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When I wrote about the original Legend of Zelda, I discussed how it was inspired by earlier Japanese action role-playing games like Xanadu or Hydlide, but innovated by removing most of the classic role-playing mechanics such as experience points and leveling. But the sequel, which drops the “legend of” and opts simply for Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, is almost entirely different. This was on purpose. Other than the project lead and writer, the development team was entirely new, and the action gameplay shifted from the original’s top-down viewpoint to side-scrolling platforming. There’s still some top-down exploration in the form of a world map, similar to those in the Dragon Quest games, but the bulk of the game is played in the side-on view.

I remember this shift somewhat confounded my group of friends when we played it as kids, and the game never captured our imagination as strongly as the original did. One thing that I didn’t remember, however, is that Zelda II brings back some of the role-playing mechanics that its predecessor had excised. Titular protagonist Link earns experience points from defeating enemies, and upon accumulating enough can level up his attack, magic power, and defense. The series famous for establishing its own action-adventure genre, distinct from action role-playing games, had become an action role-playing game once more.

Zelda II released for the Famicom Disk System in Japan in 1987, and a version for the NES in North America arrived at the end of 1988. Like its predecessor, it had an iconic golden cartridge. The Famicom Disk System has extra features that the NES lacks, so the North American release is simplified in some ways, including its musical score. But like some other Famicom Disk System games that were brought to North America (including the original Zelda and Metroid), the NES version is in many ways an improvement, with extra colors and artwork for static screens.

I remembered playing Zelda II as a kid exactly twice. The first time was when visiting family, and an older cousin kindly let me play his copy. He showed me the controls, not just for basic jumping and sword thrusting, but also Link’s special moves like the downward thrust, which lets him leap onto enemies and land on them sword first. I happily gallivanted around the land of Hyrule, stabbing enemies or using my downward thrust to bounce off their heads like a deadly ball. The second time was when a good friend of mine got the game (or maybe just rented it?) and I excitedly told him all of the things I’d learned from playing it at my cousin’s house, only to discover that most of them didn’t work. It turns out my cousin was letting me use his saved game in which he’d nearly reached the end. Link’s downward thrust, among many other abilities, are things he must learn along the way during his adventure.

I barely remembered anything else about the game, but playing it again now I had moments of shocked familiarity. I recognized the elevators immediately, which meant I must have explored some of the six Palaces that are central to Link’s quest. Several of the bosses were familiar. Even a late-game location, where lizardmen hurled stones from a high wall in the background, stirred a memory. I was forced to conclude that I must have played, or watched friends play, much more of the game than I thought. Still, I doubt any of us managed to complete the game back then, because oh my, Zelda II sure is hard.

Having just played The Legend of Zelda and Metroid and noting the similarities in nonlinear design for the two games, it’s tempting to say that Metroid’s platforming action inspired Zelda II, but Link’s close-range fighting feels very different. And close range swordfights really are the order of the day; Link still possesses the iconic sword beam from the first game while at full health, but here it doesn’t fly far before fizzling out (and many enemies are immune to it anyway), and his other ranged tools like the boomerang and bow and arrows are conspicuously absent. Instead, it’s all about Link’s sword and shield. In the first game, Link could block incoming attacks from the front, as long as he didn’t lower his shield to launch an attack of his own. Here, Link’s attacks do not lower his shield, but he must choose whether to defend high or low. While standing, he’ll block attacks coming in at chest height, whereas crouching will block low attacks but leave Link’s head undefended. The most dangerous enemies, such as the armored Iron Knuckles who defend the Palaces, mimic this behavior, with their own shields that can block Link’s high or low strikes. At the same time, they launch their own attacks, with a brief windup animation the only warning as to where Link must put his shield. Duels against these foes are tense affairs, blows clattering off each other’s shields, and players trying to watch both the enemy’s shield and sword at the same time.

