Review – Why fans hate Zelda 2 and why they are dead wrong

Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link on NES is the most divisive in the series. Let’s review this game and see why so many fans are so wrong.

I should probably be out front with this: I love Zelda 2.

Zelda 2 was the first Zelda game I ever played. It was actually one of the first NES games I ever played, at a friend’s house back in what must have been close to 1988. My family had no Nintendo or any game console at the time, so this was one of my very first Nintendo experiences.

Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link link pic
Link does not care what you think.

I remember taking turns with my neighbor, and while she played I would read through the instruction manual. Of course I was about 5 or 6 at the time, so I was mostly just looking at the pictures. But it was fascinating and fun. I remember how the music filled me with a sense of excitement and adventure.

Before that moment, most of my gaming experiences revolved around the Atari 2600, which was still fun, especially taking turns with my sister at Grandma’s house, jamming on Pitfall! and getting frustrated together. But Zelda 2 felt like a completely new concept. Those graphics! That music! The scope of that game world! I was hooked!

So yeah. My review may be biased. So what? When it comes to reviewing retro games, the nostalgia is an important consideration. People don’t look at cave paintings because they’re beautiful works of art, they look at them because they stand as a poignant reminder of who we are today, where we came from, and how we got here. Retro reviews that ignore nostalgia are ignoring an important part of gaming history.

So…

Let’s talk about Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link for the NES.

First Impressions

We’re really talking about two first impressions here. We’ve already discussed the first first impression, back in ye olden tymes. I was taken by this game from the first moment I laid eyes on it. It was amazing. After seeing this game, I knew I had to own the system and began a year-long campaign to get an NES into my house.

The second first impression was the triumphant return to this game many years later, as I turned my jaded, grown-up eyes to it for the first time all over again.

Considering the limitations of the 8-bit era, and comparing to the rest of the NES catalog (including Zelda 1), Zelda 2 still manages to impress both in terms of the graphics, the gameplay, the sound, and the legend!

Taken completely out of the context of the Zelda franchise, ignoring the “standard” format for a Zelda game, this is just a solid NES platformer. The music is great and sounds really unlike any other NES game. 

The opening sequence as the game first boots up may be one of the most iconic title screens of all time. The starry night sky. The glittering meteor falling across the open sky. The music swells from nothing and climaxes into an opening theme that is definitively Zelda-ish, but certainly not the “traditional” Zelda theme.

From that first impression, players today and 30 years ago can tell they’re in for a treat.

Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link manual art
Why are NPCs always getting invaded!?

Story

Zelda 2 is a true sequel to the original. It takes place years later, when Hyrule is rid of Ganon (thanks to Link’s actions in Zelda 1), but his minions are still around, terrorizing the kingdom. To resurrect Ganon, the monster army seeks to sacrifice Link, and sprinkle his legendary blood on Ganon’s ashes. 

To thicken the plot, a mysterious mark appears on Link’s hand. He shows it to Impa, who reveals the true nature of the Triforce and reveals the existence of another Princess Zelda, who has been locked away in a deep sleep. To restore balance to Hyrule, Link must recover the completed Triforce and use its power to awaken this other Zelda. Let’s just call her… Zelda 2!?

Keep in mind: The original Zelda from the first game is still alive, rocking and rolling to restore Hyrule. She’s cooking. She’s cleaning. She’s ruling. Meanwhile Link’s off on some grand, dangerous adventure to awaken Zelda 2 and potentially completely usurp Zelda 1? Not sure how they planned to deal with that.

So that’s the story. And it’s all explained in about a dozen pages in the Zelda 2 instruction manual. (Courtesy of Nintendo)

Zelda 2: The Adventure of LInk - Link and Impa

While the plot itself doesn’t have any more holes than your typical NES game, playing through the game organically depends largely on collecting clues from the townsfolk you encounter throughout the game. There are a few places where the citizens fail to adequately convey the quest, but nothing near as broken as Castlevania II’s translation.

We’re all familiar with Error (or should be, at least), and that’s one golden piece of gaming history that we would be completely without if Zelda II hadn’t got weird.

Zelda 2 - I am Error
He’s an inside joke. If you don’t know about his friend Bagu, then you’re outside the joke.

