Welcome to the beginning of the latest chapter of Anatomy of a Game. You can read more musings on The Legend of Zelda‘s design at the Anatomy of a Game landing page, and thoughts on the NES Castlevania trilogy are also available for digestion both online and in a self-published book.
And now, let’s dissect The Adventure of Link.
In designing The Legend of Zelda, Nintendo’s tiny team drew upon a number of existing video game conventions and concepts to create something new and unique. While you could see the family resemblance to well-established computer game genres like adventure genre and RPGs, Shigeru Miyamoto and company framed those elements in a format that drew more upon the quick-reflex action of arcade games. Zelda had a handful of direct antecedents, most notably Atari’s Adventure, Exidy’s Venture, and Namco’s Tower of Druaga; yet Nintendo’s far more detailed work combined these games’ vaguely RPG-inspired trappings with the greater depth afforded by the relatively more powerful NES hardware and the persistent data (a largely new feature for console games) capabilities of the Famicom Disk System.
With Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, Nintendo came at the problem from a different direction. Ever restless, the design team wasn’t content to simply rehash Zelda‘s design and mechanics. Video games still existed in a primal soup, waiting for definition and evolution, and this particular team wasn’t content to simply iterate when so many other concepts begged exploration. Unlike Super Mario Bros. 2, Zelda II wasn’t simply a harder remix of the previous game’s elements; on the contrary, that would have been redundant, given the way they build that kind of “sequel” right into the disk as the Second Quest. Still, Zelda II seems to have been designed to answer a similar fundamental question to that of its predecessor: “How do we combine role-playing and action elements?”
Where the two works differed was the prism through which its elements were refracted. The first Zelda took staid PC-based genres and made them more console-like. Zelda II, however, tackled influences closer to home: Budding console game genres. Equal parts action platformer (e.g. Super Mario Bros.) and console RPG (e.g. Dragon Quest, the original of which launched in Japan mere months after Zelda and had become a phenomenon by the time Zelda II rolled around a year and a half later), Zelda II more boldly combined these influences with brisk run-and-jump action and RPG staples like experience points and magic spells.
For fans familiar with the original, Zelda II presented quite the shock. It opens with Link in side view, standing directly in front of the slumbering princess Zelda. Gone is the top-down perspective and four-directional combat. Instead, Link gets about in a fashion instantly familiar to Japanese console gamers of 1987; if they owned anything for NES, it was probably Super Mario Bros. Or maybe Spelunker.
The Zelda players see at the outset, as explained in the manual, happens to be the O.G. Zelda from centuries before, a woman cursed to sleep eternally. Link, tasked with finding the third portion of the mystical Triforce (unaccounted for in the first game), sets out not to save Hyrule but to awaken Zelda. Then again, saving Hyrule is unavoidably in the cards to a certain degree, as bad guys roam the land hoping to kill Link and use his blood to feed the ashes of Ganon and fuel his resurrection (a bizarrely grim premise for a Nintendo title) and thus his re-conquest of the land.
Like its predecessor, Zelda II begins without preamble save a brief story scroll on the title screen. The player begins with Link dead center in the screen in a “safe” place and sets off with him. Comparing these opening seconds, one can already see material differences between Zelda and its sequel. The opening screen of Zelda presented players with no less than four choices for advancement (west, north, east, cave), the latter of which beckoned players to explore the scenery and discover the concepts of entering the underground and collecting equipment.
Zelda II lets you go left or right. Neither choice makes any actual difference — the outcome is the same either way as you end up in the exact same spot from either exit — and you have no other options for action. Zelda dozing on the platform may inspire you to jump and hit the attack button in an attempt to interact, but it ultimately amounts to nothing: Zelda is simply scenery here. Nothing of significance happens on this screen.
But let’s not jump to hasty conclusions. The less meaningful design of Zelda II‘s first screen doesn’t mean it’s overly simplified from its predecessor or somehow frivolous and without merit. That opening screen serves multiple purposes: It sets the stage for the story to come, introducing your ultimate goal and the slightly unconventional-for-its-time plot construction (you’re out to save a princess, as in so many games, but not from a villain’s clutches), gives you a brief glimpse of the action mode of the game, and provides a jumping-off point for the journey.
Once you step outside that first screen’s boundaries — and this time the game’s environments scroll rather than appearing as static screen-by-screen steps — you get a better sense of how greatly Zelda II has changed from the last adventure. The original Zelda‘s top-down action RPG mechanics appear to have been dropped into a centrifuge and spun out into their individual components, separating the experience into a pure action portion and an action-free exploration portion. The overworld now consists not of dozens of screens of action identical to the dungeon experience save the overall sense of openness and free-roaming but rather a zoomed-out view extremely similar to that of Dragon Quest. Link eventually gains a handful of abilities he can use here on the overworld, but those are limited and essential serve as keys to open paths forward. This viewpoint is strictly for traversal — for getting from point A to B. The meat of the game takes place in the side-scrolling sequences.
Link even faces random encounters on the overworld, just like Dragon Quest. Well, semi-random: In a feature more reminiscent of Ultima, monsters do appear as you explore, but contact with them doesn’t represent combat in and of itself. Instead, it sends you into a combat arena that plays out via the player’s core actions — in this case, attacking and jumping rather than Ultima‘s turn-based tactics. You can even get a sense of the enemies you’ll face based on the icon you contact. Weak enemies appear as Gels (in the U.S. version, anyway; they looked for all the world like little sperm cells in Japan) while tougher foes looks like Moblins. The exact mix of enemies that appear in a combat sequence vary based on your location within the world and the nature of the land in which you enter combat with them (forests present different combat scenarios than deserts or plains, for example).
Dungeons, towns, obstacles, and other points of interest appear on the overworld as Link-sized icons beckoning for exploration — not unlike the caves and ruins of the original Zelda. The two games ultimately share a common spirit of exploration and conquest through battle, but they present it in greatly different ways. Its next few sequels would go back to the original top-down format, but that doesn’t mean Zelda II‘s style and concepts lack merit. On the contrary, much of its design would go on to inform the 3D games beginning with Ocarina of Time. Much like Simon’s Quest, Zelda II feels like something of an aberration; yet, in context, it simply shows the designers getting ahead of themselves, and ahead of what tech and game design of the time could handle. This may be the black sheep of the family, but it’s an important part of the Zelda lineage despite its flaws.