Name of Game: Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link
Year of Release: 1987(JPN), 1988 (US)
As we once again enter the next generation it becomes painfully obvious that videogames haven't come nearly as far as we like to think. If anything, they've only become more entrenched, more objective, and more out of touch with the user instead of involving the player directly. And the reason why is no mystery: videogames have to be videogames. We know what to expect from them. We look to them not to feel or to challenge us but to reward us at every turn and in doing so gratify our $50 purchases. But when did all this start? When did it all become so predictable and self-indulgent?
It’s not just because of rose tinted glasses that more people are buying used games these days. In terms of design and philosophy, old games have far fewer restraints than their modern counterparts. We all know about the expectations and emotional investments a player has going into the game. We know that before the average Joe plunks down $50 at EB he or she has at least SOME stake in the purchase they have made, some inkling that the game will satisfy them in some form. But older games don't do this. They have no such obligation to the player.
To further explain this, let's go a back a little earlier. In the days of the Atari 2600, we have the games of today and earlier essentially stripped down to their most basic of all concepts. In this sense, the videogame ITSELF was a genre. The 8bit era evolved these concepts and made them more concrete, but not to the point where the player had no room to input his or her own feelings. Combine this with the fact that the medium was still in its fledgling stage and what we have (or had, as the case may be) are games that are confident in what they try to accomplish and feel no need to justify themselves or otherwise gratify the player. In short, videogames did not have to be videogames because the concept didn't exist at the time. And as such, it's no wonder that this era of gaming, in which videogames could be absolutely anything they wanted to be, is one that is remembered most fondly among all other eras.
And Zelda 2 was born out of this philosophy. It must be, because it doesn't owe you anything or otherwise attempt to gratify you.
Zelda 2 is notable not only because it is one of the most radically different chapters in the Zelda series but it is also one of the most brutal, dark, and oppressive games of the era. Because I feel like making generalizations, lets' compare it with the first chapter in the series, or say, Dragon Quest, both of which function on the same basic principle. The world is dangerous, unforgiving, and brutal at first blush. The first Zelda game offered the player mostly complete freedom. There were no real restraints, per se, but there were consequences for your actions. It's a harsh world, out there. Not having item X won't necessarily prevent you from attempting a dungeon far beyond your level, but get out too far too early you stand little chance of survival. Ditto with Dragon Quest, except more obtuse and on a grander scale. But once you've acquired more items, gained more levels or heart containers, and have found stronger weapons and armor, the world expands from there. Things in Zelda 1 and Dragon Quest, I find, actually get EASIER the deeper you get into the game. Zelda 2 takes these same concepts and warps them, turns them inwards, uses them against the player.
Games today aim to please. They want you to feel good, self-gratified, comfortable. And the game gives the player the purest form of this feeling upon the completion of the game. In this sense, games are made to be beaten. Games WANT you to win. But not Zelda 2. Zelda 2 does not care for you. And this is obvious because it only gets harder, darker, more abstruse, more frustrating, and more unforgiving the further you delve into it, ending with a nightmare of a final palace. To wit, I will openly state here; I was scared to play Zelda 2 as a kid. Really. I found it impregnable and brutally unforgiving. I still feel that way about it today, the only difference being that I can respect it for daring to be what it was. It’s hard not to react to a game that exists to destroy you, to cause to lose sleep over it, to make you want so badly to finish it, if only because it does NOT want to be finished.
But let's start at the beginning.
At any rate, our quest begins at the austere and sparse North Castle, where Princess Zelda sleeps due to a spell placed on her by a wizard. All we know at this point is that she can only be awakened by finding the third Triforce, the Triforce of Courage, which can be achieved (we think) by breaking the seal in palaces located all over the map. At the same time, Ganon’s minions seek to resurrect their leader…which can only be done by pouring Link’s blood over the ashes of their fallen master. This is the setting for our task.
And so, the game begins, and we find ourselves stepping out from the austere North Palace where Zelda sleeps into a world that is both unforgiving and cruel. From the get go, the player is immediately daunted by both the size of the world and how little control he has over any of the events. Unlike the first Zelda, the game is much more linear but this does nothing to assuage the feelings of isolation that wellspring from within the player. Even from the beginning, enemies are tough. Towns are few and far between. Caves are dark and filled with enemies. But over all else, the sense of futility and oppression that encroaches upon the player is unshakable. "What am I doing here? Where do I go? I don't want to stray too far from town... I don't think I can go that way yet. What am I supposed to do?" At the beginning of the game, there's very little you can do, which the game reminds you constantly. You're not going to the south until you get the hammer，for example. You're not passing through the cave to the south until you get the candle and the jump spell. And you definitely aren't going pretty much anywhere until you get the candle. As Miyamoto himself says, the first thing a game should do is teach the player what he CANNOT do. And in this way, the over world unfolds.
