Meditations on Zelda 2

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Gaming lore has it that this is one of the worst titles in the Zelda series. The general will of the gaming community also seems to instruct that this is one of the worst games ever made. Contrary to what a review of a game might usually require, the Derridean attitude that there is ‘nothing outside the text’ will (hopefully in a manner that avoids a  cliché) be deployed in discussing Zelda 2 in this post. So, along these lines, these two kernels of pop wisdom should merely be borne in mind when reading this post. Neither of them will be addressed per se, but they’re important for the purpose of reflecting on this text – as is, it might be argued, the popular sentiment attached to any particular text.

What will also not be discussed is the decision to include RPG elements, and side-scrolling action in the game. There is nothing wrong with the inclusion of these two concepts in the game in-and-of themselves. What many seem to rely on when criticising Zelda 2 is that, somehow, because these two concepts make Zelda 2 so different, it is therefore bad. To put this bit of popular criticism to rest, it should be responded that there is nothing that can be argued against these two concepts except the manner of their execution.

As a point of departure for the discussion, note that included in this post is a constructed image of the entire Zelda 2 over-world. The purpose of including this image in the post is to provide a different perspective on the game. One of the earliest criticisms of the game one might hear, one based on a first impression of the game, is that the over-world is blocky and displeasing to look at. This image should work to counter-act that criticism – its easy to observe that a lot of care has been taken in assembling Zelda 2’s overworld, and the result of all this effort is that the features of its landscape are actually very, very subtle. Look, for example, how the big road on the western part of the over-world, the mainland, paces its curves through forests and mountains by going through areas of relaxing plains. In addition, notice how the plains and forests themselves are hugged by mountains. That’s surely some deft game design!

In contrast, or, alternatively, almost by complement, the main problem with this game lies not with its aesthetic construction, but its mechanics. The two elements within Zelda 2’s mechanics that could be improved are its:

  1. Difficulty curve; and
  2. Technological limitations.

Both of these elements are broadly agreed to be the core problems with the game. What seems to have happened, however, is that many have seemed to go too far when relying on these two elements of criticism, going on and condemning the game. Furthermore this kind of attitude seems worryingly congruent with a philosophy of deeming games as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

Difficulty Curve

Two of the most salient criticisms of Zelda are that (a) when the player dies in a dungeon, they should not return back to the beginning of the game, but to the start of the dungeon, and (b) a player’s experience should not be lost at Game Over. These are two of the easiest things that could be fixed to improve game play.

Aside from these two problems under this element, the way the game is paced is an issue. Dungeons like Death Mountain are almost impossible because of their difficulty relative to the amount of experience that a player usually has the opportunity to accrue. The problem with this is that it encourages grinding. Grinding nothing but evidence of poor game design. The accrual of experience in any RPG should be for two purposes only: deepening the enlightening nature of puzzles in the game, and driving the story. It could be argued that RPG experience points should serve as tiny meta-items that go towards the discovery of game items proper. What happens when experience points are not properly focused on these two purposes is that experience becomes a focus of jouissance: the accrual of experience for its own purpose. This wastes the players time, and as a result, utterly destroys the quality of game play.

What many players have done is blame the inclusion of experience accrual as a concept tout-court, in Zelda 2, when the real issue is that it is, at times, horribly executed. To make clear what was said above, the cause of this poor execution is due to the game’s poorly designed difficulty curve.

Technological Limitations

One of the important things that Zelda 2 established for the series was going and talking to people in towns. Interaction with people helped drive the story somewhat, and introduced an extra layer of complexity for puzzle-solving. Unfortunately, the potential for conversation the player has with townspeople in Zelda 2 is extremely limited.

The terrible dialogue with people in the game can probably be put down to memory limitations. Games like Final Fantasy and Ultima (among others) appear support enormous amounts of text without sacrificing much graphically or interactively, but there is probably some reasonable explanation other than laziness for this being the case in Zelda 2.

The other way in which technological issues hamper the quality of this title is the way enemies respawn and the way their AI functions. Add to this list the occasional glitch and shoddy hit-box and one has a more-or-less comprehensive list of almost every unavoidable problem with games from the 8-bit era. Dungeons and random encounters can become extremely tedious due to the unrelenting number of enemies with which the designers populated these areas, due to a lack of memory and processing power. It simply wasn’t possible to make these kinds of games any more complex. Here again, as with accruing experience above, quality (in an abstract sense) is sacrificed for quantity.

The tediousness of the game play in Zelda 2 is no better demonstrated than in the open-air water-side random encounters: where bubbles and rocks fly at the player in order to create a challenge similar to that of Bullet-Bill aerial levels in Super Mario.

Redeeming Features

Aside from these two problems with the game’s mechanics, Zelda 2 is a brilliant game. This game manages to pull off an incredibly deep thematic feel. After walking around in the sunshine for a while, talking to people in towns and collecting items, plunging into a majestic stone-cobbled dungeon really conveys a sense of brooding evil lurking beneath the surface of the land. Forests feel wild and dense, and the associated desert and water side-scrolling areas authentically convey exciting forums of action that serve as an important indication, in comparison to the original Zelda, of how Nintendo wanted to develop this franchise.

This is a good game. You should definitely play it.

You can purchase it on Nintendo’s Virtual Console or buy a NES cartridge on eBay for far too much money. It’s also available in various other forms, be it compilation discs on the GameCube or relaunch cartridges on the GameBoy Advance.

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