I finally got around to playing The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D and it got me thinking about how much I enjoy surreal and peculiar game sequels. Nowadays game sequels are pumped out like clockwork, leaving little for innovation and creativity. Gone are the days in which a game sequel could come out and be absolutely nothing like the original. Imagine if the next Assassin’s Creed was a strategy game, or the next Call of Duty was a role playing game. It’s understandable given the nature of the business and the complexity of game production that sequels are going to be built from their previous iterations engines. There is only so much developers can do when franchises are annualized. But I still long for the days when games were not constrained in such ways. Let’s take a trip to the past and look at a couple of games that deviated, for good or worse, from their originals.
It still amazes me how many people to this day try and claim that Zelda II is an awful game. I attribute its reputation to the sole fact that it is not a carbon copy of the original Legend of Zelda. The original Legend of Zelda released in 1986 for the Nintendo Entertainment system brought forth an amazing blend of action, adventure, and role-playing that had not been seen to that extent on home consoles. Players controlled Link from a top-down perspective, exploring and uncovering all the secrets in the vast world of Hyrule. Link had an assortment of tools at his disposal like his trusty boomerang, bombs, and his sword. The game was so large in fact, that it required an internal battery to save your data. It’s no surprise that it was an instant hit and fans eagerly awaited a sequel. But things start to get a bit dicey from here.
The Adventure of Link released just one year later for the NES still follows the general design the first Zelda laid out. Players are tasked with traversing an expansive overworld, battling hordes of monsters, exploring dungeons, and ultimately rescuing the titular princess. Now where the game drastically differs is in its combat. When Link is engaged in battle or tackles one of the many dungeons, the gameplay shifts from a top-down perspective, into a side-scrolling perspective reminiscent of games such as Castlevania.
Link can now jump, duck, and use spells, allowing for more mobility and versatility in combat. Spells become essential as enemies grow exceedingly difficult and certain spells are needed to advance. An experience system more in line with Final Fantasy means that players will have to continuously fight monsters in order to grow more powerful. While many of the mechanics introduced in Zelda II would not return in proceeding entries, it’s not hard to see how ideas these ideas would inform later game design.
Ocarina of Time took just as many cues from The Adventure of Link as it did A Link to the past. Each town Link visits in Zelda II is named after the sages players would go on to meet in Ocarina of Time. A greatest emphasize placed on combat demands a more evasive and Mobile Link. He can now sidestep, back flip, and roll to avoid enemy attacks. You have to balance when to block with your shield versus striking with your sword. Even some of the reoccurring enemies like the Iron Knuckle are tackles with the same strategies found in Zelda II.
But the one inclusion showing that Nintendo hadn’t completely dismissed Zelda II as a failure was the duel between Dark Link. As one of the most memorable fights in Ocarina, it easily captures the intensity of the original final battle. Dark Link demonstrates the pros and cons of each game’s combat mechanics, as players have to use all tools in their arsenal to overcome this beast. Yet the years have not been kind to Zelda II.
Reception to Zelda II has maintained a harshly critical view. In a 2003 interview for Superplay Magazines, designer Shigeru Miyamoto discussed his decision to change things up for the sequel:
It was my idea, but the actual game was developed by another team, different people to those that made the first game. Compared to Legend of Zelda, Zelda II went exactly what we expected… All games I make usually gets better in the development process, since good ideas keep coming, but Zelda II was sort of a failure… (Shigeru Miyamoto 2003)
Miyamoto would go on to correct these failures by reintroducing the gameplay mechanics of the original with the third entry in the series, A Link to the Past. Yet I feel that Zelda II was a necessary stepping stone for Nintendo in order to figure out what The Legend of Zelda is and isn’t. As a Zelda game, I can admit that it may lack much of the charm I love about the franchise: intricate dungeon design interwoven with fun puzzles and engaging bosses. But does that make it a terrible game in itself?
As an action game with role-playing mechanics, it still maintains a certain level of that Nintendo polish and replayability that I find many games of the era lack. I’d take Zelda II over Conan or Rush’n Attack any day of the week. Being able to control Link in such an intimate fashion, slashing and jumping through waves of enemies on Death Mountain, only to reach the end and be treated with a wonderful easter egg for fans of the original, is both taxing and exhilarating. Overcoming the momentous Dark Link in a one-to-one duel is still one of my greatest gaming achievements. And no, cheating and sitting in the corner and continuously stabbing Dark Link does not count.
The biggest criticism that I can certainly see would be a turn off too many is the difficulty level of the game. It is Nintendo Hard, no doubt about it. As Jeremy Perish, formerly of 1UP, states in his review of the Gameboy Advance re-release:
Perhaps the biggest frustration with Zelda II is its continue system — this is a hard, hard game, and few gamers (even veterans) will be able to complete it without seeing “The Return of Ganon” a few times. But when you choose to continue, the game sends you all the way back to the start. Not the start of the level you were conquering, or the area you were exploring. The start of the entire game. (Jeremy Perish, 1UP, 2004)
There are certain moments, late in the game, that the idea of being sent all the way back to the beginning can be nerve-racking. Reaching the half-way point in death mountain, only to run out of lives and having to go through it all again can be enough for some players to put the controller down. Thankfully, there are many opportunities to create shortcuts once certain pieces of equipment are acquired.
The continue system may be limited early on, but as you progress in the game, it definitely becomes less of an issue. If you stick with the game, you might be pleasantly surprised to find an entertaining game, among all the negative reception. And if you’re a masochist like me, you might even grow to love the game! If you enjoy the Castlevania and Ninja Gaiden trilogies on the NES, this might be right up your alley.
Often we get so wrapped up in what a sequel should and shouldn’t be, that we lose sight of the risk involved in innovation. When the medium becomes less about creativity and originality, all we are left with games indistinguishable from the next. The stagnation of the triple A game and the critical rise of independent games show that gamers still appreciate fresh and inventive titles when done right. Taking a risk with Zelda II: The Adventure of Link allowed Nintendo to better gauge what fans truly loved about the original. It’s part of why I think A Link to the Past turned out as great as it did. Failure can often lead to success. If you’re a fan of the series, but overlooked Zelda II, give it a chance. While it may not be the greatest Zelda game ever made, I still consider it among some the greatest games for the NES.
That’s all for now, but stick around for next time, when I delve deeper into one of the most hated NES sequels and discuss a game that reignited my love for retro games, Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest!