If there’s one thing the original Legend of Zelda values above all else, it’s player freedom. In the context of the NES classic, this meant trusting the player with a near-fully open world out the gate. While Link can’t complete every dungeon right away, over half can potentially net a player their first piece of Triforce. It’s even possible to upgrade your sword & tunic immediately if you take the time to grind for Rupees & hunt for Heart Containers. Beyond that, there’s no string leading you to play through each Level linearly. In fact, it’s entirely reasonable to find Levels 1 and 3 before ever stumbling onto Level 2. Progression is inherently tied to the individual, and while the manual informs the journey, there’s little to no in-game direction aside from the occasional light hint.
Few games embody the spirit of adventure half as well as The Legend of Zelda, and as a result, it’s easy to dismiss Zelda II: The Adventure of Link as a lesser– if admirable– sequel. The game’s focus is primarily on combat, after all. Zelda II wasn’t even developed by the same staff as the original, initially a new title stemming from Shigeru Miyamoto’s desire to make an action side scroller. Miyamoto envisioned combat designed around vertical positioning, where moving up & down had tactical advantages. Reflecting on Zelda II’s combat, The Adventure of Link’s director, Tadashi Sugiyama, said;
“It’s rooted in actions like jump strikes, downward strikes, and high and low shield defense moves. Types of moves that weren’t possible in the first game. Rather than being a continuation of the series, it started as a new sword and shield type of action game. We were experimenting while producing the game so we didn’t really have the first game’s systems in mind while developing it.”
Video game sequels of this era were characteristically experimental, as well, making Zelda II’s pivot anything but surprising. The Legend of Zelda went from an adventure game to a proper action RPG overnight, but it didn’t actually lose its spirit. While Zelda II in no way offers the same level of freedom as its predecessor, the “adventure” in Adventure of Link isn’t without merit. Zelda’s sense of direction has simply been recontextualized, nonlinearity traded for a steady stream of memorable set pieces and side quests. More importantly, Zelda II offers audiences insight into a completely new side of Hyrule– narratively, geographically, and mechanically.
What’s particularly striking is the darker story looming in the background. Despite Link’s best efforts, the instruction booklet opens with “Hyrule was on the road to ruin.” The player’s victory at the end of the first game is brushed off like a footnote, as Ganon’s forces realistically didn’t stop terrorizing Hyrule following his death. If anything, losing their master emboldens Ganon’s army even more so. Enemies are considerably more aggressive in Zelda II, and the very premise of the plot centers around Ganon’s minions attempting to kill Link– the hero’s blood the only sacrifice worthy enough of reviving Ganon.
Befitting a direct narrative sequel, Zelda II isn’t content with exploring just a single plot point. Ganon’s forces are motivated by killing Link, but the Hero of Hyrule’s motivation isn’t staying alive. Rather, it’s waking Princess Zelda from her slumber. Important to note, this isn’t the same Zelda Link rescued from Ganon at the first of the first game. Instead, she’s retroactively the eponymous Zelda who gave The Legend of Zelda its title. Discovering the mark of the Triforce on his hand near his sixteenth birthday, Link reaches out to Impa and comes to learn the tragedy that befell Princess Zelda I.
Long before the events of the first game, the Hyrule Royal Family was torn apart by the Triforce. Zelda II reveals there was a Triforce of Courage alongside that of Wisdom and Power, but it was divined to only manifest when someone worthy enough appeared in Hyrule. Upon the Prince’s coronation as King, he is deemed unworthy of the complete Triforce & allows this turn of fate to consume him. The new King’s trusted advisor, a magician, corrupts the King into accusing his own sister, Princess Zelda, of withholding key information from him. Their confrontation quickly turns sour and the magician, enraged at Zelda’s lack of knowledge, takes his own life to cast a curse that locks the Princess into eternal rest.
