The overlooked innovation of Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link

This is Making Time, a column about the games we've always wanted to play, and the games we've always wanted to play again.

The overlooked innovation of Zelda 2 The Adventure of Link
Choosing the definitive Zelda game is a fool's errand. There are those who say the series peaked with Ocarina of Time. Twilight Princess has its adherents. Others – for reasons I cannot fathom – insist that Wind Waker is the best. Heck, there are even some fans that really love the quirky (haunted?) Majora's Mask. Personally, I tend to opt for the 16-bit opus, A Link to the Past.

That is only, however, if you asked me which Zelda I thought was the best. Now, if you were to ask me which one was my favorite, I'd have to go with Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link. I tend to play through it every few years, and its recent jaunt onto the 3DS eShop (just in time for Thanksgiving) gave me the perfect opportunity to revisit it again.

Zelda 2 is something of an outlier in Nintendo's storied franchise. Its combination of overworld exploration and two-dimensional, side-scrolling combat make it unique among all other games in the series. In fact, apart from the bizarre Zelda games for the Phillips CD-i, Zelda 2 strays the furthest from what would eventually become the series' basic formula.

Exploration is accomplished via a traditional RPG overworld, complete with a tiny Link, lots of repeating textures for forests, deserts and mountains, and random battles. These battles have an element of skill thrown in, as monsters chase Link across the map and it is possible, though difficult, to avoid them. Much as in other Zelda games, you guide Link to various caves, towns and dungeons, with the ultimate goal of saving the kingdom of Hyrule. Unlike previous games, the perspective shifts once you enter each area. These are explored from a side-scrolling perspective, allowing Link to converse with townsfolk, explore dungeons and fight monsters.

The overlooked innovation of Zelda 2 The Adventure of Link
Like the original Legend of Zelda, The Adventure of Link gives players very little guidance on where to go and what to do. It does give a few more tips than its predecessor, however, with townsfolk at least offering general directions and hints. Even these aren't always very helpful, though. Example: "Goriya of Tantari stole our trophy." Who's Goriya? Where is Tantari? Why is a trophy important? The game never answers these questions, leaving you to explore the countryside until you stumble upon a cave in the desert, kill a boomerang-tossing rodent-man and finally grab the trophy.

Hopefully, you'll remember who mentioned the trophy in the first place, because you won't find any modern quest logs here. The Adventure of Link pretty much relies on its players scrubbing over every last inch of the world map, something I was all too happy to do as a kid (Zelda 2 came out a few weeks before my sixth birthday). Going back through it today can be frustrating though, even as someone who's played it several times over the years. I admit I looked up an FAQ to find the last magic container, which was necessary to unlock the final spell.

All of this, however, every cryptic hint, every frustration, is just the prelude for what really makes The Adventure of Link special: combat. As much as Nintendo (rightly) ballyhooed the excellent swordplay in Skyward Sword, the Zelda franchise had exciting sword fights decades earlier. It's an incredibly simple system. Link can slash high or low. Standing will block incoming high attacks, while crouching blocks low attacks. Toss in upward and downward jumping thrust maneuvers and you have the makings of some hair-raising battles.

Combat is exemplified mostly in the dungeons, where armored knights wait to cross swords with Link. Blue knights in particular offer some of the tensest gaming moments I've ever had. They toss a seemingly endless volley of knives at Link, randomly alternating high and low throws. Blocking their projectiles while simultaneously trying to sneak Link's sword past their defenses is still thrilling even today.

The overlooked innovation of Zelda 2 The Adventure of Link
These knights are chumps, however, when compared to Link's shadowy doppelganger, usually referred to as Dark Link nowadays, who serves as the final boss in The Adventure of Link. Even with a defensive shield spell and healing magic, he remains one of the most challenging bosses in the series' history, mimicking Link's every move and throwing in plenty of his own attacks to boot. Even now, a few weeks shy of my thirtieth birthday, his defeat elicited an involuntary "Yes!" and celebratory fist pump.

Moments like these, coupled with the on-edge suspense of inching your way through a dungeon with only a sliver of health remaining, desperately hoping to find a magic vial or fairy to fend off death – and thus a lengthy return trip – make Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link worth the price of admission. Not only is it an interesting bit of often overlooked Zelda history, it's a challenging and entertaining game in its own right. Just don't feel bad if you have to resort to a guide when the local townsfolk tell you "The Devil does not like noise."

This article was originally published on Joystiq.