Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Zelda II: The Adventure of Link - Long Avoiding Destiny
If Link's original adventure so engulfed me, why did I readily disregard its sequel?

I have a weird history with The Adventure of Link. The original Legend of Zelda opened my eyes to the wondrous world of adventure games and felt every bit monumental, and my more-personal experiences with it, in addition to forming some of my most indelible video-game memories, caused a seismic shift in my conception of the medium. I'd memorized every pixel of its every screen and couldn't imagine a time when something of its scope and caliber wasn't a part of my life. Yet no matter how exhilarated I was by The Legend of Zelda--with its wonderfully mysterious, imagination-stirring landscape and game-changing conventions--I had little to no interest in playing its sequel.

I honestly don't remember the intricacies of my past self's logic, but I know that something about The Adventure of Link turned me off big time when I first saw in action at my friend Dominick's house. I didn't so much mind its abandonment of the grid-based, overhead style and its new focus on side-scrolling action, but something about it was just plain off. Maybe it was the ringy tone to the title screen's music. It could have been that its shrunk-down, sterile version of Hyrule lacked the visual punch strongly remembered from the original incarnation. Perhaps the immediately evident jump in difficulty caught me by surprise. Or it might have been that its RPG-style map progression eliminated all sense of mystery and furthermore lacked the exploratory, labyrinthine atmosphere that permeated The Legend of Zelda's landscape and gave weight to the forests, rivers and mountains whose excited negotiation was the driving emotion.

It was naturally going to exude its own unique aesthetic qualities, considering the graphical overhaul associated with its shift in presentation, but I didn't feel that it sufficiently captured any of its predecessor's spirit. Also, it didn't help that The Adventure of Link seemed to materialize out of nowhere; I didn't need access to Nintendo Power or even an NES to get caught up in the build for a highly anticipated game (like I did for Super Mario Bros. 2) because my friends were normally forthcoming and fed me all of the information I needed, but they were surprisingly mum when it came to disclosing any evidence of Zelda II's existence. I have no explanation for why they chose not to inform me of such, but I can say this: Had I been successfully sucked in by Nintendo's hype machine, I might have become acclimated to and accepting of Zelda II's changes well before my first sampling of it.

Really, though--whether it was one specific thing or a combination of the aforementioned, it didn't matter. I just wasn't feeling it. So for years in following, I didn't go anywhere near The Adventure of Link, and I had no qualms about not doing so.

For a long while, I was largely content with my decision, but I observed that any thoughts I had pertaining to Zelda II, even if fleeting, were tinged with feelings of compunction and regret. I genuinely didn't want to play it, but two disparate forces were conspiring against me. For one, I had great interest in the upcoming The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, mainly due to the revelation that it was returning to the series' roots, but as a numbers guy, it made little sense for me to play a part 3 before finishing a part 2, even if I wasn't enamored with its content (I wasn't the same kid who earlier dismissed the original Mega Man because of its perceived obsolescence).

Otherwise, I was overcome by a strange affliction you might have recently heard or read about--a phenomenon where a subject feels misplaced nostalgia for mediocre games or those he or she has never actually played (at least not for longer than a few minutes, in this case). Maybe I was beginning to covet Zelda II because all of my friends had it and I was prone to mimicking their purchasing habits, or it could have been that one of its aesthetic attributes in particular had resonated with me more than I cared to admit. I mean, I really did like the game's music even if I initially found it tonally off-putting. At the height of the illness, The Adventure of Link had suddenly taken on a mystical quality, and I was no longer repelled by the thought of owning it.

Sadly, an opportunity to purchase the now-desirable Zelda II never arose, and it looked to be that the game would continue to exist only as a batch of fractured images in my mind. However, during the middle months of 1991, fate played its hand: As had been the ongoing process for nearly three years, my NES library was in a constant state of bloat even during periods when I wasn't contributing much to the effort. At work, instead, was my brother, who was continuing on his trademarked collecting sprees that usually netted him a dozen or so games he had no intention of actually playing. I mostly stopped paying attention to his antics by that point, so I was quite surprised when one random day I sauntered into my bedroom and was caught off guard by a curious sight--an additional gold cartridge that looked completely out of place in my game rack (I always slotted my games in alphabetical order, so there was no way a gold-colored game pak belonged atop the rack's third column).

