NA Release Date: May 14, 2001 (GBC)
Initial Playthrough: c. July – August, 2001 (GBC)
Replay: c. September – October, 2020 (3DS Virtual Console)
Sitting down to write some comments on OOS has seemed a little daunting, mostly because I haven’t been able to form a terribly strong opinion of the game. If you’re ranking Zelda games (which we’re not, or not here anyways) this one usually falls squarely in the middle of the pack- I think because it gets a lot of things right and is relatively inoffensive with respect to the ‘canonical’ elements of the series. However, it fails to rise to the upper tiers because there’s limited new ideas at work.
The main novelty is derived largely from the relation OOS shares with its fraternal twin, OOA, as together the form a linked series with a meta-narrative that binds them into a single story. We’ll comment more on that after I get through OOA, but for our purposes here we evaluate OOS on its own merits alone.
A new and welcome bit of fun were the animal companions. Perhaps owing some influence to the heyday of the Pokemon craze, Link now has some monsters of his own to assist in his quest. All three (Moosh, Ricky, Dimitri) sport interesting character designs and useful abilities that can alleviate some (assumed to be intentional) pain-points in traversing Holodrum by foot. This, combined with their abilities to more efficiently dispatch with the adversaries you encounter, makes them welcome allies and one of my favorite unique aspects of the Oracle series. I’d also read that depending on which companion you end up with the overworld terrain is modified subtly to make the best use of the abilities of your chosen companion.
As far as choosing, you can’t really pick the wrong one… which is good because on my blind (20 years removed, at least) playthrough there were no clear hints or clues that you would need to choose between them, or when/how that decision was made. I just ended up with a Moosh flute at some point and that was that, but I like Moosh (who we’ll talk about more later) so it’s all good.
Another thing we find for the first time (with respect to the real-world release chronology) are mine carts! These go on to be a somewhat-frequently used dungeon gimmick that we’ve seen in some games already (SS, MC) and one yet to come, Spirit Tracks, which from the looks over it leans in pretty hard on that front… Here at least their sparing use is effective and fun, and the switch-play coupled with cart-only doors makes for a decent exploration puzzle experience.
Unfortunately the other main ‘showcase’ mechanics in this game didn’t really land for me. First, the seeds? Did anyone get real excited about the seeds? Maybe the same people who are just dousing every last enemy and NPC with magic powder were excited to have 5x as many choices when sprinkling things at random as they quested along… but that wasn’t me. It’s fun that they have different applications, but the use cases always seemed too narrow to me.
Was anyone really strategically deploying scent seeds as a diversionary tactic to circumvent overworld enemies? I was not- though I was glad to have them for the slingshot since I knew I’d never use them for anything else. That is the seeds’ saving grace- you can shoot them at stuff. Though the ‘hyper slingshot’ was a pretty disappointing final main item for the Sword and Shield Maze final dungeon. It makes no real improvement on the combat utility of the slingshot, and only helps you solve a few contrived puzzles in its level of origin, serving no greater purpose in the game.
Which is maybe my main issue with the seeds- their uses were all a little contrived. There wasn’t enough opportunities to use them creatively to solve problems to make them feel really organic to the experience. I appreciate the commitment to the idea though, with the Maku Tree’s seed being a key plot device in the story’s end game. This also makes sense aesthetically with the Oracle series’ Japanese title translating roughly as “seed of the mystical tree.”
The last bit that came up lukewarm for me was the rings. Boy, did I blow a lot of money having those things appraised… only to leave with with Vasu forever. There were too many, and their effects of such limited consequence. Why waste time pouring over their function and kitting out a set of three for a particular adventure… when you can just skip it? I’m sure there’s some higher level strategy to their deployment and use, but I managed the muddle my way through, content to simultaneously collect and ignore these gashapon-like trinkets born of their eponymous seeds (what else?!).
Maybe I should be paid closer attention to my ring and seed utilization strategies though, because the bosses in this game smacked me down time and time again. I felt like I has no issues clearing the overworld and dungeon baddies, but the sub- and full bosses gave me fits, which lent a really uneven difficulty curve to the game. I think I’ve stated in prior entries that I am not especially ‘good’ at games. I like the puzzles and exploration but especially in the 2D entries the combat is not the aspect I particularly relish.
I thought Onyx was quite tough, which in fairness the final boss should be allowed, but suffice it to say that the last hour and a half I spent with this game was unarguably my least favorite. The crab from L4 (which is a Ghoma!) was also really tough, not to mention the insane skill in L2 boomerang usage required to dispatch Manhandla from L6.
