Recently the release of the Nintendo Switch and it’s flagship title “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild” has put the gaming community into a tizzy. Whenever a new Zelda game is released fans seem to reflect on the series as a whole and a general wave of Zelda nostalgia grips the internet. I’ve been immune to most of the hype as I haven’t purchased a new video game in six years but coincidentally I’ve recently played through Zelda II: The Adventure of Link for the NES. Since Zelda is such a hot topic of conversation I find it only fitting that I break down this controversial piece of gaming lore while it’s still fresh in my memory.
Following 1987’s groundbreaking release The Legend of Zelda was no easy task. The game was a critical and commercial success having moved over 6.5 million units and being considered not only one of the top titles for the NES but a landmark release in the history of video gaming. Rather than rehash the same game with a different map and upgraded graphics, Nintendo set out to reinvent the series and attempt to create something entirely different and hopefully equally as groundbreaking. When Zelda II hit store shelves in 1988 many gamers were taken by surprise at how different the game played than it’s predecessor. Over the last 29 years these changes have made Zelda II a polarizing title in the gaming community with some praising its bold approach and innovation while others have slammed it’s departure from classic Zelda conventions.
Zelda II’s story takes place directly after the events of the first game. Ganon has been defeated and his minions are seeking revenge on Link. Apparently by sprinkling the blood of Link on Ganon’s ashes the evil warlord will be reborn. Meanwhile Link has noticed that a Triforce crest has appeared on the back of his hand after his 16th birthday which causes him to seek out Zelda’s nursemaid Impa for answers. Impa takes Link to North Castle and presses his hand against a locked door which causes the lock to fall off and the door to open revealing a sleeping princess. Impa explains that the princess in the room is the original Zelda. Apparently generations ago a wizard wanting to learn the location of a piece of the Triforce met with Zelda and her brother. Zelda refused to divulge the location and in a fit of rage the wizard cast a spell over her which caused her to fall into an endless slumber. Filled with remorse her brother had her placed in the tower of North Castle hoping that someday the spell would be reversed. To ensure that the royal family of Hyrule would never forget this terrible event he decreed that henceforth all princesses born into the family would be named Zelda in remembrance of his sister. Thus the Legend of Zelda was born. Impa believes that the crest on Link’s hand indicates that he is the hero chosen to awaken Zelda from her slumber. She gives Link a chest containing six crystals and a scroll that can only be read by the future king of Hyrule. Link finds that he can read the text despite having never seen the language before, and that it indicates that by placing the crystals on six statues inside of the six palaces of Hyrule the path to the Great Palace will open. Inside of the Great Palace he will find the Triforce of Courage. Only by combining the power of the Triforce can Zelda be awakened. Got all that?
Aside from a short opening scroll the story has to be gathered from the manual. Unlike today’s story driven RPG’s there isn’t much plot progression during the game and there are no twists to the main story. Once you push that power button and enter your name on the selection screen it’s all gameplay from that point on. Although it is a bit rudimentary there is a certain magic to reading the plot from the game’s manual. It forces the player to use their imagination rather than to rely on fancy graphics and effects.
Boot up the game and you are greeted by a sword plunged into a rocky cliff with a large body of water and it’s shore in the distance. Above the water the stars are twinkling as the music slowly increases in volume and tempo. Finally we are greeted by the title “Zelda II The Aventure of Link” which scrolls up from beyond the horizon. To date this is the only entry in the Zelda series that doesn’t include “The Legend of Zelda” within it’s official name. After a brief pause the banner continues to scroll upwards so that we can read our brief synopsis:
After Ganon was destroyed, Impa told Link a sleeping spell was cast on Princess Zelda. She will wake only with the power of No. 3 Triforce sealed in a palace in Hyrule. To break the seal, crystals must be placed in statues in 6 well guarded palaces. Link set out on his most adventuresome quest yet…
If you purchased the game used or trashed the instruction manual after opening the box like so many, this was the only plot you had to go on. Pretty vague and I love the nondescript portion mentioning “No. 3 Triforce” as Nintendo hadn’t fully realized the Zelda lore at this point. Story aside I’ve always loved the theme on this screen. It’s one of my favorite NES tunes and among my favorite video game pieces. The shooting stars above the sword are a cool visual but I’ve always wondered how that sword got buried in the solid rock. After all this isn’t the Master Sword pedestal here.
