Beyond the big jump that leads to the world beyond Link’s starting area, you’ll find another self-contained region housing another of the game’s palace dungeons. This area is largely submerged by swamps and overgrown by forests; the former are annoying to traverse as Link moves at half-speed on an overworld swamp tile, while random battles take place in water to his waist which likewise keeps him from moving at a normal clip. Thankfully, unlike a lot of hateful 8-bit games, swamp tiles aren’t innately poisonous or anything, so you can proceed directly to the palace if you want.
However, you don’t have to. The dungeon contains, as with Parapa Palace before it, both an essential tool for game progression and the requisite crystal for unlocking the Great Palace, but you don’t need either of these to advance to the next area of business to the south. Instead, the key to forward movement lies in the Water Town of Saria, where a retracting bridge connects the town on the north shore to the south side of the river that cuts through it. The guard controlling the bridge refuses to let Link cross as he’s not a resident of the town.
Here we have opaque 8-bit design in action for the first time in Zelda II, and as such the first real sticking point for anyone without a guide. The guard’s statement might lead one to surmise that they need help from someone in town to unlock the bridge, but no one in Saria seems to offer much help. You have the standard ladies patrolling their front doorsteps — the pretty lady who refills Link’s health, the old crone who restores his magic, and the side-quest lady who in this case complains that her mirror is missing — but no one else has anything of value to say.
On the contrary, the one other piece of unique information in Saria comes from the weaselly looking dude at the entrance, who warns that the eyes of Ganon are everywhere. Turns out this isn’t just some kind of Lord of the Rings reference; most (if not all) the wandering NPCs in Saria transform into bats and attack Link if you talk to them.
It’s a pretty clever way to convey a sense of danger to the player — the world beyond Zelda’s eternal slumber is hostile and dominated by Ganon’s influence from beyond the grave! — but the designers erred in introducing this element at the same time as giving players a misleading clue about needing help from someone in town. If you assume (sensibly enough) that you’re meant to get help from a Sarian, you’ll take plenty of abuse from transformed bats. You could even fall into the trap of thinking these bats somehow hold the key to extending the bridge.
As it turns out, none of that is the case. Rather, the trick to getting further into the game is simply to talk to a guy named Bagu who very decidedly does not live in Saria. He resides in the woods to the north, and mercifully doesn’t have any sort of fetch quest attached. You talk to him, he gives you a note, you take the note to the river man, you advance to the south.
Unfortunately, none of this is hinted at in game. No one gives any indication that you should be looking for Bagu, and he lives in a seemingly random patch of forest with no real indication of where to look. Well, that’s not completely true; the row of tiles one space south of Bagu includes several fixed encounter spaces where you are thrown into battle against some low-end monsters with a background of tree stumps rather than the usual forest setting. Presumably this is meant to denote the proximity of a lumberjack, but this implication doesn’t really click until after you meet Bagu; instead, it just seems like some inexplicable mystery in which the clearings are important in and of themselves.
Points to the game for trying to give clues and tell stories within the boundaries of normal play — a vital and valuable trait! — but in practice it proves too abstract to work the way it was intended here. As such, players won’t progress beyond Saria until they happen to stumble onto Bagu’s space… and the high-end encounters in the forests here are so annoying that most players will avoid wandering through the forest altogether. Oops. Good thing we had Nintendo Power, huh?
The other major feature of this area — the Swamp Palace — is decidedly less irritating. However, it is shockingly large and quite difficult. Zelda II doesn’t waste any time building up to challenging dungeons, and Swamp Palace makes the already sizable Parapa Palace look like a tarpaper shack. Enemy encounters are considerably more daunting, and you need to do a fair amount of backtracking to find the keys required to unlock the way forward. Most of the palace’s bulk appears behind a locked door to the west of the entrance on the top level, but you need to descend into the eastern portions of the maze to find the key forward.
Players face several threatening new enemies here. The gold Ironknuckles return along with their far more aggressive (and defensive) red counterparts. Red Ironknuckles prove to be some of the most frustrating enemies in all Zelda II thanks to their almost prescient ability to block your attacks while stabbing rapidly and quite independently of their shield, as well as doing their best to body-check you.
Still, the knights aren’t nearly as horrifying as the worst enemies in this dungeon: The severed horse heads that fly in a sine wave pattern like Castlevania‘s Medusa Heads. The nasty trick to the horse heads, however, is that they don’t simply slam you for a penalty to your health — they also drain experience points. Killing each head is worth 20 EXP, but if you let one touch you, you’ll lose 10 EXP. That’s a low blow straight out of tabletop RPGs, and it makes these guys absolutely terrifying — at least until you max your levels and experience no longer matters. But here, where you’re plinking most foes for 2-10 EXP and you’re starting to reach skill levels that require thousands of EXP for an upgrade, this sort of numeric drain is precisely what you don’t need to deal with.
Other notable enemies include the skull-emblazoned Bubbles, which appear in thicker numbers than in Parapa Palace and drain magic in addition to health, and upgraded Stalfoses which have added a leaping downward attack to their repertoire (a hint of things to come for the player). The Bubbles (as noted by Tomm Hulett in the comments) are worth a hefty amount of EXP and are pretty easy to kill despite their huge hit point totals since you can stun-lock them with basic stabs. On the down side, this also dungeon introduces wall-mounted statues that fire streams of projectiles at you. These things appeared in Zelda as well, but the form they take here is really frustrating since the stream is uninterrupted and getting past it without taking a hit or two proves to be incredibly difficult. Their bullets do little damage, but it’s cheap nevertheless.
The boss looks fairly different from the guy in Parapa, but he’s essentially the same. You jump and stab his head and try not to absorb his counter-blows. The one thing livening up this fight is that the first two times you stab him, his head goes flying off and floats at the top of the room firing projectiles. Yes, you knock his head off twice before you reveal his true face. I guess you can’t fault him for prudence, wearing two helmets into combat.
Meanwhile, the item for this dungeon — the Glove — allows you to smash certain types of block with your sword. You use this as a key to access the depths of the palace, but it doesn’t really play much of a role in the game for a while and doesn’t truly shine until you learn some advanced sword techniques. But still, it’s always awesome to beat up the scenery.