The Philips CD-I console is widely regarded as one of the worst technologies ever released in the history of video games. From the insanely high price of $700 US to the underwhelming game library focusing on a disturbingly high number of edutainment products, the Philips CD-I attempted to coast on the budding CD technology instead of making quality software. It died rather quickly, but not before leaving insanely large stains on two of the gaming industry’s biggest franchises. Nintendo’s involvement with a potential CD add-on produced by Philips for the Super Nintendo allowed licensing agreements to bloom. As a result, Philips got the rights to use two of Nintendo’s largest properties: Mario and The Legend of Zelda. In an effort to produce appealing content for the expensive system, Philips published four CD-I games made by development house Animation Magic, three of which took place in the Zelda universe (Zelda: The Wand of Gamelon, Link: The Faces of Evil, and Zelda’s Adventure) and one in the Mario universe (Hotel Mario).
The games actually were considered passable during their initial critical reception around release, but time has nearly erased any positivity involving the games. These four games have steadily earned the dubious honors of being named some of the worst games in the history of gaming and for good reason. The problematic controls, the poor design, confusing in-game presentation, frequent technical issues; the list goes on. But the games remain in the back of the culture’s psyche in their perverted representation of the Mario and Zelda franchises. Animation Magic’s cheesy-as-all-hell animated cutscenes suffered from terrible animation quality, cringe-inducing voice acting, and an aesthetic that had more in common with children’s religious education cartoons than Zelda or Mario. The cutscenes have been involved with countless Youtube Poop videos (look ‘em up) than any reverent representations of the series.
Go on Youtube and type “Youtube Poop” into the search bar. About 96.4% of the resulted videos involve a CD-i game at some point.
It’s not too surprising that Nintendo has done their absolute best to forget these games. The management themselves has yet to publically even reference the games, while it took decades for former Nintendo publication Nintendo Power to in any way note of the games’ existence (the only time during the publication’s history that I recall the games being brought up was in a joke reply to a fan letter saying that the CD-I image of Link is best placed underneath the ass). The Zelda CD-I games themselves were not referenced in the Zelda historical companion book, not even as a joke. So, Nintendo clearly does not consider them to be worthy of the Zelda name. Same with Hotel Mario. Aside from the fact that official Mario voice actor Charles Martinet was not yet voicing Mario, the rough, Brooklyn accents of the Mario Brothers clearly show the lack of sophisticated message and principle involved with who Mario and Luigi were and who would be interested in playing their games. The simplicity of the gameplay in Hotel Mario also showed that Animation Magic was in no way interested in preserving the platforming spirit of Mario, focusing more on a puzzle mechanic that wouldn’t be too unusual in a 99-cent mobile title nowadays. Nintendo has long since eliminated any third-party involvement with either of the series, reserving the right to develop games using the licenses. Even the Flagship developed Oracle of Ages/Seasons and The Minish Cap were all strictly overseen by Nintendo management. The Mario series has also been forbidden from being developed completely externally since the Nintendo Gamecube’s release in 2001.
The fact is Nintendo is very afraid to trust any other development houses with these two franchises. They remain two of the most recognizable video game series in history and are both instantly connected to Nintendo. They are cornerstones in the company’s image. The disastrous results of the CD-I licensing of the series scared Nintendo to the bone, that their franchises were not only not selling, but being terribly misrepresented. With Zelda: Faces of Evil, for example, giving Link a voice, introducing unnecessary personalities for tertiary characters and making the already straightforward Zelda narrative archetype (“hero saves damsel from evil”) even more derivative were all poor ideas and Nintendo wanted to make sure that that never happened again.
But Nintendo doesn’t understand that while these stains clearly don’t go away (just ask the Youtube Poop community), the main idea is still something of significant value. There is a way for these venerable series to feel fresh and unique again. In fact, Nintendo already did that. They let the licensing take its course and let another company give Zelda or even Mario a go. Did it result in a success? Absolutely not. However, the game industry has evolved and grown, and consumer opinion is interestingly refined nowadays. We have many more game development houses now than we did in 1994, and our tastes have moved on from the corny CD-I world. The gaming crowd isn’t apathetically watching the industry move forward. With the rise of internet input, crowdsourcing, and the steady involvement of the consumer with the developer, gamers are more in-tune to the gaming industry than ever before. Crappy software doesn’t get overlooked anymore; gamers will make sure it doesn’t.
If another company were to take up the arms and give Mario or Zelda a try, the input from the modern gaming community will critique it (constructively or otherwise) every step of the way. They will be able to offer suggestions in making the game unique, creative and unlike past installments. It’s an idea that may sound irresponsible at first, but in practice it could broaden the appeal of Mario and Zelda. No, they shouldn’t adopt FPS mechanics, gritty post-apocalypticism, multiplayer focus or anything like that: Nintendo should clearly keep the guts intact. But surely there are some ideas worth implementing. You just need to find the right people to try them.
The Legend of Zelda – Oracle of Seasons & Ages were developed by Flagship games (an independent developer).
You really can’t blame Nintendo for locking Zelda and Mario away from the outside world. The two series are clearly important and valuable franchises for Nintendo, so handing them off to any random dev is sure to result in disaster once again. But one thing could definitely work in Nintendo’s favor here: the eShop community. Nintendo has been treating the indie crowd very well with the Wii U and 3DS offerings on the eShop. By involving these smaller developers even in just a small way with a new Mario or Zelda game (maybe another overseen collaboration like they did with Flagship), they could build experience and publicity for the indies, offer opportunities for them to innovate along with them, and most importantly, have them help in creating independently developed experiences that you will only find on Nintendo’s digital distribution service.
Hey, Mario: all toasters toast bread.
The CD-I games may be ugly bruises on the Zelda and Mario names, but with mistakes comes improvement and growth. It shows that traumatically terrible events can do a ton of damage to a person or company’s behavior, locking them out from other ideas and making them hesitant to give the idea another try. Nintendo should give it another try, because unlike in 1994, the responsibility involved with using such a prolific and popular license is demanding, both by the license’s owners and the gaming community themselves. Will we see another situation like this? Will Nintendo cave and allow another studio to try their hand at these enormous franchises? In all honesty, probably not, but just like many other surprises from Nintendo, the chance is always there.
Nintendo may want you to forget those terrible CD-I games, but you really shouldn’t, and neither should they.
It began with a hand-me-down Sega Genesis from his cousin and since then, he's been fascinated with video games. He enjoys the blissful platforming of the 16-bit era and the rich adventures of the 64-bit era. Favorite games include Metroid Prime, Banjo-Tooie, and practically every 16-bit Sonic the Hedgehog title.
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