American CD-i Cover
American CD-i Cover
The two CD-i titles, Link: The Faces of Evil and Zelda: The Wand of Gamelon (hereafter LZ), are good games. In fact, they are very good games. Don't pull away from this statement in disgust, and please save your hate email until the end, but perform for me one small favour and acknowledge these three facts:
1) Nearly every source of information (both online and in print) fails to describe the actual gameplay or show more than a few scant images of in-game action.
2) Many sources simply provide blanket criticism, especially of the cinemas, without detailed explanation, and then only show you images of the cinemas (which is why this article contains not even a single such image).
3) You have probably not played either game, and if you have, you've possibly not gotten very far.
Henry Jacobsen said, "People would rather be wrong than be different." This is certainly the case with LZ. They're not mind-blowingly fantastic, they're not the best Zelda games (though in this author's opinion they're far superior to Adventures of Link on the NES), and they do have obvious faults which I will highlight. But they are fun and do have merit, which makes their universal criticism all the more sad. By the end of this article I hope to show why they're good, that they're two of the better titles on the CD-i, and also explain how they came about, through interview answers with the games' creator, Dale DeSharone. You should also have quite a good idea of how they play, thanks to all the screenshots shown here, courtesy of Quebec Gamers.
Let's destroy the myths behind these infamous Nintendo CD-i licenses for good.
Link: The Faces of Evil
How they came about
Mr. DeSharone was originally a primary school teacher who became involved with early Atari home computers, creating software to help teach the children in his class. During this time he sent programs to the Atari Programming Exchange, winning both first and second prizes. Desiring a change of career he moved into full-time software development.
Dale DeSharone: "I just sort of fell into it by accident."
Once involved with games full-time, Mr. DeSharone created the much loved Commodore 64 classics: Adventure Creator, Alice in Wonderland, and Below the Root (if you like 2D adventuring I highly recommend Below the Root - utterly brilliant), and also co-authored several books with Herb Cole. He then worked on other titles, before becoming involved with Philips.
Dale DeSharone: "In 1987 I moved from Northern California to Boston, Massachusetts, to help build a CDi team for Spinnaker Software. Spinnaker had a deal with Philips to produce seven launch titles. I eventually became manager of the development group. I had originally planned to be at Spinnaker only one year as Philips was planning to release the machine in 1988. That one year turned into four, due to constant delays with the hardware emulation systems and the operating system. It was dreadfully slow and severely limited what was possible. If you look at the scrolling in Link or Zelda you'll see that you can only scroll about 2 or 2.5 screens horizontally. This was dictated by the video memory available.
Mr. DeSharone went on to explain at length all the technical problems with the system, from an inability to properly stream audio, the poorly interfaced infra-red controller, slow 68000 processor, problems with saving and so on. It's a miracle what developers managed to squeeze out of the CD-i, and even then AIM (American Interactive Media, Philips' CD-i software publishing arm) didn't want games.
Dale DeSharone: "It was just obviously not a game system and Philips was actually very clear in telling us that they didn't believe the market for this device was games. There was a subtle hostility toward games that I noticed from the upper echelon of execs at AIM . Philips thought that people would buy the machine for home educational purposes. This all changed after the launch of the CD-i platform because the only titles that actually sold were the game titles. After the launch of Spinnaker's seven CD-i titles I left the company. Spinnaker did not have plans to continue CD-i development. I chose to start a new development company and was able to get development funding from AIM. Most of the CD-i team from Spinnaker left to join this new group."
Now things start to get really interesting, as Mr. DeSharone reveals some truths about the Philips and Nintendo agreement.
Dale DeSharone: "This is where the Link and Zelda story begins. Somehow, Philips got a deal with Nintendo to license five characters. As I understood the arrangement, it wasn't a license of five games but five characters. A number of developers pitched AIM with ideas. I think AIM chose to go with the biggest names that Nintendo had at the time. We pitched separate ideas for a game starring Link and a separate one with Zelda. The development budgets were not high. As I recall they were perhaps around $600,000 each. We made a pitch that we could maximize the quality of the games by combining the funding to develop only one game engine that would be used by both games. This was in 1991-92 and even at this time a U.S. technical employee cost about $100,000 per year to support (salary, taxes, office space, equipment, insurance, administration costs). This was also a time when a 1GB hard drive cost $3000. We had a team of three programmers (other than myself), one audio engineer/composer, four artists and a producer. We had a single freelance writer who wrote the scripts and helped design both games."
So the studio was formed and work began. Wishing to hear more, I asked about the atmosphere of the time and what it was like creating these games.
Dale DeSharone: "Wow, well, as I recall, it was a pretty rough time. We had just left Spinnaker, we had a new group of people, so we were creating an office in Cambridge. At the same time we had this group of animators in a couple of apartments. As I recall I would be going back and forth from the office in Cambridge, working with programmers, working to build the engine, back to the animators, going through the script and teaching them the process of how they were going to get the animation done. Also, hiring the U.S. based artists who were working on the game artwork itself. We had, maybe just a little over a year to produce them. So it was pretty tight."
The games were released simultaneously, and the rest is history as they say (see further pages for specifics on audio, visuals and gameplay).
Zelda: The Wand of Gamelon
I asked some more general questions, such as what he thinks of games development today and also of Zelda's Adventure, the third Zelda game on CD-i.
DD: To put an entire Triple-A game together and creating it, requires so much money, and such a huge team these days. I really have seen a lot of different companies, and every game has its story. Not just the story of the game, but a story of what the situation was in terms of how it was built, where it went, and what the different facets are. You know, in terms of timing, and money, and constraints from the hardware, and constraints from the publisher. So, you know, I have a lot of compassion and empathy for all of the companies that get great games actually made and out the door. (laughs)
JS: Actually, what was your opinion of the third Zelda game on CD-i?
DD: You know, I never played it all the way through. I saw part of it, and then sort of lost interest. It didn't really draw me in. How about you? Did you finally get it?
JS: Yeah, I didn't like it very much. I thought it was absolutely terrible to be honest. It felt rushed, like they'd brought it to market having only finished it to 50%.
DD: Yeah. It could well have been. (laughs) It could well have been only 50% finished.