Zelda II: The Adventure of Link

I was in two minds as to whether I would even try Zelda II. I’ve been playing back through the Zelda franchise because it’s one I know I like, with plenty of games I think are wonderful and a set of games I had (and still have) yet to play. The thought of getting to play (or replay) titles like Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask and my personal favourite, Wind Waker, is very much one of the main reasons I started going through the series, but it’s also very much a joy to get to experience games I’ve not played before. However Zelda II is one which I was never entirely sure I intended to play. I’ve tried it a couple of times before, many, many years ago, but due to how different and how difficult it is in contrast to the other games, I’ve never persevered through it until now. 

Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (GameCube, GBA [reviewed], NES)

Released Jan 1987 | Developed / Published: Nintendo

Genre: Action RPG | HLTB: 11 hours

Without a shadow of a doubt, this is the dark horse of the Zelda franchise. Nowadays Zelda II is remembered as an odd and ill-fated dalliance into sidescroller territory (although not the worst game outright in the franchise – that ignominy will undoubtedly always belong to the CDi games). There must just be something about the 2nd game in a NES franchise that made them the vehicle for experimentation; Castlevania II, Final Fantasy II, Metroid II, and Super Mario Bros 2 all threw caution to the wind and indulged in a bit of differentiation to see what worked, and Zelda II is no exception to the rule. While I’m no Zelda ultra-fan, I’ve certainly played a fair few games before but I’ve never given Zelda II more than a cursory glance; I used to own it on GameCube as part of a collection but it would never take long before I was turned off from playing it. I even skipped over it on this playthrough of games for the blog, largely because I simply didn’t fancy putting myself through it when there were other, more fun Zelda games to play – but then I reasoned that I wasn’t really giving it it’s fair dues. I’d not properly played it after all so how could I pass that judgment on it? With that in mind I booted it up and resolved to see it through to the finale.

Now that I have beaten it, I feel quite comfortable sitting back and saying that the general opinion of this as a Zelda game to overlook is completely the right choice. I can’t imagine recommending this game to anyone, unless they’ve got a serious problem with enjoying life too much. I wouldn’t call this a game devoid of quality, but it’s not a fun play experience in the slightest – but why? Chief amongst its problems are its difficulty and its obtuseness. Zelda II is certainly infamous for its difficulty. NES games often are tough in order to make them last longer than a single afternoon, but Zelda II is also a lengthy game even without the punishing difficulty – and it genuinely is punishing. Back when we talked about Metroid I said that a quintessential part of that game’s design was it wanted you to seriously think about engaging in combat, striking the balance between understanding that enemies could easily kill you, but they held precious resources like life and missile refills. The effect was to make you carefully pick your battles; while the end result was grindy because you wound up needing to farm energy drops from ‘safer’ enemies before trying for missile refills from tougher foes, it was still an intelligent approach to designing difficulty. 

Zelda II stands as an opposite to this school of thought. It’s an RPG so taking on enemies is mandatory as they drop EXP and you need to level up in order to increase your health, magic, and strength; without these, you’ve not got much hope of taking on the challenge of the later stages of the game. It throws you into battle regularly, with random fights occurring in the overworld and dungeons and caves being positively stuffed with foes. The random encounters are simple to escape if you need to, but sometimes you simply can’t afford to because you need the experience points or that it would cost you more life trying to get through enemies to escape. 

Combat is nice and simple. Link hoists his shield whichever way you’re facing and most of the enemy attacks can be deflected with it. They come thick and fast though so you’ve got to be quick with ducking and judging the height of any incoming projectiles because if you get anything wrong and take a hit you’ll be sent flying backwards. Sometimes you come out of the hit animation safely, but it’s more likely than not you’ll be thrown into another enemy or attack, starting a chain of hits that inevitably ends in your death and another life lost. Of course if you’re in an area with pits or deadly hazards like spikes or lava you’ll invariably be send flying into them for an instant kill. 

If you can get close enough you can swing your sword and try and get a hit in but there are plenty of enemies who also understand the invincible power of the shield and will quickly block you from inflicting any damage to them. It’s so demoralizing to finally get through an onslaught of attacks and close in on a foe only to have them easily block all your attacks before you no doubt wind up getting hit and then you’re back at the beginning, trying to find a moment in-between the barrage of projectiles to advance or attack. By the time the game was throwing iron knuckles and lizalfos at me I basically gave up on trying to defeat them and just tried to look for openings to leap over them and leg it away. They’re not the only annoying enemy by any means; some enemies require you to cast magic spells to defeat them, such as those that are only weak to fire or the wizzrobes that need to have their attacks reflected back at them. Oh, and don’t forget the bouncing flying skull balls that drain your magic if they hit you, so once you take a hit or two from them you’re stuck with no way to defeat enemies that can only be stopped with magic. Well, I mean you can try and farm enemies for potion drops to replenish it but they drop so infrequently that sometimes your only option is to leave and try and return to a town to get a refill. It makes for a laborious, grinding, joyless time, the epitome of banging your head against the wall for no real reward

Zelda II also has a well-deserved reputation for being obtuse when it comes to giving you information. One of the points I raised when talking about the original Legend of Zelda was that it barely gave you any kind of information or guidance in the game itself, relying instead on a scant few audiovisual cues in-game and players reading the manual. Obviously it couldn’t predict the flock of re-releases it would see, the vast majority of which do not come with the manual or hint book of the NES release, but even so, the in-game help is spartan at best which makes it tough to tackle for a modern audience. To its credit, Zelda II makes a valiant attempt to address that issue. Link comes across a series of towns, each of which is filled with folk you can talk to. Some are functional, such as the people who heal you and refill your magic, but some of them offer oblique hints as to ways to progress through the game. Unfortunately, the vast majority of these are undecipherable gibberish. This is generally considered to be the result of dodgy translations, but it begs the question as to why on earth not address this in re-releases? Each town has a hidden wizard who offers to teach Link a spell, but finding them gets more and more difficult. Without good guidance it’s easy to get lost and bogged down in aimless wandering, trying to find whatever random square of the overworld is suddenly relevant to your quest, and you do have to do this because practically all the magic you can find is required for progressing through the game. You can’t just skip on finding that town’s wizard because chances are you definitely need it to get through the next dungeon.

While to a modern audience Zelda II stands as the weird, different entry in the franchise, the reception it received back in the 80s was much more favourable. Because there were only 2 games it couldn’t be the oddball game, and I can only assume that by the standards of the time Zelda II didn’t stand as such an egregious grind. It would take the release of A Link to the Past on the SNES to begin to codify the top-down Zelda as the benchmark against which we measure the franchise and for Zelda II to be clearly delineated as the not-normal Zelda game. It’s also a game with a lasting legacy, despite its status now; it did, after all, add magic to the series which has long since become a major tool in Link’s arsenal, and it was also the first game to give the Triforce its identity as the Triforce of Courage. Its influence extends beyond The Legend of Zelda franchise; it was also a pioneering title as an action RPG. Of course, none of this absolves it of its sins or problems, but, like many of these older games that have long since seen their edges fray, it’s important to remember that it didn’t exist in a vacuum. Still, it’s not a game I would consider especially playable for a modern audience. While hard games are en vogue in the modern gaming landscape, it’s rare to see game design locked into the paradigm of NES difficulty. Modern difficulty design is typically more inclined to be harsh but fair to players, in contrast to Zelda II’s approach of waves of enemies, each firing hard to block projectiles that knock you back, hidden behind obfuscating world design and puzzles. I genuinely can’t imagine enjoying Zelda II as a game – I appreciate it for what it did for both this franchise and in terms of its impact on gaming, but playing it was a miserable experience.

2/7 – POOR. 

A disappointment. Best not to bother with this unless you’re desperate for a naff time.

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