In Episode 91 of Axe of the Blood God ("Hey! Listen!"), Kat and I chatter about The Legend of Zelda (as we're wont to do), and around the ten-minute mark we talk about which Zelda games people typically jump into the series with.
Zelda, being a decades-old franchise, has more than one notable entry point. In other words, not everyone started with the first NES game: A whole lot of people started with 1991's A Link to the Past for the SNES. A whole lot more people started with 1998's Ocarina of Time for the N64.
Myself? I came into Zelda through its most oddly-shaped door: 1987's Zelda II: The Adventure of Link for the NES.
When the Famicom / NES was still spankin'-new hardware, sequels to popular games were digital guinea pigs. Developers understandably wanted to discover what the system was capable of – and what they were personally capable of as programmers. Consequently, the NES is home to more than a few wonderfully awkward sequels that are still regarded with a suspicious eye. Castlevania II: Simon's Quest is more about exploration than foe-whipping and tricky platforming. And I'll never forget jumping on a Shyguy for the first time in Super Mario Bros 2 and being carried along like a rider on a plodding donkey. In my grade school mind, "Mario's feet + Enemy = Death to said enemy" was as indelible as "2 + 2 = 4." Getting the rug pulled out from under me like that was quite a shock.
In a market full of weird sequels, however, Zelda II was seriously bonkers. The first game's iconic top-down view was ditched in favor of a side-scrolling adventure that focused heavily on combat. Zelda II even featured a levelling-up system that increased Link's attack, defense, and magic efficiency.
And as someone who entered Hyrule for the first time through this bizarre portal, I loved it.
I can't remember why I decided to give Zelda II a try even though I hadn't played the first game; chances are I picked it up on a friend's recommendation. I do remember I bought it at a Toys R Us store that's still standing today. City dwellers don't often get to cherish stores they visited through childhood – buildings in Toronto come and go like faerie rings bearing the names of condo developers – but I'm glad I can in this case.
Despite my happy memories of Zelda II, I have no problem acknowledging its flaws. For starters, Link's sword has no reach; he may as well stab Moblins with a toothpick (of course, the bulldog-headed demons can spear Link from fifty miles away). Worse, Link's ranged beam attack is useless. It can probably bounce off butter.
Link's magic is similarly impotent, and even basic healing spells gobble up most of his magic meter. The game's tortuous palaces don't offer any kind of mapping system, and getting a Game Over erases all your unused experience points (RETURN OF GANON indeed). Also, what is the deal with the relentless streams of enemies that steal your experience points if they so much as breathe on you? And why are so many of those enemies front-loaded in the first few hours of the game?
Yes, Zelda II can be painful. Like, "Goriya catching you in the ankle with a boomerang" painful. At the same time, I loved every minute I spent exploring Hyrule. If anything, I appreciate Zelda II's exploration more than ever because to this day, it offers a view of Hyrule we'd never seen at that time, and have yet to see again.
When you play a Zelda game today, there are certain landmarks you can count on seeing. Death Mountain. Lake Hylia. The Lost Woods. They all make appearances in Zelda II, but in a purposefully diminished way. Instead, the meat of Zelda II's exploration takes place to the north of Death Mountain and then east over its sea to a whole new continent that's pouring over with unfamiliar and dangerous enemies. Zelda II's iteration of Hyrule was exciting for me to explore as a kid, and I wasn't even an established Zelda fan.
Granted, I imagine Zelda II's overworld might be a sad, shrivelled place for someone who loved the first game. Spectacle Rock, the Lost Woods, the Graveyard, and Lake Hylia are a few tile sets instead of their original rolling, multi-screened areas.
I can confidently say that if scientists managed to find a way to distill my excitement for The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and turn it into a fuel, it'd burn hotter than Satan's furnace. That said, I expect Breath of the Wild will dish up the landmarks we've seen again and again across the Zelda games released over the years. That's fine. That's great. But for all of Zelda II's flaws, I'll always appreciate how it broke through Hyrule's borders and took players on a trip through utterly uncharted territories.