After having retrocookie’s background set to a scene from Zelda II: The Adventure of Link for maybe a year and a half, it occurred to me that maybe I should have an entry for the game itself. Zelda II, you see, has a number of notable distinctions, being the final game in the Zelda chronology (providing you don’t give yourself an aneurysm trying to figure out the official timeline), the first game to introduce a magic meter, the first appearance of Volvagia, Shadow Link and the Triforce of Courage, and it’s easily the most hated and least played game in the series because Nintendo completely abandoned the gameplay of the original to bring you Super Mario RPG. Oh, and it’s hard enough that King Leonidas could build a wall out of the Link corpses you’ll leave littered on the side of the road. But aside from the unfortunate fact that they mixed this game with 4 parts Mario, 2 parts Dragon Quest, 3 parts Castlevania with a shot of green food coloring to nominally call it a Zelda game, it’s actually a pretty good game in its own right.
The instruction manual describes the story like a heated debate between two Nintendo employees who couldn’t agree on why Link is still romping through Hyrule slaughtering octoroks like a burgeoning serial killer who hasn’t quite moved up to humans yet. Either an ancient prophecy finally got its act together, stopped drinking and sent its resume to Link, expressing an interest in a career of waking up narcoleptic princesses, or Ganon’s minions have put out a hit on Link, and he needs to stay alive long enough to get the Triforce, which I guess will scare them off. I don’t know. The game kind of leaves that point gaping like a meteor impact crater by the end. Link still has a hit out on him. If Ganon’s minions sacrifice him—which sounds as much like a sacrifice as giving up abstinence for Lent—and drizzle his blood over the pile of ash that used to be Ganon, the pig comes back to life.
But whatever the reason, Link sets off. The overworld map gives a top-down perspective, but unlike the first game, you don’t fight enemies on the map itself. Rather, you contend with random encounters. But unlike the jarring Final Fantasy shifts that hit you like the raptor you never even knew was there, these enemies appear as groups, wandering the map like a touring punk band, and if Link touches them he has to fight his way out of the mosh pit to escape. These encounters, as well as towns, caves, bridges, and dungeons, play out as a side-scrolling platformer. Yup. A side-scrolling platformer. Nintendo took the most original idea they’ve had since Super Mario Bros, and turned it into…well, Super Mario Bros. The side-scrolling combat is interesting, to say the least. Link can attack and defend in both upper- and lower-body positions. He can also learn a downward stab that lets him stomp his enemies like a goomba, or combine an upward stab with the power glove to let him break bricks above his head. But Link earns experience, while Mario doesn’t. (Although after rescuing the same damn princess for 25 years, it would be nice if he had enough experience not to leave Peach alone in turtle-infested waters. Or maybe he could put two and two together concerning all those kidnappings.)
Link also learns magic. In each town, he can gain access to an old man who adds another rabbit to his hat. Usually, though, they won’t just scrawl out avada kedavra on a sheet of paper and point you at the monsters threatening to enslave the world. Nope. Usually you have to do some chores. One old man lost his trophy to a thieving goriya, and I guess his high school basketball record is so important to him that he won’t teach the “jump” spell until he gets it back. Some requests make sense, like rescuing a child lost in the wilderness. But one woman wouldn’t let me in to see the elder until I walked over to the fountain next to the house, cupped some water in my hands, and poured it down her throat. Only two elders didn’t ask me to turn my pockets out to rifle through the results of my latest scavenger hunt. One gave me the shield spell freely, but I had to find the other old man, who had stuffed himself into a fireplace.
Dungeon items, on the other hand, are as disappointing as a bachelor’s degree in English: they’re time-consuming to obtain, completely useless, and only serve to let you move on to get another one just like it, but even harder to get. Out of the eight main items, six of which are found in dungeons, only the hammer and the whistle do more than create a passive effect, and only the glove and arguably the hammer do anything but open up a path to get to the next area of the map. All other items are used once or twice and then take up space in your inventory, like an Englebert Humperdink 8-track your grandma gives you at Christmas—you know you’re never going to use it, so it sits in a box doing nothing but preventing you from the crushing guilt of throwing out your grandma’s present.
The game is as hard as a Cialis overdose, and while you can continue as many times as you’d like, after three lives you go back to the beginning of the game, starting over in Zelda’s bedroom as though you’re trying to fill up a punch card to get your tenth burrito free. I’ll attribute this to either a glitch or a translation error, as the instruction manual clearly states that if you continue from a dungeon, you’ll restart from the dungeon entrance. This only works in the final temple, but by temple four, the walk alone from the start of the game is enough to kill you out of boredom, if the monsters don’t mug you along the way. It’s a good thing that video games don’t need realism any more than the beef at Taco Bell, or Link might be tempted to skip town before the assassins find him and let the princess sleep for another thousand years or so. It’s not like anyone needed her for anything until now.