Editor Note: If you’re not familiar with the term “pile of shame”: basically, it’s all the games you’ve purchased over the years but never gotten around to playing. We’re now working our way back to retrospectively review some of ours!
The Wind Waker was an immediately divisive Legend of Zelda game. Considering Nintendo’s last shown footage of Zelda was a dark, realistic tech-demo, you can understand how people were caught off guard. Fans were apprehensive to this change; many took this as an indication of the beloved franchise transitioning into the more kid-friendly territory. While Wind Waker is arguably a more accessible game than it’s ancestors, fans’ worries must have been mostly laid to rest once they got their hands on the game. Received to plenty of perfect review scores, WW was an indisputable critical success.
It was successful commercially too, but it seemed anyone you’d ask about the game responded in much the same way: “yeah, it’s good, but it’s no Ocarina of Time”. It went on to be the black sheep of the series, and Nintendo’s next Zelda console release, Twilight Princess, was much more comparable to the beloved Ocarina of Time. It always seemed to me that Wind Waker was largely dismissed by Zelda fans, but for whatever reason, times seem to have changed. Maybe those who played WW as children have grown up and become more vocal members of the community, or maybe the state of video games today is just more accepting of stylism over realism, but I’m sure I’ve seen a huge surge in the game’s popularity in recent years.
Whether Nintendo were playing to this change in general opinion or just thought it was a good idea, re-releasing the title in HD on the Wii U opened up the series to a new audience, built upon some of it’s strength, and found ways to combat some of it’s weaknesses. Having played a few hours of the original Gamecube release before being distracted by other releases, I’d always wanted to revisit and finish the game, so I thought; what better time than now I can play in HD?
The Wind Waker doesn’t really take place in The Legend of Zelda’s traditional setting of Hyrule; rather, it takes place in the Great Sea; a vast ocean above the world of previous titles. To keep the explanation simple; after a great evil (guess who?) threatened the land of Hyrule, the goddesses decided the most effective way to defend the inhabitants was to flood the world. As erratic of a move as that may have been, the resulting setting is as refreshing for the series narratively as it is fitting for adventuring and explorative gameplay. Plenty of islands remain, housing the strange and wonderful species you’d expect of a Zelda title.
Among those living on the lovely little Outset Island is a young, blonde haired, pointy eared boy. After being caught up in pirate affairs and having a sister kidnapped, he’s off on an adventure. Going on to learn of Ganondorf’s return and become the Hero of Winds, this Link faces many of the challenges the others have – conquering dungeons, collecting triangles, and acquiring a weapon capable of vanquishing a tremendous evil. Wind Waker’s plot is, at its core, fairly conventional for a Zelda game. It’s the shifted focuses and minutia of the world and those in it that hold this adventure out from the generic quest it so easily could have been though. I’ve always felt that one of the Zelda series’ greatest strengths is taking the ‘hero-saves-princess-and-conquers-villain’ archetype, interjecting oodles of character and playing with the conventions in such a way that create a new, interesting story on each release. Wind Waker is a shining example of this, in narrative as well as design.
I love the lore of The Legend of Zelda, and the way Wind Waker builds on such a rich collection of pre-existing stories is all I could have hoped for. Unlike more recent Zelda games where connections to previous entries might be very implicitly suggested by visual similarities between characters or familiar environments, WW is more explicit. Direct references to events from Ocarina of Time are plentiful but presented in such a way that the player wouldn’t miss anything if they weren’t aware of the importance of them. It’s an excellent example of how to satisfy those already invested in the lore without punishing anyone new, and an elegant expansion of the universe.
The characters of Wind Waker have to be one of my favourite aspects of the game. The expressive and endearing Hero of Winds, the bird-like Rito race, the tree sprout Koroks, the pirate captain Tetra, and of course the wannabe fairy Tingle are among the huge collection of memorable and lovable personalities across The Great Sea. How much character comes across from each of these individuals is truly admirable for a game with written dialogue rather than voice acting, and a testament to their fantastic visual design. As good as the overall plot and various twists are, it’s really the huge personality of all of these fantastic creatures that will stick with you long after the adventure concludes.
