Imagine you’re back in 1987. Three Men and a Baby was the number one film. Leg warmers, shoulder pads, and big hair were in style. In the video game market, Nintendo was the top dog. The previous year, The Legend of Zelda became a smash hit. A sequel was demanded by the masses. Zelda II: The Adventure of Link was what Nintendo created to quell the ravenous hunger of video game addicts. In hindsight, Zelda II as a game was far different than many of the other games in the Zelda series. But at the time, there was no real standard formula for what a Zelda game should be. And why would there be? There was only one other Zelda game at the time, and it was the first one ever made. I am a little biased about this game, as it has always been one of my favorites. But let’s put the bias aside and see what Zelda II was all about.
Before I even get into my analysis of Zelda II, let’s discuss the intriguing matter of the release dates of the first two Zelda games. This article is supposed to be about 1987, but depending on which market you’re looking at, we could be celebrating different games. The original Legend of Zelda was released for the Famicom Disk System (FDS) add-on in Japan. The original Japanese release date of The Legend of Zelda was February 21, 1986. The Japanese release date for Zelda II, also for the FDS, was January 14, 1987. Now let’s look at the US dates. The Legend of Zelda was released for the NES on August 22, 1987, and Zelda II was released on December 1, 1988. But for the sake of argument, let’s stick with the Japanese release dates for this article.
Zelda II was markedly different than its predecessor. There were some things pioneered in Zelda II that became mainstays of the series. There were also things that existed only in Zelda II, never to be seen again. And then there were items and abilities that every other Zelda game had, but were absent from Zelda II. More than anything, Zelda II was experimentation. Nintendo tried many new ideas for this sequel. Some of them became standard tropes for every Zelda game, while others disappeared into the ether. So let’s throw some trash into the old Mr. Fusion generator, hop into the DeLorean, and set the time circuits for 1987. Now excuse me while I get this baby up to 88 MPH.
Let’s take a look at some things that existed in Zelda II, but were never implemented in later games, or were radically transformed.
The most noticeable difference between Zelda I and Zelda II was the side-scrolling nature of Zelda II. The main overworld map of Zelda II used the traditional overhead view, but every other scene was side-scrolling. However, the side-scrolling introduced the biggest difference between Zelda II and the other games: the ability to jump. Technically, jumping ability existed in many of the later games, but it did not have the ever presence that it did in Zelda II. However, the other Zelda games either required a special item to jump, or it happened automatically when Link approached a cliff or pit (as in the 3D games). In Zelda II however, jumping was a primary ability. It was necessary to play the game, as the side-scrolling levels had many pits to jump over. Sadly, this ability mostly died out in the later games. If there was one ability I’d like Link to have in the newer games, it would be to jump on command. Imagine using abilities like the down thrust in the 3D games. The side-scrolling also introduced new battle tactics. Link could use his up thrust to stab enemies above, and the down thrust to kill enemies below him. Proper combinations of jumps and strikes was a must for proper battle strategy.
Another ability that appeared in Zelda II, but disappeared later was the use of magic spells. Aside from sword and shield, the spells were what Link used to fight in the game. Each spell gave Link a special ability that would increase his fighting skills. Each new town Link visited gave him the opportunity to learn a new spell. Like the dungeon items, many of these spells were necessary for completing a dungeon. Although some spells exist in later games, they never again had the prevalence that they did in Zelda II. But the magic meter, introduced in Zelda II, became a mainstay of the Zelda series. But instead of spells, later games use the magic meter as fuel for various items. The spells themselves were quite useful. Shield would temporarily decrease the damage Link took from enemies. The Jump spell doubled Link’s jump height. Fire enable him to shoot fireballs, which was the only way to kill certain enemies. The Reflect spell really comes in handy. It will enable Link’s shield to block things he normally wouldn’t be able to, such as axes, clubs, and fireballs. The Fairy spell gets Link out of certain tight spaces, and he can even fly through locked doors. The Life spell is rather curious, as it is one of the only ways to replenish your life meter. Aside from the rare fairy, there are few ways to refill your life, other than receiving a life upgrade, finishing a dungeon, or finding a town. There are no hearts in Zelda II, which made the game considerably more difficult. There’s also the Spell spell (that’s not a typo), which doesn’t seem to do much of anything, except turn some enemies into those little blue jelly things. The Thunder spell is the most important spell in the game, as it is absolutely necessary to defeat one of the final bosses.
