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The Overlooked Adventure of Zelda 2

The newest entry to the Zelda franchise, Breath of the Wild, is considered by many to be a return-to-form for the series. It recaptures the original title’s sense of intrepid exploration and challenging combat while implementing many quality of life improvements that earlier entries sorely needed. Some of these additions include elements more commonly seen in roleplaying games, including equipment stats, side quests, and skill points. This actually isn’t Nintendo’s first attempt at turning the Zelda series into an RPG though. 1987’s Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link was the first to utilize many of these features, but, for a few different reasons, the NES title is seen as a confusing, disjointed mess by the gaming community at large. It’s reviled, when it should be seen as a classic. When looked with a fresh eye, Zelda 2 is an important and fun addition to the series.

Link’s appearance doesn’t fill Gleeok with glee.

One common complaint about Zelda 2 is how different it is from the original. The familiar top-down action/adventure gameplay was replaced with side-scrolling sections during combat and a top-down  perspective while exploring the overworld. To some, this was an unwelcome change, but to others, it was seen as the next evolution in expanding the series. From the start, Shigeru Miyamoto wanted Zelda 2 to be a different game than its predecessor. In the 80s, there was no standard for the series to follow; it didn’t have a reputation or a legacy to live up to. Zelda 2 was simply the second Zelda game. So when a new development team was given the ambitious task of following up The Legend of Zelda’s epic quest, they wanted to make this second adventure Link’s biggest one yet. And in its time it was quite successful, going on to be one of the top-selling NES games of all time.

The overworld is still an important factor in Zelda 2, but, unlike the first game, it’s used primarily as a hub to travel from location to location. This is where the game begins to split from its forebear. Zelda 2 is an action-RPG. Defeating enemies grants experience points and leveling up increases your health, attack, or magic. Grinding is no longer just about farming Rupees. It now incentivizes you to defeat more enemies and make Link as powerful as he can be. In the side-scrolling combat arenas, enemies can attack from different angles, forcing the player to assess the threats and quickly decide the best counter: stand versus crouch, or attack versus defend. You had to learn how the enemies attacked, not just from where they attacked. Swinging your sword isn’t the only way to defeat the monsters of Hyrule though. Located in each of the game’s towns are wise men who teach Link various spells to help him on his quest, such as Jump, Life, and Shield, but learning a spell isn’t as simple as speaking to the wise men. Often times, you have to complete a side quest for an NPC or find a hidden temple.

Other complaints about the game arise from its difficulty. The monsters you fight can kill you quickly if you’re not careful, NPCs often provide cryptic information, and hidden items required to beat the game are sometimes never even mentioned. Some of these complaints are valid. Like the much maligned Castlevania 2: Simon’s Quest, a game often seen in the same light as Zelda 2, you were required to search every square inch of the land to complete your journey. I find this comparison to be somewhat unfair. Where Castlevania 2 broke the flow of gameplay with its day/night cycle, confusing map, and less-than-helpful NPCs, Zelda 2 constantly tries to keep the player within the game. While the combat is challenging at first, after getting used to the controls you can become a master swordsman with ease. The game’s difficulty comes primarily from this system, and less so from the apocryphal advice the townspeople would give. However, unless you’re prepared to tough it without a walkthrough, you will be spending a lot of time combing through Hyrule to find Bagu and get his note so you can cross the river.

Later entries in the NES library would be heavily inspired by design cues from Zelda 2. Final Fantasy and many RPGs use a top-down overworld perspective when exploring the world. Strider utilizes acquiring various abilities to traverse side-scrolling levels or assist in combat. Rygar often switches between top-down and side-scrolling perspectives. Not to mention, the addition of the Triforce of Courage and Dark Link have been important elements within Zelda games up to the present. Though many consider it to be an unwelcome addition to the series, Zelda 2 was far ahead of its time and is a classic in its own right. A tough but fair, esoteric but bold game, it attempted to introduce many new aspects to the series, some of which have stuck over time. Hopefully, in years to come, Zelda 2 will be recognized as the classic it is, rather than purely as the inspiration for one of Super Smash Bros. best levels.

Temple, a popular level from the Super Smash Bros. series, is based on the palaces from Zelda 2.

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Written by Lee Feldman

Lee is a writer, game designer, and graduate student from Los Angeles, California. As a gamer, he is primarily inspired by fascinating worlds with deep stories, rich characters, and sharp gameplay, with a love of games both old and new. When he isn’t collecting rare NES cartridges, he can be found obsessing over mixed martial arts.

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