NA Release Date: December 1, 1988 (NES)
Initial (Attempted) Playthrough: c. 2002 (NES)
Playthrough: c. August, 2021 (3DS Virtual Console)
Consider this the nadir of this project. First though, some disclaimer: AOL gets something of a bad rap as the oddball entry of the series, though perhaps not entirely deservedly so. In hindsight, it’s tempting to say that the game flouts the conventions of what it means to be a ‘Zelda game’, but the context here is key. At the time of its release, anything short of a carbon-copy of LOZ would necessarily constitute a new direction for the series, since this was only the second entry.
In truth, AOL added so many more ‘classic’ elements to the franchise than it removed, or otherwise deviated from. Towns, side-quests, more verbal NPCs, magic, and the Triforce of Courage all come to mind. The major differences boil down to two things: the side-scrolling mechanics for towns and combat, and the inclusion of more traditional RPG elements like experience points, HP/MP, and randomized overworld encounters. Now, everyone will have their opinion the extent to which those things do or do not belong in a Zelda title; I for one don’t mind it on the face. Many other titles in the series borrow concepts from RPGs and are better for it. If this was the worst thing we could say about AOL, I think it would have been a perfectly pleasant, if curious, member of the extended Zelda family.
Unfortunately, that isn’t my only grip with AOL.
Are We Having Fun Yet?
I’ll just state the principal grievance from the start, and my apologies that this will be the underpinning motif of my comments here so it’ll come up again and again. THIS. GAME. IS. TOO. HARD. As a result, I did not enjoy the vast majority of the 20 or so hours it took to complete… at all. Even with online guides. Even with (an aggressive abuse of) save states. Pretty much no enjoyment was to be had; my final note I took upon completing the game was ‘good riddance.’
As an experiment, after completing the game, I fired up a new save file- to prove to myself how miserable it was even from the very outset. To my surprise, I was able to breeze through the game’s first dungeon in a few minutes despite proceeding quite recklessly. I mention this to refine my initial criticism. It’s not that the game is necessarily too hard- clearly after spending just a week with it I was able to stumble across the finish line. Instead, it’s that the difficulty curve is impossibly steep.
And even that would be OK! It’s OK for games to be hard! The crucial ingredient missing from this game though is recovery hearts. If you get diced up bad trying to learn the movement patterns of some enemy, or run into something you simply aren’t equipped to deal with (which happens a lot more later in the game), you can only heal by: finding a fairy on the overworld, stopping in a town, or with curative magic. Note that in a dungeon (called Palaces here, instead of their apparently too-religious original name of ‘Temple’) the magic is really your only choice. The LIFE spell takes a ton of magic, and only refills about three containers of the total 8 you can accumulate, so while it helps, health is still almost constantly at a premium.
As a result, I always felt like I was playing with my back against the wall. Many enemies take quite a while to refine your technique against, with unique strategies required for nearly all mid-to-upper difficulty enemies, like Orange/Red Iron Knuckles, Guma, Goria, and the Blue Iron Knuckle (who throw knives…). Don’t even get me started on the Darias. The point being, the combat is so tough to learn, and the scarcity of reliable recovery options leaves you with no safe place to learn how to fight these guys.
Granted, Link starts with three lives, so in a sense you can imagine he really has 3x the health to complete a given task. You can use this strategically to your advantage, provided you’re willing to make your peace with not achieving a 000 death run, but accumulated experience drops to zero when you exhaust your lives, so this too isn’t as helpful of a trick as it first seems. Experience is accumulated in drips (Bots are 2 points) and drops (Bubbles are 50). A few extra-bad dudes are worth 100 – 150, while Palace bosses run a few hundred. By the end you need several 1000’s of points to advance to the highest attack/magic/defense levels each, so it behooves one to be more cautious when you’re sitting on a nice pile of points.
What a Bunch of Junk
As with LOZ, you’re simply dumped in the overworld to start; also as with that game, the manual has lots of helpful hints/maps/directions for getting started. That this assistance isn’t integrated into the game itself, while frustrating for the modern player, is certainly understandable given the vintage.
