Embracing The Weird: Reflections on [The Legend of] Zelda II

I Am Error. You should meet my friend Bug.
Contrary to popular belief, this is the intended text.

What can one say about a game developed nearly 40 years ago that hasn’t already been said in the year 2021? Despite literally everything possible being said about this title, I’d like to put in my own two cents. It’s an interesting piece of gaming history, and–if you will forgive the tired trope–really not as bad as people may think. Perhaps if it had been allowed to evolve the way it had initially been constructed, we would be talking about it in an entirely different context. The game, of course, is Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. Not “The Legend of Zelda II”, mind you, but simply “Zelda II” which is strange, and–apparently–only because of the habit in the era for games to have short titles. Of course, there’s also the habit of the “cool kids” to shorthand titles as an indication of their savviness, so the two phenomena probably played into each other. The second entry in the Legend of Zelda franchise–beyond its chosen nomenclature–is a strange duck that exists the way it does mostly due to the experimental nature of Nintendo in the 1980s combined with their cautious growth in markets outside of Japan.

Now you're playing with power!
Compton’s was basically this design, but a store.

It may come as some surprise to people that know me that I did not really grow up playing Zelda II or, really, many of the Zelda franchise games beyond the first one. My only real experience with Zelda II prior to my adulthood was playing this “strange game” at Compton’s World of Nintendo–an independently-owned Nintendo boutique at Town Center Mall in Kennesaw, Georgia. Walking into Compton’s was like walking into a Nintendo advertisement: all very geometric, black and grey decor like the design of the promotional posters that came in those early cartridges punctuated with a few of those sparkly fiber-optic “World of Nintendo” signs for good measure. The store sold all the latest releases along with every kind of licensed ephemera imaginable, but the real draw were the 3 Nintendo M-82 demo kiosks near the front entrance. At Compton’s, you could choose from a maximum of thirty-six different video games–ALL FOR FREE (versus the couple dozen games at either Aladdin’s Castle or Jolly Time that each cost at least a quarter a pop), so for an elementary-school-age kid without an NES, it was an experience to relish! It was here that I had a lot of my first experiences with Nintendo, a year or so before my parents bought one, and the one that still stands out in my mind is Zelda II.

I still kinda want one of these signs.

I had played and enjoyed The Legend of Zelda on occasion with friends, and I really wanted to get into Zelda II, and I would play it any time I was at the mall despite the fact that it may have been the most confusing thing I had played since attempting to play Gyromite without the benefit of R.O.B. Of course, playing at Compton’s, I lacked the luxury of Nintendo Power–or even just an instruction manual–so I was flying blind trying to apply what I knew about TLOZ to this side-scrolling environment with towns and semi-random encounters.

At its most basic, Zelda II, appealed to me at a visual level and the strangeness intrigued me that I wanted to understand it. Here was this strange game that was so visually different from its predecessor that didn’t play anything like its predecessor, but it was such a visceral experience from the very first screen seeing Link as a full-size person and Zelda lying there in the background. You immediately know what the objective is and what the stakes are, so you leave the palace and you’re back on the familiar top-down screen, but the baddies appear randomly, and you try to strike them with your sword when–BAM! You’re in a side-scrolling environment and everything is different and you can’t reach the monsters with your dinky little sword, and you can’t jump very high, and things are coming at you from every direction when you try to run away. If you’re lucky, you’ll get away, then try to go in that cave to find a better sword, but you just get killed by some invisible enemy in the dark, and then the machine resets because your time is up, and you just stand there confused thinking the game itself has conspired against you (games cheat, you know). It’s just a very, very different experience, and to a little kid, I think it was something more interesting in concept rather than in practice.

I finally broke down and bought my own copy at the SoCal Retro Gaming Expo a few years back.

Side note: I think a lot of things that I get myself involved in are more interesting in concept than in practice. For example, I like to think of how nice it might be to have certain things exist or I romanticize certain concepts and want to will them into existence, but doing so points out all the various reasons why that concept doesn’t work in reality. Nevertheless, I persist in making this thing exist and I enjoy the process and the end result for some time. I feel like this is what Zelda II is for me: a very interesting concept that promised to be an immersive experience (with the leveling system and world building), but in practice it was just a beast. Of course, not knowing the reality, I did want a copy so that I could properly play it through. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t have an opportunity to get a copy for some time because there were so many games that caught my attention over the years–especially licensed titles–and when you only purchase at most 1-2 games per year, you have to be more discriminating!

Since I could never wrap my head around Zelda II, I didn’t pay much attention to it until I was in high school in the late 1990s. The Nesticle emulator had just landed and I, again, tried to trudge through Zelda II before rage-quitting to savestate-grind my way through Batman. Around the same time, Funcoland opened a store in Austell and I quickly became a “retro gamer” and “retro enthusiast” before such a concept really existed. I was cheap, and new games were expensive, so I would drop $20 a Funcoland and walk out with a stack of 2600, NES, SNES, and Genesis carts (since the PlayStation and N64 debut in 1995, even Genesis was already considered “retro”). There were still a few titles that held their values, among them were Super Metroid, Ecco The Dolphin, and Zelda II so even at Funcoland in 1999, these titles commanded obscene amounts of money!

GameStop could burn for all I care if it meant getting FuncoLand and Electronics Boutique back.

