“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 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.