Note: Opinion article. Thanks to Cart Boy and PushDustIn for edits.
Of Nintendo’s various franchises, it’s easy to view The Legend of Zelda as its crown jewel. Super Mario and Pokémon are industry pillars, Metroid and Pikmin are critical darlings, and the popularity of series like Animal Crossing and Wii Sports highlights its broad appeal. But Zelda occupies a uniquely revered place where, for most of its history, the series has been treated as an epochal part of not only Nintendo but the entire video game industry. The original introduced cartridge-based saving; Ocarina of Time wrote the book on how to do action in 3D, and entries like A Link to the Past, Majora’s Mask, and The Wind Waker are immortalized as some of the greatest texts of the medium – and judging by reviews, the recently released Breath of the Wild might be joining them. Because of that, many Zelda fans are demanding and zealous about entries in the series; for a sequel to not be among the best of all time is to denigrate its lineage. The ironic – perhaps inevitable – result of this is that it has a surprising number of entries that lend themselves to vitriol and controversy among its devotees.
Nintendo of America executive and localization head Bill Trinen has discussed a phenomenon he calls the “Zelda cycle,” in which fans initially spurn but grow to love new sequels, in both instances because of what makes them distinct. And he’s not wrong; probably the most famous example is how The Wind Waker was decried by fans upon its release but is now treated as among the most adored in the franchise. But it would not be unfair to also note that a few often fail to hit that second part and stay controversial, and I’ve been interested in dissecting them for some time. But which to look at first? Skyward Sword, easily the most contentious installment, would be an excellent choice – and could make for an interesting counterpoint to Tris’ defense of it in February – but I’m not a fan, and after tackling the vacuous Yoshi’s Story and atrocious Sonic 2006 I wanted to play something I might enjoy and defend. Plus, I’ve been feeling a desire to talk about something older, so out go less memorable entries like Tri Force Heroes. But Zelda II…that’s an intriguing prospect.
Zelda II: the Adventure of Link shares an interesting kinship with previous series entry Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest. Both were 1987 Famicom sequels to almost instant classics released a year earlier which defined an entire era of games. Both were about the heroes of the last game going on a quest to stop the rebirth of the villains they killed. Both were intensely difficult attempts to wield side-scrolling combat with freer, more exploratory worlds. Most notably, though, both were contentious sequels, with an insecure place in the history of their respective series today.
But Zelda II isn’t really notorious for those elements. It’s notorious for being ”not a real Zelda game.” Adventure of Link jettisoned almost everything people loved about the beloved, titanic The Legend of Zelda, and that which was kept was twisted dramatically. Its world was leagues larger than the Hyrule of the first game – you can’t see it during normal gameplay, but that game’s map exists in microcosm in the bottom-right corner of the over world – but it was also much emptier and largely existed for the side-scrolling combat arenas that were the focus. It was also far more linear, requiring the main tool from each dungeon to approach the next, and lacked its sense of isolation. The physical items you acquired were solely used to advance the plot, with their utility being replaced by a cadre of magic spells. Most distinctly, it introduced a leveling up system and experience points, something no other Zelda game has. It didn’t feel like the first Zelda to most players, probably because it didn’t start out that way; it was initially planned as an original property. And Nintendo responded to the more muted reception; the next game in the series, A Link to the Past, threw out the experience points, combat, and lives and reemphasized the items, the scouring for upgrades, the environmental interaction, and the overhead perspective.
The plot is, as to be expected, fairly rote. Ganon’s minions have put Princess Zelda in an endless sleep as they work to resurrect their leader, and the only way for Link to solve both problems is to place a magic crystal into the statue of six palaces across the land of Hyrule, now a continent containing two giant islands, a mountain the size of a small kingdom, and a number of towns. The game is bifurcated into two sections: walking over the countryside from a zoomed out perspective and fighting enemies in combat areas after running into them in the over world. It’s not a smooth marriage, and it’s clear the combat was the primary focus.
