If you approached me a few years ago and asked me if I thought The Legend of Zelda series counted as an RPG franchise, I would have probably laughed at you. “It’s an action-adventure game! They tried making it a role-playing game once, and look how that turned out!” Something to that tune. That was of course before I played the game in question - The Adventure of Link for NES.
Zelda II is often regarded as the “black sheep” of the franchise due to some of the major changes to the gameplay: a side-scrolling perspective versus the traditional top-down view, the effective removal of equip items in favor of magic spells, and the one-shot RPG experience system. Some toss the game’s unforgiving difficulty onto the pile.
While it seems the entire gaming world is so focused on the differences, when I finally got around to playing it from start to finish a couple years back, something profound struck me: Zelda II definitely plays like a role-playing game, but as it does so, it captures the heart of what makes the series great.
The stakes were high in Zelda II. Though Ganon had been defeated years before, his minions were still on the prowl, hunting Link in hopes of using his blood to revive their fallen master.
We haven’t even gotten to the core of the backstory yet, and already that’s a very compelling premise. Nowhere in Hyrule is safe for Link as long as Ganon’s followers roam the earth. Danger could lurk around any corner, behind any tree, inside of any cavern, dungeon, or village.
Sprinkle a bit of political intrigue on top with the squabble over the royal inheritance, an evil advisor who hopes to steal the king’s treasure for himself, and a kingdom currently waiting for a new benevolent ruler to ascend to the throne, and you have everything you need for a medieval epic.
Throw in a curse that has kept Princess Zelda in a deep sleep for hundreds of years, a clan of ancient magicians guarding a sacred temple, and a prophecy that the hero will appear to claim the Triforce and restore the land to glory, and you’ve got The Legend of Zelda.
The world of Adventure of Link is one of the most expansive and fleshed-out that we’ve seen in the series’ history. You’ve got not one, but two entire countries to explore as you fight your way through monster-infested forests, swamps, deserts, caverns, and valleys. Towns dot the landscape, along with the occasional surprisingly well-connected hermit.
Each region is unique, yet the various kinds of terrain you’ll run across aren’t one-shots, either – there isn’t just one forest, one desert, one network of caves, one lake, one dried-up river valley. The world is designed in a very natural way rather than focusing on giving each area a unique hook. And the end product feels all the more immersive for it.
The towns feel like safe havens amidst a world full of danger. There’s an inn where you can recover health, a witch woman who can restore your magic, a sage who can grant you new powers, and a host of other NPCs to distract yourself with. Most of the village folk are busy with the lives they apparently have, running about doing errands (or, more likely, just walking aimlessly back and forth); others are sitting at home, and their personalities – and even appearances – range from the normal to the unexpected.
It’s unfortunate that The Adventure of Link didn’t wind up setting the proverbial bar for the franchise’s future. As time went on, NPCs have begun shoring up greater and greater roles in Link’s world, but the worlds themselves have shirked further and further away from offering a true sense of tension between safety and danger or delivering the feeling that anything could be around the corner. And that’s a damn shame; this is a part of the RPG legacy that Zelda really ought to take seriously.
Hyrule is a world of magic, and no game in the series has been able to capitalize on this as well as The Adventure of Link. The magic system is incredibly deep, touching every part of the game, from battle strategies to exploration to puzzle-solving, resulting in one of the most versatile systems I’ve seen in any game. What’s more, the game is relentless in forcing you to use spells efficiently; you’ll burn through your MP bar fast if you just keep shooting off magic on every screen.
I don’t know why the creators haven’t tried to outdo the series’ first foray into the spell-casting realm, but they need to get on it. A number of the health-restoring and defense-buffing effects of spells have been rolled into potions, but there’s something satisfying about having to strategically cast magic in the heat of battle that’s been sorely missed with the more recent games.
At the heart of it all is the combat. The game starts you off with small skirmishes against the blob-like Bits and Bots, who are mostly docile but will attempt to gel you if you get too close. As time goes on, however, you’ll stumble upon packs of Moblins in the forests, boomerang-wielding Goriyas in the fields and caves, and eventually hordes of axe-wielding lizard-like Darias everywhere – and that’s without even touching on the even tougher foes you’ll meet in the temples.
Zelda II doesn’t mess around. As time goes on, every enemy encounter gradually becomes a tough battle in and of itself, testing your skills and reflexes – and the game keeps throwing more and more of these enemies your way the deeper into the dungeons and overworld you go.
Some of the more recent games follow this tack as well – The Wind Waker and Twilight Princess started you off against one Darknut at a time but eventually had you face groups of three or more – but there usually comes a time when the game gives up on sending new enemies at you and instead starts remixing old foes. Not so for Zelda II – you’ll find at least two completely new enemies in every region or dungeon.
I think that enriched combat is one of the biggest strengths Zelda II has to offer to the franchise – and I think that the developers of future entries should take a few leaves out of its book. I want to actually die as I climb Death Mountain again.
People cast Zelda II as an RPG because of its experience-based level up system, but I think it exemplifies the best of the role-playing genre across the board. Its story fits right in with the rest of the genre at the time; its massive overworld, dotted with towns and terrain and monster encounters, set the standard for game worlds going forward; its magic palette and combat system blended role-playing strategy and arcade-like action to create a satisfying hybrid that’s been copied in such games as the Tales franchise.
And yet all of this sounds distinctly like Zelda. I firmly believe that the future of the franchise rests in embracing the series’ RPG roots and transforming it into a more modern, more fully-realized incarnation of all that Adventure of Link managed to achieve. Throw the puzzles that many fans have fallen in love with on top of that, and I think we’d have a series ready to stand up to the big RPGs of the day, just like it was in the early years.
Alex Plant is a founding member of Zelda Informer. Five years after the site’s inception, he has moved on to new career opportunities, and is now Editor-in-Chief at GenGAME.net, a general gaming news and discussion site. Fans of his work can continue to follow him at his new Internet home and on Twitter (@LegendofLex).