You know how there are those games that you remember as being impossibly hard when you were a kid, only for you to revisit them as an adult to discover that they really aren’t so hard after all?
Yeah, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link is not one of those.
Zelda II is great departure from its big brother, changing the overhead view to a (mostly) side-scrolling perspective, trading in Link’s array of tools and weapons for a list of spells, and laser-focusing on action over exploration. There’s still exploration, but this version of Hyrule is significantly more linear than the last. Also, Link has experience levels and lives now, for some reason?
The most jarring change, however, is that Nintendo ratcheted up the difficulty level to 11 in this sequel. Maybe even to 12. While The Legend of Zelda isn’t an especially easy game to begin with, Zelda II makes it look like an absolute cakewalk. Zelda 1 doesn’t really bear its teeth until Level 6, but there’s a good chance you’ll be killed -possibly multiple times- on the short hike to Zelda II’s first palace.
Having recently completed a full, not-Game-Genie-enhanced playthrough for the first time, I’ve had a lot of time to ponder exactly what it is that makes Zelda II so darned unforgiving. I’ve compiled a list below of a few changes that I would make if I were given the opportunity. No massive shifts, just little tweaks that I think would go a long way in making the game feel a little bit more fair.
1. Make Link’s sword longer. The attack range of Link’s sword is pitiful. His sprite is significantly bigger than in the first game, but I think that his sword has actually been reduced in size. Considering that the sword is Link’s only (effective) means of attack, and it forces you to get up close to enemies, I think it should be just a couple pixels longer. Just a little bit more of a buffer zone so that fewer monsters crash into you while you’re trying to stab them.
2. Make the sword beam useful. As is tradition, when Link’s health is full, his sword shoots a little beam. It’s tiny, doesn’t go very far, and roughly 95% of the monsters in the game are immune to it. All I want is for more monsters to be vulnerable to it. It’s not like players are going to spend very much time at full health anyway, so why make the one itty-bitty advantage that they have almost entirely useless?
3. Slow down the monsters. Not necessarily their movement speed so much, but maybe just add a couple frames to their “preparing to attack” animations? As it is, you have to be lighting-quick to react to enemy tells in time, so I don’t think that a couple frames are going to break the difficulty balance. They might just make it, you know, actually balanced.
4. Stop cheating. You wouldn’t know this for sure unless you read the code or someone who did told you, but the monsters in Zelda II can and will read your inputs. This is most noticeable when you try to leap over a monster and it starts backpedaling to ensure that you take collision damage. Not too far into the game you get a downward stab that lets you pogo off of monster’s heads, but the cheating makes it hard enough to even get that far.
5. Give Link more hangtime. Link can jump exactly three tiles high. He can only achieve that height from a running jump, and he stays at the apex for what seems like exactly one frame. So making three-tile jumps without spending magic is very hard. All I want here is to extend the window for making that jump. Needing a running start is fine, but pixel-perfect jump requirements are always a load of crap.
6. Stop stealing my experience points. EXP is not exactly easy to come by, since most enemies give out peanuts and some don’t give any at all. Also there are the enemies that actually reduce your experience points when they hit you. Also you lose all accumulated EXP when you game over. Also the later level-up thresholds are astronomically high. Taking away EXP is exactly the opposite of the whole point of level-up systems: allowing players to gradually grow in strength until they can overcome the game’s obstacles. So stop taking my points away, dammit!
7. Make the Link Dolls permanent. Link starts the game with two extra lives. When he dies, he restarts from the entrance of the current room with full magic and health. If he has no lives left, you get booted back to the starting palace and lose all your EXP. There are six Link Dolls hidden in the game that grant Link an extra life. But they’re only good for one use each, and never respawn once collected. I think it would be nice if they permanently added a life to your stock. Maybe limit them to two or three so they aren’t giving players too much of an edge? In Zelda II, having five extra lives still wouldn’t go all that far.
I think that’s it. Though I do reserve the right to come back and add more to this list if something goes off in my head. Not that I expect it to. Now that I have played through Zelda II in a mostly-legitimate fashion, I doubt that I’ll ever go back to it again. While there are a lot of things that I like about this game (the music, for example, is incredible), the insane difficulty keeps it from being actually fun, and I’d rather not put myself through it all again.
Unless, of course, I decide to do another full-series replay for the 65th anniversary. But let’s be honest, I’ll probably be dead before then.