Sad Hill Media

Film & Lesser Arts with Will Ross, Devan Scott, & Daniel Jeffery.

May 2, 2016

Zelda 2

by Will Ross

While the vast majority of The Legend of Zelda is played in a top-down, isometric perspective, there are a few brief sidescrolling segments within dungeons, where the player can either find a new item or bypass significant portions of the dungeon to reach a distant room. These sections control the same as the top-down areas, except that y-axis traversal becomes limited to the ladders scattered around. These sections, and the combat within them, don’t have much in the way of depth or development (they mostly involve slashing at slow-moving bats); it’s fairly clear they were primarily designed as ways to circumvent the limitations of dungeon layouts when the game’s development team painted themselves into corners. Still, these moments offer an even greater breadth to Zelda 1’s considerable array of game mechanics, and even its limitations hint at further possibilities down the road. “Down the road” arrived when The Legend of Zelda was a hit and a sequel was greenlit. Shigeru Miyamoto and co. decided to make a more fleshed out integration of the sidescrolling elements the focus of the next game, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, while pushing the top-down, overworld exploration established in its predecessor more in the direction of RPG contemporaries like Dragon Quest and Ultima IV. The combat has been completely removed from the sections of top-down play, which now exclusively feature the player maneuvering Link around Hyrule through swamps and forests and mountains to reach the towns and dungeons (here called “palaces”) where most of the combat and puzzle-solving take place. In order to justify the quick movements from environment to environment, the scale of movement in the overworld map has been vastly shrunk, so that while a wooded area would have taken up several screens in The Legend of Zelda, it comprises a small portion of one screen in The Adventure of Link. This change in movement scale has two major benefits. First, it widens the scope of the game; one screen, in particular, will be recognizable to those who played the first Zelda as a miniature version of the world map in that game; in effect, this suggests that the 128 screens of Hyrule in Zelda 1 are a mere single screen in Zelda 2. Second, it justifies the inclusion of towns, and while maybe one town could have been included in the original game, having multiple ones would have unbalanced the map and demanded a disproportionate allocation of the game’s technical resources.

The Zelda 1 overworld as it appears within a single screen of The Adventure of Link

The shift in scale also comes with a host of problems. First, removing combat mechanics from overworld traveling makes it an extremely simple and dull affair — the player moves up, right, left, and down, occasionally presses “A” to make a rock disappear, and tries to avoid triggering enemy combat instances. Second, they drain the sense of adventure from the game, as the player can no longer feel like a real-sized person dwarfed by an enormous world when that world is so quickly and easily navigated. The Legend of Zelda’s Hyrule map feels like a world you’re fighting through and discovering; The Adventure of Link’s Hyrule map feels like a map, and it is about as engaging to move across that map as it is to drag your finger very slowly along a globe — not that it can’t be enjoyable to see what you find on a globe, but it’s a far cry from the effect of crisscrossing the winding forests and looming mountains of Zelda 1. The traveling is only broken up by the sudden change from the overworld map to an action segment, which is triggered in one of two ways: the player steps onto a section of the map where such a segment is started automatically, or the player steps into a section of the map that spawns shadowy, monster-looking figures nearby that will pursue Link. They can be avoided, but will trigger battle should Link come into contact with them. Whichever of these two scenarios occurs, the screen goes black momentarily, and then transitions to the sidescrolling view. The sidescrolling perspective in The Adventure of Link is used in order to deepen the effective but light combat mechanics of the first game and open up new movement options for Link. While positioning yourself along the X- and Y-axes of a grid in the first game could be a hectic challenge, moving or attacking up or down had the same effect as doing so left or right. The sidescrolling view eliminates the free Y-axis for combat while preserving it for overworld exploration, and allows the inclusion of jumping, falling, and ducking in the action sections. This ‘best-of-both-worlds’ approach, however, is a significant setback to the principles that have underlied all the series’s successes. While both components of the game play fine in a vacuum, the sharp division between them in perspective and mechanics mutually weakens rather than strengthens them. Instead of a fluid sense of motion through a dangerous environment, the game imparts a sense of free motion through a passive map, with sudden roadblocks that sharply interrupt traversal and must be separately conquered before travelling can continue. But, in respect to the vacuum: Zelda 2’s combat is indeed deeper and more satisfying than it was in the first game. Each enemy has its own quirks of timing and tactics, requiring the player to respond to complex attacks; my favourite is a monster who throws boomerangs both above and below Link, requiring the player to quickly position their shield in both a standing and crouching position, sometimes facing towards the enemy and sometimes away, while also making time to close in on and stab the monster. While some of these enemies become a bit samey by the end of the game, there are enough different kinds of them that that’s not really a problem, and enemy variety stays pretty fresh.

