Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Zelda II: Biting into a cake and getting steak

at 7:24 PM

Before I get to Zelda II, let me reiterate and slightly refine my now-world-renowned Zelda-Cake metaphor. If we think of the Legend of Zelda series as a sequence of delightful birthday cakes, each game can be viewed as a composition of two collaborating components: a coating of icing that provides an initial impression and a strong burst of flavor to each bite, and a stack of cakey layers that props up the structure, fills us up, and leaves a delicious lasting impression. Zelda stirs all of its familiar elements into the icing - its flavor holds promises as broad as ancient worlds and coming of age stories, and as specific as labyrinthine dungeons and characteristic modes of travel. What makes the series so spectacular is that we never know what's going to lie beneath that icing - will there be layers of high seas pirate adventure, post-apocalyptic nightmare, or somber love story? Perhaps all those things and more? And whatever the cake layers are, we know they'll be that much more delicious topped with our favorite flavor of frosting. Of course, the weaker games in the series are weaker exactly because they don't surprise us with the cake - they've still got that tried-and-true icing, but they're meager on the layers or reuse old ones, maybe throwing a few sprinkles or sparklers on top (better graphics, motion controls) to make us feel like we're playing something new. The cake is still good because we love the topping, but it's inevitably disappointing without any underlying originality. To be clear, there are very few Zelda games I feel fall into this latter category - mainly handheld games and the disappointment that was Twilight Princess.

The icing itself has evolved significantly over time, as one would expect any franchise traditions to build and develop. A recipe that once dictated little more than a green suit and cap has now been supplemented with duality of worlds, musical instruments, annoying-ass companions, elemental pantheons, and much more. It started as "chocolate", now it's something like "hazelnut elderberry mocha-choco bourbon lavender frappuccino-rita". There are definitely some elements of bloat clotting the concoction (though the upcoming Link Between Worlds looks like it might be exactly the game to cut through the chaff), but right now I want to point the camera at the very origins of the formula: Zelda II: The Links of Adventure.

What's the deal with "icing" vs. "frosting"? Amirite? Ha ha ha! The zings just don't stop! No one says "frosting", I guess that's the deal.

Even by its creators, Zelda II is typically thought of as a mostly frosting-free game (hey it's worth using the less common word for alliteration's sake... though sometimes I feel like I alliterate way too much. I'm not SeƱor Seuss here), or, that is to say, largely a tangent. With only one example to build from, it wasn't yet clear which were the definitive elements of The Legend of Zelda (game) and which would be desirably repeatable elements of The Legend of Zelda (series). Zelda was just a... thing, a flavor, and it was up to the sequels to turn that flavor into a permutable recipe. In just about every sense, Zelda II is a far better game than its predecessor (not only does it not blow, it's outright awesome), but as a Zelda game it goes down decidedly funny. It's kinda like those bullshit foods out there these days like chocolate-covered bacon or cheese sandwiches with strawberry sauce. Sure it tastes awesome, but what the fuck, man?

Zelda II is - in retrospect - pretty comically adventurous with its interpretation of Zelda I. Needless to say, the biggest misjudgment Nintendo and Co. made was in gauging Zelda's action as more fundamental than its adventure - but that's not to say combat wasn't a huge element of Zelda all along. The original Zelda gets plenty of credit for being hard as shit, but most of that attention is lavished on the obtuse and obnoxious puzzles oriented around decrypting hints and standing in specific places while committing specific actions. The silent other half of what makes the game hard is that you have to stay alive through enough Fuckrobes to even get a chance to guess-and-check your way through the puzzles. At the time the challenge was a pretty even split, despite the course of history which saw the series' focus shift to expanding and innovating the adventure and exploration over combat.

So what Zelda II does is give a little nod to the adventure elements of its mom while constructing a layered experience built upon hardcore platforming, risk/reward role-playing, and action combat featuring an expanding array of combat techniques, ammo/health management, and learning the nuances of individual mini-boss enemies and rooms. It treats the puzzle-item collection, dungeon discovery, and hint-decryption as the formative elements of the Zelda icing - these are elements that are recycled (or even simplified) from the first game, not particularly expanded or rebuilt from scratch, not expected to form a core gameplay experience. They're just a bit of color, the little touches that make the game Zelda. That is the recipe of Zelda II: action-combat role-playing as the core cake layers and a bit of adventuring and maze-solution spread on top. Not too crazy when you think about it like that.

What makes Zelda II strange in context is that this cake is not what anyone was expecting or wanted, and in retrospect it's particularly dissimilar to all the other series cakes - not to mention it has the thinnest icing. Later Zelda games would go way higher concept with the core layers (look at something like Majora's Mask with its time travel, transformation, and collection), so the Dark Souls-esque Zelda II seems bitterly hardcore and technical in hindsight. In foresight (?), what Nintendo apparently missed was that the original Zelda succeeded in spite of its combat - it was (apparently - not in this guy's admittedly controversial and hella edgy opinion) such a great adventure that people were willing to put up with the extremely awkward unresponsive four-directional bump-fest that is Link vs. the World. They didn't want a game that focused on better combat, or at least, not at the cost of adventuring scope. The Legend of Zelda with Fixed Action would eventually come to be in the form of A Link to the Past, widely acknowledged as one of the series' best, but Zelda II is a game no one was asking for - The Legend of Zelda with Great Action and Watered Down Link's Adventure. It's the equivalent of ordering a slice of devil's food cake and receiving a filet mignon with chocolate icing. Delicious, sure, but at the time disappointing. In the grand scheme of things though, you're not going to compare it to the other cake you've had, you'll compare it to the other steak. Thus, Zelda II deserves its rightful place at the head of NES action-RPGs, adventure platformers, and as a particularly interesting case study in early 2D melee action combat. And hey, I'm not going to complain about getting steak for dessert.

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