From the time I became a senior in college in 2003 until I purchased a Wii for Christmas in 2008, I experienced something of a ‘lost weekend’ when it comes to video gaming. During that span I shuffled through a couple of jobs that didn’t pay much, and the desire to put a roof over my head, gas in my aging Saturn and a cheap Swedish meatball TV dinner down my gullet evaporated most of my weekly pay. New video games were not in the budget, and my old ones went into a box in the back of a dark closet.
Thankfully, I rediscovered my love for video games with the help of that little white waggle box from Nintendo, and I devoured as many videos, reviews, articles and wiki entries on the games from my personal Dark Age and started to build up a backlog. Among those games I picked up was The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker for Gamecube, which I unfortunately never quite got around to playing.
So many Bratz games to catch up on…
Everything I had read, heard and seen about this particular entry in the Zelda franchise gave me pause. Some heralded the story, the gameplay and the style as something not to miss. But for every one glowing review, there seemed to be three other people out there decrying how Wind Waker was one of the most disappointing games in the Zelda franchise, mainly because of the changes in the art style and some awkward gameplay and pacing choices. But I was confused. Wasn’t The Legend of Zelda a flagship franchise for Nintendo? How could a Zelda game be…bad?
Then a memory sparked. When I wasn’t more than maybe 7 or 8 years old, I had spent hours on the floor of my bedroom in front of a little 15 inch Zenith color TV with a Nintendo hooked up to it, trying to figure out what to do, where to go and why was everything so goddamn difficult in Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. Despite playing the game for a significant amount of time, back then I only progressed maybe a third of the way through the campaign. Since that time, I have read others’ opinions about how disappointing THAT Zelda game is, but I’ve also learned that many people love this particular entry in the series. I dug out my NES (which I thankfully never pawned in exchange for Swedish meatball money) and my original gold copy of the game and sat down as an adult to give Zelda II a second chance. The fog cleared and I found Zelda II to be a rewarding experience.
How cool I imagined myself in 1988…and also today.
The shifts in game design in Zelda II were a bit too much for me to understand in 1988. I didn’t mind the switch to a sidescrolling perspective, as it tread familiar ground from my favorite platformers, but my biggest mistake back then was that I was too impatient to properly manipulate the (by comparison) simple XP leveling to properly prepare me for the difficulty spikes laid before me. I had spent a lot of time looking at the awesome pictures in the manual, but never really made the effort to read all 50 pages worth of, what I can see now as, information vital to a successful quest.
The manual clearly presents information that, had I read and understood what they were telling me back then, could have made Link’s second adventure more engaging. From page 30: “If you think that you are absolutely no match for an enemy, try to raise your levels. We know how you feel. You want to go quickly to your goals, the palaces, and the lands you haven’t been before, but hold back. Take it in your stride!”
This helpful image also appears on page 30.
Now, aside from that last bit of Engrish mistranslation, that paragraph is actually very helpful to the player. We know it of course as ‘grinding’ as you would be expected to do in any number of other RPGs, but I didn’t play my first proper RPG until I was much older (I was a platformer fan) so I had no idea what grinding even was back then. I would rush out and get to the palace as quickly as possible without proper experience levels and get a ‘game over’ there or, more often, on my way there.
Actually, the first palace (and even the second) in Zelda II are not all that difficult, even with an under-leveled character. But, the first few upgrades are not all that difficult to achieve with a relatively small amount of XP needed for each. This time around, before even entering the first palace in Parapa desert I spent a little time grinding through the first couple of XP upgrades by battling the ‘random’ monster encounters off the main path in the overworld and picked up the 50 XP item in the forest tile to the north of the starting point on the map. After travelling through the cave to the desert, I once again paused and took the time to head south and grab the extra heart container to boost my maximum health.
Once inside the first palace, I made sure to take out every enemy thrown at me. Getting to the boss became almost secondary to picking up as much XP as possible. I even skipped over the first magic upgrade in favor of higher life and attack levels, since I only had the shield spell anyway.
Another strategy I took was to hold off on killing the first boss, Horsehead, until I had gotten to within 50 XP of my next level up. Once you’ve killed the boss, you earn that extra 50 XP…AND you gain the number of XP needed to achieve the your next level (whatever that may be) by placing the crystal in the stone at the end of the palace. So, level up with the boss and level up again with the crystal. After the first palace was done, I was a much stronger character thanks to this simple manipulation of the experience system in the game.
This is all rather basic strategy for experienced RPG players, but as an impatient 9 year old, I would run straight to the next palace without taking the time to properly work the system in place. By the time I would get to Death Mountain and make an attempt at obtaining the hammer, my life and attack levels would be too low to keep up and frustration would set in.
I understand grinding! I’m ready for this one now, right?
I took particular note in my replay that several enemies in Zelda II deduct XP whenever they hit you. Changing the way I play the game to grind XP and level up makes these enemies all the more annoying, but also forced me to slow down and to be more careful with my life bar. Losing all three of your lives will also reset your XP to zero – another reason to slow down and tread carefully. As a kid, playing through games like Super Mario Bros., speeding through a level as fast as I could was my preferred way to play. The sidescrolling nature of Zelda II must have triggered that instinct in my younger self to speedrun in a game where that style is not entirely appropriate. I was finally taking it in my stride.
The manual also tells you to make maps of the dungeons, yet another task my impatient younger self could/would not take the time to do. Nowadays there are nicely illustrated maps in strategy guide books and online, which I don’t feel entirely guilty about using. Once you know where to go in the palaces without getting lost in loops and dead ends, the pace of play really picks up and, once again, the game becomes more enjoyable. That’s not to say the difficulty doesn’t become intense late in your quest for the Triforce. In fact, the final stretch (Valley of Death through to the Great Palace) is considerably difficult, even with level 7’s and 8’s across the top of your screen.
Get one of these, and not just because it’s shiny.
Despite never progressing very far, I had fun playing The Adventure of Link when I was a kid, though I know now that I was playing it all wrong. Looking back on it’s place in Zelda history, I’m even more fascinated by it. Nintendo has done a fine job of loosely tying the Zelda series together so that you can find little connections everywhere. Nice touches such as some of the characters in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time for Nintendo 64 bearing the same name as some of the towns in Adventure of Link (Mido, Ruto, etc.) are fun to spot. The southwestern part of the overworld map generally matches the layout of terrain in the original Legend of Zelda for NES. Not only is Zelda II one of few direct sequels in the Zelda series that has grown to 17 different titles, it is the last story in the timeline laid out by Hyrule Historia. I could go on with the little things that 25 years of Zelda history has done to enhance my appreciation for this ‘black sheep’ of the series, but I think it would suffice to say that by no means does Zelda II deserve the bad rap it’s been stuck with since its release.
Did this just blow your mind?
I recently played through The Wind Waker HD on my WiiU and found it to be a remarkably fun and rewarding experience. From what I’m seeing online, many people are revising their opinions and proclaiming WW to be a gem in the franchise. Though the likelihood of an HD remake is slim, I feel Zelda II also deserves another shot at earning praise. Points that critics use to pin down Wind Waker as a poor game (cartoon graphics and slow sailing) ultimately do nothing to hold back the amount of fun to be had in that title in much the same way that Zelda II’s supposed faults (changed style of play, difficulty spikes) were really the fault of players like me trying to make that game something it is not. It’s not perfect, but it is, in my revised opinion, a hall of fame NES game. If you’re one who hasn’t been able to enjoy Link’s second adventure on the NES until now, I urge you to give it a second chance with a fresh perspective.