Zelda. Several years before the originals release the simple utterance of such a name would not have the same impact that it does today. Thoughts of grand adventures, hidden secrets, and devious monsters to fight weren’t even within the hearts and minds of gamers of the time. Then the simple release of a single video game changed everything. An entire genre was born, new levels of interaction were to be had, and a new form of play had finally been developed. This ushered in a new generation for video games that not even the likes of Mario could have conceived of, where nonlinear design came to overtake the industry and all its facets. But no one could have anticipated the social revolution The Legend of Zelda would come to spark, with friends sharing their secrets and knowledge to help forward their own quests. It was co-op without the second player, multiplayer without the multiple players, it was an unprecedented feat in its own right. The Legend of Zelda couldn’t be considered any less then game changing in its design philosophy and world building which left them with a tough choice, how could they possibly make a sequel? Should they keep everything the same, radically changing everything they’d come to know, or, better yet, leave it all in the hands of someone else entirely?
After The Legend of Zelda’s climactic release in 1986, Shigeru Miyamoto went to work trying to devise a sequel to his masterpiece. While producing Super Mario Bros. 2 at the same time, Miyamoto wanted to take a different approach then that project was heading in. Instead of reusing old assets and adding a greater challenge he wanted to start Zelda anew with entirely different game mechanics and designs. Luckily enough, he had the perfect team to use a testing ground for this, and it wasn’t the same group of people from his previous work. A short while ago he had formed a group of developers lead by Tadashi Sugiyama and Yoichi Yamada, and tasked them with creating a side scrolling action game for the Famicom. Its swordplay would be rooted in the use of upward and downward movements for attack and defense with a trusty sword and shield in hand. And, most of all, it was never meant to be a Zelda game. But when inspiration strikes it strikes hard and loud and Miyamoto heard it clear as day. Seeing Sugiyama and Yamada’s progress, Miyamoto decided on the spot that turning their little pet project into a full-blown Zelda-based endeavor was the right course of action.
Changing directions at the drop of a hat wasn’t what Sugiyama and Yamada had originally signed on for but their team was more then up to the challenge, or so they thought. While the programmers and the artist who crafted the games wondrous art remain unknown to this day due to the industry’s tendency to leave the main team who would work on a game unaccredited some have been uncovered overtime. Replacing Miyamoto as the game’s designer, Kazunobu Shimizu was the man behind the Zelda sequels radically changed design and had the arduous task of replacing the man who had made Nintendo what it was. Koji Kondo was yet another tough act to follow with his iconic score and Akito Nakatsuka, one of Kondo’s co-workers as well as the main composer behind Ice Climbers and Excitebike, was his pick for his pick for the role. Having to remain original and unique whilst honoring the foundation that his friend had left for him, Nakatsuka had it rough to say the least.
However, then there was the problem of making a sequel work. Nintendo had never done a true sequel narratively speaking as all of them were generally distinct from each other. But Zelda was different. The Legend of Zelda had always been about crafting a thrilling adventure so dipping their toes into untrodden territory was par for the course with this franchise. Written by Takashi Tezuka, and picking up a short few years after the events of Zelda 1, Link, now sixteen, is surprised by the sudden appearance of a mark on the back of his hand and quickly goes to see Impa to figure out what’s happened. Upon seeing the mark, she tells the tale of another Princess Zelda who’d been cast into a deep slumber ages ago after refusing to tell her brother the hidden location of the Triforce of Courage. If Link were to find and reassemble the Triforce of Courage he could reawaken Zelda from her slumber. Yet dark forces lay ahead of him on this journey as Ganon’s minions hope to revive him with the blood of the hero to bring ruin to the land once again. All of this wasn’t really needed to play the game proper though as the story at large was locked away in the manual. However, Miyamoto and co. were always about gameplay over story, that was what took precedence over everything else.
The Zelda sequel’s gameplay, though, would be the most jarring bit of the experience. Keeping the top down overworld view… and nothing else, the differences between the mechanics that Shimizu had designed and Miyamoto’s were a little bit too dissimilar. Taking various inspirations from Castlevania and Final Fantasy, this mishmash was essentially an action RPG, not the adventure game fans had come to love. Complete with a level up system, random battles, side scrolling platforming, and so much more it was a surprise that this was considered a Zelda game at all. When you boot it up instead of starting out in a typical over the head view you’re instead treated to something akin to Super Mario Bros, a game that Zelda was supposed to be the opposite of. As you explore the world you sometimes run into monsters and are forced to battle them with the games interesting combat system and an incredibly short sword and shield. Maneuvering around opponents and getting a hit on them can be surprisingly hard to do, adding to the difficulty the sequel would be infamous for. Other RPG mechanics try to help you out with MP allowing Link to cast magic spells and EXP helping Link to level up and overpower his foes. When you’re not fighting off foes or delving into the games many dungeons your time is usually spent in the various towns spread throughout the land. Filled with obscure hints and your occasional helpful villager these brief respites were desperately needed with the game becoming increasingly brutal over time with nary a few in sight at times.
Zelda II was shaping up to be a different beast entirely. A brutal and unwieldly one that had a certain uniqueness to it. Some would flock to it, others would rue the day it came into existence, but no one could deny its success in the face of it all. Releasing on January 14, 1987 in Japan and in 1988 for the rest of the world, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link was a remarked success selling well over 4 million copies around the globe even in the face of its own design. Zelda had been defined by its nonlinearity from the very beginning. From the conceptual phase to its unveiling around the globe, this new series courtesy of Shigeru Miyamoto had always touted that as its selling point. A world filled with endless adventure where could go anywhere, do anything, and in any way, they wanted to. Zelda II tried to buck this new trend by taking a strikingly linear point of view, forcing players down their own set and calculated path with few deviations. While great in its own right, it just didn’t feel like a Zelda game, with similarities that were only skin deep. Miyamoto felt the same in the end, lamenting that it was his greatest failure. He needed the franchise, his crowning achievement, to come back from this in a rather stunning way. He couldn’t just create a sequel that only slightly innovated upon what the original Legend of Zelda created. He needed to create his magnum opus.