What? Three Zelda entries in a row?! I guess I’m on a roll. This one should come as no surprise though, since I mentioned I just finished up playing the original Legend of Zelda on my 3DS, and what’s a more logical next step? Why, Zelda II of course! I received a free copy of Zelda II along with the original (and several others) as part of the 3DS Ambassador program that was launched by Nintendo in 2011. I mostly have kept myself busy during my daily commute to and from work with retail 3DS games. I’ve also spent time with my Vita (what’s that?) so I haven’t had much reason to play those free games Nintendo bestowed upon me. I currently don’t have any unfinished 3DS games though so it made sense to finally start digging thru these titles, especially since Nintendo has updated them since they were released to include that ever so lovely save state feature made famous by illegal emulators in the late 1990’s.
The Legend of Zelda is an unquestioned classic. It is beloved. People today who pick it up having never experienced it might not quite get it, but anyone willing to invest the time will be able to at least appreciate the game for what it is and what it means to the franchise as a whole. Zelda II, on the other hand, is often regarded as the worst entry in the series (developed by Nintendo) and is sometimes the target of much hate from the Zelda faithful. It’s the black sheep of the franchise, the Jan Brady of Zelda games, because it’s so different from other games in the series and no one loves it. That’s somewhat of an embellishment as the game does have its share of fans (or as some like to call them, apologists) but you would be hard pressed to find someone willing to argue it’s among the elite.
In theory, there actually isn’t a whole lot different about Zelda II when compared with its predecessor. The player still controls the hero Link as he journeys across Hyrule collecting items to help him in his quest to recover the Triforce of Courage. The music still kicks ass. Link will encounter some familiar enemies like keese, stalfos, and moblins as they seek to avenge the defeat of their master Ganon, whom Link bested in the original game. Where things change though, is in how the player interacts with Hyrule this time around.
In the original Legend of Zelda, Link was viewed from a top-down perspective; kind of like over-looking a chess board. For a Nintendo game the map was pretty large and the enemies would come onto the screen and Link could run up and stab them or take them down from a distance either with his sword or other means. In Zelda II, the player controls Link from a more traditional side-scrolling perspective. He plays more like a Belmont than a Mario, but he’s a pretty solid jumper considering this is his first go-around at platform action. He still attacks with his sword and can block certain attacks with his shield. When his health is full he can shoot little beams out of his sword which can damage some enemies. It’s kind of surprising that fans seemed to be so put off by this change in perspective given that this was only the second game in the series. It’s not as if it was much of an established property at this point.
Switching to a side-scrolling style of gameplay was just the beginning. The RPG was just starting to gain momentum in the gaming world and Nintendo saw Zelda II as an opportunity to introduce some RPG elements into one of their games. Link no longer travels the world in search of heart containers to increase his health (though there are still a few) or relies on getting a better sword to increase his damage output. Instead he gains experience points for defeating enemies and at certain intervals he’s able to level-up one of three attributes: Life, Magic, and Attack. Life should be thought of more as defense as it doesn’t increase Link’s health meter, just reduces how much damage he takes. Magic more clearly is tied to actual magic points, but upgrading the stat doesn’t visually impact the magic meter. Attack is rather self-explanatory and increases how much damage Link can inflict with a single sword swipe. There are a limited amount of magic containers and health containers that permanently increase each attribute respectively, but there’s no master sword for Link to find. There’s also a world map which is similar to one from a Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy game. When Link is roaming the world map enemies can appear on screen and attack him, which bring the player to a side-scrolling area to face off with some monsters, or run away.
The magic itself is also something that’s new. Link is able to travel to towns now and interact with the locals, most of which have nothing of interest to share with the hero. Hidden in each one though is a wizardly looking character who can teach Link a magic spell. Link will come to rely on these throughout the game, some more than others. Some examples are a shield spell that reduces the damage Link receives from enemies, and a jump spell that lets him jump higher. All spells, except for the life spell which restores some of Link’s health, last for one screen. The more powerful spells, naturally, consume more magic than others. Interestingly, enemies no longer drop rupees or hearts (there’s no need for currency in this Hyrule) but will drop magic potions from time to time making magic one of the few ways Link can restore his health. The game also has an extra life system, like most games, which perhaps makes up for the lack of restorative items. There is still the occasional fairy hiding in a dungeon or roaming the world map that can fully restore Link’s health, but that’s it.
