When The Legend of Zelda saw its international release in 1987, it quickly became one of the hallmarks of Nintendo’s 8-bit console. The reason for this far surpasses its impressive sales figures; it managed to offer gameplay only a select few had experienced before. It blazed the trail for open-world game design, and the ability to save courtesy of a battery wired in every cartridge changed the industry forever. Slowly but surely, artists began to move away from how they designed their works in the arcade era, instead opting to treat their audiences to epics in an interactive format – the expectation being that they could make progress, quit, and pick up where they last left off.
Because of this success, a sequel was inevitable. Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator of The Legend of Zelda had the idea to make a fundamentally different follow-up. A new team was assembled to create this game with key members of the original’s development staff having no involvement. Mr. Miyamoto himself served as the producer of this new title rather than the more proactive role he held during the original’s conception. In January of 1987, a little under one year after the series’ debut, the game was released under the name The Legend of Zelda 2: Link’s Journey. Similar to the case with The Legend of Zelda, the game saw its initial release on the Famicom Disk System, necessitating Nintendo to create a cartridge-based version, as the Famicom’s North American and European counterparts lacked a corresponding peripheral. The game debuted internationally in Europe and North America the following year with the title shortened to Zelda II: The Adventure of Link.
Analyzing the Experience
Though Link was successful in vanquishing Ganon, the Prince of Darkness’s vile heart sowed the seeds of disharmony throughout the kingdom of Hyrule. The young warrior aided the land’s restoration, but even with Princess Zelda rescued, the circumstances still looked grim. As he approached his sixteenth birthday, a strange mark resembling the kingdom’s crest appeared on the back of his hand. Worried about what this might mean, Link sought Zelda’s nursemaid, Impa. She was shocked and frightened when she saw it. After she regained her composure, she led Link to the North Castle. Inside the edifice was a portal known as “The Door That Does Not Open”; only those of Impa’s bloodline could unlock it.
Taking Link’s hand and pressing it against the back of the door, it slowly creaked open. The only thing in the room was an altar upon which a beautiful woman slept. “Here lies Princess Zelda,” Impa said to Link.
It is now that Impa imparts onto Link the legend of Zelda passed down from generation to generation in Hyrule. A long time ago, when Hyrule was a single country, a great ruler maintained peace using the Triforce, an ancient artifact capable of granting wishes. After the king’s death, his son was to inherit everything. However, he could only receive the Triforce in part. The prince scoured the land for the missing pieces, but to no avail. A magician close to the king revealed to the prince that his father had told something about the Triforce to his younger sister, Zelda. Curious as to why he would only give Zelda this information, the prince confronted his sister, but she told him nothing. The magician then threatened to place Zelda in an eternal sleep if she did not comply, but she remained silent. Angered, he cast the spell.
The surprised prince tried to stop him, but he was defeated. When the spell was finished, Zelda fell on that spot, and the magician followed suit, breathing his last. In his grief, the prince placed Zelda in a secret room in the palace, hoping that one day, she would come back to life. To ensure the history books would never forget this tragedy, he ordered that every female child born in the royal family be given the name Zelda.
Only the completed Triforce can undo the magician’s spell. While the Triforce of Power and the Triforce of Wisdom were recovered by Link during his last adventure, the Triforce of Courage remains hidden. The king realized that only someone pure of heart could use the entire Triforce without causing the world to fall to ruin, so he concealed the Triforce of Courage inside the deepest sanctums of the Great Palace, which lies in the Valley of Death. He then cast a magical barrier over the sanctuary, preventing anyone from entering it. Handing Link six crystals, Impa tells him that the only way the barrier will be dispelled is by placing them in the foreheads of six statues. They lie in six palaces scattered throughout the land, and are guarded by fierce monsters. Knowing the quest would prove far more perilous than his last, Link sets out to break the spell on this second Zelda.
Those going into Zelda II blind and only having played the original game might be taken aback after inputting a name and pressing “START”. The top-down perspective that gave The Legend of Zelda its identity has been replaced with a side-scrolling one. You swing the sword with one button and jump with the other. Looking at the game from a distance could give someone the impression that it’s a platforming game, but it wouldn’t be entirely accurate. Despite the obvious overhaul, the game is still mostly an action-adventure game with its greater emphasis on exploration and combat than precise jumping skills.