To wit, there's very little we can do initially. Hypothetically, there are a couple towns you can visit, only one of which has a new spell you can acquire or we can go straight to the North, and in doing so go to Parappa Palace, the first of many dangers. Bearing this, we head to the first town. It isn't quite apparent at the start of the game, but every town is a blessing, a sanctuary that the player can base his location around. Inside each town, there are wise men that teach you new spells, and most importantly, people are willing to restore your life and magic for you, which enable the player to get as far as he possibly can early on. The town essentially functions as a temporary base for the player. Stay near the town, fight any enemies that you can to gain levels and return to town. Stray too far, and the consequences are dire. In this sense, the player can make the overworld a little more central in a world that is not even remotely so.
Indeed, seeing the next town in Zelda 2 is a RELIEF. You've been traveling across the world for a long time, now. You have no lives remaining, no magic, and you're about to die. And then, you see it, off in the distance. A town. Hope. There's a chance... a chance I may not die off in the wilderness! If I can just make it. If I can go a few more spaces ahead without getting attacked, then I'll have nothing to worry about. This is what we tell ourselves. This is what gives us hope.
After going to the first couple towns, we know two things: we're not going much of anywhere without the candle, and that we can get the candle at Parappa palace. We make that our next destination.
The palaces are well crafted and ostensibly difficult. Unlike every other Zelda game, you get no map, no compass, nothing to help guide you. It's a case of trial and error. The enemies are difficult and the further you go the harder it is to get out. And it is here that the game really plays with you: because it is so difficult to get out of a palace without finishing it, with every single one in the game, you go into it knowing that you will either complete the palace or die in its depths. Victory is your only option if you want to live. But it's not just the feeling of hopelessness that comes from these palaces. There's also something decidedly peaceful about them. Something about their design that taps into something that is both complex and utilitarian at the same time. Minimalistic and yet labyrinthine and meandering, these corridors really do feel as though they were built ages ago, for unknown purposes. Moreover, they really do manage to convey feelings of isolation. Not all rooms have purpose. Some lead you to dead ends, others to enemies. The most feared and common enemy at the time are the ironknuckles, armor-clad faceless knights who attack Link with an alternation of high and low sword swipes. As soon as you see one, the player almost reflexively casts the shield spell, and with good reason: though they become easier to handle later on, initially there’s very little you can do to avoid being damaged. Eventually, we make our way to the bosses, each of which snarls all the while and puts up a good fight to an enchanting yet monotonous 8bit loop.
Following this, we get more items, including the hammer, which is far and away the most heinous overworld task the player is faced with. A tangling mass of interweaved caves, long drawn out paths that again take the player to nothing, and extremely difficult enemies. Once you actually do get the hammer, you may as well just die and then save your game, because you're NOT coming back from here. And indeed, from here on out, the world map only becomes more difficult. It is near the end of the game that Zelda 2 truly shines, because there it begins to turn videogame logic inward, to hurl everything the player took stock in back in his face, and to ruin anything in the game he once held dear.
In the first instance, towns become deceptive. Imagine the surprise, the shock the player goes through, when his sanctuary turns into a hell. I'll never forget this as a child. I had been scouring the overworld for a long time searching for Bagu's blasted cabin. I had no more lives left. I believed I was going to die, but as though by the grace of a higher power, I managed to make it to town.
But then I got careless. Along the way to get my life restored, I happened to talk to a villager. What could happen as a result of that, right? I mean, this is a TOWN! And as we all know, bad things aren't supposed to happen in towns! Right?
Instead of helpful advice, however, the man said "EYES OF GANON ARE EVERYWHERE", turned into a bat, and with a swoop, sucked away the last of my life. I was killed in the one place I thought I was safe. And everything shattered at that point. Any trust I had in this game to help me was sucked away with that final hit. I was a stranger in a strange land from then on.
And yet, this is one of the reasons I love Zelda 2. It takes what we know today as videogame logic and twists it, turns it inwards. We all know towns in RPGs serve as a haven for the player, they allow for plot progression and provide a place for the player to restore their health. But Zelda 2 instead takes that away. Another example of this would be the way the game takes the concept of collecting things and twists it. Before the last palace, I spent a lot of time maxing out all my levels, scouring the land for every last skill, heart container, and magic jar. Why? Was it part of the obsessive-compulsive mentality that the modern gamer has (It's THERE, so I'm obligated to collect it!) Was it just because I could? Or was it something else?
