Devil’s Advocate: The Zelda Animated Series

That’s right – I may be known mostly as a snarky critic, but I can play the other side at times and look to defend something that is frequently derided. After all, the blogger Hail Zeon did his own rebuttal to my critique of “Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation,” so I can set in and play that part sometimes as well. And circumstances have given me the perfect opportunity to start.

Yesterday, my Facebook feed exploded with the revelation that a live-action TV series based on “The Legend of Zelda” is in fact in development (it was originally reported in The Wall Street Journal; I hear they can be somewhat credible) to air on Netflix. Obviously there has been a great level of excitement and speculation as to how this series might turn out, but with that, I frequently saw one comment that I have to admit kind of got to me: “At least it can’t be as bad as the animated series.”

These comments are naturally referring to the “Legend of Zelda” animated series that was originally packaged as part of the Super Mario Bros. Super Show that first aired in syndication in 1989. Okay, I don’t know how much this is going to cost me nerd cred here, but as someone who was 10 years old when that show first aired, let me just step in and say:

The Legend of Zelda cartoon was not THAT bad.

I mean, when you compare it to a lot of other cartoon shows that were adapted from video games, does it really deserve to be thrown in with the likes of The Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog, Bubsy and that Battletoads pilot? I just can’t see that, and it is here that I will attempt my own defense of the show.

First off, there’s the main issue of why so many say the show is bad. They always go to the same thing – one simple part of the show that has stood out above all else…

Yeah. That.

Look people, that gag made sense at the time. Moonlighting was an incredibly popular show in the 1980s, and the scenario of a couple constantly fighting while secretly having the hots for one another was a popular plot element because Bruce Willis and Cybil Shepard made it so funny. It’s a natural element of TV writing to copycat; I think my own series has made that clear in more ways than one. Nintendo made no secret that’s what Link and Zelda’s relationship was based on – it was flat out mentioned in the Nintendo Power article that described the series.

It’s not like they were giving Link and Zelda personalties in this show that were contrary to the games – Link and Zelda had no personalities. Remember, there were only two Zelda games released at the time this show came out, and back then games didn’t have the memory capacity to have details like giving characters actual personality. Heck, that’s almost certainly what drove so many games to get cartoons at this time, because the demand and opportunity were there.

But let’s disregard the whole “excuse me Princess” issue about the show. Because the ridicule over that lone plot element really takes away from numerous others that, frankly, I have to say were pretty impressive for the time.

For first example, there was the story setting they created. Even the Nostalgia Critic admitted this show had a much more solid storyline than a lot of the other video game cartoons of the time. In this series, the prince of darkness Ganon has stolen the Triforce of Power, while Zelda and the royal family of Hyrule have the Triforce of Wisdom. Link is commissioned by Zelda to protect the Triforce of Wisdom while working to figure out how to get the Triforce of Power from Ganon, since whoever gets both Triforces will have the power to rule all of Hyrule for good or evil. The Triforce of Courage is never mentioned in the series, and in fact, that was the only real issue I had with the show – the show seemed to mostly take from the first game, but they did use Link’s young adult form from Zelda II and featured a small handful of monsters from the second game, so the chance to at least mention the Triforce of Courage was there. (For the record, the question of the Triforce of Courage was explained in numerous Zelda books and comics that were closely adapted from the cartoon, saying that Triforce was hidden “within Link’s heart” – just go with it.) Oh yeah, and it peeved me that Link was right-handed in the cartoon when he’s always been a lefty in the games (Hey, we southpaws have to stand up for one another).

But aside from these nitpicks, there were a lot of features in the cartoon that were really creative. The creators actually put some effort as to fitting in certain elements of the game to fit the setting of the cartoon. For example, how is Link (as well as Zelda) able to carry around all of that gear that you pick up throughout the game? Simple – they have magic pouches that allow them to miniaturize all their items for easy storage. We’re setting the show in a magical realm – that works pretty well.

But what really impressed me was how the creators got around the whole violence issue of the games to please the parent groups. No monsters were ever actually killed in the cartoon – what happened was, Ganon was able to summon his evil creatures from within a giant container in his underworld realm called “The Evil Jar.” Whenever Link, Zelda or anyone else hit a monster with one of their magic weapons (referred to as “zapping” them in the show), the monsters were transported back to the Evil Jar. And you know what? That actually works pretty well, especially compared to the games, when a defeated monster just disappears, only to reappear on the same screen some time later. Yeah, the show actually came up with a clever way to explain re-spawning!

And then, of course, there’s Zelda herself. For the time the show came out, she is actually one of the better developed female characters I remembered. This was back when adding depth to women characters and making them more than just distressed damsels in an action/adventure setting was starting to catch on, and this was one of the better examples. Yes, she could come off as being prissy at times, but she was also a very headstrong personality that was not afraid to get her boots dirty and battle side by side with Link, either being a master with the bow and arrow or using the Triforce of Wisdom to fight Ganon with magic herself. While there naturally were episodes where she got captured, there were times there where she actually rescued herself, and even one where she had to save Link. And of course, as the NC mentioned as well, at least they created a king character for the show (King Harkinian to anyone interested) so they could actually CALL Zelda a princess.

Speaking as one of the older members of the online critic community, I can’t help but wonder how many people who ridicule the animated Zelda series have actually watched it in full and instead are just piggybacking the popular opinion based solely on that one plot element. If you have watched the show – fine, it’s your opinion. If not, I do recommend hunting down the episodes and checking them out before passing final judgement.

Is it a great show? I won’t go that far. Can it be corny and cheesy at times? Yeah, but what cartoon show wasn’t at the time? I think what I’ve shown you in recent months on TV Trash has revealed that the 80s were pretty nuts, and I got a lot more examples, trust me.

But overall, this was at least one of the better carton adaptations of video games to come out at the time. Yeah, that’s not saying much, but the animation, character development, story setting and many other elements show the creators at least TRIED and put out an effort in developing this series rather than just throwing in random insanity because they had little to work with in regards to the game and refused to be creative. Sonic SatAM may have been the best of this crop, but I would put Zelda near the top of the list.

There are quite a few things that have come out of our youth that probably deserve some scorn in retrospect, but I have to say that the Legend of Zelda animated series doesn’t seem to me like it deserves all of the ridicule it gets. If anything, I do hope that this proposed live-action series will find a way to show a little homage to the cartoon and find a way to have Link say “Excuse me, Princess!” to Zelda at least once.

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