The Legend of Zelda Animated Series: A Very Strange History

The 1989 Legend of Zelda animated series is definitely not what you were expecting. Here's the weird history of its existence.

It’s quite amazing that Link, our favorite little Nintendo adventurer, has been a staple of the video game world for thirty years. Since the very first Legend of Zelda game in 1986, we’ve followed the stories of Hyrule, Princess Zelda, and the evil Ganondorf, as if it were the video game world’s very own Biblical epic. And this is a fight between good and evil that will hopefully continue to amaze and inspire us for many more decades, especially now that The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has finally been released. 

A couple of years ago, some buzz about a possible Legend of Zelda series for Netflix tantalized us all for a few short weeks before getting kind of debunked (though not exactly). But in any event, it got people talking. What would make for a successful Legend of Zelda series and what would not?

It’s practically impossible to even attempt that conversation without harkening back to the last time Link, Ganon, and Zelda herself graced the small screen (or any screen, for that matter) for any longer than a 30-second TV spot for the latest game. That’s right, we’re talking about the agony and the ecstasy that was the 1989 Legend of Zelda cartoon.

The show was developed by DIC Entertainment, which is also responsible for other famous cartoons such as Inspector Gadget, Captain Planet and the Planeteers, Sonic the Hedgehog, and Sabrina: The Animated Series. The writers included Bob Forward, Phil Harnage, and Eve Forward. You may remember them from things like G.I. Joe, Sailor Moon, and X-Men: Evolution

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Now, rose admittedly tints my memories of this short-lived series, despite the fact that I marathoned all thirteen episodes plus the horrid Captain N crossover episodes to prep for this article and, in the process, was confronted by how objectively bad much of the show is. Still, as far as a Zelda animated series goes, it’s the only basis of comparison we’ve got, so we’ll be taking a look back at this infamous cult treasure — the good, the bad, and the cringeworthy. Let us now marvel together at a show that somehow manages to be both better and worse than we remember it.

THE CHARACTERS

To the writers’ credit, they kept this simple. We really only had four main characters, five in the episodes where Zelda’s father, King Harkinian, appeared. Most of the time, though, it was down to Link, Zelda, Ganon, and Spryte. One thing this show did very well was to imbue video game ciphers with actual personalities, their greatest success being the titular character.

What a fantastic heroine we were given! At the time of the series’ production and release, only two games had dropped, The Legend of Zelda and Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. Up to that point in the games, Zelda’s character amounted to nothing more than a standard damsel in distress. The cartoon gave her an interesting, fun personality. Animated Zelda was smart, resourceful, proactive in nearly every episode, and took zero crap from anyone, especially the hero. While she did get captured from time to time, she didn’t always have to rely on Link to save her. Half the time, she saved herself, and there were even a few occasions when she saved Link. That’s right. The girl saved the boy, and the boy was pretty much cool with it. You didn’t see a lot of that in animation back then. Zelda, as a character, was very ahead of her time and women in animation of comparable strength would be few and far between for several years to come.

Then, of course, there is the characterization of Link, which is a rather mixed bag. To their credit, the writers were successful in imbuing Link with a distinct, memorable character. Unfortunately, that character was appalling. I’m sure the writers were going for some kind of “lovable scamp” vibe with him, but he really just came off as a whiny, obnoxious, barely competent creep with a catchphrase I can only imagine was written into his character bio in the series bible, because it is used at least once per episode. At least. However, despite the fact that this irritating catchphrase that no one ever thought was charming or funny has become an indelible part of this franchise, it is not the worst thing about the cartoon’s Link. I, for one, am far more bothered by all the sexual harassment.

And there is a lot of it. A LOT. Link is a straight up sexist creeper. He makes lewd comments at Zelda about her cleavage, harasses her for a kiss, treating her affection like some kind of commodity that he’s owed for his service (to be fair, she’s equally horrible by referring to it as a reward at the end of one episode), asks her to kiss him twice after she initially refuses, and even goes so far as to coerce her by physically preventing her from getting away from him until she gives him what he wants. And that’s just in the first episode.

I mean, you can dismiss it as swashbuckling or roguish or whatever, but it’s still harassment and it’s gross, and it’s double-gross on a kids’ show, especially since it’s not being portrayed in a negative light beyond being a mild annoyance to the target. Look, I’m loathe to put the responsibility of educating kids on their entertainment, but these were some pretty bad messages to send to the boys and girls watching this show: a girl’s affection is a commodity that can be earned, and if you feel you’ve earned it, harassment is totally acceptable. Please kill me now.

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To be fair, this skeeziness is equal opportunity. Spryte the faerie (who, in a touch of intertextual coincidence, foreshadowed Navi from Ocarina of Time) does hound Link for some affection that I don’t even want to theorize about the mechanics of, and even offers to help him in the bath. How the hell did this stuff get past the parent watchdog groups? Oh, right. They were too busy fixating on the violence and completely neutered Link as a swordsman.

Yup, he never once stabbed or slashed an enemy, not even non-humanoid monsters… not even the Stalfos, which are skeletons. Bonus points to the writers for referencing the game’s full-heart sword zap in the show, but it was the only viable attack. Link might as well have been packing ye olde glock for all the actual swordplay he engaged in.

There were other aspects of Link that didn’t have to do directly with his characterization. There was grave overuse of the whole Spider-Man-esque, wisecracking hero. Sometimes banter slows you down, and trust me, if I’m yelling, “Shut up and zap that guy!” your characters are talking too much.

Lastly, we have what is arguably the worst depiction of Ganon anywhere in this franchise. He’s just an anthropomorphic boar with a stupid-looking cap. His robes aren’t even all that impressive and wizardly. He’s just wearing a frock. I mean, really? Not only that, he was pretty damn incompetent.

