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The History of Super Mario: The NES Days

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History of Super Mario Bros

Brick by Brick: The House that Mario Built

The Nintendo Entertainment System was released in 1985 and retailed for $199 in the United States. The standard package included an 8-bit graphics console and two classic game controllers. Other bundles featured the NES Zapper along with the supported NES game Duck HuntIf you were one of the luckier kids, your parents shelled out a few extra bucks for the Deluxe Set which featured all the above but also included the optional R.O.B. or, Robotic Operating Buddy.

Nintendo released 17 launch titles, the first of 30 ‘black box games’, and they included 10-Yard Fight, Baseball, Clu Clu Land, the aforementioned Duck Hunt, Excitebike, Golf, Gyromite, Hogan’s Alley, Ice Climber, Kung Fu, Pinball, Soccer, Stack-Up, Tennis, Wild Gunman and Wrecking Crew. But of all these games, gimmicks and accessories, it was Super Mario Bros. that put Nintendo on the map, selling a record forty million units worldwide and becoming the best-selling game of all time for a single platform for approximately three decades, until Nintendo’s Wii Sports took that title. 

With Super Mario Bros. 3 turning 35 today, let’s look back at the history of the three original Super Mario games released on the Nintendo Entertainment System.

History-of-Super-Mario

Ape Out

Mario remains the most recognizable character in video-gaming but before Super Mario Bros. came along, he played a supporting role in Shigeru Miyamoto’s Donkey Kong, the 1981 arcade hit drawing from a wide range of inspirations, including Popeye, Beauty and the Beast and King Kong. The young graphic artist who’d never designed a game in his life decided that story would come first and the gameplay would be designed around it. After losing the license to Popeye, Miyamoto decided his Sailor-Man would become Jumpman, a carpenter leaping barrels and scaling a construction site to rescue his girlfriend Lady, who is kidnaped by a giant ape. Lady was renamed Pauline, Jumpman became Mario and the ape was, of course, Donkey Kong.

Miyamoto developed the scenario and designed the game alongside Nintendo’s chief engineer, Gunpei Yokoi, and the damsel in distress scenario would provide the template for countless video games to come. Donkey Kong was the first example of a complete narrative told in video game form, and like 1980’s Pac-Man, it employs cutscenes to advance its plot. Miyamoto changed the industry by using graphics as a means of characterization, and since its original release, Donkey Kong’s success has become firmly rooted in American popular culture. Miyamoto’s characters quickly appeared on cereal boxes, television cartoons, and dozens of other places and a lawsuit brought on by Universal City Studios, declaring that Donkey Kong violated their trademark of King Kong, only further helped keep the ape in the spotlight. Jumpman barely registered but Kong became so popular that in the game’s sequel Donkey Kong Junior, Mario was given the backseat and played the role of a whip-wielding protagonist who kept Kong’s son captive and repeatedly tortured the poor lad (just one of the many times Nintendo and Mario have angered the good people of PETA).

Mario is Given the Spotlight

In 1983, Mario was finally given his own video game, so long as he could share the spotlight with his younger brother Luigi. The game, of course, was Mario Bros., a platformer in which the Italian American plumbers, set out to defeat creatures invading New York City from the sewers below the Big Apple. The inspiration came from Joust, an old-school co-op game where players worked together in order to progress through levels by defeating groups of enemy knights riding buzzards. Sure it was just a supporting role and sure the game isnt’ necessarily loved in modern-day — but it was the start of something big, and nobody, including the execs over at Nintendo, could foresee just how big it would become.

History of Super Mario

In 1985 Mario got his big break. He and his brother Luigi left New York City behind and headed to the Mushroom Kingdom to star in a new sidescrolling adventure. Super Mario Bros. essentially pioneered the side-scroller as we know it and set the template for countless games that followed. It was such a huge success it helped Nintendo “save” the video game industry and would go down as one of the best and most influential video games ever made. Mario became the official mascot of Nintendo and the rest, as they say, is history. Thinking back, it’s hard to imagine a video game industry today without Super Mario Bros. Here’s the title that single-handedly revitalized the gaming industry and solidified Nintendo as the King of the video game market. Decades later, and Super Mario Bros. holds up as well today. In fact, Gamers are still discovering its secrets, and thanks to plenty of ports, it continues to charm new generations of kids.

The Genius of Super Mario Bros.

While the vast majority of early video games were largely designed by the programmers coding them, Super Mario Bros. was instead made by Shigeru Miyamoto, an artist first and foremost, who graduated with a degree in industrial design. As with Donkey Kong, character, and story mattered most. Players would play as Mario, accompanying him on his journey through the Mushroom Kingdom and his quest to rescue Princess Peach from the vicious Bowser, King of the Koopas. Miyamoto made Mario his go-to character, a plump, awkward Italian American who could easily fit into any 8-bit graphics. Overalls made his arms more visible and his thick mustache appeared clearer than a thinly sketched mouth. He was given a hat so Miyamoto could sidestep designing hair and a big nose to accentuate Mario’s look. Technical limitations may have played a huge part in how Mario looks but thanks to these limitations, Miyamoto was forced to think outside the box and the end result is something that has proven to stand the test of time.

