Zelda CD-i: A Retrospective of the Series’ Off-Label Adventures!

While Nintendo’s Legend of Zelda franchise has numerous praise-worthy titles under its belt, like any long-running series, it’s had its hits and misses. Yet, in the small window of time between 1993 and 1994, three games were released that not only do many fans chastise for being terrible games…they’d prefer everyone forget they even exist at all. In fact, the three games in question aren’t even considered part of Nintendo’s official timeline.

Yes, I am talking about the CD-i Zelda titles: games that, along with Hotel Mario, have been the subject of countless “YouTube Poop” videos.

Before we go into too much detail here, though, let’s talk about how these unique titles even came into existence in the first place. To do so, we have to go back a few years before their release, when CD-based games were in their infancy. When it comes to home consoles, the Japanese PC Engine (the TurboGrafx-16 elsewhere) beat everyone to the punch when it released its CD drive add-on in December of 1988. Back then, cartridges were the medium of choice, while CDs were super expensive, but CDs had the benefit of being able to support larger amounts of memory and higher audio fidelity, making them technically superior to the limited storage capabilities other consoles had. Sega followed suit with the Sega CD add-on in December of 1991, forcing Nintendo to feel the pressure to make use of the medium themselves.

Long story short, Nintendo first shopped around to Sony to come up with the “SNES CD” peripheral for its existing Super Nintendo hardware, but the deal eventually fell through (leading Sony to later release its own platform that became wildly successful). Nintendo then moved on to work with Philips to create another add-on; however, this too fell through, but due to the way their agreement was handled, Philips retained the ability to use Nintendo property in their own licensed titles. The end result were four Nintendo titles that were, at best, mediocre, three of which were Zelda games.

Oddly enough, the first two games, Link: The Faces of Evil and Zelda: The Wand of Gamelon, were released on the same day (October 10, 1993). Developed by Animation Magic, the two games followed the platforming style of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link and were meant to take place sometime after the events of that game. Both games featured rather laughable animation sequences (complete with voice acting!) that have become the brunt of the “YouTube Poop” videos mentioned earlier, but beyond this, are they really as bad as people say?

Back when I was in college, I actually bought a Philips CD-i with the “Digital Video Card” included with it. It wasn’t long before I picked up a copy of Link: The Faces of Evil and gave it a play. Of course, I thought the animation style during the opening was quirky at best, but once I got past that, I found a game that was…well, in a word, decent. No, The Faces of Evil is not a great Zelda adventure that should go down in history, but as far as a platforming adventure goes, it’s decently executed. One of the things I really liked about it was the fact that all of the backgrounds looked hand-drawn and had some really nice details about them. Everything kind of had a darker storybook look about it, which played well with the fact that the Zelda games are meant to be fantasy tales of legend. The musical score wasn’t exactly bad either, but it really wasn’t something that fit all that well with the series. And, in terms of gameplay, everything was pretty solid (though for me a bit challenging, since I was using the default CD-i remote to play) though the game is rather hard.

One thing that you’ll easily be able to tell about the CD-i Zelda games is that Animation Magic really hadn’t done their homework on the series’ backstory. The games seem to be set sometime after the events of the two NES titles, yet Ganon seems to be alive and well (despite the fact that he should have been devoid of the Triforce of Power and unable to revive in his current form again). My theory though is that they actually based the game’s story on the 1989 Zelda cartoon, which was nebulously centered around the events of the NES games. The King of Hyrule appears in these games and is rather silly and almost dimwitted like he appears in the cartoons, and given Ganon is very much alive and well in the cartoons, this probably makes sense. There’s also the fact that Link is infatuated with the princess while she plays coy with him, much to his dismay. Maybe they felt that watching the cartoons was easier than playing through the games? Eh…who really knows.

In Link: The Faces of Evil, a wizard named Gwonam comes to Hyrule Castle and tells everyone that Ganon has taken over an island named Koridai. Oddly, the king himself offers to aid them, but the wizard claims that an ancient prophecy states that only Link can help. While he is adventuring on the island, Ganon somehow kidnaps Zelda and imprisons her in his lair, but Link manages to trap him in the legendary Book of Koridai.

In The Wand of Gamelon, the king says that he is going to travel to aid Duke Onkled of Gamelon, but tells Zelda to send Link if he does not return within a month. Eventually, Zelda sends Link to the island but when he also goes missing, it’s up to her to travel there and see what’s transpired. Beyond the difference in story, the game is almost identical to The Faces of Evil in terms of its gameplay and overall production value, although I found the ending of this one to be a bit too silly for me. Despite his treachery for aligning himself with Ganon, Duke Onkled’s punishment is merely to scrub all the floors in Hyrule. Really? I mean, is that seriously the best they could come up with?

