Link has had a lot of adventures over the years, though none have inspired such wildly varied reactions as Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. The Nintendo Entertainment System sequel to the original Legend of Zelda, Zelda II eschewed the top-down dungeon crawling nature of the first game and went sideways, essentially turning the game into an action role-playing game/platformer hybrid. Some people loved the new direction of the series, and some reviled it. The truth was probably somewhere in the middle. Now the debate over Zelda II's place within the series can be fought all over again because the game has come to the Wii Virtual Console. Its unusual design and sometimes clunky mechanics don't hold up nearly as well as any of the other Zelda games re-released for the Virtual Console. But Zelda II still makes for an interesting history lesson, and the game itself is decent enough to make it worth its $5 price.
Zelda II doesn't exactly go out of its way to explain itself from the outset. What's obvious is that you've once again donned the green garb of Link to save Princess Zelda (who is pulling a Sleeping Beauty inside a temple) and prevent the return of the vile Gannon. Once you walk out of the temple that houses Zelda's sleeping self, you're presented with an overworld that Link can wander around. There are towns, caves, forests, deserts, and the like everywhere, but where you're supposed to go and what you're supposed to explore isn't explained at all within the game--not even by the various townspeople you meet. Of course, a few cursory Internet searches will get you all the details you need to proceed. But if you don't happen to have a walkthrough or otherwise detailed instructions on where exactly you're supposed to go to make that happen, Zelda II might prove a confusing experience, especially the final area of the game--a ridiculously hard, monster-filled labyrinth in which getting lost is a little too easy. It's just interesting to note how such a completely opaque world design could fly back in the day.
Playing Zelda II is an interesting mix of platforming and combat. Caves and dungeons are littered with both perilous traps and angry enemies, often at the same time. Link's primary weapons are a rather piddly sword, a shield, and some magic abilities that upgrade over time. Leveling up in the game can be kind of a strange process, but you do get plenty of health and magic bonuses, which you'll certainly need to survive. The game is fairly challenging, tossing a number of enemies at you in every situation, including some exceedingly tough bosses at the end of each of the game's palaces. The game even dabbles in random encounters as you explore the overworld. Enemy icons will just pop up on the map, and if you happen to run into one of them, you're forced to either fight or hightail it out of the area. The whole random encounter thing was annoying, but if you stuck to the roads, you could mostly avoid them.
The emulation of Zelda II on the Virtual Console is spot-on. The graphics were impressive for their time on the NES, and they retain a reasonable amount of aesthetic value now. The game has some great music that maybe isn't quite as catchy as in other Zelda games, but it is pleasing enough. The original save system also happens to be intact, however obnoxious it is to use. Essentially, you get three lives--and three lives only--in each game. When you die, you can save your progress, but you have to start from the beginning spot every single time. You'll still have your inventory, but you'll have to trek back to wherever you were when you started. It was annoying then and is even more so now.
It's entirely understandable why someone might not like Zelda II. It's such a wild departure from the original Zelda, and there are certainly some foibles and questionable design decisions floating around within the game. But with that said, Zelda II doesn't deserve nearly the level of derision it gets nowadays. It's an interesting adventure that, in some respects, paved the way for concepts and mechanics found in the modern Zelda games. More than anything, Zelda II as a downloadable game serves as a way to educate fans who weren't old enough to play it back in the '80s. The game doesn't hold up especially well, but it's worth a look for those curious about the roots of the series--just be prepared to go FAQ hunting before embarking on this journey.