This is made tougher by the fact that there are no pickups that restore health, only ones that restore magic power. Until Link learns the Life spell partway through his adventure, there’s no way to heal at all, except by returning to a friendly town. Link has three “lives”, and if he loses them all, it’s game over, although some progress is preserved. Link will retain any items and spells he’s learned, as well as any abilities he’s leveled up, and any Palaces he’s conquered will remain conquered. But he begins all the way back at North Castle, where his adventure starts, and must travel back to wherever he was when he met his demise.

Constantly returning to North Castle at least serves as a reminder of the game’s story, which is otherwise pretty thin. It also doesn’t make that much sense. The evil Ganon is defeated, but his minions remain and are wreaking havoc. Link discovers the existence of a third Triforce, the Triforce of Courage, which was used by a king long ago in conjunction with the other two (which Link found in the first game) to rule the land in peace and harmony. But no heir was worthy of wielding this power, so the king hid it away, with powerful guardians in the six Palaces protecting the keys, so no evildoer might get their hands on them. In other words, all the deadly duels Link must engage in were actually put there by the good guys, as a test. Oh, and also there’s a Princess Zelda — the original, this time, not just one of the others in the royal line who all share her name — put into a magical sleep for… unclear reasons? Link must find the third Triforce, wake her up, and bring peace to the land. Or, much more likely, die a horrible death and bring about the return of Ganon, because this king sure was overzealous in guarding the Triforce.

Things are hardest early on, not just because Link doesn’t have his advanced abilities yet, but because he hasn’t leveled up at all either. Technically it’s possible to spend time grinding for experience, because straying from the roads on the top-down world map will spawn shadowy creatures that chase link, leading to a miniature side-scrolling battle if they catch him. These are cool at first, since they change based on the terrain and offer different enemies and platforming challenges, but they soon become tedious. The experience points granted for defeating these enemies is but a pittance, so using them as a way to level up is an exercise in boredom. At least they’re usually pretty easy to escape, by reaching one of the edges of the small area. No, the big experience rewards come from the tough enemies in the Palaces, but those are the same ones who are likely to kill Link. To make matters worse, if Link loses all his lives before he’s earned enough experience points to gain a level in one of his stats, all that experience is lost. After gaining the first few levels, I would routinely get about 80% of the way towards the next level up before losing all my lives in a Palace, and end up with nothing to show for it.

This is especially frustrating given that there are experience boost items to find out in the world, but each can only be picked up once. A cave off the side of the road might lead to a bag of experience worth a whopping 500 points, but if Link succumbs to his enemies before reaching the next level, he not only returns to zero experience points, he also cannot pick up that experience bag again. It’s gone. At one point midway through the game I managed to find two such bags in a row but still wasn’t quite at the next level, so I chickened out and just fought easy random encounters for a while to ensure I’d get there. I got into a groove and kept going for a few more levels too, although I probably didn’t need to. It does help though. Leveling up Link’s Life does not actually grant more health — only heart containers, found during his adventures, can do that — but it does make him take less damage. Leveling up his attack makes him do more damage, which can shorten difficult fights and therefore make them much easier. And leveling up his magic lowers the cost of spells.

Spells are very important, and another major change from the first game. Link’s original quest revolved around finding items which granted him new abilities and let him access new areas. There are still items like this to find in Zelda II, but much of that burden is now taken up by spells. In place of the rings that increased Link’s defense in the first game, Link now has the Shield spell which halves all damage he takes, but only within the current side-scrolling area. Leaving the area causes the spell to wear off, and since Palaces contain many interconnected areas, casting Shield becomes a tactical decision. Do players anticipate taking damage in the next fight? If so, Shield may be worth it, but it will use up some of Link’s magical reserves, and the magic jars that restore his magic only rarely drop from defeated enemies. And he might need to save some magical energy for the Jump spell that increases his jump height, or the useful (but highly draining) Life spell that restores his health. Many spells also act as key abilities needed to progress in the game, by passing a previously impassible cliff or other barrier.

