Legend of Zelda cartoon: An oral history of the Nintendo TV show
The world knows The Legend of Zelda’s Link as the brave hero of Hyrule — a young warrior of few words. Link is a master with his bow and an excellent swordsman. But back in 1989, when The Legend of Zelda cartoon first aired, all Link wanted was a smooch. A kiss from Zelda, to be exact — but he’s not exactly picky, and unlike the laconic hero of the games, he would not shut up about it. The hero of Hyrule is still tasked with defending the Triforce of Wisdom from Ganon’s grasp on the TV show, but that’s secondary to his insistence on a little kiss. The show’s bizarre portrayal of Link — especially his constant begging of “Excuse me, Princess!” — has made The Legend of Zelda cartoon a hilarious head-scratcher to this day.
In 2023, Polygon is embarking on a Zeldathon. Join us on our journey through The Legend of Zelda series, from the original 1986 game to the release of The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, and beyond.
Back in 1989, The Legend of Zelda aired in 15-minute episodes every Friday during The Super Mario Bros. Super Show!, a mix of live-action and animated segments based on Nintendo games. Once a week, The Legend of Zelda replaced the Super Mario Bros. show, which featured animated segments of Mario and Luigi but, more memorably, the wacky, iconic live-action performances of WWF wrestler Lou Albano as Mario and The Jeffersons’ Danny Wells as Luigi, who welcomed fans of the show with the catchphrase, “Hey there, paisanos.”
Clearly, Super Mario Bros. was the main event for the Nintendo-themed TV block. It ran for 52 episodes compared to The Legend of Zelda’s 13. But for the writers of the Zelda cartoon, that was a boon: They had very little oversight and direction beyond character designs, a franchise “bible” provided by Nintendo, and the original game, also called The Legend of Zelda, and its sequel, Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link. As they were not video game players themselves, the writers did their research and decided to go in a different direction — one that’s more focused on story than gameplay. There were elements of the games, like sound effects and visuals, but the show mostly has Zelda and Link posted up in Hyrule castle defending the Triforce of Wisdom from Ganon while trying to acquire the Triforce of Power from the evil wizard himself. (The Triforces talk, by the way.)
Between the mischief that Zelda, Link, and fairy friend Spryte get into, The Legend of Zelda relied heavily on the relationship between Zelda and Link. Zelda, donning pink pants and purple thigh-high boots, more often plays the hero to Link’s bumbling teenage angst.
What we get from the short-lived ordeal is a charming and absurd rendition of a beloved (and often quiet and unvoiced) franchise.
From pixels to the small screen
Most of the Super Mario Bros. Super Show’s budget was tied up in the main part of the show — the Super Mario Bros. show that led the time slot. When Super Mario. Bros Super Show was canceled, The Legend of Zelda was shut down alongside it. But for the show’s short run, writers said they had little interference from Nintendo, which just wanted more eyes on its game properties — especially a new one like The Legend of Zelda. It was the first time — and still one of the rare times — that Link and Zelda got their own voice actor performances, and probably not the ones fans expected.
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.
Bob Forward Story editor and writer, The Legend of Zelda
The Legend of Zelda was going to be a small addendum to the Super Mario Bros. Super Show, which was the actual star of the time slot. DiC needed somebody who could handle it on their own without a lot of supervision. After we had the initial discussion, they supplied me with a VHS tape of [a playthrough of] the game itself, since I wasn’t actually a person who played video games — not that I had any objection. I just hadn’t really done it. They had a playthrough of the game that my sons were fascinated by. That was my research for it.
I don’t know if anyone cares about this, but the playthrough VHS tape that they supplied me with I guess had been played by one of the new Charlie’s Angels. I think it was Tonya Roberts. I guess she was a gamer when she was younger.
Reed Shelly Story editor and writer, Super Mario Bros. Super Show
The project originated as a concept by Andy Heyward as Super Mario Bros. Power Hour, a one hour-long animation block that would have featured series based on a number of intellectual properties. Concept art was produced for adaptations of Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda, Metroid, Castlevania, Double Dragon, and California Games. With the exception of Mario and Zelda, none of these additional adaptations were ultimately produced.
