Ok, let’s get it out of the way: Zelda games are not RPGs. They don’t feature leveling systems, experience points, etc. They are adventure games through and through. UNLESS, you are talking about Zelda II, the oddest entry in the series. Generally hated by Zelda fans, the game went an entirely different direction from its predecessor. So what happened? What made this game so different that I feel comfortable recommending it as an RPG?
Zelda II incorporated many RPG elements. Gone was the overworld map with sword battles and exploration. Instead, we were given an overworld not unlike that of other 8-bit RPGs, such as Dragon Warrior. (Zelda II actually predates Final Fantasy by a few months.) Enemies appear on the overworld, but touching them does not initiate a battle like in most RPGs. Instead, contact takes Link into a side-scrolling, platforming segment typically populated by several enemies. Link gains experience by killing enemies, and each time he levels up you can choose between Magic, Life, and Attack stats to increase. Choosing a stat like Magic or Life also refills that particular meter, so leveling up can be a strategic way of healing as well.
And guess what? You’re gonna need that healing. This game is hard. I mean, controller tossing hard. The combination of platforming and action is great (and to be honest, Zelda II holds up as a platformer as much as anything else) but man is it unforgiving. The game being as much of a platformer as an RPG, you’re given 3 lives to complete your mission. Losing those lives results in the dreaded Game Over and you’re transported back to the palace at which you began your adventure. Lives are lost quickly if you are not patient. This game is as close as you’re going to get to a swordfighting sim on an 8-bit console. The infamous Iron Knuckle enemy will test every inch of that patience. He can hit low or high, and you need to predict this in order to block his attacks. He has a shield as well though, so you’ll be fighting to get through his defenses. The blue Iron Knuckle will also throw blades, so you have to be on extra guard.
Other things you’ll find in this game are towns, much like any RPG. The townsfolk can help you out if you help them, such as finding stolen possessions, etc. There is usually a wise man in town you will give you a new spell. Link can also learn sword techniques from knights. Be careful though, some townsfolk don’t like being bothered and will turn into a bat or some other creature upon speaking to them. The townsfolk tend to go about their business in a very organic way, which I appreciate. They don’t care that Link is there or what he’s trying to do. They have water to pump, kids to feed, etc. I makes Hyrule a much livelier place than the barren wasteland we are present with in the first game.
I’ll be honest, I have yet to beat this game. I tend to have to take it in stride. I’ll pick it up for a week or so, then take a month break. The bosses are incredibly challenging. Palaces will test your every skill, including your resistance to throwing the controller at the nearest wall. A popular trend a few years back was to call a game “The Dark Souls of…” whatever genre was being referenced, when referring to a difficult game. I wouldn’t hesitate to call Dark Souls the “Zelda II of modern gaming.” That doesn’t take away from the fun though. In fact, it adds to it, in my opinion.
Zelda II is a much overlooked game due to how different it was from its predecessor and, really, every other game in the series. I thoroughly enjoy it though. I recommend sitting down with it, putting the “Zelda” out of your mind, and really giving it a shot. I think you’ll be glad you did.