Legends of Zelda, Part Two:
The Adventure of Link
When Zelda II: The Adventure of Link came out, I bugged the hell out of my parents to buy it for me. After all, I had labored (labored!) for so long without a Zelda cartridge of my own. I could only explore Hyrule second-hand. So when a sequel was released…why, I just had to have it. And what’s more, I had to have it first.
Oh boy was I suckered.
I can’t remember—obviously—exactly what I expected from this game when I was a child…but I do know that it wasn’t this. In fact, it wasn’t anything like this. The very first time I booted up the game I was disappointed. Every time I returned to it since, I was disappointed. Years later I found it at the bottom of a box of things I didn’t play with anymore, and even the sight of it made me disappointed. (This last sentence is a fabrication, but the sentiment is accurate, so deal with it.)
It wasn’t for a very long time—namely two years ago or so—that I was able to sit down, patiently, and reappraise it.
Why did I bother reappraising it? I can’t really say. I think it’s because so many other excellent Zelda games had been released in the meantime, and The Adventure of Link is the only one that I never liked one bit. It didn’t feel right. I loved the series. In fact, I was loving it more with every game. Why did I have to dislike this one so much? Couldn’t it just be that I—no, the world—wasn’t ready for what Zelda II had to teach us?
In playing the game again, I came to the conclusion that The Adventure of Link is one of those very, very rare games that isn’t nearly as bad as the detractors would have you believe, but also isn’t nearly as good as its enthusiasts think it is.
As a child I was able to pick up on the fact that this game was deeply flawed. (And, if other nostalgic accounts are to be believed, I was not alone in this.) Playing it over I am able to appreciate it for both its unique merits—which I will describe below—and its contributions to the later (and better) games in the series.
…it’s still kind of disappointing, though.
Whenever somebody talks about The Adventure of Link, they seem to make a point of highlighting how different it is. Rather than appraise it as an individual product itself, they are inclined to discuss it in terms of the franchise. (A similar thing happens in discussions of the non-Japanese Super Mario Bros. 2.) And considering just how different Zelda games are from one another, it must really take a special case to be considered an outlier. So, obviously, I am going to spend a lot of time here going over how much is different: the changes that worked and, more commonly, the ones that did not.
First of all, you’ll notice the title. It’s not called The Legend of Zelda II, it’s just Zelda II. Obviously Zelda quickly became the familiar name for the first game (despite the fact that Zelda herself appeared on exactly one screen and wasn’t referred to at all during the course of play), so it’s fair to assume that the familiar name for the sequel—whatever the sequel might actually be called—would be Zelda II. Yet it’s kind of jarring as an official title. Are there any other examples of a sequel ditching its predecessor’s official name for the sake of familiarity? I know the Rambo franchise did this…the first film was called First Blood but the subsequent ones were all called Rambo-something, despite them being First Blood’s sequels. T2 comes to mind as well, as it’s an official alternative to Terminator 2, but since nobody ever referred to the first movie as T it’s more an invention of the advertising department than an adopted popular term.
Does the title matter? Well, no, it doesn’t…but it’s interesting to me. Everybody just referred to Super Mario Bros. as Mario, but the sequels were never actually called Mario 2 or Mario 3. So why the change here? Especially since it causes the title of the game to make even less sense.
After all, in the first game, Zelda herself had only a very small presence. But it was called The Legend of Zelda, which meant it was her legend we were focusing on (a legend which has since proven to be helpfully vague in terms of sequel design). If it was actually officially called Zelda it would have been confusing, because the game would have been named after a character you don’t meet until the very end. “Legend,” on the other hand, umbrellas all of the action. By dropping it from the title you also drop it as a dominating theme. Zelda II, based on its title, should be more about the character than about the legend.
And yet it’s…not. Granted, Zelda does have a greater presence here (every game, even a continued game, begins with Link beside a comatose Zelda in some central palace). But Zelda doesn’t actually awaken until you win the game…once again relegating her character to “reward” status, and robbing her of any participation (or real importance) in anything else that happens.
Furthermore, this isn’t even the same Zelda from the first game! Evidently it’s some other girl named Zelda, owing to the fact that every female in the kingdom has to be named Zelda, or some such ridiculous narrative stupidity. There’s no functional reason she can’t be the same Zelda, and since the story is needlessly complicated because of it (if I’m the same Link, and it never comes into play again, does it really matter which Zelda I’m saving?) I just pretend it’s the same girl. Otherwise, if it isn’t the same Zelda, why does Link even give a crap? More importantly, why would the player give a crap?