John Grusd Director, The Legend of Zelda
Nintendo wanted us to base the show on the new game [Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link], because, you know, it’s great marketing. What they did was give me the Japanese version of the game, because it wasn’t out here yet. I didn’t know anything about the game when I started. I’d never played them. I wasn’t a gamer or anything. That’s how I learned how the characters move, the sound effects, the music. I got to be able to do the games all the way through pretty quickly, as a matter of fact, because I knew all the shortcuts. I could get through both of them in less than two minutes, probably. It’s pretty fast.
Phil Harnage Writer, The Legend of Zelda
It was a fun little show. And I say little, because they tacked it on to Super Mario. It really should have been a stand-alone show. It was very limiting for what the writers could do. I worked on the bible and wrote a couple of episodes. When you write the bible, you hand it off to somebody else, but occasionally you get to write a script. That’s the fun part. It was a fun show to write for because of the tension between Link and the princess. We modeled it after Moonlighting. We tried to capture that, and I think we did. Maybe over the top a little bit, but that’s what we were shooting for. We could have come up with a lot more shows. That was the sad part, that we only got to do one season.
Eve Forward Writer, The Legend of Zelda
My brother somehow ended up suggesting I try writing an episode, and I was able to turn out a couple of scripts that, with his editing, ended up getting used. I was about 16-17 at the time. The only direction I had was the show bible, which outlined the basic characters and sorts of stories they were looking for. I didn’t have a Nintendo, so I rented one, and the game, and tried to play it, but I didn’t get very far. But the basic relationships were all established in the show bible; Ganon bad guy, Zelda tough girl, Link charming scamp, Triforce MacGuffin, etc.
I did play Dungeons & Dragons though, at the time, and some of that feel made it into the show. [The seventh episode] “Doppelganger” was based on a cursed mirror in D&D. Well, the monsters in Zelda were all based on things from the Nintendo game; same with the weapons, like Link’s boomerang. But in D&D of course you’re always fighting monsters and imagining how cool your character looks doing it, so a lot of the various swashbuckling stuff I liked to put in was based on things that had happened in our D&D games. I always thought of Link as more of a rogue than a fighter.
We had a schedule we had to put the scripts through, and I think it was two a week. That wasn’t hard — I worked on shows we had to do five a week, so two a week was just fine. Eve and I were just writing them on our own. We even had my mom pitch a story. She wrote something that we ended up having to do a lot of work on, but it wasn’t a bad initial concept. [Bob and Eve’s mom, Marsha Forward, had her script adapted as The Legend of Zelda’s 11th episode, “Fairies in the Spring.”]
I wrote a bible for my own purposes, something that just outlined who all the characters were and what they wanted. Robby London [DiC executive] wanted to have some signature lines, and Moonlighting had just come out, or was very popular. Robby London came up with the idea of the line, “Excuuuuse me, Princess,” which is inspired by the Moonlighting relationship and a snarky line from a Steve Martin routine. I’ll be honest, what I liked about Robby is that he would make quick decisions. As much as I was giving him a hard time about it, I put [that line] into the show way more than it was really necessary. But it turned out to be OK, even though people made fun of it. People remembered it, so I guess he was right. I have to admit, it caught on.
No one had ever heard Link or Zelda speak
People were certainly familiar with Link and Zelda by the time The Legend of Zelda cartoon was released — The Legend of Zelda and Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link had been out for some time and already were popular. But characters were composed of just a few dozen pixels, and they weren’t voiced. It gave the TV writers lots of room to mess around; the show existed outside of the games, with Link just hanging around Zelda and her father’s castle, defending the Triforce from Ganon every once in a while.
The show had to be largely carried by Link and Zelda’s personalities, plus the few other characters who appeared: Spryte, a fairy, and the two talking Triforce pieces (Wisdom and Power). So, the writers made those few characters big. Ganon is merely an annoyance to Link, whose more pressing problem is convincing Zelda to give him a kiss.
