The Legend of Zelda II, The Adventure of Link, has long been berated as the bastard child of the Zelda series. Many go so far as to not include it within the Zelda “genre” out of personal distaste for the game. But, I consider it one of my favorite games of all time.
There are many cases to defend the game, like unique gameplay and excellent player control, but my angle is specific: The game has the most interesting swordplay out of any I’ve played.
I formulated this concept while wandering the streets of Reunion Island (I had a lot time to think while walking, sometimes hours at a time), and have been meaning to post this on here for some time. Zelda II has mostly non-humanoid monsters, but at times you find a creature that is about the size of your own player. The humanoid monsters begin basic but, as the game progresses, you fight humanoids with abilities more and more like your own, until, with the final boss, you meet up with a shadow version of yourself.
Your player, Link, is armed with a sword and a shield. The sword attacks and the shield blocks certain kinds of attacks (projectiles and melee weapons). With each you can use them high or low at any one time, meaning you can attacked high or low with the sword and you can block the upper or lower part of your body with the shield.
The most basic humanoid enemy is a simple sprite that runs at you with a knife. Above that are Moblins, pig-faced goblins, that charge at you with a spear that your shield can block, but they only ever attack high, at your upper body. Beyond that are versions of Moblins that can throw spears but only high until you meet a Moblin that can attack both low and high, shown in this short video clip . You can see me play the game of blocking the spear thrusts until I go ahead and finish him off.
Notice how the game developers made the Moblin telegraph which area, high or low, it was going to thrust the spear a split second before it does so. This is the basis of interaction that makes for interesting swordplay. You have to calculate the enemy’s offense while going forward with your own attack. Sometimes the combatants go back and forth with an attack, block, attack, block wave or sometimes the offense and defense of both occur simultaneously.
Here is a clip of another less advanced foe, the Goriya, a rat-man that throws boomerangs. The clip shows the detail of combat that is possible in Zelda 2. Notice that to block all the boomerangs I have to put my shield high and low both ahead and behind me.
Throw in monsters who wield actual swords and shields into the mix and you have something even more interesting. Here is a skeleton who has a sword and shield, but can only use each in a high fashion. Note that I block high when the skeleton attacks. And, finally, is a battle with an Ironknuckle, who can block high and low while attacking high and low. I attack vigorously here, trying to get past its shield while noting when it brings raises its sword before thrusting.
It may not be apparent from this video, but I’ve also noted a bunch of AI triggers present in the Ironknuckle monster. There is a regular ‘guard’ mode for when it is alone. If it comes close enough to your character (it “sees” him) it will ‘charge’ at him. When it is close enough, it will ‘engage’ your character, blocking and attacking. Then there is an ‘angry’ mode which triggers sometimes when your character gets through the shield blocking with a sword strike, and then the Ironknuckle will attack 4-8 times in a row. And, finally, it seems like Ironknuckles usually throw in an attack as soon as you turn your back to him. This might be simply be an illusion, but it could be an AI reaction.
Other versions of Zelda don’t have this kind of swordplay. Not even the most ‘advanced’ versions have anything close. The simple high/low, attack/defend along with appropriate AI give rich combat the likes of which I’ve not seen anywhere else. This is the next step in evolution from the original Legend of Zelda, which allows Link to block projectiles from one direction just so long as he is not attacking. Instead of that, in Zelda II you can block weapons and projectiles from high just so long as your aren’t attacking or blocking low, and you can block low just so long as you are not attacking or blocking high. The complexity and play control is just astounding.
Even the most beloved Zelda III: Link to the Past for the SNES tried to do something along these lines, with swords blocking swords, but ultimately fails. In Link to the Past, shields are only used to block projectiles while swords block melee weapons. This simply means that one side of your character’s front is always immune to swords while the other front side is always immune to projectiles (unless your body is exposed from attacking like in Zelda I). The character maneuverability doesn’t allow you to change or move those sides very well. This is regression from Zelda II.
With all this genius in innovation there is an Achilles heel. You can rather easily bypass all of the swordplay with a jump-slash move. If this could somehow have been fixed, the system would have been flawless. Despite that, it still is genius and deserves more respect than many of my generation gives it. The only improvement that I can thing up is having the humanoid characters not be able to hurt Link unless when using an actual weapon (much like in the arcade Shinobi, which requires actual body contact with a weapon to cause damage; body on body contact only knocks your player back).