It’s obviously unfair to judge an NES game by modern design standards, but that’s more or less what I’d like to do here. I’d also like to take a brief look at what also might have been feasible with the limited control scheme and other contemporary limitations. I honestly have no idea what can even be done with 128 kilobytes or whatever, but it’s not like I’m planning my own romhack; I’m far too lazy and untalented for that. Just think of this as a fun exercise.
In any case, Zelda 2 wasn’t pushing the system to its limits. It also doesn’t hold up nearly as well as the first. It’s an entirely different game, which is somewhat admirable: at this point in the franchise, the only certainty was that Link has a sword. But nothing they tried here really took hold in the games that came after.
Combat is the most interesting thing going for Zelda 2. You hit high or you hit low, or you block high or low, and you fight a number of humanoid creatures that do the same. They’ll also draw their weapons from behind, giving you an animation frame to know what’s coming. You can often just jump and focus on hitting their heads, avoiding any chance of taking a blow to your own legs, but for the most part, the difficulty in terms of reflex requirements, and the actual risk to the player in each minor encounter, are far higher than they should be.
I feel like pointing out that the reason it’s so uncompromising is not because gamers in 1987 were more hardcore or mature in the face of a real gameplay challenge than gamers now. Rather, they had nothing to choose from, so they would take one game that should be over within three hours, and play that for like a year. How many “great” or even memorable NES games were there, really, from 1983 to 1990? The first Zelda, a couple Marios, and maybe a dozen other nominations that are, for the most part, simple platformers? There’s been about five thousand titles to hit Steam in the first half of 2018. The reason they don’t make games so brutal anymore is that nobody would have the patience for it when there are a billion others to play. I only did so myself because I was exploiting save states.
You can grind, gaining levels, but this doesn’t really fix anything. It would have been far better to pace Link’s growth with weapon and heart piece upgrades obtained in dungeons, but instead you’re incentivized to hit the stat cap early, taking every edge you can get. Because you get enough exp to reach your next level-up, rather than a predetermined amount, when you touch a shrine, the best play is to grind in the first dungeon for 20-30 minutes, pumping all your points into attack to raise its experience requirement, and then cashing out for perhaps 2000 experience points from the shrine, instead of what would probably only be 100. Once you’re maxed out on experience, there’s also less pressure to fight everything, because a lot of tough enemies have nothing in their loot table. If these were conscious design choices, none of them make much sense, but it’s the kind of thing we expect from the NES era.
I do kind of like how drops come after every 6 kills within a specific enemy class, instead of being purely random.
When I asked myself how the combat might have actually been better, the game I thought about most often was actually Nidhogg, which also limits itself to two buttons, jump and attack. Nidhogg is a simpler game, just arena fighting, but far more fun than Zelda 2. Although you don’t crouch, up and down will somewhat similarly lower and raise your sword stance (with down doubling as a roll with directional input), but enemies die just walking into your sword, and the actual thrust attack isn’t always the best strategy. It’s even complete with the disposable weapon-throwing mechanic we saw in Breath of the Wild. Obviously, I can’t see Link getting murdered and respawning ten times per screen like a Nidhogg character, but I think there’s some merit to the comparison.
You might also add the option to replace your active “B button item”, as you could in the first Zelda, replacing your thrust attack with a different item, while keeping the sword at the ready. Casting magic with the Select button isn’t so terrible, so this might not be necessary, but it does open up some more possibilities.
I’m not too fond on the design of Zelda 2’s magic, either. You tend to just use the one Shield spell to double up on health, and otherwise save your mana for hard-counters to very specific scenarios: Jump to get up high, Fairy to get up higher (this seems a little redundant, but there you go), Fire to harm enemies that are impervious to everything other than fire. I’d prefer if Link’s mana recharged over time, as more of a cooldown system than a “save it for when you really need it” system, while also being less of an easy way out of a jam (in other words, no Shield or Thunder spells). Meanwhile, Reflect should have been an item, a mirror shield upgrade.
While I’m not going to suggest anything that sounds entirely unfeasible, like adding the Magnesis rune, here are some suggestions: rework the “Spell” spell for its transmogrification ability as a projectile attack, maybe also keeping Thunder in that form, instead of as a screen-wipe. Fire can be kept more or less as-is, if cooldown based, but it’s otherwise too annoying to have hard-counters that end up not having enough mana to even use when you need them. It’s possible to come upon an insurmountably high wall without having left yourself enough MP to cast Jump, and without any slimes nearby to farm for mana potions. If this happens, your best option is just to kill yourself and get your mana back on your next life. I’m not really a fan of that.
If you’re doing disposable weapons (holding up while attacking to whip your sword across the room) you could also add a spell which conjures a new, relatively weak weapon. Just a thought.
It’s also pretty much impossible to figure out where to go without a guide. At one point, Link has to interact with a featureless table in an empty house. At another, he has to walk through a fake wall in a dungeon, which looks the same as a real wall. Maybe there are NPCs hinting at what to do in these places, but since the NPCs all look the same and run endlessly through town, and they communicate in baffling and robotic sentences probably averaging around five words, I wouldn’t count on it unless you go in knowing you have to write everything down. I kind of think the presence of multiple towns with NPC chatter was too ambitious for this game. It’s still a ways off from Link’s Awakening and its sidequest chains, and even those were obtuse.