They’re actually not that bad.
No really, they’re not actually that bad.
Yes, yes, I know that the cinematics are terrible. I also know what the Angry Video Game Nerd said about them. And I acknowledge that by no means are they some epitome of gaming that should be placed upon a golden pedestal somewhere. But I stand very much by the fact that, from an objective viewpoint, Link: The Faces of Evil and Zelda: The Wand of Gamelon aren’t as terrible as they are decried to be.
I think much of the maligned opinion of them stems from the stigma of their, ah, “interesting” choice for cinematic direction and their otherwise relative rarity, meaning that few if any have actually played the game to actually know whether it merits the real critique that it deserves. Mixing that with their being two decades removed from their release makes it that much more difficult to be objective. With a 2013 mindset, it’s very easy to say these games are horrible; it’d be equally viable with that perspective to call N64’s Ocarina of Time graphically deficient.
With CD-i month underway, it’s time to remember your horrifying early ’90s memes and hairstyles; it’s well past time that we review these two secret gems and get to the heart of the matter of the first two thirds of the so-called Unholy Triforce.
It’s hard to really give perspective to these two games without really looking at the CD-i console itself first. The Philips CD-i was one of the first home console systems that accepted CD-ROMs as their primary medium for games. The CD-i wasn’t actually the first console to take CDs as their medium; that honor goes to the Commodore CDTV which managed to release just seven months before the CD-i. Nevertheless, the CD-i predates the first truly successful CD-based console, the Sony PlayStation, by a good three years—and nearly four years if you consider the PS1 didn’t come to the US for another full year after Japan.
Even in the early ‘90s, just as today, technology had already began to accelerate rapidly through various evolutionary steps. While the sheer difference between technology iterations isn’t as severe as the numbers of today, the same relative speed of technology advances were taking place back then as well. This is very significant when you consider the fact that the CD-i released three years prior to the PlayStation, what today could be considered to be half of a console generation. This eventually means that the CD-i is really a vastly underpowered PS1. The CD read times were half as fast, it had half as much memory, and its processor was half as fast. Really, think of it as a PlayStation ½.
I didn’t have much hands-on experience with the PS1 personally, but I do remember that, when Chrono Trigger was re-released for it, I remembered the load times for it being so bad that it felt practically unplayable compared to the SNES counterpart; this would have played that game even worse. As a result, the vast majority of software released for the CD-i was educational; there were all that many “true games” to speak of. What games there were tended to either be very simple—bordering on board games with very minor action portions—or very graphically limited—so as to make the game run at some semblance of a decent frame rate.
Keep this in mind later when we actually get to the games themselves.
The CD-i Zelda games were born as a result of a series of disagreements between Nintendo and Sony to co-develop a CD-ROM add-on for the Super Nintendo. Nintendo then turned to Philips and signed a contract with them to pursue the same device, though the device never actually came to fruition, eventually dismissed as a fruitless endeavor. However, contractually Nintendo had given Philips the right to use their franchise characters in games for their CD-i platform, and so Nintendo let them go about their merry way, doing very little other than “offering input” to the development of these games.
However, if the games didn’t already have enough going against them given the CD-i’s limited hardware capabilities, the games also had two more enemies snatching at their feet: time and money. The developers Animation Magic were given a fairly low budget and just under a year to complete both of the titles. In a crazy effort to stretch both their dollars and their time, they decided to pursue two avenues. First, they decided to build a common engine for both of the games so that they could effectively work twice as fast. Secondly, and perhaps more infamously, most of the animated cutscenes were outsourced to a Russian company, which served as a landmark occasion since such a thing had never been done before due to the effects of the Cold War.
Most of the rest, as they say, is history. Finally releasing just months after Link’s Awakening, the games managed to make it to retail and sell well enough by CD-i standards, though certainly the sales would be considered lackluster in comparison to the mainstream titles.
Alright, so let’s talk about the game. And before we talk about the game, let me have a little bit of disclosure here. I actually have played both of these. I’ve actually beaten both of these as well. It was nearly 17 years ago, mind, and so much of my perceptions of said playthrough are a little murky and reminiscing, but I think that’s perhaps the fairest I can be when trying to approach these games with a 1993 mindset.
