As I mentioned in my review of The Legend of Zelda, I’m a newcomer to this franchise. I’ve long been put off by what I perceived to be distasteful RPG-like elements in the series. As a rule, I’m not impressed with RPGs. Thankfully, the original LoZ delivered a fun and addictive action/adventure experience that made me wonder why I hadn’t given it a chance years ago. When I discover a new series I like to tackle it in chronological order to get a sense of how it developed. So, naturally I moved on to Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. Now this… This is an RPG.
Is this fair? I mean are they allowed to do this? Switch genres mid-franchise? Okay, I get it if you’re doing a handheld version or something and you decide to mix things up a bit. But this was a direct sequel. There’s a “II” right in the title. And yet Zelda II plays like a completely different game.
Story-wise, you start off right where the original ended. Even though Ganon is dead, his henchmen are still roaming around causing trouble. Specifically, they want to snatch Link and make him a human sacrifice to bring Ganon back to life. Meanwhile, Link notices a weird crest developing on his hand. He shows it to Impa, Zelda’s nurse, and she takes him to the castle to show him that Zelda is lazily sleeping the day away. Impa then proceeds to tell Link the “Legend of Zelda” which you’d think might have been in the first game. This legend has something to do with a king and a prince and a wizard and a spell that put Zelda to sleep even though she seemed pretty awake when we saw her last. It all boils down to six crystals that need to be planted in six guarded palaces to open up the path to the Triforce of Courage which Link can use to wake up Zelda and restore peace.
Immediately, you’ll notice that the top-down view found in all other Zelda titles has been replaced by a sidescrolling perspective. Other than the Overworld, all areas of the game use this view. This is not a cosmetic change, but one that fundamentally alters the way you play. Link can now attack and block either high (by standing) or low (by crouching) as well as unlock other sword techniques as you progress. Even the most basic enemies have attack patterns, so you’ll need to learn where to block their advances and where they’re susceptible to some bloodletting. This is very different from the first game where few enemies had any kind of blocking ability, and the direction of your attack wasn’t very important. It can also be quite annoying.
Multiple enemies will often try to swarm you from all sides. This was fine in LoZ where you had eight directions of movement at your disposal and a shield that would block anything in front of you. But in Zelda II, you can only move left or right and must constantly stop to block low attacks or duck high ones. Some enemies are capable of switching between high and low attacks. Combine this with a shield and you have enemies that are only susceptible to damage when they are jamming a sword in your face. It’s a real pain in the ass. This might have been mediated by giving you a reasonably long sword, but your weapon could hardly be called a letter opener. You’ll need to level it up significantly before it deals respectable damage, and its reach is so short that you’ll still have to hop inside your sparring partner’s long johns to be close enough to land a hit.
Speaking of leveling up, let’s take a lot at that aspect of the game. As is RPG law, you gain points for each slain foe and at certain milestones you cash your points in toward increasing your life, attack, or magic. The enemies in even the first palace will be quite a challenge for you initially, so you’re supposed to increase your stats in the Overworld by fighting low level monsters. Can you SEE these low level monsters and avoid them if you don’t feel like a fight? Of course not. This is Random Encounter country.
Technically you can see your enemies pop into existence just as they close in on you and if you make it to the main path in time you can avoid a fight, but nine times out of ten they’ll catch you. It doesn’t matter that you’re just exploring or trying to make it to another area on your last bar of health, these critters want blood. When they catch up with you, you’re thrown into a mini-area and forced to fight your way right or left to return to the Overworld where this will immediately happen again. If these encounters were useful, I’d have to go along with it, but Overworld enemies are usually worth only 2 to 10 points. Compare this with the palace enemies that net you 20 to 50 points and the Overworld quickly becomes a huge fucking waste of your time, health, and resources. To make any kind of progress, you’ll have to enter a palace you’re ill-prepared for and try to knock off some high-level enemies, repeatedly dying in the process, until you have enough points to level up so you can actually beat the palace.
If this doesn’t already sound like a crappy way to play a game, let me throw two more caveats at you. First, you’ve got three lives and when you use them up, you lose all your experience points and are demoted to your most recently achieved level. Second, every time you die you start back at Zelda’s castle. Every time. No matter where you are in the game, you’re back at the very beginning when those three lives are up. One more time, with feeling: Every time you die, you must start from the beginning of the game.
Granted, you don’t lose your progress or levels, but you do have to walk all the way back to whatever palace you were working on. And as I said, this involves a hell of a lot of unnecessary fighting that will likely rob you of one of your lives before you can get there. Recall that in the original Zelda, dying in a dungeon just started you back at the beginning of that dungeon. Also, if you needed to get somewhere in the Overworld, you could take your chances and run right past any enemies you met along the way. No such luck in Zelda II.
In LoZ, it became second nature to stun an enemy first with the boomerang and then go in for the kill with the sword. A complimentary weapon like this would have come in very handy here, especially considering your sword’s pitiful reach. But as far as I can tell, no other weapons exist. Because of this, the game puts a huge emphasis on magic. You are much more likely to run across magic potion than point bags or health fairies. I’m sure this is useful later in the game when you get some spells that are worth a damn. But after two towns and a palace, the only spells I had were Shield and Jump, neither of which is offensive. If I had found half as much health as I did magic, I might have beaten this game.
And don’t count on 1ups to sustain you. There are only a few strewn around the Overworld in secret locations. Best of all, when you pick one up you’re not increasing your overall life capacity (allowing you to start with four lives instead of three), you only get that extra life until you die. And when you come back, it’s no longer available to be picked up again. Since you can only use each 1up once, you’ll pretty much have to save them all for the last palace.
Things aren’t all bad, of course. This is a Zelda game, after all, designed by universally acclaimed Game God Shigeru Miyamoto. The enemies are very well done and interesting. Environments are varied and graphically cool. The well-known Zelda theme doesn’t appear but the Zelda II theme has become something of a cult classic. As far as presentation, the game delivers. The actual gameplay, while frustrating, wouldn’t be insurmountable if not for all the little things that add up against it like the random encounters and unnecessarily difficult leveling.
Zelda II often gets credit for increasing your interaction with non-player characters. This is true and a welcome addition. Townspeople can heal you, teach you new spells, and send you on side quests. But, like in LoZ, their clues are so cryptic, that they’ll often do more to confuse than help you. I even once completed a mission without realizing I’d done anything. More on-screen information would have been much obliged.
The problem is that all of my complaints with this game stem from staples of the genre that are accepted or even enjoyed by its followers. I’m not into this type of RPG and normally, neither is Zelda. This is the only Zelda title that is a pure RPG, and frankly the genre doesn’t quite fit our green-cloaked hero. I seriously gave this game a chance, spending hours and hours on it over the last few months, but I never got into it. In the interest of fairness, though, I admit that I know plenty of people who can’t get enough of this stuff.
If you like leveling up by hacking your way through countless repetitive enemies, if you like spending most of your time traveling to your objective rather than completing it, if random encounters make you all gooey inside, please enjoy Zelda II. I won’t think less of you. If, however, these are the same qualities that have kept you away from RPGs in general, give this one a pass. I’m willing to concede that there may be an enjoyable experience here, but if so, it takes a lot more time to find than I was willing to give.
When all is said and done, it’s still a Zelda game with all of Nintendo’s love and care baked in. RPG fans may be able to put up with its weak points.
Far too annoying to play for very long, especially for the sequel to one of the greatest games of all time.
“I am Error.”