Saturday, November 23, 2013

Dark Souls and The Legacy of The Legend of Zelda II

People often ask about the relationship between Dark Souls and The Legend of Zelda series. Are they similar? Is Dark Souls a modern day equivalent of Zelda? In what ways are they different? And so on. Experienced players are typically dismissive of the comparison. They are quick to point out how much easier The Legend of Zelda games are compared to the crushing difficulty of Dark Souls. They stress how Dark Souls' combat is precise and tactical while Zelda's is loose and imprecise, or how Dark Souls is dark and Zelda is not, or how Dark Souls is cryptic and mysterious and Zelda is not. The overall message being that Dark Souls has little to do with Zelda.

It seems to me that this attitude reflects a lack of perspective concerning the Zelda series. Perhaps others are thinking of games such as Ocarina of Time, Wind Waker, or Skyward Sword. No doubt, these games are a far cry from Dark Souls. But are the naysayers thinking of or remembering Zelda II: The Adventure of Link when pooh-poohing the comparison? I don't think they are. Because if they were, they would not be so dismissive.

Here's why. Zelda II is hard, really hard, and unforgiving as hell. The game regularly throws enemies at you that are both aggressive and devastating. These foes are tricky and each requires unique tactics to overcome. Zelda II has no qualms about forcing you to pass through gauntlet after gauntlet of such opponents with no respite along the way. And Zelda II will tear all your experience points away from you when you die in these battles--which you will, a lot.

Let me give you an example. Death Mountain: you may have encountered this location in other Zelda games, but you have no idea what it means in Zelda II unless you've played it. You go up against it pretty early in. Essentially, it's a maze of caves filled with bats, fire-breathing dragon skulls, and axe tossing beasts, among other fiends, that will murder you in a heartbeat. There are no clues about what direction you should be taking and no checkpoints to save your progress along the way. The design, moreover, is simply sadistic. You'll attack a slow moving creature on the ground only to be suddenly knocked back by a flying bat which then opens you to the attack of the slow moving bugger you were about to complacently kill. In another segment of the mountains, the game puts you in a narrow corridor guarded by a psychotic dino-soldier who charges you down. Each encounter is tense and requires thinking on your feet as well as strategic planning upon return visits. Because you will die, many times, in those caves.

Dying hurts in Zelda II. Not only do all the enemies you killed re-spawn, you also lose all your experience points that you gained by defeating baddies. Those points are gone, forever. And it's a major blow. The experience points are your only means for leveling up your abilities (strength, defense, and magic). Without them, you face a much steeper challenge with later-stage enemies.

Sound familiar? Indeed, it should. Zelda II, like Dark Souls, is a constant struggle against the system, an endurance match against the toughest of adversaries in a game world where death has real consequences. You die and you lose what you've accumulated. What souls are to Dark Souls, points are to Zelda II. The main difference between them being that Dark Souls is more forgiving because it at least gives you a chance to retrieve your souls by returning to the site of your execution.

Combat in Zelda II is likewise deep and meaningful. It doesn't feature equipment loads or scaling damage. It's more basic than that. You start with sword and shield. You have a standing thrust, a kneeling thrust, and a jump attack. Later you add a down-stab and an up-stab as well as a number of spells. Despite the simplicity of this arrangement, the depth of combat is surprisingly good. You really have to think and strategize your approach to each enemy. The complexity of enemy attacks isn't cheap or unfair because the controls are so tight. Precision timing is both possible and essential. When you die, it's never because the game is poorly designed. It's because you made a mistake which you need to learn from and try again.

Other similarities exist between Zelda II and Dark Souls on the aesthetic level. Defeating a boss in Zelda II brings the same profound sense of satisfaction that it does in Dark Souls. Getting to the boss always involves a grueling battle through his palace and its many guardians. So once you finally make it to the big-bad, your heart is pounding with the thought of having to pass through that meat-grinder all over again if you fail (which you probably will). Each boss itself is unique and requires special tactics to defeat. Figuring out an effective approach is half the battle. But the challenge adds to the emotional impact of the fight, so that when you finally overcome it, you feel like you've really accomplished something through your determination and skill.

Zelda II is also quite dark. From the opening title screen to the game over message filled with Gannon's laughing voice, everything oozes foreboding. The overworld is creepy. The towns are eerie. The people are like lifeless zombies. There's no place in Zelda II where you feel relaxed or at peace. The menace of the game fills every moment with a haunting dread. And yet, much like Dark Souls, you feel compelled to dwell in this space despite how unwelcoming it feels.

I have to mention the NPC's as well. Their cryptic hints such as, "If all else fails, use fire," or "I am Error," are equal to Dark Souls must obscure moments.

Without a doubt, there are many important differences between the two titles. But these two games share a deep kinship at their cores that involves complex, demanding, and serious gameplay defined by uncompromising difficulty, tight sword and sorcery combat controls, unguided exploration, and foreboding atmosphere. You end up walking away with the same feeling by playing either game because of this shared ethos. In a way, Zelda II is an ancestor to Dark Souls that represents the newer game in incipient form.

1 comment:

  1. My sentiments of Zelda II exactly. I remember it from nostalgically forcing it a few years ago. I got my cousin into Dark Souls and then watched him suffer through the test that is Zelda II.