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Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (Nintendo NES) Review
Review by 
8.4/10 from 41 user ratings
There's a certain irony in Zelda II: The Adventure of Link.

Popularly known as one of the hardest games ever made, it actually contains the easiest level in the history of video games.

Here's what happens if you get ambushed while on the road:

That's the entire level. It's no larger than a single screen and there are no enemies to fight at all. You simply walk off of either side - so you can't even screw that up - and back to the Overworld map where, I guarantee, each and every time, you will get right back to doing whatever you were doing before you got ambushed in the first place.

The whole process takes less than 5 seconds, so it's hardly infuriating. Still, if you play the game, you will have to make this completely pointless action dozens upon dozens of times throughout the course of the game.

To me, this little detail exemplifies Adventure of Link's problems.

I wonder, did nobody say, "On second thought, this road ambush is pointless. The gamer won't enjoy performing that action over and over again, regardless of whether it's simple or not. Let's just take it out and replace it with one of those quick NES fart sounds, just to tell the player that the monster's ambush failed,"? That's such an obvious - and obviously better - design decision that I have to believe the team thought about it and deliberately chose not to do it that way. Why? I have no idea. It's very unlike Nintendo.

Time and again in Adventure of Link I felt I was banging my head against seemingly arbitrary design choices like that. Why do I keep getting kicked back to the beginning of the game when I die? Why do I lose all of my experience? Why so many cryptic secrets? Why this and not that? Why why why?

I suspect I know the answer to most of those questions. The design philosophy seems to have been to favor challenge over every other reasonable consideration. Maybe they felt that gamers simply wanted the hardest Zelda game possible. Well… mission accomplished, guys. Mission so accomplished.

In theory, I like the idea of a Zelda game that hits you with steep punishments for failure. But what this means in Adventure of Link, practically speaking, is that the game rewards you for playing conservatively. You want to be able to take on the Swamp Palace? You better farm yourself some levels first. Low on health? You better backtrack, pronto. Death Mountain? Better look at that map in Nintendo Power. Most of all, don't take too many risks because you're not going to like the penalty. Slow down. Be deliberate. Be cautious.

Sound like fun? Well… at times it really is fun. That's what's so frustrating about Adventure of Link. Despite some pretty clear flaws, it certainly toys with greatness. I'm not going to give a detailed rundown of everything that happens - the game is old enough and familiar enough that you probably don't need to hear it from me - but I can tell you what I liked. I appreciated the sword and shield battle system, even though it was unforgiving. I adored the boss fights. The Palace Theme is up there with the great musical Nintendo classics. I liked some of the quirks of the overworld, at least when they weren't so cryptic that they drove me to the Internet for help. Mostly, the game just seems to be crammed with ideas, from hidden palaces to endless pits to bags with the letter "P" on them. And I will absolutely defend the decision to make Adventure of Link a sidescroller. Why was that ever accepted as a legitimate criticism? Yeah, it would have been cool to see what Nintendo, at the height of their 8-bit powers, could have done with an evolution of the Top Down approach from the first game, but the shift in playstyle isn't a flaw. This is the NES we're talking about. Sidescrollers are what it did best.

But I can't think of another game I've ever played that mixed so much fun stuff with so much stuff that wasn't. It's like the S&M bar of Zelda games - some twisted combination of torture and bliss.

Oh, so that's what's going on in there.

I'm sure I'm not the first to make this connection, but Adventure of Link reminds me a lot of Castlevania 2: Simon's Quest. They're both sequels that try to evolve the gameplay of their classic predecessors with sometimes head-scratching results. They both contain a load of NPC's who spout cryptic nonsense and they both have final bosses who can be defeated using cheap tactics.

And they're both pretty well shunned for being total weirdos. Right now, if you search the word "Zelda" in the Negative World Games Database, you'll find Adventure of Link sitting comfortably at the bottom of the list of main series games, with a score of 8.6. If there's any Zelda that could be considered overlooked, it's this one. More than anything, the phrase "black sheep" gets thrown around when discussing it.

But every now and then you hear an enthusiastic fan defend this game against the usual criticisms. Fair play to them, I say, because I absolutely understand what is lovable about Adventure of Link. There's a lot of good, here. But I also understand what doesn't work. So my attitude is simple: You can't adopt every underdog. Despite the positives, this is still the least essential Zelda game I've personally played and quite a let down after the joy of going through the first game.

