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Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (NES) artwork

Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (NES) review


"One could almost say that the serious gaming world can be cleanly divided into two groups: those who love Zelda games and would be devastated if Nintendo were to make any large-scale renovations, and those who gave up on the series a long time ago because it refused to evolve. I fit pretty firmly into the former category; Zelda is my favorite video game franchise, and while the formula has been repeated endlessly, it’s a formula that almost always works and hasn’t gotten old. Then ..."



One could almost say that the serious gaming world can be cleanly divided into two groups: those who love Zelda games and would be devastated if Nintendo were to make any large-scale renovations, and those who gave up on the series a long time ago because it refused to evolve. I fit pretty firmly into the former category; Zelda is my favorite video game franchise, and while the formula has been repeated endlessly, it’s a formula that almost always works and hasn’t gotten old. Then again, Majora’s Mask is one of my favorite games in the series, and it reduced the dungeon count to a mere four in favor of a real-time clock that had Link interacting with NPCs in their day-to-day lives – who knew that could be fun?

What I mean to say is that I don’t hate Zelda II: The Adventure of Link just because it’s different, especially not considering the context of its release. This was only the second Zelda game, at which point the series formula hadn’t been securely grounded yet. If Nintendo were to pull a stunt like this today, I’d be far more skeptical, though I’m still not convinced that a Zelda-themed side-scrolling action platformer thing could not possibly be pulled off. I’m just saying that Zelda II doesn’t pull it off, and for the moment, that’s all that matters.

Except Zelda II is such a messy mishmash of genres that calling it a “side-scrolling action platformer thing” still seems too vague. Many of the basic fundamentals of its predecessor (the exploration and dungeon-crawling) are here, but the game has a newfound focus on combat and even incorporates some ill-conceived RPG elements, starting with the miniaturized overworld map and ending with an experience system that’s so out-of-place I can’t believe I’m mentioning it. Puzzle solving has been downplayed, presumably because of the limits presented by the game’s side-scrolling perspective, though I’ll note that most of the series’ dungeons really just felt like glorified mazes until Link’s Awakening came along and really got the gears spinning. But until the game’s final act (with such nightmarish excursions as the Great Palace), Zelda II has trouble even replicating THAT, and constantly forces the player to engage in the one area of the game that truly feels developed – the combat.

Note that I said “developed” and not “enjoyable.” Nintendo understands that the side-scrolling perspective gives you more options in combat and that’s great (you can crouch now), but we’re immediately met with two major problems. First of all, Link’s sword… I’m not even going to call it a sword. Link’s dagger gives the player so little range that you’ve almost got to be within hugging distance of an enemy before you can hope to land an attack, which is a problem because Link’s movement is so slippery that there’s a good chance you’ll slam face-first into your target before the little guy can even raise his weapon. I don’t know why so many developers insist on incorporating this control style into their games – you press down on the d-pad, and it takes a second for Link to speed up; then, when you let go, Link continues walking for a moment before coming to a stop. Remember Link’s hover boots in Ocarina of Time? Remember how, whenever you wore them, Link’s movement wouldn’t have any traction, and he’d constantly be sliding around as if he were running on a sheet of thick ice? That’s what Zelda II feels like all the time.

That’s the first thing you’ll learn in Zelda II. The second is that Link’s shield is not functionally reliable. Link allegedly holds his shield at all times, and will automatically block attacks if he isn’t swinging his sword, I'm sorry, his dagger. Link’s Awakening eventually had the idea to make the shield an equip-able item, and thus grant the player direct control over it; before then, we had this, where you’ll be too busy trying to hit your enemies to worry about whether the shield will or will not block incoming attacks. Some attacks can’t be blocked, either, and some attacks come from below, meaning Link must crouch to defend against them, which isn’t always an option thanks to the delay you’ll experience every time you swing your dagger.

I’d ignore my shield altogether, except some enemies are aware of how difficult it is to use the thing properly and are assholes about it. The ludicrously overpowered Iron Knuckle has a shield, too, and can predict (and thus defend against) most of your attacks. And it expects you to do the same – there’s a “tell” just before each of his sword swings that you can use to determine whether the attack will come from above or below, and guard accordingly. The problem is that he’s so good at predicting your attacks that you’ve basically got to hack away at him like a madman if you hope to do any damage whatsoever. It’s such a frantic strategy that there’s little time to worry about blocking his own attacks, and even when you do, Link’s sissy ass is probably still recovering from a swing, meaning you can’t duck, meaning an attack from below will hit you. Frankly, the best strategy against enemies like this is to keep knocking them back until you push them into an obstruction, and then jump over them.

