I don’t really get where all the hate for Zelda 2 comes from. It’s one of my favorite games in the NES library, and after I got done restoring my original NES last year, it was the first cartridge that I popped in.
The complaints seem to boil down to:
1) It’s not a Zelda game!
2) It’s too hard!
You’ve gone over in great detail why it’s a great Zelda game, so I won’t rehash that here. But if any game can claim to have invented the “Zelda formula” that Aonuma continues to lean on for the basic structure of his games, it’s this one. It at least gives you that great RPG experience where enemies who used to torment you in the beginning go down with a flick of your little finger by the end. The only Aonuma Zelda game that I felt powerful in was A Link Between Worlds.
The complainers are right about the difficulty, though. Zelda 2 punishes anyone who isn’t prepared for it. The enemies don’t f*** around and will quickly end your life if you’re stupid. There are lots of jumps over pits with Goddamned Bats doing their best to knock you into them. The temple layouts are confusing and full of dirty tricks like invisible walls. A Game Over means losing all your experience and starting back at the beginning of the temple or the world. It’s not always clear where to go or what to do next. The hammer maze and everything after the sixth temple are both brutal difficulty spikes that aren’t really matched by any other NES game, save perhaps Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!
I view all of these “problems” as positives:
1) It is WAY more satisfying to defeat an enemy that has both the means and intelligence to kill you. It’s why playing Halo on Legendary is the only correct way to play it, and why Gears of War 3 sucks compared to the first two. An enemy that poses no challenge is just an obstacle, no different from a locked door. The game is mostly about killing bad guys with your sword, and that sword combat is awesome. Duels with Ironknuckles are and remain some of the most tense and brightest highlights of my gaming memories, along with finally striking down those tough temple bosses.
2) The platforming is tough enough so that beating it feels satisfying, but it never crosses into Ninja Gaiden or Ghosts ‘n Goblins levels of cruelty.
3) They aren’t confusing if you make a map. Or memorize the correct path after hours of trial and error, like I did. Also, at least one townsperson tells you about things like the invisible walls in the fifth temple or needing the magic key for the sixth. There’s a reason why the best hint for any RPG remains “talk to everybody” to this day.
4) Knowing that death means starting over adds a wonderful tension to the game. Do you want to risk fighting the boss, or should you go back to town and top off your life and magic first? Will you have enough life and lives to stand a chance of winning? Should you fight a few monsters and level up? The only other games that you get this feeling from are the Dragon Quest ones, which is probably what Nintendo was going for.
5) Going out and exploring usually solves that problem. Exploring the world is half the fun. I know you’re not a Wind Waker fan, but to me, having the huge ocean overworld to explore was the best part of that game. It reminded me of this game, which just turns you loose in a huge world and lets you go nuts. Hyrule Field in Ocarina never felt like exploring a world to me. It felt like running across a big open field.
The thing is, none of these things are impossible to overcome. All of the spells seem designed specifically to mitigate the difficulty. Suck at combat? Cast Shield or Life. Don’t want to platform? Cast Jump or Fairy. Need to clear the screen? Cast Spell or Thunder. If I could beat the game repeatedly in the 80s, at the age of six, then it shouldn’t be too hard for some hardcore kiddies raised on Ocarina or Wind Waker.
Also, if Zelda 2 is so terrible, why does Nintendo keep re-releasing it? By my count, it’s come out SIX times on various platforms (NES, GameCube as part of the Zelda Collector’s Edition, GBA NES Classics series, and the Virtual Console on the Wii, Wii U, and 3DS). Also, if it’s such a bad game, why would they put references to it in Ocarina? Nintendo doesn’t even publicly acknowledge the Virtual Boy, so there’s definitely something else going on here.
I still replay it once every couple of years, and just a few years ago, I found out about the Easter egg about Zelda 1’s entire overworld being a part of the Zelda 2 world, and it blew my freaking mind.
Bottom line: Zelda 2 is awesome, and people who hate it are stupid.
As I understand it, when game developers were being propped up as GODS (which should never have happened), they began to believe they were geniuses. For whatever reason, Miyamoto does not like Zelda 2. So he calls it the Black Sheep of the Family which game journalists then proceed to write Miyamoto’s opinion as gaming fact. For years and years, game journalists wrote about Zelda 2 as ‘the Black Sheep of the Zelda Family’. This led to years of gamers (back when game magazines and sites had ‘authority’ and ‘gravitas’) to believe Zelda 2 was *wrong*. I remember early on even expressing my WTF about people saying how Zelda 2 wasn’t popular and all and there was much resistance on it. It wasn’t until the 20/20 documentary with John Stossel on the NES phenomenon that actually SHOWED people driving across states just to buy the big hit NES games of the time which were Super Mario Brothers 2 and Zelda 2. Zelda 2 may be different than the other Zeldas, but so was Super Mario Brothers 2. People loved the hell out of Super Mario Brothers 2 just as they did Zelda 2.
The most satisfying thing in Zelda 2 is the *ripping* sound when you kill an enemy. Oh, that feels good! *RIP* Future Zeldas would have the enemy lie unconscious and disappear with a puff of smoke. LAME. I love the *ripping*. I can’t get enough of it. Do not doubt the effects a sound effect can have on a game. If Nintendo would put *ripping* back into modern Zelda, that alone would make the combat feel more rewarding. Imagine playing a shmup that replaced explosions when you destroyed enemies with cute jingles. It would screw up the game experience!