True, this was fairly standard for 80’s animation for a few reasons. One, to avoid scarring the younger kiddies with a weekly dose of nightmare fuel and thus calling down the wrath of legions of pissed off parents. Two, he can’t be too effective, can he? Because if he is, well, show’s over. Granted, he possessed the Triforce of Power and not Wisdom, but come on now. His plans rarely made sense, were unnecessarily complicated and thus thwartable at various points, and he relied way too heavily on minions who had proven themselves inept time and again. That doesn’t make for a great villain. Neither did his constant teleporting, which, while a nod to the game, did seem kind of excessive and ridiculous. However, Ganon needing to be hit three times to put him out of commission is a nice nod to the game, so points on that count.

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THE WRITING

I think it’s only fair to divide the writing into two categories here, adaptation and execution, because the series excels at the former and generally sucks at the latter.

In adapting any work from one medium to another, in this case from a video game to a television series, there’s always a risk of losing something in the translation. Certain innate aspects of one medium simply may not work in another, and with video game adaptation in particular, especially those born of a time before story was much of an element, it’s a challenge to say the least. Taking that into account, the cartoon did a rather impressive job.

First off, Nintendo knew their audience. They weren’t trying to go off in a bold direction or make The Legend of Zelda anything other than that was it was, at least at that time. When the series was conceived, the franchise was only two games in, and that was all the mythology we had. There was no Master Sword, no Gorons or Gerudo, no Kakariko Village. It was pretty basic, and the writers would have really needed to go out of their way to fuck it up. Thankfully, they didn’t bother. This is not, however, to say they were lazy or lacked wit, because as watching just one episode will make evident, they packed each script with as many references to the games as possible.

We already had a full bestiary of monsters, so those were the monsters that were used in the scripts. They even referenced them by name when possible. The same can be said for the weapons and special items. One episode actually featured the flute, its now iconic melody, and the ensuing whirlwind which carried Link to safety. Items worked the way they worked in the games, as did the monsters. When Link is being rushed by a dodongo, how does he defeat it? A bomb right down its gullet! And, of course, when enemies are destroyed, they leave behind goodies. This show gifted us with an embarrassment of riches in the Easter egg department before Easter eggs were even a thing.

The use of the Underworld was also very clever. Instead of being a number of separate dungeons, as in the games, the cartoon’s Underworld was actually a massive labyrinth that ran underneath most of Hyrule, accessible by different entrances which resembled the Underworld entrances from the games. The dried up spring is a personal favorite. And it wasn’t just a network of caverns. There was actual architecture: staircases, bridges, doors. We’re talking some real Mines of Moria action that gave it a hint of texture. Even if the only denizens of this place are Ganon and his minions, it’s kind of cool that monsters actually have a place to hang their bloody swords at the end of the day.

As for the execution… sadly, it was not up to par. Outside of a few good one-liners, the actual writing of the show was not very strong in its execution. In fact, to be blunt, it was pretty awful. There are good episodes, and there’s usually at least one good scene even in the bad ones, but the plots seldom had anything to do with the Zelda mythology with which we’d been presented, surprising with the aforementioned fidelity given to the items and enemies.

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To be clear, a few of these plots were actually pretty good, notable examples being “The Missing Link,” “That Sinking Feeling,” and “Underworld Connections,” my personal favorite, which pays homage to the original game’s conceit of collecting and merging fragments of the Triforce of Wisdom. The trouble is that these episodes generally had very little to do with the games beyond the tug of war for the Triforce, and Gilligan’s Island syndrome pretty much guaranteed that no matter how close either side was to winning, something monumentally stupid and/or contrived would maintain the status quo, dashing any hopes of the story ever actually going anywhere.

You don’t need a Ph.D. in Literature to see how that could be frustrating as a viewer. Hell, even as a kid, I started to get fed-up with the chronic case of narrative blueballs after a while.

PRESENTATION

The animation was pretty bad. Mouths didn’t always sync up with dialogue and sometimes didn’t even move at all. Colors and even character designs varied within the same scene, sometimes from cel to cel, and the title fonts varied in color and size. Special effects, like magical energy and lightning, didn’t always go where they were supposed to go. Simply put, it was a mess visually.

However, everything in the realm of audio was excellent. While the cast wasn’t given the best scripts to work with, they did their best with what they had and managed some very engaging performances. Say what you will about the creepiness of the Link/Zelda dynamic, and you can say a lot, the chemistry between Jonathan Potts and Cynthia Preston made for some great exchanges, and Tabitha St. Germain’s witty delivery of Spryte’s dialogue elevated a character who defaulted on annoying to occasionally funny and even charming.

The sound design yielded even more of that glorious Easter egg action, not only incorporating sound effects from the games themselves, but doing so correctly, assigning the right sound to the right weapon or action. Link’s sword zaps sounded like his sword zaps! The flute actually whistled out those six iconic notes before summoning a whirlwind to speed our heroes to safety! Dropping a bomb sounded like dropping a bomb. It was such a gift. Cheesy? Maybe a little. But we loved it!

And then, of course, the music. The score for this show, rather than going the same route as the sound design (which would not have been a good idea), was comprised of several orchestrated variations on the first game’s Overworld and Underworld themes. Howard Shore or Ramin Djawadi the composer was not, but he adapted Nintendo’s music well enough to provide a backdrop to the action with some dimension and flavor.

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All in all The Legend of Zelda: The Animated Series falls squarely into the category of guilty pleasure. Even the most forgiving critical analysis can’t deny that on an artistic level it’s not very good, but that doesn’t stop it from being eminently enjoyable. It’s quality nostalgia and, at a total running time of just over three hours, not a bad way to kill an afternoon. And if you disagree, well then excu–

Kidding.