Video game sequels are a different beast than sequels in other mediums. In video games, a sequel is typically expected to improve upon its predecessor because video games are intensely technical. Since a game is thought of at least partly as a feat of software engineering, sequels are approached as a honing, refining and improvement of the original as much as they are a thematic and aesthetic continuation of them. In other words, we should think of video game sequels as new and improved models as much as the next chapter of a story, if not more so. On the other hand, the nature of a sequel demands in any medium of genre demands narrative escalation.
Zelda II: The Adventure of Link is a classic example of this duality. In an attempt to avoid repetition and falling into a rut, Shigeru Miiyamoto set out to create a game that was fundamentally different from Zelda no Densetsu and even brought together an entirely new development team in an attempt to push his designers creatively. From a mechanical standpoint, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link seems to be doing everything in its power to be as different as possible from Zelda no Densetsu: The original game used a top-down perspective akin to traditional RPGS, while this game is primarily a sidescroller, more similar to the Castelvania/Akumajō Dracula series. The game only takes an overhead perspective when traversing the overworld to move from location to location, during which points it more closely resembles the style of the contemporaneous Final Fantasy than it does Zelda no Densetsu.
Like many video game sequels of its vintage, including the following year’s Final Fantasy II and US version of Super Mario Bros. 2, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link is indicative of a creative culture defined by a sense of playful experimentation where anything can be anything. That “Zelda 2” is so different from “Zelda 1” is irrelevant, because in 1987 no-one knew what “Zelda” was “supposed” to be. It wouldn’t be until the turn of the console generation where the belief started to ossify that sequels would be technically and mechanically identical to their predecessors, except “better”. And yet the problem remains. A sequel demands narrative escalation.
We are told Hyrule is in chaos. Roving bands of monsters wreak havoc across the land. Apparently the defeat of Ganon, central to the plot of the last game and to the Legend of Zelda itself, wasn’t enough to save the world. Lucky for us Link bears a sacred birthmark indicating that he is to inherit the Triforce of Courage, one third of a mystical artefact that united the kingdom of Hyrule under one banner in olden times and a key to a prophecy involving Hyrule’s royal family. After the death of the king, a magician fought with his son the prince and placed a spell on the prince’s sister, Princess Zelda, that cast her into an eternal sleep. With her went the secret to reforging the Triforce, bringing war and strife back to the kingdom. The magician felt that the Triforce of Courage was special, and that not everyone could be allowed to posses it. Finding no equals during his life, the magician cast a spell over Hyrule until a “young man” with the necessary character and qualities is born who is worthy to wield it. As it so happens, Link is that “young man” and, in a scroll only he can read, he is instructed to traverse the land to prove his worth by passing magical tests left behind and reuniting the Triforce of Courage with the Triforces of Power and Wisdom, which we are to presume he collected in the first game.
While Zelda II: The Adventure of Link is the series’ first sequel, it is also the first series reboot. Although it is in continuity with Zelda no Densetsu, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link is fundamentally built out of the same narrative structures and thus plays out identically. Like the first game, this game is also a rite of passage. Indeed, it is in many ways the same rite of passage: Once again, Link must undergo a ritual to be initiated into the rank of warrior shaman. Which interestingly implies the original rite didn’t take for some reason. And there is yet a further wrinkle here-As this is a video game sequel, that is, an iterative improvement on the original, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link must by necessity also supplant Zelda no Densetsu as its replacement. Mechanically it doesn’t do this as the gameplay changes proved unpopular with players, but the overwhelming majority of this game’s iconography and some of its design choices do carry forward into future games, and more of them come from this game than the original: The towns in Zelda II: The Adventure of Link famously lend their names to those of the Spiritual Sages in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, and indeed this is the first game where Link can travel to different towns and interact with NPCs who live there. And this game’s conception of individual Triforces of Power, Wisdom and Courage come to define the Legend of Zelda’s mythology.
