In the last year, I beat two games known for being extremely difficult: Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link and Dark Souls. Only recently, though, did I really ponder their similarities. Let’s take a look at them individually then see how they compare.
Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link
1987, Nintendo, NES
The first Zelda is still considered one of the best games of all time. It was a vast nonlinear adventure filled with secrets, items, and dungeons. It even had an alternate version where dungeon locations had been changed. I have fond memories of this game, though I only completed it recently. But this story is not about the first Zelda.
Zelda 2 was anything but more of the same. It had an RPG-like overworld and included towns populated solely by NPCs. However, the actual gameplay was a 2D sidescroller. I for one was not amused. I had wanted more isometric, action/RPG Zelda, which I would not get until Link to the Past on SNES.
For one thing, Zelda 2 is very hard. You can’t expect item drops and fairy wells to keep you alive. You also can’t just stick your sword in front of you and mow down anything in your path. You will die a lot, especially in the 2D dungeons. There are many cat-and-mouse enemies that will give you a run for your money, as well as some with very erratic movement patterns.
Determined to finally beat the game using the 3DS version that came with the Ambassador Program – which awarded early adopters who purchased the handheld before the price-drop was official – I used sheer will, a couple FAQs, and the not-too-intuitive d-pad. Progressing past the major bottleneck area, I found myself really enjoying the game. It had all the exploration, secrets, and helpful items of the original – just using a different aesthetic. Kind of like Metroid going first-person in Metroid Prime.
Another thing was the ability to grind to level-up Link, thus making him stronger. I maxed out my stats well before I saw the final credits roll. I think, all told, it took me about 18 hours to beat the game. For reference, the first Zelda took ~9 hours to complete on 3DS. While I still wouldn’t call Zelda 2 even in my top four Zelda games, I now appreciate it much more.
2011, Namco Bandai, PS3
Dark Souls is the sequel to Demon’s Souls, a PS3 exclusive from Atlus. I played it a bit, but became a little frustrated and probably had other games I wanted to play. Thus, I shelved it. Namco snatched up the publishing rights to the sequel, and it received a ton of awards. I didn’t end up getting it for some time – waiting for a price drop like the cheap bastard I am. I think I got it for $25 around 6 months after release. And I stuck to PS3 because I try to be consistent.
I had heard everyone talking about how hard the game was. I went in expecting to die a lot, and I did. I used a wiki to get me through some tough spots, and I admit I’d consult a FAQ to show me where to go next more than a couple times. However, even with a little handholding the game is a beast. Any enemy is capable of killing you. And when you die, it’s not respawn like nothing happened; you suffer some setbacks. Don’t get me started on the frogs that curse you. If afflicted, you’ll be at half hit points until you cure yourself. I stupidly accidentally struck the easiest vendor to buy a cure, so she wouldn’t sell to me.
The bosses are the biggest hurtle here. I remember a pair of bosses you fight simultaneously – Ornstein and Smough – that took me forever to defeat. You can bring in other live players to assist you, and even then I’d die time after time. Somehow, I never got too frustrated. I knew I could always go grind for a while – earning the souls that are used for currency, and then upgrading my weapon or trying to craft or find something new. It was a palate cleanser, if you will. Then I would return back with renewed vigor and increased ability. And probably die a dozen more times.
Combat was always compelling; I tended to go for weapons that swung slowly but kept enemies at a distance. The environments were varied, beautiful and dangerous. One very impressive thing was how almost every level tied into one another. You’d find shortcuts so you wouldn’t need to backtrack quite so far, or ways to completely change the topography of a section. It was a masterful example of quality level design, different than say the very wide-open sandboxes of GTA and Skyrim.
I’m unsure how long it took me to complete Dark Souls. I’d say anywhere from 55 to 75 hours. Amazingly, I beat the last boss on the first try – something I don’t think too many people accomplish. I ended up even playing a few hours of New Game +, just to kind of restart with my tough-ass character. I would put the game on par with Skyrim, one of the best games of this generation. However, despite both having knight dudes and dragons, they are very different games. Unlike Zelda 2 and Dark Souls. So let’s move on to that.
Similarities Between The Two
Difficulty: Zelda 2 and Dark Souls were widely recognized as being among the most difficult games of their generation. And neither one’s honeymoon period lasted long. Death Mountain hits hard and fast in Zelda; getting through the Undead Parish will make you sweat in Souls. And neither has a very sympathetic “game over” screen.
Polarizing: You’ll find people who would rate these games a 10 without batting an eye. Then you’ll find people who crinkle up their noses at the mere mention. Maybe it’s the difficulty that does it, or reality not matching their expectations. I admit I was in the crinkle-nose category on Zelda 2 for many years.
Openness: Both games kind of drop you into a wide area and let you forge your own path. Zelda is a bit more straightforward, but there are still plenty of corners to check out if you aren’t feeling a particular dungeon. Of course, this also means you may find yourself lost rather often in either game.
Grinding: Some of that famed (or reviled) difficulty can be alleviated by strengthening your character through grinding. It may take some time, but you can level-up to become better equipped for the challenge that lies before you.
Vague Narrative: In Zelda, it’s “save the princess.” In Dark Souls, it’s “liberate the undead world.” You meet friends and foes, but there’s never much of a story arc. You can either fill in the blanks yourself, or just focus on the challenge and excellent gameplay.
Shortcuts & Backtracking: Both games require you to head back to areas you’ve already conquered. However, you don’t always have to take the long, dangerous route. Shortcuts open up at opportune times, showing high-grade level design in both games.
Combat Balancing: In neither of these games can you just spam attack and survive. You’ll need to play defensive often, and pick the right time to counter. The “regular” enemy in your path can make you die if you’re not careful.
Hopefully, I proved my point. These are two amazing games. If you dug one, you’ll probably be a fan of the other. Fortunately, there are lots of options toward playing either one. Dark Souls is available on PS3, Xbox, and PC. Zelda 2 is on cartridge for NES and GBA, on disc for GameCube on Legend of Zelda: Collector’s Edition, and via download either on Wii or 3DS. If you have anything to add, like other reasons they’re similar, please comment.