I love the CD-i Zelda games. There, I said it.
Okay, wait, let me clarify a moment. I’m not talking about Zelda’s Adventure; that game can go die in a fire for all I care. But The Faces of Evil and The Wand of Gamelon? Love ‘em. I almost had a small, unhealthy obsession with them back in the mid-‘90s as I started to become more and more immersed in the Zelda series. It would be a complete and utter lie to suggest that those two games weren’t a formative part of my early Zelda experience. I played them. Quite a bit. I looked forward to playing them.
But I don’t think it’s possible to understand why I was so engrossed with these games without walking through the story. So let’s turn back the clock to understand why it is that I am still, to this day, rather in love with two-thirds of the Unholy Triforce Saga.
Let me make the audacious claim here that I don’t believe that anyone can have an objective opinion about The Faces of Evil or The Wand of Gamelon unless he or she played the game in the 1990s, before Ocarina of Time. Now, I’m not saying your opinion is wrong, mind, just that it’s not objective. Ocarina of Time was such a game-changer for the series that I don’t think anyone’s perspective could fairly judge them for themselves having already experienced Ocarina. I don’t necessarily love these two games because they’re the best games of all time or anything like that – far from it. The games are deeply flawed, and they don’t hold up particularly well to modern gaming conventions. Instead, it’s all about the connection I had with them as my 13-year-old self.
The great console war
The year was 1994, and it was a period of the console war. I’m sure you understand that sentiment with Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo duking it out for superiority; however, today is a pale comparison to how things were in the ‘90s. Nintendo vs. Sega was omnipresent, and we didn’t even have the Internet to gripe about our console preference! Sega was my Evil Empire. The friend that finally convinced me that I wanted – no, needed – an NES eventually turned traitor and got a Sega Genesis. This was not to my liking, and this was one of the factors that eventually led to the decline of our friendship. I’m sure him moving one neighborhood over helped, too, but he wasn’t all that inclined to come over and play my SNES.
By 1994, both Nintendo and Sega had overcome significant rivals for dominance in the retail market. Those fancied-up trollops – the TurboGrafx-16 and the Neo Geo – had once struck great fear in me. The TurboGrafx-16 came out a full two years before the SNES, and it was a 16-bit machine. Back then, numbers meant everything; if you had more megabits or megaflops or kilopixels or whatever than your competitors, you had an advantage. I thought the TurboGrafx-16 was going to trounce Nintendo and its then-NES; I was very wrong. Then there was the Neo Geo; the $650 behemoth of a console that also threatened to ruin everything. I was 9 when it came out, so I didn’t grasp how economics worked. Had I known, I would have known it would have posed no threat. Instead, I waited in fear until it too went the way of the dinosaur.
And then, there was the CD-i.
My Zelda experience thus far through 1994 consisted mainly of three major influences. First, while still to this day I haven’t seen the Zelda cartoon, I was familiar with Link and Zelda via Captain N: The Game Master. However, it wasn’t until A Link to the Past when I played my first Zelda game, and it was that which truly got me hooked into the Zelda series, so much so that I begged my parents for Link’s Awakening on launch day. I would eventually become obsessed with all things Zelda from this moment on, creating concepts for dungeons in a fan-game that never saw the light of day, tracing and shading items as they were depicted in my Nintendo Strategy Guides, and playing out adventures in my mind in games of pretend.
However it was oddly enough the cartoon that would eventually pique my interest when it came to the CD-i. Before I was a massive Zelda fan, I was a fanatic when it came to Mario. I owned more episodes of The Super Mario Bros. Super Show – or more accurately, the Mario cartoons that were included in those episodes – that I would ever like to admit owning today. During Saturday morning cartoons, The Adventures of Super Mario Bros. 3 and the Super Mario World cartoon were the focal point of my morning; nothing could compete with it. Super Mario Bros. 3 always aired back-to-back with Captain N, so I was always guaranteed to watch both.
Begun, the CD-i obsession has
And then, there was a fateful day in 1994 when my mother took me shopping at the department store Elder-Beerman. There was little that I liked less than shopping for clothes with my mother. Gee, it sure was boring around there. So my mother and I had a pact; I wouldn’t make her shopping experience overly tedious if she let me go hang out in the toy section for the next hour or so. And if I got bored, I would dance over to the E-B annex where the electronics wing was.
Elder-Beerman’s relationship with video games was rather hit-and-miss. Sometimes they would have a surprising quantity of video games and demo units present; however, this was not the case in 1994. There were zero video games to be found in the toy section, so invariably I got bored and wandered over to electronics. And there was the CD-i console. A demo unit. Playing Hotel Mario.
Mario was one of my terrible weaknesses in gaming. Outside of my obsession with the Mario cartoon and all of the Mario games up until that point, I had a church friend Robert, and he and I played pretend in the Mario universe for literally years. We fought over who got to be Luigi because we both preferred Luigi. (He won.) We would sign messages to one another as Mario and Luigi. And here was another Mario game waiting for me, inviting me to play.
I wandered to the available controller and picked the “New Game” option.
And then I saw the most amazing thing I had ever seen in a video game to that day: a cutscene.