History of Super Mario

Putting aside its star, Super Mario Bros. featured something that many games of the time didn’t have. It was populated with a plethora of unique enemies including Goombas (a species of sentient mushroom/owl hybrids), Koopa Troopas (a fictional race of turtle-like creatures), Koopa Paratroopers (flying Koopatroopas), Buzzy Beetles (turtle-like creatures with fireball-resistant shells), Piranha plants (that attack from within pipes) and the Hammer Brothers, a pair of giant twin-brother turtles who attack Mario by tossing hammers and jumping between rows of bricks. On the other levels, you’ll find Bullet Bills (giant bullets), Lakitu (a mysterious turtle who rides clouds through the skies) and underwater creatures like the unpredictable flying Cheep-cheep fish and annoying Bloobers (squids). Of course, the most formidable opponent of all was Bowser– a creature inspired by the turtle-demon kappas of Japanese folklore and awaits in the final castle of the game in Level 8-4. For modern gamers, this might not seem like a big deal but for a game released in the early 1980s, Miyamoto and his team went above and beyond when including as many characters as they could possibly fit into one cartridge.

Level Design

One of the most amazing aspects of Super Mario Bros. is the game’s extraordinary level design in which Mario or Luigi must walk, run, or jump through various roadblocks throughout the levels comprised of bricks, underground pipes, menacing oceans, and foreboding castles. Miyamoto’s motto was that a game should be easy to learn but difficult to master – one of the defining aspects of Super Mario that made it popular amongst dedicated gamers and casual players alike. Each castle grows increasingly difficult, and there are hidden warp zones that transport Mario or Luigi to higher levels – but if a player takes the incorrect routes, he will be transported back to the beginning of the level. Meanwhile, the clock ticking down at the corner of the screen becomes your biggest enemy. Chases and races are key ingredients for spicing up games and a race against time is perhaps the most exciting, suspenseful kind. Nothing creates on-screen tension like an impending deadline or clock that counts down to the final seconds. In Super Mario Bros. time will eventually run out, resulting in inevitable death.

Koji Kondo
Koji Kondo

Koji Kondo

Super Mario Bros. is celebrated for its intricate levels, colorful characters, and intuitive controls, but Koji Kondo’s sinister soundtrack is rarely discussed. Sure, just about anyone who’s played the game can whistle or hum the catchy theme song, but I’m referring to the complex score that elevates the game to a whole new level. Unlike any game before it, Super Mario Bros. wasn’t scored by a computer programmer – instead, Nintendo hired a talented composer. Kondo wrote the six-song musical score using only small pianos and yet still managed to create rich musical tapestries despite the limited resources. Koji Kondo’s Super Mario Bros. score not only redefined video game music, but it still resonates thirty years later. It’s easy to take Kondo’s work for granted but had Nintendo not hired a professional composer, the Super Mario Bros. soundtrack might have comprised of nothing more than odd soundbites and background noise.

Super Mario Bros. quickly became synonymous with the Nintendo Entertainment System and helped the NES become the top-selling console of its time. The video game crash of 1983 was officially over, and the famous brick-busting duo became household names. Super Mario Bros. is one of the most iconic video games ever conceived due to the sprawling level design, clever enemy placement, hidden secrets, optional sub-routes, superb physics, legendary soundtrack, and gorgeous sprite-work. All that was needed next, was a sequel.

History of Super Mario Series - Super Mario Bros. 2

Super Mario Bros. 2 Can Stand on its Own Merits

Nintendo wanted a sequel to Super Mario Bros. and they wanted it fast, both for the Japanese market and for the North American market. The Japanese version eventually became known as The Lost Levels, but Nintendo reportedly decided this version‘s difficulty exceeded North American skill level and asked Miyamoto to develop an entirely new game for the players in the West. Only Miyamoto was busy focusing his attention on finishing The Legend of Zelda for the Famicom and so they needed a quick and easy solution. They found one in Yume Kojo: Doki Doki Panic (Dream Factory: Heart-Pounding Panic) – a game that followed a family of four on a quest to rescue kidnaped children in a strange fantasy land. What started out as a prototype for a vertically scrolling, two-player, cooperative action game, was re-branded. Super Mario Bros. 2 sold ten million copies and was the third highest-selling game ever released on the Nintendo Entertainment System, and Nintendo Power listed Super Mario Bros. 2 as the eighth-best game on the NES.