After departing the North Palace, you’re taken to a world map similar to the one in Dragon Quest and other popular JRPGs of its era. Navigating it is straightforward; you use the directional pad to go in any of the four cardinal directions, and walking over a point of interest transports you to the entrance immediately.
The yellow, featureless tiles are roads, and stepping off of them and onto any other geographical feature such as grasslands or forests has a random chance of spawning shadows. Colliding with any of them will take you to a small area wherein you must fight your way through a horde of enemies. Reaching either edge of the screen will allow you to escape. Where you will end up depends on the tile Link was occupying. If he makes it back to the road when one of the shadows catches up to him, the screen will be empty, allowing him to walk away unhindered.
One of the most notable gameplay mechanics Zelda II introduces is the magic system. In every town, Link can meet a wizard who will teach him a new spell. Most of the time, Link will need to do a favor for an NPC before they will let him into the wizard’s abode. The tasks vary wildly from finding a kidnapped child to getting them a drink of water from the fountain. Once he has a spell, you can press the “START” button to bring up the magic menu. After highlighting the desired spell and closing the menu, you can cast it with the “SELECT” button. Zelda II mostly eschews the need for using inventory items to circumvent obstacles with a majority of them serving automatic, passive functions, but the magic system serves the same basic purpose.
Whenever you defeat an enemy, a number will appear in their stead. This number represents experience points. How many you have is displayed on the top-right corner of the screen. From this you may have surmised that Zelda II is an action-RPG. This is completely true, though it differs from most in that you don’t really gain normal levels, thus improving your character’s overall combat performance. When the rightmost number has been reached, a window pops up, prompting the player to upgrade a stat.
Upgrading “life” reduces the amount of damage you take from enemies, “magic” cuts down how much you expend per casting, and “attack” enhances how much damage your sword inflicts. There is a caveat to this system that depends on the version you’re playing. In the original Japanese version, you can upgrade any stat upon reaching the required amount of EXP. However, you would do well to distribute them evenly, as your stats are set to match the one with the lowest level upon starting a new session. For example, if Link has eight levels in the life stat, three in the magic stat, and five in the attack stat, all of them will be set to three upon losing all your lives or quitting. For the localization, this was changed so all of the upgrades are saved in exchange for changing the required amount of points for each stat. For first upgrades, “life” will require fifty, “magic” one-hundred, and “attack” two-hundred. Subsequent levels follow the same pattern wherein “attack” is the costliest stat to upgrade followed by “magic” then “life”.
The Legend of Zelda placed importance on finding power-ups and other helpful items to help access new areas and stand up to progressively stronger foes. In doing so, it emulated the style of a role-playing game without being considered an example of one. One could argue the sequel to such a game being an action-RPG makes perfect sense.
Similar to many contemporary platforming games, you start off with three lives. If you die, you will be sent back to the beginning of the area you were in. Should you lose all of your lives, the game is over, and you will restart at the North Palace. In addition to running out of health, you can also lose a life by falling into a bottomless pit. There are dolls that grant you an extra life when collected. It would be wise to save them until the end of the game, however, for they do not respawn if you quit or lose, and the only other way to get more lives is to accumulate 9,000 EXP once you’ve obtained an eight in every stat.
Although the difference between The Legend of Zelda and its sequel is like night and day, traces of the former remain. You extend your health bar not through leveling up the “life” stat, but by locating heart containers. The same principle applies to the magic meter as well. Don’t expect to find any in dungeons, though; as was the case with The Legend of Zelda, only through exploration and discovery can you find these upgrades. You may have to travel off the beaten path to happen upon them, but as long as you’re diligent, you can find them with little trouble.
Being a radical departure from its predecessor, fans of the series debate its quality to this very day. Depending on whom you ask, it’s an experimental, underappreciated masterwork or one of the biggest mistakes Nintendo made. In whose faction does the correct assessment lie? I believe the most accurate answer to that question is: neither one. This is to say, both sides have good points, but in practice, the truth winds up being in the middle of those two extremes.