After entering your name we begin in North Castle with Zelda asleep on a dais in a vaulted room with Link in the foreground. Already things are drastically different than the first Zelda game as our opening screen is side scrolling rather than using the overhead camera of the first Zelda. I’m sure everyone reading this is aware of this difference and the controversy surrounding it so I won’t dwell on it at this point. Exit the castle and we are greeted by our first glimpse of the overhead map that is used in this game which I’m sure led to some confusion for first time players. Within the first minute of the game players have already been introduced to the two primary gameplay mechanics.
The original Legend of Zelda made excellent use of the overhead 3/4 perspective which has since been associated with the 2D entries in the franchise. Zelda II went in a different direction than its predecessor in an attempt to deepen the action aspects of the game. The Legend of Zelda utilized multiple items but the sword combat involved stabbing in one of four directions and dodging by running away. In Zelda II it’s clear that Nintendo wanted to place more emphasis on sword combat while still retaining the exploration that made the original famous. It is now possible to block sword thrusts with your shield while directing your sword thrusts either by standing or ducking which leads to more dramatic battles with the armored Iron Knuckle knights. These foes always have their shield drawn which makes it necessary to stab at the exposed location either by standing or ducking. In the meantime you must also block their thrusts with your shield in the same manner by either standing and blocking high thrusts or by ducking and blocking low thrusts. Later in the game more techniques are also added to further deepen the combat experience which makes Zelda II much more difficult to pick up and play than the first game.
While all combat sequences occur in side scrolling levels the exploration was retained on the overhead map by allowing free movement at any time similar to the original game. Hidden markers on the map open new areas or unlock secrets while primary points of interest are represented by special icons you will see throughout the game. Since all combat takes place in the side scrolling levels being ambushed by enemies necessitated the need for some type of random battle system. Hence the monster icons. Periodically either a big Ganon looking icon or a smaller blob icon will appear and move around the map like a cat chasing a laser pointer. If one touches Link a combat sequence begins. Being touched by the big monster leads to a more difficult screen than the smaller blob would. Don’t want to fight? Then stay on the roads where you can travel safely. Of course all of the good items and secrets are found well off of the roads so eventually you need to man up and go out in the world.
So we have somewhat random battles and an overhead map screen. Seems kind of like an RPG right? Well perhaps that’s what the folks at Nintendo were thinking because they have also introduced another seasoned RPG trope into the Zelda series: experience points. Every time you kill an enemy you receive XP. The more difficult the monster, the more you gain until eventually you reach enough XP to level up. Each time the player levels up you are rewarded by getting to choose a trait to increase: life, attack, or magic. Raising life decreases the amount of damage you take, attack increases the damage you deal, and magic decreases the MP required to cast a spell.
Zelda II introduced the magic meter and spell casting to the series as well. In total there are 8 spells Link can cast. Through the years the magic meter has remained in the series although I believe that Zelda II placed more emphasis on spell casting than any of it’s successors. Some of the spells like “Shield” and “Jump” come in handy frequently whereas the nondescript spell titled “Spell” is only used during certain special sequences; at least when I play.
Man I’m already exhausted breaking down all the gameplay differences and we’ve only left North Castle! There’s one more major difference that needs to be touched on but I’m going to tuck it away for the moment until it comes up organically because I’m getting bored blathering on about the differences which means I’m sure several of you have already stopped reading this crap. If you’re still with me pat yourself on the back. I applaud your dedication to reading amateur writing about old video games.
If you explore you’ll soon notice a big rock blocking the road to the south and complete darkness in the cave to the southwest. Essentially Zelda II’s map is blocked off into different regions with various impassible hazards which can only be bypassed when you obtain an item from the next palace. Thus while Zelda II lets the player roam freely about the map, the reality is that you are restricted to completing each palace in sequence as the items obtained are required to progress further in the game. On this first portion of the map you’ll learn the jump spell and retrieve the candle so that you can see in the darkness which will allow access to the depths of the cave to the southwest.
Throughout the quest you will solve numerous puzzles, face increasingly difficult foes, uncover new tactics, and visit various towns and locales. Combat clearly remains the focal point of the game as more difficult enemies will require the use of more advanced techniques to defeat. Link will meet several warriors throughout the game who teach you the up thrust and the down thrust which allow you to jump and stab upwards or downwards respectively.
Having played through this game from start to finish for the first time in years made me realize how difficult it is. I died several times which leads to the last big departure from the first game: lives. Like a Super Mario Bros. game Zelda II includes a set number of lives. You begin the game with three and although you can obtain more by finding Link dolls scattered about the map, they can only be used once. No joke, once. If you find a doll and pick it up, you won’t be able to get that one again using that save file. You have to carefully maneuver through the game and save up those lives until the later stages if you hope to make it to the final palace. If you lose all of your lives you restart the game at North Palace which is a pretty steep penalty considering some of these Palaces are difficult to reach in themselves, let alone traverse and defeat the boss.
