The Legend of Zelda and the Curious Case of Link’s Vocal Chords

By  · Published on February 9th, 2015

HongKong Animation

Netflix and Nintendo are coming together to (potentially) create a Legend of Zelda TV series that would (potentially) satisfy the decades-long clamoring to see Link’s adventures in an official, live-action capacity. Big news. But more than big news, it’s a perfect storm- just detailed enough (“live action,” “Netflix,” “Game of Thrones comparisons”) to send people into a tizzy, but still vague enough that we really don’t know anything about The Legend of Zelda beyond that Netflix may or may not be making it. Those are perfect weather conditions for random conjecture- and, most likely, a surge of Netflix/Zelda think piece speculation in the near future.

The storm’s already begun. Pieces asking questions like “What might the cast look like?” (admittedly, this list- containing choices like Nick Offerman and Beyonce- seems designed mostly to piss people off) or “Is live-action Zelda unfilmable?” are sprouting up online. One I’ve yet to see is “What game/timeline would the series follow?” but that could be because society has collectively assumed it’ll be Ocarina of Time.

In the ensuing Zelda think piece flurry, there’s perhaps one idea that stands head and shoulders above all (and an idea that was given a quick mention in the second link above). An idea that, as we consider every possible facet of a Zelda TV show (you know, Wind Waker could make a solid series adaptation) is intrinsic to making this franchise live-action. And to some extent, may explain why every game-to-film adaptation is more or less a total crapshoot.

In every Legend of Zelda game worth mentioning, Link has no dialogue. Guy’s a complete mute. Were it not for the occasional high-pitched grunt/gasp/sigh, you’d never know he had vocal chords. That’s something Netflix will have to address, and they’ll have to address it one of two very obvious ways. Either A., they introduce a protagonist who will stare into his castmates’ eyes and say nothing over the course of a twelve-hour bingewatch, or B., they bite the bullet and write Link some dialogue.

And despite the obvious drawbacks to A, both are risky ventures. As proof of that, let’s amble through the last 25ish years of Zelda adaptations- some that opted out of dialogue, some that didn’t, and some (almost all of them) that are a little embarrassing. It might just shed some light on this Linkspeak dilemma.

As the musical strains of a Zelda opening cutscene cue up in your brain, let’s travel back to 1989…

The Legend of Zelda… The Cartoon

This short-lived 1989 cartoon is forever Exhibit A in all arguments against giving dialogue to a dialogue-free hero. Because if you write that dialogue and you hire that actor and they don’t jive with the preconceived ideas your audience has held onto for years in advance? Not pretty.

The absolute worst-case scenario being DIC and Viacom’s ’89 The Legend of Zelda animated series. Things seem fine at first- maybe the animation’s a bit roughshod (it was the ’80s, after all) and maybe the iconic Triforce symbol’s been rejiggered, but nothing to cause offense. And then Link opens his mouth (first heard at 40 seconds in, above) and out comes “Hey! Excuuuuuuuuuuuuuse me, Princess!” like he’s anticipating the canned laughter in advance.

God, that’s awful. And in 40 seconds, it’s killed any sense of this being a legitimate Zelda adaptation. Instead, it’s a historical footnote and and example of creative bankruptcy at its most horrid. Somewhere, a Viacom exec was watching Diff’rent Strokes and just had to give a fantasy cartoon hero his own “What’chu talkin’ bout, Willis?”

The Legend of Zelda… On CD-i

Another early example of an animated Link with dialogue, the Phillips CD-i game console had three early Zelda games to its name. Entitled Link: The Faces of Evil, Zelda: The Wand of Gamelon and Zelda’s Adventure, these were special cases, created not at Nintendo’s behest but because Phillips won the rights to use Nintendo characters in their own games, thanks to a contract negotiation.

They were put out on the quick and on the cheap, and as a result these three games are absolutely abysmal. But by featuring animated cutscenes with spoken dialogue, they offer a potent counterpoint to the failings of the 1989 cartoon. Instead of a Link that sounds nothing like Link, we’ve got a Link that doesn’t sound like much at all. In the game’s animated sequences, Link drops the sitcom schtick and plays things as generic as can be. Link’s one mood? Cheerful. Link’s one thought? Boy, adventuring sure is fun! Lines like “I can’t wait to bomb some Dodongos!” “I just wonder what [evil, marauding dark lord] Ganon’s up to!” and “Great! I’ll grab my stuff!” are a good summation of CD-i Link’s “You’re stabbing me? Neat-o!” worldview.

