Somewhere, in between many other projects, I have found just a little time for Zelda II. It has never been so easy to play this game.
When last I blogged, I was somewhere around the 2nd dungeon. Today, I am in the 2nd last dungeon, with the cross in hand. Breezing through, I am struck as to how and why I found the game so difficult for so long… this is in fact the only Zelda game (outside of Minish Cap, which I missed when it was new) that I have never beaten. Often dismissed as the series’ black sheep cousin, that description rang true for me for years, despite being the first Zelda that I ever owned. It may soon change!
The game design is brutal, and I confess happily to reading ahead on the Internet spoilers. Lizard guys hiding behind a fence throwing rocks, monsters immune to all but the Fire Magic, invisible stalkers stealing experience points, I probably would have found this game very disheartening before the Internet, and I pity any “casual” gamer stumbling into the game without the advance warning to cheat often and liberally. I still wish that I had Game Genie!
But consider this condition. Formerly I had fierce battles with each and every Armored Knight in every dungeon. Now I kill all but the hated Blue Knights in a lucky hit. No longer is this a prolonged contest of equals; my dedication and care has reduced their fighting style to panicked defensive cowering. I frequently kill them before they can even take their first strike, trivializing them totally. While the game was always savagely difficult, it now feels like I’m tossing the pitiful Knights aside; this is a beautiful emotional pay out, just as I remember it from the back in the day.
Similarly, I’ve now maxed out the stats, all of them. There is a 9th level to each, but fulfilling it only refills the player’s choice of magic or life (and if they choose attack, then they get nothing). There is no level beyond 8th, at least playing by the rules. I used to contort myself eagerly into dangerous stunts, trying to get every last bit of experience, including dangerous enemies beyond my ken. Today, I ignore them, and their silly EXP bags. I still wander around looking for the way to go, as there is no map and dungeons have no directions, but once I have the treasure, I beeline for the enemy boss, sometimes even fall afoul of lock doors. Good thing I know about the “fairy” key…
All of this tends to change the feel of the game profoundly. Zelda II demands two achievements to advance; XP, which is obtained from killing enemies mainly, and skill, which is earned through practice, trial and error. One can help the other, but a player cannot advance with no skill, and likewise a skilled player will only get so far before needing more XP. There are additional magic jars and heart containers to find, and the game arbitrarily locks out progress until they are found, but those containers do not have the same implications:
Playing Zelda II with all stats maxed and lots of skill feels entirely different from approaching Zelda II fresh and ignorant. Mastery, both in arcade reflexive terms and in RPG stat-dependent terms, creates a sense of power unparalleled in most games today, even in successive Zeldas. It has some similarities to older Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest RPGs, but I believe that the influence of reflexive skill changes their dynamics quite a bit. The player never feels safe, but he (she?) can feel in control.
Let me ask a dumb, if belated question. Is this a good feeling? My Link is adventuring through a terrifying fantasy horror version of Hyrule, and giving better than he takes. The monsters are brutal, but Link is meaner! Does that make Link, and by extension, his puppet master, as bad as the monsters. I’ve waved off such speculation before; should I again?
Certainly the game is phenomenal at inculcating the feeling of almost supreme power, but in this game supreme power can only be used for good. Heck, hammering the forests outside New Kasuto looking for the town not only exposes it, it inexplicably regrows the forest, and rehides the town, just by entering and leaving again. Wielding this kind of power in the real world always comes with consequences. Is anyone ever really in control?
Whatever the answer be, I am now closer to obtaining the third Triforce than I have ever been before. The resolution is coming soon…