Well, the joke’s on me I guess, because, as we all know, no player ever did give a crap.
Zelda II had to be one of my least-played games at the time. None of my friends really wanted to play it, either. The feeling of exploration was still there, but it didn’t seem as rewarding. Fighting your way through a dungeon to find a boomerang or a better sword to smack monsters around with…that was cool. But in Zelda II you’re walking through towns learning spells from old men in basements. And that’s your reward for exploration. If you haven’t played the game it might come as a bit of a shock, so let me make it perfectly clear: There are absolutely no offensive items to collect.
No offensive items? In a Zelda game? I…that…I mean…oh, but spells! The spells must have taken their place. (The spells, Jim! Ahhh, they’d melt your face…) Spells must have been cool, right? I mean, imagine that! Running through Hyrule, blasting the heads clean off of Moblins just by pointing and snapping your fingers!
…no. You do get a few offensive spells (fire, thunder, and…oh, that’s it…) but you won’t get them until much later in the game. Which means that unless you get excited by a Powered-Up Defense spell, or the Extra More Bigger Jumping spell, the “magic” in this game isn’t going to win you over. (You can also cast a spell that will literally turn Link into a fairy. And you thought those tights were gay.)
But wait! (I hear you interrupting me, Mr. Rudepants.) Magic has been an important feature of The Legend of Zelda ever since! Surely Zelda II has contributed that much to the series, at least.
Again, no. Yes, this is the first time “magic” has been a tangible element of gameplay (disregard the wand from the original Legend of Zelda game. Why? I have no idea; it’s just what everybody seems to do in this discussion), but this is a very different type of magic than what we’ll find in later games. In fact, I’d argue this is the only true magic in the entire series.
After all, you get to cast these spells whenever you like; they are all just as helpful to you in one screen as they are in any other. Need some quick health? Cast a spell. Don’t have a key? Fairy your way through the lock. Jump your damn heart away. That’s magic.
In other games, such as Ocarina of Time, you can learn spells, but they’re severely limited in their usefulness, and often don’t accomplish anything that special items can’t accomplish in other games. The magic meter in later games is really just a way of regulating the usage of items that don’t have traditional ammunition. Do you really need “magic” to swing a torch or to flap a Deku leaf at something? Of course not. But by connecting them to the magic meter (which I’m sure is only called a “magic” meter for lack of any better term) overuse is prevented. Ditto the spin attack. If it doesn’t require ammo, it’s magic. Far from being an actual element of gameplay, “magic” is reduced to a catch-all factor of limitation that prevents you from walking around the entire game looking through the Lens of Truth.
Another obvious feature of this game is its side-scrolling element. While I am not averse to reimagining the main gameplay (it worked brilliantly for the 3D games), I do have to say that the abandonment of the top-down view really did Zelda II a great disservice.
While the overworld is handled in much the same way as the previous game, all of the fighting and dungeon-raiding (sorry…palace-raiding) is played out horizontally. When you’re fighting monsters for experience points, this usually isn’t so bad. All you’re doing, after all, is hacking away and trying not to be hacked-away-at. It doesn’t need to be immersive. (And, in one of the game’s truly great decisions, the monster-fighting stages are short enough that you can just walk off of them whenever you like—without even killing the monsters, necessarily—while also featuring an endless stream of enemies that you can continue to battle, if you so choose. This means you effectively always have the choice of how much, or how little, fighting to do at any time.) But when we enter a palace, it’s a different story.
The original Legend of Zelda felt so unique because there was a definite strategic element to its gameplay. There were puzzles to be solved, even in terms of which items to use against which enemies. Granted, much of it revolved around shoving stones to the left or randomly blowing up walls, but this was an early game, and for its time it was damn clever. In Zelda II the entire element of puzzle-solving is lost. Since there are no items to collect you never really get to attack in interesting ways (unless slash-slash-slash sounds interesting to you), and since the top-down view has been abandoned, the palaces have lost even the simplest shove-the-stone/bomb-the-wall puzzles. They are replaced, instead, by fighting things, jumping over things, and riding up and down elevators. (Seriously, did I dream this game?) So much for that whole hassle of “figuring stuff out.”
Essentially, Zelda II took the “walk from one end of the stage to the other” page from Mario’s book, but forgot to include anything that might make it fun. The bosses are lame (have you ever wanted to fight the front end of a horse in a suit of armor?) and the battles are never anything more advanced than stabbing something in the head while its defenses are down.