No more clear was this to me than the Unicorn’s Cave. My notes indicate I very much enjoyed the initial exploration phase of the game- at one point I even had a total of four small keys at once, which I feel like doesn’t happen too much. I’d also noted that the sub-boss (Syger) was rather uninspired to defeat (you hit him a bunch with the sword and that’s it). …but the back half of this level was totally brutal, culminating in the Digdogger battle where you’ve got to be a real crack shot with the magnetic gloves which were just acquired a few rooms earlier in that very dungeon.
Tracking in the opposite direction- the L1 dungeon was just trivial! So, so easy. Sortof makes sense, again, as the first dungeon, but overall it just felt annoying that some parts were so basic and other could be frustratingly difficult, rather than a consistent and gradual increase in the challenge. I write this less as an indictment of the game (many folks enjoy the challenge!) but more to mention that the difficulty definitely diminished my enjoyment at the overall experience as a casual player with limited time to commit.
Colorful Over (and Under) -world
One reasonably positive point OOS has going for it was a solid overworld. In particular I liked the concept of the Sunken City- the intrusion of water everywhere takes ‘another boring town’ full of NPCs and lends it some depth and a sense of history. The townspeople don’t seem too out of sorts with the state of things, which makes it all the more quirky. I’m actually surprised this conceit (a sortof marsh-town) isn’t use more often in the series.
The color pallet of the GBC is also used to wonderful effect, particularly in conjunction with the season-changing mechanic. This goes a long way to hold your interest through the requisite return to areas previously explored, and in and of itself is a fun puzzle element which slowly evolves through the first half of the game as you collect the different seasonal spirits. You’ll read everywhere that OOS is the ‘action’ game, and OOA is the ‘puzzle’ game, but that binary undersells how enjoyable the seasons-changing puzzles are.
If anything, I thought they were underused, as they potentially lend dimension to nearly any screen tile on the whole overworld. They are leveraged to their full effect, however, in the Tarm Ruins, in one of the most enjoyable sequences in the entire game. And at the heart of these ruins lies the OOS ‘take’ on the Lost Woods. In perhaps the most direct homage to the original LOZ (more on that later) you have a single screen with a cross-shaped path, and only those who know the secret can get to the ‘other side’.
Here, the secret directions are the prize at the end of the trading sequence (which I found to be one of its more fun iterations) which lead to the L2 sword, a boon worthy of both the Lost Woods and the trading quest. The infinite supply of Like Likes was a nice touch as well, to force you to tread a little more carefully while also thinking on your feet to solve the riddle of the directions.
Lastly, but perhaps most notably, Subrosia! I found the periodic detours to the subterranean realm were plenty fun, and an excellent change of pace from the ‘above ground’ adventure. It’s a bit strange that the Gorons are constantly groaning about how cold it is when Holodrum is littered with portals to a volcanic paradise beneath their feet, but somewhat akin to the Picori from MC it seems these two worlds are largely separate from one another.
To have so much ‘extra’ explorable space added to standard map was absolutely great, complete with its own people and currency, and made for a welcome deviation from the largely boilerplate locales up above. The Subrosians themselves also seemed to have a lot more character than the smattering of ‘standard’ locals you meet in Holodrum proper; the dancing, sneaking around, and celebrity obsession with Rosa all give them a distinct personality. Plus, with no enemies around, you could explore as much as you like, which made all the return trips to the Temple of Seasons interesting rather than some aggravating chore. I was sad these guys were ‘proprietary’ to Holodrum, as I think they’d be a welcome addition to the standard mix of forest/water/mountain/air peoples we’re used to encountered in Hyrule and beyond.
The ‘flavor’ of the Oracle games is a little hard to put your finger on, and OOS specifically moreso still. There are many fascinating remnants from the initial development of OOS. In a past life, it was previously intended to be a remake/port of the original Legend of Zelda. The first dungeon, Gnarled Root, shares the same exterior look as well as boss (Aquamentus) with Level 1 from its NES progenitor. Similarly, there are Old Man(s) littered across the map, and six of the bosses (Dodongo, Ghoma, Digdogger, Manhandla, Gleeok, and the aforementioned Aquamentus) are familiar faces, if still unfriendly ones, from LOZ.
Now, please don’t mistake the critique here- this precise thing is what makes the Zelda series fun. For people well-steeped in its history and traditions, these nods and call-backs are a huge part of the fun. The simultaneously stoke nostalgia for beloved past games while also offering for fresh takes and reinterpretations utilized to tell new stories. But it only works if used sparingly; at what point does the homage become too unwieldy and begin to feel just like a lack of inspiration?