I'm glad I played it, but I can't recommend Adventure of Link for everyone. If you love Zelda and care about its history, you'll want to play this game through to the end (and probably already have). If you're simply an NES enthusiast, it might be worth your time to give it a shot, just to see what the fuss is about. Steel yourself for a challenge, though. But I don't think its a necessary gaming experience if you're just an average gamer looking to scratch a retro-gaming itch in 2012. In that case, I say stick with the original.

(Note: This is a short review, based on an incomplete stub I put together last year, just after finishing the game and just after writing a far more extensive discussion of the original Zelda. Since I didn't leave a major outline for myself to follow on this one, I've elected to present the review more or less "as is", with just a few edits. Too bad I didn't finish it, though.)

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Posted: 08/04/12, 12:37:20  - Edited by 
 on: 08/04/12, 23:37:12    
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All of this is review is fair. I still haven't beaten the game yet because of the arbitrary exp/life system. Once I get the savestate update for the ambassador version, I'm going to abuse the hell out of it by getting a point just before the end with multiple lives. Oh yeah.

BTW I must point out what I *think* causes the 'easy' level. Its just a programming quirk. The random monsters that appear, cause the 'battle' stages to take different forms depending on what terrain tile you're standing on when you encounter the monster sprite.

And as far as I know certain roads/paths do not generate monsters. Meaning if you generate a monster whilst off the path and step back onto the path for the encounter...you get a blank level like above.

Posted by 
 on: 08/04/12, 14:13:07

Yeah, but realistically, that's going to happen dozens of times in the game, anyway. It's not like it's rare to spawn monsters right as you're stepping on the road. So why take you to that pointless blank level at all? Why not simply have a road encounter do nothing or give a quick sound? It can't have been beyond their ability to program. So why? What advantage is there to that level over having the game simply do nothing?

Posted by 
 on: 08/04/12, 14:23:18  - Edited by 
 on: 08/04/12, 14:32:10
This is the first time I have ever heard anyone complain about the screen you enter when ambushed on the road. I guess you're right in that it's unnecessary, but I have absolutely never been bothered by it. Besides, I think you're overestimating it when you say it happens dozens upon dozens of times. Sure it happens more often if you're intentionally avoiding enemies, but maybe it's just because I don't play the game that way, I don't think it happens all that frequently since as Shadowlink said, the monsters don't appear when you're on the road, just if you wander off it. I guess I agree that it's unnecessary, but I have never had an issue with it.

Also, I actually like that it gives you the opportunity to skip one of the areas where you're automatically sent into right after the River Devil (the giant spider on the map). There's three blocks on the map where when you step onto them, you're sent into a battle screen, but if you encounter an enemy when you step onto the first one you can skip it (because you're sent to that "easy level" instead). Although I use this tactic way more in the Valley of Death and the spaces before Darunia Town which have automatic stages that are not on road, so I probably wouldn't be too stressed to see it go away for this one area.

Additionally, you're absolutely right that they COULD remove this encounter completely, as if you bump into an enemy while walking on water, nothing happens -- there is no battle screen. But I personally find it to be way less of an issue than you do.

As for your other complaints, being sent back to the beginning of the game is stupid, there's no way around that. Zelda 1 let you continue within the palace you were in, and this game should do the same. Still, I don't think you ever have to go that far to get back to where you were, and it certainly wasn't an uncommon thing (Metroid, anyone?). Maybe they did it to give you a chance to recover some of that experience, I dunno. But you're right, it's pretty stupid.

The obtuseness of it can be frustrating, but generally anything that's required to beat the game is mentioned by townspeople, so I don't think it's nearly as obtuse as say, The Legend of Zelda is at times. There are P-bags in random locations, but those are just for extra experience, not really required. A couple of the final heart containers are in obscure locations, but I think that townspeople point you in their direction (I could be wrong on that though).

Posted by 
 on: 08/04/12, 14:48:54

I think you guys are focusing on my complaint about the road ambush too much. I didn't point that out as some singular issue that invalidates the game. I'm not an idiot. I said it was "hardly infuriating". So, even in the review, I'm saying it's a minor issue, by itself. My point in bringing it up, though, is that I see it as indicative of the bigger problem I have with the game. Which is there doesn't seem to be as much consideration given to a smooth user experience as you'd typically expect for Zelda. Certain aspects of this game feel arbitrary, to me. That's just one of them. Things like returning to the start or losing all your XP when you die are others. Oh, I just remembered, the fact that, if you pick up a P-bag but still die before leveling, the P-Bag won't respawn but you'll still lose all that experience. Just arbitrary decisions like that. (I wrote this a year ago, so more examples aren't as fresh in my mind. But I remember feeling similar issues occurred throughout the game.)

