Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 56, the Legend of Zelda: Oracles of Ages/Seasons
Oracle of Ages and Seasons, on their own, are real good Zelda titles. When taken together, as the one massive 2D Zelda quest that they are, it's that much better.
I’m ranking the top 101 Nintendo developed/published games of all-time, and you can read about the thought process behind game eligibility and list construction here. You can keep up with the rankings so far through this link.
It is rare that Nintendo grants a license for one of their most significant IP to an outside developer. Usually, it’s some kind of spinoff, like with Mario Party games, which were developed by Hudson for a decade. Treasure developed a standalone Wario game, Wario World, for the GameCube, where the only thing it had in common with the Wario Land games was a desire for treasure. Ubisoft developed a Rabbids/Mario crossover for the Switch that took its influence from [checks notes] XCOM, so that can safely be considered spinoff territory.
And yet, there are three main-series, fully canon Zelda games that were put together by a non-Nintendo studio. Two of those came in a pair back in 2001, when Capcom subsidiary Flagship developed both Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons for Nintendo’s Game Boy Color. The other? That’s a story for another time. Say, a month-ish from now.
Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons can be played as separate experiences, and you’ll be perfectly content to do so. You didn’t and don’t need to go out and pay for each game in order to have a good time. These paired Zelda games are unlike, say, Pokémon, though. Pokémon features a pair of games each generation (Red/Blue, Silver/Gold, Sword/Shield, etc.) with no real difference in gameplay, just some different, exclusive Pokémon for each title that can be acquired by playing through both games, finishing a playthrough, transferring Pokémon over, starting a new save, and trading “extras” to acquire the pocket monsters from the title you didn’t buy from someone who needs your exclusives.
Seasons and Ages are completely different games, in different worlds, with different NPCs, dungeons, and even quest items. There is little reason to not play both, even if you didn’t go out and purchase both on day one when they released 20 years ago. Even better, though, is that if you do play both, the second game becomes more of a sequel and continuation of the quest begun in the first game. Link travels to two different lands as part of this larger, overarching quest, but it turns out that there are similar initial setups for the two titles in part because both lands are involved in a singular scheme to resurrect Ganon.
Now, Ganon isn’t the point, necessarily. You aren’t fighting back against his schemes throughout the games. These are extremely localized non-Ganon affairs for the most part, as the titles featuring Link’s from other Zelda games tend to be. Twinrova, his loyal servants, are the ones trying to resurrect him after his defeat at Link’s hands in the events of Link to the Past. (The Oracle games are the bridge in between for the young Link featured in that game and the old-enough-to-set-sail-on-his-own Link from Link’s Awakening.)
If you play just one Oracle game, there is no apparent Ganon element. If you play both and use the password system to connect your saves, a Twinrova and Ganon-focused postgame will appear following the conclusion of the second title, where you must stop him from resurrecting and being unleashed upon the world once more. The fight is not a simple one, either: it’s one of the tougher Ganon battles in the entire series, really, a reward for you beyond the quality of the games themselves for bothering to link them up like so. It’s a welcome addition to the games, which, again, are worth playing on their own, on their own merits. But together, they truly are something greater, and certain plot points are different, and sometimes larger, when you’re playing a connected version of the games, to incorporate the Ganon elements into the story rather than just plopping them down at the end out of nowhere.
Oracle of Ages focuses more on puzzles and puzzle solving, while Oracle of Seasons has more of an action and combat focus. There are still plenty of puzzles in puzzles in Seasons, of course, and action in Ages. In Seasons, Link must use the ever-changing seasons, which are out of control thanks to the abduction of the Oracle that controls them, to traverse and uncover the entire map and all of the dungeons within it. And it’ll take some thinking to figure out just which season is correct for certain parts of the map and items and pathways to become accessible. Ages might see you clearing more dungeon rooms with your brain rather than brawn, but the dungeons and overworld aren’t exactly free of enemies, either.
