At 25YL, we love gaming, and moreover, we love The Legend of Zelda series. That’s why we’re going to cover the entire official Nintendo franchise, including the handheld games, every week. We continue our in-depth coverage with the 1987 NES sequel Zelda II: The Adventure of Link
How does one follow up a smash hit? The pressure is hard to overcome whether it’s for a film, music album, or a video game. Developers want to change, but also recreate, the winning formula. What stands out with the Zelda franchise over most is its ability to stay relevant over 30 years later. Every time Nintendo takes Zelda in a different direction, or to a new platform, they seem to knock it out of the park. That’s something you can’t say about many other franchises.
Zelda II: The Adventure of Link is an often-overlooked game in the Zelda saga. Growing up, I was surprised to hear the mixed opinions about this game. I’m in rare company; I still have never played the original Zelda and that’s probably why my perception may be skewed. Zelda II will always be my first, and it has a special spot in my heart.
The real question is whether Zelda II an actual Zelda game? I would say no. It’s an action RPG that happens to have Link as the main character. In this sequel, Zelda has fallen under a sleeping spell and Link must wake her up by finding the Triforce of Courage. With no Ganon around, the enemies want to kill Link to use his blood in an attempt to resurrect Ganon. Whoa, Nintendo. The most jarring difference in Zelda II is that it’s predominantly a side-scroller instead of the classic top-down view from the original game, which A Link to the Past would also return to.
The basic gameplay of Zelda II is traveling to towns, learning new magic spells, traversing the map, and braving through palaces. There’s an overworld map filled with hard to avoid monsters that trigger random encounters that again, revert back to the side-scrolling action.
You gain experience points by defeating enemies and can then level up your attack, magic, or health in whatever order you choose. The disappointing absence of puzzles is a distinguishing characteristic of this game not being a true Zelda game. Instead you follow the RPG formula of talking to townspeople, entering dungeons/palaces, traveling to the next town to talk to these townspeople, repeat.
The main criticism of Zelda II is the difficulty. This is where I slightly disagree with others. I think the difficulty of the actual fighting in dungeons is well balanced and extremely satisfying. Nowhere near as frustrating as games like Ninja Gaiden or Castlevania in my opinion.
Death Mountain tends to be a polarizing example. This maze-like section does come relatively early in the game, which I understand can be off-putting. I’ve played this game so many times that I just know where to go in Death Mountain. Back in the day it behooved you to bust out the old pen and paper to map out where to go. My older brother even had our mom make a map for this game. A map I would pay money to see to this day.
Not going to lie, this game is a little cryptic at times. Did you have the power? Yeah, Zelda II was a perfect Nintendo Power game, because it was not the best at explaining itself clearly in-game. At one point you need to jump into a wall. In order to acquire the up-thrust ability you must jump on top of a house and go down the chimney. In order to make the house appear you need to use a magic spell simply called “spell.” Everybody got that? This isn’t quite on the level of Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest but even after numerous playthroughs I still need walkthroughs to remember certain parts.
Another oddball choice is lack of the classic Zelda theme. The overworld starts out with the classic theme but soon changes to a different version. The soundtrack is one of the weak points in the game when compared to other Zelda games. On its own, there’s only four to five themes you hear the whole game. Every town and every palace have the same music. The songs aren’t bad in quality, I just wouldn’t fire up the original soundtrack on YouTube any time soon. I do love the sound effects. Rarely can you say that about a NES game, but they still hold up to this day.
I also love the combat in this game. In other Zelda games for example, the hook shot might be your fun weapon of choice. The Down Thrust is my favorite special ability in Zelda II. Instead of a kneel attack, Link can now jump and stab downwards, which makes bouncing and balancing on enemies so satisfying.
Conserving your magic meter is crucial in this game. You’re given numerous useful spells that can come in handy often, but most of the time it’s better to save up your magic. As you get farther in the game, enemy difficulty ramps up along with the diversity of enemy types. Just when you’ve mastered a certain kind of enemy the game throws you a curveball making sure to always keep you on your toes.
Another strength of Zelda II is the controls. It’s the classic A jump and B attack. Jumping feels precise. If you die, it’s most likely your fault. These aren’t the stiff controls like the original Castlevania. This game however does share a similarity to other NES platformers that is always frustrating: knock-back. If you get hit, Link gets knock-backed, usually into a pit. I feel the solid controls and fun combat balance out the negatives in the game. This is NES hard. Get good.
If there’s one change I would make to this game, it would be to start Link back at the beginning of the palace if you ran out of lives inside them. Instead the game puts you back at the beginning of the game and takes away all the experience points you earned. It’s a too-harsh punishment and it becomes tedious real fast. It’s bad enough hearing Ganon laugh at you at Game Over, but now you have to work your way back while the rage boils inside you. The developers made this a deliberate choice and it wasn’t just a mistake. That all changes at the final palace. When you run out of lives, which you will, you start back at the beginning of the palace. This is a breath of fresh air because this palace earns the title of the final level.
I still remember mapping out the final palace out with my brother. He doesn’t remember ever completing the game. Unfortunately we didn’t have trophy timestamps back in the NES days. The palaces will always be my favorite sections of the game. It was so satisfying finding keys and opening doors. We would always push start when unlocking a door. The unlock sound effect triggers longer for some reason. Not sure how we caught on to that, but it’s something I did instinctively even on my current playthrough on the Switch.
Is Zelda II a perfect game? No way. Is it a good Zelda game? Maybe not. I wish Zelda II got more credit for being different than being ragged on by its difficulty. Doesn’t help that Zelda II is a part of franchise that includes numerous games that claim stature to best game of all time. I’m thankful Nintendo has included this game in collections like the recent Nintendo Switch Online NES Collection and the NES Classic. Zelda II is a comfort game for me where I turn my brain off and play on autopilot. Clocking in at a nicely paced 10-hour run time, it’s a game I revisit about every 2-3 years.