We tend to judge a games’ worth by how long it keeps us occupied. Games have a tendency to load themselves with extra sidequests to collect unnecessary items just so that the player can continue to waste time and plug more hours into a game that's become too long for its own good. But that's one of the things I love most about Zelda 2: Everything is necessary. I'm collecting these things because I need everything I can get if I want to survive. If you don't have every heart container, every magic bottle, and every one-up doll scattered all across the world map, you WILL NOT survive the final palace. This forces the player to make better decisions and also kind of makes some of the aspects of the newer Zelda games seem a little silly. TWENTY heart containers? A magic bar half the size of the screen? Do we really need these things?
At any rate, at this point in our adventure we at last have everything we need and are ready to take on the final dungeon with ease. Or so we think.
The last dungeon in Zelda 2 is absolutely frightening. You will die. It doesn't matter what you have or if your levels are maxed out. In the first case, you're probably going to die just getting there. The road to the final palace is filled with difficult enemies, pitfalls, and long caves and surrounded by lava. You stand little chance of surviving the journey unscathed. It's not even remotely close to any town or anywhere else you can restore your life. Keep your jump and shield spells handy and maybe you'll survive without losing a life. Maybe.
And then we arrive. The barrier in front of the palace falls and we enter a place from which there is only one exit.
While the palace is brutal, it is not without feeling, and this is by far the best (and most grueling!) part of the game. First of all, the palace is actually scary, scarier than other dungeons in the series that have actually tried to be. The last dungeon in the first Zelda game, while nice and moody, isn't scary: it's merely confusing. Getting to Ganon and finding the Silver Arrows is a moderately difficult task but there aren't really any obstacles in your way that you haven't already seen. There is almost NOTHING you've ever seen before in Zelda 2's final palace. The ironknuckles, once your most feared enemy, are now replaced by the thunderbirds. Blobs take two hits to kill at full level. The palace structurally looks different from all the others. And it is riddled with corridors that lead to difficult passages and huge pathways that lead to dead ends or make you end up going in circles. Many corridors, intentionally, look the same.
Essentially it boils down to this: you are going nowhere fast. You are miles below the earths’ surface. You have a limited number of lives, a number that is decreasing all the time. You have no map, no compass with which to guide you. You are going to die.
Everything in the last dungeon is futile. The player's every action is a desperate one. "Will this path take me to where I need to go? I swear I've been here before, haven't I? Does this help?" Rooms all look the same. The enemies only get more difficult. At first, I thought everything was okay. I just went through the motions, following a set path and continuing downwards. But then, somewhere, I reached a dead end. I headed back the way I came and took the left path this time. Maybe that will lead me somewhere good. The sweat dripping from my brow and the images on screen however, suggested otherwise. This place... it looked exactly the same as several I had been before. Another thunderbird lied waiting for me in a room with a high ceiling. Usually it's best to avoid them if you can. But such occasions in which this is possible are rare, and this was not one of them. I’m not going anywhere. He won’t let me.
"Beep Beep Beep". I'm about to die. I won, but I was almost dead and several floors below the surface of the palace. It was my last life. I had NO idea where I was, where I was going, or how to get out of here. I was out of magic to restore my life. What... what can I do?
Games are made to be beaten. They want you to win, and to this end, there's always a way out. In the newer Zelda games, just store some fairies or potions in your bottle and make sure you have the best mail. There's no way you'll die. Run out of magic or fairies or another necessary item? There are teleportation spells that conveniently take you to the beginning of the dungeon. From there, just play an ocarina song or use your magic mirror or whatever other devices they give you and warp INSTANTLY to the nearest town! How convenient!
But far, far underground in that last palace, there was no way out. It's my last life. I'm low on magic and I'll likely die if I take another hit. The catchy ｍｕｓｉｃ of the palace is drowned out by the incessant "BEEP BEEP BEEP" continually ringing in my ears, an 8 bit death knoll. What can I do? Can I make it back to town? No. Even if I got out of the palace, what could I do? I lost a life just getting here. And even then the nearest town is way too far to make the trek prudent. Maybe I can level up and choose to restore my life. Can I do that? Doubtful. I'm pretty far from leveling up and I'll just get killed in the process. I'm so far down here. There’s no way I can survive the trek back up. In this final dungeon, I said words that no other Zelda game has ever made me say:
"This is hopeless." And it was. It honestly, truly was.
And with that, I turned off the power. It was all I could do. That or die down there. I had no progress worth saving, no way out of my situation and lacked the courage to go forwards. Death by a thunderbird was all that awaited me. No way out. No trapdoor. No mercy. This is why I can't help but respect Zelda 2. It has the gall to ruin me.
It was some time before I mustered the courage to attempt this palace again. I managed to go a different route this time, coming in contact with a giant, skull like form of one of the bubbles. I had yet to see one of these before so I took it as a mixed blessing: I must be on the right track this time.
Down, down, down we go, via elevators or just plain falling. Eventually, I reached another dead end. I wasn't sure at first what to do, but by accident, in an act of desperation, I destroyed some blocks I was standing on and fell through a seemingly solid floor.
