These days, a lot of people look at the second major entry into the Legend of Zelda franchise as a black sheep. For many, it isn’t a game they look at too fondly, and they think it’s a game often best left forgotten. Many of these people may have played the SNES entry before this one, and perhaps for them, going back to look at this game is a bit difficult once they’ve seen the direction the series was heading; yet, back in 1987-88, Nintendo hadn’t set a formula for the series.
The original Legend of Zelda was a big success. It was a game that presented a rather non-linear structure (despite the fact that the dungeons were numbered, you could, in fact, complete them in any order you desired), a large overworld to explore, and many unique items. Many games on consoles and PC at the time were quite linear, presenting a “point A to point B” formula. Even many RPGs tended to have a very strict order to them, yet Zelda changed things up a fair bit.
Zelda II: The Adventure of Link was different from its predecessor. For the second game, Nintendo decided to show a lot more of the larger world of Hyrule. Here, players were given an overworld to explore with towns, caves, hidden locations, dungeons, and much more to traverse through. NPCs actually gave you somewhat useful information, could give you upgrades for your attacks or magic (magic itself being something rather unique to the game), and point you in the right direction. And the actual action-packed parts of the game were presented in a 2D side-scrolling fashion rather than the top-down perspective of the first (and several other games as well).
As someone who played the sequel before playing Zelda: A Link to the Past (which I did get when the SNES first came out in the U.S.), I actually thought Zelda II was pretty cool. However, I also thought it was very difficult. The leveling system the game presented made killing enemies and collecting items that much more important, but it also meant that if you were very under-leveled, you might have some difficulty in certain spots. When I was little, I had to wander around a lot in the game to figure out what was going on, but when I discovered something useful and figured out where to go, it was that much more meaningful to me.
One of the things I really liked (and still like) about this game is the massive size of the overworld you get to explore. One thing that’s fact is that most of the game actually takes place north of Death Mountain. In fact, the area that you explore in the first game is but a very small pocket region south of the mountain where, in Zelda II, you end up finding the Magic Hammer item that you need for your journey. Considering that most Zelda games actually take place in that region south of the mountain, it leaves many questions open as for why the capital of the kingdom moves to the area to the north by the time of the NES games (chronologically at the end of one of the timelines), though one good theory is that the people realized that this region was sacred, being where the goddesses left the Triforce when they departed the world, and so they leave it mostly uninhabited except for a few wayward people who stay there and help guide the hero in the event that he returns to defeat Ganon and his minions.
Also, people have wondered about the lands you explore in the game. Based on some maps online, it looks like it’s possible that the areas in Zelda II comprise some of what is Holodrum and Labrynna later on. In fact, this theory might hold a bit more water due to the fact that the Gameboy Color games were at one point going to be a re-imagining of the NES classics, spread out into three adventures. Considering that elements of the cancelled versions were likely reused in the Oracles games, then it’s certainly possible that the “distant lands” we see in Oracles were the lands north of Death Mountain and later these lands were annexed into the Kingdom of Hyrule.
Regardless, Zelda II is a game I do look back fondly on, even if it’s one of the hardest games in the series. I mean, getting Game Over puts you all the way back at the North Palace, even if you get this while in the final dungeon — a massive, sprawling and confusing place unlike most any other dungeon I’ve seen. Even the mid-boss and final boss are exceptionally difficult, which means that without a lot of practice and know-how, it’s a grueling task to get through it, let alone get to that point in the game in the first place.
I’ve often thought that maybe Zelda II deserved a 3D, open-world remake one of these days. And who knows, maybe one day Nintendo will make it happen.