If there’s a single year that should have been the best year for The Legend of Zelda out of all 25 of them so far, it should have been 1993. After having received the joy of A Link to the Past and after several years of Zelda cartoons and comics, the last thing that anyone might have guessed would be around the corner would be a year where we would see three brand new, memorable Zelda titles. Three Zelda games within but a few months of one another should have been a dream come true for any Zelda fan; even today, during the 25th year of the series, the fact that all of the old games are coming out of the woodwork in celebration is incredible, but only one of those games is truly a fresh, new experience, and that one by itself is making our mouths water. Three games would have been the most amazing thing ever.
Except… the reason why two of those games are memorable today… well, that would end up putting the damper on the celebration. But let’s tackle the good news first, shall we? For 1993 wasn’t a total loss – one of the best games in the entire Zelda series (and what some would call the best portable Zelda of them all) came to us in Link’s Awakening for the Game Boy.
Link’s Awakening was the first of the portable Zelda titles and remains to this day the only Zelda title to ever be rendered exclusively in black and white (though technically black and olive green, heh). It only had four colors in its entire color palette (far inferior from the SNES’ ability to render things with 32,768 colors), and the display was only a mere 160 pixels wide by 144 pixels tall (approximately a quarter of the SNES’ rendering capability). Yet despite weighing in at a mere 512 kilobytes of data (exactly half that of A Link to the Past), it managed to deliver a Zelda experience that rivaled that of its Super Nintendo cousin and, in many ways, delivered a more emotional and impactful story than LttP ever did.
The game was also the first Zelda title to depart from the familiar kingdom of Hyrule and take us to lands far away. Specifically, Link, restless after the defeat of Ganondorf and seeking adventure and enlightenment, takes off on a ship to parts unknown. After completing his travels abroad, en route back to Hyrule he encounters a terrible storm and ultimately finds himself shipwrecked upon the remote island of Koholint, a rather remarkable tropical isle filled with a variety of biomes and a curiously large egg resting upon the top of a mountain to the north. The shipwreck causes him to black out, and he’s left for dead upon the shores of this forgotten island. Yet thankfully for Link one of the island’s inhabitants discovers him and drags him back to Mabe Village. She introduces herself as Marin, tells him that his sword was left upon the sandy shore, and sets him rolling upon a quest to defeat the ancient evils that seem to follow Link around like an annoying Facebook stalker.
Just because the game was small in size and on a weaker system didn’t mean that the game wouldn’t throw down some fierce punches. LA featured a total of eight dungeons, many of which had taken clear inspiration from the original Legend of Zelda given that the shape of the dungeon would oft be a reflection of the dungeon’s name. Dungeons would also feature brief side-scrolling elements as well (again, like the original) that would transport Link between two remote areas of the dungeon. A Link to the Past lent its share of Zelda language to the game as well as LttP’s Big Key turned up as the Nightmare Key, the Telepathy Tile was converted into the Stone Slab, the Armos Knight, Moldorm, and Aghanim reprised themselves as game’s bosses, and even Turtle Rock was wholesale imported as the moniker of LA’s last dungeon. And if the baddies didn’t wear you down, LA included quite a few fiendish puzzles. Anyone who remembers having to carry the iron ball through the Eagle’s Tower’s second floor will know exactly what I mean.
While LA borrowed a lot of its dungeoneering concepts from earlier games, it also introduced a healthy number of concepts on its own. Though the Compass had been in mainstream use throughout the Zelda series up until this point (with Zelda II as the sole exception), Link’s Awakening was the first to add features to the Compass beyond merely being able to find the boss’ lair; while it didn’t yet reveal the location of Treasure Chests, it would make a noise whenever you entered a room if a Small Key could be discovered within that room. This made gave the Compass much more utility, leading it a significant help towards completing the dungeon.
In addition, it introduced mini-bosses into each of the dungeons, letting the player know that they had roughly reached the halfway point through each of the eight primary dungeons. Defeating the mini-boss would also provide for you a warp portal which you could use to travel between the mini-boss’ room and the dungeon entrance. While A Link to the Past began to touch on the now-familiar Law of Zelda Dungeon Items that the item you find in each dungeon will be required to defeat the corresponding boss, Link’s Awakening became the first to all but chisel it in stone with six of the eight bosses rigidly vulnerable to their respective dungeon items.
Outside of the dungeons, Link’s Awakening would give the Zelda series its very first collection quests, at least outside of collecting heart pieces. LA provided two separate versions of the collection quest, both of which would end up getting replicated in some fashion in Ocarina of Time and later games. The first of which was the Seashell collection subplot. This was much like collecting Poe Souls in Twilight Princess or Skulltulas in Ocarina, but unlike those, the reward for collecting 20 of the 26 Seashells was actually quite significant: the upgraded Level-2 Sword. It would cut through enemies twice as quickly and make one of the final boss forms much easier to hit. The second of the collection quests was the trading sequence, and unlike most other trading sequences, this one was required to be completed in order to finish the game. (Either that or you had to cheat by buying Nintendo’s player’s guide!) Starting with picking up a Yoshi Doll in one of Mabe Village’s minigames, you would trade this for a menagerie of random items (a ribbon, a can of dog food, a stick, and a fishing hook, to name a few) before finally getting the all-powerful Magnifying Glass, which, taking a page right out of Myst, allows you to read one of the books that you encounter just a few screens away from your starting location.
LA would also introduce the first iteration of the fishing minigame. While the fishing in Ocarina of Time certainly had greater depth than Awakening’s, fishing became necessary in order to complete the trading sequence as well as to obtain one of the many heart pieces in the game by catching the biggest fish in the entire lake. Last but certainly not least, Link’s Awakening was the first game to put a heavy emphasis on music in the Zelda series. While the Ocarina item wasn’t an original item in LA (it was introduced as the Flute in LttP), this was the first time in which you could learn multiple songs to play on it. In fact, Link receives the Ocarina and doesn’t even know how to play it at first! Using it simply makes him play random notes in a rather ugly tune. But scattered throughout the island are three songs, each with their own effect and helpful in their own special way. This would become a legacy that nearly every subsequent Zelda game to come would embrace.
The plot of Link’s Awakening also deserves a special mention as well as it’s one of the more meaningful, sentimental, and bittersweet of the Zelda stories. At first everything seems remarkably simple; the game lulls you into the ardent belief that this is just like any other cookie-cutter, good-versus-evil stories as Link goes in pursuit of the eight Siren Instruments that can be used to defeat the island’s Nightmares. But little by little, the game gives you strong hints that all is not as it seems. It’s not until just before the sixth dungeon when the game comes out and reveals to the player that Koholint Island is an illusion, a dreamlike place contained within the imagination of the sleeping Wind Fish. To defeat the Nightmares and wake the Wind Fish means to destroy Koholint and all of the inhabitants of it. Really, it’s something that’s very much fridge horror if you stop and think about it.
The idea of a world within a dream wasn’t new to games; this concept was copied from the American version of Super Mario Bros. 2; however, unlike SMB2, the revelation that the entire world was a sham didn’t seem like a complete and utter copout. Instead, it actually gave the game significantly more depth due to the fact that (a) they gave you a decent heads up that this was so before the game ended and (b) it was one of the games that really pushed you to explore relationships between the protagonist and the NPCs around him. Seeing the island fade away in the ending sequence, while it felt like the right thing to do, made me long to undo the action I had just undertaken. Seeing Marin, my friend for the last eight dungeons, disappear never to be seen again (that is, unless you manage to beat the game without dying) was one of the saddest moments in all of Zelda thus to date.
Yet thankfully, LA wasn’t strictly business from start to finish. Unlike its predecessors, Link’s Awakening was a game that added a decent bit of levity and surrealism to its environment. Many times throughout the game, when characters of the game would attempt to explain how the game’s controls work, they would often, in addition, quip that they had no idea exactly what it meant to press down on the control pad; they were just kids, after all. Other humorous episodes include the time when Link asked Marin to follow him to the other side of the map in order to wake up the sleeping walrus in her singing; as Marin accepts his offer, Link suddenly picks her up over his head—in classic Zelda fashion—to reveal to the player that he now has a new item.