One of the ways I know a game is compelling is that it is compelling in a way a great TV show is compelling. A great TV show tends to keep interest until the “OMG WTF IS GOING ON” season finale like the ‘Mr. Worf, Fire!’ of Best of Both Worlds fame. This email unlocked dormant memories of how Zelda 2 rocked my world.
The First Palace
The first palace is up in the corner of the desert. It is drab and dry. At first, the skeleton scared the shit out of me. It would even jump! Those endless dagger holding guys in the hallways certainly didn’t help me out as they just kept coming! I remember it was such a treat getting the Candle and being the scared out of hell of that vanishing bridge over lava. Holy cow! Remember your first duel with a Iron Knuckle? But really what scared me was this guy:
I thought he was the boss because of the plush curtains at the top. I saw him, ran away, and went all the way up in the elevator (for some reason). When I fought Horse Guy, he seemed impressive if not for the fact that hits in Zelda 2 knocked you back. His hit really did knock you back. And the music was so scary!
The game just kept getting better and better. The second area was full of SWAMP. It made fighting on it more challenging. Death Mountain truly was death mountain. Those guys with the axes were brutal. But once you got the hammer, you felt awesome! Once you got any item in Zelda 2, you felt awesome because if you had game over, you still had the item!
The Second Palace rained falling blocks from the sky on you. WTF!? The first dungeon, which was dark and creepy, seemed a happy place compared to the second dungeon. Then you had those flying heads.
This guy was SHOOTING stuff at you. And the more you attacked it, its heads would be flying around the room shooting shit at you. I had never seen anything quite like this. It was so macabre.
Everything just kept getting better. The third palace was a trek onto an island. You had to go through the hole in the grave yard, had to turn yourself into a fairy, etc.
But when you enter the Third Palace, you have those flying things swarming the sky dropping fire all over. HOLY COW! The third dungeon made the second dungeon seem like a happy place in comparison. There was a hammer tossing robot thingy inside which just seemed insane.
This was the introduction of the Blue Iron Knuckle. Their swords fired just like yours did!
The boss was a Blue Ironknuckle riding a hovering horse. WTF to the hovering horse? Zelda 2 gets the mythology right by the deeper you go, the more futuristic the technology (think Final Fantasy I).
Zelda 2, like Metroid, has you constantly feeling outgunned throughout the entire game. That’s definitely one of the secrets to its appeal.
Just going across to a new continent with the raft was an awesome experience. A new world! A new place to explore! Aw, crap, the enemies are really, really tough. The easy guys are these jumping things that your sword cannot penetrate. “When in doubt, use fire.”
Palace 4 was in a mountain maze. You had appearing ghosts that shot crap at you throughout the entire palace.
This boss is really scary until you know how to beat him. Then he becomes very easy. Still a scary motherfo.
Oh, I see. Now Link is WALKING ON WATER. IS HE A MAN OR IS HE A GOD???? Zelda 2 successfully combines feeling outgunned and making you feel godly. Palace 5 isn’t really on an island as much as it is on the ocean. While graphics can’t portray the mythology, this is good variety. This palace isn’t just a hole in the ground.
This guy can wreck your shit up fast. I remember Palace 5 as being very maze-zy with hidden passageways and crap. It made Palace 4 look cute while Palace 4 made Palace 3 look sunny. The game just keeps getting better and better.
The southern half of this continent is extremely dangerous, super dangerous. You understand why the town fled and made a hidden town. What a vicious place this was.
Not to be outdone, Palace 6 is invisible! You have to ‘summon it’ by standing at a certain location between a rock pattern.
I don’t remember much of Palace 6, but the boss cannot be forgotten.
This guy. It’s a FREAKING DRAGON. And he shoots fire too. Yeah, and you could get knocked back into the lava which happened frequently. He was tough! Do you jump and slash, do you do uppercut? He is tricky to kill. The dragon tops them all so far. The game keeps getting better and better.
OH MY GOD. Just GETTING to the Final Palace was harder than all the palaces combined! This game has gone insane! However, you can’t say it got hard because if you get Game Over, it restarts you at the Final Palace instead of Zelda’s bed (tee hee).
I think the Final Palace is the most memorable last stage of any video game I have ever played. It’s that good. That music! The golden walls! The INSANE maze and loops through it. The GIANT bit! Those SUPER Iron Knuckle type guys that jump up and down to the ceiling shooting their sword at you across the screen. DAMN SCARY!
Fuck this guy. Thunderbird definitely surpasses that dragon of Palace 6. Very difficult to kill. Just getting to him was hard enough, let alone killing him.
But nothing, NOTHING, prepared me for the final boss.
My jaw just dropped. WTF! I am FIGHTING MY OWN SHADOW!? Shadow Link was GOOD, REALLY GOOD. He could even moonwalk backwards. This was the most intense fight in all of Zelda 2. Man! Every time I beat the game, I have a sheen of sweat on me. Zelda 2 is intense like how Beethoven is intense. I think that is why I like it so much. It is not ‘hard’ (though there are hard parts). It is the most INTENSE Zelda. It is one of the most intense video games out there. That sense of control you have in the game is really good and adds to the enjoyment. You literally are dueling right up to the end. There is none of this bullshit ‘wait for its pattern’ because Shadow Link is a badass and doesn’t wait for you (though sometimes he might pause and stare at you hilariously). There is no ‘attack its weak spot for massive damage’. Shadow Link just rips you straight up. What an amazing final boss!
When you go from Zelda 2 to Zelda 3, it definitely feels like a downturn because LTTP didn’t really have the intensity that Zelda 2 did. I was soooo disappointed that there was no Second Quest in LTTP. It definitely deserved it and would have benefited from it.
The man’s Zelda!