Yet, despite these sales and the critical acclaim, many gamers now look back at Super Mario Bros. 2 as a terrible attempt at a Mario game. There are no pipes to warp through, no bricks to smash, no Bowser, and no more stomping on enemies. The story is different, the graphics are different, and the game even controls differently, but I believe that Super Mario Bros. 2 still holds merit.

This time around, players were given the option to play as four characters: Mario, his brother Luigi, the mushroom retainer Toad and the pink-clad princess, Peach. Each character has their own unique abilities and the pickup and throw mechanic were fresh for the time. Mario possesses his usual strength, speed and jumping skill while Luigi can leap further, carrying him past long vertical distances. Miyamoto also made him noticeably taller than Mario, and Luigi no longer looked like a clone of his older sibling. He now had his own distinct personality and character traits. Meanwhile, Super Mario Bros. 2 made Peach and Toad stars as well. Toad’s best asset is his reflexes, allowing him to pick up enemies and throw vegetables faster than the other characters. And Peach can hover in the air, making her easier to control when bouncing from platform to platform. It seems like minor changes but in retrospect, these decisions help expand the Super Mario universe and add character to the supporting cast. Another novelty of Super Mario Bros. 2 is, its enemies. Even though it wasn’t originally meant to be a Mario game, many characters making their debut (such as Shy Guys and Bob-ombs) became staples of later games in the series. And the use of bombs to clear roadblocks – magical keys to open locked doors – and potions to open portals to bonus worlds – all made for a refreshing change to the usual Mario formula. Regardless of not being originally intended as a Mario game, Super Mario Bros. 2 is able to stand on its own merits and remains a true classic.

History of Super Mario

Super Mario Bros. 3 is a Timeless Masterpiece

It didn’t take long before Miyamoto finished his work on the Legend of Zelda and returned to serve as the director overseeing Super Mario Bros. 3, a proper sequel in which everyone’s favorite Italian plumber embarks on a quest to save Princess Toadstool and the rulers of seven different kingdoms from the antagonist Bowser and his children, the Koopalings. 

Super Mario Bros. 3 had a ludicrous marketing campaign that included that famous commercial in which the camera zooms out from space to reveal the population of North America huddled together in color-coordinated outfits to create a mien of Mario, all while chanting his name. But the commercial was just a big tease. It didn’t reveal any game-play and Americans wouldn’t get their first look at the newest Mario title until the climactic final battle in the Hollywood film, The Wizard, about a trio of kids who make their way to a national Nintendo video game championship for a grand prize of $50,000. Its inclusion in The Wizard served as a sneak preview and generated a high level of anticipation in the United States prior to its release. Many called the movie a 90-minute commercial for the game – but if that was the case, it was the most expensive piece of advertisement ever made. And it worked.

By 1993, the game had sold 4 and 7 million units in Japan and the United States respectively— and in the United States alone, the game generated over $500 million in revenue for Nintendo. In 2008, Guinness World Records listed it as the best-selling video game to be sold separately from a system and reported worldwide sales of over 18 million copies, including the ports. Super Mario Bros. 3 remains the highest-grossing non-bundled home video game to date, having grossed $1.7 billion, adjusted for inflation. But money aside, Nintendo promised and delivered the best 2D platformer of all time.

Shigeru Miyamoto in his office working on Super Mario Bros 3.

Super Mario Bros. 3 is Full of Innovation and Surprises

Super Mario Bros. 3 was critically acclaimed and with reason; there is not a fault to be found anywhere in the game. For its time, the game was beyond anything you could ever dream. Super Mario Bros. 3 is a masterpiece – a perfect video game with eight worlds and 70-plus ingenious levels of side-scrolling awesomeness. One world is packed with giant renditions of every character, others feature underwater adventures and some take you through spooky castles and dungeons. As you move ahead, you’ll discover that each level contains optional paths that lead to shortcuts and extra lives hidden away.

The best thing about the game is the power-ups and various suits you can use inside the levels. These include the super leaf which turns Mario into Raccoon Mario, letting him fly, glide, and tail whip – and the fan-favorite, the Tanooki suit, which gives Mario the same abilities as the super leaf, but also lets him briefly turn into a statue protecting him from danger. Meanwhile, the frog suit allows you to swim very quickly underwater and jump higher while on land, and the hammer suit turns Mario into Hammer Mario, letting him throw powerful hammers and block fireballs by crouching.

In Super Mario Bros. 3 Mario could now slide down hills knocking down enemies who get in his way and the powerups from the original game also make an appearance. Also new to the series was mini-games and an overhead map screen to track progress and collectible warp whistles (much like the one Link used in Zelda II) that teleport you to later worlds in the game. In addition, is the music box that puts enemies on the map to sleep and the anchor used to stop the Koopaling’s airship from flying off around the map so that you don’t have to chase it. Jugern’s Cloud allows you to skip a level and Kuribo’s shoe, easily one of the most beloved power-ups in Mario history can be found in only one level! The familiar Mario sound effects are present and accounted for, along with a batch of new musical compositions concocted by Koji Kondo and dozens of new enemies like Boom Booms, Boos and Chain Chomps make their very first appearance in the Nintendo universe.

