I started up Zelda II: The Adventure of Link over the weekend to "cool down" from moving. Though I've never delved particularly deeply into Capcom's handheld games (Oracle of Ages/Seasons and Minish Cap), Zelda II was until Saturday the only (real) game in the series I had never played. After 2-3 hours, I've really been impressed by the challenging but fair and rewarding combat that plays excellently with the character-building RPG element, making for a much more addictive and outright fun experience than any of the other early Zeldas. I'm not sure what kind of legs this gameplay will have, as super-addictive mechanics tend to flag if they don't vary incessantly, but hey - a great opening is a great opening, and there's very little to complain about thus far.
The following is admittedly not much of a Duologue-proper, but I haven't had time to pull together a thesis on the subject and it's more important to me at this point to get back on schedule than to write America's most amazing post. Plus I have a feeling we're going to be seeing many more Zelda II posts in the near future... and probably a lot of Zelda posts in general, what with A Link between Worlds on the horizon.
Yourself: So, Zelda II's lives system that forces you to carefully defend your experience while taking increasing risks to get substantial gains extremely reminds me of Dark Souls. The fact that the games are technically challenging, strictly limit healing, and don't allow the stronger (and more EXP-rewarding) enemies to respawn also draws them closer together. I'd be surprised if no one has noticed this similarity before.
While we're using the backwards lens, the combat reminds me of Black Knight Sword. It's definitely of the proto-action-game variety (in the Legendary Axe and ActRaiser 2 category rather than the school of fighting/brawler influence), and it calls to mind Sword primarily because of the blend of platforming with tight, defensive, reflex-driven combat. There's also that the Black Knight has a probably-intentionally Link-like skill-set - shooting a lazer while at full health counts as a Zelda reference, right?
Because I enjoy the combat (go figure), I enjoy grinding for levels in preparation for dungeons just as much as I enjoy Dark Souls. Do I just suck at the game and normally people don't have this much trouble, or is it normal that you need to hang around in the swamp and Death Mountain a little bit to get your levels up to ~4-5 before being able to survive the second temple? Up to this point at least it's been the good kind of grinding - the more time I spend fighting enemies, the more technically skilled I become at dealing with them and the safer and quicker the grinding becomes. There's enough variety even in the random battles from area to area that I haven't felt bored.
Suffice to say that after an hour or two, I am enjoying this one about a million times better than the original. I can also see why that is not the general consensus and how my opinion might turn around in a heartbeat.
Golem: Zelda II's combat is definitely good times. It's a nice complement to the first one, which had a world worth exploring alongside awful combat.
As a kid, the easy comparison was always with Wonderboy III. They both have fun enemies worth fooling around with, but one of them doesn't reset my progress as much if my performance sucks. That said, Zelda II is also a fair bit more intense with its standing vs. crouching stances. The emphasis on shieldery also makes fights closer to something like a fighter, where timing and space are both tight. I'm not sure how I'd compare it to the early action games you mentioned.
Folks who show off the game on YouTube typically don't grind too much, since I think the stat cap is pretty low. Rather, you're supposed to be abusing the cancel option on the level up screen. It has some relevance to how quickly you get to which level (put off a health upgrade to get a higher attack early), and I think your health might get fully restored when you level up. It's also pro strats to save the end-of-dungeon level up for when you have a particularly high amount of experience to reach the next level (it automatically levels you up no matter how much experience you need).
But uh, I don't know how normal people play.
Yourself: Well Wonderboy III and Faxanadu are certainly the first real points of comparison that come to mind when I'm not trying to make a point about modern games. I actually picked up Zelda II last week not because of the impending release of LttP2, but because I started to restart Faxanadu... then said "fuck it".
It seems like Zelda II combat is oriented around larger scale conflicts than either of those games - that is to say, more interesting rooms. That follows naturally from the first game where of course each screen was full of enemies. Wonderboy III and Faxanadu tend to give you one enemy at a time, or at worst a marching column. Zelda II will throw Swoopers in the same room as Stalfos and Flea Men (why are there Flea Men though come on), or two kinds of spiders together with Moblins. That's what makes me compare it to the definitively situation-based combat of the Legendary Axe-style action games, while I think WB, Faxanadu, and Wizards and Warriors play it pretty straight 1-on-1. True, the pitched mano-a-mano battles against Iron Knuckles or one of those guys that looks like Astyanax draw heavily on fighting game sensibilities, but more often I feel encouraged to keep aware of my overall position and environment - where are projectiles coming from, where are safe areas, how can I draw enemies to where I want them, etc. In that sense Zelda II actually executes two separate modes of combat - both the head-to-head duels and mobile group-management. Who designed this game? Hideki Kamiya? Anyway, as this is based on only the first two dungeons, I don't know if the game will start to hone in on one style or the other (the limitless laments I've heard about Iron Knuckles led me to expect the whole game was going to be a litany of ducking and blocking, but I'm guessing at least the field battles aren't going in that direction).
I'm not totally sure how to "abuse" the Cancel, unless you mean just ignoring Magic. I tried that at first but then realized it was actually pretty helpful to lower the cost of Shield. Once it only costs one bar of magic, you can pretty much afford to use it in every room (since one pot restores one bar and it's pretty common to see at least one pot per room) - though I'm sure pro-runners don't need it at all. But since Magic is way quicker to level than Life Up, it's not a bad trade-off to abuse Shield/Heal rather than spending experience on Life Up. Letting me choose which stat to upgrade definitely makes me more inclined to grind, that's a nice touch.
Btw, it's funny that the one thing you called out as hard to find was Bagu's house, because I walked into it completely on accident without even knowing I was looking for it. That's what I get for grinding too much.
Golem: uhhhhhh totally blanking on Zelda II.