Liking or even loving The Legend of Zelda series is not a unique claim on the internet. For those of you unaware (side note: how the hell did you end up on a blog about video games?), The Legend of Zelda series is one of the most popular and well-received game franchises of all time. On the list of best-selling game franchises it’s currently only 20th place [source]. I know, surprised me too, but I’d guess quantity has a lot to do with it, as well as games selling more in general as time goes on. Since these games started coming out in the mid-80s, before aggregate sites like Metacritic existed (for better or worse), it’s impossible to get average review scores across the whole series. However, I would be willing to bet money that if you could take average review scores from each Zelda game and then averaged the whole series, it would be better received than any other game franchise (with at least a few entries, because averages) in history.
Put another way, I don’t think there is a single series of video games more universally beloved than The Legend of Zelda. There are series that sell more, series that get more publicity, and plenty of individual games that score as well as it. But many of the other biggest game series are divisive. Final Fantasy, Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, Sonic the Hedgehog...these are all series of games that have people who really like them and some who really despise them. But I’ve never really seen people hate The Legend of Zelda. Oh, such people exist, sure. No need to show me examples, I’ve been on the internet before. But at worst, people typically just seem ambivalent towards it. And at best people really, really love it.
Why am I explaining this to you? I’m telling you because I love The Legend of Zelda. It is quite possibly my favorite game series of all time. I am a person who owns and has played several hundred games, many of them regarded as fantastic masterpieces. And yet if you asked me what my favorite games of all time were, I guarantee that multiple Zelda games would be near the top of the list. But despite this, I haven’t actually talked about Zelda games much at all in my time writing for this blog. Why is that?
Was it alien tampering? I bet it was alien tampering. It’s the only rational explanation.
Well, part of it is that all the obvious things I could say about the series have already been said countless times. Obviously, given that the games are so beloved, they’re fairly well explored on the internet. That isn’t to say I have nothing to talk about. Game design is a broad topic and I there are tons of things I could say about the various entries in the Zelda series. But to dig into those concepts I’d have to go deep and, perhaps more pressingly, I’d feel obligated to start talking about the whole series. Apart from a few rare spin-offs no one counts, the Zelda series is 16 games long; and I own and have played all of them except one (The Minish Cap, and yes I’m getting around to it). Even the thought of writing deep, thoughtful critiques on 15 beloved games which have already received a huge body of established criticism is intimidating. And so more often than not, it’s easier to write about more obscure games and put that off for another day.
Well today is that day. A short while back, a popular let’s play that I watch known as Game Grumps started playing through Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link. Seeing the game again brought me back, but what brought me back even more were some of the comments on it. It was noted in the let’s play and by commenters that the game was something of a black sheep in the Zelda series, and they questioned why. There were a decent amount of people who claimed that Zelda 2 was reviled merely because it was different from the rest of the series. I could recall hearing the same thing said online about 5 or 6 years back when a high school aged me bought Zelda 2 on virtual console.
...I did not have a good time.
But this remembrance was a chance for me. It was a chance for me to revisit a game that so frustrated me that I quit midway through it. A chance to see once and for all whether such frustration was validated. A chance to take one of my least favorite games in my most favorite game series and examine it, for better or worse, critically. And of course, it was a chance to finally talk about a Zelda game in detail on this blog.
I took that chance. Since we’re about 800 words into this, I should probably get to what I found already.
Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link was originally released for the Nintendo Entertainment System in early 1987, less than a year after the original Legend of Zelda. It was intentionally made as a fundamentally different game from its predecessor. Unlike the original (and all other 2D games in the Zelda series), Zelda 2 mostly took place as a side-scrolling action game. The game had you walking on an overworld map similar to RPGs, where you move in a larger, representative space until you get to specific towns or dungeons. The game also had semi-random encounters, where enemies spawning on and wandering around the overworld map would take you to another screen to fight them.
Here we see the overworld, where you can encounter these random enemies. The encounters are different in every area, with these two sprites representing ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ groups of enemies.
When you touch those enemies on the overworld you’re transported to a screen like this. Here you’ll run, jump and stab your way through foes. Or, in a random encounter like this, you could just keep walking off-screen without fighting anything.