So ignoring the cinematics (don’t worry, we’ll get there), the game is structured by placing the player on a map with two or three possible open locations to select from. Each of these locations has a distinct endpoint with a certain victory condition, such as reaching the end of the level or defeating the boss character located within. The player will get three lives (or two chances to continue) to reach that endpoint. Once the level is beaten, generally a new location will open up in its place. It’s pretty straightforward other than the fact that not all stages, including the opening ones, can be beaten right off the bat as often some special item is required to pass the level. The system works well enough all in all, though it can, when done correctly, make for an extremely short game, perhaps lasting only two or three hours so long as you don’t have to keep retrying the same stage over and over.
The gameplay is a hybrid of The Legend of Zelda and The Adventure of Link. It is like the original title in that Link and Zelda both have a heart gauge that can be expanded over time, and each enemy will deduct between one half and two hearts from the total. Similar to AoL however, it doesn’t take a top-down perspective but rather a side-scrolling perspective, allowing Link to jump. Link is able to equip one item alongside his sword in order to help him. Link and Zelda often do not need to defeat every any of the stage to proceed, but often some are in the way or are holding one of the keys to various locked doors. However, there are no maps, no compasses, and really no branching levels; the core focus of the game is survival until each stage’s endpoints.
As far as plot goes, it’s about as summary as any other early Zelda game. Ganon has invaded the land of Koridai and Gamelon, kidnapped or captured the other protagonists, and generally started being a nuisance to everyone, and so it’s up to Link and Zelda to collect items, defeat Ganon’s various henchmen, and rid the land of Ganon.
Using the game’s default infrared remote controller, the game isn’t really a lot of fun due to the significant latency and occasional random missed button presses when the receiver doesn’t quite catch the signal. Thankfully Philips released a wired gamepad akin to a somewhat gimped Super Nintendo controller (for an extra cost, of course), and anyone who really wishes to go through this game would do themselves wise to obtain one.
With the wired controller, the game can actually be a challenge, though the responsibility for the difficulty is half the game itself and half that the game’s control mechanism still isn’t the cleanest in the world. Occasionally the game can be a little cheap in that sometimes a particular enemy’s hit box will be just short enough to make it really hard to avoid getting hit, but there are quite a few counterbalances to that bit of nastiness, especially considering that many of the bosses are the easiest enemies in the game. Why? Well, many can be one-shotted with a particular item (such as Gibdo with the Shroud or Ganon with the eponymous Wand of Gamelon).
However, that still doesn’t make the game overly easy given that there are very few ways that Link or Zelda can restore their hearts in a given level. While the player always starts a level with full health, enemies never ever drop hearts that one can pick up. There are only a few particular places in the game where life can be recharged via Water of Life (primary in The Faces of Evil), and players can carry one “bottle” of Water of Life on them to use whenever they need. Failing that, players get two continues per stage, which sounds like a lot until you find those stages where you can fall to your death in a bottomless pit.
All in all, the game isn’t a complete cakewalk, but the challenge isn’t truly unduly unfair or unplayable. It really serves up a fairly decent challenge in this vignette of an adventure, and completing a stage often gives a decent sense of accomplishment.
We’re still ignoring the cinematics, mind. Let’s just focus on the in-engine graphics.
And they’re honestly really good, especially for 1993. It definitely beats practically everything that the Sega Genesis could muster, and the game offers a lot more detail than most SNES games did from those early years. The main reason why The Faces of Evil and The Wand of Gamelon were able to do so was because having a CD as a medium allowed them to have more memory for artwork.
And when I say artwork, I really mean it. While it may cause some players a small conniption trying to figure out exactly where a ledge ends and death trap begins, all of the backgrounds of the game were actually painted pieces that were then digitally scanned; level geometry was later invisibly placed atop of that. While the protagonists, NPCs, and enemies were still sprites, the backgrounds weren’t, and it was a testament to show just how good games in the near future would look like.
The game didn’t run quite as smooth as butter, being just slightly on the slower end of standard frame rates, the game pretty much was able to run consistently at that pace. Unlike some games such as Secret of Mana that ran perfectly fine most of the time but occasionally ran into huge slowdowns when one of the more complicated bosses were on screen, the CD-i never really blinked twice and did all the games asked them. Remember how the CD-i really was something like a PlayStation ½? That’s saying something. It’s even more impressive considering that some of the backgrounds had some degree of animations—minimal as they were—to boot.
