What we’ve learned

Much to my surprise, this Anatomy of Zelda II series has been the most fun I’ve had with any of these in-depth game design dissections so far. I went into it expecting to have a miserable time with a cumbersome mess of a game, but instead I’m constantly finding new and interesting things to enjoy about it. Sure, it has some shortcomings to be certain; yet on the whole, it’s a much more cohesive work than I realized.

I can certainly chalk that up to the fact that the last time I played the game with any seriousness was… when it was first released in the U.S. I’ve learned a lot about games and RPGs in particular since 1988, and I understand the game’s mechanics and features far better than I did at the time of its debut. Going by the comments you guys have posted following each entry, I’m not alone in that. Nintendo really was staking out new territory for a lot of gamers at the time; the NES market was aimed at kids whose families couldn’t necessarily afford a computer back when even a low-end system cost thousands of dollars in today’s money (and didn’t offer all the essential benefits that today’s highly connected computers did). A $99 console made for a nice entry point into computer gaming, but prior to Zelda II American kids didn’t really have access to games with real RPG underpinnings. No wonder Zelda II baffled so many of us.

With the hindsight afforded by wide access to “real” RPGs and far more demanding/involved action games (if nowhere near as unforgiving), the formerly Herculean task of conquering Zelda II no longer seems so impossible. Scope and feature creep over the past 20 years recontextualize Zelda II as a far more modest adventure than it seemed at the time, and those blessed 3DS VC save states make the palaces a whole lot less brutal to conquer.

There aren’t a lot of games that would be such a different experience 20-plus years after the fact, but I’m really enjoying returning to Zelda II with the maturity to properly understand what Nintendo was trying to accomplish with it — and what, in many cases, they succeeded at achieving.

30 thoughts on “What we’ve learned

  1. I’m loving the Anatomy of a Game series; Zelda 2 in particular, for exactly the reasons you pointed out. You’re doing the Lord’s work here – keep it up!

  2. I’m right there with you. I was somewhere around 7 when I played Zelda II and I found it almost completely inscrutable when compared with the first Zelda which I managed my way through with the help of my dad.

    Reading your breakdown of the game has made me really want to go back and give it another go. I believe I would have a greater appreciation for it after experiencing so many other RPGs.

    This series has been really great. Thanks for taking the time to write it.

  3. I’m greatly enjoying Zelda II, and I don’t want you to rush through it, but for your next Anatomy project, how about Goonies 2? You could work through each section and I would love to hear your thoughts on it.

  4. I’m gonna have agree with you overall, Jeremy. I do have to say that the Valley of Death sequence before the Great Palace can go to Hell. That’s the one sequence in the game that caused the most “F this game” rage quits that I’ve had in a long time. Granted, they let you skip it upon completion when you continue, but when you need to turn the system off, you have to do it all over again. This has been a major deterent from me playing it. Especially when you consider how big the last dungeon is. I’m playing the GBA version, so save states are not an option.

  5. Yeah, count me in the camp suddenly feeling the itch to give this game another go after 20 years. In fact, I was about to look up what it costs on 3DS VC when I realized I already own it due to the Ambassador program. Score!

  6. Ah, so you’re playing on the 3DS? I always wondered, over the years at Gamespite, just how you managed to play all these old games – original copies, modern digital re-releases, emulation (and if so, on what system?), etc.

    Personally, while I normally like playing just about any game on the go (and I onced hacked a PSP solely for the purpose of installing NES/Genesis/SNES emulators), I find myself enjoying older games on the (hacked) Wii – either through the ones I’ve purchased on VC or through emulators. Not having to dig out my old consoles from the closet is only a secondary concern – really, the truth is that over the years my gaming skills have seriously waned and I realize that I suck at games. In other words, I need those save states to play old games…

    As for Zelda II, my impression was always that it had a unique flavor different than other games in the series. Not that the game was bad, but that it almost, like the American SMBII, felt as if it were originally designed as some other game. I know that’s not the case, but it still feels like a game from a different series to me.

  7. I’ve definitely felt the same way as I replay Zelda II. Sometimes it’s the bigger things that make more sense to me now, like the magic bar. Since so many of Zelda II’s “treasures” are just utility items used on the overworld, it’s really the magic and the techniques that are your “B button tools.” If you’re not using “Shield,” Life” and the down/up stabs just as much as you used your boomerang and bow, you’re handicapping yourself.

