Nineteen ninety-four, at least for gamers outside of Japan, was the beginning of what would be the longest drought of Zelda games so far in the history of the entire franchise. Even worse is the fact that, unlike the three-and-a-half-year gap between The Adventure of Link and its SNES successor A Link to the Past, the five-year drought of Zelda games had none of the comics, cartoons, or other non-game media to tide us over in the interim… again, provided that you didn’t live in Japan. For US gamers, it was a long, drawn-out wait as we clutched each successive copy of Nintendo Power (or whatever the international equivalent was) and yearningly waited for the next piece of Zelda footage to be released.
For the Japanese, 1994 brought forth a few events that, looking back through time, were actually somewhat notable. While Japan did not get a new Zelda game that year, The Legend of Zelda was re-released in Japan for the Famicom, but this time it was released as an actual cartridge instead of as a floppy diskette unlike the original 1986 release. See, back in 1986, they hadn’t invented the battery backup for videogame cartridges yet; that didn’t get invented until 1987 when LoZ first hit America and Europe. The only way to play the original Zelda in Japan was to play it on the Famicom Disk System, an add-on device to the actual Famicom. If you hadn’t bought the add-on (which came out three years after the original Famicom launch in 1983), you literally couldn’t play EITHER of the first two Zelda games. So, as if to harken back to earlier years to those who hadn’t made the leap with the Disk System, the rerelease was on a cartridge much like the NES releases elsewhere in the world.
Nintendo also spoiled Japan with the first ever official soundtrack for the Zelda series: The Legend of Zelda: Sound & Drama. Sound & Drama was a two-disc CD set, though the first of the CDs tends to be the only one remembered by most since the second disc was strictly a collection of 40 MIDI-converted tunes from The Legend of Zelda and A Link to the Past. The first CD is the real treasure trove for gamers today; it contained eight remixed songs from LttP plus a ninth track weighing it at an epic 17 minutes and spare change. The track was entitled “Sound Drama: ‘Two People’ Introductory Chapter,” and if Zelda were ever to be a Japanese radio play, this would have been the first episode. The track features Link, Zelda, Link’s father, and Ganondorf and essentially sets up a slightly altered version of the prelude of LttP.
Otherwise, the last bit of Zelda goodness would be a manga based upon Link’s Awakening called The Legend of Zelda: Dreaming Island by Ataru Cagiva. While not the first recorded nor first popular manga of the Zelda series, it’s one of the more well-known mangas released in the days before the Internet.
But enough about Japan. On a technicality, the US and Europe did get some amount of Zelda love in 1994, though it really wasn’t the sort of Zelda love that we really wanted. Or at least, it’s not the love that Zelda fans now appreciate. Yes, that’s right, the last of the three infamous Zelda CD-i titles Zelda’s Adventure was released in mid-1994 (though Europe would not see this until 1995). Zelda’s Adventure was, as the title describes, an adventure in which the player plays as Princess Zelda instead of Link. Her mission was to find the Seven Shrines of the Underworld and defeat their guardians so as to collect the Celestial Signs; doing so would bring the land of Tolemac to an Age of Lightness. (Or at least that’s how the game is described via Wikipedia; I don’t think my friend and I ever managed to beat the first temple. In fact, I don’t even know if we even FOUND the first temple.) Unlike the first two CD-i Zeldas, this game took place with an overhead perspective much like LoZ and LttP.
In fact, Zelda’s Adventure had a lot of similarities to that of the original Legend of Zelda, more than you might expect. There weren’t a lot of items that you could collect in ZA, and the controls for the game were absolutely terrible. ZA’s Zelda had even less finesse than Link did in in the GameCube remake of the original game when using GCN’s analog stick; hitting enemies and avoiding their attacks proved to be nearly impossible at times. The theoretical benefits of storing the game on a CD-ROM—greater storage capacity, less reliance on low-resolution pixel art, and the ability to include actual audio and video data—were immediately dashed by having a significantly lower frame rate than comparable SNES games and ridiculous load times when transitioning between screens on the map due to the (by today’s standards) crazy slow spin rate of the earlier-generation CD drives. And considering that the game had virtually zero soundtrack, something the CD medium should have been able to easily provide, that’s saying something.
Thankfully, Zelda’s Adventure didn’t include the cringe-worthy animations of its CD-i Mario and Zelda predecessors, instead using “FMVs” as a substitute. I have to use the term in quotation marks because some of the “videos” they present are actually presented in something akin to stop-motion animation. Yes, the actors may be real people with a real set, but it’s as often as not true video. Either way, it was a definite improvement over the Russian-studio cartoon-style animation of FoE and WoG. As for the voice clips, there’s much fewer of them, and they tend to blend into the background, partially because they’re not always accompanied with video, partially because they’re not thrown quite so flamboyantly in your face every time you talk to someone. This is one of the reasons why a quick search on YouTube for videos on the game (or even Google for any information at all) will turn up far fewer hits than its CD-i siblings; it’s definitely less YouTube poop-worthy. Whether that’s good or bad… I really can’t say.
If you were looking for a challenge, however, the game was pretty decent at presenting one. Maybe it was just due to the fact that I was only a 13-year-old playing a friend’s borrowed game, but unlike The Faces of Evil and The Wand of Gamelon, which we completed, we never seemed to make headway due to the harsh hit detection and occasionally blatantly unfair AI; three hearts have never lasted so shortly… even when surrounded by a room full of orange and blue Wizzrobes. The game was essentially ruthless, and when mixed with a jerky frame rate and bad controls, profanities became fairly common even in the early stages of the game. While ZA was certainly less gaudy in its presentation, the game was much less playable by far. From a gameplay perspective, it would have to rival Tingle’s Rosy Rupeeland as one of the inherently least fun Zeldas.
Ultimately, Zelda’s Adventure wouldn’t have been able to compete with the likes of the Super Nintendo, but that’s more of a commentary about the CD-i console as a whole. While there were a few decent titles for them, the console never sold well, though it should not have been surprising. At a $700 price point and without any real killer apps for it (unless you happen to count Mario and Zelda, which might have suckered a few souls), sales of the console never came close to broaching one million units. Even if the game had eventually been hailed as a Holy Grail to Zeldadom, it’s really hard to say whether that would have made a difference. The CD-i failed really due to Philips’ mismanagement and lack of compelling software, both things that Sony was able to capitalize upon when they introduced the PlayStation during the same year. While PS1 games too suffered from the occasional slow disc seek time and occasionally chugging graphics, it was hailed as a successful console for quite a few obvious reasons.
Ultimately 1994 became known, for most of us Zelda veterans who were already into the series back in those years, as the beginning of the long Zelda drought. It wouldn’t be until 1998 until we could whet our appetite on a new game, and that would be on a brand new console. Despite the fact that Zelda only made a single debut on the SNES, many older gamers to this day claim the SNES to be a part of the Golden Age of Gaming, the time when ideas were freshest and risks were being undertaken to find out what would do well and what wouldn’t. In the meanwhile, we would wait patiently for magazines to tell us any possible wind of the next Zelda title. That is, of course, unless you were in Japan, but that’s best saved until tomorrow.