We very much made it up as we went along. The other nice thing was that everybody was so concentrated on the Mario brothers that they completely left us alone, which is always my favorite way of working. You know, as long as we hit the page count and got the scripts in on time, nobody was looking.
Link always wanted a kiss. That was one of Robby’s inventions. I thought it worked out. I was down for it. I kept expecting people to tell us we couldn’t do it. But apparently it worked.
Jonathan Potts Voice actor, Link
I pictured Link as being a teenager who was like the ultimate teenage boy, who was like a puppy. If you can imagine what a puppy would be [like] — running around, peeing on the carpet, and overreacting — everything was dramatic. I remember wanting to do that. I wasn’t a teenager then; I was well into my 20s when I did the part. I had to be that youthful, goofy teenage boy who acts before he thinks.
Cynthia Preston Voice actor, Zelda
You start reading something and you just have instincts — all of your experience, and all of the movies you’ve done, and all of the classes you’ve taken, and that feeds into how to start molding a character. What does this character want? What do they want from this character? I don’t think I was playing Zelda as a teenager. She was an independent woman — a young woman, but she was independent. She didn’t need a hero to save her, and that was so cool.
The show certainly wasn’t ahead of its time, but nonetheless it was a cool aspect that it wasn’t playing a damsel in distress.
We didn’t want a Disney princess. We’re not going to be selling princess dresses to six-year-olds. So yeah, she was an action hero in her own right, and that was kind of unique. But the writers didn’t come up with [Zelda wearing pants] — that was something the artists came up with, and Nintendo loved it.
It was ahead of its time in some ways, but wasn’t always. Zelda was a good role model for girls. She was confident and took charge. She did want what she wanted, but was also very responsible. And Link was irresponsible. He was out there conniving: “How am I gonna get her to kiss me?” There’s fun in that. That’s where the Moonlighting model really worked.
The scripts weren’t complex. There weren’t a lot of deep things going on. It was all right there, sort of obvious. So [direction] usually came down to technical things — more energy.
There was this time a director wanted me to laugh more as Zelda. I was trying, but laughing is harder than crying to do naturally. Shockingly, he mooned me and I fell over laughing. I really have the feeling I didn’t get the right laugh, but it was damn funny.
A talking Triforce?
Writers said Nintendo didn’t want them coming up with new characters and backstories, so they worked with what they had. That’s where the Triforce pieces came in — the show couldn’t only be Zelda, Link, Ganon, and Spryte. There was the Triforce. Why not make it talk? Successful or not, the Wisdom piece of the Triforce did have a role in the show: Moving the story forward and explaining the situation.
Link and Zelda wanted the Triforce of Power, and Ganon wanted the Triforce of Wisdom, so [in] half the shows Link and Zelda would be the ones to instigate the action as opposed to just hanging around and waiting for Ganon to start something and trying to reestablish the status quo.
The whole Triforce thing, it came out of the game and everything, but I don’t know — it was hard to figure out. What does that mean? The Triforce? What do you have to do with it to make it work? I wasn’t really happy with that. I thought it would be much more fun to have them fighting over who’s going to control the land. But [the Triforce] was from the game, and you had to do it for the gamers.
The more things talk, the more explanatory it can be. You’re like, Why did this happen? And the Triforce can tell you, you know? It’s magic. In a magical world, you have to set the rules, of course. But you set the rules yourself.
A sword fighter in a show without fighting
For a TV show about a game with a hero who hits things with swords, The Legend of Zelda has surprisingly little sword fighting. The Legend of Zelda was a kids’ TV show, and that meant it had to follow the network’s standards — so characters couldn’t die. Link and Zelda still have weapons, of course, but they don’t seem deadly. Link’s sword shoots out magic bullets that stun enemies, and Zelda often uses a magic bow that uses magic instead of arrows.
Link has a sword, but can he actually use it to chop somebody’s head off? He can’t do what he does in the game. Nintendo wants us to do what they do in the game, but the standards and practices at the network say no. We can’t kill someone on children’s TV.
