Saturday, March 30, 2013

In Defense of Zelda 2

Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link on the NES gets a lot of flak, and arguably so. It’s the black sheep of the series, the maladjusted but convivial cousin who still lives with his parents and never got his driver’s license. The game consistently ranks as the worst non-CD-i Zelda game ever on forums and gaming blogs due to its difficulty (flying one-eyed blobs everywhere), arcane puzzles (items found by entering random squares on the overworld), frustrating repetition (players start from the beginning at every game over and must traverse the entirety of Hyrule all over again), lack of story (Zelda’s asleep – now wake her up!), and distance from other games in the series. Zelda 2’s gameplay includes features not found in any other Zelda game: an experience-based leveling system, side-scrolling battles, random enemy encounters, and prostitutes that refill your life (see below). It’s a disorienting transition for players that started with A Link to the Past or Link’s Awakening, and frustratingly outdated for players whose Zelda experience began on the N64 or later.

In every town, Link meets a woman of the oldest profession eager to invite him inside...
Even though I would rank Zelda 2 at the bottom of the series, I would never call it a bad game. I’d rather play Zelda 2 than most of the other titles released on the NES, and find it deserving of its #58 spot on Nintendo Power’s final all-time favorite games list. Why, then, do people view Zelda 2 with such indifference and downright hate?

...and leaves with his life refilled.
Since the Zelda series has become tantamount to gaming perfection in players’ minds, they’ve grown used to a certain type of gameplay and are reluctant to accept a title that doesn’t dazzle in the same way. They hold other series titles to the same standard, and enter into them with expectations that leave them disoriented when they go unfulfilled. Being above-average just doesn’t cut it for a Zelda game, but if Zelda 2 were a non-franchised entity featuring another hero, another princess, and another land, and players viewed it without the expectations garnered from other games in the series, they would have to view it on its own. After all, a game can’t be the worst in the series if there is no series.

Players who give Zelda 2 an honest playthrough without enjoying it are most often exhibiting a distaste for the platform battle genre in which it holds a place. While the overhead view and item-based gameplay of the original Legend of Zelda would reappear in later titles, Zelda 2’s stand-and-crouch swordfighting battle system is more easily relegated alongside 8-bit staples like Contra, Castlevania, and Journey to Silius. Zelda 2 is meant for those desiring this kind of action experience that relies heavily on skill, though I rank it above these other games for its complexity and focus on exploration. These skill-based action-adventures haven’t fared well in the 3-D era, and players are often shocked to find this style of gameplay counted as canon with Link’s Awakening and Ocarina of Time, whose gameplay has had more longevity for present-day players.

Too bad you can't throw some holy water at him.
Zelda 2’s status as franchise misfit can be better understood when viewed as a product of its time. In 1988 there was no Zelda formula, and no expectation of item-based exploration, overhead perspective, or multiple quests that layer the storyline, as these features of a Zelda game had not yet been concretely defined. Rather, Zelda 2 is Shigeru Miyamoto’s attempt to try something that hadn’t already been done, to give the gamer an entirely new experience, and to expand on the original game. They did not want to start a Mega Man franchise where games sprung from the same formula and used the same sprites as their predecessors—they wanted to surprise players with something new.

The idea of a sequel radically transforming the original game was prevalent in other early NES franchises before they became franchises. Castlevania 2: Simon’s Quest notoriously took its side-scrolling predecessor and added an enormous world-map, weapon selection, non-player characters, and infuriatingly obscure puzzles, transforming a linear action game into an open-ended adventure. Super Mario Bros. 2 (originally released as the non-Mario Doki Doki Panic in Japan) eschewed Goombas and fire flowers in favor of Shyguys and vegetables, while the original Super Mario 2 (The Lost Levels on the SNES) was condemned in Japan for using the same graphics and being too similar to its predecessor. In both cases, the third game retained the formula of the original and helped cement that formula in the gaming consciousness, but no one could have predicted this at the time. How different would our view of Mario be if Nintendo had continued to produce games where POWs clear a screen of enemies, potions create doors to shadow worlds, and jumping on enemies produces no effect? These principles would have become associated with the Mario series, making the original Super Mario Bros. the anomaly.

Imagine if Super Mario World looked more like this.
Without the gaming community hungering for something familiar, designers in the late ‘80s were freer to take games in new directions, and these pioneers were unafraid to turn an overhead Zelda game into a side-scroller, to have Simon Belmont’s world go from day to night, or to let Mario hurl one enemy at another. When these ideas didn’t catch on, the spirit of experimentation gave way to consistency within the franchise, and players came to expect these reoccurring standards as the norm, leaving designers to try their new ideas on unknown titles.

Instead of viewing Zelda 2 as a series mismatch or an outdated curiosity, players should enjoy it for what it does well. The leveling system is neither too easy, nor does it require a lot of farming, and it encourages players to master the battle system in preparation for later challenges. Link’s spells are fun, useful in battle, and take the place of the item-based challenges found in later games. Completing the dungeons requires solving puzzles unique to the game’s design (for example, falling into a pit and transforming into a fairy to reach a higher path). Maze Island and Death Mountain push the limits of the overhead scenes by making it difficult simply to get from one place to another. And that last boss is still damned hard.

Don’t judge Zelda 2 for being different than what you expect; judge it as its own unique experience. Those who don’t will miss out on something that can't be counted as spectacular, but is still very good.

Or you can be like this reviewer, who calls it the best Zelda game ever.

No comments: