Zelda II: The Adventure of Link
Nowhere to run but left and right in this Zelda game--and it's a masterpiece
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From towns, forests, plains and caves to palaces, graveyards, mountains and lava fields, Hyrule is a great place for an adventure. Each major location in the game has a group of new foes to test Link's mettle on, while old standards make constant reappearances in the palaces. Each town has a tone and personality all its own, and welcome diversions from the main quest can be found in every one of them. The design and artwork on your opponents is impressive, particularly on the large and well-drawn bosses, and multiple strategies are available for dispatching each one.
The main map of the game is viewed from overhead, and it encompasses many screens. Link can walk on the path with impunity, but enemies appear when he leaves it, and if he runs into one of these, a platforming scene filled with enemies appears, and Link must battle his way out. These enemies are often avoidable (unless one is in a swamp), but the palaces, towns and other special areas are all side-scrolling affairs.
One of the greatest additions is experience. Link actually improves beyond simply gaining life containers in this Zelda game--he can improve his vitality, his battle ability, and his magical skill. Each attribute can gain up to eight levels of experience. Link can also learn diverse magic spells from each town's wise man, and is even taught a few very useful swordplay tricks from knights he meets along the way. The downward and upward jumping attacks he learns open up a whole new world of strategy for defeating enemies, and some foes cannot be destroyed without them. Link in the beginning and Link at the end aren't differentiated only by heart containers and items in this game--the later Link gains inherent skills that do not rely on finite items. No bow exists in this game; no bombs either.
Magic makes up for these lost items. Having worries about being able to navigate an area without getting hit? Cast Shield on yourself, and the damage you take will be halved. Concerned that you need extra maneuverability to avoid dangerous foes in an area? Cast Jump, which doubles your jumping height, and leap circles around your opponents--or simply cast Fairy, which turns you into a tiny flying pixie, and soar above the trouble avoiding it altogether. The unblockable boomeranging maces of the Doomknockers getting you down? Cast Reflect and watch your shield stop a mace in its tracks, or cast Spell and turn the troublesome enemy into a weak and quivering pile of slime. There is always a place for magic in a combat situation, although the precious supply is often used on Life, the spell that recharges one's health.
That's because your confrontations with enemies will take up the majority of the game. And there are some memorable and devious foes to be had here. As far as ordinary enemies, in Parapa Palace you will face your first Ironknuckle. This armor-clad knight stalks inexorably towards you, and once in range proceeds to swing his sword high and low in random patterns, moving his shield intelligently up and down to block your sword. Early on, you will see one marching toward you and mentally count off a few of your precious health squares as you imagine the bloody battle ahead of you. It isn't attacking this denizen of the palaces that is difficult; it's doing so while simultaneously defending from his onslaught that causes the problems.
Later in the game, however, you will have developed your own tactics that turn this enemy, even his later blue incarnation that hurls knives as he stabs, into a pushover. And this can be done a number of ways. One might notice that stabbing high and immediately lowering one's guard in mid-stab will cause the Ironknuckle to drop his guard in unison and absorb the blow. One might discover that the Ironknuckle only unleashes his fearsome fusillade of blows after being struck, and then cools down. One might even develop a strategy of jumping and attacking to defeat these enemies. These tactics will be missed in the first several frenzied combats of both fighters stabbing and blocking, but they will eventually render a once feared enemy harmless. And that's part of the magic of this game design that is present throughout the game. Enemies are not dull patterns to be learned and disposed of in a single dull way so much as they are lifelike and random, and always potentially dangerous to any strategy.
As you progress, harder foes such as the fearsome, axe-wielding Dairas appear. These anthropomorphic, mohawked alligators only swing high and have no shield, but that matters little since their axes cannot be blocked by even a magic-enhanced shield--Link cannot stand off with them for long or he will be seriously hurt. One must stab and charge, stab and flee, or jump and stab to defeat these and suffer minimal damage. The red Daira throws axes, and it is nearly impossible to flawlessly defeat one. In fact, Link is unlikely to walk away from a dead red Daira without having lost a significant amount of health. Certain enemies carry and throw maces that can only be blocked after Link casts Reflect, certain enemies can only be destroyed by fire. Yet these each can be avoided or defeated without the use of magic. Only in a few situations is Link directly forced to encounter an ordinary enemy, and therefore if one strikes you as particularly difficult, it can be simply avoided.
If it is an Eagle Knight you've been cornered by, expect to be seriously injured. These enemies are like the Ironknuckle in that they use a sword and shield intelligently, but they also are acrobatic jumpers and throw knives furiously at all times, causing considerable damage. These, only found in the last palace, can confound any careful strategy because their patterns of attack are easily readable but extremely difficult to react to properly. Your brain 'knows' the proper reaction for defense or offense at any one time, but tying the two together against such an agile opponent can be very difficult.
Bosses are all fun, different, and well-designed. Starting with a giant horseheaded knight toting a large mace, there is a soldier with three heads, an Ironknuckle who thought to bring his horse along, a giant teleporting wizard, a clumsy ogre with a flail and impenetrable helmet, and a lava-dwelling dragon. That's just the ordinary palaces. In the final palace, you must face off against the mythic Thunderbird and of course, Dark Link. Dark Link was an ingenious bit of game design, as it has all the standard moves that you do, and yet it is somewhat more clever about using them than you are. Yet surprisingly simple strategies can be found to defeat this boss. I don't mean cowering in the corner and tapping a button, but rather an approach that would be unexpected based on all your previous encounters--it's great design to require a fresh look at the final boss, asking the player to throw out what he or she has learned and try something new.
The exploration, town scenes, and pure adventure in this game are all great, but the combat system is what really adds to the fun factor, and is so elegantly designed that it deserved the bulk of my remarks. It should go without saying that Link controls like a dream, despite a knockback when hit that Castlevania, Actraiser 2 or Ghosts 'n' Goblins fans will sorrowfully recognize. Those latter games also have something in common with this one--Zelda II is fiendishly difficult. Link has three lives, and after that must start all the way back at the beginning of the game map, which encompasses many screens. Extra lives are there to be had along the way, but that doesn't dilute the challenge of this game, and defeating Dark Link at the end after battling through dozens of Lizalfos and Eagle Knights, Ironknuckles and Darknuts, Bits and Bots and Moblins and Goriyas, you'll feel a palpable sense of accomplishment.
And then, as in Chrono Trigger, the player is allowed to start again with the same stats, but with a greater challenge. This is a game I just recently replayed after defeating it at the age of seven, and it was as enormously satisfying now as it was then.