Review: Bah, bah black sheep.
To many gamers the mere mention of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) brings back fond memories of late nights playing games like Super Mario Bros., Castlevania, and The Legend of Zelda. If pressed, most veteran gamers will also recall that the first stateside sequels to these classic titles deviated considerably from the first games' winning formulas. These changes resulted in the sequels receiving mixed receptions among fans. Super Mario Bros. 2, while a fun game, initially confused many fans with its emphasis on turnip throwing over power-ups. Meanwhile NES aficionados still debate the pros and cons of Castlevania II: Simon's Quest. The same goes for the 1988 sequel, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. Many consider it the black sheep of the Zelda series. Others contend that it is severely underrated. I remember first playing the game back in 1988 and quickly putting it aside due to its difficulty and stark differences from the original. Now some twenty years later, I picked it up again on the Wii's Virtual Console. The verdict? While the game is clearly flawed, those players with patience will find an entertaining game worthy of the Zelda name.
After defeating Ganon in The Legend of Zelda, Link discovers that an enchanted Princess Zelda has fallen into a deep sleep. To break her curse Link sets out to find the Triforce of Courage that resides in the Great Palace. To open a gateway to the Triforce's location Link must first place a magical crystal in each of Hyrule's six palaces. Meanwhile, Ganon's minions are out for revenge. Their goal is to collect Link's blood, for only with it can they resurrect everyone's favorite pig-faced villain, Rosie? err? Gannon.
As with the first game, the storyline doesn't heavily factor into the gameplay. Nevertheless, it is nice to see it differed somewhat from the typical ?defeat Ganon/Ganondorf and prevent ultimate evil? scenario.
Zelda II's gameplay is vastly different than most Zelda titles. Instead of the action and navigation taking place all on one screen, here it is divided into two. Navigation between towns and palaces takes place on an overhead map screen whereas principle action occurs in side-scrolling environments akin to games like Castlevania or Bionic Commando.
Many platforming elements are included in these side-scrolling segments. Most notable is Link's ability to jump. Whereas in most Zelda games Link will jump automatically at the right time, here the ability is entirely under the player's control. The manual jump works decently enough in the game, but nevertheless timing jumps is the last thing fans want to have to worry about. It just feels out of place in a Zelda game. In most of the series installments, falling off a cliff would cost Link a mere heart. Here falling into a pit of lava or water (which is apparently ripe with typhoid) costs a life. Therefore, like in Castlevania the player must be extra careful about his or her jumps. This is often a chore when enemies are around since one hit at the appropriate moment can send Link flying backwards into a bottomless gorge.
Zelda II focuses more on straightforward swashbuckling action with less emphasis on the puzzle solving and exploration of other Zelda titles. This focus makes this perhaps the most difficult installment in The Legend of Zelda series (unless you count sitting through those CD-I Zelda games). It takes several jabs to kill most enemies who will deal Link a ton of damage if the player doesn't anticipate their attacks. Unlike its predecessor, in Zelda II there isn't a lot of room to dodge your foes or their projectiles due to the game's side-scrolling nature. To make matters worse for Link there is often more than one enemy on the screen at a time. Players must strategize, hone their timing, and keep their head about them to take down many of the enemies.
Mastering Link's shield is perhaps more essential to the player's success than in any other Zelda game. The player must crouch or stand depending upon enemies' attacks. Often the player must possess impeccable timing to deflect a number of projectiles and attacks without taking damage. The sword isn't as effective. Its limited reach forces the player to get up in the monster's face to inflict any damage. This naturally becomes frustrating since it increases Link's likelihood of taking damage as well. Fortunately the fighting becomes more fluid as Link learns new sword techniques such as the incredibly useful upward and downward jump thrusts. Those who play as Link in Super Smash Bros. will clearly appreciate the power these moves add to Link's arsenal.
The player also faces tougher odds since he or she has access to fewer resources. Link starts off with only three lives. This is two more than the original game, but since it is so easy to die in Zelda II, three lives may as well be one. While extra lives are available, they are scarce and probably best saved for later levels. Almost as rare are extra heart containers, as the game does not automatically give Link one after each boss fight. Meanwhile defeated enemies do not drop hearts like in other Zelda games. The only way to heal Link is to find a wandering fairy (best found in the Hyrule's rest stops), with magic, or in a town.
