Remember a time when practically every series had involved a weird sequel? That's what happened with series in general in the NES era, although Super Mario Bros. 2 in Japan was really what became known as Lost Levels here in America, practically an expansion pack of SMB1, just having new levels, a few things like the infamous Poison Mushroom, and new enemy behavior such as the Chase Brothers, AKA the Hammer Brothers who would try to chase Mario.
Zelda 2 is among the weird sequels. The thing about this game is, rather than move around in the overhead view fighting enemies, you move around on an overworld map, and when you run into a monster encounter or enter a location, you switch to a side-scrolling scene where any and all combat takes place. Besides enemies, you have to deal with hazards, such as bubbles trying to bounce you around as well as water and lava pits that deal instant death to you on contact. To counterbalance the latter, you're given multiple lives. You lose a life if you die, whether by running out of health or simply falling into a death pit. Run out and it's Game Over, Return of Ganon.
Now weird games aren't inherently bad. They're different, but that's the worst you can say about them in general to be honest. Problems only truly arise if the used ideas are either genuinely bad as a whole or simply have lackluster execution. Zelda 2? As it turns out, most of the difficulty it's known for stems from the latter.
The first thing I need to talk about is the leveling up system. Yes, there's a leveling up system. Beat up baddies and get stronger. Get enough EXP and you can choose to either level up a given stat or wait to get enough EXP to boost another one. You can boost Attack, Defense, or Magic. Attack is Exactly What It Says on the Tin. The same goes for defense. Magic provides lower magic costs. As it turns out, Attack is The One Stat to Rule Them All, because Defense, while not useless, doesn't do nearly enough to mitigate the damage taken from blows as dodging is not going to be easy, and Magic boosts are only really useful mid-game aside from a few necessary points. Now Attack requires the most EXP of the stats and Defense the least, but this doesn't stop it from being easy enough to boost to stupid high levels early on. Assume the Attack values are as follows for each level: 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, 12, 18, 24. Yep, with only 1700 EXP, you can have triple your starting Attack, and reduce all of the mooks on Death Mountain, including the red Dairas, to a much more bearable 4HK. Speaking of the Dairas, they do not have much trouble hitting you, and the only thing Health does is make your survival inbetween Bot milling only a little easier. I'll get to Bot milling, but right now, I need to finish talking about how Attack is infinitely better than Health in terms of leveling it up. Namely that further Attack boosts further wreck the enemies. At Attack Level 7, you will have successfully turned every non-Antifairy mook in West Hyrule except the one sadistically placed Blue Iron Knuckle (right in front of the Raft, what) into 2HK target practice, and even non-Antifairy mooks in East Hyrule outside the Great Palace is a meager 4HK at most now. Again, Health boosts should only be done as necessary because they barely do anything more than allow your survival through long journeys.
What about Magic? Well, turns out Magic also should be done only as necessary, and even then their urgency value is painfully low. For starters, magic spells tend to stay overly expensive even at higher levels, so it's far more reliable to beat down the enemies so as to not need spells as much. And sure you lower the cost of critical spells like Life, but at level 5, the only useful thing more Magic does is reduce the cost of Jump. Reflect's cost is reduced as well, but Reflect turns out to be situational. So okay, increase it to reduce the exhorbant costs of the more critical spells. That's the thing: you don't reduce the cost of Shield, Life, or Fire any more. Just Jump, when unavoidable death pit areas before late game aren't all that common to begin with, Reflect, which again is situational, and 2 spells that really do a total of only 1 thing each (one is even only good for doing an action in a town, WHERE YOU CAN GET YOUR MP RESTORED EASILY) and both only even become available, let alone do their thing, so late in the game. Fairy, which doesn't even get any post-L5 cost reductions either, also happens to be situational. If I'm high leveled, 40 MP is way too much to fly past a single screen that I can probably just fight through. I would feel better if at L8 at the very least, Shield and Fire each costed 12 MP, Life 44--even 48 would be a VAST improvement simply because there are some scenarios where you could use up 5 bars of magic exactly and fall a meager 2 MP short, Fairy probably 24, and Thunder also probably 24 at the cost of dealing heavy damage to onscreen enemies rather than killing every non-boss enemy outright--which is why it freaking costs 64 MP to begin with, more on that later.
