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.