You’ll still take part in the usual cycle of completing a dungeon and acquiring a new item helping you get to the next in Wind Waker, but not nearly as much as other Zelda games. Where most entries in the series stick fairly close to this formula and most activity that doesn’t lead you to the next dungeon is side content, WW draws attention to wider exploration. Dungeons are still present, and still act as a way of pacing the adventure and separating the game into different segments, but they’re not nearly as abundant or emphasized as usual. Of course, there’s always the parts between the dungeons in Zelda games, but WW has you exploring the outside noticeably more than it’s siblings. I found this to be a nice change of pace, but containing only a handful of dungeons meant only so many chances to create interesting puzzles. There’s a lot to do when considering side content, but the core game definitely provides more of a short and sweet Zelda adventure.
The Hero of Winds does most of his adventuring on the open sea, resulting in one of the more common complaints about the game – the amount and speed of travel. It’s an understandable complaint, huge parts of the game consist of sailing to a new island or between already discovered locales, and the standard travel speed in addition to the sizable map means it can feel a bit drawn out. The Wii U release contains an item allowing faster travel, but it’s tucked away in such a way that I only became aware of it after completing the main game. A fast-travel mechanic is present too, but the places it can take you are limited. Regardless of speed restraints, I loved the sailing as a method of exploration. Seeing an unvisited island in the distance always provided enough temptation to go and explore, and it means that you’ll need to actively search for islands to see a huge portion of the game’s content – the main quest will only take you to a fraction of The Great Sea’s land.
As far as the substance on the islands once you eventually reach them, it’s traditionally Zelda, but suitably fitting to the wind and water motif. Classic items like the Hookshot, Iron Boots and the Hero’s Bow are used in ways more fitting to WW’s more tropical theme, and new items follow trend. The Wind Waker itself is an item allowing Link a handful of magic abilities, most notably changing direction of the wind. Using it in conjunction with the Deku Leaf, for example, creates an opportunity to glide in any desired direction. The necessity of The Wind Waker in certain puzzles and to be able to sail means you’ll be using it a lot though, and watching the animations over and over can get pretty tiring. It never bothered me because of how great the game is to look at, but it’s certainly a considerable speed bump.
Mechanically, nothing here in particular stood out as different from any other Zelda game to me. Of course controls and combat felt evolved from those of Ocarina of Time considerably, but only in ways you’d expect from a sequel on the next generation console. The introduction of a dodge/counter mechanic and a less patience based approach to enemy design didn’t go unappreciated though. One of my biggest complaints about the much beloved OoT is that practically every enemy in the game is a challenge of patience – not of skill. WW doesn’t supply more difficult enemies, but it doesn’t abuse a ‘wait for it to open up, attack and wait again’ approach to enemies, and the combat is actually enjoyable as a result. There’s no Skyward Sword level depth to attacking, but combat is satisfying enough and doesn’t feel like the waste of time I always felt it was in OoT.
If you’d only heard one thing about Wind Waker, it’d probably be in regards to its artistic style. It’s the ‘cartoony’ Zelda, and though summarising a game based on its art style is something I’d generally disagree with, Wind Waker’s cel shaded approach is, perhaps, its biggest strength. That’s not to take away from the abundance of other great qualities the game has at all, but the way it looks is not only a big part of the game’s identity, it’s a perfect reflection of WW’s personality. This is a Zelda that takes the wacky and wonderful characters and worlds the series has become known for and runs with them, and how spectacularly this is accomplished is largely due to, of all things, minimalism. If anyone needed evidence that less can be more, this art style should do the trick.
This method holds up well over time, too. Eleven years on and it still looks great, much more than can be said for any game striving for realism a decade ago. Wind Waker obviously wasn’t the first to utilise this style, but I definitely think it was a large component of its popularization. Plenty of games look like this now, and this game has to be at least partially responsible. It proves the strengths of the style while showing that depth needn’t be compromised.
I love games that can forego the typical ‘adult’ conventions, and supply something that is, above all, good. Wind Waker is one of these. Games like this that are suitable for any age, while providing depth in narrative and gameplay that can be further appreciated by a big old grown-up will always be my favourite. Wind Waker’s beautiful art, interesting world and wonderful, childlike sense of adventure and awe is a testament to the potential of charming game design.