Part of a sequel’s narrative escalation entails implying the original work’s central conflict was less drastic or severe than its own, and this is what Zelda II: The Adventure of Link does on two fronts. Firstly, with the aforementioned declaration that Link’s efforts in the previous game didn’t amount to much as Hyrule has still fallen. But secondly, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link gives extreme weight to the importance of the Triforce of Courage, its primary addition to the Legend of Zelda, and privileges it well above and beyond the Triforces of Wisdom and Power featured in Zelda no Densetsu. In his scroll, the magician writes that he left the Triforces of Wisdom and Power around Hyrule, but that the Triforce of Courage in particular was special, it couldn’t be wielded by just anybody. But not only does this privilege the quest in Zelda II: The Adventure of Link over that of the original, it also privileges and reinforces the primacy of Link and his clear male identity to the narrative.
This game is explicitly Link’s Adventure, Link is now explicitly a defined mythological hero as opposed to the more generic, though male, “young lad” player avatar he was in the first game, and he is also much more explicitly defined by his gender. In Zelda no Densetsu, Zelda tells Impa to go look for “a hero” who will fight Ganon, but here Link being male is an overt aspect of the prophecy that quite literally marks him as the chosen one: The magician’s scroll outright says that the predestined wielder of the Triforce of Courage would be a “young man” bearing a distinctive mark. And while the Triforce of Wisdom is not yet explicitly linked to Zelda, the fact that it will be in later lore and that it’s already considered of lesser import when compared to Link’s Triforce of Courage gives us a clue as to the intentions of the revisionist historians of the Legend of Zelda.
Link has always been the central focus of the Legend of Zelda, so in this regard all Zelda II: The Adventure of Link actually does is reinforce this. But its biggest addition to the canon is the forcing of Zelda herself underground-The Zelda Link wakes from the sleeping spell in this game is quite clearly not the same Zelda who was captured and sealed away by Ganon in the previous game. This is a new Zelda, one who is retroactively added to the canon by this game’s story. This Zelda has been around since Hyrule’s mythic age and exists as the endpoint of Link’s preordained journey. So Zelda thus begins to reside in the subconscious: As the ideal form Link aspires toward, she now exists only as an ideal who manifests through the dream-world. The original Zelda had these associations too, but she was also a real person-A sorceress-queen, or at least a girl who will grow up to be one, who possesses the divine enlightened power. The Zelda of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, by contrast, is a mythological figure and a state of mind, one more symbolic signifier in Link’s shamanic rite of passage. This is the primary way in which Zelda II: The Adventure of Link serves to clarify and codify the symbolic intent in the Legend of Zelda.
But if Zelda’s mark is to be changed and her meaning altered, than what is to become of her original set of associations and personhood? The Zelda from Zelda no Densetsu has literally disappeared: She vanishes from the myth-cycle at this point, never to be seen again in her original form. Maybe she returns in Shin Zelda Densetsu, but maybe she doesn’t. It would seem we are not meant to know, as Zelda II: The Adventure of Link is so fundamentally uninterested in her it doesn’t even acknowledge her existence, except for a passing mention from Impa that all girls in the royal family are named Zelda in honour of the Mythic Zelda’s memory, thus conveniently handwaving away any unpleasant continuity problems she might pose for the unfolding narrative. Yet this is not something it should necessarily be faulted for, however: The Legend of Zelda is, and always has been, first and foremost about a boy named Link. The story of Hyrule is the story of Link, told and re-told over and over again in different sociocultural and historical contexts. This has been a truism from the start, and Zelda II: The Adventure of Link does nothing to change this, only hone and refine it.
What it does, however, is solidify Zelda’s story as the heretical one. Because she remains an anomaly that is impossible to ignore: At once nowhere and everywhere in the narrative, she manifests through symbols and speaks through synchronicity. The task laid out before us, those who would walk the path of the Old Ways, is to behold and interpret the language of art so that we may come to know and understand True Wisdom.
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