Magic brings a whole different ambiance to a cartoon, because it’s something you can do that’s not repeatable by kids. You can shoot a lightning bolt and turn someone into toast. And the toast gets up and walks away. You just have to be careful — you can’t do everything you want to do. You can’t do anything that could be copied by a child. You don’t want kids sword fighting.
Link’s sword could fire like a ranged weapon. Actually hitting people with swords was questionable. It wasn’t something they wanted to do back then. It was easier to just shoot zaps from the sword. We also had to establish that nobody was dying, so there was the jar of evil or something, where everyone hit by zaps were sent to and got put into storage for a while. We had to downplay a lot of things.
One and done
While Super Mario Bros. Super Show had tons of episodes, The Legend of Zelda has only one season. That’s the way of TV cartoons — things get canceled and people move on. The Legend of Zelda itself has gone on to be one of Nintendo’s most successful properties, but the TV show is still a small part of that legacy.
The show feels like a time capsule to me. It’s such a different world now and so different for kids. The shows were made for a different era.
It was an incredible creative playground. We had to deliver 52 episodes at a rate of four a week [for the Super Mario. Bros Super Show]. We had live action, animation, and an action sequence set to a well known song. It was an amazing production circus to be a part of.
With Andy Heyward and Haim Saban executive producing and running the shows, we were allowed to have a ton of fun. All we had to do was make millions of kids laugh.
I’ve no idea what the reception to the show was. This was in the days before internet; you couldn’t just log in and see your work torn apart in real time. My own feeling is that the Super Mario Bros. show wasn’t very good, especially the live-action bits, and that Zelda was the best part of it, but y’know, it was a cartoon, for kids. We weren’t trying to make Citizen Kane or something. But of course it was a huge thrill for me to see my work on television!
Part of the reason [the show was canceled] is that it wasn’t its own show — it was part of the Mario Bros. show. It was tied to it, and they didn’t want to renew The Mario Bros., and Zelda got shuffled off. History, at that point. I wish I had done more. We could have come up with a lot more shows. That was the sad part, that we only got to do one season.
I think the show holds up pretty well after all these years. They’re all on YouTube. [Ed. note: And Amazon Prime Video!] I don’t know if you know this, but we don’t get residuals.
Everybody wishes that Link and Zelda had gone on to bigger and better things [with the TV show], but they didn’t. You have these regrets about every show you do. Sometimes you wish you could have done more, that you could do more, but there were certain things you had to do to please the network.
We got a lot of good feedback from kids, and even older kids who knew the video game. They would watch the show out of curiosity and get sucked in. We had a few letters saying, “Oh, please don’t cancel it!” But getting a few letters isn’t enough to convince the network. They’re the boss, because they funded the things. DiC, the studio I worked for at the time — they were known for finding the current properties they could exploit. They were purely in the business to make money, like all the studios.
I’m always surprised at how much notoriety it has. I don’t think it was a hit at the time, because then we would have done more. We did it years ago, and it was one season with 13 episodes. It was a one-and-done sort of thing. It had its time, and it just keeps growing. I get letters from all over the world.
I was teaching voice classes at Second City, and the class would be people in their 30s, and the engineer would look at me like, Go ahead, tell them. And I’d say, “You know, I was the voice of Link in The Legend of Zelda,” and inevitably, three or four people would be like… I became a celebrity. I can’t believe that. It was just a gig years ago.
They would be so starstruck, which is a joke, because I’m not a star. But they’d get … [imitates expression of amazement]
It came up [at a party] that I was the voice of Zelda in the cartoon, and [people] were so stunned. They rolled up their shirt sleeves, and they both have the Triforce tattooed on their arms. I’ve been at pitch sessions and somebody will find out that I’m the voice of Zelda, and the reaction is astounding. People love it so much.
I remember on my first trip to Redmond and the Nintendo headquarters, they had a couple of hundred “game counselors” in a call center at computers giving tips to gamers calling in. It cost, as I remember, something like 99 cents a minute for players to get game tips. When a group got to go on their lunch break, they raced each other to play the newest arcade console game in the cafeteria. I remember thinking, “This computer gaming thing is gonna be big…”