Ashamed of himself, the King dictates that every royal daughter be named Zelda, so that Hyrule may never forget the temptation of the Triforce. The Legend of Zelda’s lore has expanded considerably since (to the point where Princess Zelda I is anything but,) but this early attempt at expanding the franchise’s history is admirable. The Sleeping Beauty-esque backdrop also pairs well with Link’s classically romantic character. In the first game, he’s driven by a burning justice to rescue Zelda. In Zelda II, the manual mentions how Link silently gazes at the sleeping Zelda before setting forth on his journey.
It’s also worth noting how the story plays with the notion of prophecy. Link is the “chosen one” in the sense that the mark of the Triforce appears to him, but only after he’s already defeated Ganon & saved Hyrule (and a few years removed, at that.) He isn’t even given the Triforce, simply an opportunity to prove himself in light of it. Ganon’s forces are after Link, but Palaces are not designed with defeating the Prince of Darkness’ remnants in mind. They’re more like Labours, tests for Link to earn the Triforce. Enemies inside are guardians built to challenge all those who wish to claim the Triforce of Courage for themselves. Palaces fill the same functional role Labyrinths did in the first game, but worldbuilding adds flavor to Hyrule’s past while establishing threats outside Ganon’s scope.
“The vast Hyrule is the stage for the Adventure.”
In fleshing out Hyrule’s history, Zelda II makes clear that the country is split between east and west– albeit purely geographically with little to no cultural deviations. Link’s adventure begins in Western Hyrule just north of Death Mountain, revealing the first game was set in a relatively condensed region of the world. Curiously, the manual only gives players a map for Western Hyrule, keeping Eastern Hyrule’s presence a secret. Continent hopping to dictate progress is a staple of RPGs from the era, stemming primarily from Dragon Quest, and it’s clear Zelda II is leaning into its new genre in this regard. Eastern Hyrule is far more hostile territory, featuring enemies that can’t be damaged by Link’s sword and quite a bit of treacherous platforming.
Which in itself is worth discussing. As a side scroller, Zelda II leans into the inherent platforming that comes with moving on an x-axis. There aren’t any bottomless pits, but falling into lava or water will kill Link right away. It’s a change of pace the franchise never returned to, but the level design is by no means bad. While some enemy telegraphs are hard to read & therefore difficult to platform around, Zelda II’s platforming encourages keeping your momentum while exercising quick reflexes. Link lacks the finesse of Mario, but there is an appeal to The Adventure of Link’s aggressive, quirk-burst platforming sections.
With the core gameplay so radically different, the overworld ends up being Zelda II’s main connective tissue to The Legend of Zelda mechanically. Even then, exploration is handled quite differently between both games. Link can’t confront enemies on the overworld this time around, instead triggering a separate battle screen when touching enemy sprites. This juxtaposition between overworld & action is a result of the Famicom’s hardware limitations, but Zelda II’s enemy trigger system basically amounts to random encounters with enemies representing potential battles (a system later Tales titles and many other RPGs would adopt.)
Just as importantly, secret tiles have replaced bombable walls. Players no longer need to keep stock of their bombs (or any item for that matter,) but exploring Hyrule without a guide requires a fair bit of wandering– and the manual doesn’t point out where secrets are this time around. Everything from Heart & Magic Containers, to plot crucial NPCs are tucked under secret tiles. It’s frustrating keeping track of where everything is, but that’s where townsfolk come in. Link can enter towns via the overworld where he’ll be able to speak with NPCs who offer a varying degree of help. Dialogue is often the only means of knowing where to go next, with a few NPCs tied to side quests crucial for progression.
Said side quests often mean Link is locked to a single town at a time, unable to explore Hyrule at the player’s leisure like before. But as previously mentioned, this is simply supplemented with set pieces. Between finding a lost boy in a cave, braving Death Mountain’s labyrinthine interior, and fighting your way to the Great Palace, Zelda II is filled with countless memorable set pieces. Granted, many are memorable for their difficulty, but areas like Death Mountain aren’t that daunting so long as players exercise patience & preparation.
“The enemies in the palace are those that were made and chosen by the King. They’re abnormally strong.”
