Fashionably Late: The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker

Wind Waker 1

Before I dive into this review, I’d like to take a moment to dedicate this write-up to my cats, Pepper and Panda, both of whom passed away recently while I was in the process of playing through Wind Waker. I can’t even begin to count the number of hours I’ve spent playing games with either Pepper or Panda warming my lap and feeding me purrs and positive vibes. Here’s to you, sweetie girls.

Pepper Panda

I briefly talked about my experience with Wind Waker in my review of Skyward Sword however, it’s worth taking a moment to talk about the context of Wind Waker’s release. When Nintendo released the Gamecube, it was a huge step forward in terms of hardware power and visuals from its predecessor, the N64.

That increase had Nintendo fans excited for what their favorite franchises would look like on this new system, perhaps none more so than fans of The Legend of Zelda. Prior to the launch of the Gamecube, Nintendo showed a hardware demo reel featuring animated videos of Nintendo characters rendered on the Gamecube; not actual game footage, mind you, just canned video running on the hardware.

One of these clips was of Link sword-fighting with Ganondorf in a realistic style, similar to how the characters were conceived in Ocarina of Time. This was the world’s first look at what a Gamecube Zelda title might look like, and it got fans excited. Sure, it honestly looks kind of crappy now, but back when this footage was released, it was cutting-edge; just as Ocarina had taken Zelda into the realm of 3D games, this new (hypothetical) game promised to make a much greater leap into the realm of realism.

Cut to a year later, and at Space World in 2001, Nintendo revealed another demo, this time one rendered in a cartoony, cel-shaded style. Unlike in the previous demo, Link was once again rendered as a child, and the visuals were bright, sharp and colorful, unlike the darker, dare I say, grittier demo of the previous year. This demo turned out to be the one that actually represented the new Zelda sequel, Wind Waker.

The new art direction, to put it mildly, was…divisive. Some fans loved it, but others were taken aback that the series’ visuals appeared to be going in a less realistic direction…and to be honest, I fell into the latter camp.

After all, video games are serious business.

After all, video games are serious business.

Chalk it up to the ironically youthful impulse to resist anything squarely targeted at children, but I felt like a bright, cartoony game starring a child character was a step in the wrong direction. The visuals didn’t put me off enough to keep me from trying the game, but they certainly didn’t help my opinion of it. And while the game was critically-acclaimed and sold three million copies (low by Zelda standards, but good for the time), many fans would go on to proclaim it the worst game in the series to date.

In my last review, I touched on what I call the “Mario 3 Effect,” where new Nintendo games are considered “failures” because they fail to live up to the standards set by an earlier title in their series. There’s a corollary phenomenon known as the “Zelda Cycle,” where in each new Zelda title is considered, at least by a vocal faction of fans, to be the “worst Zelda ever.”

Inevitably, a few years after the game’s release, this faction starts to relent and admit that the game is, in reality, actually pretty good. Then, by the time the next game releases, the previously-vilified title is considered brilliant and the new game inherits the distinction of “worst Zelda ever,” and the cycle continues ad infinitum. Wind Waker could very well be the poster child for the Zelda Cycle, with fans now recognizing the brilliance of the game’s art direction and admiring how well it’s aged over the years, especially compared to other games of the time.

And I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve changed my tune about “Celda.” The visuals of Wind Waker are one of the game’s strongest aspects. I played through the recently-released Wii U port of the game, Wind Waker HD, and it’s amazing to see how, with the addition of a few modern lighting effects and increased resolution, Wind Waker looks like a game that might have been developed one year ago instead of ten. There are some moments, when the light catches the scenery just right, where the game is truly breathtaking.

Wind Waker 3

Cartoon pigs never looked so good.

But as the age-old console gaming rallying cry goes, I don’t play pixels, I play games. The prettiest game in the world can still be terrible if the gameplay and story don’t hold up. So, enough about the visuals, how does Wind Waker hold up as a game?

I’ve written a brief primer on the Legend of Zelda series as part of my review of Skyward Sword, so if you missed that review, I’d suggest reading it over if you’re new to Zelda, because I’ve got a lot of ground to cover and don’t want to bore you with repeated material.

