The NES was known for sequels that took a very different approach than the original game, and perhaps none were as different as Zelda II from its predecessor. Rather than a top-down, grid-based exloratory adventure, Zelda II is largely side-scrolling and action based. Bizarrely, it also has more RPG elements than the distinctly more RPG-like Zelda 1. It’s certainly the outlier of the Zelda series, but it’s a game that nonetheless has a lot to offer.
Zelda II eschews the screen-by-screen overworld map of its predecessor in favor of a huge, freely scrolling world covering two distinct landmasses. No real action takes place on this screen, though you will spend a lot of your exploration time dealing with randomly spawning enemies that wander around in your vicinity. If one touches you, though, you go to a side-scrolling action sequence. Indeed, the various caves, temples, and even towns of Zelda II take place in the same side-scrolling manner.
While you will find several items during your adventure, most of them are focused more on puzzle-solving than making you stronger. There are no upgraded swords or armor to find here. Instead, you level up your Life, Magic, and Attack with an experience system. These levels make you considerably more powerful, particularly when supplemented with the hidden heart containers and magic potions in the game, though the power curve will generally match the difficulty of the game. You will earn various combat upgrades in the form of magic and sword techniques which make combat a bit more interesting.
The core of Zelda II’s gameplay is in its seven main temples. Your goal in each of the first six is twofold: to find the special item hidden there, and defeat the boss. Indeed, you can’t even re-enter a temple once both of these objectives is achieved. The temple puzzles are based primarily on the collection of keys to open locked doors, though some of the larger ones are quite easy to get lost in. The main challenge is not the puzzles, but the enemies. Whereas in the original game, each enemy had an attack pattern and could withstand some number of hits, and weren’t otherwise all that different, in Zelda II you need to learn how to fight various types of enemies. Ironknuckles in particular appear a lot, and until you discover a good technique for fighting them, can cause a lot of problems. Even at maximum level, your life bar won’t last that long, so you need to be good at combat to finish the game.
Zelda II isn’t exactly plagued with gameplay problems, but it doesn’t rise to the heights of the original game, either. For one thing, it’s much shorter, largely because there is far less to discover in the world. If you’re good, you can beat the game in an afternoon. And until you master the combat, it’s easy to reach frustrating situations. This time, Link has a limited number of lives, and when these run out you start all the way back at the beginning of the game (unless you’re in the final dungeon, which is a mercy). Since a game over resets your experience, you don’t even really have the option of grinding your way past a problem.
Taken by itself, Zelda II is a pretty fun game, but in the context of the greater series it is very much the black sheep. None of the skills needed here tend to be very relevant in other Zelda games, and it doesn’t have any true sequels (chronologically this is actually the very last Zelda game), so it’s the kind of game Zelda fans often ignore altogether. I still think it’s worth a look because, baggage aside, it’s a pretty fun action game.