The exception to this rule is Dark Link, the game’s final boss, who is both extremely difficult (or was to me, when I was a child) and a pretty awesome concept. It’s no surprise that Dark Link has turned up a few times since. He’s never quite as powerful, but it’s nice that he gets to spend some time in better games.
One final qualm—though it’s a major one—is the experience system. Anybody who’s played a standard RPG will be familiar with the concept of collecting experience points for the sake of leveling up. In Zelda II you can do just that, choosing to increase your attack, defense or magic. Sounds cool, right?
Well…it is! I kind of like the idea of Link gradually getting stronger as he goes. It makes sense that he’d become a better warrior the more he fights. That’s cool. What’s not cool is that, if you ever quit the game, you will lose all of the experience you’ve gained since the last time you leveled up…regardless of whether or not you’ve saved the game. This wouldn’t be so bad except that as you progress through the game the amount of experience points required to raise a level increases exponentially. You can lose thousands of points by shutting off the system.
Of course, you could just fight on until you raise a level, right? Well, yeah, except that it’s not uncommon that it can take upwards of two hours to earn enough experience to do so, especially later in the game. So fighting up to the next level is not always possible, and neither is shutting the game off very appealing. Bah. What should have been the coolest thing about this game is instead its greatest liability. In fact, it’s this very feature that’s preventing me from finishing Zelda II. I don’t have time to sit around stabbing blobs all night. I want to make progress, save, shut down, and come back later. I don’t even care if you make me complete an entire palace before I save…I’ll gladly do it, because there’s at least a sense of forward movement. There is no sense of forward movement in slashing birds in a swamp.
Alright, alright, enough of the bad stuff. I promised there were some good things about the game, so let’s spend some time on them, and intentionally finish this reappraisal on a high note.
First of all, the graphics are really very nice. Despite a few odd choices (why is Link outlined in tan?) they are a huge improvement over what came before. The overworld is divided convincingly into the different “regions” of Hyrule, something that would really come into play in Ocarina of Time and every game afterward. There are towns to explore…none of which are particularly exciting, but it at least establishes, finally, that there are human beings in Hyrule who don’t spend all of their time waiting to charge someone for blowing the door off their cave.
The enemies might not be anything special, but they are at least drawn and animated very well. The NPCs are nowhere near as richly rendered as they’d end up being down the line, but at this point it’s just reassuring to know they are there.
Also, though there is still no real hint system in the game, it’s much harder to get lost. Thanks to Hyrule’s layout, you can only go so far down one path before you need a specific item to continue. So while it is possible, at times, to stray a bit and find the wrong palace too soon, you’re never too far off from where you need to be, and there’s always a sense of what you need to accomplish next.
The side-scrolling aspect, while crippling in several ways, does lend itself to one of the best things about the game: thanks to the addition (for this game only) of a jump button, you can learn different sword attacks from various NPCs in the game. You can thrust up while jumping, thrust down while jumping, and…well, that’s about all. But it is fun, and once you learn the techniques they make battle far less tedious. (They also give Link a lot more to do with his sword in the Super Smash Bros. series.)
Indirectly, I believe the side-scrolling aspect gave rise to the additional lives feature. After all, you can increase your attack and your defense, but if you fall into a pit or a lake, you’re instantly dead. In the interest of fairness, the game designers gave Link several lives. We can now afford a mis-step or two. What’s so great about extra lives, though? Well, starting with the next game in the series, we’d see them implemented in a much more organic way: the fairy in the bottle.
Yes, that staple of Zelda games…the fairy in the bottle. Lose all of your energy in battle, and the fairy will bring you back to life. You can keep as many fairies as you have bottles. It’s, basically, an extra life system…a practice which began here (in the form of…uh…little Link dolls…) and it would become indispensible in later games. We do have to hand it to Zelda II for establishing, at least, that one life is never enough.
The Adventure of Link is not a bad game…not even close. But compared to the rest of the Zelda series, it’s not really surprising that it’s the black sheep. While it may look a lot different, it also feels a lot different. It’s not the same. So much of the right ingredients are here, but nobody bothered to mix them properly. The game is a fun diversion, but the tediousness of leveling up and the sameness of all the palaces discourage you from wanting to finish the game. In fact, the biggest challenge this game offers is the test of your patience as a gamer.
Some of you may love the game; I wouldn’t want to take that away from you. But, for me, this is one of only two Zelda games that I think were seriously flawed.
What’s the other one? Oh, you’ll have to wait a while to find out…because the next game in the series is a certified masterpiece.