The Anatomy of Zelda II: VIII. Pear-shaped

The midpoint of Zelda II may not have been the smartest break point I could have chosen. Once you make the journey to Hyrule’s eastern continent, the difficulty level spikes dramatically. And it’s not necessarily a good spike. On the contrary, it frequently feels unbalanced and poorly considered.


The random encounters in this half of the overworld become taxing. They’re a miserable burden rather than something that keeps the action lively. Many of them require the use of magic to defeat; for example, the grassy plains are dominated by bounding Tektites, which unlike their equivalents in the original Zelda can only be damaged with the Fire spell. Those infinitely respawning small foes appear far more frequently in random fights, meaning you’re more likely to come out of random encounters with fewer experience points than you entered with.

In fact, the way experience works in this half of the game can be downright infuriating. By this point you should be reaching the upper reaches of Link’s potential (Level 8 in all stats), meaning each new level-up requires thousands of EXP. Unfortunately, few overworld creatures offer EXP tallies commensurate with their threat level or Link’s needs. Some creatures from the western continent (such as the forest spiders) make the move to the east with higher damage output and absorption thresholds — but they still offer the same piddling EXP as before. While I’ll happily vouch for the quality of game design in the first half of the adventure, I’m less confident in how things go after you reach the second continent.

To Zelda II‘s credit, however, it does a great job of implementing concepts that would later become integral to the metroidvania style of game design. You’re going to die frequently on the eastern continent, even with the Life spell and the ability to Fire-spell sword-resistent monsters to death, but when you restart back at the main Palace you’ll be able to make your way quickly back to where you died without being harassed by foes thanks to all the shortcuts and tools you unlock and acquire along the way.


On the other hand, the raft that Link needed to reach the third Palace and the eastern continent proves to be little more than a funny-shaped key, and as soon as you reach the first eastern town — Nabooru — you discover that to reach more remote areas you’ll need another funny-shaped key (the Boots) to allow you to cross additional areas of water.

Still, the RPG-ish-ness of Zelda II holds fast in Nabooru. You don’t immediately head to the next Palace but instead pick up new quest objectives in town, including one leading you to the next town, Darunia.


Both Darunia and Nabooru feature more of the “do something unintuitive to advance” school of quest design. A woman complains that she’s thirsty, and logically enough bringing her water will cause her to introduce you to her uncle, who teaches you the Fire spell. So you need to find a jug or bottle or something to carry water to her, right? Nope; as it turns out, all you do is stop in front of a certain fountain and press the action button to collect some water.

Elsewhere, you can learn the upward thrust sword attack from a swordsman in a sealed home that can only be accessed by leaping to the roof of another house with the Jump spell and making your way across the tops of homes to play Santa in a chimney. The game seems to do this a fair amount.

Progressive as it was in many ways, Zelda II still succumbed at times to bad/counter-intuitive/unfriendly habits of classic RPGs and adventure games: Obscure clues, oblique solutions, and hidden pixel-hunts. The second continent, anecdotally speaking, seems to be where most people’s journey through Zelda II breaks down; while Anatomy of a Game is largely about celebrating what the have games have done right, it’s also worth exploring where they’ve stumbled.

8 thoughts on “The Anatomy of Zelda II: VIII. Pear-shaped

  1. I think this game was meant to require a Nintendo Power subscription.
    I loved it, and I felt like a much better gamer after I finished it.
    I started it one Christmas day, finished it on Valentine’s day.
    And it was indeed a tough game. I called in to Nintendo’s game support hotline to find the hidden town, and I took a hiatus of a few weeks at some point.
    I still re-play it at least once a year and it gives me very little challenge. I sometimes skip getting the candle and play the caves in the dark (and I discovered some enemies weren’t given dark sprites, so they’re bright and easy).
    I can understand the generally negative reviews this game gets, but I insist that it deserves a try. And I’ll cheerfully try a hack if it proves to be a fun challenge (Like Zelda 1’s “Outlands” remake hack).

  2. I’d heard recently that the sword immunity of tektites and those dodongo-looking things was a change in the US version, to try to make the fireball spell actually be useful for something.

    I…don’t think that was the right way to go about making the fireball spell useful. It just makes combat more tedious on the eastern continent when the regular plains mooks require magic to kill.

  3. This is where I am right now in my Anatomy-inspired play through and… oof. I’ve actually been going back to do some level-grinding in the Death Mountain area (those axe lizards and such sure are a lot easier with down-thrust, and give decent exp), but I’m not sure how much it’s gonna help.

    I’d say I can’t fathom getting through this game without save states, but as with most “how did I get anywhere as a kid” questions the answer is dogged stubbornness in light of only having enough money to buy one game.

  4. I just got to the eastern continent too, and my experience (no pun intended) has been different. That’s because I’ve used a few Game Genie codes to rejigger the game balance.

    I mentioned in an earlier comment that as a kid I always used the infinite lives code (SZKGKXVK). Well, I went to look the code up again, and via I found a couple other useful codes (not in the original GG manual) that tweak how experience works:

    SZVOUNSE makes it so that, while your experience drops after you level up, it doesn’t drop to zero.

    And SXESIKSE prevents enemies from taking your experience away.

    I’m finding the game much less frustrating with those codes.

    (There’s also one that makes it so you don’t lose ANY experience on level-up, but apparently it borks the game when you finish a palace, so it’s useless on authentic Nintendo hardware since the original Game Genie didn’t allow you to toggle codes on and off.)

  5. I wonder how much the eastern continent would have been improved by replacing the path going north from Nabooru to one going west to the dock.

  6. Like MetManMas said, the requirement of the Fire spell was strangely an addition to the US version. Those enemies just died from your sword in the Japanese version. Probably one of the few changes from the Japanese version I dislike (though I think it works ok for the Zoras… just not the Tektites).

  7. I couldn’t agree with this entry more… I would go as far as to say that the second-half of the game irrevocably damages what was established in the first half. When you reach the second continent, the game shifts from being a hard game to being a complete chore. Whenever I replay this game it is around here that I loose steam and eventually give up.

  8. I’m playing the gameboy advance port of this game, so sadly enough I can’t make use of safestats. What I find most frustrating is that you lose all your experience points after you drained your 3 (or more) lifes. Practicly this means I never get to profit from points gained through palace- or cave-runs because I never manage to survive long enough to complete them in a mere 3 attemps. I usually need about 3 times to only get one or two key’s! Ok, this might mean I just suck in gaming but at least I’m being honest about it :)

    And yes, I know there are extra lifes hidden in the countryside and bags with loads of EXp to be found in caves. But it took me a while to find out that they don’t get replenisched when you’ve used them up and afterwards save your progress (funnily enough by dying). Currently all 3 stats are at level 6. But the swamp on the first continent is the only place where I can upgrade safely and this offcourse takes ages!!!

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