Zelda II is known as the disappointing Zelda. It hangs out with Majora's Mask at Denny's, eating soggy crepes and lamenting where it all went wrong. I know where it all went wrong, Zelda II, and I'm here to tell you--it's not your fault.
First, let's take a look at the general reviews for Zelda II. A 73 on Metacritic (for the GBA port). An 8.0 reader average on GameFAQs. A "B" (ugh, those awful letter grades) from 1Up.
Suffice to say, people obviously don't hate Zelda II. In fact, they seem to like the game. Even appreciate its very existence. So why the in-bred hatred? Why the automatic "Zelda II? That joke of a game? Bah!" when it's mentioned in mixed company?
In short: it's a classic case of Final Fantasy VIII syndrome. The hatred clogging up both Majora's Mask and Zelda II's glory-faucets is derived from their predecessors' success. When gamers think of the "greatest" titles in specific series, the little brothers are always overshadowed and looked down upon. Final Fantasy VII blew everyone's non-RPG-acquainted minds, and Final Fantasy VIII sucked because it wasn't Final Fantasy VII. Majora's Mask could never hope to compete with the often-touted-best-game-ever, Ocarina of Time, and so it is doomed to wander the halls of gaming history as a shameful poltergeist on the series.
Zelda II has it especially bad, though. Not only is its precursor an unwaveringly beloved classic, but its follow-up, A Link to the Past ("Zelda 3"), is the one Zelda title that rivals Ocarina of Time in "best Zelda game ever" battles. Not only that, but it had the same top-down view and gameplay that everyone fell in love with originally. Sandwiched between the two, The Adventure of Link looks like your forgotten middle child who grew up cutting his own hair and sewing his clothes out of potato sacks.
When viewed alone, though, as its own game and not just a continuation of its fancy-schmancy older brother, Zelda II delivers a unique and enjoyable experience to the player (as evidenced by the reviews above). Those that dog on the game are stuck viewing it as "not the original or A Link to the Past," with review titles like "Terrible excuse. Skip to Zelda 3" and "If it ain't broke, don't break it." (Although, for some reason, the actual review attached to that first title--which resulted in a 3/10 score--has nothing but positive things to say. Seems more like a "going along with the crowd" review.)
Here are the facts of the game, ten years later, offered by a dedicated Zelda fan:
1. The side-scrolling view was not a step back.
(It was merely different than top-down. It allowed for a different style of gameplay and fighting than the original title did. Ocarina of Time's 3D world did the same, but everyone was so smitten with 3D they didn't bother to complain.
With only a year between the two games, creating a Zelda clone would have been a mistake. The original Legend of Zelda offered two full adventures, enough to keep most gamers busy for quite awhile. Zelda II gave fans a similar experience, but varied enough to keep it interesting. By the time A Link to the Past was released in 1991, technologies had improved enough to significantly expand on the original and improve it in every way. If Zelda II had tried to be A Link to the Past, it would have flopped entirely--not just within its own canon.)
2. The gameplay is improved.
(It's still a sword-slashing, shield-blocking adventure game, but the side view allows for more options in battle. Being able to see where your shield is in relation to enemies' attacks allows you to consciously block, as opposed to hoping the shield will work in a pinch. Jumping adds a platforming quality which is later wholeheartedly embraced by--oh my, can it be?--Ocarina of Time and its 3D brethren. Downthrust is one of the most rewarding actions of any Zelda game, the only downside [haha, get it...] is receiving it halfway through the game. "Aw, ten seconds? But I want it now!")
3. The game does retain the spirit of the original, and the overall series.
(The story of any Zelda game broken down is typically: Ganon has kidnapped someone / something of import, is threatening Hyrule, Link sets off to save everyone. Zelda II takes place in a more fleshed out Hyrule, with Zelda in danger of sleeping forever, Ganon at the evil helm, and Link adventuring about the world in an attempt to right wrongs. Spectacle Rock in Zelda II is based off the same area in The Legend of Zelda. Pig-Ganon, taunting from his red screen of death, is the same ultimate baddie we faced in the previous title.)
4. Everyone who claims Zelda series games are RPGs should thank Zora for Zelda II.
(The Adventure of Link is the only Zelda game that is mostly RPG. Ironic, considering its title. The other games are Adventure games, Action Adventures, or at best, Adventure RPGs, with "RPGs" spoken very lightly. The critical "RPG" element comes from leveling up via experience points, gained from killing enemies.
Collecting heart containers is not "leveling up." There are a set number of heart containers, and you cannot spam them in one sitting to reach the max level. In Zelda II, you level up skills with experience points that enemies' corpses disintegrate into. You can leave and re-enter a palace as many times as you want, killing the same enemies and boosting your skills prematurely. The other Zelda games do not have this. They are not RPGs.)
5. It has the right level of difficulty.
(The game boasts seven palaces, which increase in size and challenge exponentially. The first palace is pretty much a cakewalk, and is a solid introduction to the style of game you're experiencing. There are specific enemies / areas which are a bit over the top--I dread running into blue knights, who show up as early as the third palace, and any lava pit with flying-head enemies is an absolute deathtrap, plain and simple--but most have precise dispatching methods which will leave Link without so much as a scratch.
Playing through this time, with knowledge of past run-throughs and an added dose of patience, I've found the game fairly simple--especially when handled systematically. I attack palaces ferociously to find all the keys and special items--then, depending on my experience points / lives, I either proceed to the boss or return to the beginning and fight more for an extra level.
You should never launch the crystal with a nearly-full experience meter. Finishing a palace fills your experience points and also seals that location. Sealing a palace with even half of your experience tally full is too much: go back and fight the palace's enemies again, then seal it. Every additional level helps. If you have a decent amount of EXP and only one or two lives left, choose a predictable location--like the entrance of a palace with the Armos statue--and fight that one enemy over and over. It can be tedious at times, but those who find the game excessively difficult will appreciate the early boosts to their skills.)
6. It's fun.
(What do we expect out of a Zelda game? Exactly this. I don't have to sit around playing decade-old NES titles on our smaller TV. But I've enjoyed playing Zelda II, and was surprised by this enough to write a massive post defending it. Maybe those gamers who mock it really don't have fun with it, but with all the positive reviews and silly excuses for not playing it, the negativity seems like something deeper. Something more sinister. Something...conspiratorial.)