It’s the tongue-in-cheek and fourth-wall-breaking humor that allows players to ignore the fact that there’s quite a bit that seems just a little off in this world. For one, animals seem to talk quite naturally; not only did Link’s Awakening practically introduce the Zelda meme of the owl guide (something that would set up OoT’s Kaepora Gaebora), there was an entire village full of them on the far side of the island. The egg resting atop Mount Tamaranch was also… interesting, and its very existence would mystify players until late in the game until its ultimate relevance to the Wind Fish was explained. There were multiple telephone booths all throughout the island (despite the lack of wires connecting them all), yet the only person you could ever seem to dial was Old Man Ulrira. And finally, if that weren’t interesting enough, the game was rife with references from the Mario series; common enemies included Goombas and Piranha Plants, the former of which would yield you a heart if you managed to stomp them just like the portly plumber.
Link’s Awakening actually ended up causing a small bit of cultural controversy, though Western gamers would not realize this for years to come. The controversy originally came from Nintendo themselves due to some interesting… “design decisions” that were taken making the game. In two separate occasions in the Japanese version of the game, jokes involving nudity were inserted into the game. As part of the trading quest, Link would encounter a mermaid who refused to come out of the water because she was looking for something important. As it happens, in the fishing minigame, Link would discover a bikini top that the mermaid would suddenly take a very keen interest in. And after trading it to her, she would immediately leap onto the rock on the same screen. Similarly, in the Animal Village, a hippo appeared to be posing for the alligator Schule Donavitch, a painter. In the Japanese version, a towel is present around her waist… leaving an obviously bare female chest. She immediately screams at Link to go away and hunkers down into the towel. Nintendo, judging that both of these would be offensive to Western audiences given the different cultural mores, replaced these with the Mermaid’s Necklace and a completely uncovered (but less obviously feminine) hippo. For all those that thought Nintendo was a family-friendly company, well… you haven’t played Tingle’s Rosy Rupeeland, but that’s not even close to 1993, so we’ll skip that discussion for now!
With such an amazing game beginning 1993’s Zelda lineup, it seemed that Zelda’s future was bright indeed. But as I mentioned in the beginning, there were two other Zelda titles that were released in America that same year that aren’t so fondly remembered. Those two games would not be the only two Zelda games officially released on non-Nintendo hardware: Philips’ CD-i. The games? They are none other than Zelda: The Wand of Gamelon and Link: The Faces of Evil.
The story of these two games ultimately came about as a result of a few notable failed dealings between Nintendo and other companies. CDs were in development throughout the late 1970s and ‘80s, but around the beginning of the ‘90s, Nintendo expressed interest in partnering with Sony, the inventors of the CD, in order to create a new console that leveraged Sony’s hardware expertise and Nintendo’s game-making savvy. However, in the process of this, Nintendo changed their minds and instead decided to toss their hat to the company Philips, who had also been working on CD technology and had created their own breed of CDs, the CD Interactive. With the partnership established, Philips and Nintendo were going to make an add-on to the SNES, much as how the Famicom Disk Drive was an add-on to the original Famicom, but eventually that deal petered out as corporate interest declined. Yet because of the deal, Nintendo allowed Philips to create their own console and legally use Nintendo’s licensed IP to create a series of games for their it. The fruit of that? Three Zelda games and one Mario title that have become fodder for huge mountains of YouTube poop.
The two games were shipped simultaneously in both America and Europe and therefore had very similar plots. In Link: The Faces of Evil, out of nowhere, Ganon suddenly seizes the island of Koridai, and the wizard Gwonam (how’s that for a name for your future children, eh?) comes to warn the king and to fetch Link as naturally he is the only one that can defeat Ganon. Link goes as if to grab all of his items and possessions, but instead he is urged to leave immediately… and before they can say “Squadalah!” Link arrives and now must instead hunt all over the Koridai to find the items he WOULD have brought so that he can actually reach Ganon and defeat him. At any rate, Koridai is a mountainous region with faces carved into all of the mountaintops, and so he must defeat each of the locations on the map in order to save the day and, eventually, rescue the Princess Zelda when she is, at some point mid-game, arbitrarily kidnapped and held prisoner.
Zelda: The Wand of Gamelon takes a different tack and eschews Link as the player character in favor of Zelda. The opening begins with the King heading off to the land of Gamelon in order to help the duke there defeat Ganon and his minions. (Someone should have told him that was a job only for Link.) A month passes without word from the King, and so Zelda sends Link off after him to check up on him. Still, time passes without word, and so, fearing the worst, Zelda wakes her caretaker Impa, and together they go off on a quest with Zelda donning a sword and shield in hopes of finding out what happened to Link and her father. (Someone should have told Gwonam that Zelda could defeat Ganon, too, heh.) And like its sibling game, Zelda goes from place to place, defeating bosses and collecting items she too should have brought with her in order to find Ganon and win the day.