Super Mario Bros 3 is often considered to be the best video game of the 8-bit generation. In my opinion, it is, and it is also the best game in the Super Mario series. It’s a timeless masterpiece, full of innovation, surprises, and will forever stand the test of time. It also became the NES swan song. Super Mario Bros. 4 would emerge under a new name and on the Super Nintendo System instead – but that’s something I’ve saved for another article.

The History of Super Mario: The NES Days
The History of Super Mario: The SNES Days
The History of Super Mario: The N64 Days
The History of Super Mario: The GameCube Days

Some people take my heart, others take my shoes, and some take me home. I write, I blog, I podcast, I edit, and I design websites. Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Goomba Stomp and Tilt Magazine. Host of the NXpress Nintendo Podcast and the Sordid Cinema Podcast. Former Editor-In-Chief of Sound on Sight. Former host of several other podcasts including the Game of Thrones and Walking Dead shows, as well as Sound On Sight. There is nothing I like more than basketball, travelling, and animals. You can find me online writing about anime, TV, movies, games and so much more.

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Indie Games Spotlight – Going Full Circle

We’re featuring five exciting indie games in our latest spotlight, including the internship roguelike Going Under and the cozy puzzles of Lonesome Village.

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Journey of the Broken Circle

Indie Games Spotlight is Goomba Stomp’s biweekly column where we highlight some of the most exciting new and upcoming independent games. Summer may have come to a close, but that hasn’t stopped big announcements from rolling in. With events like PAX Online and the recent PlayStation 5 Showcase flooding the web with announcements, trailers, and gameplay footage, there’s been a constant deluge of news to keep up with. With so much coming on the horizon, we’re spotlighting five exciting indies that you’ll be able to play sooner rather than later. Whether you’re in the mood for a brutally addictive action game or a cozy adventure and social sim, there’s bound to be a game that speaks to you in this spotlight.

Moving Up Professionally in Going Under

Work is its own payment in Going Under. In this action game from developer Aggro Crab, you’re put in the shoes of an unpaid intern who must explore the endless ruins of failed tech startups while fighting off the monsters that spawn within them. It’s hard work to do without a single paycheck—but hey, at least you’re gaining valuable experience!

As a former unpaid intern myself, the writing in Going Under certainly resonates with me and it’s sure to strike a chord with anyone who’s ever felt underappreciated or overworked. Its vibrant and colorful 3D graphics, as well as its satirical story, only make it all the more enticing. It really should offer a great working experience when it hits all consoles and PC via Steam on September 24.

Animated GIF

Fill in the Gaps in Journey of the Broken Circle

Something’s missing in Journey of the Broken Circle. Like its name would suggest, this puzzle platformer follows a Pacman-like circle with a hole to fill. It wanders through a world that is whimsical and existential at once, searching for a companion to fill its gaps. As the circle rolls through ethereal environments, it encounters different shapes to use that allow for new gameplay mechanics.

Journey of the Broken Circle might be about an abstract shape, but in its quest to become whole, it strives to capture the human experience. It promises to be an intimate experience that clocks in at about five hours to complete. If you’re interested in getting this ball rolling, it’s already available now on Switch and Steam.

Prepare to Get GORSD

There’s a delicate balance between unsettling the player without being outright scary. GORSD treads the line here as a one-hit-kill shooter that stars humans encased in the skins of octopuses, dragons with human faces, and nightmarish environments. Something feels off about GORSD, but that’s exactly what makes it so interesting.

Brought to life with detailed pixel art, GORSD supports up to four players who can face off in chaotic matches in varied arenas. It also features a full-fledged single-player campaign with a vast overworld with dozens of unique stages. Its concept is inspired by its developers’ native Southeast Asian cultures, making for a unique gameplay and aesthetic experience. If you’re ready to dive in and see it for yourself, it’s available now on all consoles and PC via Steam.

Get Ready For a Foregone Conclusion

Saying Foregone is a 2D Dark Souls would be cliché, but accurate nonetheless. It’s a hardcore action game where you’ll fight against insurmountable odds to prevent monsters from overrunning the world. It has a brutally addictive gameplay loop—its difficulty may be excruciating, but because it offers a wide assortment of abilities to leverage, it’s immensely euphoric once you overcome the challenges before you.

This beautiful 3D/pixelated hybrid action game has been available on PC in early access since February, but at long last, it’s seeing its full console release in October. It’s been a promising title ever since its pre-release days, and now that it’s finally seeing its complete iteration, there’s never been a better time to dive in and give it a shot. It’s hitting all platforms on October 5, so there’s not long to wait!

Finding Good Company in a Lonesome Village

Mix Zelda with Animal Crossing and you might get something like Lonesome Village. This newly-revealed puzzle adventure game features Zelda-like adventure in a hand-drawn world populated by animal characters. Players control a wandering coyote who stumbles upon a strange village and decides to investigate its mysterious happenings by interacting with villagers, solving puzzles, and exploring its dungeons.

It’s more than a simple adventure game. In addition to puzzle-solving, you’ll interact with Lonesome Village’s eclectic cast of characters to forge relationships and unravel brooding mysteries. It’s showing plenty of potential with its cozy gameplay loop, and if you want to give it a shot, check out its official demo from its Kickstarter page! It’s already been fully funded in less than 24 hours, but if you want to help the developers out even further, consider contributing to their campaign.

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PAX Online: ‘Inkulinati’ and ‘Pumpkin Jack’

The PAX Online celebrations continue with the strategy game, Inkulinati, and spooky Halloween themed Pumpkin Jack.

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Inkulinati and Pumpkin Jack

The PAX Online celebrations continue with a strategy game whose tales are writ in ink and a game sure to put you in an early Halloween mood.

Inkulinati

Inkulinati

Platforms: Switch and Steam
Release: 2021

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Competitive strategy games stress me out. Chess? Stresses me out. Checkers? Stresses me out. Star Craft? Stresses me out. Managing that stress as a form of stimulation is what makes the best strategy games shine, though, and Inkulinati is so far demonstrating all the facets of such a game.

The titular Inkulinati are masters of a craft that brings their inked creatures to life on parchment, including a caricature of themselves. The two Inkulinati do written battle with each other until only one is left standing. The battles are carried out in a charming medieval art style that looks like it was taken straight out of a manuscript you’d find carefully stored in a library. These aren’t the masterpieces of Da Vinci or Van Gogh, but the kinds of scribbles you’d find the layman making on the edges of pages either out of boredom or mischievousness. The playful art makes for a playful tone and jolly times.

The core thrust of the gameplay is that each Inkulinati utilizes ink points to conjure units, or “creatures”, onto the parchment in a turn-based manner and sends them into the fray. There were a fair amount of creatures available in the demo — ranging from a simple swordsdog with well-rounded stats to a donkey capable of stunning foes with its trusty butt trumpet. Many many more creature types are promised in the full game, but I found even with the limited selection of the demo the gameplay was still able to be showcased well.

Your primary Inkulinati also has some tricks up its depending on the type you’ve chosen to take into battle. Instant damage to or healing a unit were the two shown off in the demo, as well as being able to shove units. Shoving is particularly useful as you can push enemies into the hellfires that encroach the battlefield as the battle wages on, instantly defeating them.

Doing battle with an opponent it all well and good, but what’s the point if it’s not immortalized for generations to experience down the line? Inkulimati understands this need and will record every single action of the battlefield in written word. It’s infinitely charming, and the amount of variations in how to say what amounts to just “X unit attacked Y enemy” is astonishing. How can you not chuckle at, “Powerful Morpheus killed the enemy and may those who failed to witness this live in constant pain and regret”?

Pumpkin Jack

Pumpkin Jack

Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, Switch, and Steam
Release: Q4 2020

Halloween may be a little over a month away but that didn’t stop the 3D action platformer Pumpkin Jack getting me in the spookyween mood. The human realm is suffering from the Devil’s curse and have elected the aid of a wizarding champion to save them from it. Not to be outdone, the Devil also chooses his own champion to stop the wizard, choosing the despicable spirit Jack. With the tasty reward of being able to pass on from hell, Jack dons his pumpkin head and a wooden & straw body on his quest to keep the world ruined. The premise sounds slightly grim but make no mistake that this is a goofy game through and through, a fact only emphasized by a brilliant opening narration dripping with sarcasm and morbid glee.

The demo took us through Pumpkin Jack‘s first stage, a dilapidated farmland full of ambient lanterns abandoned storehouses. The visuals are compliments by a wonderfully corny soundtrack full of all the tubas, xylophones, and ghost whistles one would expect a title that is eternally in the Halloween mood.

We got the basics of traversal, like dodge rolling and double jumps, before coming upon a terrified murder of crows. Turns out their favorite field has been occupied by a dastardly living scarecrow and they want Jack to take care of it. One crow joins Jack on his quest, taking the form of a projectile attack that he can sic on enemies. Jack also obtains a shovel he can use to whack on the animated skeletons with a simple three-hit combo. There’s nothing particularly standout about the combat, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be this early on. More weapons such as a rifle and scythe are promised in the full game and should go a way towards developing the combat along with more enemy variety.

Pumpkin Jack

Collectible crow skulls also dot the map and seem to be cleverly hidden as even when I felt like I was carefully searching the whole stage I had only found 12 out of 20 by the end. Their purpose is unknown in the demo, so here’s hopping they amount to something making me want to find those last eight in the full version.