    I almost always ignore magic in every modern Zelda game because I feel it’s either useless or I just simply forget that it exists. It’s been very fun to find that this isn’t the case in Zelda II at all, as magic is quite useful and necessary in order to survive.

  8. Re: Save states: I always played the game with a Game Genie, with only the Infinite Lives cheat enabled. Amazing what eliminating the vestigial arcade concept of limited lives does for balance — which of course most developers figured out 10 or 15 years after this game was released.

  9. I am not reading this series, I am waiting for the book. I didn’t get the Castlevania one because I’d already read all the contents …

    • Actually, there’s a pretty significant amount of content that was created specifically for the book. It’ll be the same with this volume, too.

  10. Jeremy, you continue to do great work on this series and it’s great to see someone discuss (most of) the things I love so much about the design and flow of Zelda II. I’ve noticed people piping up with requests for your next project. You seem to acknowledge that there is, in fact, a “docket”. Any teasers on what might be next? Are you going to collect Zelda I and II for a book, or are you going to include ALttP, all in one volume?

    Lastly, in the intro for ANATOMY OF A GAME you mention “This series is a blatant rip-off of Glass Knuckle’s “A Critical Look at Mega Man Stages” thread, which you should totally, totally read.” I have read it and it is good. It is not, however, as good as AoaG and the writing of you and your ilk on that project. Do you think we might one day see an AoaG for Mega Man? Here’s hoping we at least get one for MM 1-3 from Gamespite.

  11. The biggest surprise I experienced while playing Zelda II two years ago is that when you finish it you can play a new game +, where a significant amount of stats and abilities carry over. Replaying the game that way seriously undermines the difficulty and makes the game relatively breezy to play. Kinda the opposite from Zelda’s second quest, but not without merit in its own right.

    Also, those blue skies! It really is a solid game.

  12. Side note: I don’t notice any of the Sonic games on your list. >:(

    Seriously, though, I’ve always kind of wanted an analysis 3&K’s level design in particular. It did a great job balancing speed and exploration whilst creating a powerful sense of place. The setpieces, when they show up, are also incredible (IceCap’s snowboarding and sunrise, Mushroom Hill’s seasons, Lava Reef freezing over…), plus the bosses are excellent.

    …Hmm, maybe I should make that thread…

  13. I started replaying Zelda II on Game Boy Advance yesterday– currently at the Swamp Palace. The lovefest in the comments really isn’t making sense to me (but then again, I don’t have savestates… the game would be a million times more palatable with those). Basically, it’s confirmed what I remember about the game so far.

    So far I’ve encountered cheap deaths/hits galore (such as slimes– sometimes they’ll jump towards you right as you’re moving to hit them, and there’s absolutely nothing you can do since their jump range is longer than your sword range), poor hit detection, and just generally unfun stuff like getting trapped by falling blocks in the Swamp Palace and having to wait 3 minutes until the blocks fall and kill you, because there’s nothing else you can do. That’s not good game design. Really, the experience is just making me want to play A Link to the Past instead.

  14. Zelda II is brutal for the first-time player… but once you figure out the logic, and get good at the game, it all sort of clicks into place. It’s not perfect, but it’s amazing some of the stuff that the game pulled off that no one else touched with the aplomb Nintendo did.

    Huh. Not much unlike today. ;)

    I’m loving these. I’ve said it before, I’m probably unreasonably smitten with Zelda II, given its status as my first NES game. But there was a period in which I didn’t really like the game. At all. Then it grew on me. Now, I find myself wishing Nintendo would revisit a game like this, take the framework of Zelda II and amp it up with what they’ve learned through the years. I’d buy that game in a heartbeat.

    (Also, bad hit detection? What the wha? I love the fact that everything seems to have a sense of momentum, a solidness that other games didn’t seem to achieve. I find the mechanics remarkably consistent compared to its contemporaries.)