You will die a lot and be forced to learn how to fight, perry, dodge, and maneuver through increasingly frustrating and punishing palaces until your reflexes take over. I wouldn’t call the challenge unfair but I would classify it as “Nintendo hard”. The learning curve is steep. Early in the game you are forced to clear the hurdle called “Death Mountain” which is unforgiving to new players and things never really let up after that. In addition to combat there are platforming sections where a miscalculation leads to an instant death. Of course getting hit during any of these sections seems to propel Link off of the nearest cliff regardless of the circumstances which is reminiscent of the Castlevania games.
Reaching the final stage is an arduous journey which requires a lot of patience and skill. Just making it can be considered an accomplishment itself. Then you are faced with the final challenge of the game, the Great Palace. The Great Palace is a massive labyrinth which will put all of the skills you have learned to the test and requires puzzle solving and memorization (unless you have a map handy). Here the developers finally throw you a bone; if you die in the Great Palace you can continue at the beginning of the dungeon. At the end you are pitted against two bosses. First is the Thunderbird. Thunderbird can only be defeated by first casting the Thunder spell, which can only be learned if you have found all of the magic containers in the game. If you haven’t done that and yet made it this far, you’re fooked. If however you are able to cast the Thunder spell and defeat Thunderbird you will be given the Triforce of Courage by an old man that apparently has lived in the palace for centuries. It kind of reminds me of the old knight in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. You will then need to confront the darkness in yourself and face the final boss in the game; Dark Link. Another recurring character in the series Dark Link is essentially the shadow of Link which mimics your movements and attacks. Notoriously Dark Link can be defeated by crouching in the corner and stabbing repeatedly which drastically reduces the tension of this battle.
At the end of the game Link retrieves the Triforce and uses it to awaken the sleeping Zelda. She expresses her gratitude, stating that you saved Hyrule, and kisses Link behind a descending curtain. How she knows that he saved Hyrule since she’s been asleep for centuries is beyond me, but who cares? It’s an NES ending so just roll with it. In recent years this ending has become popular/notorious in the gaming community as it’s the only game in which Link and Zelda kiss. Even though it’s actually Zelda’s centuries older ancestor. Maybe it’s because she actually puts out.
This game gets a lot of flak because of the side scrolling and RPG style leveling. It’s accused of not conforming to the typical Zelda style. What people seem to forget is that this was the second entry in the series and although it differed greatly from the first game, there wasn’t necessarily an established “style”. Later games simply dropped these elements and reverted back to the gameplay mechanics of the original. I will concede that people buying the sequel were probably expecting an experience similar to the first game which is not an unreasonable assumption.
In brief, the original game was easier to pick up and play than Zelda II. You didn’t need to worry about random battles, XP, advanced sword techniques or your path being obstructed by impassible objects. You could go anywhere you wanted with the only barriers being the difficulty of the enemies on the screen. The world was open and dungeons could be completed out of order rather than explored linearly. Speaking as a westerner, I dislike random battles. In fact I despise them. I prefer the straight forward hack and slash action of the original Zelda and which modern western RPG’s such as The Elder Scrolls games employ. Grinding for XP is also tedious and not something that the general gaming public finds to be an enjoyable way of passing time.
That said there are several aspects of the game that I do think were an improvement over the original. One is the scale of the world itself. The Legend of Zelda didn’t feature any towns and it’s only inhabitants lived in caves throughout the realm. Zelda II felt more like a kingdom with 8 towns each filled with bustling inhabitants that actually lived in buildings and homes. In fact this is something I wish later Zelda games had implemented as it seems for a long time the only towns in the games were Kakariko Village and Hyrule Castle Town. As usual the music is awesome, especially the Great Palace theme and the title theme. I also liked the gritty feel of the story which is a lot darker than several of the later games in the series.
Zelda II is not a bad game at all. In fact I’d say it’s a good game and I thoroughly enjoyed my play through. It’s just not a typical Zelda game which is what turns some fans off. It certainly doesn’t have the universal appeal of the original but to call it a bad game would be unfair. It’s just more of an acquired taste. After beating it you get to start over at North Castle but with all of your earned attributes and spells. The rest of the game remains the same. Zelda II was good enough that for the first time I’m going to try and beat the 2nd quest to get in my Zelda fix as opposed to plunking down hundreds on the new one and a console. If you haven’t played it before or if you decided that you didn’t like it the first time around I urge you to put down your Switch controllers and give this classic a chance. Oh yeah and there’s a guy named Error. You can’t make that up.