Basically,  in the Zelda chronology, Wind Waker takes place after Ocarina of Time, in a branch of the timeline where Ganon escapes imprisonment and wreaks havoc on Hyrule with his armies. No incarnation of Link steps forward to fight Ganon, and in desperation the Goddesses of Hyrule (apparently being big fans of the Old Testament) instruct the people of the land to flee to the highest mountains and flood the world, sealing Ganon’s forces under the waves.

This naturally lasts just long enough for the descendants of the original survivors to completely forget about Hyrule and Ganon, at which point Ganon manages to break out of imprisonment anyway, bring his monsters to the surface and attempt to re-unite the pieces of the Triforce in order to give him absolute power.

Part of his evil quest involves a scheme to kidnap girls with pointed ears, in hopes of finding the reincarnation of Princess Zelda, who still carries the Triforce of Wisdom. This leads to a girl named Aryll being abducted, who just so happens to be the sister of Wind Waker’s incarnation of Link, who goes on a quest to rescue her.

After a miserably failed attempt to assault Ganon’s fortress and save his sister (which includes the aforementioned forced stealth section), Link is rescued from drowning by a talking boat called the King of Red Lions. The King agrees to help Link rescue Aryll, in the process guiding Link through the necessary hoops to allow him to recover the Master Sword and claim the power to defeat Ganon once and for all.

He can be a bit of a jerk at times, though...

He can be a bit of a jerk at times, though…

The story is certainly serviceable, and Link meets a variety of interesting characters during his journey. I’m not as fond of this cast as I am of the cast of Twilight Princess or Skyward Sword, but there are some stand-out characters like the spunky pirate queen Tetra and her crew, Link’s grandmother and sister (aside from A Link to the Past, this is the only Zelda title where any members of Link’s family are actually present in the game), and possibly my favorite side character in any Zelda title to date, the comically under-enthused carnival game operator Salvatore.

The story also offers a bizarre glimpse into what happened to the races of Hyrule following the flooding of the world. The childlike Kokiri from Ocarina of Time apparently evolved into the tiny, tree-like Korok and learned to fly around with giant leaves, while the water-faring fish-like Zora instead became land-dwellers and learned to fly, becoming the bird-like Rito.

Evolution is weird in the Zelda universe.

Evolution is weird in the Zelda universe.

I will say that the game’s ending felt very weak to me; I’m still on the fence as to whether Wind Waker or Ocarina of Time has the worse finale, but neither of them really did anything for me (though to Wind Waker’s credit, the final battle with Ganon does end rather spectacularly).

As I discussed a while back in my post on the ending of Red Dead Redemption, a weak ending really undercuts the strength of the overall story, especially in the case of an epic fantasy tale like Wind Waker, so this is definitely one of my biggest problems with the game.

As for the gameplay, while the core overworld-to-dungeon flow of play mostly remains intact, it’s shaken up by a much greater emphasis on overworld exploration. As mentioned previously, Hyrule has become a series of islands on the ocean, and much of Wind Waker’s gameplay revolves around sailing the King of Red Lions from island to island, discovering new islands, filling in Link’s Sea Chart, and exploring these islands for hidden treasures.

There’s also a lengthy sidequest revolving around Link obtaining Treasure Charts, which show the locations of hidden treasures in the waters near these islands, which Link must salvage from the ocean floor. On paper it sounds rather tedious, but I actually found it to be the most exciting, enjoyable part of the game, charting the world, exploring strange new lands and hunting treasure. It’s one of the best open world concepts I’ve come across in a video game and it’s something I’d dearly love to see replicated in future Zelda titles, in spirit if nothing else.

Anybody else hear the "Pirates of the Carribean" theme? No? Just me, then?

Anybody else hear the “Pirates of the Carribean” theme? No? Just me, then?