I pulled the cartridge out from its slot to discover that it was Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, which--indicative of both my relationship with the game and my brother's propensity--had seemingly appeared out of nowhere. Typically, there was no box or manual, but that wasn't a problem--I knew enough about the game to where I could imagine comfortably jumping right in and making progress with little of the way of obstacle. Still, since I hadn't yet shed all of those residual fragments of hesitancy, I put off playing it in favor of sampling all of those other, lesser-known titles that my brother had also picked up. In fact, a few months passed before I finally built up the courage to snap Zelda II into the NES and give it my best shot at finishing it.

It was just as I remembered: The title screen's craggy, grainy visuals and higher-toned main theme worked to create a vibe distant from The Legend of Zelda's, but I observed as much with no bias--I was this time readily accepting of its aesthetically divergent qualities, which were partly the source of my nostalgia for it. It was only at this point, though, that I noticed that Nintendo had cut off the "The Legend of" part of the title, creating a misplaced emphasis. It was supposed to be a series that chronicled the events surrounding a princess of destiny who was bound by events out of her control, not a series specifically about her. That's like making a sequel to Saving Private Ryan and calling it Private Ryan II: The Adventure of Tom Hanks. (Naturally, this ill-advised shaving of the title was the work of Nintendo of America and its flaky localization, but a 13-year-old me wasn't yet aware that such an operation existed.)

I didn't finish Zelda II: The Adventure of Link that day. I couldn't. Popping up were all of the same issues that originally turned me away from the game: For one, it was too damn difficult. It wasn't that I didn't have the reflexes necessary to deal with the swift, defensive-minded enemies--it was that they were able to pick me apart even if I knew the correct strategies for dealing with them. Combine their penchant for annoyingly inching forward with exploitable weaknesses that required getting right up in their faces and you were left with an insufficient energy meter that would soon veer toward empty. Link's sword range was simply too short, and his fleeting beam attack was too weak to deal with anything other than Bots and the spider-like Deelers.

Also, the designers resorted to all types of cheap tricks: Having enemies spawn near platform edges right after you've already executed your jumps. Assigning certain enemies (like the rebounding Bubbles and the aloof-looking Wosus) a special attribute that allows them to drain your magic or experience meters. Forcing you to endure scenes where poisonous bubbles emerge from the screen's bottom with the clear intention of rapidly reducing your stock by continuously knocking you into gaps. Villagers that suddenly turned into bat-like Aches and damaged you before you could react. And even invisible enemies. Not to mention sending you alllllllll the way back the game's start anytime you'd continue, even if you were currently in a palace. There was nothing more galling than dying to a palace boss, being mocked by Ganon's shadow, and then hearing the overworld theme whose blaring only served to inform you that you now had needlessly trek all the way back to the boss' quarters.

Oh, there were 1ups to be found, but I'd usually dump one or two lives just fighting my way toward the map spaces that housed them! And seriously--why did every difficult NES game have to have wavily moving, endlessly spawning Medusa Head-like enemies? Zelda II had it all, and by "it all" I mean everything about games I was happy to avoid. 

I wasn't a fan of its governing RPG system, which I couldn't fully grasp. "Why are they giving me the option of cancelling out this level?" I'd question anytime the menu would pop up. "Am I permanently missing out on this upgrade if I pass it up in favor of another?" As much as I didn't care about the odd Magic upgrade or a Life upgrade too close in proximity to the last (since I viewed Attack as paramount), I simply took whatever was offered out of fear that rejecting it would limit my overall potential. Questions beget more questions: "Why do I have to pick up Heart and Magic Containers?" I wondered. "Shouldn't the RPG system, instead, dictate the growing length of these meters? Does having a longer magic meter make spells consume less, or is it the leveling-up factor that decides as much? How are these attributes even related?"

I was a very confused young man--ill-equipped, uninformed, and lacking any amount of deductive-reasoning skills. You could say I was the first Game Grump.

