In the vast realm of The Legend of Zelda series, there exists a title that stands as a black sheep, diverging from the conventional paths laid by its predecessors. Enter Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, a game that dared to deviate from the established formula, venturing into the uncharted territory of side-scrolling action RPG. In this review, I, Brighton Nelson, will embark on a journey through the game's distinctive features, assessing its combat mechanics, art and graphics, musical composition, sidequests, dungeons, storytelling, item integration, overall theming, and quality of life elements. Often criticized for its departure from the norm, Zelda II holds a unique position in the Zelda universe, paving the way for future innovations in the gaming industry. Now, without further ado, RPG Ranked presents... a Zelda II: The Adventure of Link Review: A black sheep like no other.
Combat - 10
This game was the first action side-scroller RPG, in a way spawning the first game of the fantastic Metroidvania genre. While this game can be mind-numbingly tricky and unfair sometimes (some enemy hitboxes are awful), there's so much satisfaction in finally understanding a problematic enemy's attack pattern and being able to breeze through a palace without losing all your lives. This game has some of the best, if not the best, enemy variety in the series, with every enemy feeling wholly different to engage in combat with. There are also remarkable sword techniques like UP Thrust and Down Thrust that make combat feel very fluid, as well as magic spells like Shield, Jump, Heal, Fire, Thunder, and Reflect to make combat more varied. This game's combat feels awful at first due to the harsh difficulty curve, but once you get the hang of the sword techniques, it feels infinitely satisfying to partake in. While I would've loved less cheap enemy placement, this game had fantastic combat, and I'd love to see a remake or remaster of this game with smoother combat to make it even more masterful than it already is. Or at least see more games akin to Chibi Knight that are fantastic spiritual successors to this game. This game may have my favorite combat in the series, perhaps rivaled by the recent Tears of the Kingdom. I'd love to see another Zelda game in this vein, even though I am more than 100% positive that will never happen.
Art & Graphics - 6
I can see this looking awesome for the time, with the human proportions and engaging animations being pretty groundbreaking. However, this game suffers from the common issue of aiming for realism, and while NES realism is still more charming than awful PS1 realism, it looks very odd playing it decades after its release. Unlike the original, which still looks timeless, this game looks aged and not-so-great. However, I still love some things—the enemy designs and Ui are great, even if everything else looks appalling. The world map especially feels like something 8-year-old me would've designed with GIMP and a tilemap application. Nonetheless, this game's graphics didn't take me out of the game, and I liked some aspects of them, so I'm not complaining too much. A six is a fair score for this game, I'd say.
Music - 8
I adore the music in this game! While the first game only had six tracks, this game squished in fifteen! However, as much as I love every song in this game—especially the Palace and Title tracks—I can't give a perfect score to such a brief soundtrack. With masterclass soundtracks found in modern RPGs having this quality and around ten times the song count, though? An 8 is the highest score I can realistically give this game.
Sidequests - 6
Locating Heart Containers, Magic Containers, Point Bags, and Link Dolls hidden worldwide is fun, and some of the secret items, like the Mystic Key, are interesting to locate. However, many of these sidequests end up feeling annoyingly mandatory due to the difficulty of the game and the necessity of tracking down Magic Containers to acquire the Thunder Spell. This makes sidequests feel like a part of the main adventure, not even sidequests at all. Compared to the exploration of the original game, this doesn't compare.
Dungeons - 6
Playing through a Zelda game where the dungeons were in a 2D, side-scrolling environment was fascinating! Some of the screens in these dungeons were brilliantly designed, but that was few and far between. For the most part, these dungeons, like in the first few games, were very combat-focused. In fact, these dungeons may have had the least puzzles of any Zelda game. However, some of these dungeons were entertaining, with the boss lineup being a huge highlight. Nonetheless, even with a few highs, these dungeons were just as mediocre as in the original.
Story - 3
The story in this game is marginally more interesting than in the first game, and, yet again, almost the whole story is told in the instruction manual, which is not very great. However, the idea is interesting, and the execution isn't too awful, so I can't complain too much about the story here. It's enough to be a vehicle for the gameplay but not much else.
Items - 5
The items here aren't used to solve puzzles but are almost always used to progress to the next area on the overworld. While this could be interesting, it sounds way cooler than it is. This makes the game severely lack the Zelda flair and puzzle-solving of other entries in the series. While the items are used well, I know they could have been much better.
Theming - 10
This game centers around RPG mechanics and spellcasting, and this was a fantastic place to go after the original. Even though Link to the Past perfected the Zelda formula, and this was a weird black sheep, I'd love to see another Zelda game replicate this formula and lift this idea to much greater heights. While this game wasn't perfect, it had some of the most excellent ideas in the series with its progression and magic casting, and, to me, that's very commendable. This game inspired action RPGs and Metroidvanias, both genres I love, and for that, this category easily deserves a score of 10 for me.
Quality of Life - 5
This game is painstakingly difficult! But I'm not one of those stereotypical gaming journalists who can't own up to the fact that they suck at a game, so I'm not going to be taking points off for a game being difficult. I also won't be taking points off for the alleged crypticness because, quite frankly, I found out everything I needed to know by talking to the NPCs. So, what is truly frustrating about this game? It feels like a step back from its more polished predecessor. The enemy placements and hitboxes are more questionable than in the first game, and the awful respawning is quite the issue, as you constantly respawn at the beginning of the game—yes, even when you are in a dungeon, something no other Zelda game has dared to do. Quite frankly, as a sequel, these step-backs were quite frustrating. On top of that, you can soft lock yourself very easily in this game due to running out of magic, forcing you to either backtrack out of the dungeon, kill yourself to restore MP, or simply go through dungeons without using one of the game's best mechanics. This was a massive issue in later palaces that required castings of high-level magic like Fairy and Thunder. Ultimately, the flaws of this game add up to make a fun game feel needlessly archaic, even relative to its NES role-playing contemporaries like the original Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy, and Dragon Quest games.
Fun Factor: 7
Overall Score: 66%
Letter Rating: B
This game certainly isn't like other games in The Legend of Zelda series, but it still provides an entertaining adventure that captures the energy of the series. While the first game defined the action-adventure genre, this defined the action RPG genre, making this game just as revolutionary as the first—and almost as fun. This game proved that Nintendo was a company willing to take risks, and to this day, they do that quite often, and those risks almost always pay off. I would personally say this risk paid off; even if it wasn't a masterpiece, it was still enjoyable. Sure, it had many glaring issues, but its combat was fantastic, and its gameplay was fulfilling and full of adventure. While I wouldn't recommend this game to casual gamers or casual Zelda fans, I'd certainly recommend it to RPG fans, hardcore gamers, or dedicated Zelda fans—it is much better than its reputation suggests.
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Primary Version: Zelda II (GBA)