A Study in Legends #2 (Oracle of Seasons/Oracle of Ages by Akira Himekawa)

See all past instances of this column here

With the new release, Breath of the Wild, receiving all manner of accolade from the most unexpected of sources, The Legend of Zelda franchise has been revitalised and has never been more in vogue.

For the few who weren’t fortunate enough to grow up in the 90s saturated in video games, The Legend of Zelda is a franchise that is steeped in complex continuity, interweaving between worlds and throughout time. What remains constant, however, is a protagonist named Link that strives to save the titular heroine, Zelda.

Back in 1998, a staggering 19 years ago for those of you who want a reminder of your age, Nintendo commissioned the legendary manga duo Akira Himekawa (with pen names A. Honda and S. Nagano) to adapt their most popular game to date, The Ocarina of Time, into a serialised manga. As is discussed in the afterword to the first collected volume, Akira Himekawa jumped at the chance to work on a game that they themselves were hotly anticipating.

Akira Himekawa would soon go on to adapt eight of the games in turn, putting their own little spin on each independent universe, which were released to wild acclaim in Japan and even found some success overseas. Fortunately for those of us who were unlucky enough not to have access to the material at the time of its initial release, Viz Media have been gradually re-releasing collected versions of the material in so-called “Legendary Editions”.

These editions include a limited portion of coloured pages at the beginning of each volume, while also bundling in supplementary material such as accompanying magazine interviews and bonus stories that hint at a world even broader than that seen in the games themselves. This column will cover each of these five collected “Legendary” volumes, analysing their commitment to the original source material and whether or not they can be judged on their own merits.

NOTE: All images in this article should be read from right to left, in the original manga style

If you were to analyse the Zelda stories that have been selected for adaptation into manga, you wouldn’t be remiss to consider the decision to take a pass through two relatively ignored games, Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages, a strange one. While the plot is not as immediately iconic as Ocarina of Time, once you've reached the final page of this volume and taken yourself through the same journey as our legendary hero, the choice becomes abundantly clear.

Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages were two games released concurrently in 2001 as two parts of a single whole. While each game was possible to play independently, there was an incentive to purchase both, following the model started by the original Pokémon. A code was provided upon completion of the first that would be inserted at the beginning of the second, bringing the seemingly disparate stories together into one. This "Legendary Edition" maintains this spirit, bringing the two separate manga volumes together for the first time, subsequently creating one complete story.

Seasons follows a dancer from a travelling troupe that reveals herself as the herald of seasons, whereas Ages tells the story of a kindly, Snow White figure that gets her ability to control the time-stream turned against her. Fighting against a towering brute and a Queen with a costume that begs for a Maleficent joke that I refuse to make, Link is struggling desperately against superior forces from the very beginning.

The overarching plot in these two sections is the story of how our protagonist, who goes by Link if you’d forgotten, attempts to become the hero that his family already see him to be. Born with the pattern of the legendary Triforce on his left hand and a family history of noble warriors, it’s a life that he’s been relentlessly pushed towards and, despite it being what he actually wants, one that he’s beginning to rebel against.

One of the main weaknesses of the Legend of Zelda series as a whole is its lack of character growth. For those who are unaware, a large proportion of the games follow different people, all of which possess the same name and affinity for green clothing. Beyond their status as silent protagonists, this single quality prevents any chance of us seeing the after-effects of each adventure and therefore actually watching these characters change and grow.

However, one accidental positive to original decision to make a silent protagonist is the excitement of seeing how Himekawa interpret the personality that Link is required to have to make each plot function correctly. While the aforementioned immature Link seen in these two stories draws parallels to that of the child version seen in Ocarina of Time, there’s a very believable brashness to this version that ages him down considerably, but also making his gradual transformation more rewarding.

Bringing these two divergent stories together with a single ending gives a view of Link’s journey that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to see. He begins Seasons as a precocious young teenager with a burgeoning ego and, through his interactions with both of the oracles and the supporting cast that he meets along the way, he emerges as the fully formed hero that we know him to be. The character progression is unmistakable and brings with it all of the swelling optimism that shines like a beacon in times like these.

