“Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand”
-Bob Dylan, “The Times They Are A-Changin'”
Zelda II: The Adventure of Link begins with the eponymous warrior in green at the foot of a dais upon which a princess sleeps. As the unorthodox name of the game suggests, this takes place directly after the original Legend of Zelda. It is a direct sequel, whereas future Zelda games would be loosely related on in-universe chronology.
Link, now aged 16, must revive the sleeping maiden, who is not the same princess Zelda from the first game but in fact the original princess of Hyrule, the one after whom all princesses in succession would be named. Link, thanks to the mark of the Triforce on his hand, is the one chosen to rouse Zelda from her magical slumber. He must travel to six palaces across the land and set six crystals into their pedestals, opening the way to the Great Palace where the Triforce of Courage lies. However, the forces of Ganon are still slinking about, though Ganon himself was destroyed in the first game, and his followers believe they can resurrect their dark lord with the blood of the hero…
A little unusual, this story, but I wonder why so many Zelda games begin with someone sleeping? That’ll keep you up at night.
Every franchise has its black sheep, especially those franchises which do.
For the Legend of Zelda, it’s a toss-up between Majora’s Mask and The Adventure of Link, depending on who you ask. But since I am not critiquing the mask of Majora today, that leaves me with the oft ill-received and (perhaps) entirely misunderstood gem that is Zelda II. Does it deserve its treatment or has it been underappreciated by many all these years, labeled by some as the worst Zelda? I, too, was not a fan of it at all prior to this playthrough.
The first thing to get out of the way before any sensible critiquery can be accomplished is this idea that Zelda II was not well-received at all. Contemporaneously, it enjoyed both critical praise and financial success. Magazines gave it high marks in ’87 and ’88. It even won Game of the Year awards. That might seem hard to believe decades later when YouTube is crowded with talking heads ranting about how broken and unplayable the game supposedly is.
So why the change in reception? Perhaps that’s because it was too different? Question mark, there. I’m skeptical about it. Simply put, that is a perspective which can only be made retrospectively. It’s only from the vantage of having seen and played many other Zelda games since 1987 that we can see just how different Zelda II really was, what with its action RPG elements, its dedication to side-scrolling, its extreme difficulty, its unique story, characters, and settings. No Master Sword? No Ganon (beyond a game over screen)? No arrows, bombs, or rupees? No dungeon maps or compasses? No Lost Woods? No “it’s dangerous to go alone take this”? (That would’ve been helpful.)
But since this was only the second game in what was to become the iconic Zelda series, at the time it was only possible to say it was different from the first game, which it had a high probability of being, anyways. The precedent hadn’t yet been truly set. There was no expectation as to what a Zelda game is supposed to be like. Even when Ocarina of Time rolled out it represented the first and only 3D Zelda, and so it too was different, but not shunned or despised merely for being different.
Mere difference isn’t really at the heart of the discussion concerning Zelda II and its place in the Legend of Zelda series. Difference, and its gilded cousin, innovation, are frequently embraced in sequels called “refreshing” and “a great change of pace”. Zelda II can only be seen as too different in our time, not in its time, and further, de facto difference itself hasn’t guaranteed a poor reception when it comes to Zelda games, or even games in general.
Further, despite its immediate and superficial features such as side-scrolling and experience points, Zelda II shares a lot of similarities with other Zelda games: it is open and in some ways non-linear; it relies on the accumulation of dungeon treasures in order to advance the game; Link himself remains the sword-stabbing, shield-toting elfin hero that he has always been, although his tricks are admittedly unusual.
So what, then? If it isn’t mere difference, or if mere difference is just the go-to complaint, what is the actual issue? To my mind, it’s the way in which Zelda II handles difficulty. I’ll be grading the game’s difficulty in the Challenge section below, but it is such a huge barrier to getting into the game and (for many) enjoying the game at all that I feel it needs to be addressed straightaway. Is the difficulty off-putting? How is the game difficult? Does it have difficulty spikes? Is the core gameplay challenging?
Core gameplay is a great place to start.
In The Legend of Zelda, Link was armed with a sword, any single special weapon (only one could be equipped at a time), a handful of passive items like better armor, and his trusty shield that auto-blocked certain projectiles that hit him straight on.
