We’re more than well aware, especially after reading numerous protests against our CD-i Month posts, that there are a lot of Zelda fans who would love nothing more than to scrub the CD-i Zelda games out of existence and remove these stains from the series’ otherwise (mostly) shiny history. So if you were to meet the guy who created these games, what would you ask him? “What went wrong?” “What’s with those cut scenes, man?” “How in Hyrule could you make Zelda that bad?”
Back in 2007, John Szczepaniak got the chance to do just that. Although he initially intended to ask the late Dale DeSharone, former manager of the development team behind Link: The Faces of Evil and Zelda: The Wand of Gamelon, about the amount of criticism the games have received, DeSharone gave a fascinating and open insight into how the games were developed. Read on for what DeSharone had to say, including his thoughts on the criticism and a look at some rare CD-i Zelda artwork.
“I just sort of fell into it by accident,” said DeSharone. “In 1987 I moved from Northern California to Boston, Massachusetts, to help build a CD-i team for Spinnaker Software. Spinnaker had a deal with Philips to produce seven launch titles. I eventually became manager of the development group. I had originally planned to be at Spinnaker only one year as Philips was planning to release the machine in 1988. That one year turned into four, due to constant delays with the hardware emulation systems and the operating system. It was dreadfully slow and severely limited what was possible. If you look at the scrolling in Link or Zelda you’ll see that you can only scroll about 2 or 2.5 screens horizontally. This was dictated by the video memory available.”
“It was just obviously not a game system and Philips was actually very clear in telling us that they didn’t believe the market for this device was games. There was a subtle hostility toward games that I noticed from the upper echelon of execs at AIM . Philips thought that people would buy the machine for home educational purposes. This all changed after the launch of the CD-i platform because the only titles that actually sold were the game titles. After the launch of Spinnaker’s seven CD-i titles I left the company. Spinnaker did not have plans to continue CD-i development. I chose to start a new development company and was able to get development funding from AIM. Most of the CD-i team from Spinnaker left to join this new group.”
Philips and Nintendo
“This is where the Link and Zelda story begins. Somehow, Philips got a deal with Nintendo to license five characters. As I understood the arrangement, it wasn’t a license of five games but five characters. A number of developers pitched AIM with ideas. I think AIM chose to go with the biggest names that Nintendo had at the time. We pitched separate ideas for a game starring Link and a separate one with Zelda. The development budgets were not high. As I recall they were perhaps around $600,000 each. We made a pitch that we could maximize the quality of the games by combining the funding to develop only one game engine that would be used by both games. This was in 1991-92 and even at this time a U.S. technical employee cost about $100,000 per year to support (salary, taxes, office space, equipment, insurance, administration costs). This was also a time when a 1 GB hard drive cost $3000. We had a team of three programmers (other than myself), one audio engineer/composer, four artists and a producer. We had a single freelance writer who wrote the scripts and helped design both games.
Somehow, Philips got a deal with Nintendo to license five characters.
As I recall, it was a pretty rough time. We had just left Spinnaker, we had a new group of people, so we were creating an office in Cambridge. At the same time we had this group of animators in a couple of apartments. As I recall I would be going back and forth from the office in Cambridge, working with programmers, working to build the engine, back to the animators, going through the script and teaching them the process of how they were going to get the animation done. Also, hiring the U.S. based artists who were working on the game artwork itself. We had, maybe just a little over a year to produce them. So it was pretty tight.”
“To put an entire Triple-A game together and creating it, requires so much money, and such a huge team these days. I really have seen a lot of different companies, and every game has its story. Not just the story of the game, but a story of what the situation was in terms of how it was built, where it went, and what the different facets are. You know, in terms of timing, and money, and constraints from the hardware, and constraints from the publisher. So, you know, I have a lot of compassion and empathy for all of the companies that get great games actually made and out the door. (laughs)”
: Actually, what was your opinion of the third Zelda game on CD-i?
: You know, I never played it all the way through. I saw part of it, and then sort of lost interest. It didn’t really draw me in. How about you? Did you finally get it?
: Yeah, I didn’t like it very much. I thought it was absolutely terrible to be honest. It felt rushed, like they’d brought it to market having only finished it to 50%.
: Yeah. It could well have been. (laughs) It could well have been only 50% finished.
Music, voices and animation
“We created the music in our studio. Our composer was Tony Trippi, who had worked with me at Spinnaker and then came on board, and worked with me at the new company. So he created all the music for both games. We were working on the games simultaneously, so we were working on the script, on the design and the artwork, and the animation to both games at the same time.
We auditioned local union actors, AFTRA [American Federation of Television and Radio Artists] actors, and chose the voices for the game. There’s about 10 minutes of cinema in each game, so there was a fair amount of audio to edit.”