Caught in a weird middle ground between the graphical simplicity of the first Zelda and more aesthetically ambitious late period NES games, Zelda II definitely shows its age more than its predecessor, particularly with regard to how it introduces a mostly unwanted lives system. After losing one of your three lives you start at the same room with refilled health and magic, but when you lose all of them you’re sent back to the very first area of the game. The first Zelda sent you back to the first square of the map every time you died, but it also organized that map in such a way that you could get from one part to the other with relative ease once you knew the layout. Zelda II, by contrast, has a substantially more linear world, and the process of going from the first palace to an entirely different continent is a slog. It’s an interesting attempt to mix two systems that deal with death, but it needed a world built for that, for levels where going through earlier areas wasn’t boring and frustrating. It causes the world to be more difficult and punishing than it really needs to be, especially since the only way to increase your lives is from “Link dolls” which A) are placed in areas that are secretive and hard to access, and B) can only be used once, and C) only total six in the entire game, making them often more trouble than they’re worth. With its absurdly massive labyrinths and enemies that eat experience points, the game is already tough enough as it is.
A much bigger problem is in how it uses experience, because that’s where I think the game falls the farther. Firstly, it’s the most frustrating part of the game beyond the lives system, though it works in conjunction with it. After acquiring enough points, from killing enemies or finding “point bags” which only appear once in select locations, you can upgrade either your defense, cost of casting magic, or attack power. After all your lives run out you lose all the points that haven’t been spent. Costs grow at a rate that leads to only one option being regularly available for each level, and because of how difficult the game is you’ll want to spend those points immediately on whatever’s available, which greatly discourages experimentation. And while the tension of your points increasing as your lives tick down can lead to fantastic stories about leveling up right at the edge of defeat, it often feels like the life and leveling systems only exist to justify the other or strong-arm the player into engaging with the combat.
But the other side of the problem is less mechanical and more philosophical. “Experience points” are, by their very nature, an abstraction. They were created in tabletop role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons to represent character growth in a system where that wouldn’t come about through normal gameplay. There is nothing wrong with abstractions, just as there is nothing wrong with experience point systems that represent them. A number of great games use them in interesting ways. But Zelda, and Nintendo as a whole, are often defined by an immediate and tactile form of play. You have upgrades like health extensions (which do exist in Zelda II), but those you have to directly find or earn. Permanent upgrades come from an understanding of how combat, exploration, and puzzle solving all work in tandem. These often feel more empowering than an abstracted system, because you’re not able to simply grind your way to victory. This is why Mario doesn’t – and shouldn’t – learn new moves beyond finding a few power-ups; everything he has is there, and it’s on you to master those abilities through levels built to facilitate that mastery (I was quoted by The A.V. Club in March discussing this with regard to Breath of the Wild). This might be why Nintendo’s RPGs come from their affiliated or owned studios, like Intelligent Systems or Creatures, Inc.
Abstracting the system leads to an element of grinding that’s really unwanted in Zelda, and one less rewarding than the physical act of acquiring heart pieces or solving a shrine or discovering a new island. Those involve pushing yourself to explore, and the reward is something tangible and clear – you have more health or a new tool or even just a wider scope of the world. Other games can use both – I like how Dark Souls and the later Fallout games do it – but I think part of the strength of Zelda and Mario comes from the fact that they orbit almost religiously around exploration as a quantifiable value, both in terms of action and the systems that govern that action. I can’t help but find its use in Adventure of Link to be a cheat, a way to justify the combat or cheaply provide a reward.