But yes, because Magic is so expensive, and some times you can't just head back to a town to heal up, you need to find a way to get magic jars without too much trouble. Of course, there are some locations where you meet up with Bits/Bots (the slimes), Aches (the bats), or Myus (the small enemies you can only really hit with a down strike), which unlike most other mooks actually respawn without having to leave the area, and give you only minimal difficulty at most, so you can just keep killing them This is the Bot milling I was talking about, and it's actually stupid. First off, having to do this in the first place only makes it clear how obnoxious this game can get about ridiculously expensive spells. But the problems don't end there, on no. See, it turns out that the magic jar drop rate isn't particularly high, which is dumb because Bots provide only 2 EXP each, so why bother killing them beyond getting them out of the way? Oh right, because we're trying to get magic jars from them to restore our MP. Except the problem is that they don't do that frequently enough. You have to keep killing them and hoping that they drop a magic jar, but they don't do that at a reasonable rate. So you have to keep milling for a while. AGH! Can't spells at least be not such a stupid pain to manage?
Unfortunately, you can't even do this in most of Palace 6, which also has the journey to it providing terrain that will prove most unfriendly, as well as tough enemies left and right. It's late in the game, but it might be a candidate for That One Level.
*sigh* So who are the Demonic Spider candidates anyway? Well, for starters, those Dairas. They cause no shortage of the aggravation that is Death Mountain. They hit easily while surviving easily enough to the point where L4 Attack barely makes them bearable. After Death Mountain, though, they're not too bad, but you have to fight through them or you can't get the Hammer. Not helping matters in Death Mountain are tunnels with Bago-Bagos, the skullfish Cheap-Cheap wannabes that will beat you around when they quickly spawn ad infinitum. And you're forced to go through one tunnel of them. At least they don't accomodate any enemies in that tunnel, nor are there any problems with ending up with a bottomless pit. But when you have to deal with either or even both (the bridge to Old Kasuto), that's when things get hairy. (By the way, the Bago-Bago bridge battle near the town of Saria isn't necessary; there's another bridge battle you would have to work with as the alternative, and it throws bubbles and a few Lowders at you, but that's much more bearable.)
Then there are Blue Iron Knuckles. What makes them annoying is how early you have to deal with them: there's one guarding the raft, and gets the honor of being the only non-AF mook in West Hyrule that doesn't get 2HKed by L7 Attack. Their durability heightens the fact that they shield off attack, and their survival makes their already rough behavior even worse. What is their behavior? Well, they throw daggers at you, and they even have a spam attack.
Of course, being durable isn't necessary to be a Demonic Spider. Case in point: the Moas. These annoying things fly around in erratic patterns. I avoided them in the Graveyard until my Defense was upped, but in the meantime, they can smack you around if you're careless. And there are armored ones that are vulnerable only when their eye is exposed within East Hyrule. At least by that point you have Fire to projectile them.
Speaking of armored foes, how about the Scorpions in East Hyrule? They can only be damaged by direct sword strikes when their eye is exposed, and wouldn't you know it, their tail throws fireballs you can't block without using Reflect. Oh, and guess what? L8 Attack doesn't 1HK them. Do not pick unnecessary fights with them or you will regret it.
Same with the wizards in general. The Ghost Wizards can only be killed by using Reflect to bounce their shots back at them. If you can't spare the MP on a Reflect spell, just run away because you won't be able to even hurt them. The Wizzrobes are also annoying, because they teleport whereever they dang well please while releasing a fireball that I don't think can be blocked, not like it would do any good because the Wizzrobe will teleport out as soon as they release the fireball, and not helping is that they deal decent damage, meaning they abuse crowded rooms. AND they can't be 1HKed with L8 Attack, upping their annoyance factor considerably.
