Recently, Zelda II has become a bit more popular with Legend of Zelda fans, mostly due to people who once disregarded it (and the original) now going back to try and experience the history of the series. For a game fans infamously refer to as the “black sheep” of the series (despite Chris Farley not making a single appearance in the whole game), it’s nice to see Zelda II get something of a second chance with newer fans, many of whom see it as a good but difficult game that is worthy of a challenge. That said, if you really think about it, the game did a lot of things it probably shouldn’t have. It doesn’t really matter too much at this point; the game has already left its impact on the world and is embraced for what it is, but that doesn’t make some glaring issues just go away.
The first Zelda game debuted in Japan in February of 1986, and was so successful that Nintendo demanded a sequel be made immediately. Less than a year later (January 1987 to be precise), Zelda II also debuted in Japan. Then, in August, North America finally got its hands on… …Zelda 1!?
That’s right: The sequel was developed so quickly, The original game still wouldn’t be on a cartridge for another seven months. At the time, rapid-fire game development was fairly common. For something that was fully intended to see a release outside of Japan though, this was a little ridiculous. Keep in mind, Zelda games currently have a notorious track record for never meeting deadlines. Ocarina of Time took so long to release, some people thought “The Legend of Zelda” was a new franchise in 1998. Twilight Princess took so long that it ended up getting released on two different generations of Nintendo consoles at once.
Was Zelda II the point where they realized they needed to take their time? The end result was unrefined and felt more like a beta than a finished game. In fact, by the time Zelda II came out on a cartridge in September of 1988, so much had been changed that it felt less like a port or localization and more like an updated remake, in the same vein as Pocket Monsters Red and Green versus Pokemon Red and Blue. Pretty much everything was a fix of some sort: Palaces were given more color, certain areas were changed, the big red “Return of Ganon” screen was added, and Volvagia was resprited. Compared to the first game’s cartridge conversion, Zelda II’s changes were numerous and significant.
Plotwise, the game takes almost everything you thought you were accomplishing in the first game and throws it out the window. Admittedly, The Legend of Zelda as a series does this all the time, but at least uses the excuse of a whole new story or adventure completely unrelated to the previous one. This game is a direct sequel; you still have the Triforce of Wisdom and the Triforce of Power, but Ganon’s forces are so strong, he might as well still be alive. What’s more, the princess from the previous game is only a “Zelda” by law. Her sleeping ancestor is the one you really need to focus on saving. So… what? The princess from the first game is so unimportant that she isn’t even worth mentioning? She just completely disappears from the story. Why even bother saving her in the first game if we’re just going to toss her aside and forget about her? She obviously has a kingdom of some sort to run, but according to Hyrule Historia, that consists entirely of the original game’s overworld, while Zelda II’s overworld is a greater country. So, literally, she rules over a handful of old people in caves. That’s what you were saving in the first game. Cheers!
The first game’s overworld was also something of an extreme, in terms of free-roaming. Only two overworld screens out of 128 couldn’t be accessed from the start, so it may seem unfair to compare that to Zelda II. However, most modern Zelda games have you at least backtrack to previous locations at some point. Think to yourself about this: How often in Zelda II did you backtrack to an old area late in the game, for a reason besides a Game Over? Whenever you reach a new area, you can generally finish up everything you need to do there at once, then move on. You will never need to, say, return to Saria after obtaining the Thunder Spell from Kasuto. This doesn’t mean Zelda II was wrong to close off certain areas until you had the right tools. In fact, Link’s Awakening used the same concept to much greater effect. The problem with Zelda II is simply that you don’t have any reason to backtrack, except to go and talk to Error before attempting the third palace. Even then, if you know what to do, there’s no real point.
Most of the time, the only reason you will ever even pass by, say, Rauru town, is because the game kicks you back to the North Palace after every Game Over. The one exception to this is the Grand Palace, presumably as an act of mercy due to its sheer difficulty. (The Famicom Disk System version is not so kind.) This is pretty rad of the game to do, and in a way, makes the game seem aware of just how big a deal the final dungeon is, but shouldn’t the game have done this with all of the palaces? That’s how it was in the first game, after all. Is it really necessary to punish the player by making them walk all the way back to the same palace, break the same rock, get attacked on the road as a result, and then finally walk all the way across Nabooru field just for another shot at Gooma, not to mention the kind of pain if you die in the Valley of Death without making it to the final dungeon?
