Personal Score: 10+
This review is on the original Gamecube release of The Wind Waker. The HD version is discussed following the conclusion.
The Wind Waker was met with controversy before it was even released. With the announcement of the Gamecube, Nintendo showed tech demo footage of a realistic-looking Link crossing swords with Ganondorf. Naturally, this planted the seed of expectation in gamer’s minds that the next Zelda game would be incorporating that visual style. When The Wind Waker was finally revealed, all hell broke loose in the fan community. Link and the world of Hyrule had been turned into something cartoon-ish, using cel-shading and bright colors instead of the grim, photo-realistic graphics used in the tech demo. The term ‘Celda’ was coined and fans began screaming for blood, making every effort to voice their discontent with the new visual style. Miyamoto, the man behind the game’s development, was so taken aback by fan’s reactions that he refused to release any more footage until players had the opportunity to play the game. Gamer opinion started to change slowly once a playable demo was made available, as fans realized that the quality gameplay they’d come to expect from Zelda was still intact. In fact, many gamers had decided that the graphical style was indeed impressive; statements of ‘playable cartoon’ began to adopt a more positive connotation. When the game finally released, players were treated to the biggest Zelda game to date, with all of the charm and magic present in Ocarina of Time with tightened controls and stunning visuals. The Wind Waker was met with stellar reviews, and to this day is tied with the Gamecube release of Twilight Princess for the 2nd highest ranked Zelda game on Metacritic (you can guess which game is #1), and is the best-selling Gamecube Zelda title by a wide margin. For the most part, fans had forgotten why they were upset when the game was revealed, and the game cemented itself as one of the most visually impressive games in the franchise (a sentiment that remains to this day).
It wasn’t all smooth sailing for TWW, of course. Publications and fans alike had two massive complaints in particular; sailing and the late-game fetch quest. Many were unhappy with how much sailing was required to traverse the overworld. The extended length of time players spent sailing from one destination to the next grew tiresome quickly for many. Even the inclusion of a warp function obtained later in the game did little to ease the tedium of seemingly endless sailing. One couldn’t read a review of The Wind Waker without mention of the sailing, which was almost universally disliked by publications and fans alike. As for the second popular point of contention, we have the dreaded Triforce fetch-quest. Players are tasked with assembling a piece of the Triforce in the last portion of the narrative. In order to do this, players were required to obtain maps that detailed the location of each shard, bring those maps to Tingle (shudder) in order to have them translated at a hefty price, and finally scour the Great Sea where the shards could be salvaged from the depths. This fetch-quest bogs down the pacing considerably, and requires a fair amount of endurance to complete. It was a battle of attrition that many gamers had difficulty fighting.
When the Wind Waker was originally announced, I was not among the fans that hated the graphical style (I don’t say that to sound like a hipster, I promise). I found the fluid animations and gorgeous lighting absolutely captivating. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on the game. When I did, it immediately burrowed its way into my young, impressionable heart. The graphics, the story, the characters, and the gameplay bombarded me into an almost obsessive state of love and trust. By the time I watched the credits roll, listening to the beautiful end credits theme as familiar faces hovered in effervescence about the screen, I had tears of pure joy in my eyes. My experience with The Wind Waker is the defining moment in my history with gaming. Everything game I approached following The Wind Waker would be held to the standard of that magical game, for better or for worse (for an example of ‘for worse,’ see my review of Twilight Princess).
In the interest of keeping this blog palatable, I will attempt to limit the amount of gushing I do.
Note that I said ‘attempt’…
An obvious place to start is with the graphics. The visual style is indeed the most obvious of The Wind Waker’s defining traits. The game is beautiful; colors are bright, effects are striking, and the environments are detailed. Thanks to the graphics, The Wind Waker not only stands out amongst the rest of the Zelda franchise, it is commonly cited as the best-looking Zelda game by fans. The Wind Waker may not have had the photo-realistic look of Metroid Prime or Resident Evil 4, but it still managed to showcase what the Gamecube’s hardware was capable of in convincing fashion.
