The Anatomy of Zelda II: XIV. In Conclusion


I won’t lie: Zelda II surprised me. Based on my vague memories of being stumped by its obscure clues and opaque design for weeks on end as a young teen, and given the fact that its successors have only connected with its design concepts on oblique tangents, along with its general deprecation among gamers… well, I expected my journey through the Adventure of Link to be an arduous chore.

In truth, I only took on this particular Anatomy of a Game project out of a sense of completeness. It wouldn’t do to write up the 2D Zeldas and skip over the second entry would it? And yet, while Zelda II has proven to be admittedly imperfect and in dire need of some modern-day refinement, as expected, on the whole it’s a devastatingly inventive and influential game. Despite the action-oriented combat, it’s a true role-playing game (albeit one with very limited character progression options) — the furthest any internally developed Nintendo game has ever ventured into that genre, if I’m not mistaken.

The concept of blending action and role-playing elements certainly didn’t originate here, and Zelda II bears more than a passing similarity to some of Falcom’s Dragon Slayer titles. However, as noted previously, Zelda II takes its role-playing mechanics a step beyond simply giving you magic spells to cast and enemies that barf up experience points upon defeat. Its entire world pivots around the concept of opening new paths and challenges upon the completion of small quests, giving players the freedom to roam a compact but densely constructed realm in search of their next objective. We take this for granted now, but remember that many of Zelda II‘s console contemporaries were still struggling to deal with the concept of arcade action that scrolled beyond a single screen.

As often happens with such radically progressive and ambitious games, Zelda II has some rough edges that need sanding. Players are expected to pixel-hunt in towns and tile-hunt on the overworld map; clues to progress can often be too opaque, or lacking altogether; enemy combat encounters rely too much on endlessly spawning nuisances and being forced to manage more (and more varied) foes than Link can properly deal with. The tools and spells you collect often offer extremely limited use and simply feel like an arbitrary checkpoint to real progress.

Still, it works. Not unlike Konami’s missteps with Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest, Nintendo may have bitten off a bit more than it could chew with this game’s design — though certainly not to the degree that Konami did — and many of its ideas wouldn’t be fully realized for another decade. The concept of magic appeared straightaway in the sequel, A Link to the Past, but it was heavily reworked to complement Link’s subweapons rather than replace them. Meanwhile, the emphasis on swordplay and one-on-one combat properly came into its own only after Zelda moved to the third dimension with Ocarina of Time and arguably achieved its peak with The Wind Waker‘s battle mechanics: As in Zelda II, The Wind Waker emphasized defense and evasion more than head-on stabbing.

In fact, while Ocarina of Time owes its quest structure to A Link to the Past, its moment-to-moment play and emphasis on townsfolk feel like Zelda II given a third dimension. Rather than pull the overhead camera of other 2D Zeldas down to ground level for Ocarina, Nintendo simply rotated Zelda II‘s camera 90 degrees around Link, pushing it from a side view to an over-the-shoulder view. It’s no coincidence that the Kokiri characters of Ocarina shared the name of town in this Adventure. Ocarina was a tribute to and a repudiation for The Adventure of Link, the point at which Shigeru Miyamoto and his collaborators finally had the tech and design experience to realize their mad 8-bit ambitions.

Zelda II is hard, no question — often unfairly so. There’s no shame in cheating the game with save states or GameShark codes to help smooth over the hair-pullingly difficult parts. Nor would anyone blame you for asking around for help — that’s what we all did, back in the day. Compensate for the failings of age and naïve design and what you have in Zelda II is a fine attempt to recast the nascent console role-playing genre into an action-oriented format more compatible with the expectations of the platform’s user base. This is essentially the direction the entire games industry has moved over the past five or six years through series like Mass Effect (an RPG becoming a shooter) and Call of Duty (a shooter becoming an RPG). Not only was Zelda II ahead of its time, in many ways it’s a much better RPG and action game than a lot of more recent takes on the concept.

It may be the black sheep of the Zelda family, but that just means it provides the most interesting wool.

18 thoughts on “The Anatomy of Zelda II: XIV. In Conclusion

  1. Thanks Jeremy, your anatomies of both Simon’s Quest and Adventure of Link articulated all those things I had been arguing for 25 years ago in staunch defense of two of my favorite games.