The real flaw of the difficulty curve ends up being the game’s Life system. Typical of platformers of the era, losing all your lives forces players back to the start of the game. That said, Zelda II embraces its RPG elements when it comes to progression. Link may start at North Palace every time players die or boot up the game, but the only thing truly lost upon death is leftover XP. Levels, items, and Palace Keys all stay on Link’s person, making the task of backtracking from North Palace a relatively simple one in the grand scheme of things. Link will also gradually unlock tools to create shortcuts all throughout Hyrule, circumventing the hardest challenges & allowing players to quickly pick up where they left off. Still, few things in Zelda are as frustrating as getting a Game Over inside any of the last three Palaces.
In spite of an emphasis on combat, Zelda II’s dungeon design does manage to strike a comfortable balance between action & exploration. Branching paths, dead ends, and elevators that lower Link deeper into each Palace force players to explore thoroughly– hunting for both keys and the Palace item before heading to the boss door. As Zelda II removes Link’s map for both dungeons & the overworld, players are expected to nurture their own sense of direction, remembering where they’ve been and how they got there. It’s fundamentally a different style of dungeon crawling than The Legend of Zelda’s, but Zelda II’s Palace design never forgets that adventure is what truly drove the original’s gameplay loop.
This isn’t to say enemies aren’t a regular occurrence, however. Rarely will Link stumble into a room and not be met with a flurry of foes. Combat is as reflex-based as it was in The Legend of Zelda, but recontextualized to focus on verticality. Link moves up and down to block with his shield, as the player either keeps an eye out for openings or tries to force one themselves. Magic also plays a key role in combat, ostensibly replacing dungeon items. Functionally, Palace items work more like passive pieces of equipment.
It’s Link’s Spells which allow him to inflict greater damage, heal, & even buff his defense. Certain Spells like Jump and Fairy even augment Link’s platforming abilities. Considering how often magic pots drop (along with how easy they are to grind in most Palaces,) there’s no good reason to ignore Link’s magical prowess. In fact, not a single dungeon item is required to beat any of Zelda II’s bosses while Carock & Thunderbird force Link to cast Reflect & Thunder magic respectively in order to begin damaging them. On that note, if there’s one area where The Adventure of Link explicitly outdoes its predecessor, it’s boss design.
Each boss in Zelda II plays off the core mechanics in a novel way. Mazura tests how well players can time their jump stabs; Jermafenser throws projectiles at Link mid-fight, forcing players to create their own rhythm between attacking & dodging; Rebonack can only be damaged with the Downward Thrust & becomes a Blue Iron Knuckle when damaged enough; Carock can only be damaged with Reflect; Gooma plays off the familiarity of fighting Mazura & Jermafenser by moving its weak point from the head to torso; Barba features lava in its boss room, making knockback a danger; Thunderbird has discernible patterns & phases, and Shadow Link challenges the player’s overall mechanical mastery. They’re not all great fights, but every single one engages with Zelda II’s design meaningfully.
The Adventure of Link was developed in an era where Nintendo hadn’t yet solidified The Legend of Zelda’s brand. Hyrule uses Christian imagery exclusive to the NES titles, seeped in a classic western fantasy aesthetic the franchise has since lost touch with. There’s a confidence to Zelda II in spite of its stark changes. There’s no insecurity in regards to how it’s not the first game, embracing a new identity full-on while still evolving concepts introduced in The Hyrule Fantasy.
Between exploring ancient Palaces & discovering the sheer scope of the country, Zelda II lends Hyrule a sense of grandeur. This is a land with a storied history, one rooted in tragedy. It’s easy to dismiss given its black sheep status, but Zelda II: The Adventure of Link sets important precedents for the franchise. The story is rooted in dark lore, Hyrule is depicted as an actual kingdom with townships & townsfolk, and the experimentation at the core of the game speaks to the creativity that bleeds through the series even today. In the same way there’s no other Legend of Zelda quite like the original, Zelda II is a one of a kind adventure.