In Zelda II, players are expected to deal with many more features. This is at the heart of understanding why Zelda II is so tough. The Adventure of Link gives our hero a magic meter plus a health bar to manage, limited lives to worry about losing, a spawning point potentially very far from where a player gets a game over, magic spells to learn and cast, jumping (which was not in the first game), a longer strike animation with a very teeny dagger of a sword (the sword to Link size ratio is much smaller than it was in the first game), experience points to grind for and any of three attributes to chose between upon leveling up, specific weak points on enemies and with them a new focus on timing and precision that was not in the first game, enemies which are completely immune to your sword even at the end of the game, stabbing above and below Link, mostly passive special items that don’t leave you over-equipped, and a shield. The shield is a complicated defense which requires extra management between not just facing in the right direction but also crouching or standing to block attacks, extremely tough when enemies have really quick visual cues to indicate their attacks and how exactly you need to block, or they simply leap at you. No shield will block that. Oh and there are lava pits and bottomless holes that can get you instantly killed. Falling into them is easy with the knockback Link suffers when hit.
Sound like a lot? It is a lot.
Just look at all this action!
I don’t believe anyone who says this game is as easy as most other NES games. In fact, I can name many NES games which are easier, both in terms of learning the controls and advancing through the game. I don’t believe anyone who says you can beat Zelda II if you have beaten any classic Mega Man game. I don’t believe you, even if you have a verified Twitter account. The facts simply do not add up.
In classic Mega Man, Rock had a basic weapon that could shoot across the entire screen. Only at full health does Link have any kind of natural projectile, and it only goes a short distance with a slower rate of fire than the Blue Bomber’s Buster. Mega Man also had a few mobility options with Rush, an assortment of eight special weapons from bosses for different kinds of offensive advantages, tons of recovery items that dropped from enemies (much, much more than in Zelda II), and Rock still only really had to worry about firing and jumping. Link’s fragile existence scrounging for heals in Zelda II is so much more complex. Grinding for experience makes the game more manageable, the game does give you that tool to exploit, but even regular enemies in this game can be devastating. There is no regular enemy as horrible in any Mega Man game as the Blue Iron Knuckles in Zelda II.
Totally knew this secret passage was here!
Even getting through the game and finding all the necessary secrets (like the skeleton key or the Thunder spell for the final boss) would be impossible without truckloads of hours for trial and error or a strategy guide, which I used. So I don’t believe anyone who beats their chest and roars “suck it up and git gud, I can fly through this game”… UNLESS they also say “I played it to death as a kid”. Repetition as a child, when we all had way more time to play games and get better at them through practice, would obviously make you an expert in Zelda II, but that doesn’t change any facts about its objective mechanics. On the contrary, such a claim demonstrates exactly what it takes to excel at Zelda II: the rare idleness of a child, an immense amount of hours and patience, the time to try over and over and over again.
Next, there is the matter of very real difficulty spikes.
Zelda II isn’t a walk in the park, but it goes from bad to worse quickly. Starting the game for the first time and bumbling into a random battle on the overworld map can mean losing your first life right off the bat. Slimes jump at you without warning and spear-toting monsters march toward you relentlessly. These are only the game’s early enemies from the start to the first palace. By the end of the game there’ll be enemies so hard you’ll just skip past them. Shut your dirty mouth, Lizalfos.
The first time I played Zelda II, I played casually and I couldn’t even beat the Parapa Palace boss, Horsehead. This was my fourth attempt at the game and I only survived thanks to a guide.
Death Mountain presents the first really insane difficulty spike and it is very early on, meaning grinding those skull bubbles in the first palace is something you’ll wish you spent time doing. Death Mt. is a kind of obstacle course: a maze of caves stuffed to the brim with side-scrolling segments full of tough enemies, and at the end is a hammer. A simple hammer. What, they didn’t have hammers back in Ruto Village?
The march toward the Great Palace at the end of the game is Death Mountain 2.0. The game refuses to let up. You not only have to face the long road to the final dungeon, but the Great Palace itself is stocked with a roster of new and deadly fire-breathing enemies that will take time, patience, and skill to dispatch even at max level, all scattered across hallways leading to dead ends, with not one but two final bosses waiting at the bottom. Sheesh. How merciful of the game to relocate your spawning point to the Great Palace itself, because of course that would just be ridiculous to have to trek so far all over again from the very beginning of the game. Of course.
Now don’t mistake me here, please.
The problem with the current state of video game criticism is that it generally over-relies on the expression of anger and frustration to make a point. Reasoned arguments are less impressive than red-faced screaming. This is where all the hyperbole comes in like “I would rather jump off a building and catch my eyelid on a nail than torture myself with Zelda II again.” This kind of writing says more about the cleverness of the writer than about the subject of the writing: the game itself. How novel to think about the subject of a game review being a game!