As for the more traditional Zelda-style gameplay, it’s as satisfying as ever here. While the dungeon design and boss battles aren’t as brilliantly done as those of Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword, they’re still good and will put your puzzle-solving skills to the test. Sword combat is fleshed out a little more than it was in Ocarina of Time, but it’s still not up to what it would become in TP and SS. Defeating most enemies is more dependent on clever use of items than it is on swordplay.

Speaking of, the item selection is noteworthy in Wind Waker, in that it has one of the smallest inventories I’ve seen in a Zelda game, but each item has multiple applications and uses. For example, bombs function as on-foot demolitions and ammo for the King of Red Lions’ cannon, while the Grappling Hook is used for swinging and climbing through the environment, for stealing from enemies, and for treasure salvage.

It’s very thrifty from a game design standpoint, and it makes each item feel more important, unlike some Zelda titles where items are used in one particular dungeon and then almost never again (looking at you, Spinner).

Future game developers, take note: if Mega Man couldn't make tops cool, nothing can.

Future game developers, take note: if Mega Man couldn’t make tops cool, nothing can.

Also, the game has one useful feature that makes running through the dungeons less of a headache. One big problem that the Zelda games have always had was a limited number of continue points; when you save and quit your game in most Zelda titles, while it saves your progress, Link will only re-appear at a handful of overworld locations, or the entrance to the dungeon you were working on.

So unless you can take the time to go through a dungeon in one shot, you’re going to wind up doing some backtracking, which is a hassle. Skyward Sword finally introduced save points to the series, something that I hope they keep in the next installment, since it allowed you to save, quit, and return to a dungeon at the last point you left off.

Wind Waker still starts you over at the beginning of the dungeon when you load a save, but it makes a concession to people with lives beyond video games in the form of warp pots. These are a series of three pots that, as you progress through the dungeon, you can open up, with one at the beginning of the dungeon, one at the midpoint, and one right before the boss chamber. So, if you have to save and quit in the middle of a dungeon, you can jump into the warp pot near the entrance and end up much closer to where you left off. It’s a helpful feature, and one that’s curiously absent in the next game in the series,Twilight Princess.

The controls are very solid overall; from movement to combat to sailing, Link moves responsively and quickly. Having three mappable item buttons is nice (especially after playing through Skyward Sword, which only had one button for items), though I found myself having to change my item load-out very frequently. And playing Wind Waker after Skyward Sword and Twilight Princess, I cannot emphasize enough how much having a controllable camera mapped to a thumbstick improves the Zelda experience.

There were a few context-sensitive commands that didn’t detect my movements as well as I would have liked and led to more than a few cheap falls and failures in the game’s forced stealth segment (which was, admittedly, easier than I remembered), but all in all, the controls and core gameplay are very solid. And the additions to the Wii U version, namely the touchscreen menus and gyroscopic aiming mechanics, worked beautifully and added a great deal to the overall experience.

Yeah, Nintendo, if you could leave this out of future Zelda titles, that would be great.

Yeah, Nintendo, if you could leave this out of future Zelda titles, that would be great.

The sound design and music were strong, as always. There are some excellent renditions of classic Zelda tunes as well as some catchy new songs (I’m particularly fond of the theme from Dragon Roost Island). Much like its visuals, sound design is one area where Wind Waker stacks up very favorably against other Zelda titles I’ve played.

So, what’s my final verdict? I’d say that Wind Waker ranks fourth on my list of Zelda titles that I’ve finished, below Skyward Sword but ahead of Ocarina of Time. In terms of mechanics and story, I don’t like it quite as much as some of the other titles in the series.

However, with excellent visuals, a strong score, and an unparalleled sense of freedom and exploration, Wind Waker is very much a worthy addition to the Zelda series, and I’d heartily recommend it to any fans out there. It has its own special charm that makes it an experience that’s much more than the sum of its parts. And for those who own a Wii U, I’d definitely recommend the HD edition.

Seeing as this is the third Nintendo game in a row I’ve reviewed, I think I’m going to take a break from the Big N for a little while and shift focus to another developer–one whose work dominated my youth with great games, but fell victim to bad game design and poor writing. I’m going to have to take a literal trip to the dark side of the moon to find another good game from them. See you soon!

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