Still, I wasn't a fan of even the RPG elements I understood. If my experiences with Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy taught me one thing about myself, it's that I couldn't stand the idea of being confined to a limited space and having to grind for hours, fighting the same enemies over and over again just to move on to the next area where I'd have to fight the same enemies over and over again. Zelda II didn't quite take it to that extreme, yet it seemed more unforgiving than its traditional-RPG cousins; the overly defensive Gerus and Dairas found in later scenes would carve me up, and the Life spell's replenishing power was too meager to buy me more than an extra minute of life. "Couldn't they have programmed it so that enemies drop meter-restoring hearts like they did in the original?" I thought. "The other games at least have cure potions. Why not borrow from them?" I needed more from the Life spell, and an occasional dropping of a paltry magic jar wasn't much help.

One thing I did like was how the action scenes weren't randomly triggered and you could actually see the enemy avatars and gauge their berserk movements. It added a nice touch of psychology to have known weaklings like Bots represent "Soft" encounters while the shadowy, fearsome specters of Ganon represented the more-dangerous scenes you'd normally want to avoid. Successfully dodging a pack of enemy avatars was still an act of luck, but there was at least some semblance of choice, including the option to dodge action scenes altogether by retreating to the safe haven of the yellow brick road (you know--because, because, because). Though, there was no touch so interesting as to make these ever-recurring scenes more enjoyable to me, whether their offerings included frail Moblins and Octoroks or those impervious scorpions and "scraggly bears" (or Zoras, as it turns out).

Forced action scenes were always worrying to me--particularly the collection of those that formed the terrifying Death Mountain. Even though it had the appearance of a complex maze, I knew from watching Dominick play that the secret was to stay glued to the area's right side. That knowledge alone didn't make things any easier, since the respective scenes, with their cramped combat and waves of tough-skinned enemies, were designed to wear you down in a challenge of attrition surpassing any of those found in the first seven palaces. I strongly disliked that area of the game and would try to tank my way through it early on, just to get it out of the way. (These days, I rather like traveling to the base of the Death Mountain, mostly for the sake at catching a glance of the condensed Legend of Zelda's Hyrule, which Jeremy Parish is always talking about.)

I didn't particularly care for the design of the palaces, either. I understood the need to retain some trace of the original's labyrinthine feel, but the formula didn't translate well; most of Zelda II's palaces were uncomplicated mazes that simply required trekking from one branching path to another to first find a key and to then open a door, in what amounted to tedious busywork. The reoccurrence of so many elevators and branching paths didn't evoke from me feelings of excitement--a sense that I was about explore a den of secrets and mystery; they instead served to make me feel uneasy and fear only the possibility of getting lost and having to backtrack through this mess. There was no drive to engage the enemies, most of which seemed to be unassailable or otherwise invincible, because I was short on lives, lacking a sufficient amount of health, and could only ease forward cautiously in dread of being sent back to the game's starting point.

There were some fairly creative ideas introduced later on--like having to locate and breach fake walls and reflexively use the Fairy spell to access a passage the normal-sized Link couldn't physically lunge over to--but they were all muffled by the designers' preferred "platforming" tricks like invisible floors (which were all about forcing backtracking and wasting your time) and disintegrating/fractured bridges as occupied by small, twitchy miscreants.

There was also a clear lack of polish on display: Enemies would get stuck at the edges of screens, their fidgety parrying negating your ability to actually damage them. The Fairy spell allowed you to glitch your way through locked doors. You could bypass a forced action scene by initiating contact with a map-based enemy avatar as it wandered over the square in question, replacing the sequence with a typical, lower-stress action scene. Link could eke out three-block-high jumps when he probably wasn't supposed to. And the dialogue boxes were too small to hold more than four lines of the localized English text, which resulted in truncated, unintentionally cryptic lines like "East of Triple Eye Rock at Seashore" (Heh?), with accompanying punctuation only if it could fit. 

"Cryptic" was the operative word when it came to my describing to my brother how they tried to translate the original's formula's to a much-different style of game. The Legend of Zelda was sometimes bewildering, but it had clear fallbacks: If you got stuck, you could burn bushes, push blocks, or bomb walls. Zelda II's interpretation of the formula had us finding secrets using opaque methods like walking on water at very specific points and using a hammer, of all things, to clear out a woodsy map space to reveal a hidden town; I'm sure certain villagers supplied clues that I could do as much, but who could tell with how poorly the dialogue was translated? Otherwise, Zelda II's side-scrolling-based problem-solving mechanics leaned toward trivial tasks like going into a house, finding a mirror under a table, and bringing it to a woman in the same town.

