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Zelda II: The Adventure of Link: The "black sheep" is good

Like some other NES classics, the sequel to the groundbreaking Legend of Zelda goes in a different direction from its predecessor. It's still an action-adventure game, but the overhead perspective has been exchanged for side-scrolling platforming. Zelda II has the reputation of being the series' "black sheep." However, it holds up well against most other NES games. Featuring a world map with random encounters, experience points, and a menu of magic spells, Zelda II is the closest the series has ever come to being an RPG.

The choice to use side-scrolling makes sense when you consider that other successful action-adventure games of the time, such as Rygar and Metroid, were side-scrolling platformers. Zelda II doesn't feature much platforming by comparison. There are a few lava pits to navigate, but no platforms suspended in the air. Jumping is more important in the sword-based combat system that is central to gameplay.

Link can slash his sword at eye level or while crouching. His most effective technique is a jumping strike, which can hit above the shields carried by enemies like Stalfos, Ironknuckle, Paltamu, and Fokker. Zelda II lives or dies on its sword combat. Those who dislike it are unlikely to enjoy, let alone finish, the game. It takes getting used to, but once Link levels up some—and especially once a swordsman teaches him the downward thrust attack (hold ↓ while jumping)—enemies become more manageable.

The overhead perspective of the original is used for an overworld map that looks like it was ripped straight from Dragon Warrior (which preceded Zelda II in Japan). There are forests, deserts, grasslands, towns, caves, and roads, among other locations. Whenever Link leaves the road, wandering monsters appear as moving silhouettes. A slime indicates an easy encounter while a bipedal monster means a hard encounter. Occasionally a healing fairy appears instead of a monster. You can try to avoid encounters, though they move more quickly than Link. When an encounter begins, Link is whisked to a side-scrolling battleground with enemies. These are valuable opportunities to gain experience points (XP). Sometimes enemies also drop bags containing additional XP or potions that restore Link's magic. There are no health drops, unfortunately, so Link must rely on his healing spell.
Towns and townsfolk enter the series with Zelda II. In towns Link encounters people who teach him spells and sword techniques, gets clues about the plot, and visits women who refill his health and magic. There are no shops or even Rupees! The game is notorious for the poorly translated text some of them speak (though it's nothing compared to Castlevania II), as well as the grating sound effect that plays as each letter slowly appears on screen. One man says, "I am error," though ironically this is not a mistranslation. It's supposed to be a joke, as another man says, "I am Bug." However, that man's name is mistranslated, as Bagu. Without its complement, "I am Error" just looks like, well, an error.

Zelda II is the only game in the beloved series to employ an experience system. Each defeated monster (except the weak Molblins and Kobolds) earns Link XP. Once he's accumulated the amount shown in the top-right corner, a menu of three options pops up: life, magic, and attack. Life reduces how much damage Link suffers. Attack increases how much damage he deals. Magic decreases how much of his magic meter he expends casting spells. Once XP is spent, the next level up of that kind will cost more. It's more efficient to level the skills up evenly, especially since any unspent XP is lost upon a Game Over.
Unlike other Zelda games, Link has three lives. You can get more lives by collecting dolls of Link hidden around Hyrule. Each doll can be collected only once. If Link dies three times, an image of Ganon appears with the words "RETURN OF GANON." This means that his minions have resurrected him using Link's blood. Annoyingly, Link restarts back at Hyrule Castle, so you have to retrace your steps back to wherever he died. Mercifully, when you die in the final dungeon, you're permitted to restart at the dungeon entrance, so you don't have to replay the arduous gauntlet of enemies that precede it! 

The plot of the game is that Princess Zelda has been cursed by a sleeping spell. Only the Triforce of Courage (not to be confused with the original game's Triforce of Wisdom) can awaken her. It's locked away in a castle protected by a magic barrier, which can be removed by placing crystals in six other palaces around Hyrule. According to the manual, the sleeping Princess Zelda is actually the ancestor of the Zelda from the first game, who's been asleep for centuries. However, there's no way to know this from the game itself!
Zelda II introduces the magic meter, which has since appeared in many Zelda games. However, this is the only one in which Link casts spells without needing an item. (In A Link to the Past, for example, he uses medallions.) Link can learn a total of eight helpful spells from wizards found in towns. Link can only learn a new spell after accomplishing a certain task, such as recovering a missing child. Spells wear off whenever he transitions screens. The first spell, Shield, turns Link's clothing red, halving damage (like the red ring in the original). Jump allows Link to jump high, letting him access things he couldn't otherwise. He needs it to enter chimneys in some towns. It's also good for making long jumps. It's essential to reach the hit-zone (head) of the penultimate boss, Thunderbird. The Life spell isn't needed to beat the game, but it's the one players will use the most, as it partially heals Link.

As for the rest of the spells, Fairy transforms Link into a fairy, so he may fly over stretches of lava in certain dungeons. Reflect enables Link's shield to reflect Wizzrobes' projectiles (there's no Hylian or big shield). Fire lets Link shoot fireballs, which is the only way to hurt stronger enemies like Tektites, Basilisks, and Skettlars (one-eyed scorpions). Thunder hurts all enemies on the screen and is needed to defeat the Thunderbird boss. Finally, the mysterious Spell makes a house (containing the magical key) appear at the dead end in Kasuto. Only on this playthrough did I learn that it also transforms all enemies on screen into different enemies. This is useful in graveyards: mobs of dangerous Moas (flying eyes) may be transmuted into harmless Bits and Bots (slimes).