One of the greatest aspects of Zelda II is how the creators attempted to treat their audience to an entirely new experience. It’s the first game in the series to feature settlements wherein Link can interact with NPCs, allowing you gather information. The original featured NPCs who would give you hints, but ignoring the quality of the advice itself, they were solely to point you in the right direction. Zelda II, goes a step further in that what the NPCs have to say add a bit of character to the setting rather than just existing as part of an elaborate hint system. Moreover, as is the case with typical RPGs, towns feature places where Link’s health and magic can be restored.
A subtle quality I enjoy about Zelda II is how it feels much grander in scale than the original game. At some point in your travels, you will discover a small area that, even with the simplistic visuals, is at odds with the aesthetics found in the rest of the overworld. Without context, it would appear as though the creators threw several random tiles together in this one area for no reason. For the particularly savvy, it becomes apparent they were arranged in that way on purpose. Specifically, this seemingly haphazard mishmash of random set pieces is the original’s overworld layout. It encompasses a tiny section of the world map in Zelda II, suggesting that one tile is roughly the size of a single screen in The Legend of Zelda. The overworld is meant to give players the impression that protagonists are traveling the world while cutting down on the tedium it would entail, yet with this knowledge, such a premise is far easier to accept.
On that note, if it’s one truly underappreciated aspect about this game, it would be the story. It seems to provide an interesting, subversive take on what would later become standard fare for the genre. To wit, while most action-adventure games require protagonists to find a certain number of important relics, in Zelda II, Link starts with all six of the crystals he needs to succeed. The difficulty lies not in collecting them, but putting them where they need to go. Furthermore, the premise this game operates on shows what happens after the hero emerges triumphant. Ganon’s underlings don’t simply give up or spontaneously disappear once their master is defeated. If anything, that they can revive Ganon through Link’s sacrifice only causes them to redouble their efforts.
While later games featured new incarnations of Zelda, this was the first entry to justify it. The Zelda saved in the original was named after an ancestor for whom a tragic fate befell. It’s here that the very name of the series, The Legend of Zelda, becomes relevant despite ironically having been excised overseas. Granted, it has no practical bearing on the proceedings, as the game was made in an era when text limitations largely precluded the ability to implement an advanced story without running into memory issues. Even so, it’s still remarkable how much thought the developers put into it.
However, although I give credit to this new team for throwing novel ideas out there, I believe that quite a lot of them didn’t pay off. To begin with, the controls take a lot of time to get used to. I wouldn’t describe them as terrible, but you will need to adjust to the timing of Link’s sword swings to have any kind of success. If you press the button too late, you will likely get hit with the enemy before the attack connects. The combat is good insofar that you will need to develop a different set of tactics for each monster, but much of this process involves trail-and-error experimentation.
Another problem I have is that, like its predecessor, trying to figure out how to complete Zelda II without a guide can be borderline impossible at times. The biggest reason for this is because the NPCs don’t always provide good hints. Without explaining myself further, one might think the cause of this criticism can be attributed to a terrible translation that was typical of localizations at the time. Though I wouldn’t say the translation is good, the villagers actually do give sound, straightforward advice.
I also commend Zelda II staff for not hiding dungeons behind random walls as was often the case in the original. Instead, the issue I have stems from the fact that there are several things you must do which aren’t alluded to by anyone in the game or even the manual.
The worst example of this is a point when you’re made to locate a hidden city. Even if you’re searching the correct region, you will not find it. What you must do is use the hammer, which is typically used to clear boulders, on a certain forest tile, and only then will the settlement be revealed. At no point would the player even think that the hammer was capable of doing this. It’s possible to discover this utility by accident, but because it serves no practical purpose in the rest of the game, most people would probably forget about it by the time it’s required to advance. It doesn’t help that the only hint provided in the game is worded so poorly, knowing of the hammer’s secondary function could result in players wasting time searching the wrong forest.
