Let's say you're Nintendo, and it's late spring 2001. The Game Boy Color is still selling like hotcakes, but you've got your new portable unit, the Game Boy Advance, looming close on the horizon. How do you bridge the gap between new and old and unite a legion of devoted handheld gamers? The answer is an easy one: Zelda. Nintendo is sending the Game Boy Color out with a bang by releasing not just one but two new Game Boy Zelda titles--Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages, both of which run just fine on the Game Boy Color, though playing the games on the upcoming Game Boy Advance will unlock a few new surprises, such as a new ring shop. Although Capcom's Flagship team actually handled development on the two games, both of them pack in everything one expects from a good Zelda adventure.
The biggest difference between Seasons and Ages is that each focuses on a different aspect of the classic Zelda formula: Ages is puzzle-heavy while Seasons is action-oriented. That's not to say that Ages skimps on the monster slaying or that Seasons won't give you any puzzles to solve, but each game knows what it's going for. Of course, true Zelda fans will want to play both games for reasons that will be detailed shortly, but it's worth mentioning that Seasons and Ages are fully self-contained games that can be played and completed without each other.
Like the previous Game Boy Zelda game, Link's Awakening, Oracle of Seasons strays outside the standard Ganon-Zelda-Triforce canon of the Zelda series to find its plot. The initial setup is simple enough: The Triforce tells Link that it has a quest for him and transports him to the land of Holodrum. Onox, the self-appointed "General of Darkness," has kidnapped Din, the Oracle of Seasons, and made the hallowed Temple of Seasons disappear. Holodrum's seasons are going haywire as a result, and it's up to Link to fix everything. He'll do this by--surprise, surprise--solving eight dungeons and retrieving the eight Essences of Season. But hey, we don't play Zelda games for total originality in design, we play them for incredibly well-developed gameplay.
In fact, the gameplay department is where Oracle of Seasons really pays off. If you've played Link's Awakening, then you know exactly how Seasons plays. The new game uses the same controls, interface, and many of the graphics and sounds as its predecessor. If you haven't played Link's Awakening, think Zelda: A Link to the Past crammed into a Game Boy. Oracle of Seasons is classic overhead Zelda all the way. The biggest addition here is an item called the Rod of Seasons, which will eventually let you control the seasons at will. This is necessary for reaching new areas of the overworld because the landscape is altered depending on the current season. In winter, for instance, some trees wither and let you pass by, while in summer, climbable vines grow up certain cliffs. The Rod of Seasons is joined by a few other new items such as a seed satchel, which lets you keep up with a bevy of different seeds, and some old standbys like the boomerang and power bracelet.
Oracle of Seasons departs from the typical Zelda formula a bit by giving you three animal assistants. Ricky is a kangaroo that can jump tall obstacles and punch with his strong arms. Dimitri the dodongo can swim through deep water and munch on enemies. Finally, Moosh the flying bear can, pardoning the pun, bear you across large holes in the ground. These are minor additions to the gameplay, but they add some variety. The Zelda universe is also fleshed out a bit by the addition of Subrosia, the subterranean world into which the Temple of Seasons has been cast. Link will have to deal with the quirky, hooded Subrosians to fully complete his quest. It's nice to see a few new faces mixed in with the classic Zelda milieu.
Both of the Oracle games also feature a new system involving rings that give the game an extra element of RPG-style customization. Link can discover rings on the overworld and in dungeons, and he can then get them appraised by Vasu, the town jeweler. Once he discovers the function of each ring, Link can equip it to reap its benefit. Some rings modify damage, others increase or decrease the frequency of certain events; one ring lets you hold bombs indefinitely. As you progress through the game, you'll gain the ability to wear more rings and thus utilize more special powers at once. There's actually a sort of Pokemon-like collectible feel about the rings.
That leads us to perhaps the most interesting feature of the two Oracle games, the link mode. After finishing either Seasons or Ages, you'll receive a password that you can input upon beginning the second game. This will carry over a number of attributes from your previous game, such as certain items, rings, and tasks that you've completed. Nintendo has come up with a surefire way to make Zelda fans want to play through both Oracle games in sequence.
Oracle of Seasons is as worthy a Zelda game as any in the series. This is the action-minded half of the Oracle duo, and your thumbs will get a noticeable workout along with your brain. However, button jockeys shouldn't expect to breeze through the game quickly; the dungeons especially contain some pretty devious puzzles. Seasons gives you hours of engrossing, enjoyable gameplay and, should you opt for it (and you should), an entirely new quest when you're done. What more could a handheld gamer want?