The Oral History Of 1989's Legend of Zelda Cartoon Explains It All
January 11, 2023
For those of you who weren't there in 1989, let me explain that when Mario and Luigi came to syndicated cartoons, it was a very big deal. Our favorite characters were starting to prove that they were more than just pixels and beeps, and as the money machine took notice, they started to appear on school supplies and snack foods and cheaply-made clothing. While Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Bros. 2 were the big stars of the day, Nintendo was also focusing attention on The Legend of Zelda and Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. Remember that this was pre-SNES. There was no Super Mario World or A Link to the Past yet. Hell, in North America there wasn't even a Super Mario Bros. 3 yet! The Super Mario Bros. Super Show featured cartoon tales of Link and Zelda each Friday in stories inspired by little elements of the two video games and, well, just about anything else the creators could come up with, as this was an era in which the creative folks did not analyze individual moments of the games for inspiration. We were lucky if Link wore the correct colors and maybe you heard a familiar sound effect sometimes. Nicole Carpenter at Polygon has interviewed some of the writers and voice actors from the old Zelda cartoon and given us a look into how the show was made, and I don't think you'll be surprised that much of it was not inspired by the games.
Rather than simply recreating the video game, The Legend of Zelda’s writers positioned the show more as a mix of action, comedy, and drama, taking specific inspiration from Cybill Shepherd’s and Bruce Willis’ ’80s show Moonlighting. Writers wanted Zelda and Link’s relationship to mirror Shepherd’s and Willis’ rapport as Maddie and David on the detective show — the same angry sexual tension, but goofier and lighter for the kid-friendly cartoon TV show.
As an adult I appreciate this show for what it was and am glad it's still available, but my inner eight-year-old who watched it in 1989 is still screaming into the void about how it didn't follow the "rules" of the games of the day. Don't worry though. I keep him hushed up.