Yes, that cutscene. That was the first of many cutscenes that would one day become a common target for Internet derision. But it was one of the most beautiful things that my 13-year-old eyes had ever seen anywhere. It was beautiful for a multitude of reasons. The first was the fact that I had never ever seen a rendered cutscene in a video game ever before; all graphics before then were strictly sprite artwork with occasional Mode-7 graphics applied to it. Secondly, it had actual voice-over work in it. I think the only time prior to that that I had heard legitimate English audio coming from a video game was just a few months earlier in Super Metroid when the opening – in entirely grainy and computer-synthesized audio – spoke the words: “The last Metroid is in captivity. The world is at peace.” Third, this was on a rival console, a console that could completely shatter my Nintendo fanboy livelihood.
But above all of those reasons was this one: “That… that looks just like the Mario cartoon!” I don’t need to remind you that I loved the Mario cartoons.
Now, Hotel Mario isn’t that fantastic of a game when you’re analyzing it from a game design standpoint. It’s kind of nonsensical. The game is less about jumping on enemies and more about closing doors in a strange Koopa hotel. From an objective viewpoint, it’s really more tedium than fun as you struggle with doors randomly being opened back up and elevators that sometimes refuse to take you where you actually want to go. However, from another perspective, namely mine, my family owned an Atari 2600. I played E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial and Pac-Man, the two games most credited with bringing about the Video Game Crash of 1983. And I didn’t know any better to know those games were utter crap. I read the instruction manual and figured out how to play. You know, like you were supposed to do back then. Here was a game. A Mario game, and nothing was going to stop me from playing it.
Wait, there are Zelda games too?
So it wasn’t long before I discovered that my then-best friend James had a CD-i. I don’t know if it was divine intervention or a case of restrictive, paranoid (or cruel?) parents, but he was given “the educational console” instead of either an SNES or a Genesis. So after I experienced this Hotel Mario game, I came over to his house to discover that he already owned the game. And what’s more, he also already had these two games about Link and Zelda in his game collection.
Thus began my adventure through the Unholy Triforce, first Zelda: The Wand of Gamelon and second Link: The Faces of Evil. Over the course of spending time at his place and many sleepovers, many times sneaking downstairs while his parents were sleeping, we would play those games and continue to progress further and further through them, eventually finding the magical items needed to defeat each of the respective bosses and unlock new areas.
The games weren’t A Link to the Past or Link’s Awakening, I’ll give you that. But in those formative years, I didn’t really know much about “what Zelda was and what Zelda wasn’t.” Sure, it was a side-scrolling game; sure, the cinematic cutscenes reeked of classic late ‘80s and early ‘90s animation; sure, it had less-than-perfect collision detection and had platforms whose exact borders were incredibly difficult to identify. As far as I could say, this was still Zelda. It was, almost paradoxically, a more beautiful Zelda as far as raw graphics went. It was a Zelda game that featured new technology to deliver things I had never seen before until that moment. It was a Zelda game that brought significant challenge and wasn’t afraid to kill you off if you were too careless.
And it was glorious.
When I began constructing an outline for a two-player Link to the Past-esque Zelda title sometime around 1994 or 1995 (I forget exactly when), I included many weapons directly from The Faces of Evil and The Wand of Gamelon. I wholesale took the idea that Zelda could be an amazing protagonist and included her as the second player in my game idea. All of the ideas from these various games were rolled, Katamari-style, into one holistic concept of the essence of Zelda.
Back to the present
Every Zelda fansite on the Internet would typically have one short, sparse page relegated to the Unholy Triforce
It wouldn’t be, incidentally, until the mid-‘00s when any amount of real criticism would lick at the heels of these two games, namely because even finding content that covered the games was impossible to find. Every Zelda fansite on the Internet would typically have one short, sparse page relegated to the Unholy Triforce – though that name would come much, much later. And those pages would have one or two pictures from each of the games with a minor footnote that the games existed.
Only with the invention of YouTube and the ability to see the cutscenes in all their, erm, glory, did it become fashionable to lambast them as the piles of manure that they “clearly” were.
But truth be told, even though I joked along with the criticism, I still had a cockle or two within my heart that was warmed by these two games. I like them today for slightly different reasons. In part, they’re not that bad – they aren’t even close to Superman 64, thanks. In part, I have a nostalgic link to them. But mostly, I enjoy them because they’re totally camp. The ridiculous lines and overacted cinematics give it a special charm that makes me want to quote them near constantly. We quote the things that are memorable and stick out in our mind. I verily disliked the ending of Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail, but the rest of the movie was so outlandishly quotable (though admittedly childish and sometimes no longer funny) that I’m prone to quoting it every now and again.
That’s my experience with The Faces of Evil and The Wand of Gamelon. While they’re not the bastions of amazingly epic video games that still hold their weight in today’s world (unlike, say, A Link to the Past), they are amazing games to not only laugh at but also laugh with. They’re the stupid movies that you go to see with a friend so that you can MST3K them together in the theater. They’re the silly jokes that you keep reciting over and over even though the bulk of their funniness has long since faded. It’s the “All Your Base” craze that becomes funny all over again when you meet someone that doesn’t know about it.
They’re still Zelda games to me. Different-than-your-average-Zelda games, perhaps, yes, but still Zelda games. And nothing you say can ever convince the 13-year-old in me of anything different.