The Zelda series walks a precarious tightrope. Many decry the lack of innovation recent entries have shown and demand that future entries try something different. On the other hand, the games that are held up as the best in the series are the ones that embody the formula completely. Itís not that there havenít been any games that diverged from the norm. After all, Majoraís Mask was a completely weird mix of Zelda and Shenmue that tends to be regarded in hindsight as a divisive experiment, even though it was mechanically similar to Ocarina of Time.
Zelda II, however, is maligned precisely because it threw out the mechanics from the first game in favor of a side-scrolling adventure. It is seen as the black sheep precisely because it is viewed as being too different to be a Zelda game. It is fitting, then, that The Adventure of Link is arguably the most influential game to the series at large and an engagingly offbeat game in its own right.
NES development was a hotbed of experimentation. Designers were throwing things against the wall to see what stuck, often mashing together different gameplay styles. This is why you often saw sequels that were wildly different than their predecessors. Castlevania II, for instance, took the action platforming of the first game and opened the design to non-linear exploration. But much like Zelda, it quickly reverted back to the gameplay style that brought the series to the dance in the first place and abandoned its failed experiment as a mere footnote. Of course, you saw Castlevania return to the non-linear concepts of Simonís Quest with Symphony of the Night, which was enough of a kick start to help the series endure even today. Zelda, on the other hand, clung to the template established by A Link To The Past even when it was experimenting in Majoraís Mask and Wind Waker.
Meanwhile, Zelda II never gets its day in the sun to evolve into something more polished, as Nintendo never saw fit to give the style a second look. And only a handful of developers outside of Nintendo bothered to try, with Faxanadu and Battle of Olympus being the only notable successes. What would have eventually become its own genre evaporated before the Super Nintendo even gained traction, which is why you see people referring to Zelda II when trying to describe this type of gameplay.
Zelda II cements itself as an outlier right away by recasting overhead segments as a traditional RPG map, random encounters and all. In fact, the general flow of the game mimics the RPG formula almost exactly. The town-dungeon-town pattern you see in most games of the genre is upheld almost perfectly. You still have to clear all the palaces like in the first game, but dungeon items are used mainly as a means to move on to the next part of the map. Magic spells fill the utilitarian niche that items did in the first game, but this too more closely resembles RPG Magic Point systems.
Magic and maps were not the only part of the game that resembled RPGs, though. Zelda IIís most striking mechanic was the fact that you could level up Linkís stats through experience points. Up until this point, you never really saw anything other than hardcore RPGs utilizing a character growth system, let alone a side-scrolling platformer. This was a far cry from the original Zelda, where your power was solely dependent on a few swords of differing power and a bigger shield and set the stage for other games to try leveling systems in genres that didnít traditionally have them, like Crystalis and Symphony of the Night. Most importantly, it provided the opportunity to skip bosses until you were sufficiently powerful enough, something hinted at in the first game but broadened here. Not only can you wait until you have more life bars, but you can come back to a boss with more attack power, more defense, or more magic spells.
Even the gameís continue structure resembles RPGs like Dragon Quest, though it seems fairly conventional at first blush. You begin with a set amount of lives and losing a life will start you back at the beginning of the room you died in. But if you lose all your lives, you are promptly kicked back to the beginning area. However, all your progress remains. This means that accomplishing certain goals acts as a checkpoint, allowing the player to tread new ground almost immediately. The non-linear nature of the palaces helped immensely, as a key would often be in a completely separate part of the palace than the boss. Dying right after picking up a key meant that the player was free to explore a different portion of the palace without treading familiar ground. Picking up the palace item opened the next section of the overworld, meaning the player could leave and work on another palace, all the while building levels in preparation for a tricky boss. If you really stretch, you can make a vague claim of a roguelike element to the game, as Link loses all unspent experience if he runs out of lives.
Itís pretty clear to see that Zeldaís developers looked at contemporary RPGs with envy. After all, the very sense of exploration and progression that the first game represented was being replicated on a more epic scale than Linkís humble freshman outing. Better still was the fact that RPGs approximated an entire world, something the first Zelda had no claim to. But while it seems like shameless mimickry on the surface, it actually serves to expand the original mission statement of the Zelda series, enriching the setting by actually establishing it as a fully realized world and bringing with it all the benefits of a traditional overworld.
Thatís not to say that all of Zelda IIís innovations were aped from role-playing games. It also did some really fun things with combat in the side-scrolling perspective. Namely, it increased the complexity of battling by simply increasing Linkís moveset. The fact that he can now duck means that he can attack from two height levels, something that forms the basis for the flow of combat through the entire game. Enemies begin to employ shields, meaning that you canít just mindlessly hack away at the enemy. Spells and combat skills help to make battling even more varied. You can attack with projectile fire that flies across the screen, bounce enemy projectiles back at them, or even skip a screen altogether by turning into a fairy and flying off to the next screen. And letís not forget the down-stab, the special move that is guaranteed to be the most fun you have with combat. Anyone who has played DuckTales knows the joy of bouncing on the head of an enemy over and over.
You would think that the legacy of a black sheep would stop at the game itself, but youíd be wrong in Zelda IIís case. Many of the tropes that exist in the Zelda series began life in The Adventure of Link. The RPG-like overworld ended up forming the basis for the structure of the world in A Link To The Past, setting the tone for the entire series. Where there were once NPCs tucked away in caves there are now vibrant worlds complete with towns, houses, and unique NPC types. Linkís increased versatility in battle thanks to magic and combat skills have also been expanded on, with magic meters making an appearance in many of the sequels along with a greater emphasis on useful combat alternatives in items. And though purists mourn the loss of the pure open ended design of the first game, Zelda II introduced a more focused structure that still left some room for players to decide how to tackle the world. Zelda as we know it would not exist without The Adventure of Link.
And though its game design never blossomed in into its own genre, Zelda II still influenced a handful of 2D games that strived to be more than your average platformer. A handful of side-scrolling games picked up the RPG flag and bent it to their individual wills. Games like Symphony of the Night and Odin Sphere ran with the idea of RPG elements in a 2D environment, but more striking was the unusual perspective Zelda II offered. Metroid proved that you could do more than just move right constantly. In much the same way, Zelda II proved that you could do more than just stick to one perspective or gameplay type. The experimental nature of NES games like Zelda II meant that future games werenít afraid to follow suit, especially given how many modern games mix and match gameplay with the greatest of ease.
The popular opinion on Zelda II is hopelessly split, but that doesnít stop it from being an enduringly influential game. The Zelda series at large certainly wouldnít be what it is today without the developments that The Adventure of Link brought. Its wild experimentation lead developers to take more chances with game design. But removed from history and influence, itís just an impossibly interesting game with a unique structure that hits a lot of enjoyable notes in one fell swoop.
That it succeeded in the NES era with so many different concepts thrown against the wall is nothing short of amazing.
Zelda II: The Adventure of Link
Based on: The Legend of Zelda by way of pretty much every other possible influence imaginable: Dragon Quest, Mario, etc.