Zelda II has seven labyrinths (two less than the original). Unfortunately, their layouts are repetitive and uninteresting. Almost every screen of every dungeon looks more or less the same. It's easy to get lost in the larger ones. The final dungeon is enormous with lots of dead ends. It's not an enjoyable way to close out the game, in my opinion. Most egregious of all, dungeons lack any puzzles to solve, not even pushing blocks. Link wanders through them, fighting the same enemies over and over. The only thing to do besides fight is search for keys and the dungeon's item.
Until Link casts Thunder, Thunderbird is invulnerable.
Fortunately, the boss fights are fun. Each boss is unique, and the challenge level is moderate. The game's final boss is Shadow Link, which has a classic fantasy feel to it. It's a tough fight, as it's hard to break through its defenses and it moves quickly. The fight can be cheesed: have Link crouch at the left edge of the screen and just keep stabbing. 

Nintendo somewhat misjudged what made The Legend of Zelda so successful and opted to replace Link's wide arsenal of tools and weapons with spells. None of the secondary weapons returns: there's no boomerang, bow and arrow, bombs, or magic rod. A few items have returned: the candle, raft, flute, and magical key. However, the candle merely lets Link see enemies in caves. A new item, the cross, similarly lets Link see invisible Moas in graveyards. Most of the items, like the raft, flute, hammer, and boots, are only used on the world map. The boots, for example, let Link walk on water in one part of the world map. Nintendo may have felt that, with the B button assigned to the sword and the A button to jump, they couldn't use secondary items. A spell may be readied from a sub-screen (press START), then cast by pushing SELECT.

You may wonder how Link can find secret paths without bombs. Well, that's another strike against Zelda II: there are few secret paths to find. Secret areas are accessed by entering certain unmarked squares on the world map. The game teaches you early on the rewards of searching the map: a narrow beach path by the first dungeon leads to a suspicious square of forest, where Link finds a heart container! Other spots hide magic containers (to increase the magic meter) or the aforementioned 1-up dolls. In a couple instances at the end of the game, you have to work even harder: playing the flute on a certain space makes the penultimate castle appear. More obscure is the hidden town: Link must clear a certain square of woods with the hammer. This was the only part of the game that stumped me, because I didn't know pressing A did anything on forest tiles—I thought it only destroyed the boulders blocking roads. How in Hyrule is Link felling trees with a hammer!? The game can be puzzling, but if you search the map and pay attention to the townspeople's clues, you will eventually find the way forward. For example, I've heard people say that it's unclear that you need to cast Spell at the dead end in Kasuto to obtain the magical key, but someone in the town tells Link that there's something strange at the dead end. Given that he learns Spell in the same town, it's reasonable to try it there. 
The game made great fodder for strategy guides, such as the Official Nintendo Player's Guide (which, however, covers only the first half). The fourth and fifth issues of Nintendo Power, published in January and March of 1989, respectively, cover the first and second halves of Zelda II. This was just after the game finally appeared on American shelves, following a microchip shortage. I feel for the players that had to wait two months to get maps and walkthroughs for the latter half of the game! Nowadays, of course, people can look online.

Zelda II doesn't quite rise to the level of "NES hard," in my opinion. I enjoy the challenge and thus think well of the game. Only a few times did I get frustrated by repeated deaths. It's crushing to lose hundreds or thousands of XP when you were almost to a new level, but in truth Link levels up quickly enough that I always have maxed him out by the final dungeon. There are several opportunities to grind XP safely. If you're having trouble, stop and level before pushing ahead. The beginning of every palace has a statue that you can hit. About half the time it gives you a red potion. Otherwise, it generates an Ironknuckle. Defeat it for 100 XP, then exit and re-enter the palace. With the Life spell, you can repeat this process indefinitely, earning about 1000 XP every few minutes. Also, since Link gets his XP automatically filled up after each dungeon, you can make sure to level up right before beating the boss to maximize the free XP.

With few secret paths and puzzles and no secondary weapons, Zelda II can be a disappointment. However, if you compare it to other NES games instead of other Zelda games, it's well above average. I'd venture it belongs in the top 5% of NES games. I mean, it's better than Kid Icarus and Rygar, which are both good. It only suffers from the fact that it's the worst Zelda game. But as it turns out, even the worst Zelda game is still really fun.

Grade: A

I played on my cute little Game & Watch.
Linked Reviews
"Zelda II always seems to get a lot of hate for being so different from the rest of the series, but if you can see past the things it does differently there's actually a very addictive, engaging little game in there."
— Marcel van Duyn, Nintendo Life, 8/10

"It has become 'trendy' to say that Zelda II and Super Mario Bros. 2 are not good games. This is, of course, ludicrous. No one in their right mind thought these were bad games when they were released."
— Pat Contri, Ultimate Nintendo: Guide to the NES Library, 4.5/5

"Zelda II's entire system suggested it was trying to be more of an RPG, and in many ways, it was a huge success."
IGN, #21 of Top 100

"Zelda II still stands out as a huge, complex, groundbreaking game."
— Jeremy Parish, NES Works

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