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Do I Actually Like Zelda II?

The first two Zelda games on NES were natural Virtual Console purchases for me. I play through the first game, usually over the course of one or two days, every couple years (on the NES itself, the Gamecube “Collector’s Edition” disc, and sometimes emulated, but now mostly on Virtual Console). The second game was one I never actually beat as a kid (I managed to get to Thunderbird and always died), but it was a game that I would “re-start” again and again since my youth and its original release. I typically never make it beyond the second palace before either getting bored, frustrated, or just moving along to something else as I tend to do with my Gaming A.D.D.™.

I’ve had a save file on my Virtual Console version set right after a completion of the first palace probably since first downloading the game when it came out back in June 2007. Maybe a month or so ago I was showing Andrew the NES setup down in our basement (along with Sesame Street ABC/123, one of the creepiest games of all time, which I will write about at some point when I come out from under the covers), and played through the first palace in Zelda II, yet again, this time on the ol’ cartridge. I was shocked to see that the save file of my childhood friend (“MIKE C.”), was still there on the game, complete with the little Triforce next to the icon to show he had beaten the game. That excitement reminded me of the Virtual Console version upstairs, so I decided to pick the game up again one day and see how far I would get before the same trend of boredom and/or frustration and/or Gaming A.D.D.™ took place.

cart_save_files

Right now I am in the middle of the third palace (got the raft but have not gone to the boss), and have also ventured over to the eastern continent to save the child, learn two new magic spells, and learn the upward-thrust sword technique. As expected, the most difficult part so far was getting the hammer; if you make it past that point in the game, you are typically going to keep playing for at least a little while longer. With the hammer in tow (and not yet bored), I decided that I would keep playing the game until it frustrated me to the point that it was no longer fun. I especially wanted to get myself over to that eastern continent, something I probably hadn’t seen since I was a kid playing through the game for the first time.

Now that I am there, I find myself asking strange questions… like, do I actually… ya’ know… like this game…?

zelda2_title_screen

While I had played the first Legend of Zelda rather extensively through trades with friends and rentals, I actually owned my own personal copy of the second game before I owned the first. I was only six years old when it first came out in 1988, and while I do not remember exactly when I got the game, it couldn’t have been all that long after that (maybe within a year?). At that point in a child’s life, they can’t exactly “save up” allowance money to purchase new games or convince their parents to get the latest game, so it was an instance where you (“you” being “I”) got a game and played the ever living Hell out of it, since it was all I had (beyond what I received with the system, which was a collection of Super Mario Bros. / Duck Hunt, Super Mario Bros. 2, and Sesame Street ABC/123, which was more for my sister than me… but, hey…).

But here I am, nearly twenty years after first playing the game. I have barely touched it since then, and yet still remember where everything is located (like jumping down the chimney in Darunia to learn the upward-thrust technique from the swordsman). If I can barely manage to play more than a single palace each time I try to play, do I actually like the game?

Let’s break it down almost review-style —

GAMEPLAY:

One of the criticisms people like to toss at Zelda II is that it plays so differently from the other games. I have seen the following response before, but I think it makes a whole lot of sense — there had only been one game so far, so how on Earth do you compare it to “all” the “other” games? Of course, this is a perspective being taken years later looking back on the game, but for the time, it seemed like a natural extension of the gameplay seen in the first game. You are still Link with a sword and shield; you are still wandering around a massive world free to go anywhere you want with the items available to you so far; you unlock new areas to explore with new items; you can venture in and out of levels/palaces without finishing them if you really want to; etc. Of course, the concepts of experience points, magic, and especially “lives” were incredibly different from the first game, but again… for the time, it seemed like a logical expansion on the original. Another point I have seen many times before is that the side-scrolling sections in Link’s Awakening appear to be nods to Zelda II, even with their Mario-enemy cameos; they feel like single-screen Zelda II palaces with elevators, jumps, and especially the “Skull” enemy (itself reminiscent of the “Bubble” foes from the first game’s dungeons).

zelda2_elevator la_sidescrolling
(Link’s Awakening shot from gamespite.net)

This is still all hindsight, though. How about the controls, as in how Link actually moves and responds to you…? Back then and today I still feel that Link moves realistically and reacts appropriately for who he is. Quite frankly, once you obtain the downward-thrust sword technique, pro players can make Link look almost graceful in the way he hops and bounces off of foes, acting like a skipping-stone through caves and palace corridors.

link_graceful_movement

Link’s jumping ability in Ocarina of Time seems to be an exact copy of his Zelda II technique, albeit no longer manually-controlled. Unlike Mario, Link does not and cannot jump three or four times his own height. There is a certain “weight” to him that grounds him in reality, no matter how unrealistic and fantastic the scenario is. It still feels a little “stiff” like many of the early NES games, but was a clear mid-way point between the first generation of games and the masterpieces of technological wonder that were the system’s swan songs.

GRAPHICS:

While the first game by no means features an overly-saturated, lush landscape… the second game does feel like it has a more subdued, muted color palette. With the exception of the green forests and grass on the overworld, this section of Hyrule seems to be a rather dull place.

zelda2_overworld_1

Palaces are entirely single-color, caves are either dark or lit up in orange… heck, the most colorful things in the game are probably the enemies! This may have been a conscious decision to set them apart from their backgrounds, now that I step back to look at it more closely. Even Link’s outfit is a somewhat-desaturated version of what we (now) traditionally think of as his green tunic when placed upon the various backgrounds. Sure, it was partially a limitation of the console and the number of colors it can display, but it all comes together to form “Link” in a very special way.

link_sprite_cutout

The game absolutely has its own aesthetic, one that was later used as “inspiration” for plenty of other games. The overworld was sparse and its enemy icons looked ridiculous, and as mentioned the colors were somewhat dull… but at the time, nothing else looked like it. Even today, it retains its own individual look, and one that seems to have been referenced and expanded upon in style by games like Ocarina of Time.

MUSIC:

Despite the score being composed by Akito Nakatsuka (rather than veteran Koji Kondo), few people will claim that Zelda II has “bad” music. While the first game’s main melody is only briefly hinted at with the beginning of the overworld theme, this approach would return with Ocarina of Time… and it seemed to work out pretty OK there, too. The true testament to Zelda II‘s score is the inclusion of the palace music in Super Smash Bros. Melee, and a medley of the normal and final palace songs in Brawl. This one haunting piece seems to have survived the test of time more so than any other element from the game, and for good reason. Folks tend to overlook the rest of the game’s score, however; the town music laid the groundwork for later songs like the Kakariko Village theme in its simplicity and tone, while the cave music got you on the edge of your seat in anticipation of whether or not another Daria was going to come swinging with some flying axes.

Needless to say, the score is phenomenal, and near-universally enjoyed. It contributes quite a bit to the overall enjoyment of the game.

DIFFICULTY:

This is not an easy game. Even as an NES-generation child, I could not defeat Thunderbird in the final palace. Perhaps the first clue you get about the game’s difficulty is when you wander into the northern desert cave before getting the candle; if you somehow manage to jump past the bats and fire pits, that Goriya is nailing you with his boomerang.

northern_cave

As I mentioned earlier, the true test of might is simply obtaining the hammer sometime after beating the first palace. If you can make your way past that one, final, red Daria… chances are you have the chops to continue. Even after that, though, the game does not hold back. The Ironknuckles are particularly difficult to deal with if you do not play defensively (something you rarely had to do in the first game), and choosing the wrong path in the third palace without first confronting that blue Ironknuckle trapped inside the blocks means you’re going to be battling a red one in front of you while the blue one throws knives at you from behind. Hitting a little, floating bubble while jumping across a pit invariably means you are falling to your death. Not grinding up a little magic-meter extension means you probably will not have enough magic points to cast that “Life” or even “Shield” spell when confronting the palace boss.

thunderbird

The game is unforgiving, but mostly fair. Some of the enemies move rather unpredictably, and the Mace Thrower can be difficult to get some inside-range on, but perseverance means you will ultimately learn the general gameplay patterns and move forward.

