One of my favorite games on the Nintendo Entertainment System is Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. It’s sort of the black sheep of the Zelda franchise; Zelda II is wedged between two series and genre-defining titles in the original The Legend of Zelda and A Link to the Past, and it plays completely differently from any Zelda title that Nintendo has produced. I’ve never really understood why a lot of people dislike Zelda II — the game has some incredible dungeons, a great soundtrack, and it’s challenging as hell.
Ansimuz Games and Play Every Ware’s Elliot Quest takes this side-scrolling, dungeon-crawling formula I’ve been wanting to see more of and solves The Adventure of Link‘s biggest flaws while also stamping out its own unique spot in this under-used genre.
Elliot Quest pulled on my nostalgia-heart strings right from the get-go and never stopped. The melody that plays in the first area of the game felt like it was right out of the Lost Woods in A Link to the Past. The soundtrack that Michael Chait put together is incredible; each tune starts off like something you’d expect from a 2D Zelda title, and then subtly transforms into something wholly its own. I think this best describes Elliot Quest overall.
From the trees in the foreground that conceal characters, to the Iron Knuckle-like enemies that raise and lower their shields, and even the sounds that bosses make when they’re injured, Elliot Quest never ceases to pull something familiar from Zelda II — and other Zelda titles for that matter — and take it in a new direction.
Elliot jumps off a cliff in an attempt to take his own life, only to find that he can’t die when he lands safe and sound in the middle of a forest. This is where the adventure begins: Elliot learns that he’s been inflicted by a rare curse, and must seek out the island’s four Guardians before the curse turns him into a horrible demon known as a Satar. The story is ambiguous and unfolds as players make their way through the adventure, mostly in the way of Elliot’s internal thoughts.
Elliot Quest doesn’t hit you over the head with its story, and the game is better for it. It’s very similar to SteamWorld Dig 2 in that regard — it drops you right into the action without bogging you down with endless strings of dialogue or needless tutorials. Thankfully, Elliot’s internal thoughts don’t get in the way of the action, either. I didn’t find the story to be too compelling, but you don’t need to pay attention to it to enjoy the game.
The central plot point — the fact that Elliot can’t die — ties directly into one of the ways that Elliot Quest improves on Zelda II. Not all, but a good deal of the challenge in Zelda II comes from its archaic save system. Players have three lives in Zelda II, and they respawn all the way back in the first area when they’re used up. For all its similarities to Zelda II, Elliot Quest does something much smarter: whenever Elliot’s life reaches zero, he respawns at these little shrines that are placed throughout the game world. The shrines act as checkpoints to save progress and respawn, and they’re generally placed at the entrance to a large area or right before a boss.
Elliot’s adventure has him going through five dungeons, fighting 16 bosses, and exploring a whole bunch of areas in between. The game’s world is small in size but rich in content; each area of the game, whether it be a cave system, dungeon, or town, is located on a small island that players explore from a top-down perspective. The game switches to a side-scrolling viewpoint when you enter one of these areas, indicated on-screen by an exclamation point that pops up above Elliot’s head.
The transition between top-down to side-scrolling is ripped straight out of Zelda II — there are even a handful of enemy encounters that happen from the overworld.
Elliot Quest is smart about the way it guides you through the game. The entrance to each new area is blocked off by some kind of obstacle or puzzle that can only be solved with an ability or item that Elliot has previously acquired. Some of these are located in dungeons, while others are hidden away in earlier areas that can only be fully explored after finding a different ability or item. In order to continue into the third area of the game you need the double jump from the second area of the game, which then allows you to fully explore a waterfall in the first area of the game. This waterfall, which was previously inaccessible, contains the item needed to continue into the third area.
I love when games make me think about where I can use a new power-up and then reward me when I’ve figured it out. This is one of the many things I admire about Elliot Quest.
There are a bunch of completely optional items and abilities hidden throughout the world, too. One of them is a special key that allows you to open blue chests that are tucked away in hard to reach areas.
Elliot’s main method of fighting enemies is his bow and arrow. He can only shoot horizontally, so there’s a great deal of jumping and shooting required early on; you gain XP from defeating enemies, and each level awards you with one skill point to spend on a variety of attributes. The ones that I focused on increased the shot range, increased shot frequency, and increased the amount of health recovered from the Zelda-style heart pickups that enemies sometimes leave behind.
The combat is easy to pick up and gets more challenging as you progress through the game. A lot of the enemies are inspired from Zelda II. One in particular is the spitting image of an Iron Knuckle — it even raised and lowered its shield every couple of seconds. Naturally, I tried firing off arrows to hit it where its shield wasn’t raised, but that didn’t work; the shield, like so many things about Elliot Quest, was a neat callback to an old Nintendo game. The real solution to defeating this armor-clad foe was to wait for it to attack and quickly firing an arrow at its exposed weak spot. Similar to Zelda II, but unique in its own way.
There are five dungeons in Elliot Quest and although none of them are as excessively large as the palaces in Zelda II, they do offer loads of clever puzzles that the Nintendo classic didn’t even attempt. The puzzles are also a hell of a lot more creative and well-designed than stuff I’ve seen from other modern Zelda-clones. Each puzzle in Elliot Quest‘s dungeons build off of each other; you’ll see something simple early on, and then come across something harder, until finally puzzles further into the dungeon combine aspects from the easier puzzles into much harder ones.
A simple example of this takes place in the second dungeon. There’s an upper and lower path that leads to the double jump ability, and the lower path is guarded by these one-eyed, two-legged abominations that are too tall for Elliot to shoot. The upper path is enemy-free, but you can’t take that way back because it’s too high — even for double jump. You have to take the lower path on your way back, using double jump to leap over wide chasms and get high enough to damage those creepy one-eyed enemies. This small segment does a couple things: it teaches you that you can use double jump to get across wide horizontal spaces and get enough vertical air to hit tall enemies, all without actually telling you anything. Elliot Quest is chock-full of figure-it-out-yourself moments that range from neat to super clever.
The bosses in Elliot Quest are fantastic, too. There are 16 in total, but the best ones are at the end of the dungeons. These boss battles are a culmination of everything you learned in the dungeon: all the puzzles you solved and all the enemies you fought taught you how to take on the dungeon’s boss.
I suffered a couple quick deaths to the fireballs that one dungeon’s boss spawned throughout the arena. On my second attempt I realized that these fireballs would probably react the same way fire bats I had encountered earlier in the dungeon; I used Elliot’s gale ability, which turns him into a little green tornado for a few seconds, to suck in the fire balls and extinguish them the same way I did with the bats.
Luis Zuno’s pixel art for Elliot Quest is beautiful, and the game looks stunning running in both docked and handheld mode. My preferred way to play Elliot Quest is on the TV, and I’m itching to get back to it now that the Nintendo Switch supports wireless headsets.
There are a couple things about Elliot Quest that are a little strange, though. The title screen doesn’t play any music at all, and the X button — not the A button — is the action prompt in the main menu. There’s also a karma system in Elliot Quest based on whether or not players open treasure chests in towns or if they do nice things for townsfolk, such as returning a boy’s missing bomb bag. The karma dictates a couple different endings in the game, but overall, the karma system is forgettable.
Disclaimer: A review code for Elliot Quest was provided by Play Every Ware.