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“Zelda II: The Adventure of Link” – Three Decades Later!

When it comes to a series that’s been around as long as The Legend of Zelda has, it’s inevitable that there will be a few black sheep titles released at some point. This is especially true early on, when a series hasn’t quite established what works for it and what doesn’t. On occasion, a series really finds its footing with the sequel (some say Mega Man 2 is the best in the classic series, for example), but many would say this was not the case with Zelda.

Zelda II: The Adventure of Link first appeared in January of 1987 on the Japanese Famicom Disk System, releasing elsewhere a few months later on the NES. At the time of its release it was critically praised and well-received by gamers, but later on as the series matured people looked back on it with a bit more criticism. To be fair, though, Zelda II had some big shoes to fill – the original Legend of Zelda was incredibly popular and had established itself as an open-world, non-linear adventure that focused heavily on exploration and dungeon-delving. Its sequel, though, was quite a bit of a departure from that formula.

Shigeru Miyamoto intended Zelda II to be vastly different from its predecessor, so he assembled a different team to develop the game. The end result was a game that combined side-scrolling action scenes with various RPG elements, such as towns and NPCs, a magic system, and experience levels. It also was the only canonical title in the franchise to make use of extra lives, meaning that the player could find 1-up items hidden throughout the world. Also, if all of the player’s lives were exhausted, they’d get a game-over screen and have to start back over at the North Castle.

Zelda II is also the only game that serves as a direct sequel to the original game, with all other entries (except the recent Zelda: Breath of the Wild) being either prequels or taking place in parallel timelines. The game also has a bit of a convoluted story. Centuries before the game, Hyrule was a large, unified kingdom guided by the wisdom and power of the Triforce. However, the king feared his son would misuse the Triforce and had it split into pieces and sealed away in dungeons across the realm, awaiting someone worthy enough to wield its power. Upon his death, the prince (who then became king) tried to coerce his sister into telling him where the Triforce was hidden. When this failed, he had a wizard cast a sleeping spell on her that put her into a seemingly endless slumber. Feeling regret for what he did, he put her in a room in the North Castle and decreed that all future princesses should be named Zelda. But do you know what the weird part is? The Princess Zelda in Zelda II is therefore not the same princess saved in the original game, but rather is actually her ancestor!

When I first played Zelda II as a kid, I really enjoyed it. I loved the scale of the overworld, the fact that there were towns to visit and people that told you cryptic things, and I actually enjoyed the platforming. The dungeons were mysterious, twisting, and fun. Yet, I also found the game to be quite difficult. The limited number of extra lives made making precise jumps all the more critical, and conserving your health was very important. If you made it all the way to the dungeon boss and died, losing your last life, it was back to the starting point for you. It was fun, but a bit unforgiving. Also, while I really enjoyed how large the overworld was (the small area south of Death Mountain that’s referred to as “Death Mountain Area” is the entire area of the original Zelda!), it was really large and sometimes I just didn’t know where to go. The clues given by NPCs in town were only occasionally helpful, often being so cryptic as to be just about worthless (but still a bit more useful than the townsfolk in Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest!).

The massive size of the overworld in Zelda II has always stood out to me. At the time, players felt that the explorable area in the original Zelda was pretty large with lots of secrets to uncover along the way, but Zelda II complete dwarfs it. By going with a more RPG-style world map, with icons representing towns, dungeons, and other locations, the sense of scale was massive. As stated above, the entire explorable map from the original Zelda takes place in a small corner south of Death Mountain in the second game. Honestly, it’s a scale that arguably isn’t seen again until Breath of the Wild on the Wii U and Nintendo Switch, though Wind Waker and Twilight Princess both felt like fairly big games.

It’s worth pointing out that there are some differences between the Famicom Disk System and NES versions of the game, but while generally the FDS versions of games were a bit superior due to the fact that they had more to work with compared to standard NES cartridges, in the case of Zelda II there were a few revisions that made the cartridge release a bit better. For starters, the dungeons in the FDS version are all grey while in the NES release they are each different colors. The leveling system was completely revamped for the NES release and, frankly, is a lot more fair and balanced. Also, some minor design tweaks as well as dialogue corrections were made along the way.

Some may not realize it, but the insanely-popular Zelda: Ocarina of Time began development as a remake of The Adventure of Link. It’s unclear how this 3D remake would have ultimately played, but early screenshots of Zelda 64 showed an art style for Link that much more closely resembled his outfit in his NES adventures and showed a town design that looked very similar to Zelda II. In a way, this shouldn’t be surprising: Miyamoto has stated that if he could go back and redo one of the Zelda games, it’d be Zelda II. Perhaps this connection and original plan for Ocarina is why the Sages from Ocarina are named after the towns that appear in Zelda II. But, given that Ocarina takes place a good deal of time before Zelda II, that actually means that the towns in Zelda II are in fact named after the Sages from Ocarina of Time. Pretty cool, huh?

Ultimately, I never completed Zelda II growing up. In fact, I’ve never actually beaten it as an adult. I have watched a friend of mine play the game through to the end and, of course, I’ve see people playing it on YouTube. It’s just one of those games that was really hard for me when I was younger and as an adult I just haven’t invested the time in finishing. Still, that doesn’t mean I dislike the game. On the contrary, I actually disagree with the people that say they dislike the game because of how different it was compared to the rest of the franchise. Sure, it was difficult and went in directions that Nintendo decided not to bother revisiting, but this uniqueness actually makes the game really neat in comparison to the other titles. Besides, if Nintendo was afraid to take risks by doing something different, we’d have missed out on gems like Wind Waker and Breath of the Wild.

Is Zelda II a game worth going back to play if you’ve never experienced it before? Absolutely. In many ways, I think Breath of the Wild took inspiration from the two NES entries in the franchise. The sense of adventure wandering around the wilds in the first game as well as the massive scale seen in its sequel are very prevalent in the Wii U and Switch outing. Zelda II is certainly worth playing, so long as you go in prepared for the fact that it’ll be a very different play experience.

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If you’ve never played Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (or even if you have!), I hope this article gave you a taste of what made it such a unique and fun experience at the time. This article is part of a larger series explores the history of the series and its major entries. Be sure to check out the hub article at NekoJonez’s Arpegi for links to all the great articles and retrospectives on this epic series.

(Image courtesy of ZoeF on DeviantArt)

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Jessica Brown

Jessica Brown

Jessica "Allahweh" Brown has been a gamer since the '80s and loves modern, indie, and retro games alike. Feel free to follow her adventures at GamingGoddess.net.

  • Ah, Zelda II, one of the few Zelda games I still have to beat. Thanks Jess for showing me the other side of this game since I was in the “blind hate” camp. I’ll seriously give it another go. :)