Every series seems to have its Black Sheep. For one reason or another, the go-to answer for the worst game in the Zelda series, besides the Zelda games on the CD-i of course, tends to be Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. Why exactly does this title get so much ire from gamers and the Zelda community? Was it such a bad game? Should I be talking about it as a Bad Game That Should Have Been Great? No, and it’s because I truly believe that Zelda II is a Game You Should Have Played.
I got Skyward Sword at the end of November as a birthday present and since then I’d expect to be utterly finished with it, what with it being a month removed from my first getting it and it being a highly-anticipated Zelda game. And yet, for some reason I’m not playing it tonight. To be frank, I haven’t played it for over a week, and I’m not even half way through it yet. Instead, I took a two-week diversion to replay Zelda II on my 3DS thanks to the Ambassador Program.
For a Zelda game, the plot is actually somewhat original compared to other entries. Not only that, but no Zelda game since has replicated the gameplay style. Instead of the top-down perspective seen in the original Legend of Zelda or A Link to the Past, Zelda II is an action sidescroller. Link gets an item in each temple, but it can’t be used other than on the overworld map to break boulders or see in caves. The items are actually just pretty unimportant other than a means to access the next temple.
The whole game here revolves around a very simple combat mechanic. Link can stab with his sword while standing or crouched, plus can learn an upward and downward thrust attack. Beyond a few basic magic spells (you’ll get really friendly with Heal pretty quick), that’s about all you’ll need to know, but mastering the combat is a trip that’s vastly rewarding.
It’s all based on the risk/reward system, perpetuated even more by experience points. For the first and only time ever, Link can level up, thus getting more health, magic, or sword strength, but in order to level up you have to earn enough points before running out of lives. Lose all your lives and it’s game over, meaning you lose all the experience points you haven’t banked. So then, should you press your luck and fight through some Darknuts in the next temple, or play it safe and level grind in the woods on weaker enemies?
Going back to that plot, things are kind of strange here. Ganon is dead and only makes an appearance if Link gets a game over as Ganon’s followers are trying to resurrect him using Link’s blood. I mentioned how dark that was a while ago, yes? Okay. The point is, there isn’t even an ultimate villain that’s trying to kill Link or threatening the land. Princess Zelda, the original that the legend is based on, is asleep and needs to be awoken via the Trifoce. Link has the Triforces of Power and Wisdom as collected in the previous game, but the Triforce of Courage awaits him at the end of this one. Stranger still, Link doesn’t pick up a new piece or gem or medallion or anything when he beats a temple. Rather, he places a stone into a statue, effectively making this the only Zelda game of knowledge where the point is to leave the temple with less than you took in.
I really like the idea of the whole game not being a quest to defeat a boss character, but an extended metaphor for showing courage and conquering one’s own dark side. The clencher is the final temple known as the Great Palace, probably the single hardest Zelda dungeon ever designed due to the sheer brutality of it all. After slogging through the toughest enemies of the game, you finally reach the bottom and fight the terrifying Thunderbird, the guardian of the Triforce of Courage. Upon destroying it, you move into a room where a little man, possibly the Old Man from the first game, separates you from your shadow. And Dark Link is born! The fight is unbelievably difficult, especially after just coming from a boss fight and the death march through the Great Palace (unless you know the trick of crouching in the corner and stabbing at his knees).
Only after defeating his literal dark side can Link possess the entirety of the Triforce and awaken Princess Zelda. Think of the annoying fetch quest for the Triforce shards in The Wind Waker but elongate it into the entire story and remove the annoying fetch quest part. Making the plot essentially feel like a side quest from another Zelda game actually makes this more enjoyable for me since it’s so far outside the norm. Hey, variety is good sometimes.
Seeing as how this is an NES game made by Nintendo, you have more than enough methods to currently play it. If you don’t have access to the original cartridge, which itself is easily found for under $10, you can download it from the Wii’s Virtual Console, try and find it on the GameCube’s special Legend of Zelda Collector’s Edition disc, snag it on the Game Boy Advance, or most recently unwrap it via the 3DS’ Ambassador Program (perhaps you’re a member and just haven’t downloaded Zelda II or played it yet). So many ways to play it, no excuse not to.
And that’s really all there is to say. It’s a challenging title since it was built back in the days of Nintendo Hard, so don’t expect to get very far without some basic skills and a walkthrough. Beyond that though, don’t miss out on this gem just because you keep hearing it’s the “bad” Zelda game. It’s not. It’s one of the better Zelda games. Now Phantom Hourglass, boy, there was a bad Zelda game. Discuss.