So the game is difficult, and it is too difficult, an issue amplified by the fact that your dagger will occasionally pass right through enemies without registering, and yes, that happens. It’s made even worse by the obsolete (in this day and age) lives system, in which Zelda II gives the player three chances before sending him back to square one – no progress lost, but you’ve got to trek back to wherever you were, and all of the enemies have respawned. Most of the earlier dungeons can’t seem to find a way to make the side-scrolling perspective interesting, while the later dungeons are so enormous that it’s virtually impossible to so much as reach the bosses without dying, let alone kill them. Zelda II is light on platforming and I’m glad; I can only imagine how frustrating the game would have been otherwise.

If you get stuck – and you will get stuck, quite a lot – your only real fallback is the experience system, which, again, is so silly in concept that I hate being forced to rely on it. Defeating enemies awards Link points that can be spent on stat upgrades, boosting either his health, his attack power, or his magic meter. This works fine for a little while, until the experience costs for various upgrades become so high that there’s no way you’ll stay alive long enough, since – this is the killer – if you lose all three lives, you lose your experience, too. There are the semi-random enemy encounters in the overworld to consider, but they offer so little experience that the only way you’ll get anything out of them is to prepare for hours and hours of grinding – which, if you’re playing a Zelda game, you probably don’t want to do. It’s Zelda II’s ultimatum: either buckle to the experience system, or spend an eternity trying to kill the enemies that the game itself doesn’t want you to kill.

Go ahead. Tell me I suck. It won’t make Zelda II any less awful.

Rating: 3/10

Suskie's avatar
Community review by Suskie (May 03, 2009)

Mike Suskie is a freelance writer who has contributed to GamesRadar and has a blog. He can usually be found on Twitter at @MikeSuskie.

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randxian posted May 03, 2009:

Remember Link’s hover boots in Ocarina of Time? Remember how, whenever you wore them, Link’s movement wouldn’t have any traction, and he’d constantly be sliding around as if he were running on a sheet of thick ice? That’s what Zelda II feels like all the time.

I like how you include that comparison. Almost everyone has played OOT so this really helps illustrate your point to the average gamer. Good call here.

As much as I like this game, I do agree with your points. I think you could've also mentioned how the level cap is ridiculously low. Eight levels is not enough for the last two palaces.

But somehow, with plenty of practice, this game can be finished. I think what helps is using the first palace to bump all your levels to around 4, that way you have a good, running start. Yeah, this involves grinding, but the enemies in the first palace are relatively easy and grant a generous amount of exp.

Another trick is to make sure you next level will raise attack right before beating a boss, since crystalizing each palace automatically grants you the next level up available.

I thought like you at first, but now I enjoy this game. I think this game is an acquired taste.
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zippdementia posted May 03, 2009:

I also enjoy this game quite a lot, though I can't refute any of your main points, which seem to be "leveling sucks; the game is too hard." I will agree that the leveling system, with exp resetting, was a little bogus, because saving became irritatingly difficult, and I'll also agree that the game (esp the last dungeon) was fuck hard. The last dungeon is huge! However, I don't see this differing that much from any of this era's games. Metroid is also fuck hard and has a lengthy and annoying password system. Zelda 1 is damn hard with a huge last dungeon and a save system that kills all your hearts (grrrrr).

So in MY conclusion, I think you did a good job reviewing this, but to bash Zelda II for the things you choose is sort've like going to a horse race and complaining that there's horses. I was hoping to see some hitherto undiscovered evil that the game had performed. Because going to a Suskie review is like going to a horse race where all the horses are aliens. You never know what to expect.

I will say that you should give this another read through, though. There are a lot of spelling and sentence errors. Such as "I don’t know why so many developer instead on incorporating..."
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honestgamer posted May 03, 2009:

I think that this review was well-written and as fair as it could be given that I disagree with the conclusion almost completely.

