Could The Legend of Zelda Really Work on Television?
Netflix's rumored plans to bring the Nintendo franchise to TV could be a watershed moment in the debate of "are video games art?" It could also be another entry on a long list of calamities.
The opening minutes of Nintendo's 1986 The Legend of Zelda—the first entry in an unending series that helped define the medium of video games—are elemental storytelling distilled for the limits of 8-bit processing power. A little boy clad in green, tasked with rescuing a kidnapped princess, wanders into a dark cave. An unidentified wise old man presents him with a sword, saying, "It's dangerous to go alone! Take this." With that, the player is on his or her way. What else needs to be said? The game has had 16 sequels in the ensuing 29 years, each more complex than the next, but also a variation on that simple theme: Have sword, will travel.
Netflix is reportedly developing a live-action Zelda series, seeing it as a family-friendly Game of Thrones. The news has revived the age-old but still-unanswered question: Is it possible to satisfyingly translate a video game into another artistic medium? Dozens of action and horror films have tried, ending up as either notorious flops (Street Fighter, Prince of Persia) or forgettable knock-off franchises (Tomb Raider, Resident Evil). There's been even less success on TV, where video games are mostly turned into children's cartoons—including an obnoxious Zelda series in 1989 that featured a whiny teenage protagonist whose catchphrase was "Excuuuuse me, Princess!"
The case against filming video games is easy: Their plotting is often inherently derivative, because the real magic comes from the player's agency and ability to explore the world. There's no need to get too bogged down in story detail and nuance since there's so much else to do. Of course there are exceptions, and there's no doubt that as technology has expanded, so too has everything else. But even the most dazzling examples of video game artistry, like 2013's masterpiece The Last of Us, dazzle partly because they seem so much like movies. Take away the tension of playing, of having to fight for your survival in a zombie-apocalypse world, and they just feel like a competent entries in a crowded horror genre.
The Zelda series is even more intentionally derivative—each game is set in the world of Hyrule and features an elfin protagonist, Link, trying to either rescue or work alongside Princess Zelda, usually to defeat some demonic avatar of evil. There are dungeons to hack through, magical items to plunder, and usually some surprisingly knotty plot details revolving around secret identities or time travel. There's always been an undeniable vibrancy to the games that sets them apart—beautiful music and satisfying world-building without the reams of expositional text required by more complicated role-playing games. In a specific moment in The Ocarina of Time, released in 1998, Link wanders into a small village graveyard. The background music drops away so that you can only hear his feet padding on the grass, and then it begins to rain, and then thunder. It's an early video game milestone in terms of creating a real, cinematic atmosphere for no other purpose other than to have it. The rain isn't some puzzle or challenge for you to solve, it just helps set a mood. As basic as that sounds today, in 1998 it felt revolutionary.
That said, why can't Zelda be the touchstone for revolution again? Its hero-princess plot sounds basic on the surface, but the games always found fun wrinkles that subverted stereotypical expectations. In Ocarina, Zelda is locked away in the royal castle, but becomes a cross-dressing ninja-like hero who can hold her own in a fight just as well as her supposed rescuer. In 2003's The Wind Waker, she’s a gutsy pirate captain unaware of her royal heritage. The elegantly trippy Majora's Mask (2000) is set over three days and sees Link trying to stop a grinning moon from crashing into the earth by travelling back in time over and over to prevent the apocalypse. Part of its appeal is that Groundhog Day-like strangeness: You can witness the end of the world as many times as you like in your efforts to stop it.
There's plenty of room for the right artist to flesh this world out into something worthy of Netflix's attention. In a burgeoning age of subscription-only streaming networks, cult appeal is critical—there's no need to have 10 million casual viewers with a tenth of that audience shelling out $8 a month to see one specific show. Zelda is that ideal mix—an established brand that would still be breaking exciting new ground in television if done right.
And yet, of course, things could go wrong just as easily. The Wachowskis' latest bomb Jupiter Ascending has eye-popping visuals and plenty of creative flair, and is the rare media property that's trying to invent and explain a whole fantasy universe out of nothing. Unfortunately, that requires a ton of plodding expositional dialogue and a convoluted plot that, when poked at, is pretty bare-bones: man rescues lady, villains get in the way, plenty of action set-pieces ensue. It's easy to imagine a Zelda show going exactly the same way—nobody wants to watch something that has to stop every five minutes to explain what's going on, who this new monster is, or why the villain of the week is trying to imprison a princess.
Still, why not err on the side of optimism? If Nintendo does agree to the adaptation (it’s generally wary of licensing its properties after repeated failures like the Super Mario Brothers film) and the right creative personnel come on board, Zelda could be a watershed moment of legitimization for video games. About halfway through The Ocarina of Time, an adolescent Link journeys to a temple laden with magic treasures, his quest to aid the princess seemingly complete; instead, his actions unwittingly play into the villain's hands and he wakes up years later, fully grown, in the same world overrun with darkness. Sounds like a hell of a season finale.