LEVEL DESIGN:

I have recently been playing through Retro Game Challenge on the DS. The final game, Robot Ninja Haggle Man 3, is a game in the vein of something like Metroid mashed up with some later Castlevania and a little old-school Ninja Gaiden or Shinobi; you are free to explore the world in the standard side-scrolling, action-game view with your sword, shuriken, jumps, etc. You can upgrade your abilities by purchasing “gears”, which grant you higher jumps, floating, powered-up shuriken blasts, and more. I have only barely played a couple minutes into the first Metroid game, and I have only played Castlevania games pre-Symphony of the Night. I have relatively little experience in the open-world “Metroidvania” style of games, and yet I find myself absolutely in love. There is no doubt in my mind that my PS3 & PSP will soon have a copy of Symphony of the Night on them, and I am even more excited to play Super Metroid.

How does this all relate to Zelda II, though?

You could make a somewhat-solid argument that Zelda II falls in line with this style of game. In fact, Jeremy Parish has done so. The palaces in Zelda II have some degree of “open-world” to them, albeit on a much smaller scale. The “standard” (again, only the second game here…) Zelda tropes of keys to open locked doors remain in your path, but upgraded magic spells like “Jump” and the glove which allows you to break blocks are what lead you to new areas in these palaces. Again, you are free to wander in and out of palaces as you choose; if all you want to do is grab that palace’s special item and move on without defeating the boss, feel free (similar to how you can play the first game). You will eventually have to come back to defeat him to place the crystal at the end of the level if you want to open up the final palace, but it is all left up to you to decide how and in what kind of order.

palace_2_map
(palace map from nesmaps.com)

In this respect, Zelda II almost seems like a “Metroidvania LITE” gameplay experience. Perhaps it acting as the basis for any familiarity I have with that type of gameplay and level design is what now has me interested in going back and checking out some of these major hits that I somehow missed over the years.

HILARITY:

Who can forget “I AM ERROR.“…? Even when accurate to the original Japanese script (as Error was), the half-translated nature of the game combined with the lack of character space to get across the necessary information certainly led to an unparalleled experience. Between Link actually “speaking” aloud for what may be the only time in the franchise’s history (“I FOUND A MIRROR UNDER THE TABLE.“), the in-retrospect pondering about what exactly goes on inside that lady’s house when Link’s health is restored, and the oft-seen “GAME OVER RETURN OF GANON” (brought about by sprinkling your blood on the big boss’ remains, mind you)… few games come close to the written-text experience of Zelda II.

i_am_error game_over

SO DO I LIKE THE DARN THING?!

That’s a tough call. It is incredibly difficult to look back on your own personal history and familiarity with something and try to understand if you genuinely like it, or only think you like it due to that familiarity. Then again, if I am able to look back on things like He-Man and wonder how on Earth I ever liked it, I suppose I could do the same with video games and take a slightly-more objective look.

With that in mind, I think I do like Zelda II. I like it more than just a historical snapshot in a series that contains two of my favorite games of all-time (the original and Link’s Awakening), but I also appreciate it on that level of timely-significance. I like it more than just a piece of my childhood gaming adventures. I appreciate many of the artistic choices made in its development. The level design continues to intrigue me. The enemies become more and more frightening as the game progresses, certainly keeping me on the edge of my seat. The game is difficult, but not impossible (Hello, there, other game from my youth called Battletoads), which provides an incredible sense of accomplishment.

It is constantly called the “black sheep” of the franchise (typically with Majora’s Mask not far behind), but this should not be taken pejoratively. Many of its elements have stood the test of time to resurface in other games (the temple music, Dark Link), proving their historical significance and underlying genius. The fact that the game itself has been re-released an appropriate, but not overwhelming, number of times (GBA, Gamecube “Collector’s Edition” disc, Virtual Console) also speaks volumes.

Zelda II is a good game… it might even be great. I think I like it.

How About You? Playing Your Wii At All?

I am constantly hearing more and more reports on gaming podcasts from journalists and general enthusiasts alike saying that their Wii is doing nothing more than collecting dust. Meri and I both have moments of guilt, ourselves, where we verbally note that the Wii is basically just sitting there for the sake of sitting there and looking pretty.

Why aren’t we using it more? Is it the particular games we own that simply bore us? Is it Nintendo, themselves, driving us away with things like Wii Music? Why aren’t I going back to all those Virtual Console games I purchased?

