"The reason Zelda II is special isnít just the dungeons and their guardians, though, or the way it mixes two unique perspectives. What makes it so outstanding is how those elements contribute to the most tangible world the NES ever saw. Itís evident even in the way people talk about the game to this day."
When Zelda II: The Adventure of Link finally shipped to stores after months of anticipation and hype, the people who played it responded with three words: ďWhat is this?Ē Despite the screenshot theyíd seen on Nintendoís poster advertising the game, they didnít seem to realize that it was as much an action title as it was an adventure. Gone were the days when The Legend of Zelda meant scrolling from one screen to the next while battling enemies and repeating the process in an arcade-like style. Instead, the world was presented in a unique fashion that hasnít been successfully reproduced since. The result is one of the most ambitious titles of its era, a true testament to how well things can go when a competent developer takes risks.
Three-dimensional games have made the dilemma Nintendo faced in 1988 a non-issue in the present, but they once had to decide whether the action should be presented from above or from the side. They chose a unique mix of the two. Overhead exploration lets you explore a map where everything is miniature, while hacking and slashing and jumping are reserved for a side-scrolling perspective. The two styles blend in a manner that at the time was revolutionary, even if now it seems obvious.
Everything works rather simply. As Link heads over the map, black forms ambush him. These represent enemy encounters, sort of like the random battles in a role-playing game except that here you can see them coming. A blob represents a simple fight while a more fearsome figure represents a conflict with more powerful beasts. Life-restoring fairies might also appear. When Link collides with one of these forms, heíll skip to a side-scrolling screen where he must fight his way to the exit by heading either left or right.
The battles are often memorable and reflect where Link stood when one finally began. If he was on one of the few roads that wend their way through the Hyrulian wilds, heíll face no one. If he was in the forest, heíll struggle against massive spiders known as Deelers, or dive-bombing albatross eagles or even the familiar Moblins that try to impale him on the point of a spear. Generally, thereís a combination of them. Each possible location--from prairies to swamps to deserts and graveyards and more--means a different set of adversaries.
Such conflicts arenít limited strictly to near-random encounters. Each time you explore certain locations on a map, youíll get consistent results. These places are generally caves or palaces, though sometimes they might just be a set of dilapidated bridges or ravines where lizard-like creatures hurl rocks in Linkís direction. Even if you get good at dancing around the monster icons on the world map, Link will eventually have to fight something. If you try to advance too quickly, get ready for some pain.
Thatís where more role-playing elements come into play. Link starts out a relative wimp, as he did in the previous game. While he can still collect heart containers to change that, thereís more to the story this time around. That's because he gains experience points for each defeated enemy. He can then spend them on upgrades that allow him to enhance his attack strength, life and magic meter a total of eight times apiece. He can also acquire eight spells that let him change form, throw fireballs, boost his defense or jumping capabilities and so forth. If he finds swordsmen, he can also gain new weapon techniques that let him assault enemies with downward or upward thrusts of his sword. Thatís enough to keep him busy battling monsters all through the game, but itís not so restrictive as to force level-building crusades upon you (anyone who has played a Dragon Quest game knows about that). It also provides reason not to avoid every possible confrontation.
Nowhere is that truer than in the seven palaces built throughout Hyrule. As the story goes, Link must grab the sacred jewels from each of the first six, which seals them in stone. When he's gathered the entire set, heíll gain admittance to the final one, known as The Great Palace, where heíll work his way through nail-biting confrontations with mysterious feathered soldiers, gelatinous blobs, spectral orbs and some other hazards you canít even begin to imagine. Before all of that, though, there are the first six palaces to explore. When describing them, one word consistently leaps to mind: awesome.
The first palace is a rather unassuming sort of dungeon, built at the edge of a vast desert peninsula. After Link braves whirling sandstorms so fierce that they whip up pebbles until even the earth is his enemy, heíll find a statue standing ahead of a column-lined corridor. Head past that imposing sight and an elevator leads below the ground, where hobbling soldiers try to ram against Link with outstretched swords. When he heads left, heíll face an even greater threat as Stalfos skeletons jump from blocks above and try to skewer him. If he emerges from such a swordfight the victor, he can find a key that will allow him to return to the right and deeper into the area.
As was true in The Legend of Zelda, dungeons contain not only battles but items necessary to progress through the game. Itís disappointing to note that the order in which you complete things is more linear here. If you want Link to be able to explore caves in peace, he first must grab a candle from the first palace. If you want him to be able to crush blocks, heíll need the power glove from the second dungeon. The raft is in the third palace, and itís impossible for Link to sail across the choppy waves to the final quartet of labyrinths without it. If this all seems the slightest bit restrictive, well, it unfortunately is. However, the difficulty level adjusts as you go so that youíre constantly challenged and entertained.
New dungeons arenít just a repeat of whatís come before, either. The first palaceís simple hallways are replaced by more fearsome ones when Link ventures into the swamp palace. Here, crumbling bridges are common, as are ax-tossing beasts, flying ghosts and falling drops of acid. In the third palace, heíll face knights that hurl their swords at him, while the fourth brings spell-casting wizards and deep chasms that require him to take a leap of faith. By the end of the game, heíll be walking through walls and falling through floors, battling monstrous dragons and mace-wielding behemoths. And the bosses? Once again, Ďawesomeí is the only suitable word. Youíll look forward to each encounter, even as you dread them and the death they might bring to poor Link.
The reason Zelda II is special isnít just the dungeons and their guardians, though, or the way it mixes two unique perspectives. What makes it so outstanding is how those elements contribute to the most tangible world the NES ever saw. Itís evident even in the way people talk about the game to this day. They donít say ďGo down three screens, then left four.Ē They talk about following the river until you hit a forest, then skirting its edge so you can avoid Moblins before making a break for the eastern road. Theyíre not talking about a series of challenges so much as they are a world that feels alive.
Thereís more you might hear about Zelda II. A lot of people like to talk about how tough it is to grab the hammer, or how they felt when they cast a spell that caused a building to rise from crumbling soil on the east edge of the town of New Kasuto. Maybe theyíll talk about the ghost town or the twisting path that leads to the final palace. There are many such moments in the game, each as memorable as the last. If you get someone talking about his experiences with the title for long, heíll probably decide to cut short the conversation so that he can go play it again. Youíve probably already found that sometimes game developers take risks and they pay off tenfold. This is one such time.
Staff review by Jason Venter (July 15, 2006)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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