The Black Sheep
When we think of roguelites, we think of Spelunky and its procedurally generated dungeons, or FTL and its randomized encounters. Dead Cells comes to mind, with its incremental progression, or perhaps even Slay the Spire which took the card battler genre and injected some of Rogue’s core sensibilities — random loot, procedural pathing, run-based advancement. When we think of roguelites, we generally don’t think about The Legend of Zelda.
Seven years after the arrival of the eponymous Rogue, Nintendo released their follow-up to the wildly successful Legend of Zelda on the NES. The sequel, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, sought not to recapture what made the original game so great, with legendary series creator Shigeru Miyamoto throwing out the rulebook and taking a wholly new direction.
Gone were the isometric dungeons and overworld battles, replaced instead with side-scrolling platform levels. The prevalence of Super Mario Bros. as well as Metroid and Castlevania lent perhaps to the suggestion that platforming was what Legend of Zelda was missing. Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy met great success too and lent other major changes to the format of Zelda II. Where the first game had skirted the edges of the RPG genre with hidden items, its sequel took the deep dive into experience points, levelling up, and a refillable magic meter.
Some of these changes have been remembered with disdain, with The Adventure of Link often skirting the bottom of the “Zelda Games Ranked” lists and its reputation being the “black sheep” of the Zelda family. As quickly as the third game in the series, A Link To The Past, Miyamoto reverted back to the format of the original game and the rest is history.
No Game Over
What is rarely talked about and is often misremembered is how Zelda II: The Adventure of Link also implemented new features we now associate primarily with the roguelite subgenre. Link is tasked with returning six crystals to six palaces across Hyrule. In doing so, he can retrieve the Triforce of Courage to awaken Princess Zelda. It sounds like standard fantasy fare, but the way that Zelda II plays it out is very different from other games of that time and genre.
Zelda II uses a lives system whereby depleting Link’s health bar results in a death that extinguishes one of three lives, given to the player when they set out on their mission from North Castle. Losing a single life means restarting the same dungeon transition again; but any enemies Link has defeated do not respawn. This usually results in the player confronting only the exact monster or obstacle that defeated them. However, losing all three lives means the player is returned to North Castle, essentially starting their whole journey again from the beginning, navigating the overworld to return to the dungeon that thwarted them.
In most games made in the 1980s, defeat would come with a prominent GAME OVER screen, and the player would be forced to begin again entirely anew. With the size of NES cartridges being less than 1MB in storage, games often padded out their play time by being challenging and by punishing player defeat. In Zelda II, there is no Game Over. Instead, the player is returned to North Castle but with all of their other progress remaining intact. This means that any items acquired remain, as well as the levels (in health, magic, or attack) already gained. Crucially, any gained XP is lost.
The result is a rubber-banding effect familiar to players of roguelites and their “run-based” gameplay loop. Link wakes up in North Castle over and over again, but often with a different destination point in mind, dependent on whether he was successful in acquiring the items from the various palaces, or the fetch quest items needed to acquire new magics, before dying. Finding the candle means that players can now explore the dark caves, or finding the gauntlet allows breaking of the various boulders that block routes.
Additionally, the spending of XP creates a unique risk/reward situation: do you grind a little in safer areas to reach the XP cap for levelling up, or do you risk the next big dungeon knowing you might suffer defeat and lose it all? The game designers were clearly aware of this tough decision, allowing players to unlock the next attribute in sequence, or to cancel level-up to save for a different one. The difference between levelling your magic and your attack might be 500xp, so do you just take the magic upgrade when you reach it, or risk saving your XP for the attack upgrade instead?
When playing Dead Cells, players have to weigh up similar risk. Cells can be saved up to purchase weapon upgrades or spent immediately on weapon purchases. Additionally, players have to weigh up the risk of opening the Cursed Chest for its ample rewards, knowing it might cause death from a single hit later on. There’s also the question of whether you take the longer route through Prison Depths for the extra items and cells, risking losing the whole run through attrition? FTL and Slay the Spire thrive on offering routes that may be more difficult but offer greater unlocks. It’s a familiar trope in roguelite games.
This sense of gradual progression earned through taking risks or bashing your head metaphorically against a difficult dungeon is exactly the premise that roguelites exist on; starting at a central hub, replaying areas over and over as you make minor improvements to a character in the hope that it will just put you over the edge to reach that next milestone, all the while improving your own skill and muscle memory to help you overcome challenges. This mentality is true too of The Adventure of Link. Those roguelite games feature procedural generation, which Zelda II does not, and this is the major difference that sets it apart from those modern roguelites.
This lack of procedural progression also puts Zelda II surprisingly close to another popular subgenre; one that, in 1987, Shigeru Miyamoto certainly couldn’t have predicted. Dark Souls would go on to popularize the gameplay loop of delving into dark foreboding dungeons, facing challenging enemies that could obliterate you in a couple of moves, resetting your character back to a central checkpoint, and removing your progress to that point through dropped souls. At least those souls could be reacquired; in The Adventure of Link lost XP is lost for good!
Like the many Dark Souls games and their spiritual successors, Zelda II has fixed dungeons, filled with ever-present danger. You could chart those dungeons, and their surrounding overworld, with maps and guides (and many have!) but you can’t guide someone through the challenge of surviving their threats. In many cases, you’ll have memorized the dungeons of both Dark Souls and Zelda II through repetition long before you reach their final rooms. Only the individual player’s skill can unseat the enemies that block your path. The Blue Iron Knuckle is to Zelda II what the Shark Giant is to Bloodborne.
Whether it’s comparisons to roguelites or to Souls-likes, the fact that Zelda II: The Adventure of Link exists at all is a testament to the talent of its creators and the experimentation happening in games at that time. The fact that it would then be discarded in favor of a return to the more traditional style that we now associate with The Legend of Zelda is even more surprising, given the popularity of this gameplay style over 30 years later.
It may still be the black sheep of the Zelda franchise, but Zelda II is by no means a “bad game”. It paved the way for the franchise to go on to have rousing success, as well as establishing gameplay rules that would inspire a whole other genre to great heights. If you’ve a passing interest in the genres detailed here, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link is worth a look as a curiosity born outside of its own time.