So looking at the interface in that last screenshot, we see another thing unique about this game: Zelda 2 had RPG elements. Specifically, enemies you killed would grant you experience (shown in the top right). When you obtained enough experience, you could level up and upgrade attack, magic or life. You’d use your magic to cast a series of spells you’d unlock from hidden ‘wise men’ found in each town. They let you do things in addition to just jumping and stabbing, like shooting fireballs or healing yourself. It was a simple system, but it was an interesting addition that I actually quite enjoyed. It gave you options in combat and gave you something to look forward to acquiring as you continued through the game. Speaking personally, RPGs and platformers are some of my favorite types of video games.
This is important to note, because this system is very different from most Zelda games. When you hear Zelda 2 brought up on the internet, the majority seem to say “it was different, some people didn’t like this”. I could understand this being the view of some, but it frustrates me because this is something that I have no problem with. Many of the differences in Zelda 2 are fine by me, and I like that the game tried something new. But I do think that Zelda 2 absolutely has problems that are completely unrelated to it being different from the rest of the series.
Movement and Combat
Movement in Zelda 2 is a little bit strange. Link has momentum he builds up as he moves, much like in platforming games like Super Mario Bros. However, it’s a very small start-up time to running full speed. The main issue is that unlike in the Mario games, you can’t jump on enemies to kill them. Instead you have to stand in front of them and hit them with your sword, but the range of the sword is fairly small. It’s like if you took side-scrolling contemporary Castlevania, gave the character momentum instead of defined speed and jump arcs, and then made their weapon about 1/2 or 1/3 the size.
“BEHOLD, the almighty strength of – oh fuck it’s a bit short again, isn’t it?”
This means a lot of combat is spent edging closer to enemies but trying not to get so close that they touch you (as this damages you and throws you backwards). This is even worse with advancing enemies, as you’re constantly readjusting slightly and it can be very finicky. Also worth noting is that when you hit enemies, assuming they don’t die, they are stunned for a half second or so. But enemies can do the same to you if they touch you, knocking you back and throwing off your rhythm. So a lot of combat tends to come down to stun-locking your enemies before they stun-lock you, mashing like crazy and/or randomly crouching up and down. This doesn’t even touch on enemies with projectiles, most of which fire off random patterns that are impossible to predict, further encouraging spam-happy blitzkriegs as the best option for combat.
I admit, there are rare occasions when you and an enemy can have tight, purely skill-based exchanges of attacking and blocking with shield-based positioning. These moments feel reasonably satisfying, but honestly they weren’t the norm for me. For me, there was only one part of the combat that felt consistently satisfying. This one attack, whether it even does damage or not, is the one part of movement and combat in this game that I always enjoyed. As those who have played the game may have guessed, I’m talking about the downward thrust.
Pictured: One of, if not the best thing about Zelda 2.
Sometime into Zelda 2, you are granted the downward thrust, a move that lets you strike at enemies as you are falling to the ground. Not only does this damage enemies, but you can bounce off of them and chain hits as you hop from foe to foe. It’s the most satisfying move to use in the game, and you may recognize it as exactly what a normal platformer is. Normal platformers like the Mario games have attacking through jumps for a reason, and that’s because it’s a movement type that gives immediate and satisfying tactile feedback. Bouncing on foes doesn’t just defeat them, it defeats them in a way that’s fun to execute again and again. Games are capable of making 2D sword-fighting satisfying in this way as well, but it’s harder to do and I never felt Zelda 2 was quite up to the task. There’s too much finicky movement and careless button-mashing. There’s also the constant stress of failure, which really puts a damper on things. Speaking of that, let’s cut to what I believe to be the game’s biggest flaw.
Difficulty and Lives
I am going to make the argument that Zelda 2 is unreasonably difficult. Before I make this argument, I want to make a distinction. I have no problem with games that are difficult; I have problems with games that are difficult for the wrong reasons. If you want more detail on my opinions on difficulty in games, particular old-school ones, I wrote about them in a previous article. Zelda 2 is often difficult in all the wrong ways. Sometimes it pulls cheap shots on you, with randomly thrown or hard to see projectiles, and it takes a cruel delight in putting instant death pits all over the place more and more as the game progresses.
