To celebrate the 35th anniversary of The Legend of Zelda, we're running a series of features looking at a specific aspect — a theme, character, mechanic, location, memory or something else entirely — from each of the mainline Zelda games. Today, Gavin looks back at the first sequel in the series, and one of the last entries he got around to playing...
Following the release of the 3DS almost a decade ago, I decided to go back and mop up the remaining Zelda games that I hadn't got around to playing. This was made considerably easier thanks to getting several entries for 'free' as an early 3DS adopter via the Ambassador Program. Past games I had missed included The Minish Cap, both Oracle games (not part of the program, but available on the 3DS eShop), the original Legend of Zelda (hey, I was a mainly-Sega kid until the mid-90s, okay!) and its sequel, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link.
My introduction to the series was Ocarina of Time, which I (and most everyone who ever played it) liked quite a lot. In fact, the 3D remake was the main reason I picked up a 3DS so early. After jumping in with The Best Video Game Ever Made™, going backwards in the timeline was always likely to be tougher for a relatively late-starter, at least compared to fans who began their adventures in 8-bit Hyrule. While I can respect the earlier games for the ground they broke (and Link's Awakening, in particular, is something a bit special), I can't quite find it in myself to love them, you know? Not even A Link to the Past. I know, I know — letters to the usual address.
Zelda II was a particular challenge for me. To put it lightly, my first impression of the top-down overworld wasn't great. I remember thinking 'Why is it so goddamned static?'. The overworld in the sequel is essentially a glorified zoomed-out map which just happens to be navigable, but it looked blocky and ugly, especially after the relative beauty of the first game. I recently discovered that the lakes and coastal water in the Famicom Disk System original have animation frames which are entirely absent from the NES version — even this tiny change would have made a huge difference in giving the kingdom some life. As it is, there's little going on in the blocky overworld beyond enemy and fairy icons spawning in trios and circling with the threat of a random battle every ten seconds. Urgh.
And the infamous 2D sections in towns and palaces? They were so..., well, flat after the 'go-anywhere' freedom of other entries. The brief interactions and simple relationships with the townsfolk throughout Zelda II would be built upon in spectacular fashion in the 16-bit follow-up on SNES, but the side-on perspective felt like a straightjacket and it took me a long time to appreciate the game’s influence and significance within the Zelda timeline (the release timeline I mean, not the three-pronged migraine-inducing series chronology).
simply sticking with Zelda II was a challenge far greater than anything I faced in its dungeon palaces. Fortunately, playing the game on 3DS meant I had access to save states, and — man — did I use them!
For me, simply sticking with Zelda II was a challenge far greater than anything I faced in its dungeon palaces. Fortunately, playing the game on 3DS meant I had access to save states, and — man — did I use them! Similar to how they let me to stay immersed in the world of Simon's Quest (and eventually come to appreciate that tough-to-love game), it was the ability to save and immediately undo my errors that gave The Adventure of Link's atmosphere time to soak in, to the point that I wanted to continue, not just to tick this linchpin Zelda entry off my mainline list.
For someone familiar with Ocarina, noting that the town names referenced the sages was a thrill, and even the stiff controls grew on me with time. Unlocking and performing a down-thrust eventually became a pleasure and you're forced to get tactical and watch for patterns when battling enemies — storming in on a wing and a prayer is a sure-fire way to instigate the return of Ganon. You can't afford to rush The Adventure of Link. Slow and steady wins the race.
I also came to love the sense of empowerment that the RPG-style levelling gives you over time, something you could easily miss if you don't stick with it. That growth means that Link — like the game itself — gets stronger the more you play. Persevere, and you shall be rewarded. It's hardly a new idea, but imagine a modern remake which injected a little of the modern convenience and game design knowledge accrued over the past thirty years... It could be something extraordinary!
In fact, all this talk makes me want to dive back in this instant. It's easier than ever these days as The Adventure of Link is part of the Nintendo Switch Online subscription package, now with the added boon of the 'rewind' button. That alone is a big improvement over the 3DS' multi-step save state set-up, or having to hit the reset button on the NES Classic Mini.
Even with those mod cons, though, Zelda II can be a tough ask for players used to slick modern mechanics and the expanded beauty of 8-bit+ retro revivals like Shovel Knight and Cyber Shadow. Still, perhaps there's never been a better time to for Zelda II to shine. A swathe of gamers these days really appreciate not having their hands held as tight as many modern mainstream releases insist, and lines between these earlier Zelda games and something like the Dark Souls series are pretty easy to draw. Zelda II has been reappraised in recent years, and rightly so; it’s a game which rewards patience, perseverance and skill, perhaps more so than any other entry in the series.
Zelda II has always been the odd-one-out; the Dark Link to the familiar hero found in the other Legends of Zelda. C'mon, it doesn't even have 'Legend' in the title! It took me a while — and not a small amount of effort, even using save states — to find the soul beneath that unforgiving, unattractive exterior, but even with its faults, persevering with it and seeing the adventure through to the end is one of the most satisfying gaming memories I have.
Roll on a remake.