At a certain point, I must have made the decision that I was going to finish this game, no matter what; I think it was the Death Valley onslaught of Darias and then trying to beat Helmethead. Link’s enormous sprite and minuscule range (despite having a sword!), coupled with the insane recoil and recovery time associated with taking damage was really getting me down, but I knew if I didn’t finish it here, I never would.
So we pressed onward, and for what? The spoils of victory, the key items from the various palaces? Some of the early ones are modestly helpful: the candle helps you see in dark caves (but no longer shoots fireballs like in LOZ), and the hammer can break rocks which gives you a few shortcuts on the overworld. Oh, hey, it’s the whistle- now we have fast travel! Nope. Just removes the ‘river demon’ obstructing your path on the overworld, which might as well have been a special hammer for a special rock.
How about some magical, messianic boots, that let Link walk on water, where enemies can’t follow! Cool, right? Think again. Only certain tiles, with no visual indicator, are allowed for water-walking. What about the Magical Key, at least now we can skip small keys? Sure, but the only remaining palace once you have it with any locked doors has zero small keys, so you had to get it anyways. Sucker.
If you’re detecting a trend here, it’s because there is one. None of the key items make playing the game any easier, or more fun. You pick them up in the dungeons, where no explanation is given as to their function/purpose… because of course that was in the manual:
The notable exception would be the pretty stupidly-named Handy Glove (‘Holy Glove’ in the original FDS version, to the surprise of no one), which enables you break break-able stones in palace dungeons. At least it did something. To a lesser extent, the raft is also OK: it uses a fun little sprite of Link on a boat. As an aside, one of my favorite timeline theories from the pre-Hyrule Historia days was that the entirety of LA actually took place during the raft ride between West and East Hyrule. Canonically, these are no longer the Same Link, but I did think that idea was clever.
Bargaining In Bad Faith
So maybe you’re a real hardcore person, and you rigorously train on every new enemy type, so that you’re not constantly hurting for health and you can relax a little to explore. Does relieving that particular pain point make AOL a more fun game? Certainly, it’s an improvement, but this game still plays dirty.
I’m no scholar on the topic, but I’ll hazard the following concerning any game with a ‘puzzle solving’ dimension: the primary enjoyment/satisfaction/edification is derived from leveraging an existing/known set of tools/abilities within a constrained situation to achieve the desired outcome/solution. The challenge of the game-makers is to obscure the solution sufficiently well, yet still operate within the understood ‘rules’ of the game, in order to challenge the player to think creatively to find a solution. Most good Zelda puzzles’ solutions are difficult to suss out, but in execution are fairly trivial.
Contrast this with some of these absolute gems from AOL:
In Nabooru there is a lady who tells you she’s thirsty. In what might be the first fetch quest ever, you set off looking for water. On the very next screen, there’s a fountain! So you press B, the button you use to interact with people, to try and like, get some for her or whatever. But nothing happens. Huh, maybe there’s a bottle in some cave somewhere else let’s move on… but nope. You needed to press A (typically used to jump) to get the water instead. Huh?
Later in Darunia it turns out you need to jump on the roofs of the houses- totally fine. You use JUMP and then you can get on top of the little ones and work your way over to the one with the locked door. What’s sketchy here is that you need to go down the chimney by pressing down on the D-pad. I guess we were all supposed to know this from playing Super Mario Bros.? Never again, at any point in the game, is any structure/room entered/accessed this way.
At one point, actually two, there are false walls. Walls that look just like every other wall in the game, but you can clip right through them, because they’re special. And secret. At least this is reused at least one other place, in the Great Palace, where there’s some crucial Red Potion stashed away in a hidden room.
