I am so glad that you are here with me, here at the end of all things. No, seriously: Check the Zelda timeline. Officially, this is the furthest point ahead in the series’ longest story branch. Future Hyrule, as we’ve seen, is kind of grim.
Case in point: The path forward to the end of The Adventure of Link is obscured by yet another graveyard. Remember the scale of the first game’s Hyrule within Zelda II‘s world map? This cemetery is vast.
With the sixth dungeon down and all six crystals placed in the statues within, you’re free to move ahead to the finale. Unlike in the original Zelda, the path to the end offers no ambiguity or mystery. While previous dungeons have required detective work, good luck, dogged persistence, and likely a strategy guide to uncover, the Great Palace sits in plain sight deep within the mountains. Technically, you can head to the Great Palace at any time after passing the River Demon, but the road ahead is fraught with invisible peril until you acquire the Cross to render the floating eyeball things visible.
Even with your levels maxed and the Cross in hand, the road to the Great Palace yields a hard-fought victory. Thankfully the “lava” tiles in the mountains don’t hurt Link, just as the game’s swamp tiles don’t poison him. But the encounters along this road will beat you down. Simply reaching the Great Palace can burn through your stock of lives in short order.
In recognition of this fact, the Great Palace is the one point in Zelda II in which a Game Over doesn’t send you all the way back to the beginning of the game. Should you exhaust your lives here, you can continue from the entrance to the Palace. You’ll return to Princess Zelda’s side if you save and quit, but as long as you keep hitting continue, you can keep hitting your head against the dungeon’s proverbial wall in hopes of victory. This isn’t just a nicety; I can’t imagine possibly completing this game if you had to start from the beginning and worth through the mountain path every single time.
The entrance to the Great Palace repels visitors with a magical barrier that lifts only once you have placed all six crystals. You’ll also need all the Magic Containers scattered throughout the world — not to enter the Palace, but you can’t learn the magic spell required to win the final battle until you’ve maxed out your magic.
The Great Palace possesses both a unique color scheme and a special musical theme, much like Death Mountain in the first game. And, like Ganon’s Death Mountain hideout, the Great Palace is enormous, easily twice as large as any other Palace. Where it differs from the final labyrinth of the first game is that its size is strictly to make things hard on players. At this point, Link should have collected all his tools and spells and power-ups for the entire game, meaning you’ll find nothing here except sheer difficulty.
And what difficulty there is. Right away you’ll begin facing off against never-before-seen enemies, such as this Fokkeru (who tosses flames that sometimes land in a fixed position but can also unpredictably slide toward Link at random); in fact, the Great Palace offers more newly minted and unique foes than any dungeon since the first one. Again, this makes for an interesting contrast to Death Mountain: Whereas that maze offered only a single new monster (Patra) and revolved primarily around complex pathfinding and well-hidden essentials, the Great Palace leans entirely on brutal combat and long-term action game endurance.
While Zelda II may indeed be the ur-action RPG, at this point the RPG elements slip away and the remainder of the quest focuses on twitch reflexes, timing, and an awful lot of good luck. Even the most superficial of its RPG mechanics, the experience and leveling system, has no real meaning at this point: Wise players will have built up Link’s stats to a uniform level 8, and those who haven’t won’t do much progressing inside the Great Palace. The enemies within yield surprisingly little EXP despite their high difficulty, and the chances of surviving their onslaught long enough to hit high EXP requirements for the upper tiers of the leveling system are pretty slim.
That doesn’t stop EXP bonuses from dropping far more often than magic refills, though. If you’re at max levels, those EXP bags are like some kind of taunt, as Link can no longer level his stats once he hits 8. Should you somehow accumulate 9000 EXP, you can simply choose a free refill for Life or Magic when you see the “level up” interface. This is considerably less useful than blue and red pitchers.
The Great Palace consists of a massive loop, with players free to travel either a left or right path into the depths. The left path sprawls across a much greater amount of real estate, but it’s a much clearer route to the end. The right path is considerably shorter (which means fewer horrible enemy encounters to whittle Link’s health down and defeat him through attrition), but its path is more oblique, with forward progress frequently disguised through situations such as this row of blocks that covers an invisible pitfall into the depths.
Among the new enemies in the Great Palace is the frightful-looking King Bubble, which is actually incredibly easy to avoid — and in fact offers no reason not to avoid it, since it yields no rewards upon defeat.
There’s also the Giant Bot, which appears from nowhere and drops from above as Link walks beneath it. This is basically a reverse King Slime from Dragon Quest in that striking it causes it to split into multiple normal Bots (rather than a bunch of Slimes gathering together to create the giant form). Though given that King Slimes wouldn’t debut until a few years after Zelda II, a better comparison might be the Zols in the original Zelda that burst into Gels when struck. The Bots in this Palace, however, take more hits to defeat than just about any other creature in the series.
None of the new challenges put forward by the Great Palace put a seasoned player to the test like the absolutely brutal new upgrade to the Ironknuckle, Fokka. This image alone should be enough to send any Zelda II veteran into a cold sweat. These aren’t simply the most difficult enemies in Zelda II; they’re the toughest opponents in any Zelda, period.
Fokkas come in two colors (red and blue, per usual). The red ones are merely incredibly difficult; the blue ones can bring your game to an instant end if you’re unlucky.
At their basic level, Fokkas act like Blue Ironknuckles. They attack with sword and shield, blocking Link’s attacks with remarkably prescience and flinging sword beams quickly and with abandon. What makes a Fokka cause you to pine for the relative wussiness of a Blue Ironknuckle is the fact that they’re both airborne and evasive. It’s hard enough to sneak a sword strike through the knights’ shields, but it’s even harder when you can’t even get close enough to land a blow in the first place. As soon as you move into sword range with a Fokka, it leaps high into the air, usually over your head, and often while tossing a difficult-to-predict sword beam.
To make matters worse, Fokkas soak up at least as much damage as an Ironknuckle, possibly more; yet they yield very little EXP. They can absolutely ravage Link’s health in a matter of seconds. There is no reason to fight them besides bragging rights — and even if you choose to simply make a mad dash past them, you still can’t guarantee your own safety as they follow you persistently, tossing sword beams at the back of your head while you break through barriers barring your path to adjacent rooms.
Fokkas are Zelda II’s one final design misstep, a race of enemies that manage to be even more difficult than the final boss. Their evasiveness, endurance, obstructiveness, offensive power, and utter persistence makes them better suited to play the part of minibosses, but they’re not; they’re standard foes, and there’s no real reward for besting them. Ironknuckles make for great enemies for the way they can go toe-to-toe with Link on his own terms, but Fokkas commit the grave sin of being too much better than Link, lacking any weakness or even a reasonable exploit.
Finally, the path ahead to the end appears as a narrow shaft beneath a crumbling bridge and surrounded by lava. This drop is conspicuous in its insanity: Only a fool would jump down there, so obviously that’s where you need to go. I love this touch. Not only is it couched in Zelda II‘s design language, calling attention to itself with visual vocabulary that players have learned over the course of the six previous dungeons, it also creates a powerful sense of no return. Once you drop down that hole, there’s clearly no coming back.