And I think it's perfectly justified to say it happens dozens upon dozens of times. I know it happened to me quite a lot. And I completed the game with 10's in every category. I didn't spend the whole time running away from monsters like a coward.

Posted by 
 on: 08/04/12, 15:35:09  - Edited by 
 on: 08/04/12, 15:37:16
You make legitimate complaints, which for the most part I share. Like you, I recognize that ultimately the good outweighs the bad and makes for a fun game that has some cool elements that can't be found in other Zelda games, and really in any other games at all.

But this review really speaks to just how great the original Zelda is. Almost every NES game that tries to be something more than just a simple platformer or shooter runs afoul in various ways. Metroid, Simon's Quest, Zelda II all bit off more than they could chew in some ways which makes parts of the games less enjoyable than they could be, even though the overall packages are great.

I just don't get that feeling in the original Zelda. It was as ambitious as any console game at the time and it still managed to be 100% playable and very low on frustration. Such a masterpiece.

Posted by 
 on: 08/04/12, 15:45:45
@kriswright I assume you mean 8's.

I don't disagree that Zelda II has some dumb decisions (losing experience and starting from the North Castle every time are stupid) but I never even considered the road ambush as being one of them. I didn't mean to focus on that, it just seemed like you were focusing on it quite a bit.

Anyway, this is a pretty solid review. You make some good points, and I recognize some of the issues you highlight, I just happen to be less bothered by them. Perhaps that's because I have played through the game dozens of times (hell, twice on 3DS alone), so I know exactly where to go and I don't die as often as somebody playing the game for the first time. Admittedly, it's tough for me to look at it with an unbiased eye.

@Jargon As much as I love Zelda II, I agree that the original Legend of Zelda is a much more solid all-around package. Game rules.

Posted by 
 on: 08/04/12, 17:50:15
Haha, nice review!

And I think Kris was kinda tongue-in-cheek complaining about the Road Battle screen. I mean, he even mentioned "NES fart sounds" right after that. I don't think that is the official name for them.

I agree with pretty much everything, and you may've been more lenient than I would've been. I definitely think its the worse of the series. And like Jargon said, The Legend of Zelda is such a boss; the sequel probably SHOULDN'T be worse in a series. Can you imagine if Mega Man 2 dropped back to 4 robot masters, and your arm cannon wouldn't shoot all the way across the screen?

Posted by 
 on: 08/04/12, 19:10:56

Agreed. I wonder if someone could come up with a list of truly successful NES games that break the platformer/shooter mold. There are certainly a few, but the original Zelda has to be top of that heap. Good comments all around. I agree with you.


Uh... no. I unlocked super secret 10 mode. It's the mode where you ride around on the Thunderbird and shoot lightning bolts from your belly button. You mean you've never done that? Hahaha... Zelda II noob.

Well, I did play this a year ago. I ain't saying my memory's so great.


Yeah. It wasn't meant to be taken super seriously. Half the reason I started off with that bit about the easy level was just to contrast it against the reputation AoL has for being one of the hardest games ever. But I do think it's a pointless addition to the game, for whatever its worth.

Posted by 
 on: 08/04/12, 22:49:10
Nice review @kriswright! I'll admit, this is a game I haven't played too much for many of the reasons you elaborated on. I tried to get into it when it appeared on the Zelda's Collector Edition for GCN but had some trouble and didn't go back to it. I had planned to give it another shot on my 3DS as an ambassador game but again, I just never got around to it. Perhaps, mentally, I keep placing this game on the list of 'low priorities' for games I need to go back and play simply because I always have such a hard time with it.

Anyway! I really like this kind of review where I can simply follow along with your train of thought. Your opinions are clear and well explained.

Oh yeah, this game definitely has its similarities to Castlevania II.

I do love the sidescroller aspect of this game, regardless of any of its shortcomings. We haven't seen a whole lot of that since then, other than the small number of sections in Link's Awakening.