You've completed the game, so I can't say you gave the game the rating you did because you suck. Like randxian, I'm going with "It's an acquired taste." When I first played this game way back when, if I had been able to write as well as you at that time I would've written something very close to this review. However, I didn't have a lot of games to play and so I had to keep playing Zelda II. Every time I played it, I liked it a little bit more. The end result was that I would up loving it--long, long ago--in spite of myself and played through it repeatedly in the years immediately following its release. I still play it off and on to this day and I still love it, yet I can see where the points you're making come from.

Of course, the play control actually doesn't bother me at all and I've become good enough at battling the Iron Knuckles that I can blow through them with little difficulty. The palaces can be brutal, but that's part of the game's charm.

Your review made me go re-read mine to see if I would change anything I wrote, and I wouldn't. I think the most important thing the game does for me is create such an immersive world that few games of the time--or even now--can touch it. Hyrule has never been more alive and fantastic than it was in Zelda II and for that the game will always be one of my favorites in the series.
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overdrive posted May 03, 2009:

I'd agree it's a good review. You take a game I really dig and bash it.....but in a way where I can't dismiss your review as simply an attempt to agitate a fanbase (as some negative reviews for popular games I've read seem to be). You make good, reasoned points to the degree I really can't say much more than "agree to disagree".

The acquired taste comments in this thread are thought-provoking, though. While I seem to recall pretty much liking this game right out of the box, during the time period when I was most often playing it, I played EVERY GAME I remotely liked over and over again. I didn't get new games constantly, so I played a lot of NES games repeatedly after beating them. Zelda II's "second quest" (where you do the whole game over with all your levels from the first time) was one of those that found its way back into my machine a bunch of time.

Now, things are different. My income's the only thing preventing me from grabbing any game I really want when I want it AND with emulation, I'm literally seconds away from playing virtually any retro game I want. I very rarely replay any game nowadays because there's always something else to pick up and work through. The combination of emulation, reviewing games and becoming financially independent (the whole graduating college, moving out of parents' home, getting job thing) altered the way I play games dramatically.

Which makes me wonder about all those old NES games I've reviewed very favorably from those days of old. I played games like Rygar, Zelda, Zelda II, Bionic Commando, Faxanadu, Blaster Master so often that the stuff I liked became legendary and the stuff I disliked became an "acquired taste", so when I replayed them to review with, it was a great trip down memory lane and I gave them all high scores. But what would I have given them if they were like that random decent-to-high quality game I never owned, but emulated and played for reviewing purposes? How would I have scored them if I never took the time to learn every little in-and-out of the game? Interesting to think about.
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randxian posted May 03, 2009:

Metroid is also fuck hard and has a lengthy and annoying password system. Zelda 1 is damn hard with a huge last dungeon and a save system that kills all your hearts (grrrrr).

But neither are as hard as Zelda 2. To be honest, I don't think Zelda 1 is that hard until you reach the second quest, which comes close to Zelda 2 in terms of difficulty.

Metroid isn't so bad once you figure out where all the good powerups are and the shortest route to Kraid and Ridley. Yeah, it's daunting at first, but it's another game that becomes easy once you learn the shortcuts and strategies.
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Suskie posted May 03, 2009:

There is no way the first Zelda is anywhere near as difficult as Zelda II. And even then, when the game IS challenging, it's challenging for the right reasons. Zelda II is just aggravating.

Metroid... hmm. I used to love that game, but it's really shown its age in a lot of ways. Still, it plays well.

To be perfectly honest, Zelda II was far from the first Zelda game I'd ever played, so it could be that by the time I got around to playing it, I had a clear idea in my head of what a Zelda game should be. But still, as I said, I'm not totally opposed to the idea, I just don't think Zelda II pulls it off. And yeah, obviously I'm not trying to set off the fan base alarms here since I'm such a big Zelda fan to begin with. Still, to those of you who like this game better than the Oracles... I hope you're enjoying life in the Bizarro World.

Thanks for the feedback everyone, and thanks for the heads-up, Zipp. I'm dreadful at proofreading my own reviews so I'll look through it again.
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joseph_valencia posted May 03, 2009:

I think Zelda I is challenging for all the wrong reasons.
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randxian posted May 03, 2009:

How so?
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Suskie posted May 03, 2009:

Spaceworlder likes to tell people that he doesn't like Zelda I.
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zippdementia posted May 03, 2009:

No problem, EmP!

Funny... I HATED Oracles! I live in Bizarro world!
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EmP posted May 04, 2009:

No problem, EmP!

Suskie. As is well known, I make considerably more NO typos in my reviews.

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