Corresponding to the added depth, combat has also become significantly more challenging to grasp and master. Little changes like adding a half-second delay to Link’s sword thrusts make an enormous difference upon the demands made of the player; they must anticipate both their position and that of their enemies when they hit the sword button. The emphasis on split-second timing and repetition is satisfying in its own way, but is sorely lacking in the dynamic contexts and tactical problem-solving that Zelda 1 hinted at. The fact that almost all offensive weapons that were present in the first game have been removed here (most notably the bow and arrows) places further emphasis on the player’s precise control of Link’s sword. Sword-launched projectiles and further movement options are granted to the players by way of magic spells (e.g. “Jump”) which are discovered over the course of the game and drain a newly introduced “Magic meter”. The magic meter, Link’s attacking power, his total amount of health, and his ability to minimize the amount of damage taken by enemies, are all looped into an RPG-style system of experience points. While Link’s attacking power and health can be increased by his magic spells, those spells’ duration is finite and they drain his magic meter, and while that magic meter can be replenished by picking up potions from enemies or visiting safe houses in towns, new magic spells demand more of the meter as the game progresses, and enemies both deal and take more and more damage. Therefore, to increase the player’s the minimum possible amount of damage inflicted, and the maximum possible amount of health and magic they can have, the game allows the player to periodically “level up” these statistics after gaining enough experience points from enemies. I have never been too enchanted by this level-up system, common to many RPGs. The system tips the measurement of a player’s acquired power towards quantitative accumulation of playtime rather than the skilled and effective use of that playtime. Experience is a universal currency, handed out at the end of each and every battle, whereas finding items and power-ups that improve these statistics is tailored towards achieving specific goals; the latter strikes me as a far more satisfying way to measure and reward a player’s actions. It’s not that the level-up system hurts Zelda 2’s sense of progression in an actively annoying way, but it diminishes the satisfaction of more substantive accomplishments like discovering a new spell or defeating a palace’s boss. At worst, they encourage a player to waste large amounts of time “grinding” — seeking out and killing large numbers of weaker enemies to accumulate enough points to level up — rather than using their existing repertoire to overcome difficult problems. The compounded difficulty in The Adventure of Link has not coincided with more forgiving punishments for failure. Like its predecessor, Zelda 2’s cartridge featured a battery-powered save feature, allowing players to retain the progress that came after considerable time investments, and will respawn a player at the entrance to whichever area they died in with whatever items or money they have gathered intact. Unlike its predecessor, it will not respawn the player there as many times as they die, but, after losing three lives, will take them first to a “GAME OVER” screen, and then respawn them next to Zelda’s sleeping body, at the very beginning of the game, necessitating the player to navigate the clunky overworld map and the combat encounters along the way all over again. This is an unforgivably regressive flaw. Zelda 2’s heavy emphasis on a demanding action component means that repeating difficult scenarios is key to improvement and progression. Instead, by wholly removing them from those scenarios by several minutes and furthermore forcing them into the top-down exploration controls, the game breaks its own flow and disrupts the player’s focus. This makes practice a far slower and less efficient affair and renders death a needlessly frustrating affair. Instead of death providing an exciting opportunity to dive back into a closed mechanical system, it sentences the player to a lengthy re-staging of navigation and combat which they have mastered long ago. The final dungeon, while notoriously difficult, is ironically one of the most enjoyable parts of the game, simply because the player a game over simply respawns the player just outside the palace and allows them to play it as a single, ongoing challenge.

The only upside to The Adventure of Link’s altered approach to death is that it leverages narrative context to urge the player forward. Each time the player sees the “GAME OVER” screen, they are taken back to the room where they started the game, an interior where a slumbering Princess Zelda can be seen on a pedestal. If the player has read the instruction booklet or the backstory crawl on the game’s title screen, they’ll have a decent understanding of why the princess sleeps, how Link came across her, and why he has to journey out to waken her from her sleep. But, if the player doesn’t have this context, so long as they have a very basic grasp of fairy tales (especially “Sleeping Beauty”) they can figure out the gist of what they need to do, and see a tangible reward for completing the game — the princess will wake up! It's a modest increase in the incorporation of narrative, but it's an effective one. I’d be lying if I said the game didn’t frequently test my patience beyond what those kinds of stakes can withstand. Zelda 2 continues its predecessor’s bad habits of excessive esoteria in its puzzles, requiring the player to make substantial leaps of logic and unreasonable amounts of trial-and-error in order to proceed in many instances. This is somewhat prevalent in the dungeons but runs rampant in the overworld. The game will vaguely hint to you that the town you have reached has been abandoned, and a new settlement established nearby, but how the hell was I supposed to know to use my hammer on a particular patch of forest in the overworld map to uncover that new settlement? Maybe there’s some part of the game that hints at that particular square or the utility of the hammer in clearing large blocks of forestry, but I am not embarrassed to admit that after an hour of failing to find such a hint, I consulted a walkthrough for this section. Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, on paper, has around the same number of strengths and missteps as The Legend of Zelda did, but the sum of the former's parts make it a far worse game. By attempting to segregate the combat and exploration elements in order to individually improve them, the link between them was severed (ha, ha), and the first game’s sense of flow — which was imperfect, but unparalleled in its time — was almost entirely lost, with all the smaller problems with the combat, exploration, and puzzle-solving exacerbated by the resultant pacing issues. While a series has no obligation to go on being the same thing from entry to entry, the abandonment of this core success by the franchise’s first sequel is irrevocably damaging to that game, and would have probably capsized the whole Zelda corpus in short order had the next game not reassessed which of the first entry’s strengths it ought to build on.


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