Clearly a separate WIP title with Zelda IP added in late development
Ever play Cadash? That's a great game. This is a passable Cadash that predates it by about a year, on an 8-bit system!
The gameplay, as previously mentioned, is sidescrolling, with an overland map interlude for getting from place to place. There isn't much else good to be said about this game, though. It is primitive at best, and is stuck somewhere between Phantasy Star and Cadash, without the horsepower in the NES to pull it off properly.
This kind of side scrolling RPG would become very common in the future. What Zelda 2 has going for it is that it is innovative, it's too bad Nintendo didn't release it with its original characters instead of adding a "touch of Zelda" when the real Zelda 2, which I'm convinced was scrapped, didn't work out.
Remember Mario 2? Remember the story of how they took a game that was *not* Mario and overlaid a bunch of Mario sprites to make a funky game that didn't feel right?
I suspect that isn't the only time Nintendo made that mistake. They did it with Zelda, too.
What you have is a game that was clearly not designed as a Zelda title with Zelda sprites and the first 5 seconds of the overland theme grafted on to make it appear "Zeldaish."
The Zelda overland theme, the really cool one that sticks in your head, plays for about 5 seconds and then immediately and rather crudely dissolves into cheesy uninspired 8-bit kazoo box music. That progression in the music describes the rest of the game. 5 seconds of Zelda and 15 hours of some other game that the box lied about. As you go, it just becomes wildly less and less like Zelda until you start wondering how Link got so tall.
Give me a map, or a compass, or rupees or ANYTHING else from the original game and this criticism becomes invalid, but it isn't there. There's no "nightmare key," no master sword, no heart meter. You can't make a "departure" sequel and ditch nearly everything that made the flavour of the original.
This was the 80's, back when they were plastering Erno Rubik's name on every dumb puzzle they could find, yet none of them were "the cube." This kind of "Brand leveraging" proved to be very damaging to the companies that did it, and so you don't see nearly as much of it any more. Nintendo learned and now jealously guards its brands.
The Bottom Line
Zelda sprites added to a _perfectly good RPG_ to increase sales.
You can play the original Zelda and it's all there, in crude form. Everything that would become the rest of the series.
This game doesn't represent a "departure" as so many apologists will tell you. It's a completely different game. It's very difficult, and by today's standard's not terribly innovative, but okay to play if you like a sidescrolling RPG like Cadash. It's amazing they pulled this off on the 8-bit NES.
So when you hear this game get badmouthed, it's mostly because of people who expected a Zelda title and didn't get one. It's Super Mario Bros. 2 all over again. The good news is that there is a title.
Remember, it predates Cadash by a year, is playing on 8-bit hardware, and is a perfectly good RPG.
(Just watch out for the guy who tells you to get the candle at the palace by going "West." The palace is to the NNE.)
Production standards have improved since these days...
(Reviewer played this off the Zelda Collector's Edition GC disc. There may have been a map showing exactly where the candle palace is in the original.)