Setting

Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link is a huge adventure, taking place on an overworld map that was on par with the biggest NES adventures of the day like Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior. 

Allegedly, the entire map of Zelda 1 represents only a small rectangle of the Zelda 2 map. The world of Zelda 2 presents players with a much vaster swathe of Hyrule, including lakes, mountain caves, swamps (both regular and lava), graveyards, deserts, forests, coastlines, islands, and the list goes on. 

Zelda 2 NES overworld map
All credit due to the incredible nesmaps.com

To say Zelda 2 was ambitious doesn’t do it justice. Ambition doesn’t imply success, only an attempt. But The Adventure of Link succeeded in what it set out to do: Bring the Zelda lore into a massive and robust world. (Map image credit to NESMaps.com)

The introduction of NPCs was one way Nintendo brought players deeper into Link’s world, and it still is. Breath of the Wild still features names and places familiar from Zelda 2. 

In my opinion, Zelda 2 is such an improvement over the original that it’s hard to believe they’re both on the same console. Then again, I guess Zelda 2 was actually (ackchually) developed for the Famicom Disk System, so I guess that one’s debatable.

Bottom line: For the NES, Zelda 2 represented a higher caliber, better-rendered and more fully-realized game world than the majority of games for that system. Including its predecessor. And while the overworld is nearly as robust as the deepest RPGs of the time, the actual side-scrolling towns and dungeons (especially later in the game) are absolutely massive and sprawling in their own right.

Zelda 2 The Adventure of Link Iron Knuckle battle
If a n00b thinks Zelda 2 is too hard, these guys are probably to blame.

Gameplay

Zelda 2 has a reputation for being difficult. And it is. But it’s not much harder than many other games for the NES. And there are plenty of more difficult games. Adventure of Link balances on the difficult side of average for the system. It’s challenging for sure, especially the final slog to and through the last palace, but it’s entirely beatable if you practice enough.

More relevant than the difficulty are the controls and interface. And this game nails both.

Part of the game’s difficulty is probably a result of Link’s limited striking distance. Of course, it’s better when his life bar is full and he can shoot those sword lasers. But that never lasts too long and soon you’ll have a partial life bar and stabbing enemies close to your face. Timing is everything in that case.

Throughout the game, Link discovers a number of attacks that make him a more versatile fighter, particularly the ability to stab up and down as he jumps. Stabbing an enemy’s head will result in Link bouncing off and surviving, rather than taking damage. It doesn’t work for all enemies, but it’s a neat trick and easy to pull off cleanly.

Bosses are challenging, but not ridiculously so (up until the end). They are also creative, with varied gimmicks, attacks and sizes. The real difficulty comes from the blue Iron Knuckles with their constant blocking and relentless ranged attacks. You’d better get good with the shield if you want to survive to the boss.

Zelda 2 bosses - Horsehead screenshot
Everyone remembers their first Zelda 2 boss.

It may be tough, but the gameplay and controls in Zelda 2 are silky-smooth and super-responsive. You’re only limited by your own reaction time and how much practice you put in. This is a real git gud game, where there is no technical reason for you to suck. Just your own suckness

Graphics and Sound

Shigeru Miyamoto wanted Zelda 2 to be an entirely new experience from Zelda 1. And he succeeded admirably. Elements like side-scrolling, the ability to jump, the addition of RPG-style character development, all contributed to a very very different Zelda game. But he could never have guessed the gallons of fanboy tears that would be spilled over the next 30 years.

(We’ll talk more about the revisionist-history fanboy snowflakery later in this post. Don’t worry.)

The signature sound of this game, with its wavery echo effect (?) is unlike any other NES game I’m familiar with. But it sounds hella neat. And it’s consistent throughout the game.

The soundtrack is completely new, but rings true to the franchise and is jamming and epic all on its own. Go back and listen to that opening sequence if you don’t believe me.

Graphically, Z2 is a massive improvement over the original. By making Link’s overworld sprite tiny, the developers were able to convey the sense of hugeness in Hyrule’s overworld. And by making Link’s side-scrolling sprite large, they were able to cram more detail into the backgrounds and enemies. It works very well.

The variety of environments is impressive for an 8-bit cartridge. While caverns look more or less the same throughout the game, the palace dungeons have a variety of textures and colors to set them apart and keep things fresh.