The use of experience points was one thing that was never used again. Zelda II was more like an RPG, where Link had to “level-up” to gain better abilities. Most enemies had a point value. When you got enough points, you could upgrade your life, magic, or attack. The upgrades made you take less damage, use less magic for spells, and increased your attack strength. There were also enemies that took away your points when they struck you. This was an experiment in the Zelda franchise that just didn’t last. All the upgrades given with experience points were later replaced with various item upgrades in later games (better sword, better shield, different armor, etc.). The points just didn’t seem to fit into the Zelda mold, so they were done away with in future games.
Acquiring certain upgrades was also vastly different in Zelda II. While every dungeon did have a useful item, certain key items such as heart containers were not present in any of the dungeons. This is a marked departure from every other Zelda game, in which you would gain a heart container after defeating each boss. In Zelda II, all the heart containers were found somewhere in the overworld. This also made the game more difficult, as you weren’t guaranteed a new heart every time you beat a boss.
The use of a specific number of lives was also an idea that came and went with Zelda II. Unlike the other games, Link started out with three lives. If you died in any other Zelda game, normally you would be taken to some place in the overworld, the beginning of a dungeon, or the entrance to a cave. In Zelda II, the same thing happened when you lost a life. However, if you lost all three lives, you got a game over and had to start at the beginning of the game. You didn’t lose your items, heart containers, or spells, but if you had made significant progress, you had to trudge all the way back to where you left off. You also lost all your experience points. So if you were ten points away from your next upgrade, you had to get the points all over again. This was killer for me when I first tried to get to the last palace in the game. I don’t know how many times I lost my lives and had to make the whole journey all over again. The only exception to starting at the beginning when you get a game over is if you make it to the Great Palace. Thankfully, if you get a game over there, you only wind up back at the entrance to the palace. The game also had one-up dolls that you could use to increase the number of lives you had. But unlike games such as Super Mario Bros., there was a fixed number of one-ups. Only six existed in the game, and once you used them, they were gone forever. So the best strategy is to collect them all at once before your trip to the Great Palace.
There were also numerous things that weren’t included in Zelda II that have been in nearly every other game. One notable thing missing is money. There are no rupees to collect in Zelda II. The world of Zelda II didn’t seem to have an economy. Life potions were also missing from the game. The life spell made an adequate replacement, but it’s a far cry from having a convenient bottle of potion to fill your hearts. Also, hearts themselves were pretty much absent. Enemies didn’t drop hearts to refill your life. You had to rely on the rare fairy or occasional magic jar so you could use your life spell. Even the life meter used boring boxes instead of the familiar hearts. Zelda II also had the fewest number of heart containers, limited to a paltry eight. The game also lacks additional items useable in battle. Link only had his sword and shield when fighting, sometimes augmented with certain spells. There was no bow and arrow, no boomerang, and no magic wands. The biggest annoyance I think is the lack of maps. There are no maps in Zelda II. So you’re basically stuck trying to figure out where you are.
Now let’s look at the things that Zelda II introduced that have become an integral part of the formula for all future Zelda games. Most people only think about the weirdness of Zelda II compared to the rest of the franchise. But, many of the modern mainstays of the franchise were pioneered in Zelda II. The biggest example of this is the Triforce. In the Legend of Zelda, the Triforce had two pieces: Wisdom, and Power. But Zelda II introduced the third Triforce of Courage. This created the familiar three-triangle Triforce that we know today.
Another mainstay is the magic meter. The magic meter in Zelda II, unlike in the other games, had specific numbers of containers that you could increase with upgrades. Other games keep the meter, but don’t have individual portions like Zelda II did. The magic meter also had a different use. Zelda II uses it for spells only, while the other games use magic as fuel for certain items. One notable exception is Twilight Princess, which was originally intended to have a magic meter, but the idea was eventually scrubbed.
Zelda II also introduced the idea of towns filled with people. The first Zelda had very few people to talk to, and they didn’t say much. Zelda II introduced more characters and created a world that actually had people in it. You would go on missions to receive rewards from people, usually some item or a magic spell. There’s also the interesting case of the names of the towns in Zelda II. There are many people out there whose first Zelda game was Ocarina of Time. So the names Ruto, Saria, Darunia, Mido, Rauru, and Nabooru might sound familiar. They were all towns in Zelda II, and were also the names of characters in Ocarina of Time. The only town in Zelda II that didn’t have a character named after it was Kasuto, which is one reason why I chose that name as my Internet pseudonym. The towns and people would later become an integral part of the Zelda franchise.