The design elements of The Wind Waker are arguably the most defining features of the game, next to the graphical style. The Wind Waker builds upon the foundation built by Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask, and features a living, breathing world where environments and characters are endearing and expressive. The world of TWW is located on the Great Sea, a sprawling ocean that is dotted with several islands both large and small. While not all the islands in the Great Sea are particularly important to the narrative, all of them offer something unique and memorable when you visit them (with the exception of the Eye-Reefs). The major islands in TWW (Outset, Windfall, Forsaken Fortress, Dragon Roost, and Forest Haven) all exhibit their own unique charm, complete with equally endearing denizens. Outset Island, for example, exudes an atmosphere of leisure and tranquility, while Windfall Island bustles with lively activity. Dungeons are equally memorable and creative in their design. In contrast to the welcoming nature of the hub islands, dungeons are threatening and mysterious. Dark corridors lit with torches, crumbling walls of stone and steel, aggressive foes patrolling the grounds…everything you’d expect and desire from a Zelda dungeon is present in TWW’s dungeons, with stunning lighting and color choices to enhance the ominous mood of each.
HD or not, this is one of the most gorgeous games in existence.
While the story of The Wind Waker is nothing revolutionary for The Legend of Zelda, it manages to set itself apart from the rest of the entries in the series by presenting players with memorable and multi-dimensional characters throughout. Like Majora’s Mask before it, the narrative of The Wind Waker is driven by some fantastic characters. Every character scattered about the Great Sea has a unique and memorable personality. The same charming and expressive qualities seen in the NPCs and town citizens is also present in the familiar, core cast of the story, and in fine fashion.
Enemies are designed to fit into the colorful world of The Wind Waker, and as such are not not quite as intimidating as the villains featured in Ocarina of Time or Majora’s Mask. However, this does nothing to detract from their merit as characters, and they are among the most memorable enemies in the franchise. Bokoblins and Moblins in particular have as much personality as the friendlier faces you encounter in TWW. When disarmed, Bokoblins react with surprise and frantically try to locate their weapons before reengaging Link. When struck from behind, Moblins will clutch their backsides and attempt to hop away from Link. Bubbles (the flaming skulls) laugh mercilessly at Link when he attempts to dispose of them improperly. When pushed over the edge of a bridge or cliff, Bokoblins clutch the edge for dear life and scream pitifully. Every enemy in the game displays this kind of uniqueness, and it’s a delight to see enemies with that kind of endearing disposition attack Link, rather than the single-minded zombies most often featured in Zelda games. Boss encounters in TWW take things to a new level for the franchise. While Zelda traditionally features larger-than-life bosses, TWW cranks the grandiosity and spectacle up a few notches. While no boss in TWW is particularly hard (save for encounter with Puppet Ganon and Ganondorf himself), they all offer a grand visual feast and are memorable because of that. The final encounter with Ganondorf is often cited as the most memorable in the history of the franchise, a sentiment I tend to agree with.
“Well, I really didn’t mean to…”
“DIDN’T MEAN TO?! YOU PUT YOUR SWORD RIGHT THROUGH HIS HEAD!”
The Wind Waker is the first appearance of Toon Link in a full-fledged Zelda title. While many gamers dislike TWW Link for his role in enforcing the ‘kiddy’ stereotype of the franchise (and Nintendo games in general), Toon Link is the most endearing, expressive, and unique incarnation of Link by far. Link’s expression changes frequently throughout the game, during interactions with NPCs and enemies as well as during moments of solitude. Link’s eyes (his giant, bug eyes) actually dart about the environment and towards things that require the player’s attention.
Link in the TWW is a young boy, growing up carefree on a quiet island with his sister Aryll and their grandmother. When Aryll is kidnapped, Link displays the reckless courage we’ve now come to expect from Link, instead of the wooden obedience we saw in Ocarina of Time. After some quick training in the ways of the sword, Link is ready to rush off and save his little sister. While he may be a naive child, Link is willing to do whatever it takes to bring his sister home safely (and eventually, save Hyrule). TWW Link is my favorite incarnation of Link, as he embodies part of what makes The Legend of Zelda special; despite overwhelming odds, Link bravely faces adversity with blind confidence and a knowledge of good and evil that only youth can understand. TWW Link may be goofy and occasionally bumbling, but he’s every bit the Hero that OoT’s Link is.