  15. Touching on Sarge and Will’s comments regarding hit detection- I agree with Sarge that everything feels like it has the appropriate sense of space. I’ve never once had a problem with hit detection in this game. The “problem” if you will (and I think this is the real issue here) is the length of Link’s sword. Now, I’ve adapted to this detail and am very comfortable with the combat system, sword length and all. There is a bit of a risk every time you go in for a stab because you really have to commit to it. There’s no, “sort of” getting close to your foe. You’re either in, or your out. Sort of like how Punch-Out feels sometimes. There’s a certain rhythm to Zelda II’s combat and you have to get the timing down perfectly if you’re going to come away without a thrashing.

  16. So happy you are giving this game it’s due props. I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for it. Of couse I was 15 the first time I got around to play it in ~2003 so it was quite a different experience than people who played the game when it first came out.

  17. I find Zelda II to be a very odd game, in that the majority of your tools are only used like keys and about half of your spells would’ve been permanent upgrades in a game more like Metroid of Zelda 1. Sadist difficulty and cheap enemy design aside, in some ways The Battle of Olympus felt more Zelda-y than Zelda II did and it was a knockoff of Zelda II.

    That said, when you compare it to the copy/paste world design of Metroid or Graveyard Duck approach to guidance in Castlevania II, Zelda II was really ahead of the competition. It’s an odd game, but it has its charms, and I can’t help but be curious what things would’ve been like if Zelda III had refined that gaming template instead of the original.

    Speaking of, I know I’d be looking forward to a Link to the Past analysis at some point. I’m curious about your thoughts on its world design, its mechanics, its opportunities to go looting and sequence breaking.

  18. I like the game a lot too, and even finished it on the old NES (probably my greatest gaming feat!).

    One thing you have to mention is the music. It’s lovely, and I was absolutely chuffed when one of the melodies turned up in one of the Smash Bros games.

  19. So happy to see so very much love for the game around here. Everyone calls it the “black sheep,” but that seems more in retrospect; at the time it came out, there was only one other game to compare it to, and Zelda II was a big title in its own right.

    Incidentally, I feel like the sword combat in Skyward Sword feels like a 3D evolution of what is taught here, with how you have to coordinate your sword strikes and shield blocks with how the enemies are holding their own.

    Even so, I’d love to see a new Zelda in the mold of The Adventure of Link. Heck a remake with updated graphics and sound might even be interesting. For now, though, it sounds like I’ll have to content myself with the original and Adventure Time, once I can get that.

  20. This anatomy is so exciting, needless to say I’m playing the game on my 3DS.

    I’m still scared of the last part of the game before reaching the las palace, its toughness really brings me the shivers, truly. Nevertheless I’m still playing.

  21. Zelda 2 was always one of my favorite NES games. I’ve seen this same thing before too – people have said they’ve gone back to play it recently even though they *hated* it before and come to the conclusion that “Hey, this is actually a pretty good game.”

    It’s certainly very challenging, but I’ve always loved the way Link controls – it has always felt great as a platformer and it feels like you get the opportunity to use some skill at times to defeat enemies – a lot of the harder ones have little tricks that make them easier to deal with (i.e. my go-to strategy for fighting Ironknuckles is an aggressive jump-stab.. .the jump avoids their shield and the stab knocks them back… keep the pressure on and they won’t even hit you… well, except maybe the crappy blue ones).

  22. Oh, and I’ll add it seems to me a lot of the “black sheep” stigma may come from the Japanese version which wasn’t nearly as good. It’s weird but the American version was so much better (and strangely harder, which is unheard of back then.. the XP system was more forgiving in the JP version and several enemies that can only be attacked with the Fire spell could be attacked with your sword).

    I’d love to see them try to remake this game at some point. But who knows if they will…

  23. Now that you’re almost through it, it might be a good idea to revisit The Battle of Olympus as a post-script. While there wasn’t an overworld to sort of Dragon Quest-through, its lack of experience system and next location-by-way-of key item was a little closer to Zelda I but structured as a platformer. A lot of the later levels are certainly pretty cheap, but for a game that was constantly called an imitation of Zelda II it always felt to me as more of a “Zelda” experience than Link ever was.

    …Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Glad you’re rediscovering your love for it (and Simon’s Quest)

  24. Thanks for inspiring yet another person to dust off their old copy of the game and giving it another chance. Halfway through the final palace and this game is incredible.

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