  2. Nice write up overall. I am a little biased as I like Zelda 2 the best, but having you point out how obtuse some of the puzzles are and how infuriating the combat can be was an eye opener. I beat this at around 10-11 years of age so I considered all the complaints to be just whining. When this Anatomy was started I fired up Z2 and took another look. The combat can be cheap oftentimes, and the puzzles… how in the world did I get anywhere in this game? I think I just had better focus, and talking to friends was a big help. Still my favorite, but I’m now willing to concede the fact that it is just really good with some brilliant parts instead of a missed masterpiece. Very enjoyable. Thank you.

  3. I have a hard time evaluating the more obtuse NES games because I always had Nintendo Power or a strategy guide at my side. I don’t know what it’s like to have to try to figure these games out. I suppose it’s bad game design for it to be unreasonably hard for the player to understand, but if you’re really into a hobby, why wouldn’t you be subscribing to a magazine?

  4. In light of these Zelda anatomies, there’s three things I’d rather like to say at the moment:

    1. The sages from Ocarina were named after the towns, not the kokiri.
    2. Lizard is one of Crimson’s best albums, you are clearly mistaken here!
    3. Great articles, enjoyed them a bunch! Keep it up, they make for wonderful reading :) Can’t wait for Link’s Awakening, a personal favourite of mine, definitely the best 2-d Zelda (it’s tied with Majora’s Mask for very best Zelda, though)

    1. Oh yeah, I guess they were the sages, not the kokiri. I got mixed up because of Saria, who was both.

  5. I’ve really enjoyed the Anatomy of a Game series overall but have especially liked having a thorough writeup done on Zelda II. This game was my first Zelda - I didn’t get around to playing the original until a few months after I’d beaten this one - and as such it’s always had special significance to me.

    I was never really exposed to critique of Zelda II until the last ten years or so and I was always surprised at how much people seemed to hate it. I’d always had a sense that it was quite flawed in areas but loved it regardless. To ten year old me at least, having owned an NES all of four months, this game felt incredibly epic and it blew my young mind. When I played through the original a few months later, I loved it, but it still didn’t feel like it matched the incredible feel of Zelda II’s vast world.

    Anyway, I guess that for a good while now I’ve felt like I’m in a very small minority for loving this game as I do. Your excellent critique shows me that there’s justification to that love and that I’m not just being overly-sentimental over an absolute piece of garbage (as many seem to treat it).

  6. Great summation of the game. I wish Nintendo would do another game like this; prior to Uprising’s announcement, I thought maybe Kid Icarus would be a good fit. Maybe it still would be, given Sakurai has no plans to make an Uprising sequel?

    And I agree with jcole459; the game was huge when I was a kid, but then it just seemed to receive nothing but hate in more recent years. I figured a lot of it comes from the Ocarina-come-latelys who never experienced Zelda before the N64, or just in general equate “old” with “bad.”

    Super Mario Bros. 2 gets an undeservedly bad rap sometimes, too.

    Like Chicago Frank said, this is a great articulation of defense for games I loved and still love- definitely something I’ll happily point to whenever someone tries to say these games suck.

    Can’t wait to see what’s next! =)

  7. I remember the first time I ran across the town of Rimuldar in DW/DQ1, I got total Zelda II vibes. It was already easy to see the latter’s RPG roots.

    Not sure how much comparison there is between combat in Zelda II and 3d Zelda. The vertical axis doesn’t really apply (except on a contextual basis). Then there’s the guided Z-targeting thing, which reduced the risk/skill variables on the whole.

    I do wonder whether members of Nintendo’s team had been checking out Falcom’s library at the time. Given both the then rapid evolution of game design and the assumption that not all of it was necessarily gleaned elsewhere in the industry, it’s hard to say.

    There’s definitely room for an improved remake/reprisal: more fluid mechanics (think Monster World IV); no more lives/insta-death from lava, only a life penalty as in subsequent Zeldas; fewer to no stabbity-stab enemies with zero openings (i. e. Blue Ironknuckles), better damage balancing, active items (think the unofficial Legend of Princess).

    Great writeup.

    P. S. IIRC the free life in the final palace regenerates when you get a Game Over.

    P. P. S. Likewise, I only remember Thunderbird respawning if you got a Game Over.

  8. @Seb: Link’s Awakening is still my favorite in the series. In a series of giants, it’s only mildly ironic that my personal best comes on the system that is technically the weakest.

