Welcome to The Retrospective Review. The premise is simple, I'll be taking a look back at a retro title, and then offering my opinion on whether I believe it's still worth your time and money.
Because, let's face it, while some games were critically acclaimed in their day, they haven't aged too well. Worse, there are those games still remembered as classics, but when you go back to them...well, they just don't hold up.
Technological limitations of the time, out of date design styles... both these things and more can effect the extent to which we enjoy older games. I'll be taking such aspects into consideration, but at the same time, judging whether they can be accepted as "products of their time" or whether they are simply too great an obstacle to your enjoyment.
This week, I'm taking a look at...
The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons
Released for the Gameboy Colour (or Color, depending on your location) it could be said that Seasons is the last in the line of the original Zelda games. Top-down in play style, artistically it's almost identical to Link's Awakening - arguably the definitive handheld Zelda experience. After Seasons, influences from Windwaker - and eventually the introduction of 3D graphics on the DS - moved the series in a visually different direction.
But Seasons occupies a very interesting period in Zelda history. Released just after Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask, the influences of these N64 games (especially Ocarina) upon this - a Zelda game aesthetically similar to Awakening - makes for a strange and sometimes too-familiar blend.
Early into the game, you meet Din - previously a Golden Goddess but now re-imagined/reinvented as a dancer and the Oracle of Seasons. Later, the Maku tree is introduced - a massive sentient tree that acts as your guide. Twin Rova appear, and even Ganon pops up (surprise surpise) as part of the extended story.
Zelda has always recycled its elements into new contexts - it's a series trademark that fosters both familiarity and innovation, but with Seasons, it all feels too obvious. Of course there's a Deku (sorry, Maku) Tree. Of course you have to rescue Zelda (sorry, Din). Of course Ganon is the real enemy.
This wouldn't be such a big deal if the game felt like it was meant to be a main Zelda game, such as Link to the Past, Ocarina, Skyward Sword etc, but with its emphasis on Din and a land outside Hyrule, Seasons at first seems like it's trying to forge its own place within the Zelda mythos, akin to Minish Cap.
And that would have been a good thing. Seeing Link displaced into a totally different type of adventure, with new foes and characters could have made for a truly memorable experience. Instead, the game feels like a Zelda-by numbers - a shallow attempt to cash-in on the love for Ocarina that was rampant at the time.
Even the game's central mechanic - changing the seasons - has lacklustre implementation. You simply change the season to progress through the overworld. Spring brings flowers that catapult you, Summer brings vines to climb, Autumn fills holes with leaves, and Winter freezes water and grants access to higher paths by way of snow drifts. It's all so standard, so unimaginative. Why wasn't the season changing mechanic used in any of the dungeons? Why didn't the seasons have a greater effect on the world? Why did the season changing feel so...secondary?
Originality might be lacking, but what Seasons does have in droves is classic Zelda gameplay. If you've enjoyed Awakening or Link to the Past, you'll be very much at home here. The land of Horon might not look too big on your map, but when it comes to actually exploring it, you'll find there's plenty to do. Dungeons are challenging, with tons of just-hard-enough puzzles to test your wit. Plus, the overall difficulty is considerably greater than later entries to the series. Bosses will kill you. That is a fact.
Which brings me to my next criticism. A constant feature of the Zelda series has been that upon loading your game or restarting after death, you have to begin at a certain location or at the entrance of the last major landmark you entered. Originally this was (I assume) an unavoidable consequence of older game consoles' limited memory - they simply didn't have the power to remember your exact location in the game.
Seasons does this too, of course, and it is a massive pain. Bosses require you to learn their attack patterns before you can defeat them. Bosses also do a good deal of damage. This means that when you face them for the first time, you are going to die. Hell, on the later bosses, you're going to die several times. And once you've died, you'll have to trudge through much of the dungeon again just to have another go (though each dungeon has one warp point, which cuts travel time...a little.)
It isn't the Gameboy Colour's fault that this happens. It is limited by the technology of its time. Nonetheless, it makes for a truly frustrating experience, and one that detracts heavily from Season's enjoyment factor. I'm all for punishing the player for failure, but this strays too far into rage-quitting territory. Games can be hard, but they should never be irritating. I'm left wondering why the developers didn't think to add another warp point, right before the boss door, to allow the player faster access. This would have made the issue of console-memory largely moot.*
In terms of length, Seasons is pretty good value for money. Back when it was new, however, its hook was that it was even longer: once you finished it, you could connect with its sibling, Oracle of Ages, and carry on the adventure. It's not hard to guess that this was a direct result of the popularity of Pokemon, and in theory, it was a neat idea. Once you finished Seasons, you could (sort of) carry your data across into Ages by way of a password system (or by linking games) then play the whole of Ages, but with slight alterations that expanded it into a wider story (featuring Ganon, sigh).
Today, without the novel excitement of alternate game versions, it feels like a con. If you're lucky enough to have a friend with the opposite game, it's not a problem. But if you don't, you'll have to straight up buy a whole another game just so you can get at the real story. Comparisons with modern day DLC spring to mind, where developers hold back content that should have been part of the main game, just to squeeze a few more bucks from their customers. But with Seasons, it's even worse, because you aren't paying a few pounds for some new content, you're shelling out for the price of a whole other game.
Getting around this issue is pricey. Both games still go for quite a bit of money, especially if you want a fully-boxed copy. You can't even go online and find the password required to unlock the expanded story, because if you want to continue your Seasons gamefile, you can't do it on your Seasons game cart - it has to be continued on an Ages cart, and vice versa.
On its own, having two versions of a game isn't a bad idea. It works in Pokemon because it gives you access to a few extra elements without hindering the main experience, and you don't have to buy the other version if you don't want to. In Seasons/Ages, the sibling versions are there to fleece you - it's as simple as that. Capcom might not be getting your money any more, but the damage to your bank balance remains.
I'm well aware of how well Seasons was received upon its release, and I'm sure that when it's re-released for the 3DS e-shop, it will still be critically praised. I'm happy to say that this is a challenging game that will fill you for nostalgia for Zelda's earlier years. Seasons really doesn't do anything wrong (except for the alternate version con).
My problem with this title is that it could have been so much more. From the box art alone, it feels like a stand alone entry to the Zelda universe - and it should have used that opportunity to cement itself as a unique, interesting and even quirky member of the family. Yes, it has animal companions to ride on, but they have no depth as characters and become redundant once you acquire later items. Yes, there's the underground world of Subrosia - but it's just a location that does little to endear itself to you as something memorable. Yes, there's a never-seen-before final boss, but in the end, it's all just about Ganon anyway.
If you love Zelda in all its forms, then go ahead and play Seasons. There's enough of the familiar here to keep you satiated for a few hours. If you're looking for a retro-classic, look somewhere else.
*(Fortunately, Seasons' upcoming release in the 3DS e-shop, which will make use of the 3DS' restore point functionality, will make this a non-issue.)