Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (NES)

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“Your head is, like, freaking gigantic, though. You should probably see a doctor. Still, good job with the whole hero thing.”

What a wonderful time it’s been re-playing Zelda II: The Adventure of Link! I’ve been playing a ton of NES in the past six months or so, but I’ve mostly focusing on titles that are new to me. While I haven’t played all the way through Zelda II in a few decades, it’s amazing how familiar it still feels. I wish I could be half this good at remembering other things like names, faces, people in general….

Anyway, Zelda II has developed a reputation for being a highly polarizing game that people either love or hate. This is weird to me because back when it came out, I recall encountering exactly zero players who claimed it was a “bad game” or not a “real Zelda game.” The game was just awesome and that was that. I suppose it might be because safe, iterative franchise culture was much less of a hunched gargoyle squatting on the game industry at that point. In fact, I’d wager that even trying to toss out the word franchise in conjunction with video games in 1987 would have drawn uncomprehending stares. Fewer games, even successful ones, got sequels at all and there were fewer preconceptions about what a sequel had to do. It was a new frontier and we were more open to novelty. Certainly, there were no “fandoms” yet. Ick. The original Zelda game has overhead view action? Cool! Zelda II has side view action? Cool!

So, yes, Zelda II ruled in 1987 and it still rules thirty years later.

In Zelda II, Link must track down the Triforce of Courage to awaken Zelda from a sleeping spell. He also has to avoid the literally bloodthirsty minions of the deceased Ganon who want to use him as a sacrifice to resurrect their vanquished leader. Link’s quest involves traversing the land and completing seven dungeons, each with its own boss. Along the way, Link visits several towns where he learns magic spells and new sword techniques to help out in the dungeons, usually by completing a short fetch quest for the townsfolk. The structure of the game as a whole is definitely a lot more linear than the first Legend of Zelda, which might be a sticking point for some. Exploration isn’t much of a priority here, but combing the overworld won’t go completely unrewarded, either, since there are still health and magic upgrades scattered around to find.

I already mentioned that the action is presented in a side view format this time, with Link gaining the ability to crouch and jump. What I didn’t mention is that this feels amazing! Link’s movement and attack controls are buttery smooth here and just so awesome to master. I genuinely feel that the combat in this game is one of the greatest pure play control experiences available in the NES library and that the addictive feel of the swordplay is the game’s greatest strength by far. It’s definitely what keeps me coming back.

Another plus is the score, which is phenomenal from title screen to end credits. I dare say it’s even better than than the original’s! It’s a pity these themes have been so neglected over the years while other games in the series have seen more musical callbacks in later installments. These are badass sword and sorcery adventure tunes at their finest.

There are light RPG elements in Zelda II, but they don’t ultimately do much to help or hinder the game for me. They’re sort of just there. Kill enough enemies and the game will prompt you to increase your attack strength, magic power, or health. It happens at a natural enough pace that you shouldn’t need to invest a lot of time just grinding levels, unless you want to try to offset the difficulty a little.

Which brings me to the other major gripe people have with the game other than the perspective shift: It’s more difficult to complete than other Zelda titles. This is true to a degree. The game never approaches a truly extreme level of challenge, but it does require a lot of practice and focus. Tougher enemies like the shield-toting Iron Knuckles and the axe-wielding Daira are tough, aggressive, and can deal a lot of damage unless you memorize and exploit their patterns. Link can also fall or be knocked into pits, which will instantly deplete one of his lives. That’s right: Lives. You start with three. Lose them all and you’ll continue back at the first screen of the game. Items collected, levels gained, and other progress is retained, but you lose all experience points accumulated toward your next level. If you die in a dungeon, you’ll need to trek back to the entrance to try again and non-boss enemies will have respawned. It’s not the most punishing system in the world, though it can be annoying to progress far into a dungeon only to perish and have to retrace your steps and re-kill everyone. If you’re patient and willing to work on learning your enemies’ weaknesses, however, the game is very much beatable in a reasonable amount of time.

Again I implore you: Don’t believe the negative buzz you’ll find online about this game. If you do, you’ll be missing out on one of the most stimulating and well-polished action-adventure experiences the NES has to offer, and that would be…an Error.

Get it? Like the guy in the game who’s named Error? Eh?

I’ll show myself out.

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The Legend of Zelda: Outlands (NES)

Finally! I just finished The Legend of Zelda: Outlands, another game I picked up at Portland Retro Gaming Expo last October. This one is a fan-made hack of original Legend of Zelda’s gameplay engine by GameMakr24 with new levels, artwork, items, and story added. It’s definitely trickier, too. There’s none of that “getting your sword on the first screen” crap here. Expect to do some overworld and even dungeon exploring without it first! It really recaptures the magic of just diving in and getting lost in the original title, a feat which even its official sequels have never quite been able to replicate. Very good stuff.

I can’t emphasize enough that if you love the original Zelda and have mastered it, Outlands is the game for you. It’s more quality Zelda 1 gameplay and about as professionally made as NES fan games get. It’s fiendishly yet superbly designed in a way that reminds me of the original Japanese version of Super Mario Bros. 2 (The Lost Levels). Of course, the challenge here isn’t fast-paced platforming, but rather the mental effort involved in searching out and solving some of the most devious Zelda dungeons ever. Make no mistake: You’ll need to focus in and bring along every brain cell you can muster if you want to stand a chance of not getting hopelessly lost

Like most ROM hacks, this one is a secret to everybody. If this little review can help change that, I’ll be all the more pleased.

The Legend of Zelda (NES)

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Shocking gamer confession: I’ve never actually played the more difficult “second quest” in the original Legend of Zelda until this week!

No more! I’m now happy to say that I’ve finally truly experienced all that this pioneering title has to offer and I did it without reference to any outside material: No maps, hints, walkthroughs, or anything else. Just pure exploration. Sure, finding dungeons six through eight was a challenge, but it was more than worth it for the awesome satisfaction of finally bombing just the right cliffside or burning just the right bush, and I wouldn’t trade that time I spent lost in Hyrule for anything. Looking at horribly misguided reviews online for this amazing masterpiece make me so glad that my old guy gaming experience has equipped me with the ability to actively enjoy not having a big glowing map marker telling me where my next objective is at all times.

I’ve also noticed people often write off the combat mechanics in the original Zelda game as overly simplistic and point to various sequels as the point where it got good, but I can tell you one thing: Being sealed inside a room full of darknuts or wizzrobes (especially the dreaded blue ones!) when you’re low on health is one pulse-pounding affair. The action here may be basic on a surface level, but it’s as tricky and compelling as it is simple.

Sometimes it really is about the journey and not the destination.