This approach is one reason why Zelda II is often regarded as the hardest game in the series. That’s just one contributing factor to the difficulty though. The main contributor early on is simply in how the game plays. It takes some getting used to because Link is armed with perhaps the world’s worst sword. The thing is tiny and Link’s attack range, simply put, blows. In order to attack, Link needs to get in pretty close. Having full health and the beam attack can be useful, but the beam doesn’t travel very far and most of the enemies in the game are immune to it anyways. Most gamers will adapt though and eventually the game becomes easier. Link even learns some additional moves, the downward thrust and upward thrust, which help to open things up. Just when you’re starting to feel like you have this game figured out though it takes it to another level. The first couple of dungeons (palaces, actually) are pretty straight-forward. The game gets much harder around palace 3 or so. Older enemies get stronger, and new, more powerful ones are introduced. Most will come to loathe the blue knucklehead, an armored knight who throws knives and has a tendency to want to back away from Link making it hard to get in close. And just when you’re getting used to taking them out, a bigger lizard like one will take it’s place or a jumping bird one that’s truly a pain in the ass. Link also suffers from that same affliction that has killed many a Belmont in that he gets pushed backwards if struck by an enemy. The game exploits this by filling the air with flying skulls and flaming eyeballs to get in Link’s face while he’s trying to jump across some laval pools. The game will utilize pretty much every cheap trick in the book to try and kill you. The player can continue as many times as he or she likes but doing so brings Link back to the beginning of the game and takes away his current experience points, which is really annoying if you’re deep into a palace or nearing a level-up. The only aspect of the game that isn’t very challenging are the boss encounters. It’s actually strange for that to be but most of the bosses in this game just aren’t any harder than the regular enemies. I’d be hard-pressed to even name which one was the hardest since none of them are all that difficult to conquer, so long as you know what you’re doing.
The game plays differently, and is definitely harder than the first game in the series, but there are other areas where the game seems to invite criticism. Just like the original Zelda, Zelda II has the hero traversing dungeons and finding new items that help Link to advance further in the game. In the original Legend of Zelda, many of these items had multiple uses like the bow or the boomerang. In Zelda II, many end up being single use items that have no impact on the gameplay. There were some duds in the fist game like the raft and ladder, but just about every item in Zelda II is like the raft (which makes a return!) and essentially does nothing. The magic spells kind of make up for this, but most of them are kind of dull too. The game is also pretty lazy in the dungeon layouts. The original game was too, but Zelda II is an even bigger offender with some palaces having the same room repeat upwards of three times! And there’s “puzzles” like the thirsty woman in town with a water fountain right next to her house. It’s not exactly thought-provoking. And just to add one more kind of oddity with the game is the absence of Ganon. He only appears if the player receives a game over, otherwise he doesn’t show his pig face. Other games in the series do not feature Ganon too, but most of the main ones do, though I can’t say it bothers me to have a different antagonist this go-around (not that there’s much of an in game storyline).
Zelda II: The Adventure of Link is certainly a memorable title, though some would say for the wrong reasons. It’s legacy is defined by the fact that it was such a change from the first game in the series and for its punishing difficulty. If not for the save state feature on my 3DS version of the game, I likely wouldn’t have had the patience to make it all the way thru this one. It’s not really in the running for hardest game on the NES, but it’s definitely in the top 20, maybe top 10. As a video game, it’s actually a pretty solid title. For all of the things people didn’t like, there are some good ideas that would be carried over into future Zelda titles. It wouldn’t bother me in the least to even see Nintendo revisit some of the RPG mechanics of this game for a future Zelda title, or even to attempt a brand new side-scroller. I think there’s a better game to be found than what’s here. As a Zelda game, this one definitely is lacking but not because it’s different. It’s just missing something, that special ingredient, that makes a Zelda game truly special. Zelda fans certainly owe it to themselves to experience the title, just don’t expect to find a new favorite.