Zelda II is the game for John Travolta and you



Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (1988)

I’ll tell you a scene that struck a chord with me in a film, shall I? It was when I first watched Saturday Night Fever (1977, disco, Bee Gees, Travolta throwing shapes, you can’t not know it). I’m sure I was like many in assuming that the vast majority of the film was basically a disco-themed musical with a rudimentary love story bolted onto the front for wider appeal. You could more or less relay a synopsis of it to people using just the songs on the seminal soundtrack, I thought.

So when I watched the film and saw John frustrated with his dead end job, frustrated with his father and frustrated with the girls that attach themselves to his group – so much so that he tells us that they all must make the decision to become “nice girls or c**ts” at an early age, well, I was amazed and pleasantly surprised. This was quite a bit grittier and downbeat then I’d have ever imagined. How the director (Scout from To Kill A Mockingbird’s brother no less) managed to make a thought-provoking, sometimes grim movie with Night Fever and You Should Be Dancing playing in the background, I’ll never know, but he managed it.

And then there’s the scene I’m talking about, where Travolta’s clergyman brother comes home having jacked in the priesthood. Though ashamed of it, Travolta’s secretly happy about this bit of news, as he’s now no longer the black sheep mess up of the family, and it’s almost like his undisputed status as King of the Disco has been reluctantly accepted by the rest of his family. He’s great at his own things, and finally getting some recognition for it. I did like that angle a lot.

But that’s the thing with being a black sheep, you know. You will certainly get a real kick out of being different and doing your own thing for a while. As more and more of your peers begin to conform to normality, however, or whatever ‘normality’ is as defined by society, the tables begin to change on you. You begin to be seen less and less as cool and alternative and more and more as a freak. It’s just the hive mentality, that’s all it is! Strength in numbers.

But you try telling that to Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link, the bona fide black sheep of the long running Legend of Zelda series. The original Zelda game laid new boundaries for gaming as a whole and it became commercially and critically successful even beyond optimistic expectation. Now, the series and its traits may have been established following the original game, but they hadn’t yet been set in stone. So the room was certainly there to do something a little bit different with its inevitable sequel. But Zelda 2 is so far removed from its predecessor that they might as well have replaced the grammatically treacherous “story” at the beginning of the game with the classic Monty Python “and now for something completely different”.

With all that out of the way, I can tell you something you surely already know: the Zelda series, in 1988, looked to have morphed from a wide-open, top-down action-adventure to a side-scrolling hacker with RPG elements. Oh? Is that a snort of derision I hear? Well, it’s definitely a radical move, the biggest departure Zelda has ever taken from its usual mojo – a mojo oft criticised these days for being overly formulaic, no less.

So it might perhaps be telling that we haven’t seen anything in the series even remotely like Zelda 2 since then. Bad news, right? But the use of Zelda 2’s town names in Ocarina of Time as sage names, and some of Links moves as well as stages and music in the Super Smash Bros. games coming directly from here suggests that this game isn’t an experiment that the Nintendo bigwigs are ashamed of.

The usual flow of a Zelda game is, interestingly, intact. You’ve still got dungeons to find and explore, six in total plus a final palace, with dungeon items, keys, bosses and the like to take care of. It’s just… done a whole lot differently. Instead of directly fighting enemies on the overworld map, touching their icons transports Link to a little side-scrolling stage where several enemies, almost all of them cheap and far too hard-hitting, constantly accost him. Bop these enemies down with your cute little sword to earn experience points and level up, so that you can increase your health, attack power and magic reserves – you’ve done it all before I’m sure.

Magic in this game comes in the form of some basic spells, like the ability to jump higher, double your defense, reflect magic attacks… or turn into a fairy. You can find extra Magic and Heart Containers, just like in the original, although there’s only four of each. You can choose which stat to augment when you finally spam your way to a level-up, and increasing your health and magic stats simply means you get more oompf out of the Heart and Magic Containers that you have.

And you’ll need every itty bit of experience that you can get your mitts on, because Lord is this game tough at times. In another unusual move, you have limited lives, three from the outset. Lose your three lives and you go all the way back to the starting point and lose any outstanding experience points you have that don’t quite add up to a vital level-up, which is desperately annoying – especially if you’ve fallen into lava three times in quick succession while fighting Barba, and you’ve got to trek all the way back to the other side of Hyrule.

What you’ll soon lament as well is that there’s no maps in the dungeons, and the dungeon architect was talented enough to design some plans to have them sculpted over several floors this time, making them very labyrinthine indeed – a guide is again useful here. Unless you wanted to really step into the past and draw your own maps on graph paper. Remember that stuff? You bought a whole load of and used it in Maths class a handful of times before it became useless? You may as well use it, if you’re going the whole way. You can even use some for Metroid and its Game Boy sequel thereafter.

The graphics of Zelda 2 are decent enough again, not ugly at all, and well playable even in this day and age. The music and sound effects serve as well; the battle theme in particular is chirpy and catchy, a genuine winner. It’s just a game that suffers from being difficult to the point of frustrating; if you’ve got no patience (and I rarely ever do), you’re going to get fed up of indulging this one.

But is it a game worth playing? Absolutely, even if it’s only as a curious experiment. You never know, you might even rather like it, although I suspect you’ll suffer it for about 60% of the way through or so before sacking it off and moving on to Zelda as it should be. That sounds like a bit of a shame, but oh well, black sheep don’t set out to be liked by everyone.

20 July 2014

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