One of my favorite games for the NES is Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. It’s not as ground breaking as the original Legend of Zelda or as perfectly executed as Super Mario Bros 3, but I do think that it’s more fun and dynamic than both of those games. There’s something about the feel of the combat, the huge world, the variety of skills/spells, the secrets, and the really well designed dungeons that makes me pick it up and replay it with a greater frequency than any other title for the system.
If you’re like me, you probably didn’t know that a lot of people don’t like this game. Zelda II is generally considered the black sheep of the series mostly because of its side-scrolling perspective and more traditional RPG elements. I feel like Nintendo usually tries a radically different approach with its Zelda sequels (The Adventure of Link, Majora’s Mask, Skyward Sword) and depending on your disposition you may really enjoy Nintendo’s attempt to tamper with its tried and true formula. Or… you might hate it.
In general, the common complaint about Zelda II: The Adventure of Link is the difficulty. Here’s a random quote from a gaming forum post titled “Oh I see why Zelda 2 is the worst one”.
“I can’t get past the first Darknut/Iron Knuckles/whatever in the first dungeon. I’ve read up on how to do it and still can’t. I’ve tried grinding to get XP and up my skills before going in and I still get my ass handed to me every time. I find the game almost unplayable.”
I don’t want to get purely generational in my defense of Zelda II, but I do need to address the “old games are hard” complaint. Modern games are much much larger and so the difficulty is spread throughout the 40+ hours you’re expecting. Because NES game cartridges had limited space, the games were made much harder to make sure you couldn’t beat a game in 10 minutes. I’ve had younger family members tell me that the original Mario Bros is impossible. Well if it was your only game in 1985, you kept trying until you could kill that Goomba on every try. In other words: TOUGHEN UP!
Zelda II is hard for sure. I’ve played it a million times and still struggle with certain sections. However, I do think there are certain strategies that could make the experience a lot more enjoyable (or tedious… you be the judge).
Don’t fight enemies head on
With most enemies, you should always duck and attack, jump and attack, or jump/duck attack (squatting in a midair jump). If you just walk up to the bad guys and try slashing, you’re gonna get wailed on. The Iron Knuckles for instance are fairly easy if you jump and attack them and then leap away. Those dudes with the boomerangs? Just block low with your shield and then duck attack like crazy.
Take your time
In the dungeons, a lot of the difficulty is that either enemies knock you into pits, or that they’re hard to attack. Move slowly, watch the enemies patterns, methodically kill easier bad guys as cautiously as possible, and avoid harder ones when you can.
The down thrust attack is the most useful skill to learn in the game. Not only can you now attack a lot of enemies from above, which makes some of these enemies a breeze, but you can also now hop over powerful enemies. Don’t want to use your Fire spell on those creepy spiders? Just harmlessly bounce over them with down thrust! A lot of the hardest enemies are better off avoiding and with this skill your task will be much easier. Before you enter the final section of the Hammer, take the bridge to the fourth town and get the down thrust. It’ll make the next area and the rest of the game way easier.
Shield is overpowered
As a kid, I never used this magic — I just saved up to use the life spell every time. Well, I was a dummy. It’s probably the best spell in the game as it cuts all damage in half. So first of all, use this spell before any boss fight or ax throwing alligator dude. Second of all, this is the cheapest spell to use, so much so that by level 4 it costs only one block of magic. This means that anytime one of those blue dudes drops a potion you should cast Shield. This way, even if it’s only for a screen, you’re protected.
Fairy saves you from pits
Fairy is not the most useful magic in most situations, but it is really good for one thing: saving you from pits. If you find yourself knocked off a platform, certain doom looking up at you from the abyss below, pause the game to bring up Fairy and then quickly cast it. It’ll save you from certain death. You can also use it to get through locks, but I’d honestly say this is a mistake since you can get trapped on the wrong side with no magic to get you back through. Just find the keys (also, use them all before leaving a dungeon or you’ll get confused real quick).
Be strategic with leveling up
The levels of your Magic, Life, and Attack are the most important mechanic in this game, even more so than items or spells. Before each dungeon, your levels should be at least a point number higher than the order of that dungeon (so you should be at all 3s before trying the second dungeon.) The best way to level up is either finding those P Bags or defeating enemies. As annoying as it is to grind to the next level, this isn’t exactly Dragon Warrior here. The only time I recommend farming for points is if you’re low on lives but close to a level up. Do not jump over that pit if you’re only a few hundred points away from a life upgrade; find some easy bad guys and get your upgrade. You should get to level 6s easy enough as long as you’re defeating every enemy you meet.
Don’t beat the dungeon bosses
You automatically level up an attribute when you beat a dungeon. Since the last six levels you need require the most amount of points to achieve, you should get Link up to level 6 in Attack, Life, and Magic before heading back to the first dungeon. You’ll have to do a ton less grinding at the end of the game and the bosses will be much easier since you’ll have naturally gained a bunch of levels since you started.
Don’t grab the link dolls
These are a beginner’s trap. You don’t need extra lives until the very last castle, at which point you’ll need as many as you can get. Just make a note of where you found them, and then once you’ve beaten the last dungeon, kill yourself. After that, go collect the Link Dolls from around the map. If you get a game over with all your extra lives, just reset the game and grab them again. I know it sounds tedious, but that last dungeon is the most brutal section of Zelda II. Even though you start at the dungeon entrance when you die, three lives just isn’t enough.
Just stick with it
This one is not technically a strategy — it’s just a reminder that this game does require patience and repetition. A lot of people seem to get really frustrated by starting at the beginning after a game over, but the more you play this game and the more familiar you become with dungeons and enemies, the easier it’ll get. If you think you can go into a dungeon and beat it in one try on your first time, you’re dreaming. It may take ten attempts. Once you get the hammer, the journey back to any location is really only a few seconds.
So there you go. If you read this article and revisited Zelda II but didn’t improve, well… maybe you’re just bad at video games. Or maybe cartridge gaming isn’t for you. Games of this era were notoriously hard, but even so I wouldn’t say Zelda II is any way near as difficult as Ghosts and Goblins, Ninja Gaiden, Battletoads, Castlevania I & III, etc. I’d say it’s more on par with Bionic Commando, Blaster Master, Contra, and most of the Mega Man games.
If you don’t know how truly rewarding it is to beat any of those games, I doubt I’m going to convince you of much. Either way, I hope you find the stunning level of achievement that you’re seeking, even if you find it elsewhere. To everyone out there still rocking with Zelda II, RIDE OR DIE Y’ALL!