With the then masterpiece that was The Legend of Zelda, Nintendo owners (myself included) eagerly awaited the sequel. Things were different back then and no release dates were ever given, so games would just show up in stores and it was first come, first serve. This was most definitely the case with both Super Mario Bros. 2 and Zelda II: Adventure of Link in 1988, when both games dropped in the holiday season. The latter, however, didn’t peak its head out until December with hardly enough time for parents and even Nintendo’s Fun Club newsletter to prepare the rush of players eager to share another quest with Link. For better or worse, Zelda II was drastically different from the original, now incorporated more traditional RPG mechanics like leveling up and magic as well as being much more difficult. If you can stomach it, however, there’s a lot to appreciate with Adventure of Link.
In this quest, Gannon has cursed Zelda, rendering her into a deep sleep in Hyrule Castle. Much like the original you will traverse an expansive map, taking out dungeon after dungeon in your quest to remove this curse. What will initially strike you as different is that although the overworld map remains top down like the original, battles are more random encounters and small areas, neither of which are fought on this map. Upon entering an area or touching an enemy, perspective will shift to a side view and Link will fight the characters in a setting more common to the era. Whenever Link takes out an enemy he will receive experience points (xp) that allow him to level up various aspects of his character in either health, magic, or attack. These levels are permanent and at least in the US version, never reset on his journey (each game over in Japan will bring you back to Level 1). This is only one of many examples where Zelda II: Adventure of Link is much more like an action RPG in the vein of Faxanadu than its predecessor. Other examples include a cave just north of your starting position that is completely dark until you get the lantern later in the game, making it a dangerous and nearly impossible task right off the bat. You will also come to towns that have people you need to speak to in order to get through certain areas or various ways to find a wizard that grants you spells for each town as well. These are all more arbitrary gates that The Legend of Zelda never presented and can be seen as taxing, frustrating, and downright obstructions to progress in the game that had many players quitting early on. As if all this wasn’t tough enough, the translation was pretty rough as well so characters you needed to speak to, like Error, looked like glitches or secrets when you spoke to them instead of just a traditional person. We seriously had no idea what to make of the guy who simply said, “I am Error.” It was a departure and one most Zelda fans did not appreciate.
If you can get beyond the initial hitches, there’s a lot of game to like here. The enemies keep you on your toes and make sure your health and life count is a much larger commodity than it ever was in the first game. If you got a game over while in a dungeon, you would again return back to the beginning, only this time it was a much larger dungeon and much further walk to get back. While not a direct comparison, the draw of games like Dark Souls can become clear with you cherishing any shortcut or permanent progress (like getting items) that you make before getting a game over and losing almost everything. Even with shortcuts, leveling, and special items at your disposal, the trek to any given dungeon or area could mean certain death with the right (or wrong) spawns and conditions. I also must mention that a guide is necessary at this point because like the first game, you have no one on the playground and no Nintendo Power to consult when you want to traverse Death Mountain or find the right path through the lava to the final dungeon. Another point of contention is beyond all of that, even with a guide in hand, it’s still a brutal task to complete that final dungeon, defeat multiple bosses, and finally see the end of the game. Despite this title having a save feature, any attempt on that final dungeon will surely be 1-2 hours, all of which will be lost upon the game over screen. Until this point, the game is completely doable and you’ll get a decent and fun campaign out of the game, but this final gauntlet run has prevented many of the better NES players from putting it on their completed list. I myself struggled with the title for more than twenty years before eventually beating it on the 3DS in 2012 (and I’m happy to say again last December on an actual NES).
Regardless of its value, your wish to experience this title depends on one central debate: is this a true Legend of Zelda game? Of course in name and in Nintendo’s eyes the answer is yes, but many criticize the game for diverting from the formula that almost all other titles adhere to and is the draw for most fans. The pacing is slower, you get almost no weapons/items beyond your sword, all special abilities are with magic, and lets not forget the endless sea of invisible pits and walls in the game. Heck, without the green elf and the heart container you could easily swap the sprites and no one would consider this a Zelda title at all. That said, it’s also intriguing to experience only because it’s not like the others and doesn’t have a repeat of the formula. A lot of gamers have dropped the Zelda series or sought out these more unique iterations simply for the sake that they don’t all feel the same. It would help if this game was excellent for all other reasons but given the translation, the mechanics, and frankly unfair nature of some of your tasks it’s really hard to say this is anything more than a decent title for the time. It surely doesn’t have the draw that I initially experienced in the original, however I do enjoy it above most other NES games nonetheless. If you want to revisit it today, best set aside a decent chunk of time, get a guide, and build up some patience. If you do, though, you will be rewarded with a game that makes you feel amazing upon completion and you’ll also get to see the first game to feature Dark Link. Zelda II: Adventure of Link is not only a departure, but a testament to the fact that Nintendo was willing to take risks with its franchises. If only that had paid off so future iterations didn’t have to basically re-invent the wheel moving forward.
Final Score: 3 out of 5 (review policy)
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