Zelda Month – Send in the clones: the series’ best…. or most interesting.. 2D copycats

By Neil Merrett

This is the second and final part of Squareblind’s Zelda month, celebrating the impact of the adventure series that turns 35 in 2021. You can read the first piece here.

There are certain games that are deemed so revolutionary upon their initial release that any game with even vaguely similar conventions or mechanics that comes afterwards is seen as a clone – at least for a couple of years.

Before the term ‘first person shooter’ or FPS became part of the casual gaming lexicon, one prime example was the release of the first Doom game in 1993.  

Although the game’s own developers had already had success in developing the FPS genre with 1992’s Wolfenstein 3D, the critical and commercial love for its successor meant that all shooters played through the eyes of the main character spent years being called ‘Doom’ clones.

Likewise Zelda’s reputation for popularising a specific-style of action RPG/adventure game on the original NES and SNES consoles saw the emergence of what became known as ‘Zelda clones’.  There was clearly interest on homes computers and rivals consoles for top down 2D adventure games based on battling through trap-filled dungeons, uncovering powerful artefacts and slaying demons.

Many of these games were regarded as successful and innovative adventure games in their own right. However, the popularity and critical acclaim Nintendo found with the original Legend of Zelda in 1986 and the seminal 1991 Super Nintendo follow-up ‘A Link to the Past’ meant these adventure games were seen – whether true or not – as an attempt to cash-in on Nintendo’s foremost fantasy series.

“I’ve seen things you wouldn’t believe”

What exactly then should we consider a 2D Zelda Clone? Whether released as a direct competitor in the 1990s, a bold new attempt at larger scale adventures on more powerful systems or a more rogue-like quest that remodels the Zelda formula as an online multiplayer experience – there are some common mechanics needed to be a good clone.

Firstly is the combat.  This is strongly removed from the turn-based, strategic approach to battling seen in RPG series such as Final Fantasy and Shining Force. 

Zelda, in all its different forms, has a firm focus on action, primarily using swords, arrows and, to a lesser extent, shields. The top down bird’s eye perspective in 2D Zelda games requires players to move or dodge in all eight directions afforded to them in the game world – albeit some later titles and clones have added the ability to jump in the air to mix things up.

Related to this idea is the concept of weapons and magical artefacts that can make the player stronger or grant new abilities in place of stat increases. This is useful for smashing up evil snakes, possessed soldiers or literal hell swine.

Another vital consideration is dungeons, or temples, desecrated churches or giant robotic animals known as ‘divine beasts’  These structures essentially serve as the game’s main levels and are essentially a staple of any Zelda game or those seeking to evoke the action RPG template.

Still, without further ado, here are six of the best, or most interesting, 2D Zelda clones of the last few decades.

Soleil (Crusader of Senty) by Nex Entertainment – Sega Megadrive, 1994

A Zelda clone in most of the best senses of the world. Soleil as it was known in European markets, allowed Sega owners, perhaps jealous of not being able to get their hands on Nintendo’s A Link to the Past, to have a similar 16-bit adventure experience in their homes. You no longer needed a SNES in order to raid dungeons, cut grass and smash pots to find treasure and quest around a fantasy world.

Soleil literally let players set out on a cinematic 2D quest in an expansive fantasy world. Here they played a young boy gifted with a sword and charged with saving the world by raiding dungeons, cutting grass and smashing pots to uncover treasure to fund new abilities.  

Both games gave you a colourful world to battle through, where they could also uncover artefacts to bestow incredible new abilities. In Soleil’s case, these artefacts were represented by up to two animal companions that could be swapped out and mixed up to grant specific superhuman abilities such as incredible speed, a huge leap to get over chasms, or the ability to control your sword like some autonomous drone. You could also have a dog as well.

It played reassuringly like A link to the Past , but there was also something of a more esoteric plot about the exact definition of monsters, and whether they should be judged by the amount of scales or number of eyes they have, as opposed to the intent of their actions.  

It was a plot that was unique and quite existential in tone for a young genre built around the family friendly idea of demon slaying and treasure hunting.  Importantly, it also highlights the flexibility of the adventure game genre to touch on more complicated human issues while throwing pots at people.