Many assets were re-used from the initial handheld entry and it subsequent color update. These were lifted whole-cloth from LA/DX, which I certainly understand from a resources standpoint, but that puts added pressure on the other elements of the game to really shine. I think the seasons mechanic succeeds in adding a fun twist which also makes excellent use of the color capabilities of the GBC, but the story and characters came up short for me. Speaking of characters, Navi (or her sprite anyways), the organ grinder guy (complete with the Song of Storms theme), Malon, Talon, the Poe Sisters, and Twinrova all stopped by from OOT to say ‘hello’. This seemed like a pretty cheap cash-in on the enduring popularity of its 3D brethren that is used to virtually no effect, excepting Twinrova who play a role in the meta-story.
With so much just borrowed off the shelf from prior entries, what’s new here? What does OOS give you that no other game does? It’s the linked structure between OOS/OOA- that is the primary conceit… that the sum of the parts might be greater than the whole. On that, I’ll decline to make any sweeping claims on this front until we get OOA in the books- but for the moment, it seems more like a hindrance. The games fall in this weird valley where they are certainly two different entries with their own stories and characters… but are also sufficiently similar that they it makes them feel generic.
Pokemon, which clearly influenced this setup, dispenses with this easily because the games are nearly identical. Any differences between a pair of games are simply inserted sell more copies and encourage the multiplayer interaction which girds much of the interest and enthusiasm for that franchise. That doesn’t work for Zelda, I don’t think. Who is the person playing through OOA and OOS each, twice, to chase down every last plot line and acquire every Vasu ring? At least for OOS the character interactions and quantity/quality of diversions simply aren’t enticing enough to justify such an investment of time in these places which aren’t even Hyrule.
The sad thing is, this bar isn’t unreasonably high to meet. Look no further than Majora’s Mask (which we’ll get to in several more games) for a counterexample. There, the engine and many assets are lifted straight from OOT, and yet the craft of the new mechanics and sheer quality of storytelling means you never think twice about it. In fact, the identical controls with which many players are already familiar means they sortof disappear, and the new game’s story really takes center focus. That didn’t work out for OOS.
Wrap-Up: Winners and Losers
Winner: Link’s dance moves, and the those of the Subrosians, for that matter.
Loser: The musical compositions. There are a few diamonds in the rough of the soundtrack, like the Tarm Ruins, the Maku Tree theme and the Temple of Seasons. Unfortunately these are obscured by the rest which are mostly duds (Horon Village, Subrosia, Sunken City, Maple’s Theme). It’s always tough to evaluate Zelda soundtracks on the same scale as the Kondo-lead efforts, but this one in particular does not fare well in the comparison.
Winner: Moosh’s character design. He is a huge bear with squinty eyes and tiny wings who is afraid of water despite inexplicably having the power of flight. What?! Here it’s just silly enough that it works, though. As mentioned, I thought the animal companions were a real bright spot of the game; this more comic, fantastical tone could have been utilized further to give OOS more personality.
Loser: Great Moblin. His heavily fortified keep/fortress had all the hallmarks of a fun mini-dungeon, so when I finally set out to tackle it I was pretty disappointed with the simple encounter. That he shows up later in the Sunken City is just strange… though it is fun to set fire to his explosives stock and collapse the house. Still, it’s a weird little diversion that keeps you wondering what the point was.
Winner: Bipsom. I haven’t ‘grown’ the child of Bipin and Blossom to his final stage, but this is a wonderful little side-quest, and one of the most notable/worthwhile of the entire game for its variety of outcomes. Ultimately, none of them are of any particular consequence, but the degree of intricacy involved in the decision tree of this one side character is pretty impressive. I expect it will be one of the high points of my ‘linked’ OOA game to run into this kid again and see how he is growing up. Also: the fact that you can’t choose his canonical name in-game? Hilarious.
Loser: General Onyx. Precisely like zero time is spend on character development of this guy. I’m not asking for much here, but Ganon has had much more interesting henchmen when that trope is deployed elsewhere (Agahnim, Girahim, Zant). If we spent more time building him up to be the big-bad, I think the reveal of Ganon as the puppet-master would be more impressive.
I remembered these games fondly, but… that’s about all I remember. Certainly fun to play, but they struggle to distinguish themselves. Against the other handhelds we’ve covered, I think it comes nowhere near the nuance of LA, but also spares us some of the tedium of the still-charming MC, so we come back to what I’d mentioned up at the top: ultimately feels like a ‘middle-of-the-pack’ entry because of humdrum Holodrum.
Oracle of Ages (3DS Virtual Console)