Although Wizzrobe aren't bad for EXP. Heck, Palace 5, which by the way is outright accessible from a town without any combat inbetween, manages to provide enough EXP to scare Vegeta. Guess what that means?
Of course, Palace 5 also has the gall to throw Orange Iron Knuckles and Hammer Bros. (the Zelda 2 kind) at you. AT THIS POINT! MAKE UP YOUR MINDS, GAME DEVELOPERS!
Anyway, after you get the Flute from Palace 5 (if not outright beat it), you'll be able to access the southern part of East Hyrule, and dear God it's where things can get REALLY rough. You start with having to deal with 3 chokepoint monster encounters, all with high up unkillable monsters that throw tough to dodge balls at you to beat you silly. And if that wasn't enough, you also have to fight Lizardmen, MORE candidates for Demonic Spiders regardless of color, because they have a shield, they use it like the Iron Knuckles do, and they can just plain smack you around if you're not wary. Once you're past them, don't even think you're safe, because you have to go through the forest to a cave, and along the forest lies MORE Lizardmen to deal with. It's best to avoid them and save your MP for the cave, because seriously WHY ARE SPELLS STAYING EXPENSIVE?!?!?!? *sigh* So go through the cave, kill the Tektites with the Fire spell, just go past the lizardmen, and find the hidden New Kasuto. Rather than having to go to Old Kasuto first, which has the problem of having to fight through a bridge battle with broken segments allowing the enemies to knock you into instant death water if you're careless. And your reward would be having to go through a town with invisible enemies--PUMPED UP MOAS, no less--when the only thing of real interest is the old man in the first house, who does teach you Thunder, but won't do so if you haven't obtained the Magic Container in New Kasuto. (And by the way, finding New Kasuto is Fake Difficulty, considering you wouldn't suspect the Hammer can be used on forest tiles.)
*sigh* So Palace 6, and yep, like I say, not many magic regenerating points. AND there are quite a few enemies like Blue Iron Knuckles and Ghost Wizards. Avoid unnecessary fights and just save up your MP. You will very much need it. There's a Myu right before the second Mounted Iron Knuckle. Yes, second, the first is guarding the Cross. The second is in the way of the boss. (Hey, I unintentionally made a rhyme. But I shouldn't focus on such a chime.) Of course, it's after a pit requiring the Fairy spell. ARGH.
Well, it's time I got to talking about the bosses. Ironically, the bosses generally aren't too terribly hard if you manage to adjust to the game and keep your lives salvaged well. Okay, so they might give you a little difficulty, but safe to say that Zelda 2 has Mario-type Boss Dissonance. Just like pretty much every Zelda game not named Link to the Past. Hunh.
As to the individual bosses themselves? Horsehead might be a Wake Up Call Boss, although if you leave him for much later, he will die in only a few hits anyway. Helmet Head is pretty much gimmicky, down thrusting would smack him silly. Mounted Iron Knuckle really has a pathetic first phase, and his second phase is nothing more than being a Blue Iron Knuckle with reduced health. If it was increased health, it would work, but as is, he's weaker than a mook, although said mook is a Demonic Spider. Next is Carock, who actually seems to be tough, I'm not sure, I didn't start killing bosses before having maxed out stats. Although he's probably corner camped either way. Gooma is okay, having a ball and chain to punish you for fighting poorly, as well as a spiked helmet to keep you from down thrusting. Still not too bad. Of course, Barba is a JOKE. Okay, his arena has lava pits, but really, Barba is like Meta Knight in SSBB, in that once you adjust to him, he's just more scary than anything. Seriously, first time, Barba did kill me by knocking me into one of the pits, but when I rematched him, I casted Jump and he was never able to hit me, but I could hit him.