Prior to TWW, Ganondorf had been depicted as a ruthless tyrant, mindlessly hungry for power and dominion over Hyrule. In the concluding moments of TWW’s narrative, we discover that Ganondorf may not have started out as such. Ganondorf confesses to Link during his monologue that he sought dominion over the fertile, hospitable lands of Hyrule in order to provide a better life for him and his tribe, who were subjected to the harsh environments of a cruel desert land. This provides Ganondorf with a level of relatability, and gives gamers a reason to sympathize with a villain previously viewed as nothing more than a greedy despot. While his ambitions may have become twisted and his mind poisoned with insanity, Ganondorf was once a leader that simply wanted the best for his people. Nintendo did a fantastic job of adding layers to an iconic villain, and I consider TWW’s Ganondorf my favorite incarnation of the King of Thieves.
Ganondorf: Tyrant? Or misunderstood?
…ok, mostly tyrant.
The last character I’d like to highlight is Link’s companion throughout the story; The King of Red Lions, or King Daphnes Nohansen Hyrule. Throughout most of the narrative, The King of Red Lions accompanies Link as the talking boat players use to traverse the Great Sea. King Hyrule is one of the best written and most tragic characters in the history of The Legend of Zelda. King Hyrule interacts with Link as a teacher interacts with a student, with wisdom and occasional condescendence. Instead of a constant buzzing in Link’s ear (a la Navi), the King is usually content to offer brief advice once or twice and instruct Link on where to go next following a completed dungeon. As a character in the narrative, King Hyrule fulfills the role that Zelda normally occupied prior to TWW. King Hyrule was unable to protect his kingdom from Ganon’s return following the events of Ocarina of Time (in the adult era where Ganondorf was defeated and subsequently resurrected, called The Era Without a Hero), and instead pleaded with the gods of Hyrule to seal his kingdom away, denying Ganon any claim to the land. King Hyrule is bound inexorably to his old kingdom, now swallowed by the Great Sea. After centuries of sadness and an inability to let his kingdom rest in peace, the King seeks to once again prevent Ganondorf from obtaining dominion over Hyrule with the help of Link and Tetra/Zelda. We see a once proud king humbled with regrets and shackled by an inability to relinquish the past, finally able to let go of his ghosts during the narrative’s conclusion. It’s a heartbreaking arc, and a shining example of Nintendo’s ability to write great characters in a series that is comprised of mostly one-dimensional characters.
To wrap up THE PROS, I’ll delve into the gameplay elements. Following in the footsteps of Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask, The Wind Waker features sublime controls. Navigating the islands of the Great Sea on water and on land is a breeze (Ha! Get it? Wind? Breeze?). While most gamers seemed to hate the sailing mechanic of TWW, I personally loved it. The sailing controls are superb, and piloting the King of Red Lions is quite relaxing. I found that sailing the expanse of the Great Sea contributed heavily to an atmosphere of adventure, which is exactly what a Zelda game should offer. Sailing into the horizon, studying the clouds as they roll in and dissipate, avoiding malicious sea enemies, watching your destination materialize in the distance…all these things make one feel like a genuine explorer or adventurer.
Link has always been a formidable combatant, but TWW Link displays an unparalleled level of finesse and variety in his swordplay. Link is once again able to strafe and backflip his way around enemies, but is now also able to counter enemy strikes instead of simply using his shield for defense. At the push of a button, Link takes to the air or summersaults his way around enemy defenses to attack exposed weak points. Additionally, Link can use the numerous dungeon items obtained throughout the game to mix up his offensive approach. For example, the Boomerang can be employed to temporarily stun enemies, while the Grappling Hook can be used to steal enemy items/rupees. Link can even use enemy weapons in combat once he’s disarmed them.
For a little guy, Link sure is strong…he’s like an ant.