There are less egregious instances throughout in the rest of the game as well. In order to get a helpful item, you need to use a spell simply called “spell” on the edge of a town. Another city has you looking for a mirror an NPC lost, and you find it under a table in an empty house. With no NPC inside, the player’s inclination would be to leave immediately rather than pushing the action button for no reason.
I also have to say that I’m not a fan of the game’s leveling system. The “attack” stat in particular takes a lot of EXP to enhance to its maximum level. The toughest normal enemies don’t yield nearly enough EXP to make the process anything other than a tedious ordeal in grinding. Though you can retain stats in the international version, the amount required to reach the highest level is 8,000. This is a stark contrast to the original wherein the steepest requirement was 4,000. Upon defeat, bosses will drop enough EXP to reach the next level, meaning that it can be deceptively easy to reach the maximum, but new players are unlikely to do this on purpose. Anyone entering the endgame with anything less than the best stats will be left at a severe disadvantage.
Perhaps the source from which I take the most umbrage lies in the game’s difficulty. The Legend of Zelda became progressively tougher with each dungeon. If you completed them in the intended order or obtained useful items beforehand, they were easily manageable. How does Zelda II fare? After the second dungeon, you’re made to explore Death Mountain, a gigantic, sprawling region composed of several cave systems. Not only is it arduous to navigate even if you have a guide and never go the wrong way, its sheer length ensures that by the end of your journey, you’re likely on your last life with barely any health left. As there are no checkpoints, it doesn’t matter where you died. You could have reached the room with the item you need to progress only to die and start the whole process over as a consequence. This mandatory quest is unreasonably difficult relative to its position in the game.
Surprisingly, this isn’t the most jarring spike in difficulty – that would occur during the endgame. Though the final challenge should be a marked step up from the rest of the game, Zelda II takes that idea too far. One could make a strong argument that the Great Palace boasts the worst design of any dungeon in the entire series. The experience of traversing it can be summed up thusly. You think you’re nearing the end only for you to hit a brick wall. Then you backtrack and go the other way only to learn it too leads nowhere. It’s there you realize you spent the last hour trapped in one giant dead-end. It doesn’t help that the palace is swarming with the most powerful monsters in the game, meaning you have to worry about losing lives quickly on top of finding your way around. Somewhat mercifully, dying in the Great Palace will restart you at the entrance, but it doesn’t change the fact that you have to go through a labyrinthine dungeon, face numerous powerful enemies, and defeat two challenging bosses with only three chances. It’s not quite to the point where I would call any part of Zelda II outright infuriating, but it does skirt the line uncomfortably.
Drawing a Conclusion
One of the good things which can be said about Zelda II is that it demonstrated Nintendo’s willingness to take risks. Considering how universally beloved The Legend of Zelda was, Nintendo could have easily made a token sequel to capitalize on its success a second time. Indeed, many longtime hobbyists in the 2010s were quick to point out how the AAA industry had a bad habit of mindlessly churning out sequels with the sole purpose of generating profits. While this was a valid criticism to make, the truth is that it had been common practice since the medium’s inception. Shortly after entering the industry, Nintendo themselves created a follow-up to Super Mario Bros. that was functionally identical to the original albeit with a few enhancements and a major step up in difficulty. Zelda II defied the trend, and even at the time when the rules of the medium were far less concrete, this was an admirable effort.
With all of what I have to say about it laid out on the table, now comes the question of whether or not I recommend playing it. One thing I can say for certain is that, unlike its predecessor, it would not be a good introduction for those delving into the series for the first time. Its balance is rather dreadful and a lot of the challenge stems from fighting the controls, hoping you don’t get knocked back into a bottomless pit. Mr. Miyamoto himself would later express disappointment with this work, as he felt what he and his team created didn’t evolve beyond what they conceived during the drafting phase. Realistically, I feel the only people who would get anything out of this game are dedicated Zelda fans or those raised on old-school consoles. If you do decide to try it out for yourself, make sure to have a guide handy lest you risk wandering around aimlessly for several hours, level up your character incorrectly, or needlessly expend unrenewable resources. While I’m not quick to label Zelda II a failure, I also have to say its status in some circles as the weakest game in the franchise isn’t wholly undeserved.
Final Score: 5/10