— Nintendo

The Legend of Zelda changed gaming when it debuted in 1986, wowing players with a type of experience they’d never had before. It was the first Nintendo game to sell a million copies in the US, a feat topped by Japan achieving that same milestone in a single day. Today, it’s one of Nintendo’s hottest franchises, with the latest entry Tears of the Kingdom garnering high praise from everyone.

Decades before this new Switch game, there wasn’t any set standard for how a Zelda game should look or feel. After the success of the first game, a sequel was inevitable, but the creators wanted to make something very different compared to the first installment. Little did they know how much that choice would split fans for decades to come.

When Zelda II: The Adventure of Link was released in the United States on December 1, 1988, the critical reception was largely positive, but a fair number of kids who picked it up disagreed. Irrationally difficult to play and confusing to navigate, Zelda II was a far cry from what many 80s and 90s kids expected when they popped this golden cartridge into their NES. 35 years later, I dusted off my NES controller (or at least opened my virtual console on the Switch) to give this polarizing game a second chance. This time, from the perspective of a grown-up!

Zelda II begins a few years after the first game, as teenage Link discovers he’s conveniently The Chosen One to awaken Princess Zelda (a different Zelda than the princess rescued in the first game) after she was cast to an eternal slumber by an evil wizard ages ago. Meanwhile, Ganon’s minions still wreak havoc in Hyrule, intent on resurrecting their fallen leader with Link’s blood. Our hero must locate the Triforce of Courage to defeat the baddies once and for all, revive sleeping Zelda, and fulfill his destiny of becoming a hero. Everybody with me so far?

Seconds after booting up the game, players could tell this wasn’t the same game as last time. Zelda II isn’t an action-adventure game, but comes closer to an action RPG, with elements that may have inspired future Metroidvania titles years later. Gone was the isometric view, making way for a more traditional side-scroller. The only time we see the birds-eye perspective is when Link travels the overworld map, a new addition that shows how he sojourns across the various villages and dungeons scattered throughout Hyrule.

Searching for items is still an integral part of progressing the quest, but here Link can level up with experience points gained from slaying monsters, improving his swordsmanship and magical abilities, or increasing his health. Leveling up is never a chore, and grinding isn’t required to grow stronger. The issue is the random encounters with enemies on the overworld quickly become a tiresome chore. It’s no different from an RPG like Pokemon or Final Fantasy- wonderful for leveling Link up, but aggravating when you’re trying to go from Point A to Point B.

Zelda II has a steep — and some might say tedious — learning curve and the only way to overcome that is by mastering the sophisticated (for its time) combat system. Link learned some new moves for the sequel, including high and low thrusts, downward and upward strikes while jumping (a feature making its Zelda debut which wouldn’t return for years), and handy magic spells gained throughout the journey. The range of Link’s blade is pathetic, but his health is fortuitously generous to make up for it.

There are plenty of unfair elements within the gameplay, including the Castlevania-esque knockback when taking damage that often sends you careening into hazards like lava pits. Other than the Great Palace (the final section of the game), losing all your lives transports you back to the starting screen of Zelda’s resting place, erasing any XP you’ve gained en route to your next level-up. It’s no different than saving and restarting the game, but it’s a minor annoyance in a game filled with irritants.

It’s no secret how unforgiving Zelda II can be, especially only two dungeons into the game. Early in this sequel, Link heads to where the first game ended – Death Mountain. This is one of the most punishing sections, a sprawling maze that leads to labyrinthian caves filled with powerful axe-wielding baddies. Surviving this arduous and lengthy trek is a pain, as you’re wildly underpowered after only clearing two other palaces. The second half of the game is a masochist’s dream, with no villages to refresh your health or magic, and loaded with swarms of relentless enemies. Learning their attack patterns will make things easier, but it’s still a formidable experience. It’s the kind of thing that can make a new player throw their controller down and rage quit the game, but if you stick with it, it does get better.

Zelda II might be more cryptic than its predecessor when it comes to knowing what to do next or where to go. Villagers offer sporadic clues to help (most famously, the worthless “I am Error” NPC who is still a meme today), but some events are truly confounding. How would anyone know to play the flute to access levels, use the hammer in a very specific spot to reveal a secret town within a forest, or even use a spell (the one literally named “spell”) to cause a hidden temple to erupt from the ground? Beyond buying Nintendo Power issue #4, or reading your friend’s copy that he took from his older brother, your chance of figuring it out on your own as a youngster was slim. Then again, games like this are why strategy guides were born!

Don’t mistake “difficult” for “challenging” when discussing Zelda II, because one of the hardest portions of the game is also one of their best. Before Link can scoop up the Triforce after going through the Great Palace, he has one final boss to face – Dark Link. The metaphor isn’t lost on this confrontation, as Link must overcome himself to truly become a hero. While there are cheesy tactics to easily win this mirror match, defeating Dark Link head-on without tricks is beyond satisfying.

I didn’t come into Zelda II as an adult with low expectations, but I was painfully aware of its reputation. Within minutes, I was surprised by how hooked I was on the game, and how much I wanted to continue playing. Yes, there was confusion about my goals, but the game is fairly linear once you have an idea of what you need to do next to progress. While there were far too many overworld encounters, I started to enjoy the battles, and especially diving into the palaces scattered on the map. At times, the game is chaotic and has its share of infuriating moments. But, I kept coming back to it, chipping away until I saw that glorious end-screen. Victory hadn’t tasted this sweet in ages.

Zelda II moves to the beat of its own drum, and you either get it or you don’t. It’s understandable why so many kids who grew up with it have bad memories of this sadistic game. Yet, after beating it as an adult, I was eager to replay it, more efficiently now that I was cognizant of the game mechanics. Even though I had the option to use save states, I refused, learning from my mistakes to persevere. It requires dedication and patience to overcome, but it felt great seeing that victory screen in the old-school way it was meant to be seen. While Link’s sword in this sequel was a little rusty, Zelda II is a highly rewarding experience that grew better with age.

Zelda II is available on the Nintendo Switch as part of their online NES library.