Now that I’m older and wiser, I’ve had opportunities to take stock of my feelings for The Wind Waker and judge it from a slightly more objective perspective. While it is unquestionably my favorite game, it is not perfect. There are some character/story inconsistencies that pop up every now and then, as well as some shortcomings in the gameplay department.
The one character in The Wind Waker that doesn’t quite measure up to the rest of the stellar cast is Zelda herself. We’re introduced to the titular heroine when it’s revealed that Tetra, the charismatic pirate captain, is actually a descendent of the royal bloodline and the latest incarnation of Princess Zelda. It is following this revelation that we see an odd contradiction in Tetra’s character. Where before she was a tenacious, confident, somewhat cynical personality, we see Tetra quietly obey the King’s wishes for her to remain hidden while he and Link search for a way to defeat Ganondorf. This doesn’t make a lot of sense. Tetra is a young girl that was forced to step into her mother’s shoes as captain of a crew of pirates, hardened and forced to grow up fast out of necessity. Not only did Tetra successfully shoulder the burden at such a young age, she manages to excel as the captain of her ship. Her crew, comprised mostly of grown men, respect and admire her for her maturity and skill as an authority figure. During Link’s first attempt to confront Ganondorf, Tetra climbs through the window, grinning, and attempts to knife Ganondorf in order to save Link after he gets b*tch-slapped. This girl is a bad ass. So why, when asked to sit on the sidelines, does Tetra comply with docile obedience? It doesn’t fall in line with her character at all.
From badass pirate captain to damsel in distress…okie dokie.
The Wind Waker may be the easiest game in the franchise to complete. While the length of the game is unaffected by the difficulty, it does do something to limit the amount of excitement one should normally feel when encountering an enemy. Every enemy in the game, including the bosses, are subject to telegraphed patterns that are easily exploited. Even groups of enemies pose no real threat to Link. Yes, the game allows players to experiment with their attack patterns and use multiple items in combat, but it seems pointless when enemies allow Link a day and a half to plan his attacks, in addition to doing negligible damage upon actually landing a blow on Link. Even the dreaded Darknuts, while intimidating, are not much of a threat to Link’s life in TWW, when all that’s required to defeat them are a few well-timed counter moves. Also, dungeons are not overly complicated in TWW. Puzzles have historically been a cornerstone of The Legend of Zelda’s dungeons, and the series has featured its fair share of brain-benders. The Wind Waker doesn’t challenge players spatially or otherwise. Even the dungeon that many consider the most difficult in the game, the Earth Temple, doesn’t require much in the way of critical thinking. The object-pushing puzzles are mostly brainless, since said objects are only allowed to move in the direction of their final destination. The Wind Temple is challenging in the sense that you must traverse multiple floors using hookshot anchor points and a giant wind turbine, but the difficulty in that is a result of cumbersome floating mechanics rather than a required level of skill or understanding.
I mentioned at the beginning of this review that the Triforce fetch-quest in the last portion of the game was a major point of contention for gamers. It is such for good reason, as it is easily the biggest flaw in the game. While obtaining the maps Link needs in order to find the Triforce fragments lead to some of the game’s more distinctively enjoyable moments (the Ghost Ship encounter, the Savage Labyrinth), the most memorable thing about finding the Triforce shards is how mind-numbingly tedious it is. Before Link can even find the shards, he has to find the maps that tell him where they are. Once he does find all the maps, he has to get them translated by everybody’s favorite fruit cake, Tingle. Not only does this guy make you feel uncomfortable and in need of a delousing, he charges a fortune to translate your maps. So if it wasn’t bad enough that you had to sail around looking for the maps, you’ll also need to make sure you’re rich enough to get them translated, or risk having to leave Tingle’s island to acquire more rupees. Once that unpleasantness has been dealt with, Link STILL has to comb the Great Sea to salvage the shards, which is time-consuming and unexciting. It’s a test of a player’s patience, and is a major blow to the pace of the game. The Triforce hunt alone makes subsequent playthroughs difficult, knowing that the madness the hunt inspires is waiting for you.
…KILL IT WITH FIRE.
