How the worst-ever Zelda games spawned a bizarre online subculture

A weird-ass genre of YouTube video inspired one fan to remaster the legendarily terrible CD-I Zelda games. Now he’s making a spiritual sequel.

Seth was a teenager in 2007 when a friend showed him the animated cutscenes from the CD-I Legend of Zelda games Link: The Faces of Evil and Zelda: The Wand of Gamelon.

As a Zelda fan, Seth was vaguely aware of these games because of their bad reputation — they are two of three Zelda titles that were made, without Nintendo’s involvement, for the Philips CD-I, a failed CD-based game console of the early ’90s. But when he saw the games’ cutscenes for the first time, he couldn’t even comprehend what he was watching.

In the opening moments of The Faces of Evil, for example, not only does the series’ famously silent protagonist Link talk, everything about the character comes off as high camp. “Gee, it sure is boring around here,” Link says, stretching his arms backward as his eyeballs rotate a full 360 degrees. “My boy,” the king of Hyrule replies, the camera zooming in just a little too close, revealing his grotesquely articulated features. “This peace is what all true warriors strive for!”

It would seem that the animators from the now-defunct Russian-American studio Animation Magic were so excited to bring these scenes to life that they overdid everything, resulting in a twitchy, cartoonish take on some of the most beloved characters in gaming history.

Shortly after seeing the cutscenes for the first time, Seth — who asked that his last name not be used and now goes by the online handle Dopply — began to hang out in a small, informal community of creative young people who crafted YouTube videos in a similarly ridiculous style using odd pieces of pop culture. The creators, who numbered in the dozens at the movement’s height, would do things like edit an interview from The Rock’s wrestling career into an absurdist art piece.

That style soon became known as YouTube Poop. As his fellow YouTube Poopers (yes, that’s what they call themselves) began to grow in popularity, the Zelda CD-I scenes became increasingly infamous within the broader gaming community, spawning memes and fascinating those who grew up with the Zelda franchise. In recent months, for some reason, Faces of Evil shopkeeper Morshu has become a popular meme, despite the fact that he only has two lines in the game.

Now in his late twenties and working in finance, Dopply first got the idea to remaster the CD-I Zeldas in 2016, when he and a few buddies were discussing Nintendo's tendency to update previous Zelda games for new consoles. Dopply jokingly suggested that someone should focus their efforts on remaking games that needed the help, like Faces of Evil and Wand of Gamelon.

Before he knew it, Dopply was searching online to see how difficult it would be to port and restore the games to a playable state on PC. (From his own experience, he knew that CD-I emulation was still in a relatively primitive state, though it’s since improved.) He initially wanted to remaster the much simpler Hotel Mario — the CD-I’s equally poorly received take on the famous plumber — but Dopply decided to stick with the Zeldas after discovering someone had uploaded high-quality rips of the art assets of the two games online.

“They are hilarious,” Dopply says of the Zelda cutscenes. “The sincerity of the cutscenes is what carries it. The characters are doing such bizarre things, moving so strangely, with odd voices, but the game is 100 percent committed to whatever is happening. I had to watch these scenes hundreds if not thousands of times, and I’m still not sick of them.”

If you aren’t familiar with the Philips CD-I itself, you’re not alone. The CD-I (Compact Disc-Interactive) is one of several forgotten CD-based devices that attempted to merge “traditional” media like television shows and movies with interactive games in the early ’90s. Unlike later devices such as the 3DO, the CD-I wasn’t really marketed as a video game console, and much of its library was composed of “edutainment” modules like encyclopedias and virtual museum tours.

As for how Philips got the rights to publish both Mario and Zelda games for its platform, it’s actually a footnote to one of the most consequential broken deals in video game history. In the late ’80s, Nintendo and Sony collaborated to build a CD-based add-on for the Super Nintendo; Nintendo later backed out of the arrangement and partnered with Philips to make a CD console instead. While that never happened, the deal gave Philips the rights to make limited third-party Mario and Zelda games.

“It’s almost unbelievable that they exist, considering the locked-down approach Nintendo takes to their properties in the modern day,” Whelt, a YouTube Pooper in her early thirties who works in quality assurance and delights in the CD-I titles’ off-brand appeal, tells Input via Discord message. “I have to wonder if these games were part of that course change for Nintendo.”

The games have certainly changed lives, for the better. Take Italian YouTube Pooper and animator Pennaz, who first became aware of the Zelda CD-I games through a video game magazine. The 29-year-old didn’t end up finding the cutscenes until he was browsing YouTube in 2007, but after that he quickly became a part of the niche YouTube Poop community and began to make animation shorts featuring the CD-I Zelda characters.