Story of Thor (Beyond Oasis) developed by Ancient – Sega Megadrive, 1994

You wait years for a Zelda-style game on the Megadrive and then two came around in close succession.  The Story of Thor, a title used for the European release, had seemingly next to nothing to do with norse mythology, nor the trademarked Marvel Comics iteration of the character that now frequents cinema every few years.

Story of Thor was another top down adventure and an attempt by SEGA to try and stake its own claim in the lucrative action RPG market alongside Soleil (See below.)

From a gaming perspective, it was also an attempt to merge the gameplay of a range of genres alongside Zelda’s action RPG mechanics. Popular gaming magazines at the time, such as Mean Machines Sega, noted that it borrowed liberally from Zelda as well as hugely popular beat-em-up brawlers such as SEGA’s own Streets of Rage series.  It was an exciting prospect, marking an eventual shift to RPGs that take on a range of different genres at once over the coming decades.

Alongside swapping out and finding powerful news swords, bows and bombs, the combat allowed for a limited number of special moves to be performed by inputting a certain combination of buttons as was increasingly becoming popular in 2D fighting games.

The plot was standard RPG fair. It followed a young boy gifted with a sword and having to save the world after picking up an enchanted amulet that could evoke powerful elemental forces when interacting with water, fire, plant life or shadows.

This allowed for additional strategy by letting the player at points choose which elemental forces it wished to encounter certain battles with. Water and shadow abilities were often more focused on healing and defence, while fire and the earth were seemingly more offensive tools.

All the while, the player must face off with a mysterious rival carrying their own amulet. Could there be more to this mysterious protagonist and the their link to our in-game hero then it seems? Star Wars, meets fantasy adventure, meets kicking and shanking monsters. Not the worst things for a young teenager to get into.

Come the 32-bit era

Alundra developed my Matrix Software – Sony Playstation, 1997

Alundra sought to use the more powerful CD-based hardware of the mid to late 90s to create a large-scale action adventure RPG based on the adventures of a young elf-like boy who must save a land by uncovering powerful artefacts and weapons in a range of different dungeons.  After completing multiple mandatory and optional dungeons they are able to…. Spoiler alert… free the game world from an ominous, quasi-religious dark force.

The power of CD-based consoles such as the Sony Playstation allowed developers to include anime-style animated shorts to help convey the story in between adventuring across the 2D world and its different environs.

The game’s colourful character and world design very much mimicked Zelda, yet its plot was much darker and psychological than one might expect – touching on prejudice, intolerance, fear of outsiders and the role of spirituality and faith in governing a country.

The Zelda-like focus on combating monsters, discovering secret caves and dungeons, and battling area-specific bosses while solving puzzles, was straight from the Zelda play book. But its focus on more fleshed out, flawed non-playable characters, sometimes resulted in very literal battles with their internal demons and beastly behaviours. A surprising introduction for some players to the world of psychology.  The player would not be surprised if they ended up using an effigy of Freud as a weapon to free a local village zealot or hypocritical religious leader from their monstrous true forms.

As the Zelda series was in the process of s successful move into 3D world building. Alundra served as a pleasant reminder of the simultaneous value of good 2D game design.

Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain developed by Silicon Knights Sony Playstation, 1996

As if to prove that the Sony Playstation was the grown up games console, another interesting take on Zelda came with taking the top down, 2D adventure format the series popularised and effectively swap out Link with a recently surfaced vampire looking for vengeance on those that made him a monster.

In a similar approach to Alundra, this game took the concept of morally grey characters and made the player assume that very role – as opposed to redeeming or ‘freeing’ a monster from their mortal burden as is the case in the other game.  The main character of Kain – a biblical reference perchance! – starts the game in a briefly playable prologue as a standard knight of the realm, until he is brutally murdered after leaving a tavern where the player is forced into a doomed combat against an infinite number of cock-er-ney man thieves. 

Fuelled by anger, he is then reincarnated as a vampire and must start a quest to learn how to utilise his powers as a force of darkness against literal and metaphorical monsters. 

Progress comes from not only uncovering more and more elaborate weapons, such as a fire sword and a Pullman-esque blade that cleaves an individual free from their soul, but also in building up vampire abilities. As the game progresses you must unlock the ability to transform into fearsome wolves, mist or simply just learn to suck on the blood of the innocent and not so innocent to stay alive.