So, I didn’t just lay out all that talk about how difficult Zelda II is simply so I could complain about it. I did so because I wanted to explain why this game is so hard, particularly to newcomers. Perhaps more appropriately than “hard”, it’s a demanding game. And I explain that it is in order to reach the conclusion that these demands upon the player make it an engaging game, provided the player gives the game enough time to soak in, explain itself, become somewhat familiar, and unfurl its world. You can’t expect a game like this to grab you right from the start, I don’t think, but give it enough time and it can really be engrossing. A big part of that is due to the game’s steep difficulty. Playing Zelda II is a competition between you and it, and therefore completing it brings all the emotions of triumph.
It is the powerlifting of video games.
Coming less than a year after the first game, Zelda II didn’t exactly have much time to take advantage of developing techniques working with the limitations of the NES. It also had to deal with a setting that placed the action closer to the screen than the original, with larger and more articulate sprites, for one. Zelda II’s side-scrolling settings are also more detailed and varied than the few side-scrolling scenes we scoped out in the first outing. There are more kinds of enemies present here than in the first game. Sure, some of them follow the exact code of the hammer bros. enemies in Super Mario Bros. but at least there’s plenty of diversity present, especially with the palace bosses. There’s a lot of fluidity to the animations with some of these creatures.
At the end of the day, though, while it improves ever so slightly on its predecessor, it is still a NES game that appears rudimentary. Its ugly patterns, odd palette choices, and blocky overworld make it seem more ancient than perhaps it really is.
You’ll have to forgive me for creating comparative gradings here with the first game. I think it’s helpful for historical and series context, at least.
Anyway, while the visuals made only a few strides ahead of the first game, I think that the soundtrack is where Zelda II really makes headway. Consider that while the first game had the two really iconic earworms of the now legendary “Overworld theme” and the “Dungeon theme”, the first game’s soundtrack was really limited in extent. In my review for The Legend of Zelda, I talked about how a lack of variety in the soundtrack’s five tracks and a few teensy musical jangles was likely the result of the game itself being so big, what with its gigantic map and two separate quests. I suppose there just wasn’t much room left for music. So as good as the music was, compare those eight tracks with Zelda II’s twenty to twenty-three (depending on how you count them). That’s over twice as much music.
As to the music itself, it has been revisited in later Nintendo games but no track ever became as iconic as the first game’s “Overworld”. That said, it is incredible music on its own. The change in musical direction and the limited use of motifs and themes from the first game were due to a change in composers: instead of Koji Kondo, Zelda II was composed by Akito Nakatsuka (Clu Clu Land, Excitebike, Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!, Pilotwings 64). You can hear riffs of “Overworld” in the intro to Zelda II’s counterpart track, but overall the soundtrack relies much more on echoes and minor keys. To my ears, it sounds bigger and wider than the first game’s music.
The “Palace Theme” and “Great Palace Theme” songs are incredible works.
Direction in the game is minimal, perhaps one of the biggest drawbacks in the gameplay; Nintendo seemed to expect players at the time, in a pre-internet world, to subscribe to Nintendo Power magazine to get all the secrets. Oh wait. The first issue wasn’t published until almost a year later.
Aside from calling some kind of hot tip hotline or chatting with as many classmates in the schoolyard as possible, I have no idea how players in 1987 knew where to go or what to do, or how to find certain key secrets. The way the overworld is laid out, you could spend hours exploring every corner and then dying, only to start over at the North Palace where Zelda sleeps. Making it all the way to the end of the game with all of the heart containers and all of the spells had to be an insurmountable task. You certainly couldn’t really on the charismatic but cryptic NPCs in the game to tell you what to do beyond hints that might as well have been hieroglyphs. Heck, one such NPC was even named Error! How helpful is that?!
Fan theory: this is actually the in-bred ancestor of Tingle who maintains the King’s Waystone which was perverted by the ancient Dark Lord who used the Green Cloak of Concealment to cover the land in soot which turned all the people into errors in the Ocarina timeline which…
You will need a guide, if you’re reading this and you haven’t played it before and you’re an adult. Bosses can be cheesed. Short cuts can be abused. 1ups can be retrieved. Fairies can be located, but finding these on your own flat out required the playtime that only kids have access to.
Practice makes better, though, so be prepared to have to spend some time with this game before learning the ropes and getting comfortable with Link’s minuscule range and jumping techniques. I feel like Horsehead is the first wall for newcomers who will decide at that point whether to give up or press on until they succeed. Dodging the mace just right by leaping and striking takes some repetition. It’s easy enough just to throw yourself right into the boss. Grinding experience points at the beginning to upgrade your attack power and health bar will go a long way, but this too takes up the most precious resource for adults: time.
