When I was a child, Zelda 2 was very important to me. I was a very poor child of 7 with a very rich neighbor, and every so often he would invite me over to play. We never played video games, but his gold Zelda cartridge always caught my eye. I knew I had to have a NES, and a gold Zelda cartridge. Two years later (4 years after the NES was released) I finally saved enough money to buy one. I was 9 years old. It was the Mario/Duck Hunt/Track and Field bundle (which came with the power pad accessory.) It was another year before I saved enough money to buy Zelda on sale for 20$. I played it constantly. So when I went back to visit my old neighbor, I felt like I finally was on equal footing.
My world was about to be rocked. When I stepped into his living room something caught my eye. “You have TWO Zelda cartridges!” I exclaimed. “There are two games.” was his curt reply. I was flabbergasted. So that very weekend I went and rented Zelda 2 for the NES.
For those that don’t know, Zelda 2 was the side-scrolling (with a top-down map and random encounters!) rpg-lite sequel to Zelda. It’s polarizing among gamers. You quest around Hyrule, killing waves of enemies and finding items that help you defeat mini-bosses in palaces scattered throughout the kingdom. This much it has in common with every other Zelda game. Certainly it wasn’t quite as popular as the original blockbuster hit Zelda, perhaps due to it’s difficulty level.
Like most NES games of the day, it was hard. Really hard. In fact, Zelda 2 was so exceptionally hard I couldn’t beat it in the 2 weekend days I had rented it. I managed to make it about halfway through. For someone who prided himself on his gaming prowess, this was unheard of. I sold kool-aide at a little homemade stand and saved up my hard earned quarters to rent this game, and I only made it halfway through.
So I rented it again. And again. Every time someone else had cleared off my save files (likely the rental store, knowing kids would keep renting the same title.) Eventually I stopped renting it, it was unbeatable without owning it. And so it stayed. This quirky 2d offshoot of my favorite game. Incredibly hard. Mercilessly hard.
Many years passed. When I was 12, I sold my NES to afford a SNES. When I was 16, I sold my SNES to buy games for the playstation my girlfriend had bought me. When I was 18, I sold that to buy an N64 during my first week of college. It served me well, but something else magical happened that year. I discovered emulator save-states.
You see, for the first 15 years of gaming if you couldn’t beat a game you were stuck. Then came the game genie, which allowed you to cheat by manipulating game memory. It was also prohibitively expensive for a kid who could only afford one game a year. Fast forward to 2000. Emulators like Nesticle were a few years past, but Nester had just hit the scene. You could save your game state at any time, allowing you to finally beat those old games without “resorting to cheating.” It’s funny, when I think back on it now. It seemed like such a clear cut distinction between using a Game Genie and loading save-states in an emulator. One was cheating, and the other was augmenting a game. Improving it. And the thing is, even with an emulator and infinite save states Zelda 2 is hard. Really hard. Much like Ninja Gaiden Black, you have to really think about every encounter. Make difficult choices. Agonize over every shred of life you have.
So, 14 years ago this month (and again these past 2 weeks), I played through and finished Zelda 2. It took me 12 years. What does that say about the game? Certainly it’s a classic pillar of NES gaming. Certainly it’s ridiculously hard. It strays from the classic Zelda tropes in a way no Zelda game has since attempted. It also is a prime case for a game that’s too difficult for the majority of modern gamers. Can an emulator improve upon the original game experience? As far as I’m concerned, Zelda 2 proves it. So I’m giving Zelda 2 a dual review score. I give Zelda 2 for the NES a 66/100, and Zelda 2 for Emulator/Virtual Console an 88/100. It’s one of my favorite games of all time, but the ridiculous difficulty level makes it hard to recommend for playthrough on the actual cartridge. Pick it up on the Virtual Console and have a blast.