The old NES trick of recoloring enemy sprites to represent different difficulties is here, but it’s not overdone (looking at you, Final Fantasy) and there are enough new enemies throughout the game to keep things fresh.

I’ve alluded to this already, but it bears repeating. I am astounded that Nintendo’s devs were able to cram so much game into an 8-bit cart.

Zelda 2 - RPG elements screenshot
The introduction of RPG elements to the Zelda franchise is divisive in itself.

Controversy

No discussion of Zelda 2 is complete without a vicious jab. Whether that jab is at the game itself, or at the game’s haters depends on the writer. In this post, spineless Zelda 2 haters will find no quarter. Zelda 2 is an 8-bit masterpiece. 

Sure, if you compare it apples to apples with A Link to the Past, it will seem crappy. Line it up against Link’s Awakening or Ocarina and it’ll have a tough time. But don’t do that.

Remember: Adventure of Link is an 8-bit game on an 8-bit console. You have to compare it to what was around at the time. Zelda 2 sold over 4 million copies. It was the 8th-highest-selling NES game. Whatever Z2-hating fair-weather fans are saying today is entirely at odds with the game’s sales history and what those of us that were there actually remember. It’s was mind-blowing back in the 80s, and it’s a pretty good game today.

Why is it such a divisive Zelda title? Why is it the target of so much hate? I’ve made a list.

Zelda 2 overworld screenshot
Hyrule Castle is well protected by its lake of fanboy tears.

Why do people hate Zelda 2 so much?

1. It deviates from the Zelda formula.

Some claim they didn’t love it in the 80s because they were expecting a top-down hack n’ slash. I can’t speak to whether they were disappointed or not, but the idea that the series is completely dependent on repeating a formula is garbage. That would mean that Breath of the Wild is a “bad Zelda game.” BotW also completely disregards the now-established Zelda formula. 

And if we’re worried about which Zelda games break formula and are therefore bad, Majora’s Mask would be the “worst” Zelda game of all! (It actually is though.)

If you’re the type of snob that turns up your nose at side-scrolling platformers, then you don’t deserve Zelda 2 anyway. It’s an excellent game, regardless of the “formula.”

2. It’s hard.

I think this is the real reason for all the hate. Zelda 2 is uniquely challenging in the series.

Yes, Zelda 1 was pretty hard if you were playing it blindly. But once you learn your way through the game, it becomes a cakewalk. Go get the items in the right order to power up Link and breeze right through.

A Link to the Past is easy. It was one of the few SNES games I ever beat, and it seems to have set a precedent for Zelda being a relatively casual series that players of any skill level can play and enjoy. But Zelda 2 came out way before that precedent was set, at a time when most games were pretty hard. 

You have to git gud. That’s it. You have to learn the moves, execute them well and consistently, reach the platforms accurately and be actually good at the game to move forward. 

I suspect that many of the Zelda 2 haters tried this game, got their little feelings hurt, and now pretend not to like it to justify their never having finished it.

Don’t worry, kid. Games were just harder back then.

Zelda 2 Return of Ganon game over screen
This is the game’s main screen.

The Verdict

It should be no surprise that I give Zelda 2 a score of 3 out of 3 Triforces. I did start a petition for a Zelda II remake, after all. (It was not successful.)

Aside from being one of my first-and-still favorite NES games, it is easily in my top 3 Zelda games. Haters will keep on hating, I suppose, but they’re missing out on a real gem. Yes, this game’s different. But you can’t just hate something for being different. Being different really is a positive thing, and even if you don’t want to call this a Zelda game, it’s worth giving it a thoughtful play. Abandon your expectations, ya big baby. Try something outside your comfort zone and if you really don’t like it, you’re welcome to hush.

 

3 comments

  1. Patrick Diggins says:

    I agree 100%. I loved Zelda 2 back in the day and still do today! I would love a similar Review for Super Mario Bros. 2, which is also an exquisite game that gets unreasonable hate. The 80s NES games were great because there was no “established formula” just great ideas.

  2. The trio of NES sequels on that always get hate – Mario 2, Zelda 2, and Castlevania 2. They were all considered too different from the previous and feel like they were under appreciated.

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