In the next room something awful was waiting for me.
The room in which the Thunderbird waits for you is sparse, with some sort of podium in the middle and a high ceiling. At first, all you can hear is his incessant shrieking before he swoops in from the right side of the screen. Twice as tall as I was, shrieking an 8bit electronic squeal at all times, raining fire from the heavens. And it had no face. Just a vacant hole where one should be. For all I tried I couldn't damage it. Headshots didn't work. Nothing worked. It was, again, hopeless.
It was a short fight. I was the loser. Now down to my last life, I entered the room once again. But then, it hit me. The final spell, given to me by a helpless old man in a ruined town: thunder.
I cast the spell in an act of desperation, but the effects were unmistakable. The thunderbird's face, hideous, appeared. His color changed from red to bright blue. My hits actually did damage now, but the more damage he took the faster fire rained down from above. It was grueling. I would wait out as long as I could and dodge until I could find an opening, then attack. Even with the shield spell, the fire that rains from the sky does an exorbitant amount of damage. Eventually, I would find an opportunity and land a blow in the head. After a hard battle, I had won and could go forward. I even managed to level, so I had full health. And I would need it, for the next battle was the toughest yet.
We at last confront the wizard himself, standing in front of the Triforce. He raises his wand and the screen turns purple. All objects become black silhouettes except for Link himself. Link begins to flash and then... splits in two. I can see my shade, the same silhouette that appears against a flashing background when I die. But this time, it was my enemy.
Shadow Link. How easily we take him for granted. He's made so many appearances in Zelda games recently that his significance has been all but lost, but I should say here, the first time I fought Shadow Link, it was a big deal. Link can duck and jump in Zelda 2, and those are two things that most enemies do NOT do. Now here was an enemy that was like me in every way, reacting accordingly to all my attacks as though he knew I was going to make them in advance. Moreover, it was my last life and I had no idea how I got here, so if I died it may be some time before I can fight my way back. I had full life and just enough magic to cast shield. This was it.
He and the real Link just stood there for a while. I was hoping he'd attack first so I could react accordingly. But he stood there. A shapeless black silhouette against an empty, deep purple background. The music made the situation all that much more tense. I couldn't wait anymore. I made the first attack.
Useless. He stepped back a little, dodged the attack deftly, and stabbed me. I backed up to take a defensive position. He was once again still.
This time I opted for an all out offensive. I jumped up and down while striking repeatedly. This went on for a while. Jump, slash, and duck. Jump, slash duck. And then, just then, I heard the same noise that occurs when Link takes damage. Was it me, was I hit again? No. Shadow Link took the blow this time.
This continued on for a while. Blow for blow. Strike for strike. Then I heard it again... it was that BEEP BEEP BEEP. If I didn't make it this time, I may never try again. I jumped at him swung my sword and... finally...
I did it. I had defeated Shadow Link. The world around me stopped. All that existed was the screen before my childlike eyes and the silence of the room that housed it. In the next moment, the wizard lay at my feet begging for forgiveness. The triforce was united back at North Castle and Zelda awakens. She informs me here that I am a TRUE HERO, and following this, the curtains fall, and the instant they obscure Zelda and Link, Zelda leans up and kisses him on the cheek.
And then, after all we've done, we come at last to see this:
And that's it. Our reward is a simple "thanks a million" and (we assume) a kiss on the cheek. We have traveled the entire country, both land and sea, conquered a nightmare of a castle, and died several times in the process. Mysteriously enough, a second quest of sorts begins here but there's not much point to it. I'm still kind of baffled to this day about it, actually. The game is exactly the same. You're just... given the option to start with all the levels you've gained intact. I guess this makes things easier the second time around, but still seems a bit counter productive and pointless to the experience it was shooting for in the first place. It doesn't affect anything it just... seems out of place.
That same night I read a little before bed. It was a good sleep. In the end, Zelda 2 DID gratify me but it took a different route then the games of today. It was gratifying when I completed it because I knew that it didn't want me to. It didn't want me to see that ending scene. It didn't want me to watch the credits roll. It was gratifying because the game wanted to beat me as much as I wanted to beat it. And it didn't. Not this time.
At the end of it all, Dragon Quest is... a quest. The first Zelda is an Adventure. Zelda 2 is a trial. An ordeal. It does not give the player a moment of satisfaction until the final victory and then leaves him stranded. If upon finishing the game you immediately wanted to play it again then you are clearly made of stronger stuff than I. Zelda 2 is brutal, frustrating, overwhelming, and yet rewarding at all once. Most importantly, it is unapologetic and feels no need to fit into a mold or otherwise justify itself to the player. It is harsh, but not without purpose. I want to call it art, but the end result is the same even if it isn’t.
I mean, it’s a videogame. It’s not like it owes you anything… right?