Speaking of which, I remember there being some old rumor that if you push on the walls in the valley, you can find a secret spot where you can walk through the mountain tiles, fall in a cave somewhere, and Impa will appear to give you the Red Ring. I never believed it though, because, among other things, Impa was apparently the same sprite as the old man who guards the Triforce of Courage at the end of the adventure. It makes me wonder how much attention the rumor would have gotten if the said item was, say, a bow or boomerang? Why did Link even stop using those items after the first game? He learns a few offensive spells, but most of the time you’ll avoid using them because magic is too costly. I can understand spells like Thunder draining your bar, heck even Fairy has to be expensive if it’ll let you bypass locked doors and freakin’ fly, but why does it cost so much magic to replenish your health that you can only do it twice in a best-case scenario? Does the game expect you to collect hearts instead?
Let me clarify: In Zelda II, enemies sometimes drop items like a bag of experience points, or maybe a jar of magic, but never, ever, will they drop hearts. Ever. Now, assuming you’re not in the middle of a palace, you can go to town and get healed. If you’re lucky out on the field, you might even run into a random encounter with a fairy. If you’re not near either of these, then you’ll hope you either don’t need that magic you’re converting into health, or that you even have enough to cast the spell in the first place. Most of the time when enemies do drop magic jars, it won’t be enough to cast the spell. When your magic levels are maxed out, it will still take the equivalent of three blue jars to heal. From a JRPG standpoint it kind of makes sense, but those games also let you carry around items like healing potions and magic replenishing ether. Link doesn’t carry life potion here, and magic potion would still be a game away. This significantly shapes how players tackle the game’s dungeons, often requiring them to carefully ration what they have.
What’s funny is that the Life Spell is obtained just before you tackle Death Mountain, one of the game’s two huge gauntlets. In this sense, the spell seems tailor-made for this part of the game. (Oh yeah like you’re not going to learn it first?) It’s a confusing maze of caverns, eventually leading out to the first game’s overworld (see the image from earlier), where a vital tool can be found. Having that tool means you never need to go through that horrid gauntlet again, but was it really necessary to begin with? Death Mountain contains many extremely difficult enemies which, at this point in the game, you really have no choice but to run away from. What’s more, there’s no way to tell for sure where each cave will lead out to unless you make a map or pay close attention to the overhead view. Who knows: you might be making the trip even harder than you have to.
Now, despite everything, Zelda II is still definitely a good game. It is shaped by all of its elements into a very difficult one, perhaps more so than it needed to be. However, there is one thing about it that truly upsets me, and seems as if the developers did it on purpose just for a good laugh at the player’s expense: Link’s sword.
Link is essentially running around with a kitchen knife, stabbing enemies. This wouldn’t make much difference in a game where he runs around stabbing enemies like in the original, except he’s a much bigger target than in the first game, and his weapon’s range is pathetic. I mean, I can kinda understand that Link has grown up, therefore the magic sword and magic shield might seem a little smaller, but was this really necessary in-game? Would it make the game too easy for the blade to be a little longer? Especially considering again, this is Link’s only weapon. Thus, attempting to stab a tinsuit for the umpteenth time will inevitably lead to you screwing up the timing and getting hit. Better yet, how many times have you tried to get close enough to a Bit or Bot in order to stab them, only for them to suddenly jump on you? Why is this weapon’s range so short? Were the Sword Beams supposed to make up for it? When Link is at full health, is he supposed to be able to safely defeat enemies from a distance? If so, then this is one of the cruelest jokes in the whole game. Link’s Sword beams only travel about a third of the way across the screen, slowly, before popping like a soap bubble (complete with a little “pop” looking graphic to boot!) This is, of course, assuming it doesn’t hit ninety percent of the game’s enemies along the way, upon which it will also pop like a harmless soap bubble. Quite honestly, it wouldn’t really make any difference if soap bubbles were what your sword was shooting, which is a shame considering that your sword beams have a penetrating effect on what little evil they can harm, allowing you to hit multiple (weak) enemies in one shot. Once you’ve reached the swamp palace, shooting a beam from your sword only serves as an annoying indicator that “yes, you are now at full health”.
Most of these things really don’t bother me that much. Most of these elements have largely shaped the game into what it is today, and as someone who cosplays Link from this very game, I’m actually excited to see that younger generations are getting into it and look upon it in a positive light. However, if Nintendo ever made a game like this again, I don’t think it would be quite the same.