in Ages. Set in the town of Holodrum, Link is summoned to the land by the Triforce, where he stumbles upon a girl named Din and her group of travelling performers. Soon after, an evil General named Onox appears, revealing Din to be the Oracle of Seasons and casting Link aside as he steals her away. Din's absence plummets the land's seasons into chaos and Link is again tasked with setting the world back to normal. But after that introductory narrative ends, the game fails to really develop the story much further.
Seasons is a battle-centered game, and as such never really captures the kind of wit and charm found in Ages' storytelling. While both share some lovable characters — such as the comically antagonistic Maple and lovable mounts Dimitri, Moosh and Ricky — Ages' yarn spun across two timelines, pitting Link with a lovesick Maku Tree, pairing him with colourful foil Ralph and intertwining the plot across the ages.
Comparatively, Seasons' story falls a little flat. The overly to-the-point Maku Tree serves mainly as a device to say "go here next," there are far fewer main characters and the folks you do meet feel less developed. If you decide to play the games as a pair, Seasons is recommended second, as the over-arching narrative between the two games will help enhance its lacklustre standalone story.
This brings us to the most unique aspects of the Oracle games: "linking." Upon completing one game, the player receives a code that can be entered when starting the other. This not only adds a new final showdown, but also slightly alters each story. For example, in a linked Seasons game, the traveling troupe is revealed to be a disguised band of Hylian Knights, sent by Zelda to protect Din. This link functionality is included in the 3DS releases, which makes the temptation to buy both all the greater.
Storytelling aside, Oracle of Seasons does have an upper hand over its linked counterpart in the visual department. The world of Holodrum is far more vibrant, thanks to each screen having four distinct versions depending on the current season. From white-washed winter blues to saturated summer greenery and auburn autumn colours, the visual variety is fantastic. Changing seasons causes slight environmental changes like vines that grow in summer or snow that piles up during winter, but these differences don't create as many puzzling effects as the time shifts in Ages. Still, they offer a nice visual range that gives you plenty of incentive to fully explore each area.
To gain more control over the seasons, you frequently return to Subrosia, a hidden underground land that serves as one of the more interesting aspects of Seasons' otherwise dull plot. After Onox captured Din, the Temple of Seasons disappeared — or so everyone thought; it really just sank underground into Subrosia. Here, Link powers up the central item of the game: the Rod of Seasons, meaning you'll spend a lot of time interacting with Subrosians, the comical bunch of creatures that inhabit the land. These weirdos enjoy eating and bathing in lava, find politeness to be rude and obsess over secrecy. These interspersed visits help to break up the narrative, and offer some much needed comic relief.
There are diversions aside from the main quest to explore, like ring collection and item trading, but oddly you can gain the final item from Seasons' trading sequence another way, making it an optional part of the game. However, playing a linked Seasons game will open up the opportunity to gain a very powerful ring that augments Link's attack, and allows for other weapon upgrades that help immensely against the game's harder boss fights.
The final boss battles of the game — especially the brawl with General Onox — are very tough without some sort of leveled-up equipment. You take more damage per hit, your attacks are less effective and you will likely be losing more frequently than you're used to in a Zelda game. If you don't have the patience to acquire the upgrades, expect to be challenged. The final showdown is still surmountable with ho-hum equipment, but should only be approached as such by folks seeking a genuine old-school challenge.
If you're looking for a straightforward Zelda adventure, this battle-heavy quest is about as straightforward as it gets. Oracle of Seasons streamlines the franchise's formula to let challenging classic combat take centre stage, but adds in enough originality to keep it from feeling monotonous. There is much incentive to play the Oracle games together, and if you do, tackle this one second. Doing so adds in interesting plot twists that enhance the barebones storytelling and allows for crucial weapon upgrades that help immensely against the challenging end boss. It may not be as engrossing as Ages, but Seasons still offers up an old-school adventure that will feel fondly familiar to long-time fans of the franchise.