While it is clear to see that Zelda II is a difficult game, that in and of itself isn't really a problem. After all there are many great yet difficult video games out there. At first players will become frustrated, but after they get the gist of the fighting mechanics, learn new abilities and gain experience levels the enemies become easier to defeat. The dungeons are well designed and while the bosses are difficult, a strategy to defeat them is usually forthcoming. The jumping mechanics are somewhat annoying and feel out of place, but are not altogether different from other great action side-scrollers. Zelda II's main faults instead lie in those elements that make the game needlessly difficult, bordering on tedious.
For example, if the player exhausts Link's lives, he or she must start back at the beginning of the game, albeit with all the items and progress obtained thus far. The player must then trek through the Overworld's monsters and the dungeon all over again for a re-match. To say this is one of the most annoying parts of the game would be a gross understatement. Fortunately once Link obtains the hammer this becomes less of an issue since he can clear roadblocks. Nevertheless, in most Zelda games, after the player dies he or she starts off at the beginning of the dungeon in which Link perished. It is perplexing as to why Nintendo chose to not do the same here.
The game features an annoying amount of random battles. As Link travels on the map screen, black enemy sprites will randomly appear and try to intercept Link. If they do, the game whisks the player into a side-scrolling area filled with enemies. While these altercations are not random in the same sense as Final Fantasy or Dragon Warrior, they might as well be since the black sprites are tough to avoid. This quickly becomes aggravating not only when the player is trying to reach a destination but also when searching the map for a hidden location. On several occasions I didn't even bother to fight and just ran through the battle so I could continue my quest.
The game also suffers from a lack of items. Series mainstays like the boomerang and bow are absent. There are also no shops from which to buy potions, or a money system of any kind. Most of the items Link finds in the dungeons do not aid him in combat and instead simply serve to get him to the next palace. The raft for instance is used only once. Many of the spells, such as the fireball, follow the same suit.
Nevertheless, Zelda II marked a first time for many elements that would become common throughout later games in the series. The magic system introduced here would be used extensively in later games. Likewise, Zelda II was the first in the series that Link could freely talk with townspeople and complete side quests. These quests are fairly straightforward with objectives such as, ?find my missing mirror? or ?rescue the kidnapped child.? The reward for completing them is usually a new spell of some sort.
In this outing Link can gain experience points like in many role-playing video games. Each enemy is worth a certain amount of points. Special bags of ?experience? are scattered throughout the game. What does experience look like and why does it come in a bag? Who knows. Once the player accumulates enough points they can increase Link's offense, defense or life stats. This system seems strange in a Zelda game, where usually item upgrades are the path to greater power. However, it doesn't distract from the game and actually cuts down on the amount of secret items and swords the player must discover and keeps the focus on combat (thankfully considering the less time on the map screen the better). The one minor irritation with the experience system is that the game subtracts points when enemies hit Link.
The graphics are good considering this is a mid-generation NES title. While they aren't as clear as in games like Super Mario Bros. 3, Zelda II nevertheless improves upon its predecessor with its large colorful character sprites and varied environments. The map screen is somewhat bland, but this hardly matters since most of gameplay takes place in side-scrolling combat. The Wii's emulation suffers from slowdown in parts (although this may have been in the original) but is generally a picture perfect representation of the NES title.
Most of the sound effects seem recycled from the first Legend of Zelda game. The game features a surprisingly wide amount of quality 8-bit music. The classic Legend of Zelda theme is present as is the Hyrule temple music that Smash Bros. fans will recognize.
It is easy to become frustrated with Zelda II given the game's shortcomings. Was the game as well designed as it could have been? Definitely not. But just because something is flawed doesn't mean it isn't enjoyable.
Those players who manage to get over Zelda II's tedious elements will find a challenging game that possesses the same entertaining fantasy action/adventure gameplay that makes the Zelda series so great. Sure it has a learning curve, but the difficulty works in the game's favor since the player genuinely feels a sense of accomplishment after defeating a tough boss. In this sense it is truly one of the most immersive games I have ever played.