The third game, Zelda’s Adventure, was released in June of 1994 and was handled by a completely different company called Viridis Corporation. This one goes back to the overhead roots of the series, and features more gritty-looking rendered backgrounds taken from real-life scenery and live-action FMV sequences for the storytelling. The plot boils down to Link being kidnapped by Ganon, who has stolen the seven Celestial Signs of the Kingdom of Tolemac (yes, Camelot spelled backwards!) and Princess Zelda having to go on a quest to save Link and the kingdom. Unfortunately, though, despite claims by the developer for wanting to push the CD-i to its limits and featuring a whopping 300 hours of gameplay, the final product was incredibly underwhelming, featured blurry graphics and little-to-no music, and could be finished in a mere 12 hours. Unlike the first two titles, this one was overwhelmingly poorly-received.

One of the things that I always keep in mind with older titles, though, is that when we look at a game under the lens of today’s standards, we’re only seeing part of the picture. While it’s certainly interesting to go back and play some games to see how well they’ve aged and to relive some of that initial fun and excitement, games as a whole have evolved tremendously since the mid-1990s. Back then, reviewers scored Link: The Faces of Evil and Wand of Gamelon somewhere between a 65 and 79%. The games were actually decently received, with many praising the visuals and the gameplay, and some even enjoying the whimsical animation styles. Remember: in 1993, CD-based gaming was in its infancy, so seeing a beloved franchise in a whole new light was technically impressive for some.

Of course, whether or not the games were terrible has nothing to do with why Nintendo doesn’t include them in their official timeline. Here, the reason is pretty simple: these games were not developed directly by Nintendo nor with any oversight given by Nintendo (unlike the very popular Oracle games and Minish Cap, which were handled by Capcom). These games were merely licensed titles allowed to make use of the Nintendo property, but they otherwise have no relation to the series as a whole. Given some of the plotholes mentioned previously, this is likely for the best.

Overall though, the games are actually not all that bad (well, except perhaps for Zelda’s Adventure), and I’d argue that they are worth tracking down for collector’s purposes if you are a major Zelda fan. If nothing else, they’ll be an interesting conversation piece to add to your collection. Be warned though: the games demand a premium on eBay. The first two easily fetch well over $100 USD (with some copies closer to $200), with Zelda’s Adventure going for close to $400…or more!

Perhaps sometime I’ll have to talk about the other Nintendo adventure from Phillips, Hotel Mario, as well as the unreleased Super Mario’s Wacky Worlds, but those are tales for another day!

***

If you’ve never played the CD-i Zelda games (or even if you have!), I hope this article gave you a taste of what made them such oddball, yet charming titles. This article is part of a larger series explores the history of the series and its major entries. Be sure to check out the hub article at NekoJonez’s Arpegi for links to all the great articles and retrospectives on this epic series.

(Image courtesy of ZoeF on DeviantArt)

 

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6 thoughts on “Zelda CD-i: A Retrospective of the Series’ Off-Label Adventures!

  1. My apologies if this seems out of place. I was wondering what happened to Jessica’s ZC Lps and other YOuTube content. Did YT do something to force their removal, or was it a voluntary decision to remove years of content?

    I’m one of the ZC coders, and I was checking in on the channel, and saddened to find it gone.

    • Thank you very much for checking in and I should say that I am flattered that you noticed that the channel was empty and that you miss its content!

      About a year ago, I had my main gaming PC die on me (followed by my laptop not long after) and in that period I had a lot of time to reflect on some of my media and content production. I made the decision to put the channel on ice with the plan being to eventually come back and revamp it with a whole new attitude. For a while, it had reached the point where I was stressing about finishing up certain projects, being overly picky about minor flaws in content that I had put out, and in short it was taking most of the fun away. Now that I do have a new high-end computer again, and a new outlook on things, I want to get back into just having fun.

      Fear not – Zelda Classic will certainly be a part of that! I definitely want to get into showcasing various quests that I think people will enjoy, playing some all the way through, and also at some point doing a custom quest of my own. Also, I’ll certainly do more indie gaming videos as well as other retro and AAA stuff too!

      By the way, you mentioned you are one of the ZC coders – are you one of the coders on the actual Zelda Classic engine itself? If so, that’s fascinating and I’d love to chat sometime!

  2. I never knew the history of these until now! I just knew that they existed as a sort of… blip in Zelda history, but it’s super interesting learning about how they came to be. Definitely get the feeling that they were much more cartoon-oriented, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing and even now I quite like them as a sort of kitschy campy laugh of a thing (a bit like game shows from the same era).

    • I definitely think the CD-i games were inspired by the cartoon series more than the games themselves, especially given that they would follow the events of Zelda II and by that time, Ganon should have long been defeated.

      Still, these are some fun games if you can look past (or enjoy!) the campiness that they have, and I definitely think people have been very hard on them over the years. At the time, they were actually pretty advanced compared to other console adventures, even if they had their fair share of issues.

      I’d definitely recommend giving them a shot sometime with a fresh perspective!

  3. I seriously need to play these games for myself. I have heard so much about it and reviewers like AVGN say it’s bad but then you hear things like this… Hrmmm, I think I’ll need to hunt down a CD-i and these games to decide for myself.

  4. Pingback: The Legend Of Zelda Retrospective – A Bloggers Journey | NekoJonez's Gaming Blog

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