The Legend of Zelda has been with us for 30 years, but over the passing decades, only one animated series has ever spawned from this notable Nintendo brand.
During the company's rise to power throughout the late '80s to early '90s, they weren't exactly shy about building a media empire. With both The Super Mario Bros. Super Show and Captain N: The Game Master hitting the air in 1989, a child could conceivably watch Nintendo-related programming six days out of the week--with Sunday presumably being reserved for the ritualistic reading of Nintendo Power back issues. And, in retrospect, it was more than apparent that Nintendo had no (or wanted no) oversight over these productions: Even in an era where TV cartoons couldn't possibly aspire to greatness, both Super Show and Super Mario World featured terrible, mistake-laden animation and insipid plots that mainly involved replacing words with "koopa" in a very Flintstones-esque manner.
It could be that Nintendo simply lost interest in spinning their most popular properties into other forms of media, but 1993's Super Mario Bros. movie most likely motivated Nintendo to keep both Mario and Zelda on a much tighter chain. While the film has its fans, most would agree that it's a film made for no one--outside of the people who desperately wanted the bouncy, storybook world of Super Mario dressed up in dreary, Blade Runner-inspired production design. Following this movie's release, we'd only see lesser Nintendo brands like Kirby and Donkey Kong Country (which saw a show years after its initial popularity) get the cartoon treatment--with Pokemon launching alongside the game as a risky proposition. But before Nintendo could close the door completely on licensing their A-list brands, we at least got one The Legend of Zelda animated series. And, by all accounts, it was... kinda okay.
Of course, Zelda's cartoon adaptation should probably be judged by the standards of the time. It launched in 1989 as the Friday component of the Super Mario Bros. Super Show, just as the '90s animation renaissance began, but before its shockwaves could be felt throughout the entire industry. And, having been an avid viewer of the Super Show in those days, I kind of got the feeling that the show's producers knew their Zelda cartoon stood far above anything else they cobbled together: Throughout the week, Mario (played by the late Lou Albano) would introduce clips from the upcoming, end-of-week Zelda episode. Just as Friday inexplicably meant "Pizza Day" for a lot of kids from my generation, we also associated the coming weekend with getting an oh-so-rare glimpse of an animated Hyrule.
Just because the people behind the Zelda cartoon tried a bit harder than the Super Show crew doesn't mean they were trying all that hard, though. Given that Link, Zelda, and the rest of the series' characters remained mostly personality-free for the first two games, our friends at the animation powerhouse DiC simply borrowed the Hanna-Barbera adage, "Why write new jokes when you can steal from the best?" So, Link received a catchphrase lifted wholesale from Steve Martin's act, and was cast as a perved-up, whiny horndog whose only motivation involved the chance to kiss Princess Zelda. (Seeing as this is a kids' cartoon, the desires of teenage Link are pretty chaste.) Ganon takes the form you'd probably expect from an '80s cartoon villain: a buffoonish, Skeletor figure who usually ends most episodes foiled and cursing the hero's name. Strangely enough, Princess Zelda has a slightly progressive representation: She's still essentially kidnap-fodder, but is shown to be much smarter and more competent than Link, who she mostly only tolerates through the course of the show's 13 episodes.
If you've been spoiled by the last 25 years of TV animation, what's seen on The Legend of Zelda could hardly be called "good." Yet, stiff at it was, Zelda's animation essentially looked like a Ghibli film compared to DiC's work on series like Super Mario World and the later episodes of Captain N: The Game Master. And though the visuals came close to depicting Hyrule circa 1989, the show's soundtrack gussied up Koji Kondo's small collection of tunes with some orchestral arrangements that hit those epic notes the NES hardware just couldn't handle. This may seem like a minor feature today--what with nearly every game soundtrack freely available on YouTube-- but for someone who wouldn't know about orchestral game soundtracks for close to another decade, hearing that Legend of Zelda theme played with real instruments made for appointment television.
The Legend of Zelda also figured out a way to embrace the series' inherent violence in a way the Mario cartoons never really did. Throughout the series' various action scenes, Link kills plenty of monsters, but the show distances itself from any ethical quandaries by giving mortality a very video gamey (and Ghostbusters-y) conceit. When Link dispatches one of Ganon's minions, they blip out of existence and reappear in a sort of "containment unit"--not the most elegant solution, but certainly less patronizing than the Dragon Ball Z dub equating death with "being sent to another dimension." (Which is technically true, but whatever.) The fact that The Legend of Zelda made room for the series' action meant that it could be more than just the warmed-over, practicall Public Domain sitcom plots of the Mario shows--even if Zelda wasn't above cramming each script with as many cheesy one-liners as possible.
It's been nearly 27 years since the Legend of Zelda cartoon aired its final episode, and so much time has passed that the idea of a new series strikes most of us as a proposition that could only end in abject failure. Animation has grown up a great deal since the late '80s, though, and even if the original Legend of Zelda cartoon was as good as it could have possibly been, that doesn't mean a new series couldn't be better. Heck, The Wind Waker seems tailor-made for animation, given its large and colorful cast of secondary characters and its visual style lifted from a popular 1960's anime movie. Regardless of what the future holds, 1989's Legend of Zelda cartoon could have been much worse--and if you've read my other USgamer articles about video game cartoons, you'd know how bad "much worse" can get.