“AIM [American Interactive Media, Philips’ CD-i software publishing branch] was of course expecting some type of full-motion animation in the games and I was trying to figure out how we were going to do that on the budgets. A mutual friend put me in touch with Igor Razboff. Igor was also interested in starting a new technical company at this time (1991). He had a PhD in Higher Mathematics and Computer Science from the university in St. Petersburg, Russia. He had been in the U.S. for twelve years and had worked at Bell Labs and Computer Vision. The Perestroika was beginning and the Berlin Wall was coming down. Igor wanted to return to St. Petersburg for the first time in twelve years and build a company there that would provide some type of service to U.S. companies.
Igor and I got together and we talked about what type of business we could start in St. Petersburg. And I had seen numerous animated films coming out of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. So I thought, well, we could probably do animation over there’. So he went over, found about six people who had some experience with 2D animation, and of course they didn’t have the expertise that U.S. animators have. U.S. animators have been paid fair amounts of money, for decades, to learn animation. And they were more scattered over there, in smaller studios. But we had about half a dozen people, and we brought them over here to the U.S. for 6 months, and put them up in an apartment, there are a couple of apartments near where I live, here in Massachusetts. And, gave them computers, and scanners. Most of them at that time worked on paper, on animation paper, and then scanned it into the computer, and cleaned up the line and colors on the computer, and then we transferred it to CD-i. We may have also written a CD-i tool that would let them view it and clean it up on the CD-i player itself. The animators had varying levels of skill, in terms of animation.”
: Did Philips, or anyone else have specific influence in terms of design regarding the games? Did Nintendo contact you when you began development?
: Um, no… We came up with the design for Philips and then…Did you ever look at the other Zelda game, that the different developer produced?
: Zelda’s Adventure? Yes.
: They went with a very different type of design look. No, Nintendo’s only input was we ran the design document and character sketches past them for their approval. They were mostly interested in the look of the Link and Zelda characters. I think the Link and Zelda characters were in somewhat of a formation stage back then. Because really, the characters didn’t appear very detailed in the Nintendo game. They were mainly visible, you know, on the box covers.
“Nintendo’s only input was we ran the design document and character sketches past them for their approval.”
: So, quite a lot of creative freedom then?
: Yeah, there was quite a bit of creative freedom. And Philips, they didn’t have a lot of input into the design either. One of your questions was why we didn’t go with the top down, and I think Philips would never have approved that. Because they would have thought that looked old, and wasn’t making use of the CD-i capabilities.
: Of the previous two Zelda games one was top-down and the other was side-on. I was wondering why you went with one style over the other.
: If Philips had seen a top down design, they would have said that it didn’t… They would have looked at it just visually, as opposed to gameplay. And that was what they were most concerned with. Does the CD-i game look visually different from other game or computer systems, and are we making less use of the graphics? The possibility that the top down might have been more fun for gameplay, wouldn’t have affected them. So we definitely pushed for the side view.
: What kind of source material did you use during development?
: Really we only had… of course the two Nintendo games that had come previously from Nintendo, and um… Then box art from Nintendo in terms of the design of the characters, and booklet artwork. Otherwise there wasn’t anything that came from Nintendo.
“Yeah, we had been aware of criticism following the release of the games. I can understand that people were disappointed, I think probably in terms of… I guess they made comments about animation, but also in terms of gameplay and design. Given the amount of time we had, and what we were creating at the time in terms of company infrastructure, I thought we did a good job. You know, we weren’t Nintendo. And Nintendo makes fantastic games, which are exceptionally well tuned in terms of gameplay. And they have amazing game designers. So, I would imagine that anything was going to fall short of that, in terms of the amount of time and energy that Nintendo puts into gameplay. Given the amount of time we had, and the fact that we were developing two at once, on a platform that was pretty limited, although the Nintendo machine at that time was also pretty limited and they did a great job with it… At the same time Philips was expecting, and I think we were all expecting, more graphics, more production values in terms of music, visuals, animation… So there was a lot of push there. You put effort into that, and it doesn’t go elsewhere. I felt that, given the circumstances, we did a good job. It could have been better, of course it wasn’t Nintendo.”
“Given the amount of time we had, and what we were creating at the time in terms of company infrastructure, I thought we did a good job. You know, we weren’t Nintendo.”
Dale DeSharone was a former schoolteacher who began creating software for the children in his class. He won prizes for the programs he wrote and moved into full-time software development and then games. He was behind Commondore 64 titles including Adventure Creator, Alice in Wonderland, and Below the Root. After his work on the Philips CD-i, he later worked on both the GameCube and Playstation. DeSharone passed away in 2008 after a battle with leukemia.