Being an action game, Zelda II doesn't offer much in this area to fans of slower paced strategy based games. Positioning Link just right to swing his sword and dodge attacks is more important than gaining power or planning for the adventure. The balance near the end is a little skewed as the bird guardians (the blue and red enemies that shoot swords in the Great Palace) seem completely overpowered and the experience reward is so low that it's not worth fighting them. The need for battle falls off near the end, but mostly due to the low rewards than a lack of necessity for them.
It does provide a challenge, but there is a lack of variety in Link's abilities. With only a few spells useful in a few situations I found it best to save these for the boss fights, or stave off death long enough to reach just one more screen transition. The buff spells (Shield, Fire, Reflect, Fairy) only last until the next screen, so there's no way to fully rely on magic. Dying will start Link back at the last screen transition, or if it was his last, he'll start at the North Palace (beginning of the game) upon continuing.
The enemies themselves are well done with smooth animations and AI that offers new challenges. More enemies are introduced with each area and most palaces have their own monster to introduce beyond having a unique boss. Yet, even with all the good, the challenge mainly revolves around controlling Link with skill. Once this is accomplished, the challenge of combat is reduced so far that leveling becomes unnecessary except to quicken the pace at which enemies are dispatched.
|Death from above! This boss becomes a mini-boss twice over.|
You control Link, a hero clad in green wielding a magical sword and shield. He's a set character though, and there's no changing his look. When starting a game, you can name the save file, which is displayed whenever Link starts the game from a new life. Controlling Link is very smooth, and although some jumps are pixel perfect, most platforming is done without much risk. Fighting enemies is fun, and mistakes are rarely blamed on the game.
About the only personalization possible is through omission: not getting certain spells, or not leveling. These aren't always viable options though, so knowing what's possible and what's not isn't easy the first time playing. The most enjoyable move is the downward thrust, which will cause link to kill enemies or bounce off them without harm.
|The shield spell causes Link's clothes to turn red. If only I could use it more often.|
Thinking back, there isn't anything I'd really call a puzzle. Unlike the Zelda game after this one, there isn't anything to figure out aside from knowing the layout for each palace. There's some key management to be had, but it's very minimal, and the likelihood of getting into a dead end isn't possible as far as I can tell.
The side quests aren't very interesting, and all involved some "item" to get back to someone. In fact one time it wasn't very clear I had gotten the item in the first place because these don't show up in the inventory. It all mostly fits though with nothing detracting from the story or setting.
Some alternate routes are possible, and in fact there's a well known trick using the fairy to fly through key holes. I'm not sure this was intentional though since it was removed from (or just not possible in) the PAL version of the game. Beyond the above, there are some small mazes to figure out, and NPC hints are necessary if you're not using previous knowledge or a walkthrough.
|Finally! A game that has an alternative way through locked doors.|
The main story is (mostly) clearly recapped at the title screen, so the overall goal isn't ever lost; NPCs continue to hint at what is necessary for progress. Getting completely lost would take some effort, and finished castles are obvious by the block tile where the palace should be.
There aren't any descriptions, and it's mostly about the main story, yet there is the tidbit of background. Like towns infested with random NPCs that are actually Ganon's minions, and a hidden town full of refugees from another village full of monsters. However, the rest of the world is lacking; palaces obviously only stand for the item they provide, and statue for unlocking the final palace, not places to explore and understand.
There are no decisions regarding the story, and no way to influence the outcome. The motivation is presented as nothing more than a prophecy and statement that, "you're a hero, go do heroic stuff." Also, the translation is off sometimes, and can confuse some things.
|Translation: "You get some water."|
There is no additional equipment, and no inventory to manage. You'll pick up items, but use most automatically. The hammer and flute are specialized, and are always mapped to set buttons once possessed. Getting everything isn't much of a task, as most of it is necessary or easily stumbled upon.
The only other positive thing to note is completion is obvious with a max level 8 stated in the manual, health and magic bars that reach the maximum width by running up against other user interface graphics, and an item and spell list with only enough space to fit everything. Also tracked are game overs, which are a fun stat to note.
|Mostly everything, but that empty space next to the candle concerns me now|
I'm not a good judge of things like graphics, music, or sound. It all kind of melts together for me. So, that's why I only consider how fitting or distracting it is. I didn't have much trouble navigating or recognizing anything, and the sound queues plus music were well established. However, there are some graphical glitches near edges of the screen, and not a lot of variety in the music.
The world at large isn't all that large, but fits everything snugly without overcrowding. Each field tile results in different battles, which is nice when the game considers things like that. The caves all look the same, and the backgrounds for the battles as well, but the over-world is the main area for exploration.
Some tiles contain hidden areas that hold high yield experience point bags, heart containers, magic containers, or 1UPs. It's a little exciting running across these when you don't expect it, and being rewarded for exploring is a nice feeling. While not as technically impressive over Phantasy Star, it does match it based on these other merits.
|It makes me wonder what other things I could find through deforestation|
Final Rating: 22 (37%)
Now, do note that the rating system I'm using is skewed towards RPGs. So, this being less of one, it naturally scored lower, and while I did enjoy it more than Phantasy Star, it didn't quite satisfy my desire to play a CRPG.
Even so, the great things about it shined through, and it was very close in the end. If one can get past the need of dexterity over strategy, then it is definitely an enjoyable experience. Clocking in at 10 hours on average, it shouldn't outlast its welcome.
I'm looking forward to getting back to games closer to CRPGs we all know and love with Ultima: Exodus. By the way, I drop the 'III' from the title because on the the NES it's the first, and that's what Nintendo did. But first, I have a cut to make, and some words on the blog to get out.
Once again, I'd like to draw attention to the speedrun for this game. The game page is located here: http://speeddemosarchive.com/Zelda2.html. There are several videos that have different goals or restrictions (such as not dying or warping), but the full game is completed in 1 hour and 10 minutes. The skill is very impressive in the "Best single-segment time" record that doesn't include Up+A warping, as the player doesn't die throughout the whole game and skips the Life spell that heals Link. However, I don't know how long this time will stand, as there's been some talk of improving it recently.