Despite innovations like live-action cutscenes (sadly, no Link- just an old man speaking to no one) and making Zelda the protagonist in two of the three games, the CD-i Zeldas are near-universally hated. But for a cocktail of different reasons- the grainy insanity of the animation (and a tendency for characters to jam their face against the camera lens while speaking) or that the actual games weren’t very good either. Still, I’d consider this an improvement on the ’89 adaptation- perhaps an overall drop in quality, but a Link that’s substantially more faithful and mildly less embarrassing.

The Legend of Zelda… In Print

The years have seen their share of Legend of Zelda in comics- Valiant Comics put out in a few in the early ’90s, official Nintendo magazine Nintendo Power published a Zelda graphic novel over the course of twelve issues, and nearly every major Zelda released has received a manga adaptation.

All those printed Links speak aloud. And for the most part, the standard that was set on the CD-i (and then promptly forgotten) has remained; Link’s lines have a semi-generic “thirst for adventure” to them, and not much else. Typically, the younger Link is, the more he gains a sense of precociousness; the older he gets, the more he’s a straightforward warrior. Though they don’t offend like previous Links, these Zelda protags don’t offer much in the way of character.

The one exception would be that Nintendo Power comic, which was created by Shotaro Ishinomori (the godfather of Japanese superheroes- think Kamen Rider and the original source material for Power Rangers) and is actually pretty terrific. Here, Link actually has a personality- slightly naive and slightly sarcastic. Shoved into a world-spanning Chosen One-type quest, he comes off as very Luke Skywalker. But Ishinomori’s Link is the rarest of rares- there’s no other Link that’s been given dialogue and doesn’t come off at least a little hammy.

The Legend of Zelda… On Film

Case in point. There’s never been a full-on, Nintendo-approved, live-action Zelda anything with a scrap of dialogue to it. But there’s been quite a few that exist without that pesky “Nintendo-approved” part, and we can look to them for guidance.

At the very top of the respectability ladder are two clips. One is a pitch trailer from Imagi Animation Studios, made to coerce Nintendo into funding a computer-animated Zelda feature (they didn’t bite).

The other is a fake trailer, laboriously put together by IGN as an April Fools prank in 2008.

Huge round of applause to IGN on that one, for the three months it took to create that trailer, the effects that (circa 2008) were good enough to pass as genuine and for the pitch-perfect on-purpose miscasting of that Derek Zoolander lookalike as Link. You’ll note that both of these trailers skip the dialogue, sticking to Link’s usual in-game grunts only. And if you look at the wide majority of Zelda fan films (enjoy an assortment linked up to these hilarious Zelda words: Bongo Bongo, Kakariko, Groose) you’ll find the very same. The one exception (that I could find, anyway): The Legend of Zelda: The Hero of Time (seen above), a near two-hour fanmade feature that gives Link a legit speaking role.

That right there’s the lynchpin; the clearest indicator of what Netflix’ll be doing if they can get Nintendo to cooperate on an idea everyone agrees on. Because if you’re putting Link onscreen for, let’s say, less than five minutes- the average length of a fan film or a video game cutscene- chances are you can get away with keeping him silent. But every time a Zelda adaptation’s needed its hero to carry something longer- a two hour film, a season of cartoons or a year-long manga adventure- it’s dialogue all the way. It honestly doesn’t seem possible otherwise.

Which leads to our other major takeaway- each time Link’s been giving stuff to say, he comes off like a completely different person. Ishinomori Link and 1989 Excuuuuuuuuuuuuse me! Link are two wildly different characters. Despite similar dress sense, they’re about as alike as Luke Skywalker and Gary Coleman. Meaning: every time you give dialogue to Link, a character with no dialogue, you’re writing a new character entirely from scratch. Which, I’d venture, is one of the reasons “Based on the Hit Video Game” is synonymous with “Critically Panned.”

Video games are a medium based around player control, where the player’s input directly effects the the actions and characterization of the protagonist. Films can’t do that, so adapting a game into a film and will naturally create something with a flimsy protagonist. Unless you write your hero with enough charisma to balance that out, you’ll end up with a great gaping hole in the center of the film. The Legend of Zelda, with its dialogue-free self-insert hero, is the perfect example. Netflix had better approach this like they’re creating an entirely new hero with a lively, interesting personality, then fit him for a green tunic and call him Link. Otherwise, The Legend of Zelda: A Netflix Original Series will be too dull to last more than half an hour, tops.

That’s my take on the matter. Now, for the exact opposite stance on the matter, here’s the guy who’s had a hand in every major Zelda game for the last twenty years ‐ Eiji Aonuma.

“One other thing that we’ve tried to do is that since people have played Zelda over the years, they have their ideas of how Link might sound. If we were to put a voice in there that might not match up with someone else’s image, then there would be a backlash to that. So we’ve tried to avoid that.”

Certainly food for thought.

Related Topics: