Whenever people ask about "favorite games," one thought always enters my mind: Zelda II is still the greatest Zelda game. Yeah, you heard me. The most maligned game in the illustrious Zelda franchise is my favorite. If you don't like it, go bomb some dodongos.
Sure, newer games have better stories, gameplay, graphics and so forth, but this is the Zelda game I always find myself going back to play when I have spare time.
This is the only Zelda game in which Link learns actual magic - not just using magical items, he learns to use magic. That's right, the Link of Zelda II is a wizard.
This is the first Zelda game in which Link learned actual sword-fighting techniques from sword masters. This is something that wouldn't show up again in games for years.
This is the first Zelda game with Shadow Link. The greatest challenge in this game is getting all the way to the end and learning to defeat yourself.
This could even be said to be the first Zelda game with an alternate timeline, as every time you die, the game reminds you that Ganon has been resurrected and evil reigns.
This is - as of this moment anyway - the Zelda game with the largest world map. The only other game that even came close was Wind Waker, and most of that was water. Yes, the map was seen from far away Final Fantasy-style and you only got to experience it up close through generic random enemy encounters, but that was due to the limitations of the system. It had several towns, plenty of caves to explore and random hidden areas with abandoned ruins. Who knew Hyrule had a Stonehenge?
My only hope is that the forthcoming Skyrim-style Zelda comes close to matching Zelda II in scope and variety.
So, if it's so great, why do people hate it so much?
Well, for one thing, it was different.
While the first game was revolutionary in its top-down gameplay and (small but) open world, this game featured a birds-eye-view map in which players could only walk around hoping to hit (or avoiding) random monsters. It's not quite the same as exploring 360 degrees of a dungeon.
Then there's the majority of the actual gameplay: it's a 2D side-scroller.
This was jarring for a lot of fans, and Nintendo quickly went back to the top-down gameplay when Link returned in the SNES and Game Boy.
This meant that while we could see more of Link and his enemies, we could only go right or left, negating a lot of the puzzle-solving originated in the first game.
On the plus side though, it did introduce the idea of an actual cast, including more enemy-characters that defected to the good guy's side (a few appeared in the first game), apparent prostitutes who would refill your health (take that GTA!), even elderly... uh, prostitutes? ... that would refill your magic (GTA hasn't copied that one).
And of course, the infamous Error (who was not, as many thought at the time, an error).
And naturally, we can't forget that this is not actually the worst Zelda game. That title is shared by the CD-i games.
EDIT: Because it was driving me nuts seeing that gif at the top without some great music to back it up: