Those used to the brutal difficulty found in many titles of the NES era may be able to see through the frustration and catch a glimpse of value in Link’s second quest; everyone else, though, will likely be tremendously disappointed by what they find
An oddity. That is, in hindsight, the kindest of the labels that is usually attributed to Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, and it is easy to see why. Although it borrows much of the progression and general structure from its predecessor, two assets that would become constants throughout the development of the franchise, The Adventure of Link chooses to carve its own path when it comes to pretty much all other fronts. For a sequel to a game that achieved a great deal of success and recognition, it is – in a way – pleasant to see that, rather than resting on previous laurels, the developers at Nintendo chose to build a quest that is shockingly different from the one that came before it, especially when it is clear that given the novelty found in the open-world nature of The Legend of Zelda, more of the same would have certainly sufficed. Yet, even if one has to admire the shots the title takes, while going through Link’s second journey towards the salvation of Hyrule it is hard not to feel that the shaky fame that precedes and follows this often relegated installment is fair, and that an oddity is indeed the best and most accurate way to qualify it.
With that being said, The Adventure of Link is not utterly devoid of enjoyment; in fact, gamers with considerable loads of perseverance and patience – namely, those who had thick gaming shells forged amidst the omnipresent brutality of gaming’s initial era – can sink their teeth into the gigantic challenge it presents with a smile on their faces. But, for the most part, the new pieces that this second NES outing brings to the table do not amount to an enjoyable experience; not only do they fail to gel with the exploration focus of the original The Legend of Zelda, but they also corrode some of its greatest qualities. And nowhere is that more evidenced than in the fact that Zelda II stands, within the franchise, blatantly isolated, because the experiments it conducts yield results so inferior to those achieved in its prequel that when it was time to move forward with the property they were judged to be better left behind at their point of origin.
The weirdness of The Adventure of Link is set in motion shortly after the events of The Legend of Zelda. Although the kingdom was freed from Ganon, many of his followers remained, keeping alive the hope of reviving the demon. As Link’s 16th birthday approaches, the mark of the Triforce appears on his hand. When showing it to Impa, Princess Zelda’s bodyguard, she takes him to a secret room in the North Palace, where the first Princess Zelda – born hundreds of years in the past – lies in an eternal slumber. The effect of a spell put on her by a greedy magician who longed to acquire the Triforce, her sleep is, according to prophecy, set to be broken by the gathering of all three pieces of the artifact: Wisdom, which was brought together during The Legend of Zelda; Power, which was recovered from Ganon’s clutches after his defeat; and Courage, which is hidden in Hyrule in wait for the arrival of the chosen one. Believing the mark on Link’s hand to be a sing of the coming of such figure, Impa sends him forth on a journey that will wake Zelda and give the hero the strength to banish Ganon’s army for good.
Lying in the arms of the Valley of Death, The Great Palace is the resting place of that final piece; however, before gaining entrance to it, Link must prove his value by clearing another six dungeons and beating the guardians within them. As such, the general shape of The Adventure of Link is, aside from the fixed order in which one must tackle its mazes, not notably different from that of The Legend of Zelda. Hyrule is a big and relatively open overworld waiting to be explored, and players need to scour it looking for the palaces that serve as the game’s mazes as well as for the clues indicating how to get to them and the items that allow the hero to reach their doorstep. Once inside those buildings, the game shifts its mode from exploration to the figuring out of the daunting labyrinths, which are packed with branching paths, menacing enemies, and traps. And that is almost the totality of the similarities between The Legend of Zelda and The Adventure of Link.
The first prominent area where Zelda II sets itself apart not just from its prequel but also from all other installments in the saga is in how most of its action takes place from a sidescrolling perspective. Arguably, it is the game’s defining trait, and it does have good ramifications. Whenever Link enters a cave, a town, a dungeon, stumbles upon a square on the map that hides a secret, or engages in battles, players are automatically transported to a screen far more reminiscent of a platformer than of a The Legend of Zelda quest. What is interesting about it is that such a view opens the way to a vast array of new gameplay elements. Platforming obstacles such as pits, walls, and traps that need to be jumped over come into play. Consequently, these work towards making dungeons more varied, as they are no longer just sequences of combat-focused rooms, while supporting the introduction of fresh segments, like bridges that need to be crossed to get to towns and caves that have to be traversed to reach new portions of the overworld. Additionally, they make combat more engaging, as enemies – of which Zelda II has quite a few types – can use the vertical dimension to jump, float around, defend themselves, and launch attacks at different heights; therefore challenging gamers in new ways that the camera angle of the original was unable to bring forth, as they have to master different sword thrusts and the usage of the shield, which becomes quite vital.
Although positive in the way they have gained complexity due to the new perspective, the overall result of the combats is – unfortunately – quite negative. And that is because of the way they are triggered. Link explores Hyrule from a top-down view that differs from that of The Legend of Zelda due to how the scenario and the hero itself are considerably scaled down. As he does so, for about every five steps takes, he will be swarmed by three enemy sprites (in rare occasions, one or two of those will be replaced with health-regenerating fairies). Even if it is technically possible to try to escape them, the random nature of their movement turns the success of that task into a matter of sheer luck. And if Link touches any of the sprites, he will be automatically taken to a sidescrolling battlefield.
There are two core problems with combats, and they come together into a symbiosis that produces unbelievable amounts of frustration. Firstly, there is their frequency. Going out into the overworld means stumbling upon at least half a dozen battles even if one is taking a short trip, and since figuring out where to go and what to do entails a whole lot of walking, players will have to live with being interrupted every three seconds by bad guys they probably wish they could avoid. That issue is augmented by how battles, like pretty much everything else about The Adventure of Link, can be overly difficult. Even if sometimes players may be lucky enough to be placed by the edge of the screen, as such being able to easily escape the skirmish, many times they will be launched right in the middle of it, being forced to either face Ganon’s vicious army or try to pull off a miraculous escape. And given health-regenerating drops are non-existent, as energy can only be recovered in towns or via a costly spell, the usually very damaging hits of foes can quickly amount to a death. As a consequence, combats act against the heart of the game: its exploration. Rather than being a satisfying, engaging, and decently challenging aspect of the quest, walking through Hyrule is mostly a stressful nightmare.
Intimately related to the combat, another significant unique quirk of The Adventure of Link is its level system. Killing monsters or finding point bags that are tucked away either in hidden sidescrolling action scenes found in certain squares of the map or in notable locations will give Link experience points that can, in turn, be converted into an extra level of attack, life, or magic. Each stat can be upgraded seven times, and considering the brutal challenge presented by the adventure, maxing them out by the end of the game is almost mandatory to complete it, an achievement that – in most cases – can only be fulfilled via some grinding, which will certainly annoy some players. Furthermore, like in numerous other installments of the franchise, one can also make Link stronger by collecting a few heart pieces and magic meter expansions that range from being easy to find to, sadly, being nearly impossible to locate without a guide.
Both in the level system and in its sidescrolling view, The Adventure of Link presents changes that even if not entirely successful do add intriguing new flavor to series. The same, however, cannot be said for how it tackles the character’s arsenal; a feature that is always a highlight on all The Legend of Zelda titles, but that, here, falters. All dungeons include an item that, after being collected, allows Link to advance further into the game, such as a hammer that breaks rocks, a raft for crossing the sea, and a flute that drives road-blocking demons away. The problem is that many of them are only used in the overworld. Due to that, when it comes to the action segments, the hero is left without nice signature weapons such as the boomerang, bow, bombs, and the magic rod. In addition, tools that could have been used in the building of puzzles are thrown away. Truthfully, The Adventure of Link does try to counter that with the implementation of spells, which are magic-consuming techniques that were clearly meant to replace Link’s traditional arsenal. Unfortunately, besides not being as interesting as the equipment that was available on the original, spells are related to a number of issues.
Firstly, since getting pretty much all of them is mandatory if one is to clear the game, it is maddening how hard it is to find them. Generally lying somewhere in Hyrule’s many villages, they can only be acquired through solving a problem presented by one of the citizens, such as rescuing a kidnapped child from monsters in a nearby cave. The issue here is that the clues given by the villagers are too cryptic, an annoyance that continues a trend of the prequel and that also affects other tasks players must do in order to proceed. Sure, having all characters Link must talk to in towns that are clearly visible rather than in hidden places, as it was the case in The Legend of Zelda, is a step up, but what they say remains rather unhelpful. Secondly, as spells consume magic (sometimes a whole lot of it) and are also the main way to recover Link’s health, it is maddening how it is not uncommon to reach locations, enemies, or bosses that can only be overcome with the use of some of them only to find out the character needs more magic, especially because the potions that restore it – dropped by a specific kind of enemy or statues – are not exactly abundant.
Those, however, are not the only issues that plague The Adventure of Link, as design oversights or frustrating traits abound. Dungeons, for example, have no maps, which makes traveling through them often disorienting, a problem that is augmented because the console’s limitations make all rooms seem similar. And if that was not bad enough, many of the sidescrolling segments (whether inside the mazes or outside them) seem to have been engineered to cause anger rather than to challenge in fair ways, because many times it feels like it is impossible to escape some of them without leaving behind a large slice of one’s health and mental sanity. Consequently, whatever efforts made by Zelda II to get rid of the sometimes ridiculously obscure puzzles of the original – of which the game still carries a couple – is completely dynamited by its cruel level design.
And, in a way, cruelty permeates most of The Adventure of Link. It is found in how its random battles make exploration a chore; in how it is tough to restore magic and health; in how its enemies and bosses are more often than not absurdly powerful and hard to bring down; in how its platforming challenges are designed for murder; and in how acquiring assets that are necessary for its completion requires patience, luck, and some mind-reading abilities that break through television screens and enter the brain of NPCs. It is all topped off by a life system of rather questionable implementation, as even if it is nice that, when losing a life, Link is returned – with full health and magic – to the room where such death happened, it is maddening how running out of lives means being kicked to the North Palace where the quest started, forcing players to walk all the way back – through devilish enemies and hair-puling sidescrolling segments – to where they were. And to make matters worse, extra lives can only be acquired either via a limited collectible, of which there are just six, or by gathering an obscene amount of experience points to level up a maxed out stat.
The Adventure of Link is a game with some good intentions, as it actively tries to correct some of the faults of its predecessor while attempting to – and to a point succeeding in – taking the franchise to grounds that considerably expand its gameplay. It is, however, a pretty big shame that its heart is so thoroughly corroded by a myriad of design problems that at times act against the joy of exploration that is such an integral part of the series and that, in other occasions, make frustration emerge from every single corner. Those used to the brutal difficulty featured in many titles of the NES era may be able to see through the fog and catch a glimpse of value in Link’s second quest. Everyone else, though, will be tremendously disappointed by what they find. And given Nintendo itself has opted not to revisit some of the good ideas carried by the game, which in turn transformed it into a major oddity within the saga, following suit and staying away from it might indeed be the wisest choice.