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Zelda 2 was Nintendo at its best: unpredictable

The Adventure of Link is an important stepping stone on Zelda’s path to greatness

Image: Nintendo
Michael McWhertor is a journalist with more than 17 years of experience covering video games, technology, movies, TV, and entertainment.

In a 2016 interview with Nintendo, Tadashi Sugiyama, the game director of Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link, expressed incredulity that anyone would consider his sequel to The Legend of Zelda their favorite Zelda of all time: “Those kind of people exist!?”

In 2023, Polygon is embarking on a Zeldathon. Join us on our journey through The Legend of Zelda series, from the original 1986 game to the release of The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom and beyond.

Sugiyama is clearly aware of the divisive reception to Zelda 2, which, despite being a commercial hit on the original NES, did not become the transformative template for future Zelda games. Far from it; Zelda 2’s focus on more traditional RPG and side-scrolling platforming elements were all but excised from the franchise, as top-down adventures in the style of The Legend of Zelda became the norm until (and even beyond) the release of Link’s first 3D game, Ocarina of Time. Sugiyama’s sequel is often derided as the “black sheep” of the long-running series. But the game’s emphasis on combat and swordplay was an obvious influence on Link’s transition to 3D gaming, and Zelda 2 had a major impact on other games — just not those made by Nintendo.

Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link arrived on North American NES consoles in 1988, at a strange time for the game maker. Nintendo was at the peak of its popularity in the late ’80s, when the Japanese company was synonymous with video gaming in America. That popularity led to a chip shortage for Nintendo cartridges, and to lengthy delays for Zelda 2 — the game arrived stateside nearly two years after it launched on Nintendo’s Famicom in Japan.

The title screen for Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link, featuring the title behind the Master Sword, which is embedded on a rocky cliff. Image: Nintendo
Link pulls back his sword to strike a spear-wielding Moblin in forest area from Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link Image: Nintendo
Link is flanked by two Wosu enemies in a dungeon from Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link Image: Nintendo
Link walks through a town, where two women and a man stand in front of a single-level house from Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link Image: Nintendo

It coincidentally arrived alongside two other highly anticipated, big-swerve sequels: Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros. 2 and Konami’s Castlevania 2: Simon’s Quest. All three games were notable for their dramatic shift in style from their predecessors: Super Mario Bros. 2 was famously a reskin of another game altogether (Doki Doki Panic), and Castlevania 2 drew its side-scrolling RPG inspiration from, of all things, Zelda 2, which was released in Japan seven months before Konami shipped its Castlevania sequel.

Nintendo and game designer Shigeru Miyamoto — serving as producer on Zelda 2 — were clearly experimenting with, not just iterating on, the world of Hyrule with their sequel. Everything changed: the perspective, the difficulty, the look of Link’s world, even the game’s final boss — a shadowy version of Link took over from Ganon. Zelda 2 gave players a wider view of Hyrule, letting Link travel to other landmasses and explore caves and tunnels. Link’s magic and health were governed by a more traditional RPG leveling system; grinding for experience points to boost one’s stats and laboriously taking to every NPC were crucial to survival.

Zelda 2 is also notoriously hard. The game’s Iron Knuckles present an immense challenge early on, and many of the game’s bosses can only be defeated using techniques learned from NPCs scattered across Hyrule. Nintendo of America, wisely recognizing the spike in difficulty compared to the original The Legend of Zelda, published a series of guides and maps in the pages of Nintendo Power and The Official Nintendo Player’s Guide far in advance of Zelda 2’s arrival.

The game’s designers were unabashedly influenced by the popular competition of the time: seminal console RPG Dragon Quest informed Zelda 2’s RPG mechanics, just as arcade beat-’em-up Kung-Fu Master, the latter of which Miyamoto helped port to the NES as Kung Fu, informed the game’s combat. According to Sugiyama, Miyamoto’s approach to Zelda 2 was less about building on the lore and gameplay of The Legend of Zelda, and focusing more on action.

Miyamoto had wanted “a side-scrolling action game that made use of up and down movements for attacks and defense [...] actions like jump strikes, downward strikes, and high and low shield defense moves,” Sugiyama recalled. “Types of moves that weren’t possible in the first game. Rather than being a continuation of the series, it started as a new sword and shield type of action game.”

“We were experimenting while producing the game so we didn’t really have the first game’s systems in mind while developing it,” Sugiyama said. “We were searching for new ways to play, so you could say it’s like a spinoff.”

The success of Nintendo’s Zelda 2 experiment is arguable, of course, but the game was a commercial hit, selling more than 4.5 million copies. That’s a far better result than some of Nintendo’s other experiments that paid off much further down the road, such as the Virtual Boy’s attempts at 3D coming to fruition with the 3DS, and the Wii U’s failed tablet controller being refined for the Switch, now Nintendo’s second-best-selling game hardware of all time.

Whatever lessons Nintendo’s game designers learned during the process resulted in a far better immediate sequel, 1991’s The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, and a solid foundation for the ever-changing, ever-growing Zelda series as it approaches Tears of the Kingdom this year. But it doesn’t change the fact that Zelda 2 represented Nintendo at its best: a company willing to take risks that could reshape its entire future.