Zelda 2 is also a game I would never want to play without a walkthrough. It’s filled with the worst type of secrets-as-a-means-of-progression bullshit that games of its era were known for. Sometimes the game will change the rules on you, requiring you to do things you didn’t know you could do with absolutely no hints indicating you can. One town on the overworld is hidden in a forest, and to find it you have to press A in front of all the forest tiles to smash through the forest until you find it. Previously you could smash boulders, but there was no reason to believe the A button served any other purpose. Just a few specific times in towns you can interact with objects to get items or hints. Each time you interact with an object, like say a table, it’s an ojbect that you can’t interact with anywhere else. There’s no indication you can do it, you presumably just have to run through town mashing the B button and hoping you’ll pick something up instead of stabbing the air.
Swinging your sword wildly around empty houses is the BEST way to search for mirrors.
Another point in the game you have to visit a man in the middle of nowhere, out in the woods. No one tells you where this man lives. No one tells you that this is the man who will give you permission to progress in the story. At this point in the game there are hundreds of tiles worth of overworld and I guess the game just expected you to painstakingly explore every single one in search of this man you didn’t even know you were looking for. The dungeons are huge mazes filled with dead-ends and identical looking rooms. I’m glad I used a walkthrough for the last dungeon, because it’s hard as hell and it seems over half of its rooms are completely unnecessary to get to the end. Also, the rare sort-of hints you get on what to do next are often too vague or poorly translated to be any help. All this being said, most of these issues can be solved (albeit unsatisfyingly) with a walkthrough and they aren’t the worst part about the game. As for that...
Let’s talk about lives.
At their inception, lives were a way of handling arcade games. These games were very short, so they had to make up for it by being challenging. They also needed a way to pay for play-time such that customers kept coming back. So the player only had so many chances at the game before they would be sent back to the start of it and/or have to pay more to keep playing. When console games that people permanently owned came around, lives remained partially out of habit. They increased the length of games, and length was still partially connected to a games value. There is also an argument to be made that having to repeatedly replay sections of a game forced players to improve and master the games mechanics.
In general, I don’t like lives. I like being challenged, but prefer games that let me get straight to the challenge. Super Meat Boy is an example of this. It’s a game that’s unflinchingly, seriously difficult, and that difficulty is such that you’re going to need skill, not luck, to beat the game. But levels are so short that there’s very little wading through previous content. However, not every game is suited to the sub-30 second hell-storms of challenge that game presents. Some games prefer to segment their challenges, like Dark Souls or Shovel Knight. But although these games force you to repeat segments, neither of them have lives. Instead they just carefully choose the checkpoints from which you can proceed. Though we can haggle on the time penalty these games use, they are consistent penalties that are clearly and intentionally crafted by the designers.
For example, in Dark Souls’ Blighttown, the designers carefully and intentionally crafted a hellscape of misery to sap away all of the enjoyment you were experiencing.
Lives have very little design value from my perspective. You can get into all sorts of resource management and other benefits with health, but lives aren’t typically something you can ration. Unlike saving healing items for later or similar, lives are a binary state. You die or you don’t, and it’s never good to die. Perhaps in some edge cases you could purposely use a fresh life for some challenge, but unless you can acquire extra lives there’s barely even that level of management going on. Speaking of extra lives, did I mention Zelda 2 has those? They do! The catch is that there are only about a half dozen in the entire game and they never respawn ever, no matter how many game overs you get because apparently someone on the development team HATED HAPPINESS AND JOY.
So Zelda 2 has lives, unlike any other Zelda game. Unfortunate, given that it’s probably the most difficult Zelda game, but whatever. You get 3 of these lives before a game over occurs. If you die without running out of lives, you’ll respawn in the same room you died in. If you run out of lives, then you get a game over. Aw, bummer! Guess you’ll just have to go back and play from the starting point of the entire game and dear god do I WISH that was a joke!
