[17 October 2005]
Despite an adolescence misspent in the early 1980s, the height of the video-arcade era, I was never a videogame guy. My friends were serious Atari junkies, but I staunchly remained a pinball and air hockey enthusiast. As far as I was concerned, Space Invaders were people who got in your face, Galaga was a bad prop comic, and Missile Command was something we were terrified about Ronald Reagan having. And The Legend of Zelda was the working title of Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night.
Now that I have kids of my own, I’m better versed in videogame lore, especially The Legend of Zelda, the first four versions of which are the favorite diversion on their Nintendo GameCube. My son and daughter are, simply put, little Zelda maniacs, not content only to play the games, but to act out the adventures of young protagonist Link and plaster their walls with drawings of the various creatures he encounters in his quests to save the kingdom of Hyrule and its beautiful Princess Zelda from catastrophe. So when I found out that there was a Zelda cartoon show and that video distributor Shout Factory was releasing it in its entirety, I jumped on the chance to cop a review copy and glom some Dad-heroics of my own.
My kids were thrilled. They love the show. It’s made for little people like them, Zelda fans with the attention spans of spider monkeys on crank. For those of us who are not part of this relatively narrow demographic, The Legend of Zelda: The Complete Animated Series will make you feel like my generation’s parents felt whenever they had to drag us out of the arcade.
Zelda ran for 13 episodes in 1989, the featured cartoon on Fridays of a weekday Nintendo marketing-fest called The Super Mario Bros. Super Show!, which otherwise ran Super Mario Brothers cartoons, complete with videogame sound effects, bracketed by excruciatingly unfunny live-action skits acted out by Danny Wells and former pro-wrestler/Cyndi Lauper stooge “Captain Lou” Albano as Luigi and Mario. Some of the live-action segments are available on the Zelda set as optional special features. I use them to threaten the kids if they don’t behave.
The cartoon itself is fairly typical of the fallow period in American TV for kids during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, after network affiliates had by and large cut out most Saturday-morning fare and before Cartoon Network and the rise of anime breathed new life into the animation industry. Cartoons-as-toy-commercials have always been a staple of kiddie fare, but it’s hard to recall any shows of the period that weren’t promotional in nature and artless in execution. While shows like Thundercats (1985-87), Silverhawks (1986), the first run of Transformers (1984-86), and the big daddy of them all, G. I. Joe (1985-86), have engendered nostalgic micro-cults, in truth none of them are watchable as anything but stoner kitsch. As a friend of mine said to me, “Oh wow! I remember eating Legend of Zelda cereal while watching Legend of Zelda! I don’t remember if the show was any good, but I liked the cereal.”
The plot of Zelda is fairly easy to relate because, well, it’s the same plot over and over for 13 episodes. Link (Jonathan Potts), having secured the Triforce of Power, a floating glass pyramid which was the cheese of the second (and contemporary to the series) version of the game, is now relegated to guarding it from the forces of the evil subterranean wizard Ganon (Len Carlson). He possesses the Triforce of Power and seeks to swipe the other Triforce in order to rule everything. Thus each episode hinges upon Ganon’s attempt to either steal the dingus or abduct Princess Zelda (Cyndy Preston) and force her father to hand the dingus over. Link comes to the rescue.
There are two problems with adapting an adventure videogame to episodic TV. The first is that a quest in gameland is meant to take hours or even days of playing time to wrap up, a luxury unavailable to a weekly 20-minute episode. The second is that while Link and Zelda are certainly heroes, they don’t really have personalities in the game. The show gives them the personalities of Han Solo and Princess Leia in the first act of The Empire Strikes Back (1980). Link chafes at being stuck in Hyrule doing perpetual guard duty (as apparently Hyrule has no military or police, and its most powerful weapon is stored in a tower with the windows open). His only source of distraction is copping peeks at Zelda’s cleavage—I kid you not—and pestering her for a kiss. Zelda, when not accompanying Link on Triforce retrieval missions or being kidnapped, is bafflingly obsessed with cleaning the castle and getting Link and his Tinkerbell-like fairy pal Sprite (Paulina Gillis) to pick up a mop. And finding reasons not to give Link a kiss.
It’s all supposed to be charming, like Moonlighting for kids. It’s not, especially when Link and Zelda exchange witty banter that inevitably leads to Link’s catch phrase, “Well, excuuuuse me, Princess.” One prays for Ganon to nab the Triforce of Power and begin the mass executions. This will never happen, of course, as no one actually gets hurt in these adventures. Link carries a sword but uses it to shoot energy beams that send Ganon and his Moblins back to their netherworld, a sort of videogame-ish penalty box where they sit until the next episode. There is no conclusion to any of this, no proactive measures to end the threat to the kingdom. Just get the dingus, bring it home, clean the castle, beg for a kiss, and “Excuuuuse me, Princess,” ad nauseam.
The DVD set comes with negligible special features, such as a Zelda trivia game and a memory-match game. And the execrable live-action bumpers. Visit them once and you’re pretty much done, leaving the cartoon, which again is really only palatable to young children, like my monkeys, who a) happen to be fans of the game, and b) don’t seem to mind the repetitive plots and lame dialogue of the cartoon. With a target audience that small, it’s hard to imagine who else is going to buy this set.
Maybe fans of the cereal. I hear it was pretty good.