    @LBD “Nytetrayn”: Glad I’m not the only one who still likes the game, either. I do think there was something of a lambasting of the original after A Link to the Past, because then people had that as a “proper” Zelda in mind. And as strongly as it executed the formula, I suppose I can understand it a little. But only a little, because if there were anything but the name of Zelda on the game, it would still stand tall amongst its NES peers.

    Also, Super Mario Bros. 2 is still one of my favorites in the series. In many ways, it still is my favorite. I hated Mario 3 for a long time, but mostly for the effect it seemed to have on the rest of the NES market, with all my friends worshipping at the altar of the game to the detriment of pretty much everything else. It’s obviously a great game, though.

  9. Excuse me, not “original”, but the second game. That Zelda II thing we keep talking about. Sheesh. I should proofread better.

  10. Sarge: Super Mario Bros. 2 is one of my favorites, and that love only grows with time as they stick to the “norm” in further titles. I still love those, but…

    cartman414: I think Skyward Sword is a more apt comparison as an evolution of Zelda II, personally, given the need to not only block and strike effectively, but knowing where to strike and from which direction.

  11. @LBD: Really, eh? I haven’t played SS yet. I can see how it would apply with the WiiMotionPlus usage. Not that motion control is everyone’s bag of tea…

    Still though, it’s a different application from the side-view method, where high and low blocks and strikes apply.

    Agreed on the SMB2 love. Now that they’re finally doing a New top-down LoZ, I want the same treatment for the two black sheep. Being the most offbeat has the advantage of the most fertile ground to be harvested anew.

    Not sure if I mentioned already, but one thing Nintendo did right with Link’s attack was a near zero lag, which sort of made up for Link’s sword being the length of a butterknife. (Link’s Awakening and subsequent top down games had the best of both worlds: a sword swing with great range and zero lag. Here’s hoping New Zelda follows suit.)

  12. cartman414: True, but at the same time, neither is Zelda II. But yeah, you’ve got it: Instead of just up and down, there’s left and right, too, though there’s no longer any real jumping involved.

    And the Skyward Strikes actually do something, unlike the extremely impotent Magical Sword beams. What would I give to have full-powered beams like in the first game again…

    On a new SMB2, I’d love one that looked like NSMB… but I would also love to see “Plucking Power” applied to a 3D Mario game, too. A 3D SMB2… be still, my heart.

  13. Well, naturally. Zelda 2 was a case of genre shift, though. I’m more talking control methods. Motion control and stylus/touch rubbed some people the wrong way with respect to playing the series on the Wii and DS, respectively.

  14. One invention you didn’t mention though:

    The fact that in the last three or four dungeons there are large parts you don’t have to explore at all, they are just there to confuse you. This seems like a very realistic construction to me, but it means that you are really f*cked without a map. I cannot remember having seen it anywhere before or since (though I must admit, I’m not sure if I really miss it…)

    And no mention of the music? It is brilliant.

  15. This was another excellent series of articles I followed with utmost interest.
    In regard to Zelda II´s difficulty both in the combat and the opacity of the puzzles, all I can say is that when I was 12 years old I rented this game for a week, and finished it with no problem whatsoever…. I had no Nintendo Power or any gaming literature to guide me, they were nonexistent in my country, and nobody else liked this type of game for the added language barrier, so I had no one to share tips with for me . But it wasn´t needed. Finding the man with the letter, the town hidden in the woods, the magic vial in the middle of the sea, everything flowed naturally back then, with no frustration that I can recall…. But get this, I owned Castlevania II, loved its atmosphere and all about it, but I got it for months without being able to progress beyond the first mansion. It was a miracle that somebody at my school had a cousin living in the USA and in a vacation got to ask him if he knew what to do. Crouching for ten seconds with the blue crystal will make the water go down? THAT was something I would NEVER had figured by myself! Nothing of this sort happened with Zelda II, which is a testament of Nintendo´s much more sound and sensible game design compared to Konami´s genre defying offering. But still I never liked Zelda II as much as Castlevania II… Go figure.
    Anyway, thanks for the great read, Jeremy! Will be in the lookout for the next Anatomy of a Game you decide to undertake!

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