“We could definitely say the Zelda CD-I games made me a YouTube animator,” Pennaz tells Input via email. “They were a beautiful mistake. They helped create a lovely community of creative people in which I felt at home, and that motivated me to keep working on my passion for animation, which is now my full-time job.”

As for Dopply, his initial push to remaster the two games eventually resulted in a playable build of Wand of Gamelon that he showed to a few friends in 2018. Shortly after, he lost motivation in the project, and focused instead on creating an independent video game with a friend. When that fell apart in 2019, his YouTube Poop buddies challenged him to “finish a project for once,” and he endeavored to produce final versions of both games in his free time.

It took him the better part of two years, but he finally released the enhanced PC ports in late 2020. Though Dopply knew the reputation of the Zelda CD-I games quite well by this point, he expected his “10 or so” friends to play the ports, laugh, and move on. Instead, news of the remastered versions was picked up by major gaming and general news outlets, leading to an influx of interest.

“I thought my satisfaction would be having finally completed a project for once,” Dopply says. “I continued to be blown away by the positive reception, especially by the people who say I did an excellent job and didn’t think the games were as bad as they were led to believe."

With the spotlight on his project, Dopply quickly decided to remove his download links and cease development on the remasters in order to avoid any potential legal action from Nintendo. Though the video game giant is famously litigious when it comes to fan works, Dopply says he never really worried about a cease and desist during development — after all, he only expected a handful of people to download the remasters, and Nintendo never publicly acknowledges the existence of the CD-I games anyway.

Now that interested parties can easily play the games for the first time — if you know where to look — some fans are discovering that these famously terrible games aren’t so terrible after all.

Dopply himself describes Faces of Evil and Wand of Gamelon as fun but flawed “prototype Metroidvanias” — a style of non-linear action game popularized by Super Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night that only gained a reputation as two of the “worst games ever” due to the popularity of the animated cutscenes and the top-shelf quality of the official Zelda games.

However, everyone I talked to for this piece — with the exception of CD-I enthusiast Sebastiaan Batenburg, who runs the exhaustive CD-I fan blog Interactive Dreams — seems to agree that the third CD-I Zelda game, Zelda’s Adventure, is actually as bad as its reputation suggests. (That said, several still expressed interest in playing a remastered version of it, if such a project were to exist.) Opinions on Faces of Evil and Wand of Gamelon still vary wildly. “They’re terrible,” Pennaz says. “I love them.”

“It's not fair that the Zelda CD-I games are considered so poor,” Batenburg tells Input via email. “If you took away the Nintendo sticker, these games would be rated much differently, like the cult classic Laser Lords. Apparently, people expect Nintendo Zelda games to look alike, so anything that is different from that is rated badly.”

It’s not clear where YouTube Poopers’ irony ends and their sincerity begins.

Though Batenburg appreciates the effort that Dopply put into making the Zelda CD-I games easily accessible to fans, he resents a bit the cultural power (and dubious reputation) that YouTube Poopers have given the animated cutscenes. Batenburg and other enthusiasts feel that other CD-I games — including the platformer The Apprentice, which is also available in remastered form — deserve some time in the sun as well.

Though the famously reviled games are getting a reappraisal thanks to Dopply, it’s not enough for him. Now that he’s proven to himself that he can finish a project, he says that he and a few friends are working on a “spiritual successor” that iterates on what people like about the Zelda CD-I games, while updating their gameplay and mechanics to more modern standards.

Though this follow-up will use all-new characters, Dopply is confident that it will capture the flavor and aesthetics of these bizarre games. Or, as he puts it: “If you like the remasters, you're going to like this.”

Though many YouTube Poopers say they have an “ironic” appreciation for the infamous cutscenes, it’s not clear where this irony ends and sincerity begins. Dopply compares the cult of the CD-I Zelda games to that surrounding Tommy Wiseau’s comically abysmal film The Room.

To YouTube Pooper Whelt, however, there is no tongue-in-cheek element to her ardor for these scenes. At a certain point, love just means love; the original reason for it is irrelevant.

“My appreciation is genuine,” she says. “I don’t believe that irony really exists in this sense. If you're doing something ironically, in the end, you are doing it genuinely. You’re dedicating your time and energy to something. I’ve seen what starts as ironic behavior become genuine too many times to think otherwise anymore.”