Welcome to the Bucketlog! It's going to be 2019's year-long blog series, focusing on games I've been meaning to play since forever. I've put together a list derived from a mix of systems, genres, and vintages because it's starting to look like 2019 might be the first "lean" year for games in a spell (though time will tell whether that pans out to be true) and I figured this would be a fine opportunity to finally tick off a few items I've had on my various backlog lists/spreadsheets for longer than I'd care to admit.
- Game: Nintendo's Zelda II: The Adventure of Link.
- System: Nintendo Entertainment System (via 3DS).
- Original Release: 1987-01-14.
- Time from Release to Completion: Thirty-two years, ten months, and twelve days.
I think it was Dan Ryckert who discussed playing through Zelda II for the first time a few months or maybe even a few years ago now, intimating that he didn't really consider himself a true Zelda aficionado until he'd seen every one of them through. I was mildly perplexed while listening to the Beastcast episode where he made his case, wondering how he could've avoided it for this long. Black sheep status aside, surely everyone of a certain late-millennial age group who fell in love with Ocarina of Time or A Link to the Past either spent a whole summer trying to figure Zelda II out or at least booted it up on an emulator out of curiosity. Then, just a few days ago, I watched the first part of "Kacho" Shinya Arino's Zelda II playthrough on GameCenter CX and realized, "oh hell, I don't recognize any of this." I guess I've never seen it through either. So here I am, following in Dan Ryckert's footsteps: something both my parole officer and cardiologist have cautioned against several times.
So what's it like playing Zelda II in 2019? Well, as you might assume, it's a mix of respect for what the genius designers at Nintendo pulled off in 1987 given the limited resources and relatively primitive game design theorem of the late '80s combined with a strong abhorrence towards what often felt like a vindictive level of difficulty. I'll expatiate on both those talking points in due time, but on the whole there was a long string of incremental discoveries and victories punctuated with moments of sheer despair after I once again ran out of lives and was dumped unceremoniously back into Zelda's temple, where the eponymous princess soundly slept through all my anguished conniptions. Progress in Zelda II is hard-fought and that much more valuable as a result: each new cleared dungeon, each new learned spell, each new acquired level-up - while my progress in geographical terms was always tentative at best, these milestones were permanent. When I next awoke in Zelda's dungeon after one too many tumbles off a bridge or an ass-whupping from those indomitable Blue Iron Knuckles (I guess there's a difference between Iron Knuckles and Darknuts?), I felt heartened by the assurance that I was slightly better off for the next run. That you eventually acquire the means to break through roadblocks led to recovering your overworld progress that much faster, and perhaps ceases to be much of an issue at that point.
There's not a whole lot else I can say about Zelda II's basics that aren't already common knowledge. It's the first - and presently only - Zelda game to use a standard XP system, points of which are rewarded for defeating enemies as well as collecting "P-Bags". These bags can drop from enemies but are also found littered around dungeons (named Palaces in Z2) and in hidey-holes in the overworld, similar to the well-hidden Pieces of Heart in other Zelda games. A notable characteristic of these naturally occurring P-Bags is that they only appear once, and your XP resets after every game over, so while you could still theoretically max out from regular exploration and grinding enemies the benefits of these particular bags can be lost to you forever. A number of times I'd found a few and been close to a new level, suddenly deciding to go full-on turtle defense in case I died and wasted them. For the most part, though, you gain levels pretty easily - tougher enemies start dropping them in the hundreds, and you also gain an automatic level-up after completing a Palace - so it was one of those mechanics that generated more anxiety than it perhaps warranted. The game's also fully a side-scroller, as opposed to the occasional underground side-scrolling areas in the first Legend of Zelda, and so the Palaces have been designed around elevators which can be driven between multiple floors and may have multiple (well, two: left and right) exits at each stop. The dungeons are actually a little easier to navigate as a result of this narrowing of dimensions, at least in theory because the game quickly compromises this advantage by ensuring that the player is never given a map. In fact, there's no overworld map either: I figure Miyamoto or one of his staff figured it'd be closer to the reality of forging your own path ahead in the wilderness if you also had to play amateur cartographer via some graph paper and a ruler. The conceit of the designers wanting you to make your own map (or just buy the next Nintendo Power; I'm sure they wouldn't mind that) rang especially true for the game's two - two! - overworld maze sections, each of which had plenty of hidden pitfalls and enemy encounters to struggle through.