After accidentally lighting a barn ablaze and escaping in a dramatic sequence we came across the scarecrow in question. Defeating it was a rather simple affair that was just a matter of shooting it out of the air with the crow then wailing on it with Jack’s shovel. We were awarded a new glaive-type weapon as a reward but unable to give it a whirl in the demo, unfortunately. All-in-all, Pumpkin Jack shows promise as a follow-up to action 3D platformers of yore like Jak & Daxter, so here’s hoping to a solid haunting when it releases later this year.

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‘Oracle of Seasons’: A Game Boy Color Classic

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Oracle of Seasons

“It is an endless cycle of life… the changing seasons!”

The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages & Oracle of Seasons are very much two halves of the same grand adventure, but they’re both worth examining on their own merits. Seasons in particular brings with it quite an interesting history. The game that would eventually become Oracle of Seasons began life as a remake of the original Legend of Zelda. This remake would be accompanied by five other games– a remake of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link and four original titles– all developed for the Game Boy Color. These games would not be developed by Nintendo themselves, but by Flagship– a subsidiary of Capcom that was also funded in part by Nintendo and Sega.

These six games would eventually be trimmed into a trilogy slated to release in the summer, autumn, & winter of 2000, before settling as a duology that would launch simultaneously in 2001. Where Oracle of Ages was the sole survivor of the four original games, Oracle of Seasons was a brand new game morphed out of the Zelda 1 remake. Considering director Hidemaro Fujibayashi’s own reflection on Flagship’s Zelda proposal, much of what would define Seasons was always present;

 “The core of the game was pretty much decided. That is to say, the fact that it would be on the Game Boy Color, the use of the four seasons, and the decision to retain the feel of the 2D Zelda games. It was also decided that it would be a series.”

Not only was this remake never intended to be a standalone entry, it would kick start its own sub-series while featuring seasons at the forefront of the gameplay. Series creator Shigeru Miyamoto likewise asked Fujibayashi to pen a new story for the original Legend of Zelda, suggesting a fairly comprehensive remake as the end goal. With so many inherent changes, however, The Hyrule Fantasy ended up leaving the region altogether. 

“I believe the Zelda series really only started to have scenarios after the hardware specifications improved. The original Zelda was a pure action-RPG and didn’t have much of a story to begin with. I wanted to combine both those aspects (action-RPG and an actual scenario) this time around. At first, we’d only planned on creating a game one-tenth the size of the final version. But it just kept growing as development progressed and gradually turned into an original game.” 
– Hidemaro Fujibayashi, Director/Planner/Scenario Writer

Oracle of Seasons takes after Link’s Awakening and Majora’s Mask by setting itself away from Hyrule– the kingdom only ever shown during the opening cinematic. Holodrum has one of the densest worlds in a 2D Zelda game, if not the densest after A Link to the Past & A Link Between Worlds. A kingdom geographically similar to Hyrule as seen in the original Legend of Zelda, Holodrum has its own northern mountainside, a final dungeon in the northwest corner, and dozens of old men hidden amongst the land. This all makes sense since Seasons is rooted in a remake of the first game, but it isn’t as if Holodrum is without its novelties. 

Holodrum is distinct from Hyrule where it counts. The kingdom itself is quite large, sprawling when compared directly to Koholint Island. Progression often feels like a puzzle, especially when working around roadblocks early on. Holodrum’s four seasons are out of order, with the weather changing on the fly between regions. Link has to work around snow banks, overgrown trees, flooded fields, and petrified flora to overcome Holodrum’s chaos. As easy as it is to get side tracked in the vast kingdom, it’s only because there always tends to be something around the corner. Getting lost isn’t a problem when the overworld is so secret heavy. 

Old men are frequently found hiding under trees, actually giving players a reason to burn them on sight now, but new systems are in place to make exploration even more rewarding. Link will come across patches of soft soil throughout Holodrum where he can plant Gasha Seeds. Owing their name to gashapon– Japanese capsule toys not too dissimilar to blind bag toys– Gasha Seeds grow into Gasha Trees which bear Gasha Nuts after Link has defeated 40 enemies. Gasha Nut contents are randomized, but they incentivize players to return to previously explored areas. 

Not everything a Gasha Nut drops is worth the effort of chopping down 40 enemies– the worst being five regular hearts and a sole fairy– but the best rewards make it all worthwhile. While the Heart Piece tied to the Nut is probably the best overall get, Gasha Seeds naturally feed into the Ring system. Rings add an inherent RPG layer to the Oracle duology’s gameplay, offering the earliest instance of genuine player customization in the Zelda franchise. Rings, like Gasha Nuts, are completely random. Link will find many in his travels, but he needs to appraise them at Vasu’s ring shop in Horon Village before they can be used. Except in a few rare instances, Vasu’s appraisals are randomized.