I’m focusing on the point system this much partially because it’s where the game deviates the most strongly from its series counterparts, but mostly because that’s the only area I strongly dislike. Beyond that, Zelda II is quite good, an entry I think a lot of series fans ignore more than they probably should. The combat, for instance, is some of the best of the era, certainly for melee fighting. Link can stab and block from either a standing or crouching position, leading to combat scenarios in which players will have to juggle blocking attacks and hitting shifting weak spots. The sword fights against the new Iron Knuckle baddies (who would reappear only twice more, in Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask) are fierce and tense, a testament to how more involved its approach to combat was over, say, Castlevania or Ninja Gaiden. It does lead to another issue with the game, in that it has fairly wide difficulty spikes, but that was also endemic to the entire third console generation.
The Adventure of Link concludes somewhat anticlimactically. After forcing his way through a massive, convoluted temple and battling a giant bird, Link’s final opponent is simply a shadowy doppelgänger of himself, a chance for players to show off the mastery they’ve built over the course of the game. It’s a fitting end for a game that was fighting memories of The Legend of Zelda, challenging what players wanted and expected from a sequel. While the plot ends with this version of Link claiming the Triforce of Courage and stopping the resurrection of Ganon – plot points that became central tenants of the series’ mythology – the story of the game ended somewhat less successfully. While it’s hard to gauge how players in the 1980s took this shift, today it carries significantly less critical weight or respect than most entries (one example: reviews from 1987 were strong, while Metacritic puts the 2004 Game Boy Advance re-release as the lowest rated in the series). It lies in an odd place among fans, as well, who generally expect exploration or dungeon crawling to be valued in Zelda above fighting. It’s a clear outlier, in some ways even more so than explicit spin-offs like Four Swords Adventures or Tri Force Heroes.
This isn’t to say the game is hated, strictly speaking; it’s just something of a black sheep fans largely ignore. Retrospective reviews generally take that attitude, and you rarely see it get the kinds of fan tributes the more iconic installments receive all the time. Shigeru Miyamoto told Kotaku in 2013 he considers it the one that came closest to a “bad” game he’s made, disappointed in how the team didn’t take its ideas further and frustrated by the Famicom’s hardware limitations. Its rarely gets referenced within Nintendo outside of things like Super Smash Bros. Melee’s Temple stage and its iconic remix of the theme for the palaces, though independent games like Shovel Knight and Elliot Quest have drawn from it.
It is worth noting, though, that you can see much of the future of Zelda in this one. Link’s downward stab has returned in The Minish Cap, Twilight Princess, Breath of the Wild, and crossover fighting games like Super Smash Bros. and Soul Calibur II. The emphasis on one-on-one sword combat would be explored far more in the 3D sequels, as would the use of sidequests and towns full of hapless villagers – and those towns names’ would be used for the Sages of Ocarina of Time. And the series as a whole would do the same with the increased linearity, the notion of Ganon existing beyond “death,” and even the idea of Link growing up.
The value of Zelda II is not solely historical, of course; its approach to combat is interesting, it features a few lovely music tracks, and it manages a grand sense of scale. The world in this game is massive, one of the largest in the history of The Legend of Zelda, and with a number of towns, biomes, and types of enemies. It’s also the only one to really tackle magic as a quantifiable mechanic. Many of the mainline games up until The Wind Waker included a token magic meter, but it never felt integrated with the action; in Zelda II, by contrast, it provides all sorts of benefits and powers. It’s not great – I’d place it lower on my hierarchy of favorite Zelda games, which doesn’t say much considering the esteem in which I hold the series – but for all its differences and points of frustration, it does feel like a Zelda game, and a good one at that.
And that part is worth emphasizing, because Zelda at its best is a series that can make weird outlier games like this. The best ones, even the ones I’d say are weaker, can reliably introduce interesting ideas about controls, systems, world design, and mechanics that could power entire games or even franchises. They retain so many callbacks and references, but their strength comes from (among other things) using them in surprising ways. Zelda II does this really well; it bettered the series by not only what it added to the formula but also in its willingness to try something drastically new. It’s an overlooked gem – even though the reasons for it being overlooked are entirely understandable – and I’m happy that, since starting this series, I’ve found a game that deserves recognition far greater than what it often gets.