Ages has you traveling back-and-forth through time, with far more regularity than the Hero of Time had to until faced with the task laid out before him in Majora’s Mask, but with the gaps in time much, much larger than what that version of Link faced in either Ocarina of Time’s seven-year stretch or Majora’s three-day cycle. The world changes much more in the space of time Link travels through in Ages, and just like with the weather changing the map in Seasons, time changes the map in Ages. It also changes who is available to help you out, and what form that assistance can take, as well. Items from the past can be used in the future, and vice versa: Link isn’t changing his age while shifting through time, just the age of the world he’s traveling through.
The dungeon design is excellent in both titles. Ages, thanks to the puzzle emphasis, feels a bit more rewarding and enjoyable to go through, but Seasons, even with its combat focus, still manages to put together a Zelda-like dungeon experience you’ll be familiar with and enjoy. The style of dungeon is one that only appears in Link’s Awakening, otherwise, which itself is something of an advanced, far improved version of the dungeon design seen in the original Legend of Zelda: the dungeons of Link’s Awakening and Link to the Past both branched off from that original design with an emphasis on different parts of that experience that needed to be retained and improved upon. I prefer the Link’s Awakening/Seasons/Ages model, myself, which sees fewer instances of solving a puzzle in a room to get the key for the door in that same room, and more mass collection of keys and items spread out across the entire dungeon, in order to slowly work your way through the central pathways that lead to the dungeon’s master.
You can trip yourself up more in this style, which means it requires a bit more planning and thinking things through, and less following a path that’s more linear than it might at first glance seem. It’s a sometimes subtle change in approach, but believe me, as a person who has replayed every single Zelda game in just the last year or so as of this writing: it’s there, and I’ve got a preference. And not just because, like Link’s Awakening, there is the 2D side-scrolling platformer element at play in the Oracle titles. Though that certainly doesn’t hurt.
This style of 2D Zelda is also a bit more difficult than Link to the Past, both in terms of the action portions as well as simply getting from place to place, which is part of why every one of them in this vein ranks higher on the list than LttP did. Link to the Past is too easy to get through, faeries too readily available to erase your mistakes in battle or deep in dungeons, which themselves aren’t all that difficult to get through, either. In the Oracle titles, there are no bottles. Which means no faeries in bottles. You can buy magic potions which act in a similar fashion, but you can’t just find them out in the wild at any time, for free, easily replenished at any time. You have to be a little more careful, a little less reckless, a bit more intentional with how you play the Oracle games. And I respect that, even in the moments where, oh, I don’t know, Zombie Ganon is being a huge pain in the ass, or I’m extremely deep into a dungeon and already used my magic potion but can’t escape just yet to get more.
Now, these titles aren’t perfect. The music isn’t as memorable as in some other Zelda titles, and part of that might be because the sound quality wasn’t all that great to begin with, a problem blamed on the Game Boy Color’s own speakers at the time. Music is no small thing in a Zelda title, and while it isn’t the most significant thing, either, well, there have been multiple symphony tours for Zelda songs, is all I’m saying. So it does matter when you’re ranking them against each other. Tiebreakers exist for a reason.
Sound aside, the only other complaint is that there was supposed to be a third game, with each emphasizing one aspect of the Triforce: power, wisdom, and courage. Power and courage probably got combined a bit, given they’re both useful in battles, though hey, maybe power, as always, is represented by Ganon, who you end up taking down before this adventure is over. Either way, this isn’t really a complaint, so much as, “Flagship did such a great job here, I wish they had managed to successfully make three games all at once.” At least they eventually got a third Zelda out — the best of the Flagship trio, too.
You can, as usual, look for the physical cartridges of these games on the secondary market, but if you have a Nintendo 3DS, they’re available in a much less pricey digital form on the eShop, at $5.99 each. That version will get you pretty standard emulation perks, too, like save states and the ability to stop at any time. If you haven’t played these Zeldas before, you’ve missed out, and I believe this to be the truth of things even if you don’t come away from them thinking, as I have, that they’re superior to the most famous of the 2D Zelda games.
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