All in all, these games were some of the “best of breed” games on the CD-i. And really, they looked better than scores of games found on SNES. While sure, the artwork is in many ways apples and oranges given the background sprite nature, it’s hard not to call a spade a spade. And let’s be honest; most game reviewers back in 1993 shared this opinion.
So now get down to what should be the nitty gritty of any game, how the game actually plays. While I’m not saying that every other part of the game is irrelevant, I have to be honest. Great graphics, music, and AI can transform a good game into a great one. However, bad gameplay means a bad game no matter how good the other parts are.
How do The Wand of Gamelon and The Faces of Evil stack up? I’ll admit that they’re not perfect games (though they’re far and away much better than Zelda’s Adventure was, no matter how much the AVGN disagrees). However, it’s nowhere close to unplayable, and it can be downright fun and challenging depending upon the level.
For the large part, most of the common enemies that you will find in the game are both fair and fun to fight. If or when you screw up and take damage, it’s generally justified, and you generally won’t feel like you were cheated out somewhere. That’s not to say that all of the enemy hit boxes are 100% perfect; there are a few that will have some tricky timing if you insist on letting them come into melee range. Most enemies have specific tells or patterns that will tell you how to defeat them and when to block, though sometimes damage is practically unavoidable, but when it is, it’s usually fairly minimal.
Many, though not all, stages have a boss at the end; however, bosses are very weird in this game. As I mentioned, most of the bosses in The Faces of Evil and The Wand of Gamelon, and this includes Ganon in both games, can be defeated with a single hit. The catch here is that it has to be a single hit with the correct item. Typically, one may find that a stage is completely impassable due to not having the correct item for the boss, and it’ll be up to the player to hunt that item up first.
This can sometimes be convoluted, involving, for example, rescuing a character from Stage X so that they go back to the town level, finding an item in Stage Y, and then going back to the town level to have that character create the item that you need. This is supposed to add some replayability to earlier levels, and while it works sometimes, other times it’s fairly annoying. Thankfully, the characters usually give good hints as to what you will need to kill each boss; unfortunately that does make the boss battles seem somewhat underwhelming when you do pass them. However, the games do have a few outright sword combat bosses, and that perhaps makes up for some of the bosses being very weak.
Outside of combat and item gathering—because yes, you will need scads of rupees and snowballs—the last primary component of the game is platforming, and I’d wager this is the least polished of the game’s elements primarily due to the nature of how the levels were constructed. Remember how I mentioned that the level geometry was added invisibly on top of background? A lot of figuring out exactly where a platform begins and ends can be a lot of guesswork, thereby making a leap from edge to edge an inexact science. Generally, it doesn’t interfere too much, but lives can easily be squandered by missed jumps.
Lastly, the controls can be a little tricky in certain spots, mainly on the account of the CD-i controller not having enough buttons. Like the Nintendo controller, it has two primary buttons (labeled 1 and 2). (Some games had a “Button 3” which was button 1 and 2 pressed together, but these didn’t use that.) However, there was no Start or Select button; just the two action buttons. In order to make Evil and Gamelon work, the pause and item selection menu was delegated to pressing Button 2 while you were crouching. This meant you couldn’t use special items while crouched, which was sometimes inconvenient. Furthermore, the method to talk to NPCs was to hit them with your sword. (The instruction manual referred to your sword as “smart” and promised it wouldn’t hurt friendlies.) But since NPCs and enemies could appear on the same screen, there were frustrating moments where one might swing at an enemy only to also hit the NPC, engaging the cutscene one more time.
All in all, the game functioned very much akin to a somewhat unpolished version of The Adventure of Link. AoL certainly had a much more involved and deep swordplay mechanic (though, the game didn’t really involve using much in the way of extraneous items), and the platforming was much more precise due to having a better controller and easily visible distances between ledges. FoE and WoG aren’t perfect, but they’re not bad either.
To be honest, the music of these games isn’t all that bad either. It is very different from the classical Zelda music from the early ‘90s, both thematically and artistically. None of the familiar themes are really present in either game, though that’s not extremely surprising since, outside of the Overworld Theme and the Title Screen themes, most iconic Zelda themes weren’t established until A Link to the Past, which was released only a year prior to the first two CD-i Zelda games.
The other major difference is that, due to the CD-based medium, the music is distinctively not retro with the beloved bleeps and bloops from yesteryear. I’m reasonably certain the music isn’t fully recorded as in full-fledged CD tracks and are instead just MIDI files, but it stands apart from what was the music from every other Zelda game released up until that point. In that sense, the music was higher quality that what you would have found, say, in A Link to the Past.