There are 64 rings altogether between Seasons and Ages, all with varying effects. Which rings Link obtains can influence how players go about their game. RNG also ensures that each new playthrough is unique from the last. While this poses an obvious frustration for any completionists, it’s a fantastic way of adding another layer of replay value to an already fairly replayable experience. The Expert’s Ring allows Link to punch enemies if he unequips his weapons, the Charge Ring speeds up the Spin Attack, and the Protection Ring makes it so Link always takes one Heart of damage when attacked.

With so many rings to choose from, the gameplay is kept in balance by Link’s Ring Box. Once appraised, Link can equip his rings into his box. While he can only equip one initially, players can find a Box upgrade on Goron Mountain. With RNG already influencing which rings Link has access to, it’s unlikely two players will have the exact same experience in Oracle of Seasons– rings offering more personalization than is still usual for Zelda. Besides Gasha Nuts, Rings can be found in the overworld and dropped by Maple, a young witch who makes further use of RNG. 

Maple is Syrup’s apprentice, the recurring witch who runs the potion shop in A Link to the Past and Link’s Awakening. Riding in on her broomstick, Maple will appear after Link has killed 30 enemies. Should players bump into her, both Link & Maple will drop their treasures, prompting Maple to race the player for them. It’s almost always worthwhile to focus on what Maple’s dropped rather than what Link lost. Not only does Maple drop her own unique set of rings, she’s a convenient way of getting potions early on and will eventually drop a Heart Piece. Maple also gets progressively faster, upgrading her flying broomstick to a vacuum after enough altercations.

So much RNG can be off-putting, but Holodrum is such an extensive overworld that randomness isn’t much of an issue. Gasha Seeds drive exploration and Maple’s appearances reward it. These systems also encourage players to fight enemies head-on rather than avoid them when it’s convenient. If gameplay ever feels more involved in Oracle of Seasons than the average Zelda game, that’s because it is. This goes double when taking the very seasons into account. 

The four seasons influence overworld progression significantly and most non-dungeon puzzles center on Link using the Rod of Seasons to restore seasonal order to whatever region he’s in. Most of these puzzles solve themselves since seasons can only be changed on stumps, but concessions need to be made when an overworld features four unique versions of every region. Incredible use of the Game Boy Color’s hardware helps in this regard as well. The handheld was designed with making in-game colors pop and Oracle of Seasons– as an extremely late-life GBC game– stands out as one of the most vibrant titles in the system’s library. 

Each season has its own defining color palette– blue for winter, red for summer, green for spring, yellow for autumn– but there is always a wide range of colors on-screen. Winter matches its light blue with shades of white & gray; spring features an almost pastel color tone where gold & pink flowers bloom against soft shades of green; summer deepens most colors for a bolder effect; and autumn offsets its yellow with orange, red, and in some instances purple. Oracle of Seasons might very well have the best atmosphere on the Game Boy Color, each season stylized & recognizable with their own distinct tones. It’s a phenomenal presentation that outdoes OoS’ contemporaries. Seasons outright has better art direction than most early GBA games. 

The fact Oracle of Seasons commits to its premise in such a large overworld as strictly as it does is praiseworthy, but it’s even more impressive that there’s another world lurking underneath Holodrum. Subrosia is a bizarre underworld, easily the most eclectic setting in the franchise other than Termina (and in many respects more so.) Subrosians are culturally impolite, bathe in lava, and deal in Ore instead of Rupees. The Subrosian Market undersells a Heart Piece, volcanic eruptions are a welcome norm, and Link will be moving between Holodrum & Subrosia multiple times over the course of his journey. Players can even go on a date with a Subrosian girl, Rosa, that’s a clear play on his date with Marin from Link’s Awakening. Subrosia is so alien that it’s hard not to love every moment beneath Holodrum.

Beyond the four seasons and the dichotomy between Holodrum & Subrosia, what differentiates Oracle of Seasons most from Oracle of Ages is its focus on action. Seasons is a puzzle heavy game, but it lets combat drive the gameplay more often than not with a very action-centric tool kit. The Slingshot makes its 2D debut, replacing the Bow in the process, but its 250 seed capacity outdoes any of Link’s quivers. Its upgraded version, the Hyper Slingshot, even fires in three directions at once. The Roc’s Feather returns from Link’s Awakening to once again make jumping an important part of Link’s mobility. Not only is platforming far more frequent this time around– with the Ancient Ruins featuring quite a bit of jumping for a 2D dungeon– it upgrades into the Roc’s Cape which allows Link to glide.

The Boomerang now upgrades into a guided Magical Boomerang which players can control themselves; the Magnetic Gloves are ostensibly a better version of the Hookshot which can pull Link to & from magnetic sources, along with magnetizing certain baddies; and most enemies are designed with a combination of the sword & shield in mind. Oracle of Ages has its fair share of action as well, but not with quite the same focus as Oracle of Seasons.

