It isn’t an exaggeration to say that in 1986 Nintendo changed gaming forever with The Legend of Zelda. The breadth and depth of the NES title revolutionized what it meant to make video games for home consoles. With Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, released the following year, Nintendo wanted to see if lightning could strike twice.
Putting it gently, Zelda II is the series’ black sheep. Cryptic, hard-as-nails game design—so emblematic of the NES era—made the title nigh unplayable. Nintendo abandoned the original’s top-down, exploration-focused gameplay for a side-scrolling platformer with RPG elements and a focus on combat. This new direction struck many as a huge step back for the fledgling series. Despite favorable reviews at launch, the game garnered a reputation as “the worst Zelda game.”
But classic Zelda remakes are on the rise right now. Link’s Awakening (2020, Switch) and A Link Between Worlds (2013)—a remake-slash-sequel of A Link to the Past (1991)—have garnered critical praise. And much of the success of Breath of the Wild (2017) is attributed to its overarching tonal similarities to NES Zelda. If ever there was a time to revisit this forgotten title, it’s now.
Zelda II was poorly executed. There’s no denying that. And certainly its “un-Zelda-like” core premise is not as gripping as the series’ standard formula. But putting those qualms aside for a moment, you begin to notice how ambitious this title really is. The world is massive, and unlike Zelda I’s grid-based map, it feels like you’re exploring a wide open, interconnected world. Dotted throughout the landscape are NPCs who are happy to share details about the world and give Link helpful upgrades. And the game’s seven dungeons bring creative bosses and puzzles with multiple solutions typical of a Zelda title.
Ambition, Creativity Hindered by Limitations
Aesthetically the game rivals its predecessor in every way. Zelda II brings a plethora of new baddies with unique designs and engaging attack patterns. The overworld map provides some striking views for such a technically limited game; for example, the graveyard with its sea of burial markers. And every single song on the soundtrack rips. Super Smash Bros. Melee (2001) familiarized folks with the incredible Temple theme. But every other track from the overworld to the end credits is phenomenal. What’s more, they haven’t seen new arrangements like many songs from the original.
So clearly there’s a lot to love about the game. But Zelda II is still riddled with issues. The most glaring, I think, is the punishing difficulty and cryptic design. The former is the result of the game design zeitgeist Zelda II was born into. In 1987, home consoles were a brand new thing. Developers were still in the mindset of making arcade games, whose punishing difficulty was intentional to eat players’ quarters and justify the cost of the expensive hardware. It would be a while before designers started making games with accessibility and player experience in mind.
As for the latter point, the NES’ hardware is partly to blame. NES games could only hold so much data. Thorough explanations and hint systems took up room they didn’t have to spare. It would be increasingly easy, then, to fix both of these issues with just a little tweaking. That doesn’t change what a departure the title is from the standard Zelda formula, but then I think there is a beauty in Zelda II’s unique gameplay. And besides, if Breath of the Wild taught us anything, it’s that sometimes it’s good to shake things up.
Zelda II was a victim of its circumstances. It deserves another moment in the sun.
Thumbnail image from neoseeker.
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