As refreshing and unique as The Wind Waker is because of it’s graphical style, it is undeniably similar to Ocarina of Time in many respects. Some have called The Wind Waker ‘Ocarina of Time 2.0’ due to the similarities in story structure and pacing. The two games share most of the same narrative elements (a recurring theme in the franchise), but it’s also in the pacing that we see shared patterns between the two games. The opening portions of both games feature Link attempting to obtain three gemstones, which gives him access to the Master Sword. Following a mid-game plot twist, Link is tasked with rescuing Sages in order to aid him in the fight against Ganondorf (there are some distinguishing factors here, but they revolve around rescuing Sages nonetheless). Once Link has rescued the Sages, he discovers that Zelda has been captured by Ganondorf, and he must now rescue her in addition to defeating Ganondorf. Once Link conquers the obstacles of Ganondorf’s tower, he confronts the villain and eventually defeats him with Zelda’s help. It’s a predictable set-up, and part of a storytelling pattern that Nintendo has yet to move away from in subsequent entries in the series (for the most part).
Those of you reading this are probably aware of how many times I’ve stated that The Wind Waker is my favorite game of all time. I don’t deny that there are higher quality games in the franchise, in both technical achievements and narrative complexity. The reason I love The Wind Waker so much is due in large part to sentimentality. When The Wind Waker was released, I was 15 years old and still developing my aesthetic sensibility. What I found in The Wind Waker would shape how I viewed video games, and indeed how I would view many things in life. The Wind Waker helped define my appreciation for The Legend of Zelda, and video games in general. It even managed to go beyond the realm of video games and permeate the way I look at other forms of media. Traversing the Great Sea, witnessing the visual splendor and experiencing the heartfelt narrative, I was struck by the sheer scope of what The Wind Waker offered. The Wind Waker is beautiful to me in the same way Pearl Jam’s album Vs. is beautiful, or John Frusciante’s Empyrean. I graced the wall of my childhood room with a black and white painting of Link and The King of Red Lions. When my wife and I got married, I requested that the my groom’s cake be decorated with the game’s cover art (my wife puts up with so much). I read once in a publication that “playing The Wind Waker is like taking part in a Miyazaki film,” which is a description I wholeheartedly agree with. To me, The Wind Waker is more than a video game. The Legend of Zelda has produced some of the best video game experiences in all of video game history, but The Wind Waker stands as a testament to what the series has accomplished in terms of visual splendor and heartfelt storytelling. Future Zelda games may come along that exceed the level of technical quality of The Wind Waker, as some already have. However, I find it difficult to believe that any game, past of present, could dislodge The Wind Waker from the space it occupies in my heart. It’s a beautiful and heartwarming trip through a digital medium that can never be equaled, and one that I will hold in the highest regard for the rest of my life.
The Groom’s Cake! *insert cake-related humor*
Post Script: The Wind Waker HD.
The Wii U HD upgrade of The Wind Waker is just as amazing as the original release. The updated graphics are gorgeous, the menu system is streamlined with the gamepad, and the Miiverse functions are an entertaining distraction from the main narrative. The Swift Sail doubles your sailing speed once acquired, which is a welcome addition. The best change in the HD version, arguably, is the overhaul of the Triforce Shard quest. Instead of having to translate 8 maps for every Triforce shard, players only have to get 3 maps translated. The remaining five shards are located in the chests that originally contained the Triforce Maps in the Gamecube release. This helps improve the pacing considerably.
Some things the HD update did wrong: Some of the sound effects in the game sound somewhat disjointed (Niko’s battle cry during the pirate ship training sequences stands out). The soundtrack was also updated, to varying extents throughout. The music in the Wind Temple has been toned down to be less intrusive, but for someone who’s played the original a dozen times, it takes away a little of what made that particular temple so memorable.
Which one would I recommend contemporary gamers get? For those of you that owned/still own Gamecubes, there’s no real reason to buy The Wind Waker HD, unless you’re a huge fan of the game (like myself). For those of you who did NOT play the original, I’d go with the HD version, if only to encourage more people to buy a Wii U.