If you can make it past Death Mountain, I think that’s when the game really starts to become fun. You start to gain a few new tricks and get a little more capable in Link’s boots. Surviving the bare bones at the start is a make it or break it thing.
Zelda II can seem like a long game because of how much dying goes on, but there isn’t a whole lot to do in the game and backtracking isn’t as significant as it was in the first Zelda. I get an itch every now and again to play another Adventure of Link without really knowing why.
Once you complete the game, you can start over from the beginning with your levels and such. A kind of New Game Plus without a name. However, to my knowledge this isn’t a second quest as in the first game. That would have been cool and I probably would’ve played it, provided they didn’t put Lizalfos in every single palace or something.
Mastering the shield alone can be rather difficult, and that’s a basic mechanic of the game. It’s demanding, remember? Plus, lots of monsters become immune to your normal attacks rather quickly. Couple that with the massive overworld and the lack of in-game direction, and you’re looking at a game without a lot of accessibility. This might just be the worst thing about the game.
It’s tough for me to see how Zelda II could really be seen as unfair. It isn’t broken or unplayable. Sure, it is hard as nails but that’s clearly by design. Enemies which are too hard to take down and typically be skipped, but screw Nintendo for putting Iron Knuckles under very low ceilings. The downward thrust is helpful but not against all enemies, and magic isn’t always helpful when you have to constantly recover your health with it, plus there’s the fact that spells like Shield and Jump only work in one room per cast.
I think Zelda II is definitely harder than the first quest of the first game, but I’m not certain about the second quest. This is likely one of the hardest games I’ve ever beaten, and I could not have done it at all without a guide and (conservative) use of save states on Switch Online.
As discussed above, Zelda II is obviously very different from the rest of the series. Of course, this is only clear in retrospect. Zelda has never been exactly the same side-scrolling action-adventure RPG-platformer ever again. It does share some key similarities with other Zelda games but it is likely the most unique in the entire series.
Maybe it wouldn’t have taken such retrospective ridicule from reviewers looking to make a name for themselves by savagely beating dead horses if it just wasn’t a Zelda game. After all, nobody ever whines about The Battle of Olympus. Nobody cares. It’s not one of the most iconic franchises in gaming history.
My Personal Grade: 9/10
The game invented Dark Link. You’ve got to give it that.
Actually, I’ll give it much more than that: Zelda II: The Adventure of Link is one of the most enjoyable NES games I’ve played for the first time in recent memory. Past Death Mountain, I loved it. I enjoyed discovering each palace and plowing through them to reach the boss. I loved picking up new items, spells, and abilities. I even sadistically enjoyed grinding, at times. This, I’m convinced, is because the game is so hard. It pushes you until you decide to push back. It rouses within you the sleeping princess that rises up to vanquish evil. It wakes the fire that died down with lackluster, over-familiar handholding. It is engaging because it is challenging.
Also, most importantly, Zelda II takes risks. To my mind, few things are worse than when a fan says “But it just doesn’t feel like XYZ”. Whatever that’s supposed to mean. How is anyone supposed to decipher what a series feels like to your feelings? Yet I’ve heard that for Zelda, for Mario, for Metroid, for Call of Duty, for Kingdom Hearts, for Final Fantasy, and on and on and on.
Real briefly, fan expectation puts the cart before the horse: fans do not own these franchises. They simply don’t. No matter how much they love them. That doesn’t hold up in a court because it doesn’t make sense. You can’t love an IP so much that you magically gain ownership over it, able to demand what needs to happen and what should be preserved. Fans, and anyone, can have any reason for not liking something (or vice versa) but developing pre-conceived expectations that restrict the future of a franchise based on its past is ridiculous, narrow-minded, and stupid.
That’s not love. That’s imprisonment. That’s not a fan. That’s a zealot.
Every franchise, every series, needs to take risks and grow and change, and yes even make mistakes, even as its developers do these things themselves as people. And series which have been around for as long as the Legend of Zelda need to try new things, take to the skies, travel through time, link to the past, diminish their caps, gaze into twilight, wake the oceanic wind, and breath in the air of the wild.
Zelda II may not have been the direction that the series was destined to go in, but I’m glad they tried it anyway just so we could have this black sheep that stands out from the crowd in its own quirky way. I’m thinking that this game doesn’t really have as many haters as we all might think there are, but if that’s the case then maybe it’ll get fairer treatment in a few more years, like its distant cousin, Final Fantasy VIII.
Aggregated Score: 7.3
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Categories: Game Review