It's a little tough to rate Zelda II's innovations for two reasons: the first is that no other Zelda game would follow the blueprint of this one, not even in a loving nostalgic throwback way like A Link Between Worlds was for A Link to the Past. Whatever Zelda did differently here clearly didn't jibe with the extant Zelda fandom, because hardly any of it survived save perhaps a few enemy types and, of course, the town names that were later repurposed to be the names of the six sages of Ocarina of Time (I think in the confused chronology of the Zelda timeline, these towns were in fact named for the sages instead). Besides the XP system, there's also the combat engine that supplemented Link's standard sword and shield - both of which he starts with and never upgrades, so either the Master Sword and Hylian Shield were just lying in Zelda's temple somewhere or this is an older Link from the first game - with up-stab and down-stab attacks, which are a great deal of fun even if an annoying amount of enemies seem to be immune to them. The only time I've seen those moves reused were for Link's Super Smash Bros. appearances, and are also a big part of the reason he's my main in those games. Few characters dominate the airspace like that guy. The magic system with its gauge and variable cost spells, though, was something they brought back for future Zelda games; though they were thankfully less contingent to certain puzzles, which sucked when your progress was impeded by a necessary spell you no longer had the MP to cast.
The other reason it's tough to rate what Zelda II does new is because it was following the example of a bunch of other side-scrolling dungeon crawlers I've yet to check out. I was going to double-barrel this entry with Hudson's Faxanadu: while Faxanadu was released a few months after Zelda II, both games take after Falcom's action-RPG Xanadu, upon which Faxanadu is largely based. Falcom's earliest RPGs have always felt like proto-Zeldas in some respects, and I was hoping to get a better sense of where Zelda II's new perspective and mechanics came from by scoping the competition as it were, but... nah. Zelda II took a lot out of me, and I've got a backlog of GOTY contenders to work through in the coming weeks. Certainly going to put a pin it for later though, especially after the great time I had with the (considerably more modern) Xanadu Next back in June.
So I now find my way back around to the final talking point from before, which neatly dovetails with my opinion on whether the game has truly held up. Honestly, the "Nintendo Hard" difficulty really did it for me in the end. I refused to use save states except for areas that flirted with cheap falling deaths - getting knocked into a pit by some floating medusa head motherfucker was all too common - but I couldn't escape it when it came to the final gauntlet. In order to reach and complete the game's seventh and final dungeon - the immense Great Palace - you first have to take a winding mountain road around the overworld. This path has no fewer than six fixed encounters, all of which are filled with tough floating enemies and as many lava pits for them to knock you down into. Even if you somehow avoid that fate, though, you get so worn down by all these encounters that you're in a sorry state by the time you reach the Palace itself. At that juncture, you then have to pass through twenty-odd rooms (though it's probably around a dozen if you take the direct route) with some of the toughest enemies in the game - the Red and Blue "Fokkas" are aptly-named - and then take on the game's two toughest boss fights in a row. Zelda II had its rough patches throughout the game - particularly the remote palaces where your mana, health, and lives count would all be exhausted before you could finish them - but this last gauntlet was overwhelming to the extent that it'd take a superhuman effort or many, many failed tries to navigate through it. Maybe that speaks to how inured I've become to the softer, more player-friendly games of the modern age that I can't muster the skill level to tackle a NES game on its own terms any more, but considering the difficulty curve had been manageable up to that point I have to wonder what possessed the designers to go full Jigsaw for that final stretch of deathtraps.
In a modern light, I don't think Zelda II's commonly reviled problems are all that significant as detractors. The magic system was a little undercooked, with certain utility spells being way too expensive considering their paramountcy to progress, but I liked the way the game would set up these side-quests for the towns where the reward was a critical spell, and the way it would find frequent outlets for these spells to uncover the way to secrets. The jump spell is only strictly necessary for one or two high walls, but continued to be useful throughout the game for unreachable items and against certain aerial enemy types. The very first spell, Shield, was indispensable for boss and sub-boss fights, provided you had enough MP left to cast it. Obviously the Heal spell was the most vital, though unsurprisingly also the most expensive. The combat could be mashy but the intelligence of the enemies, particularly the humanoid ones like Iron Knuckles and Dairas, made every fight with them tense as they'd block your blows while retaliating with their own for you to quickly deflect or avoid. And like I said before, that dichotomy of ephemeral and permanent progress - where devastating game overs were frequent but rarely ever meant a complete erasure of all forward momentum - had the same hardscrabble appeal as a modern roguelite that keeps at least some enduring remnant of the previous run. Just don't expect to finish Zelda II unless you have a lot of patience, a lot of skill, or a lot of not-giving-an-eff when it comes to abusing modern amenities like save states.