But if only it were memorable at all, I might have a different tune about this (pun intended). While all of the music fits the theme in the areas it plays in, and while the music is easily not terrible, it really doesn’t ever stick with you. A Link to the Past and Link’s Awakening had epic themes that were repeated at those climactic moments that really swept right through you; however, Faces of Evil and Wand of Gamelon don’t have the same. There’s always music, but it just doesn’t come into the foreground at all.
Cinematics and Voices
Alright, so I know everyone would be standing at my door with torches and pitchforks if I didn’t discuss this. Settle down. The time is now.
Yes, they’re terrible.
I know, I know, “no buts,” but this is my article, darn it.
But I would argue that, if we’re really being honest with ourselves, the cutscenes within Faces of Evil and Wand of Gamelon are actually extremely reminiscent of the Legend of Zelda cartoon. Seriously. Link acts about as derpy as his cartoon counterpart, desperate for Zelda’s attention and kisses, and has perhaps the most iconic lines from both sources. King Harkinian is presented as out of touch and rather unkingly, again much like the cartoon character. This leaves Princess Zelda to be the straight woman of the show, the one who’s more or less taking things as seriously as they need to be, not to mention actually being a skilled fighter. Oh, and also secretly in love with Link but just doesn’t want to admit it, just like the show.
Now say what you will about the CD-i cutscenes. I certainly do. However, back in the early 2000s, there was a website by the name of Team Save Zelda that wanted to bring the Zelda cartoons back into syndication. While back in those days the traction in the community wasn’t that mighty a force, over the later parts of the decade, somehow a switch got flipped, and suddenly the cartoon went from being “just plain not great” to “so bad, it’s good!” Somehow, the cartoon managed to turn the corner, and how that iconic line of “Well, excuuuuuuuuse me, princess!” is now part of our beloved Zelda culture. And we now live in a world where the cartoons are on DVD and not just “quietly downloaded” QuickTime files.
And I figure, why not with the CD-i games?
Because here’s the thing: No one talks about Zelda’s Adventure. You know why? Because there’s nothing worth remembering about the game. Not one thing. In fact, just mentioning “the CD-i Zelda games,” people will automatically start talking about the cutscenes from FoE and WoG. These are the most remembered details from the entire Unholy Triforce, and as I overheard someone say at work the other day, “the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” Even if the nature of the conversation isn’t exactly what you wanted, you have nonetheless affected people instead of simply being forgotten.
And if we can make fun of these cutscenes the same way we make funny and mocking references to the cartoon, then honestly, these games are in good company. Because really, after you’ve scrubbed all the floors in Hyrule, you might as well wonder what’s for dinner because it’ll be so boring around here.
So, to the best of my ability, that’s the closest review that my 13-year-old self could give about the games. Given that there was no Ocarina of Time or Majora’s Mask or Wind Waker to compare against, when I was a teenager, I really didn’t know how badly these would compare against future Zelda games. As far as I knew, they were just different renditions of the series I had slowly grown obsessed with. Did I think they were good? Well, I don’t remember thinking they were bad! They were Zelda, and I wanted to play them; what else mattered?
I would argue quite firmly that the main reason why most people do view these games all too harshly is not because they’re unpolished but that the Zelda experience has become so refined and perfected through the late ‘90s and early ‘00s that, by the time most people figured out these games existed, the only possible comparison that people could make would be an unfair one. That’s beside the point that you couldn’t even find much gameplay about the games until the late 2000s due to there being no YouTube before that. (Really, how did we live before YouTube?)
I will say for the record that I think every Zelda game in the official series is much more polished than these two games are. However, these games aren’t broken like Superman 64 nor are they frustratingly unplayable like Tingle’s Rosy Rupeeland (don’t get me started) or Atari’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. These are above that. They’re not terrible, but they aren’t super wonderful and fantastic. I wouldn’t recommend rushing out to eBay and dropping $300 on them plus a CD-i just so you can play them. (Maybe for $20 on Virtual Console would be more reasonable!) But they are worth acknowledging and laughing with. After all, mah boi, including these games in our community is what all true Zelda fans would strive for.
Most of the images used for this review come straight from HalfBlindGamer’s Let’s Plays of The Faces of Evil and The Wand of Gamelon.