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Replaying Zelda II 10 Years Later: Your Hatred Is Error

In the midst of playing a really great game, like Fallout 3, I often develop an insatiable itch to return to the bowels of gaming history and visit where our evolutionary fishfeet came from. Yesterday, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link caught my eye. Not because it has some magical appeal and great lesson to teach: the cartridge is gold, and it glints in direct sunlight.

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.)

"Grab a pitchfork and your spittin' hats, kids! Everyone else is doing it!"

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.)

No, they're obviously different. Look at the very distinctive "II" Roman Numeral. And the ever so slight variation on colors. It's like a peek into a whole other world.

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.)

You know, the jerk-off who claims the universe every time you fall into a lava pit. Oh, and who never lifts a finger other than posing for this Game Over screen. Tough gig, Ganonass.

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.)

From Director to Advisor? Oh-ho, heads will roll. In a 2D, side-scrolling fashion.


  1. Blogger Kyle Shipley | February 8, 2009 at 2:28 AM |  

    "Final Fantasy VII blew everyone's non-RPG-acquainted minds, and Final Fantasy VIII sucked because it wasn't Final Fantasy VII."

    No. Final Fantasy VIII sucked because it was Final Fantasy VIII. This is a brute fact of the universe that cannot be broken down into further facts. It's like asking what quarks are made of (or strings, or whatever the most fundamental unit of composition turns out to be).

  2. Blogger Kyle Shipley | February 8, 2009 at 2:33 AM |  

    A less glib response:

    Re (2): Blocking is painfully simple in Zelda 1, so this is hardly an improvement. Additionally, having to grind for XP is a large step backward, in my opinion, and I'm glad they ditched it. Grinding is never fun, in any game, period.

    Overall, though, I agree with your take. It's better than people give it credit for. However, it's not nearly as good as the other games precisely because the controls were sloppier and the difficulty unreasonable in the end.

  3. Blogger Jillian | February 8, 2009 at 1:30 PM |  

    "No. Final Fantasy VIII sucked because it was Final Fantasy VIII. This is a brute fact of the universe that cannot be broken down into further facts."

    I know you love review sites' scores, and so:
    Final Fantasy VIII Metacritic score: 90
    GameFAQs average: 7.9
    1Up score: A

    Overall, it fared better than Zelda II. That doesn't mean you have to like it, but apparently brute facts of the universe cannot be trusted.

    "Blocking is painfully simple in Zelda 1, so this is hardly an improvement."

    It's not simple, it's nonexistent. You don't block; if you have a shield equipped and are standing in the exact right position, you won't be hit. It's mostly a matter of guess and check, with the check being "Did I just get smoked in the face?" In the later games with more varied combat, you have to make Link block--did you not prefer that in Ocarina of Time, Wind Waker, and so on? When the game blocks for you, you're losing a third of the gameplay.

    "Additionally, having to grind for XP is a large step backward, in my opinion, and I'm glad they ditched it. Grinding is never fun, in any game, period."

    I agree--I prefer my Zelda without experience points. But if someone is going to call the Zelda series RPGs, they have to reference Zelda II. And thus, wishing it never existed or claiming that playing it was the worst time of their lives negates this RPG claim. If they want to call Zelda an RPG, some appreciation has to be shown for Zelda II. Those of us who don't want to claim that can hate it freely--but I like it for other reasons, anyway.

  4. Blogger That Guy | February 9, 2009 at 10:13 AM |  

    I think all your arguments are valid. And I do vaguely remember defending this game against you over at GotGame in a comment thread.

    No big deal, I'm just glad you accept that it doesn't suck as badly as so many rashly judge it.

  5. Blogger Jillian | February 9, 2009 at 12:44 PM |  

    "And I do vaguely remember defending this game against you over at GotGame in a comment thread."

    Haha, I forgot about that. You're right. I think I was mostly being confrontational then. Apologies, good sir.

  6. Blogger Joey | February 9, 2009 at 3:29 PM |  

    Zelda talk!? Yaaawwwnnnnn.

    FF talk? Hollarrrrr.

    I'm realy sure what the definition of "grinding" is, but sometimes I enjoy just running around randomly in dungeons with the sole purpose of battling.

    Most specifically in: Valkyrie Profile 1+2, Secret of Mana, Final Fantasy XII and both the Tales and Star Ocean series.

    Then again, this is Zelda you're talking about. I can't stand it even if I'm not grinding.