With the release of the NES Classic Edition, I finally had a real chance to play this confounding title start-to-finish (and with an instruction manual and archived copy of Nintendo Power to help)! Naturally, I was very frustrated by the game. Many reviewers will point out that Zelda II is not a “difficult” game, per se, but that it is very unfair. I’m inclined to agree with that assessment in that it’s not a very skill-intensive game once you’ve learned the mechanics and know where you’re going, but there are a lot of design choices that make it “unfair” to the player. Design choices like placing specific enemies in specific places that make it difficult or impossible to attack without taking damage or concentrating magic-draining enemies in dungeons where a lot of magic is necessary to proceed. Of course, the most heinous drawback is the “Game Over Return To Start” mechanic that forces the player to traverse the entirety of the game map (and it’s a big map) to return to a dungeon in progress. Such a setback is arbitrary and inexcusable other than for the fact that developers were trying to squeeze as much playtime out of titles as possible back then (hence the description “Nintendo hard”). The Classic’s save states served as a balm to soothe some of the frustration by eliminating those arbitrary design choices, making the game much more enjoyable while no less challenging.

Unfortunately, there are some so-called “purists” out there that will balk at my use of save states, saying that I “cheated” because I didn’t “beat the game as intended” or that my experience was somehow hollow because I didn’t have to practice for months to pass a very particular section or that somehow I’m not a “real gamer” because I didn’t beat the game “fairly”. These sad people will look for excuses to decry someone else’s enjoyment of “their” activity simply because it is a different experience than what they deem “correct”. To them I want to remind that each experience is unique and that each individual has goals and desires that frame their enjoyment (or non-enjoyment) of a particular activity. If I enjoyed the process of playing the game–even if I used some handicaps–is that not cause for celebration? We, as a society, often spend too much time looking for ways to separate ourselves that we don’t celebrate our similarities. Gatekeeping is anathema to joy, and I prefer to celebrate shared experiences rather than waste energy attempting to discredit them. Zelda II is an unforgiving game with very tight tolerances in many sections that can become frustrating and not-fun very quickly, but using modern tools to build in a little bit of slack makes the game approachable, enjoyable, and keeps it relevant to newer audiences.

So Zelda II is an interesting title within the franchise, and as such, a lot of people refer to it as a “black sheep” or misfit. And while it is a sharp departure from the pilot entry of the series (and, in hindsight, even those that came after), I think that these people do so because they’re missing a lot of the context that comes into play when we discuss Zelda II as part of the overall franchise. When the Famicom and NES were really starting to gain popularity, the home video game industry was still in its early stages. As such, Nintendo was still being very experimental with their approach to game design. Shigeru Miyamoto was really playing with this new medium and coming up with all kinds of novel designs based on relatively simple game mechanics. These game concepts were entirely new and many of them became the archetypes we look at historically when describing many modern games: the side-scrolling platformer embodied by Super Mario Bros. and the top-down adventuring dungeon crawler that became The Legend of Zelda.

Tadashi Sugiyama

Miyamoto also had a team helmed by director Tadashi Sugiyama playing around with a side-scrolling, sword-and-sorcery RPG that borrowed elements from tabletop games like the ever-popular-at-the-time Dungeons & Dragons. This would be a game that really leaned into the sword mechanics, enabling a player to strike high and low, block, and use these novel upward and downward strikes to progress through the game. Sugiyama’s team developed this concept while Miyamoto personally worked on what would become The Legend of Zelda with Takashi Tezuka. The two games developed alongside each other through the mid-eighties with TLOZ being released in 1986.

The next part of the story is a bit fuzzy: there are reports that say that Miyamoto wanted a new and completely different game for the sequel to the wildly successful first Zelda game, and there are reports that say that Nintendo decided to shoehorn Link, Zelda, Ganon, et al into the sword-and-sorcery title already in development to capitalize on the popularity of the Zelda franchise. Considering the fact that both games were already in development at roughly the same time and that Miyamoto did not actively take part in its development, it is my opinion that the game that became Zelda II was originally slated to be its own independent franchise similar to Kid Icarus or Metroid. Lending credence to this theory, Sugiyama himself stated in an interview with Nintendo Everything that

Rather than being a continuation of the series, it started as a new sword and shield type of action game. We were experimenting while producing the game so we didn’t really have the first game’s systems in mind while developing it. As for it being unique within the series, we were searching for new ways to play so you could say it’s like a spin-off. At the end of development we decided on a story and that Link would be 16 years old then attached [The Legend of Zelda 2] and released it as the second game in the series.

I think that it would have been interesting for this “sword-and-shield” game as its own entity and really explore its own world with its own mythology instead of the sloppily-retconned notion that the Zelda from the first game wasn’t the actual princess (“Sorry, Link, but our princess is in another title”). In hindsight, it did perform very well and established some extended mythology for the Zelda franchise. There is a lot of Zelda II’s DNA in later titles with character names and musical cues alluding to the franchise’s “black sheep”, but I also think that had it not been saddled with the legacy of the first game, it could have received better reviews without the burden of comparison. Since it was developed as its own game, it’s really not fair to compare Zelda II to the original. It’s not a top-down Zelda game, but it was never meant to be, and without that comparison, Zelda II is actually a pretty solid classic Nintendo title.

I think that if Zelda II had been released as its own franchise pilot and allowed to really stand on its own merits, we would very likely be having different conversations about it. We certainly would not be talking about it in the context of the wider Zelda franchise, and, I think, a lot of the hate that it receives wouldn’t exist. It’s entirely possible that this hypothetical game could have spawned one of the great Nintendo franchises–its leveling system combined with powerup collection placing it somewhere on the spectrum between Metroid and The Legend of Zelda–instead of a misfit, RPG-like entry along the lines of Castlevania II: Simon’s Curse. It’s a worthwhile play, and correcting for the obscene, arbitrarily difficult elements, it’s a lot of fun!

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