The gameplay can be found on YouTube in small snippets, which is no surprise to anyone. It functions as a side-scroller much like The Adventure of Link, except the backgrounds are fully textured and therefore have a vague three-dimensional effect, which provides vague hints as to how to ascend stairs in a house or switchbacks up a small mountainous section. Items typically are obtained by fulfilling various characters’ needs throughout the game; sometimes this means fighting and defeating a boss in order to free someone from imprisonment; sometimes this means finding a different, more useless item and then bringing it back to an earlier area to allow them to transform the item that you need.
Several of the important items end up being still… well, fairly useless. For example, in Wand of Gamelon, one of the inventory items you end up collecting is the Green Shroud, and you’re given the explanation that this can put an end to the Gibdo boss. This is in fact, the Green Shroud’s solitary purpose in the game; all that is required is to simply toss it at Gibdo, and the item performs an instant, one-shot kill. (Beyond this, it has zero effect.) Many, though not all, of the bosses are defeated in this manner in fact, including Ganon, who is allergically susceptible to the titular Wand of Gamelon and the Book of Koridai in their respective games. Ultimately, defeating bosses and clearing stages will lead you to a different exit point, which will then unlock new stages whereupon you rinse and repeat until beating the game.
Being on a compact disc instead of a cartridge, the game was supposed to have the benefits of having large quantities of content which could theoretically be used to fill it with better visuals and audio. In truth, the actual visuals of the game aren’t terrible; the painted landscapes, while problematic occasionally in terms of telling you exactly where ledges stop and pits stop, are actually fairly amazingly rendered for its era. (Remember that other consoles were still resorting to sprites and pixel art; this was legitimately ahead of its time!) The sound effects and the music were also not terrible, though they were also more or less unmemorable as well, focusing less on the nostalgic themes of Koji Kondo and more developing their own style (which isn’t necessarily bad if they’d done it spectacularly).
However, bigger doesn’t always mean better, and Philips decided that to truly promote CDs as the way of the future for videogames, they needed full motion videos for cutscenes. This probably would have been a good idea, but much to Philips’ (and our!) chagrin, they farmed the task of developing the animations for the game to a Russian studio called Animation Magic to magic up some animation. And it is they who created the… well, now infamous videos that now fill the deepest bowels of the Internet. The cinematics seemed to be an exaggeration of the Legend of Zelda cartoon, with Link taking on a boyish and overly excitable personality, Zelda alternating between overly serious and dumb blonde, and the remainder of the cast having disproportionate body parts, grotesque features, or annoying voices… sometimes all three. It’s hard to say whether or not this was actually a conscious artistic direction Philips wished to pursue or if it was Animation Magic completely dropping the ball and sticking Philips with the aftermath thereof; either way, though the ability to have FMV on a console in that day and age was an amazing technical feat (enabled just because of the medium’s storage capacity), the animation did not age well by any means.
It’s due to the relative “instant gratification” of the visual forms of media that allowed most gamers to come to this snap decision about the game despite the fact that very few of them had actually played it. Given the relative rarity of CD-i consoles sold (only 570k across the US and Europe compared to the 49 million SNES and 40 or so million Sega Genesis consoles sold), it stands to reason that most gamers never managed to get the “privilege” of experiencing the game firsthand. By the time that the Internet had been popularized and YouTube created, the CD-i had already been retired, and most of the remaining copies of the game had gone underground, mainly to be relieved only by faint memory of the game or the scant amount of media that had erupted by that point. Yet unlike the Legend of Zelda cartoon, which somehow managed to become cool again by being so uncool, the same did not happen with FoE and WoG. One quick peek at the quality of the script and the animation—which incidentally was far inferior to that of the cartoon—would condemn it to be one of the worst games on the planet.
