Even for the most hardcore Zelda fan it can be easy to ignore Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. There's no denying it's the black sheep of the series. Giant Bomb's Jeff Gerstmann put it aptly when he reviewed the Game Boy Advance re-release: "While the game was a huge hit, history hasn't been especially kind to it," he wrote. As beloved as the originalThe Legend of Zelda is, its weird, uncool older sibling often gets swept under the rug.
But maybe it doesn't deserve that fate.
Consider this: plenty of gamers like to pretend that Super Mario Bros. 2 never happened. It, like Zelda II, is seen as the oddball of Mario's 2D platforming games. Because of how different it is from the other Super Mario Bros. games, many assume that it wasn't even designed by Mario and Zelda creator Shigeru Miyamoto at all.
But in reality that myth has been dispelled. It turns out Miyamoto actually did design the second Super Mario Bros. game; he just designed it to be the first entry in a completely different series. When Nintendo needed a Super Mario Bros. sequel and Japan's, designed by someone else entirely, proved too difficult, Nintendo slapped a mustachioed skin on what Miyamoto had designed (it was called Doki Doki Panic in Japan) and released it in the U.S. as Super Mario Bros. 2. In reality, this re-skinned sequel, having been designed by Miyamoto himself, was more of a real Mario game than the game that was released as an actual sequel in Japan.
As beloved as the original The Legend of Zelda is, its weird, uncool older sibling often gets swept under the rug.
The lesson we should learn from this real-life parable is that just because Zelda II is different doesn't mean it isn't a real Zelda game, or that it isn't worth your time.
"The raised stakes of the sequel were palpable; they were right there on screen," wrote game critic Tevis Thompson in a 2012 article about where Zelda as a series has gone wrong. "The world, not the towns or their people or any text, grounded the adventure, gave it shape. Death Mountain spoke for itself."
"The Adventure of Link had actually demanded things of me, had forced me to up my game," he continued.
Maybe if more people had given Zelda II a chance the series wouldn't be stuck in the creative rut in which it currently finds itself. After modern day gamers essentially rejected Zelda II for being too different from the original, Nintendo, lesson learned, went back to Zelda basics for the Super Nintendo entry, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. That game is considered by many to be the best Zelda game of them all, but there are those who argue that it was the beginning of the end for the series.
Not the end commercially, of course: Zelda games are still incredibly popular. But the end creatively. And that's because every Zelda game since has essentially re-used the same formulas with slightly different environments, characters and items.
But Zelda II mixed up the formula more than any other game in the core Zelda series. Instead of the top-down perspective of the original game, it featured overworld navigation like a Final Fantasy game, and side-scrolling towns and dungeons. You could talk to townspeople, who'd hint at side quests; the famous "I Am Error" meme originated there. Overall, it had more RPG elements, while the combat was something new entirely.
Joystiq's Richard Mitchell highlighted the combat in another 2012 article that highlights the overlooked innovation of the second Zelda game: "Now, if you were to ask me which one was my favorite, I'd have to go with Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link," he wrote. "Every cryptic hint, every frustration, is just the prelude for what really makes The Adventure of Link special: combat."
What Zelda II maintained of the original was a sense of difficulty, of stakes that could be lost, of potential failure lurking around every corner. What it brought was a feeling of newness, of experimentation and daring, that modern Zelda games lack entirely. And that's a damn shame.
Zelda II is available on a ton of platforms. You can buy it on the Wii's or 3DS's Virtual Consoles, or on a Game Boy Advance cart at a swap meet. There's no practical reason why we all shouldn't give it another chance.
There's no shortage of video games to play these days. Even hardcore Nintendo fans are hard-pressed to spend their time playing Mario and Zelda instead of the big-name triple-A releases. But any gamer who likes a bit of nostalgia owes it to himself or herself to revisit the second Legend of Zelda game ever made. You might be surprised at the challenges and innovations it has to show you.