Another tradition that’s related to the towns is the little fetch-quest. There were numerous instances in Zelda II where a townsperson needed some particular item (such as the trophy, or the water of life) and you had to go find it. In exchange for this item, you received a new spell. This idea was repeated in many later Zelda games. How many times have you had to go on some trading sequence to get a new item? This little idea of finding a trinket to get a useful item grew into the many sidequests that have become a staple of the Zelda franchise.
The infamous bottomless pit was introduced in Zelda II. Pits were necessary as a part of being a side-scrolling game, but even though the visual presentation of later games changed, the idea of falling down a pit remained. Just be thankful that every other game only takes a heart away instead of outright killing you. I spent many frustrated hours screaming at those stupid bubbles for sending me hurtling into a bottomless abyss.
Zelda II also introduced myriad caverns that weren’t part of a normal dungeon. Now every Zelda game has many caves where you can find secret items, but it was a first for Zelda II. The various caves were an excellent place to find certain items, heart containers, and magic containers. So when you find your heart container in some cave in a Zelda game, thank Zelda II for giving you an extensive system of caverns.
These are only the most obvious pioneering moments in Zelda II that later became franchise standards. I’m sure there’s probably many more that aren’t nearly as obvious.
Now, let’s discuss some interesting differences between the Japanese FDS version of the game and the US cartridge-based version. The most obvious difference is the format. The limitations of the floppy drive for the FDS made for many annoying WAIT screens while a new area was loading. There were no loading times for the speedy solid-state chips in the US cartridge version. But some people might not know about some of the glaring differences between the US and Japanese versions of Zelda II. I’ll touch on a few of the more obvious ones. It really seems as if the Japanese version of Zelda II was a beta version of the game, and the US was the more finished version.
The most glaring differences are the sound effects. As research for this article, I played through the Japanese version of the game and I noticed that nearly every sound effect is slightly different than the US version. It was really quite stange hearing different sound effects. Believe it or not, the sound effects on the FDS were better and more complex due to the addition of an extra sound processing chip. The NES didn’t have this extra processor, so the complexity and number of sounds was limited. Even the music in the game is slightly different in many places.
Some of the game mechanics were also changed from the Japanese to the US versions. Most people are familiar with how to grab a magic jar or treasure bag: you simply strike it with your sword. In the Japanese version, every item had to be struck with your sword. When you obtain a dungeon item, you hit it with your sword and you’ve got it. Link doesn’t do his famous “hold the item in the air with triumphant music playing” thing in the Japanese version. Even some of the enemies behave differently. The fire spell seems useless in the Japanese version, because the enemies that could only be hurt by fire in the US version (such as Tektites, and those blue lizard/dinosaur things) can be hurt with your sword in the Japanese version. Also, it seems that the enemies that would take away points in when they hit you don’t do that in the Japanese version.
There’s also a couple interesting graphical changes. There’s slight differences in some areas, such as the castle with Princess Zelda. But the most glaring difference is the absence of unique colors and textures for each dungeon. Most of the dungeons in the Japanese version use the same brick style as level one, with either white or blue bricks. I think the US version is much better because each level is unique. The only levels that look identical between the two versions of the game are level 1 and level 7. And there’s even a new boss in the US version. The Japanese version’s level 5 boss is a stronger Helmethead (the level 2 boss), whereas the US version has Gooma (the dude with the mace). The level 6 boss (the dragon, I forget his name) also looks quite different between the two games. Another interesting difference is the water. The water is animated in the Japanese version, as is shown below.
And remember the little monsters that appear in the overworld whenever you step off a path? They’re very different in the Japanese version. They look more like little balloon/blob things (or a certain type of gamete produced by the males of various animal species). Take a look below. The beige blobs lead to the low difficulty action scenes, the blue one lead to high difficulty scenes, and red ones lead to a fairy.
I honestly prefer the little monster silouhettes from the US version.
The other big difference is how you level-up with experience points. In the US version, each level has a unique point value you have to reach. You have the choice to save your points and select a different skill to improve, but each standard value is unique. In the Japanese version they operate in clusters, where you can level each of your abilities with the same amount of points. This makes leveling-up much easier in the Japanese version. For example, to get the first three power-ups in the Japanese version, you have to get a total of 250 points. In the US version, you need to get 350. Overall, you have to get far fewer points to level up in the Japanese version than in the US version. This makes the game considerably easier.