To be fair (in contrast to the game), you do keep your progress apart from experience towards your next level. You keep your items, spells, and what dungeons you’ve completed. But let’s say you died to the boss of a dungeon. You now have to walk across the entire overworld to get back to that dungeon. This can involve crossing over bridges, through caves, around mountain passes, and other mini-dungeons on the way. You’ll also likely encounter at least a few random groups of enemies. Then, you have to walk all the way through the dungeon to the boss. Even in optimal scenarios, this will probably be at least a third of the dungeon. This entire time, you only have 3 lives. If you die at all on the way to the boss, your chances to fight it and learn how to beat it are severely limited. It is not at all unreasonable for this run back to the boss to take about half an hour in some cases. All for a brief minute of panicked battle. This is not helped by there being instant death pits everywhere, just waiting for a single stray projectile or mistake to eat a third of your chances. Hell, they even put instant death pits in one of the boss fights!
I’m tellin’ ya’, this is downright Barbaric! Aahahaha no seriously fuck this guy.
In my eyes, this system of lives is a horrific flaw that just crushes my enjoyment of the game. The other issues I have with the game are notable, sure, but none of them even come close to this. Because of this, I’m always paranoid of what’s coming next, always worried that the game will throw something at me that will force me to replay a bunch of tedious crap I’ve already seen. I’m almost never willing to take risks or experiment, I always prefer to run from fights when I can, and new challenges fill me with dull dread instead of wonder and excitement. It damages, ever so slightly, every single part of the game in a way that really frustrates me for existing. It’s like someone made a relatively nice piece of art, which had some flaws in it but still looked pleasant. Then someone set fire to said piece of art, and though the beauty is still faintly visible it’s hard to see beneath the flames and you’ll seriously question whether it’s worth the discomfort and effort getting close enough to see that beauty.
This is, without question, the main reason I have trouble liking Zelda 2. I also maintain that, in this context, it is an objectively bad design decision. Or if not that, it’s about as close to objectively bad as I can imagine. This review is getting long though, so now that we’re over the flaws lets wrap some other things up.
Visuals and Music
Despite me ragging on them in the mouse-over text of almost every image, I don’t have much of an issue with the visuals in Zelda 2. The graphical quality is, of course, as severely limited one might expect of a game from 1987. Aesthetics are always more important than technical ability, however, and Zelda 2 looks fairly nice for its time. Okay granted, there are some awkward perspectives, objects and buildings are often weirdly proportioned, repeating textures in temples are often a bit of an eye-sore, and the ground can look a bit like pixel vomit in side-scrolling segments. It’s certainly not perfect, and even using the same tools the designers did here I’m sure they could’ve done better. However, the game uses plenty of color and contrast, has some nice enemy designs, and in general does a lot with the limited pixels they can use. I’d call it decent artistically, if nothing amazing.
I still have NO idea what the hell the Thunderbird is supposed to be, though.
The music in Zelda 2 is...alright. Nothing special really, but it’s got some nice songs. There are only about 7 of what I’d call real songs in the game, and even among those I only really like about half of them. The soundtrack has a unique feel to it, with a very echo-y sound not seen in any other Zelda games. This is not a coincidence, as it’s one of the Zelda games not scored by typical series composer Koji Kondo. As per usual around here, I’ll run through some of my favorite songs.
The Palace theme is Zelda 2’s most famous song, and for good reason. Popularized with a later remix in Super Smash Brothers Melee, this is a catchy, unique piece that is easy on the ears through the many frustrations of the games dungeons. The games echo-y flavor works in its favor here, and it’s overall just enjoyable to listen to.
For a more laidback tune we have the Town theme. The isolated, reverberating notes create a sound that, though little odd, works pleasantly enough.
Finally we have the Title theme. I think the space given to these slower tunes makes its odd sound work more, though it’s still a bit strange and people less inclined to this style of chip tunes may find it grating on the ears. Overall though, I still like it well enough.
There are definitely things to like about Zelda 2. Its RPG mechanics are interesting and fun, combat can occasionally be satisfying, and it has hints of the exploration I love the series for, though not as much as I’d like. But despite those positives, after playing through the whole game, I’m not sure I can recommend it much. It has some pretty glaring flaws, completely unrelated to it being different from the rest of the series. Ultimately, those flaws cost me a lot of enjoyment, and keep the game from being anything further than okay in my eyes. In one of the most consistently quality game franchises of all time, this is even more noticeable. Perhaps some can enjoy it more than I, but to me it is the worst game in the Legend of Zelda series. Consider yourself encouraged and warned, respectively.
...seriously though, screw the lives thing.