Posted by 
 on: 08/04/12, 22:59:07
I am one of the zany people who loves this game, but I will agree with most of what you said.

I would love another side-scrolling Zelda, but that's as likely as another SMB2-styled game. Boo!

Posted by 
 on: 08/04/12, 23:12:59

Yeah, actually, I'd love another side-scroller, too. In fact, I'm going to backtrack a bit on something I said in the review. I called this the least essential Zelda game, but I'm not sure that turn of phrase communicates exactly what I meant. I would still probably recommend it over, say, Phantom Hourglass based solely on the fact that Adventure of Link is so different from every other Zelda. It's still essential in the respect that it shows another possible way to do a Zelda game. It's just that that direction has been a blind alley, so far, so it's the least essential if you're trying to define what Zelda "is" in a practical sense. It's probably the last one you'd go to if you wanted to introduce someone to the series - and not just because it's hard, but because it's not really very much like Zelda as we currently think of it.

Oh, and I never mentioned this, but I really liked the story.

Posted by 
 on: 08/04/12, 23:48:08  - Edited by 
 on: 08/04/12, 23:55:18
rebonack said:
as if you bump into an enemy while walking on water, nothing happens -- there is no battle screen.
Whoa... Really? I recall having to fight a few battles in that particular environment... Am I mistaken, or did they add that arena for the GBA version, and it was absent on the NES version?

Also, I'm still of the mind that LoZ's 2nd Quest is harder than AoL.

Posted by 
 on: 08/04/12, 23:49:04
@V_s I do know there are a couple of hidden areas that are "water" areas (like a heart container), but I don't think that you can be sent to a random battle screen by encountering an enemy. I'm fairly certain, but I might be wrong on that.

Posted by 
 on: 08/05/12, 00:09:49
@rebonack - Ah. That may be what I'm remembering then.

Posted by 
 on: 08/05/12, 00:13:16
kriswright said:
Oh, and I never mentioned this, but I really liked the story.

Also the first appearance of Shadowlink! Yeah!

Posted by 
 on: 08/05/12, 01:51:40
@Shadowlink - First appearance of Dark Link, the doppelganger that acts as merely a test for the hero to prove himself. The evil doppelganger known as Shadow Link that actively goes out of his way to advance the goals of the game's main villain didn't appear until Four Swords Adventures... /nitpicky_parade_raining

Posted by 
 on: 08/05/12, 03:00:20

*sticks fingers in ears*

lalalalala, I am not listening lalalalala.

*Sics a spider on V_s.

Posted by 
 on: 08/05/12, 03:53:56
kriswright said:
Why do I keep getting kicked back to the beginning of the game when I die?

This right here is exactly why I stopped playing the game. I could have handled everything else (losing EP, etc.) but I just don't want to start at the beginning every damn time I run out of lives. Actually, I'd be fine with the beginning as the sole overworld spawn point if you could also spawn at the start of a dungeon if you died inside it, but no... Nintendo wants me to have to run all the way back to the dungeon every time.

Meh. I actually really like the gameplay otherwise. I wouldn't mind a "New Adventure of Link" type game if it was a tad bit more forgiving when you died.

Posted by 
 on: 08/05/12, 21:22:18

I could have handled the respawn situation, if it wasn't coupled with the XP cut. I could have handled the XP cut with a more merciful respawn situation. Together, though, they're pretty heinous. That's why I said the game encourages you to play conservatively. That dual penalty is just too great to take many big risks. But, in gaming, big risks are half the fun.

Posted by 
 on: 08/05/12, 21:35:34
I'm a little surprised people hate restarting at the Palace so much. To be fair to the game, it does make the concept of "lives" work within the game's universe, and makes you play very conservatively when you only have three (with very rare 1UPs). And the overworld is designed around shortcuts and such as you progress through the game (like breaking the boulder, using the raft, etc. Doesn't take too long to get where you were unless you were in a dungeon). The EXP thing can be a headache for sure--I'll never forget the time I was farming for a level-up and got my final two points FLOATING in the air after killing a slime, only to get killed at the last second before the points registered. Insane!

I do like this review though. I personally think Zelda 2 is a much stronger game than the ridiculously obtuse Castlevania 2, but it's definitely not my favorite of the series. One of the better NES games overall, though, about on par with the similarly unique Super Mario Bros. 2 if you ask me.

Posted by 
 on: 08/05/12, 21:47:31
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