There are some other minor differences between the two games, but I won’t go into that much detail here.
And now, for a more personal touch, I will regale you with stories about my eperiences with Zelda II. Zelda II has always been one of my favorites in the Zelda series. It’s weirdness just seems to appeal to me. I adore Majora’s Mask for the same reason. Now I can’t remember exactly when I first received Zelda II as a child, but it was probably somewhere near 1989, because I remember playing it in the first house I grew up in, which I moved out of in 1990. I was about six or seven years old at the time. My dad originally bought the game for himself, but he never actually played it. He always claimed the games were “his”, but he rarely played any of them. I had become as good at the the first Zelda game as I could possibly be at the young age of six, and the sequel beckoned to me. The first thing I noticed about Zelda II was how ridiculously hard this game was. I tried so hard to beat this game without cheating, but my lack of skills defeated me. During those early years, the farthest I ever made it without cheating was to the Great Palace. But I usually gave up. Luckily, I had my trusty Game Genie to help me. I loved every aspect of Zelda II, and to truly explore every part of it, I had to use the Game Genie to cheat my way through. Playing the game with cheats enabled became a common habit. It wasn’t until several years later that I was able to finally beat the game without using any cheat codes. It was a difficult journey. And I will admit that I’ve replayed this game dozens and dozens of times, but only once have I ever beaten it without cheating.
Zelda II was always the oddball in the Zelda series, and I loved it for that. I remember trying to figure out so many puzzles. One thing that sticks out in my mind is the infamous “I AM ERROR”. I tried for years to figure out what the hell that guy was talking about (this was before the World Wide Web, so Google couldn’t help me). It wasn’t until years later that I discovered you could go back to Error’s house after visiting Mido, and Error would tell you how to get to level 3. I stumbled on the warp to level 3 purely by accident.
I also remember the hours of frustration trying to figure out how to get past the riverman in the town of Saria. Then through blind luck I found Bagu’s house in the forest. It wasn’t until very recently that I discovered that Bagu and Error were most likely supposed to be puns. Most sources speculate that “Bagu” was a translation error, and his name should have been “Bug”. So you see the joke? Bug and Error. Too bad that was lost in translation.
I also remember how much I hated certain enemies in the game, notably the ones who attack you with axes or clubs. I don’t know how many times I was killed by those guys. It wasn’t until many years later that I realized that the Reflect spell could enable me to block those attacks. I always though Reflect was only good for fighting the Wizzrobes. Imagine how much easier the game became after I discovered the usefulness of the Reflect spell.
And let me tell you about the town of New Kasuto. I always thought that town had an eerie vibe, moreso than the devastated Old Kasuto. New Kasuto was so strange compared to the other villages. You get a total of three powerups there: a magic container, the Spell spell, and the Magic Key. I don’t know why, but that town always creeped me out. Maybe it was what the people said, or the fact that it was hidden.
And because Zelda II was my favorite game, I was pleasantly surprised when I first played Ocarina of Time. At the beginning of the game, I remember thinking how cool it was that Link’s friend was named Saria. I figured it was a little joke from the developers. Then I met Mido. My curiosity increased. Then I met Darunia, then Ruto, then Rauru, and finally Nabooru. I thought it was very clever that the village names in Zelda II were used as character names in Ocarina of Time. I kept waiting for the inevitable Kasuto to be named, but he never appeared. That is why when I first decided to write a fan fiction story, I chose Kasuto as my pseudonym. I thought it was fitting. To this day, I don’t know why there wasn’t a Kasuto in Ocarina of Time. Why would they use all the other village names, but not Kasuto? It’s a mystery. Perhaps the developers intended to have a Kasuto, but removed him at the last minute. Or maybe they left Kasuto out as a joke. Who knows?
In the end, Zelda II will always have a special place in my heart. It is one of my all time favorite Zelda games, and anyone who wants to truly experience Zelda should play this game. It pioneered so many mainstays of the Zelda franchise that it should be held high as the example of everything Zelda can be. So if you haven’t played this game, go and play it now. You won’t regret it. And if you have to use a Game Genie or other cheats, I promise I won’t tell anyone.