This is pretty cheap, to me, though. The player has no expectation at all that they should basically, apropos of nothing, be able to break the previously established physics of the game. Again, no visual cue, no cryptic text (that I found), no hints in the manual. Just a cheap way to stall players out and make them wander around this hellscape for a few more hours. Put this down right next to how you find the entrance to New/Hidden Kasuto: by hitting a tree with the hammer. Concerning the number of times this mechanic is ever alluded to, or used again, if you guessed “zero,” that would be correct.
In the more extreme cases here the game blocks the user’s passage by fudging the literal mechanics of the game to something that kindof makes sense, but which the average player would not reasonably think to try. Contrast this with the bombable walls and burnable bushes in LOZ. Both mechanics are heavily telegraphed, and while it would be exhausting to burn every bush, and bomb every wall, the mechanic functions consistently, so at least its fair. Unlike this nonsense in AOL, which essentially cheats the player under the guise of ‘difficulty’.
Something Nice To Say
The music in this game is pretty phenomenal, and we can say that without much nostalgia clouding our vision because very little of these melodies are reused elsewhere in the series. The opening tune, while not the icon that LOZ’s proved to be, is just as good. The town music is quite idyllic, giving you a real respite from the insanity out on the overworld, complete with separate arrangements for the home interiors.
The Palace theme is a veritable gift, and found new life with a rearrangement as the BGM for the Hyrule Castle levels in several entries of the Super Smash Bros. series. I used to be pretty sad that this didn’t get used more in the main series (it does show up in special instance of ALBW), but after six palaces of it on repeat, I think I’m good for a while.
Winner: Barba. Let’s hear it for this guy. I found this boss to be one of the only reasonably balanced ones in the game. He’s not a total pushover like Carock or Horsehead, but not a total pain like Gooma, who was the worst. This boss might have been the closest I came to having fun in the game.
Loser: Rock-Throwing Gerus. These clowns occupy three staged combat sequences on the way to the Valley of Death and they are total jerks. There’s no way to kill them, you just infinitely dodge the volleys of rocks they throw while you try and fight the Gerus walking around on the ground. Actually really curious to know what type of programming is used to determine the rock trajectories- they don’t appear to be ‘seeking’, but it’s still tough to find a reliable method to avoid them.
Winner: Final Boss Sequence. Thunderbird is sortof a crazy boss, but is pretty fun and challenging to fight. I love the idea that you need to throw basically every relevant spell at the situation (THUNDER, SHIELD, JUMP, REFLECT) to have a chance, which empties the magic meter, making for a tenser battle without the ability to heal. Following that is a great duel with Dark/Shadow Link, in his first appearance, makes for a pretty epic conclusion to the game.
Loser: Sick Daughter in Mido. At one point, some lady tells you her daughter is sick, and needs medicine. You go and find the Water of Life, and when you return she tells you to come inside quick. Inside, there’s an Old Man who gives you FAIRY magic… but no daughter? If you talk to the old lady again, she again tells you to come quick… leading me to believe we never end up giving the medicine to the daughter?! Cold.
Winner: People Playing AOL on Nintendo Switch Online. This version, with the wordy title Zelda II – The Adventure of Link: Link, warrior without equal, includes a save file starting the player off with 8-8-8 stats. I imagine this game is much, much more enjoyable with all the enemies essentially nerfed.
Loser: King of Hyrule. If you read the story, this whole game is essentially an elaborate test orchestrated by the King to determine who is worthy to take possession of the Triforce of Courage, which, fine. But considering the only thing standing between Hyrule and the return on Ganon is keeping all of Link’s blood in his body, maybe sending him on a grueling, exceptionally dangerous series of quests, just so Zelda can wake up, was not the most well-thought-out plan.
Sorry for the extended rant. This game was too hard (for me, a person bad at video games) and I didn’t enjoy much of it, but I must say I am quite satisfied to have completed it. The point of this exercise was to play All the Zeldas, and you don’t get to say that if you skip the ones that don’t look like as much fun. As with LOZ, my opinion of the game is somewhat improved for having actually finished it, but unlike the inaugural entry, I can’t say I feel any stirrings of excitement upon considering of a potential replay.
The Wind Waker HD (WiiU)