Let me toss a couple ideas out there.

Something I’ve heard pop up a few times (and more recently Rym & Scott did a GeekNights episode about it) is that instead of playing new games, we just keep going back and playing the same old games from the past over and over again.

I am totally guilty of this (but is “guilty” the right word to use if I don’t feel bad about it…?). Despite owning tons of games (some even unopened) that I’ve never played, I will go back and play through the original Legend of Zelda on NES at least once every two years. There’s also never a bad time to decide to sit down and beat Super Mario Bros. 3 or even the original Kirby’s Dream Land, which for me is almost like a brainless activity at this point. Then there are all the times I’ll hook up the Saturn and play a few races in Sega Rally Championship or Daytona USA. Meri has played through Ocarina of Time at least once in recent memory, and while she’s just now finishing up the first Phoenix Wright, you’ll see Super Mario World sticking out of Slot 2 down there. Then there are “new old games” like (the obligatory mention of) Rock Band. It’s basically an expansion upon Guitar Hero (which is itself an expansion on previous rhythm games), which means we’re really playing the same game that we’ve been playing for years and years and years, only with new content every week. That brings in the whole idea of a single game being its own platform, but I won’t bother getting into that, again.

So I suppose the real question is: am I not playing the Wii, or am I just playing old games and thus inadvertently not playing the Wii?

For people my age and older (anyone post-college, I suppose), another big factor is disposable income and the sheer amount of games. Unlike when I was younger and onwards into college and could only afford one or two games at a time, now I can pretty much own anything I want whenever I want it (for example, buying Dragon Quest IV because it was $20 this week, despite the fact that I have a row of other RPGs to get through first). There’s no need to justify a purchase for myself by forcing an entire play-through and trying to convince myself that a game is pure art when it’s really nothing more than just another game. If I get bored with it or see something shiny elsewhere, I move on.

Pulling the Wii back in, let’s look at Super Smash Bros. Brawl versus the previous Super Smash Bros. Melee on the Gamecube. In the previous game, I not only unlocked every character, but made it a point to beat the game with every character in both single-player modes to get each version of their trophy. I would spend those coins to try and get more trophies, spin them around to look at them, read up on their history, etc. I’m not sure how much time I put into that game, but it was certainly a lot…! However, with Brawl, I only went so far as to unlock all of the characters and stages. I never actually finished Subspace Emissary (I think I got about 75% of the way through), and I didn’t put any time into creating any of my own stages (or collecting all of the parts to be able to do so). That’s not to say I never play the game ever again, though. There are instances where I’m craving some Nintendo fanboy catering, or have to laugh at how incomprehensibly bad the online-play integration was, and I pop it in for a few minutes. A get-together of friends is another great time, since I do have four Wavebirds… The point, though, is that despite dropping the $50 on the game, I simply don’t feel the burning desire or any real compelling reason to attach myself to that game solely as I would were I twenty years younger.

How about straight-up dropping games? Personally, I’ve dropped just as many games on the Wii (sorry, Super Mario Galaxy) as I have on other systems, so there’s nothing inherently there to jump on and pick apart.

So am I really just playing the same games over and over? Let’s take a look at what I’m playing just in the last week and see if there are any trends:

– Rock Band 2 (360): Mentioned above; basically just Guitar Hero evolved, so yes, the same game over and over.

– DragonBall Z: Infinite World (PS2): A mash-up of Budokai 3 (which I played through twice; US PS2 & JP PS2), Shin Budokai (which I own and dropped) and Burst Limit (which I own and dropped), so yes, the same game over and over.

DragonBall: Origins (DS): Whoa, a totally new game! Fancy that. I’m quasi playing it “for work“, though.

Final Fantasy VI (GBA): New to me! Classification is up in the air on this one, though, since it’s an evolution of games I’ve played before (III & IV) and a predecessor to ones I’ve also played (VII, VIII, X).

How about a game I only recently kicked the bad habit of? That’s right, Pokemon. Well, FireRed was an enhanced remake of a game I had played when it first came out (in my case, Yellow) and Pearl is really just another evolution of the same game (if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it).