In general, Seasons is a focused video game in the best ways possible. OoS always gives players a general direction to go in, but otherwise leaves Link to his own devices. There are little to no interruptions, and the gameplay loop emphasizes freedom in spite of the game’s linearity. There’s always something to do and you’re always making progress, whether that be narratively or checking in on some Gasha Nuts. The pace is perfectly suited for handheld gaming and quick burst play sessions. Only have a few minutes to play? Kill some enemies to trigger Maple. Got some time? Scope out the next dungeon and work towards saving Holodrum. 

There are also a number of side quests to round off gameplay. The main trading sequence ends with Link finding the Noble Sword in Holodrum’s Lost Woods; players can forge an Iron Shield in Subrosia by smelting red and blue ore together & bringing the refined ore to the Subrosian smithy; and Golden Beasts roam Holodrum, each appearing during a different season & in a set region. Once all four are defeated, Link can find an old man north of Horon Village who will give him the Red Ring– a ring which doubles the Sword’s attack at no expense to the player. 

All these side quests are worthwhile, especially since Oracle of Seasons is a bit on the tougher side when it comes to difficulty. Dungeons are very fast-paced, full of puzzles that are often deceptively simple. Dungeon items are used in increasingly clever ways, from traversing over bottomless pits with strategic use of the Magnetic Gloves to using the Hyper Slingshot to activate three statues at once. Notably, most bosses in Seasons are actually remixes of boss fights from the first Legend of Zelda

Aquamentus, Dodongo, Gohma, Digdogger, Manhandla, and Gleeok all return with a vengeance. Gleeok in particular puts up a serious fight, forcing Link on the offensive. Not only do players need to be quick enough to slice off Gleeok’s two heads before they can attack themselves back on, the dragon will persist as a skeleton for round 2. Explorer’s Crypt is a difficult enough dungeon where getting to the boss room with full health isn’t a guarantee, so Gleeok offers a surprising but welcome challenge as a result. 

Oracle of Seasons deserves a bit of credit for having one of the harder final bosses in the series, as well. Onox doesn’t have much in the way of personality, but he’s a tough boss to put down. His second form requires Link to use the Spin Attack to deal damage while making sure he doesn’t hit Din in the process, and Onox’s dragon form is a gauntlet of dodging, jumping, & surviving long enough to finally kill the General of Darkness. Players are bound to die once or twice, but the final dungeon is short enough where getting back to Onox takes no time at all. 

If Oracle of Seasons has one glaring flaw, however, it’s the story. The script reads like a massive step back coming off the heels of Link’s Awakening, Ocarina of Time, and especially Majora’s Mask. Link is summoned to aid the Oracle Din, already a seasoned hero and implied to be the same Link from A Link to the Past, but very little time is spent fleshing out Din as a character & giving players a reason to care about her. Her role is more akin to Zelda in A Link to the Past than Marin in Link’s Awakening. Similarly, Onox is an undercooked villain who shows up to kidnap Din and does nothing for the rest of the story. Of course, this light story stems from Seasons’ origin as a remake of The Legend of Zelda

Early press of the game– when it was still going by the name Acorn of the Tree of Mystery– indicates that the story was originally set in Hyrule and the seasons went out of order when Ganon kidnapped Princess Zelda, the guardian of both the Triforce of Power & the four seasons. Hyrule was changed to Holodrum, Ganon became Onox, Zelda turned to Din, and the eight fragments of the Triforce presumably became the eight Essences of Nature. While underwhelming, the plot’s structure if nothing else makes sense. 

It’s worth pointing out that Oracle of Seasons seems to recognize that story is its weakness and lets the gameplay drive the experience. Unlike Oracle of Ages which takes its plot seriously and has a clear thematic arc, Seasons really is just a remix of Zelda 1’s plot. Which is perfect for the kind of game OoS ultimately is: a fast-paced, action-packed adventure through an ever-changing world. When played as a precursor to Ages instead of its ending, Seasons’ story comes off comparatively better. The stakes aren’t that high or defined, but that’s more than okay for the first half of an adventure that spans two full-length games. 

In a departure for the franchise, Oracle of Seasons actually features a proper post-game, marking the first time any Zelda acknowledges that the main threat is over. NPCs will comment on how they haven’t seen Link in a while, the weather has stabilized as spring has set in Holodrum, and you’re free to wrap up any side quests left unfinished. This is especially noteworthy because players can link their progress from Seasons over into Ages and transfer any rings they have on hand. 

An epilogue makes for a charming send-off to one of the most charming games on the Game Boy Color. Oracle of Seasons underwent a strange development, intended to be little more than a suped-up remake of the original Legend of Zelda. Instead, Flagship ended up developing one of the finest games on the GBC– a vibrant adventure filled with personality and some of the best action on the handheld. Oracle of Seasons isn’t just one half of a greater game; it’s a classic Zelda in its own right.

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