You know what I miss about games of late? That sense of finality, of crossing some threshold of no return. Say what you will about the ending of Mass Effect 3, but for me its most disappointing aspect was that it lacked a sense of trepidation. You hit a certain point after which you had no choice but to march in a line straight ahead so the designers could tell their story. A forced march can be stressful, but it lacks that certain stomach-churning sense of player agency — it’s “Well, here’s the end,” as opposed to, “Oh god, am I ready to do this?”
Zelda II has that tension; indeed, it drips with it. Once you plunge into the lava shaft, you’ve arrived at the end of the game. Yet you still have some freedom of choice, some personal discretion about when to initiate the final battle. The question is, when will you work up the courage to face it? The ultimate showdown waits to your right, but you can instead go left into a room of stone matrices where the bricks contain a lottery: Will they drop a couple of full magic refills to top you off for the final battle, or will they instead generate Red Fokkas to put you into an even worse state than when you arrived?
I like the uncertainty of this situation, the way the designers give you fairly even odds of things going horribly wrong here at the very end. It forces you to take a chance. Then again, I can also see where you can make a case for it being an instance of hostile design. The Great Palace is so daunting, so huge, so wearing on your resources, fraught with so many perils that can bring a strong run to an unceremonious end, that attempting to top off your magic in order to have sufficient MP to use a costly, mandatory spell against the boss only to get a face full of deadly monster seems rather unsporting.
Zelda II is a game about hard choices, particularly in the final Palace. For example, there’s a 1UP hidden along the shorter route to the final showdown. But you can only collect a 1UP once ever, and then it’s gone for all subsequent attempts. Once you take the 1UP, you’ve used your one shot to battle through the Great Palace with an extra chance unless you reset your NES… but if you do that, you have to fight your way back to the Palace again. Zelda II offers stakes. It demands commitment to your choices.
And that holds true for the final battle itself. The fight takes place across two phases, the mysterious Thunderbird and Link’s vicious Shadow. You can duck out between the phases and possibly undertake the magic refill lottery if you like, but you have to complete both phases in a single life. If you die against the second form, you have to take on the first one again — despite the fact that they appear to be two separate and distinct entities.
So, the question becomes how much magic to invest into your fight against the Thunderbird. You can take a chance afterwards that you’ll get a refill rather than a fatal Fokka stab, but there are no guarantees. The Thunderbird is invulnerable until you use the Thunder spell, which burns half your magic meter if you’re at Magic level 8 and have found all four Magic Containers. You really need to cast Jump to be able to reach the small, vulnerable gem above its face, Shield to dull the potency of its spew of flames, and Reflect the block as many flame projectiles as possible. If you choose any one of these support spells, you’ll no longer have sufficient magic to cast Life if you take a beating. If you cast all three, you won’t have any magic left over at all against the Shadow.
So what do you do? Despite being a brief, sudden encounter, the Thunderbird demands considerable planning… and even then, a single unlucky misstep could undermine your entire strategy, because this portion of Zelda II requires deft twitch skill above all.
The Thunderbird appears without preamble from the right side of the screen and drifts back and forth above you. Its chamber contains a raised platform in the center, which is Link’s ideal launching point for attacks: The only vulnerable point on the entirety of the boss’ body is its gem, which hovers at the top of the screen and only rarely dips low enough to be reached without the Jump spell (and no, the upward thrust does nothing). Further complicating this situation is the fact that the Thunderbird launches its attacks — a fountain of fireballs — from a point a few pixels above the gem. To strike its weakness, you need to jump headlong into the most dangerous point on the screen, which is moving constantly along two axes. And the more damage Thunderbird takes, the more quickly it sprays fire.
Should you manage to triumph (it’s a battle won by conservative play and well-timed jumps), it explodes and allows you to advance to collect the final Triforce. But before you can claim it, a small creature (or possibly a wizened old man drawn in the Rumiko Takahashi style; he looks for all the world like the guy who gives you a sword and other aid in the original Zelda, but smaller and with pointier ears) casts a spell and causes Link’s shadow to separate from his body and spring to life.
Link’s Shadow here makes for a much different sort of battle than in subsequent games. Unlike, say, Ocarina of Time‘s cinematic showcase encounter, the showdown in Zelda II is short, brutish, and nasty. Link’s Shadow has, ounce for ounce, exactly the same physical capabilities as the hero himself. And while he uses no special techniques and has access to no powers Link himself lacks besides the ability to inflict damage with a touch and a backward defensive leap, his standard tactic (going for the jugular with a frontal sword assault) absolutely does the trick. It’s an incredibly difficult battle.
Amusingly, the best defense against Link’s Shadow is to retaliate in kind and go hog wild. With the Shield spell active, chances are good that an offensive strategy will give you just enough of a defensive advantage to outpace the shadow in a pure toe-to-toe battle. Of course, that assumes you make it through the Thunderbird battle with enough magic and health to hold up — or that you get lucky with the magic jug spawn in the room to the left.
With the battle won, Link acquires the third Triforce and uses its power to raise the sleeping Princess Zelda. This raises further questions, of course: What happens to the Triforces once they’re all united for the first time in millennia? Isn’t bringing that power together again kind of dangerous? And what happens now that Hyrule has a superfluous princess, both the modern-day one Link saved the first time and the sleeping one who just rose after countless years of slumber? We demand answers, Nintendo.
From here, players can launch into a Second Quest, which interestingly enough is much easier than the first playthrough since you retain most of your abilities. Where the original Zelda‘s Second Quest completely reshuffled the world and dungeon layouts, Zelda II keeps everything the same but gives you more tools with which to conquer it from the outset. In effect, it’s a New Game + mode, long before we had a term for such things.