So what does that say about me? Am I just playing it safe? I will admit to starting to unfortunately feel that apprehension and insecurity when I start playing an entirely new game, something I never expected myself to feel with regards to any technology.

How does that relate to the Wii? Shouldn’t I be right at home since it’s basically a Gamecube and all my old games are there on Virtual Console? I’m totally ready to go with Shining Force II (again, another old game I’ve played through multiple times) but I really need to finish some of these other games I’m playing, first! Our Wii actually gets used like clockwork every time Andrew and Jeff are over, if only to mess around on the Everybody Votes Channel. I know, I know… it sounds ridiculous… but it’s an event in our household. We even have our own lingo to go along with it, talking about who’s the biggest “conformist” when their choices are closest to the general population, and so on and so forth.

I also wonder if it seems like I use the 360 more than I actually do because I use it as a media center for displaying programming up on the television. Combine that with the Rock Band constant state-of-being, and I suppose it would look like I’m attached to it.

What about you all? Does your Wii collect dust, or is it at the center of your gaming experience? Does any of that other nonsense I’ve spouted relate to you, or is it just the gibberish of yet another ranting lunatic on the intarwebz?

Six Weeks Pokemon Free

I can’t believe that it’s been six weeks since I popped Final Fantasy VI into Slot 2 of my Nintendo DS, effectively putting an end to my current playing of Pokemon. Since then, I have loaded up not a single Pokemon game for GBA, DS, WiiWare… anything.

It’s been perfectly wonderful.

To briefly recap, I played about halfway through Yellow back on the GB(C) when it first came out in 1999. Got pretty bored and dropped it soon there-after. I felt the bug coming when Generation IV (Diamond & Pearl) were on the horizon, and decided to give it all another go having skipped two generations. I picked up FireRed (GBA) and Pearl (DS) the day Generation IV was launched in the US, and proceeded to put something like 90 hours into GBA and around the same into DS (I honestly don’t remember the exact numbers; it was approaching 100 for both, I think…?). Once I “beat” Pearl (that is, defeated the Elite Four), I captured all of the standard, non-event legendaries and various specials, and then pretty much let it go.

Many months later, I randomly picked it up again. I don’t know why or how, but I did. Perhaps it was around the time that the special event critters were being passed out at Toys R Us…? I finally started messing around with things like trading on the GTS (and with a couple friends), going underground, breeding… all things I barely dabbled with on the initial playthrough. It was like a whole new world of end-game content was available to me, despite it being there the whole time. I really enjoyed it all. My Pokemon Ranch added a little bit of fuel to the fire, giving me even more of a reason to try completing my PokeDex and transfer specifically-bred (and traded) critters for the sole purpose of putting them on the ranch and seeing what they do.

It was like I was a kid again, dedicating all of my gaming time to the same, singular game (even playing FireRed or Ranch was essentially playing Pearl, since they all led to that destination). The only “problem” with this was that I was ignoring all of the other games I had been accumulating and dropping. Sure, I would hit up the new multiplayer games when friends were around (Mario Kart Wii, Super Smash Bros. Brawl, various other fighting games including the standard Capcom staples, etc.)… but no progress was being made in any single-player games. I just wasn’t getting any other experience. It was really bothering me, but at the same time, I told myself I was having fun and that’s all that really mattered in the end.

While I still stand by that justification, I have to say how wonderful it is to be playing some other games again. I’m somewhere around ten hours into Final Fantasy VI, and while I’m still waiting for that huge emotional impact to hit me, it’s fun to be playing none-the-less. That’s really all I’ve been able to put time into right now (with the upcoming wedding, and all) since I’m able to play it on-the-go (mostly during lunch at work), but I’m psyched to come home after the honeymoon and know I have so many other games (both new experiences and re-playings) waiting for my time…

WipEout HD (barely started), Super Mario RPG (re-play; in-progress), Ys Book 1 & II (not started), Shining Force II (re-play; not started), Soul Calibur IV (in-progress), DBZ: Burst Limit (in-progress), The World Ends With You (not started), Space Invaders Extreme (not started), Bioshock (not started)… Hell, I might even go back and play some more of Super Mario Galaxy, which I was having a ton of fun with but just suddenly dropped (classic Mike gaming).

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