Once you mopped up the 6 palaces, it's high time to take things to the Great Palace. So I've been hearing that the Great Palace is this infamous nightmare that makes the rest of the game look TAME, which would be an accomplishment. But it can't be that bad, right? Well, guess what? I managed to have problems JUST GETTING THERE. And I don't mean simply preparing for the journey, a problem that involves the lack of nearby towns (discounting Old Kasuto, which doesn't have healing, but make sure you obtain Thunder from there anyway, you will need it) anywhere near the only path to it. No, that terrain you have to cross? It's LAVA. So the battle scenes have LAVA PITS. And the game is extra mean and throws a bunch of the formerly invisible Moas (not any more now that you have the Cross) at you, as well as armored ones. It's a headache because these encounters force you to use magic to avoid letting your lives basically become CANDY to these pests. And these are the EASY encounters. I don't know what the hard encounters are like, but I am sure I don't even want to know. And there's also 4 chokepoint monster encounters, ALL with lava pits and Lizardmen, and 2 caves with Scorpions and Lizardmen, including Blue ones AVOID FIGHTING THEM AT ALL COSTS, to go through. Oh, and guess what? The Great Palace doesn't provide magic at the start, just for the game to be even more mean if by some miracle you avoid losing any lives.
So now that we're at the Great Palace, it's a bloody big maze, but the correct order is left, then right, then right again, then don't stop the elevator on the lava floor--or do so to be able to get a stupidly easy 1-Up, oh, I'll get to that--then left and fall into a hidden pit, then right to another pit to fall into (fall into the pit, not the lava itself) and right to the final 2 bosses.
Anyway, the place starts off with throwing a new enemy type--out of a few the palace has in store--right at you. The Dreadhawk is a jerk, because he throws fireballs like a Hammer Brother, except the fireballs upon landing randomly either stop and keep burning or simply chase you a bit. This unpredictability combined with how much damage he can quickly deal makes him a headache. AND HE TAKES SIX HITS WITH L8 ATTACK TO KILL. (Seeing a pattern here?)
Speaking of things that don't die easily enough to L8 Attack, the Bots. Needing 2HK would have been fine with L7 Attack, this being the last dungeon and all, but needing it with L8 makes Bot milling even more annoying than it already is. And yes, you'll still be doing plenty of it or you will likely lose lives. The enemies ALL hit hard, though the Hawk Knights thankfully die more easily than the Blue Iron Knuckles because even though they take more hits they also jump around which reduces the effectiveness of their shield.
Oh, and that 1-Up I mentioned along the path I recommended? Well, along one of the elevator rides, there will be a floor where you can go one of two ways, both involving lava jumping. If you go left, you will find a Fairy placed RIGHT NEAR THE LAVA! And you'd have to break through some of the blocks that provide the only safe flooring in the area. Now go right, there's some jumps that have to be made or else you will die. Only, they're rather bearable. Upon clearing them, you manage to get into a room with...just the 1-Up, not even a booby trap guarding it. So let me get this straight: I have to really risk dying to get Fairy healing, but I get a 1-Up just for making bearable jumps? AND THIS IN THE SAME AREA? Even by NES game standards that's downright absurd!
*sigh* Well, so we finally reach Thunderbird--ignore the big Bot ambush, you can just rush toward the boss room upon passing the Point of No Return. Thunderbird, for those who don't know, require that you smash him with a Thunder spell. Yes, the one use you will get out of the bloody spell. But forget spell imbalance, you spend half your magic capacity on the Thunder spell alone, IF YOU ARE AT L8 MAGIC. And you have to make sure Thunderbird is on-screen or the casting will be pointless. Even if BOTH of these conditions are met, you still will want to cast Shield because Thunderbird naturally hits like a truck with his not easy to dodge projectiles while making his weak spot hard to touch. Oh look. I had spent exactly 5/8 of my magic bar just to be able to fight this guy. What does that mean? Oh, I remember: it means I FALL TWO MP SHORT OF BEING ABLE TO CAST LIFE! I EFFECTIVELY CAN'T USE IT WHATSOEVER! UNBELIEVEABLE!
Well, at least we're finally at Dark Link, and...you know what? Just cheap him out by corner camping. If you don't, you will have a miserable time hitting him the needed 8 times before he kills you, and not helping is the sudden background color making your life amount exceedingly transparent. At least cheaping out Dark Link you'll finally beat a hard game everybody knows.
Too bad some of the reasons to the game being hard amounts to Fake Difficulty.