If a poor unsuspecting villager is fed on to allow the player to regain their strength, is it really immoral to feed on someone in the service of making your quest easier?  Even vampire hunters have got to eat, right?

The Swords of Ditto: Mormo’s Curse developed by Onebitbeyond – multiple platforms, 2018

A colourful modern take on 2D Zelda games. The Swords of Ditto incorporates more modern adventure mechanics such as a Rogue-like structure and a form of permadeath into the Zelda structure. Suddenly, artefacts and weapons you have come to rely on risked being lost if a character is felled in battle or via general misadventure.

Unlike sticking with a single hero in the form of Link, Swords of Ditto has the player assuming the role of a random boy, girl or robot protagonist to free a kingdom that has been punished for generations by an evil Witch. Whenever a player is felled, the land must wait for a new hero to arise a generation later. Sometimes, the player’s previous progress is lost and Mormo’s power over a land can become seemingly more oppressive each time the player falls.

The rigid structure and linear design of most Zelda games is slightly abandoned for an adventure that lets the player decide how best to tackle their adventure. But it does retain much of the combat and inventory building and exploration that is a definitive part of the early Zelda adventures.

Does the player focus on building up a full armoury of different weapons with certain optional elemental abilities to take down Mormo at the end of the allotted in-game time limit, or instead try and bring down Mormo’s power structures and make the final battle easier to overcome?

By travelling the land and exploring, it becomes possible to be able to also safeguard certain weapons for a future playthrough in case they are lost on an earlier quest. It becomes important for the player to think about legacy and succession in a way not always considered in adventure titles.

Levelling up a certain weapon to transform it into a flaming laser blaster, or a weaponized yoyo that can poison of freeze a particularly powerful enemy in their tracks can be hugely fun and rewarding. It can also be fantastical pain if they are lost after suddenly being overpowered by a higher level monster.

In effect, Swords of Ditto takes some of the best mechanics of both old-school and modern 3D Zelda games such as Breath of the Wild and finds an invigorating new way to play out a 2D adventure.

Rogue Heroes: Ruins of Tasos developed by Heliocentric Studios – Nintendo Switch and Microsoft Windows, 2021

Three decades on from the original release of ‘A Link to the Past’, it would have perhaps been unthinkable in the early 90s that friends across the world might one day be able to play a shared Zelda adventure on wireless handheld consoles simultaneously.  Two people couldn’t even play Zelda on the same console for decades, never mind seemingly through the air and hundreds of miles away.

In some ways, this is the game that most unashamedly takes the gameplay and dungeon crawling mechanics of Zelda on the SNES and turns them into a multiplayer online aventure that combines a range of different gameplay mechanics with a sharp difficulty curve.

It is a title that is a little bit Stardew Valley, a little bit 2D and 3D Zelda, with even some Dark Souls thrown in. You get to scour a land using precision and caution to battle monsters and demons that are at least initially, out of your league.

As opposed to starting of a game with a hero character such as Link that is already a battle-ready character, Rogue Heroes requires a player to start from scratch and build up a fighter within a specific class with little to work with.

The player has a whole 2D world to explore, but they begin the game slow, weak and barely able to run, swim or swing a sword for extended periods of time. This is a game that encourages you to grind to become a more effective sword fighter, archer or magician and decide what sort of character the player wants to be. 

It is an update, once again, of the classic Zelda format, with modern mechanics taken from a range of adventure games released over the last decade.

In supporting online, cooperative play, the player can also join or form a party of battle hardened strangers to work together to conquer dungeons they would otherwise struggle to handle.

Ironically, the freedom of this option does risk undermining the more simple story elements, as a player can find themselves forced to follow a more experienced, stronger party around. They can literally end up being dragged along. Hardly appropriate for an aspiring legendary hero.

As opposed to being the singular hero of the story in the form of a Link. They can instead, find themselves being a weak link in a fellowship of powerful adventures that will make you stronger by being a bit player in their own adventure.

A fascinating experiment that builds on some of Nintendo’s own occasional forays into multiplayer Zelda experiences such as Triforce Heroes on the 3DS, or the Four Swords Adventure.

The game highlights both the complexities of balancing solid single player and multiplayer game mechanics within a satisfying plot and adventure where you have a valid role to play. That said, you can build your own agricultural business to sell your goods and power up from – if adventuring becomes too tiresome.

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