I was convinced that they'd given up when a puzzle in question involved walking over to a fountain on the left to get some water for the woman standing right over there. Is "walking a few yards" really worthy of being the qualifying means for earning spells, the learning of which, I thought, was meant to feel important?

But you know what? For all the issues I had with Zelda II--for all the ill-feelings and criticisms I'd thrown its way--I had to admit something: I kinda liked this game. I don't know what power it held over me or why I was such a glutton for its brand of punishment, but I wanted to finish it even though I didn't think I could, and not just to check it off the list like in the case of Ninja Gaiden. The problem was that I ran into an impasse that stumped me to the point to where I shelved the game for almost another year. That is, I didn't know how to get past what I called the "Demon Spider," which blocked off the final area of the game; I didn't know that it was susceptible to the Flute or that such an item even existed because I either failed to full explore the fifth palace or, more likely, I hadn't yet found the palace, itself. (I could've asked Dominick or another friend for advice, but I wanted to figure this one out on my own.)

During those many months away from it, my imagination ran wild, and I'd built up what lay beyond the Demon Spider as nothing short of sacred ground--the likes of which I've described in the past as terrain my eyes were never meant to see. The very image of that map part remained stuck in my head, and the thought of seeing the world beyond it served as the driving force for my eventual rematch with the game. By the time I returned to Zelda II for what was the third phase of my relationship with it, I'd softened up considerably and decided that the only way I'd accomplish my mission was to put in actual effort and get better at it. So I exhaustively explored every square of the map, finding caves and action scenes I never knew were there. I observed the enemy patterns and learned how to tackle even the toughest of shielded enemies without having to rely on a series of cheap jumping strikes. I memorized the palace layouts and eliminated my tendency to rush through them, instead bravely traversing their tangled innards. Most importantly, I found that Flute that had so evaded me. 

It was during this phase where I made my peace with The Adventure of Link, which in following etched into my mind the now-fully-formed images that would comprise my lasting memory of it. Part of my new appreciation for it stemmed from my adoration for the recently released A Link to the Past, whose return to its roots, I realized, wouldn't have felt as special had The Legend of Zelda's sequel instead been a blown-up retread. Where I originally perceived Zelda II as a defiant heretic, I now saw it as a fascinating divergence whose curious existence only enriched the series' legacy.

I always had a fondness for its soundtrack, but it began to hit me that I never gave it the proper credit for how its music flowed together and showered the game with emotion-tingling compositions. The map theme, while not quite as iconic as its predecessor's, was epic in a different way--it evoked a sense that Link was taking on a long, arduous journey across a landscape whose dangers seemed hidden but were in reality lurking in every crevice. There was a reason, I felt, that the map theme's intro started similarly to the original's before diverting into its own creation; it was the composer's way of telling me that Zelda II was "moving in a different direction," a sentiment I now valued more than ever. There was also the fantastic, defining palace theme, which always made me feel tentative and under duress even when no enemies were onscreen; it was above all truly was one of the best 8-bit themes ever written. 

More than any other, I loved Zelda II's town theme, which my friends, my brother, and I often compared to Moon River; upon entering a town, we'd do our best to harmonize our unimaginative intro lyrics consisting of the sole line "Moooooooon River, run-ning a-round the town!" The short, touching ditty heard inside houses was the best example of how the game's soundtrack flowed; it acted almost as an evocative bridge--a sad, contemplative arc whose length you could stretch as long as you like--before segueing back into the to the more-upbeat town theme. I remember the house theme well because it would always play in my head whenever I'd go on one those inspecting walks around my backyard on any warm, quiet summer day before we were leaving for a vacation.

So I finally made it beyond the Demon Spider (which the town folk informed me was instead a "River Devil") and eventually cleared all but the red-stained southwest portion of the map. The final path to the Great Palace (which I for some reason called "Ganon's Palace") was absolutely insane; I didn't think it could get any worse than Death Mountain, but here it was times three. I can't remember how many times I failed and was sent back to the game's starting point, but this final area quickly became one of my least favorite in all of video games; if not for the fact that the Great Palace is the only one of its kind from which you can continue, this piece would be ending right about now with me making idle threats against the game's creators.