Although both stories have their own merits, the overall quality of Seasons stands the most resolute: Link is forced to confront his intentions and values after finding himself faced with a villain, Vox, who is both stronger and vastly more experienced than he is. There’s a tangible unnerving quality to Vox from his first appearance, with his ability to decay the nature around him, while swatting our hero to the side effortlessly. For reasons that will hopefully be immediately apparent, the Oracle of Seasons, Din, takes issue with the way in which Vox conducts his business.

Din’s first appearance in this story is its most visually defining moment. One of the most challenging aspects of creating comic book/manga art is conveying motion in an inherently static medium; with Din taking the vocation of “dancer”, the issue is compounded further. Fortunately, Himekawa’s tendency to exceed the borders of panels adds a degree of fluidity to Din's movements that transcends anything else happening on the page at the time. Din is unquestionably stunning, without the need for any objectification. Take note American comic artists - this is how you create visual appeal without sexualisation.

Similarly, the oracle in Ages, Nayru, maintains a regal and dignified air that demands your attention whenever she’s on panel. Nayru commands the flow of time in the way that us regular folk chew gum. However, her antagonist, and the person who takes control of her body, is the needlessly sadistic Veran, that flits between bodies with a similar ease. Who-can-we-trust-when-the-villain-could-be-any-of-us tales are far from unique, but one of the bodies in particular has a fascinating backstory and a stunning design.

Queen Ambi, the royal that Possessed Nayru corrupts, has two prominent spikes as part of her headdress that make her appearance striking, if not particularly unique (due to the obvious comparisons). Fortunately, seeing Veran looming over her shoulder, whispering into her ear as she talks, strips all of the levity away, reminding us of the damage that an autocratic power can enact on a population.

With Nayru, Queen Ambi and Veran taking up prominent, if often antagonist, roles in this story, Ages passes the Bechdel test with flying colours. Himekawa delve further into each character's unique personality and backstory than has been seen before, making them feel like the fleshed-out female characters that are often scarce in what is otherwise a remarkably progressive franchise.

The plot itself is a very standard one: rescue the princess, celebrate, rescue the second princess. If one wished to be reductive and pair it down to its basic elements, that is how the story plays out. The Legend of Zelda franchise is one that is known primarily for its remarkable ability to build worlds and infer a substantial amount of history; fortunately, these stories deliver that in spades.

In particular, Oracle of Seasons has a very straightforward "Save the Princess" story, but Himekawa have focused more on fleshing out the ancillary characters. These include a delightfully bombastic witch named Maple and a boxing kangaroo who goes by the name of Rocky Ricky. Team-ups are a rarity in this universe, so it makes the innocent friendship between these three youngsters all the more endearing. Unfortunately, Oracle of Ages doesn't manage to compensate significantly enough.

As someone with a hunger for convoluted time travel stories that I can't fully wrap my brain around, the original Oracle of Ages game provided a fun, twisted analysis of the effects that wreaking havoc on the time-stream can create. While there are some flashes of what time travel has wrought on the general populace in this manga, the focus is almost entirely drawn to a single point of the country’s history: a moment in Link's direct past. It’s understandable that needs must when simplifying an vastly complex story down, but it lost a lot of the charm that the original game had.

With the heroine after which this franchise is eponymously named taking a back-seat, you get the first look at the countries which exist outside of the land, Hyrule, in which the majority of the other games take place. You see the familial bonds of a travelling circus troupe in Seasons and the heartbreak of a Queen in Ages. This volume gives you a chance to see story beats and overall plotlines that usually get relegated to the background by a spunky, young boy saving the world.

If you come into this franchise for the almighty battles against world-destroying forces and the continuity-heavy arcs, then the Oracle of Season/Oracle of Ages saga isn't going to be the one for you. Similarly, if you dislike your original canon being simplified, then this won't work for you either. Stripped down though they may be from the original games, the fact remains that the world in which all of these wonderful stories take place just got that little bit wider, giving these adaptations a very special place in my heart.