With the Hammer in hand, the road to the third palace is anything but straightforward. On the other hand, neither is it overwhelming. The Hammer effectively makes you lord and master of the western half of Zelda II‘s overworld; you can travel anywhere you like on the western continent with ease. However, reaching the next main quest objective is not as simple as strolling over to the palace, which it turns out sits isolated on an island south of Mido.
A helpful resident clues you into the importance of the Kings Tomb located in the center of the graveyard (which, if scale is to be believed, covers approximately the same real estate as the entirety of The Legend of Zelda‘s overworld; that’s a lot of dead people): It contains no intrinsic value but simply exists to point the way to a tunnel connecting the palace’s island to the mainland. But should you drop into the tunnel straight away, you’ll find that the way ahead is blocked by another cave wall, this one too high even for the Jump spell.
So, you’re left to explore, but hardly in an aimless way. Having covered almost the entirety of the western continent, the game holds very few unturned stones (and the designers weren’t cruel enough to make you backtrack through every dungeon and cave you’ve already completed — conquered dungeons collapse and can no longer even be entered again). By simple process of elimination, only a few boulder-blocked caves remain to be explored; and indeed, your solution sits in a cave not far from the tunnel to Ruto. Inside you’ll inexplicably find a vial of medicine, which you can then deliver to Mido’s purple-clad permanent resident. By now the game has established a certain rhythm and a set of reliable patterns, and a purple woman who patrols the door of a house while lamenting something she desperately needs invariably means that fulfilling her request will give you access to a sage and thus a new magic spell. Even if the side quest objective in this case defies explanation, it’s not too hard to figure out the path forward by simply paying attention to trends.
This latest spell, Fairy, might be the strangest in the game: It literally transforms Link into a fairy, allowing him to fly (and thus reach that high ledge in the tunnel to the palace) as well as slip through keyholes — a handy shortcut in palaces if you happen to miss a key and don’t feel like backtracking. Although backtracking means experience points, which is essential to powering up Link, so there’s no real downside to it.
This screenshot (courtesy as ever of VG Museum) confuses me, though. The Ironknuckle guarding the third palace’s treasure is actually a blue Ironknuckle, another sign of the constantly escalating difficulty present in Zelda II. Orange Ironknuckles are too tough, and by now you should have powered up your attack rating a few times so the red Ironknuckles don’t pose much threat, either. But those blue guys are bastards: Not only are they fast, sometimes attacking 10 times in rapid succession, they also fling sword beams exactly like Link’s. So you have to be on your guard constantly and can’t safely back off to give yourself some space — and amidst all that, you still have to land a number of hits through their defenses. I cannot state how much I hate those guys.
And yet, this is simply the midpoint of the adventure. It gets worse.
Despite the harsh challenge level of the game, though, it definitely rewards skill and cautious play. Aside from the Bagu thing, I haven’t seen a single moment that I would characterize as unfair or unbalanced so far. If memory serves that will change on the back nine of the quest, but to date it’s holding up to scrutiny far better than I expected.
This palace’s boss takes the form of another blue Ironknuckle, this one mounted on horseback. This represents a sort of meat gate to progress: If you haven’t acquired the downward thrust skill from Mido, you can’t win. The only way to dismount the Ironknuckle is to attack from above as he jousts past; once you take his steed down to critical health, he takes to foot and the balance of the battle plays out as a standard encounter with the blue Ironknuckle.
He’s actually not the first place in this palace in which you need the downward thrust skill; several of the keys are buried beneath blocks and have to be reached by digging through the stone. However, thanks to the fairy skill, you can bypass the corresponding locks if you really feel like it. At this point, however, you cannot possibly proceed any further without your swordsmanship upgrade.
OK, so I’m lying. As long as you collect the raft you can go wherever you like, setting sail to eastern lands from the dock near Mido. Of course, you’ll be woefully unprepared for what lies ahead, but Zelda II doesn’t judge. Skip your mission-critical tasks, it says. Blow off your vital skill improvements if you wish. Thumb ahead to the last page if you must. Eventually, though, realize that you’ll face a grim reckoning for your haste.