The acts of trudging my way along the red path of anguish and discovering the correct route through the Great Palace required a marathon session that took up my entire day. I don't know how it was that I managed to reach the final boss (the "Angel of Death," as I called it), but I remember feeling at times that I'd never find the right path, even if I had the faintest inkling that I was heading in the right direction. I expected the final battle to be equally brutal, but I found the Angel of Death to be more irritating than difficult (and thank goodness its hitbox was confined to only its head area); I took it down with some trouble and was confident that the true final boss (which I knew about, since it was hard to avoid that type of spoiler) wouldn't be monstrously difficult, since the developers had to know that I'd be low on both energy and magic. To the contrary, Shadow Link, I learned, was on the extreme end of the spectrum in terms of the game's combat system.

"Are these people insane?"

I didn't know about the exploit where you could safely crouch in the corner and pick him off with low stabs, so I had to finish the deed the old-fashioned way: By hopping around like a spastic monkey boy and flailing like crazy while hoping for the best. Even today I find little success by taking that tact, so I'm not sure how the younger, less-skilled version of me ever emerged victorious in that battle. Maybe all that jumping around gave him a heart attack.

So there it was--the completion of a game I never thought I'd be fit enough to conquer. I didn't play it many times in following (Dominick and I would occasionally run through the first half of the game, which was filling on its own), but I'd never forget the sights, the sounds, and specially rendered moments they combined to create. I remember how friends and I would facetiously repeat to each other "Hey--you know Bagu? I know 'im too!" in a stereotypical Brooklyn accent. I'll never forget that friendly, sleepy Bot whose rest you could disturb by mashing the attack button; it'd say "Let me be. Master in woods," which always made me feel sad, since that emotive house music was playing and I'd imagine its words were being delivered in a melancholy, soft-spoken tone. Also, real time was wasted discussing the nature of Error's name and whether or not it was some type of ironic programming oversight.

It was the game through which Dominick introduced me to the word inventory (as in the menu screen where you could select your spells), which was the expected behavior from a future valedictorian like him. However, he mispronounced it as "invent-ory," which I of course repeated like a bumbling idiot up until I heard it correctly pronounced on an afternoon game show. He was kind of pissed at me when I corrected him about it. He was a smart guy, though; considering the potential he had, I hope the rumor isn't true that he wound up driving a truck for a living.

A point of fascination for me were the elements borrowed and inspired by the Super Mario Bros. games, including enemies and mechanics. Until then, I never noticed how intrinsically linked these series were. You had the skull-headed, fire-spewing Bago-Bagos, which were flying Cheep-Cheeps repurposed for a harder-edged world. The Octoroks were reskinned Snifits. Gumas mimicked Hammer Bros. in every way. And Link could even go down that one chimney the same way Mario ducked into pipes! I'm sure there are even more such instances, and I look forward to discovering them in the future.

Was there anything else? Oh, yeah--I forgot to mention the downthrust, which is the greatest offensive maneuver to appear in a game ever. Zelda II might be worth playing just for the sake of abusing the hell out of it. So go do it. Now.

In recent years, thanks to the 3DS Ambassador Program, I've played through Zelda II quite a few times. I find it kind of amazing how my opinion of it changed over the years. I mean, there were many games I disliked at first (like Castlevania and Ninja Gaiden), but Zelda II went from being a game in which I saw no redeeming qualities to one I hold in pretty high regard, even if it isn't among my favorites. I still maintain that it has a considerable amount of flaws and that a lot of its challenge is artificial, but I just can't help liking it. It's uncharacteristically difficult for a Zelda game, sometimes cheap in its level design, and rough around the edges, but it's held together by spurts of brilliance a distinctive aura that makes it stand out not just from other 8-bit games but even those from its own series.

In the end, Link's adventure entailed more than saving the world from Ganon's evil forces; it was also about the elfin hero's long-enduring campaign to help Zelda II win a piece of my heart. That mission was accomplished, and it was as easy as walking on water.

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