Slowly gaining access to new areas is a big part of the game, but it happens in a much more linear fashion this time around. The first game is famous for its nonlinear design, with the various dungeons spread around the open world, and players able to stumble upon them out of order quite easily. In Zelda II, the Palaces are tackled in order, each containing an item needed to access the next. This means that in some ways, the world design in Zelda II feels like a step backwards. The world map is interesting for other reasons, however. It doesn’t just look similar to role-playing games like Dragon Quest, it functions similarly too. There are friendly towns to visit, explored in side-scrolling fashion of course, with townsfolk who can provide hints if you talk to them. There are locations that are far from roads, which means Link will have to survive a string of random encounters along the way. Key locations, like bridges or canyons, may lead to their own platforming sections to lend some challenge and variety to travel. Most interesting, however, is that there are a lot of hidden locations to find.

There aren’t as many secrets in Zelda II as there were in the first game, but some are pretty well hidden. I had to check the internet for hints when I couldn’t find any way to cross a certain river. It turns out that some of the forest tiles in the forest to the north were actually explorable locations, switching to a sides-crolling section when entered. There was no way to determine this without wandering through them randomly, or more realistically, getting hints from a magazine like Nintendo Power which all my friends read at the time. This isn’t the only time Zelda II uses this trick either, and while some of these secret locations hide optional bonuses like experience bags or perhaps a heart container, others are required to complete the game. There are hints that finding them is necessary, but no hints as to where they are hidden, so I found myself turning to the internet for help again. Overall, however, I was pleased with how much progress I was able to make on my own, even managing to find several cleverly hidden things just by using my wits. If only that extended to everything in the game. Some secrets are so well hidden that I doubt any player would stumble upon them without guidance.

For all these differences, Zelda II remains a compelling game. Difficult, yes, and often frustrating by modern standards. But the platforming and combat work surprisingly well, and the resource management decisions associated with spells make expeditions into Palaces interesting affairs. Occasionally Link will find a red magic jar which restores all of his magical energy, which often means getting to cast Life to heal up for free, as long as he still has enough energy for it before grabbing the jar. Strategic use of the Shield spell is often more effective than casting Life, but cast Shield too often and Link won’t have enough energy left for the Life spell when he needs it. Learning to balance this was an enjoyable process, as was seeing tough enemies fall before Link once he’d gained enough levels to cut them down in just one or two blows. The finale of the game is a great capstone to all of this too, offering an extra tough final Palace full of new enemies and devious traps, and mercifully letting Link restart from the Palace entryway after losing all his lives. It feels suitably climactic, a final, pure challenge without any more messing around.

Overall, however, I can see why the first game is remembered more fondly. Zelda II is a game that is tackled in a specific order, only occasionally letting players wander the world in more than one direction. After the revelation that was the original’s open, nonlinear exploration, full of secrets and oddities to find, Zelda II feels like a simpler, more action-focused affair. That action is tough but satisfying, adapting many of the enemies from the first game to the new side-scrolling format in imaginative ways, but Zelda II doesn’t have the same feeling of a free roaming adventure. Later games in the series would return to the top-down design of the original game, now considered a defining characteristic (except for the more recent 3D entries), and many players may be unaware that the series ever experimented with side-scrolling platforming. Zelda II did inspire many other games for the Famicom/NES, however, like Faxanadu (itself a spin-off of Xanadu, which was an inspiration for the original Legend of Zelda) and The Battle of Olympus. More generally, it was one of the first games to combine role-playing elements with platforming action, a concept that has since been used often.

As I’ve reported many times in this series, there’s no easy way to play Zelda II outside of emulation, which is what I used. Barring an original cartridge and original NES hardware, the only other official ways to get the game are via re-releases for the GameCube and Game Boy Advance, both of which are outdated as well. If you’d like to try emulation, I used Retroarch with the Mesen core, as I’ve done for other NES games in this series, and it worked nicely, even reproducing a slight slowdown when scrolling the world map. Prepare yourself for a tough adventure, but one that’s satisfying if you stick with it.