However, there was one other much less known problem with the Zelda games, though this truthfully wasn’t the fault of the games but rather the CD-i itself. The fault lay within the CD-i’s controller. The default controller that came with the CD-i was something akin to a remote control that also had a joystick and four buttons surrounding it at the diagonals. The two buttons at the upper diagonal were labeled “One” and the two lower buttons were labeled “Two.” Occasionally, games for the CD-i would be in need of an additional button, and the Zelda games were two of the few that did; so, there was also “Three,” which wasn’t so much a button but rather simply pushing both “One” and “Two” together. So you can imagine the strange death grip you would need to hold the controller in to play real-time action games. Add to the problem that this was a remote control; unlike modern equivalents like the Wii, this transmitted data over an infrared sensor on the console. This mean that, if you point the controller so that it’s not looking at the IR camera on the device, all your inputs are ignored.
Most CD-i games didn’t need this level of complexity in their control schema; most were simple point-and-click or more menu-based games. Realizing this problem, Philips sold a gaming pad as an add-on to their US$700 console in order to make game player legitimately possible. The controller was a blatant rip-off of the SNES controller; it had a directional pad on the left with two “One” buttons, a “Two” button, and a “Three” button in a diamond pattern on the right. Furthermore it was a wired controller, which really allowed the game to be playable.
But when it came to actually controlling Link and Zelda, it was still… just a little bit non-intuitive. Despite the fact that they added an explicit third button, the game didn’t actually use it despite the fact that there still weren’t enough buttons to fulfill all of the desired actions. “One” was to use your sword, while “Two” was to use your inventory item, enter doorways, and access the menu (when you were crouching). But how do you talk to the NPCs in the world when there are no buttons leftover for actions? Well, you stab the NPCs with your sword. Yes, that’s right. You jab them with “One” to trigger the cutscene. The game manuals actually attempted (humorously) to explain this away by saying that Link and Zelda both had this very special “Smart Sword.” This sword, when thrust into the hearts of enemies, would slay them into oblivion. But, when striking a friendly target, to quote the manual directly, “It won’t hurt your friends. Striking kind-hearted creatures makes them talk.” True story.
Despite these problems, if one were to factor out the FMVs and the original controller and rate the game on everything else, the two games weren’t all that terrible. In fact, other than a few rather unfortunate mistakes here and there in both games, The Faces of Evil and The Wand of Gamelon actually manage to achieve some level of mediocrity. There is a substantial difficulty in the game; by no means is it terribly easy, but it’s not really gratuitously unfair. While there are a few particular pain points that you have to deal with (such as narrow passages that all but force you to take damage or risk not being able to pass them), the game actually has a structure very akin to a mixture between a real-time adventure game (like the main Zelda series) and an old-school LucasArts game like The Dig or Day of the Tentacle. While the two CD-i games didn’t necessarily excel at either format, they were at least competent at both; Superman 64 they are definitely not. And, like it or not, these two Zelda games were some of the best, most dynamic offerings that the CD-i ever had to offer. Sacrilege as it may be to say this, but I was actually blissfully unaware of the fact that these were “bad games” until I faced the full wrath of them on the Internet many, many years later.
(Then again, I also played both Pac-man and E.T.: The Extra-terrestrial for the Atari 2600 when I was six, and at that tender age I was none the wiser that those two videogames single-handedly caused the Video Game Crash of 1983. Your mileage may vary.)
Ultimately the popular opinion of the Link: The Faces of Evil and Zelda: The Wand of Gamelon has already long been set in stone, and nothing I say could possibly sway the collective hive-mind of the Internet. Then again, the critiques that have been levied against them are more than fair complaints. Yes, the cutscenes were terrible. Yes, the characters were absolutely horrifying and the stuff of nightmares. And the controls were… well, they were interesting. It’s clear that Philips legitimately did not really know how to make videogames that could successfully compete with the likes of Nintendo and Sega’s cream of the crop. Unfortunately, from today’s vantage point, comparing misuses of 1993 technology with the likes of 2011 graphics (or even the graphics a decade ago, when the Internet was first blooming)… well, it’s hard to argue with what seems like a slam dunk case against it.
But don’t worry. If you thought FoE and WoG were bad games, 1994 has a special treat for you, because Zelda’s Adventure was a worse game than both of them combined. Oddly enough, though, somehow that game managed to skate through, being much less maligned than its twin cousins. But that’s a discussion for tomorrow… once we enter the Great Zelda Drought of the mid-1990s.