Forget it, Link… it’s Zelda-town.
RELEASE DATE: December 1988
Zelda II is white-hot rage pockets mixed with moments of fleeting joy. It’s a jilted ex-lover employing a psychosexual hold over your thoughts, emotions, and desires. You want to put Zelda II away, out of sight, out of mind. But then it calls you at 3 am, asking where you’ve been. It coos sweet nothings into your ear about all the good times you’ve shared together: traversing Hyrule, finding extra hearts/fairies/magic containers by accident. Then its tone shifts. It gets darker, more confrontational. ‘You’ve been a lazy boy,’ it says. ‘Death Mountain doesn’t sleep. Three-Eye Rock Palace doesn’t sleep. Ganon doesn’t sleep. Only Zelda sleeps, and not because she has a choice. She’s your responsibility. Leave her to slumber for all eternity, you bastard. Go play a more fulfilling entry in the series, like Link to the Past, Ocarina of Time, or your precious Wind Waker. Or if you want to be a real man, you pick up that controller and get to work.’ Sobbing, you do as Zelda II asks, or you hang up the phone and pretend the conversation never happened. Either way, there’s only so much abuse one can take.
Why did Zelda II become such a jaded, bitter game? Wild theories abound, but it’s likely due to the mixed praise the game has received from players for the past twenty-five years. Back when the original Legend of Zelda was at the height of its popularity, you would have been hard-pressed to find a gamer who didn’t appreciate its revolutionary mixture of non-linear fantasy adventure and sword-slinging action. Zelda II dared to be different than its predecessor. Like any overwhelmingly popular game series that changes its formula, Zelda II received both praise and scorn in almost equal measure.
Zelda II‘s changes are numerous and belligerent.Instead of the strict top-down exploration from the original, only the overworld utilizes a top-down view. The vastness of Hyrule – forests, swamps, caves, deserts, palaces, towns, and even battles – is explored via the overworld and is reminiscent of early RPG series like Dragon Warrior or Final Fantasy. Once you enter any of the aforementioned areas, however, the view shifts from top-down to side-scrolling and you realize how distinct Zelda II‘s structure is. It retains the unique mixture of action and adventure from the first game, while adding overt RPG elements, particularly in battle. No longer does Link fell enemies with his sword, collect Rupees/hearts, and be on his merry way. Almost every enemy you kill in Zelda II gives you experience points. Level up, and you’ll either a) upgrade the strength of your attack; b) decrease the damage you receive when an enemy hurts you; or c) decrease the cost of Magic Points to use spells. Magic spells are a crucial element to this game, and one that gamers can overlook if they’re not careful. They’re acquired from wise men in Hyrule’s towns, though you usually need to undertake item-retrieval side-quests to gain an audience with the wise men. Fail to acquire necessary spells like the extra jump, and your in-game progress will come to a halt.
Unlike the original Legend of Zelda, though, where extended periods of exploration was key to knowing where to venture next, Zelda II‘s progression is much more streamlined. The non-linearity remains, but certain parts of Hyrule won’t even be accessible to the player without key items found in the game’s dungeons or around Hyrule itself. Because of this, you’re restricted to exploring limited, but more digestible chunks of the game at one time. This makes the overall quest much easier to tackle than the completely open-world of the first game.
Alternately rewarding and busted, Zelda II‘s combat mechanics both propel the game to new heights and bog it down into excrement-filled trenches. The deeper Link traverses into Hyrule, the more tact he must use to slay his foes; mindlessly hacking away won’t cut it anymore. He must use his shield to protect from swords and projectiles (though certain projectiles, like axes, cut right through), and slice at the appropriate times to cut through the enemies’ own defenses. Stalfos, for example, are skeleton knights that employ both a shield and a sword. In order to destroy them, Link must kneel, then attack rather than stand and attack. Other jerks like the infamous Iron Knuckles will lower and raise their shield at random times while hacking at Link. Link, then, must guard and slice at the appropriate moment, or else he’ll be quickly cut down.
The trick is to learn a particular enemy’s movements, then respond accordingly. It’s engaging, but it can also be frustrating. Link’s sword is the size of a prison shiv, which forces combat to be up close and dirty. Even after the amount of damage Link can receive has been upgraded several times, it will only take a few hits from a powerful foe for him to die. Lose all your lives and you’ll restart from Zelda’s palace. Your levels will remain the same, but any experience points you acquired towards the next level will disappear. Your rage will boileth over, but chances are, you’ll continue on Link’s toilsome journey. Zelda II just has that bewitching effect.
Despite my jarring, bi-polar relationship with Zelda II‘s eccentricities, I prefer it over the highly praised original. The first Legend of Zelda was “influential,” “groundbreaking” and any number of high and lofty expressions, but as I stated in my review, it hasn’t aged very well. The dungeons remain masterful creations, but exploring the crudely-rendered Hyrule is a tedious chore for those of us who didn’t grow up entranced by it. Zelda II was in many ways ahead of its time, and as such, has aged more gracefully. Exploring the nooks and crannies of Hyrule is far more engaging, and while the dungeons lack the moody oppressiveness of the original’s, they’re no less compelling to explore. Frustrating combat mechanics be damned, Zelda II is the rare sequel that innovates successfully without destroying the previous game’s foundation.