The GameCube era was an awkward generation of gaming for me as I found myself leaning to violent games like Medal of Honor a lot more. To that end, I was pretty determined to buy a Playstation 2 for almost the entire 4-5 years I owned the GameCube, and ended up missing out on a lot of games. This included Wind Waker and it took until Twilight Princess for me to rekindle my love for the Zelda series, after which I went back and discovered that Wind Waker would easily rank in my top 5 favorite GameCube games.
I had two weeks off from work and decided to revisit this seafaring classic on the Wii U.
Hyruleans just can’t do anything on their own
After the events of Ocarina of Time, Hyrule enjoyed a time of prosperity and peace, thanks to the efforts of the Hero of Time. However, one day the seal put on Ganondorf’s prison broke, and evil once again besieged the kingdom. The people prayed for the return of the Hero of Time, but he did not return to aid them, so the people fled into the mountains of the kingdom, and the Gods decided to flood the whole place. Nowadays the legend of the Hero of Time and Kingdom of Hyrule are just that: a myth, that is passed down from generation to generation on the many islands of the Great Sea.
This takes us to Outset Island, a peaceful community where it is tradition to dress boys that come of age in the garb of the Hero of Time. At the start of the game, it just so happens to be the birthday of a boy named Link…
Once we take control of Link it doesn’t take long for things to go wrong. A monstrous bird flies over the island carrying a girl who it drops into the forest below. After Link saves the girl, a pirate captain called Tetra, the bird returns once more and mistakes Link’s sister Aryll for Tetra, abducting her right before Link’s eyes. Link then joins Tetra’s pirate crew and sets out on a quest to save her, except it turns out that a much bigger evil is controlling the bird, an evil, ancient man that just won’t stay sealed away no matter what the Gods put on him.
After the initial attempt goes awry Link meets with the King of Red Lions, a living boat that guides him through his journey to gather the equipment, skill, and allies he needs to rescue his sister and slap another seal on Ganondorf.
If I had to name Wind Waker‘s greatest strength, it would be that it is a comedic game while still being very emotional, and vice versa. The introduction on Outset Island with Link having to leave his grandma behind to save his sister is a real tearjerker and the game has many of these throughout. At the same time, the game has a strong sense of comedy and most of the adventure is lighthearted and joyful. Perhaps Nintendo’s greatest achievement here is that the really sad parts don’t feel like they are breaking the tone of the game. Sadness, in Wind Waker, feels like it’s a natural part of happiness.
Because of this and the strong overall plot, I found the story of Wind Waker to be really engaging. It has some of the best characters in all of Zelda history, or rather, it has a density of them. Even the townsfolk you meet on your journey feel more developed than in other games, without them going over-the-top quirky all the time like in Twilight Princess. It’s just a shame that certain factors in the gameplay really pad out the time between story bits, but that is not a fault in the writing so…
Story score: 10/10
Adventure on the high seas
In many ways Wind Waker plays like an alternative evolution of Ocarina of Time. Though it lacks the sick backflips from Majora’s Mask, it brings many new elements to the table on top of the basic functions that Ocarina established for 3D Zelda games.
You still move Link around freely and attack with B or press A while targeting for a jump attack. Additionally you can map three different items to the buttons on the controller for easy access, which are used for puzzle solving and can also be mixed into combat. The game is an action adventure in which you must journey around the world to tackle dungeons and to this end you must interact with characters around the world to gain information and items needed to progress.
New here is that, rather than a massive field, all the content in Wind Waker is separated by a large sea. This is where the King of Red Lions and the titular Wind Waker come in. Using a sail you travel from island to island on your boat and with the Wind Waker you compose songs, the most prominent of which changes the direction of the wind. Travel in Wind Waker is the best the series has ever seen, with lots of optional stuff to find between the mandatory islands. You’ll find watchtowers and enemy boats, islands with items or secrets to find, or even traveling merchants and other rare sights. When the fun in travel begins to wear thin, however, you’ll soon unlock an extra song that allows you to warp between a few key locations, as well as a better sail that automatically changes the wind direction if you are playing the HD remake.
Returning Zelda players may realize this is similar to how the Ocarina in Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask aided you on those quests, but the Wind Waker is much less relevant. There are only six songs to learn and the choir that vocalizes Link’s conducting with the Wind Waker is less fun than playing around with the ocarina.
So the travelling is fun and the combat is competent enough, but Zelda games live or die on the quality of their dungeons, which in Wind Waker leaves a bad first impression. For reasons unknown to me, the first dungeon in Wind Waker is the Forsaken Fortress, where you are left without a sword and are forced to stealth your way through. It’s finicky, it’s confusing, it keeps teleporting you around the maze and you’ll never do stealth ever again. The pacing of the whole game then comes crashing down as the last two dungeons before the finale are finished and you have to collect the eight pieces of the triforce. This is a tedious process where you need to do boring mini-dungeons to get charts, grind for money to have them translated for you, and then fish up the actual piece. It takes a terribly long time to do, it isn’t fun to do, and all in all it just feels like a big roadblock preventing you from heading to the final dungeon.
Everything in Wind Waker, including the temples, occupies this nice middle ground where it’s not too challenging and not too easy either. With a bit of work I can always make progress and figure out the next puzzle, and anything extra I put in is rewarded with treasure charts to hunt for at sea or some other goody. Enemies are fun to fight thanks to the new counter-attacks and increased mobility that help the combat keep up a pace that was sorely missing in Ocarina, and the bosses at the end of temples are remarkably tough and aggressive, which make for a neat finale each time.
The adventure as a whole is also just plain fun, thanks in part to this nice mid-level challenge. It’s an adorable adventure about a younger Link than we are used to, sailing between islands to meet new people and help them while working towards his overarching goal of saving his sister. You discover fantastical places, seek out treasures, and you feel really in control of it all because of the long stretches on uninterrupted gameplay. While some temples are a bit tricky, and nearing the end you’ll have to do some serious grinding, as a whole Wind Waker is an excellent time for both the seasoned Zelda veteran and newcomer alike.
Gameplay score: 9/10
Celda is here and it’s gorgeous
Everybody invested in the Zelda series is probably familiar with the controversy surrounding Wind Waker‘s artstyle prior to its release. Following the darker takes on the series provided in Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask, fans were upset to see Nintendo make the next game in the series in a kid-friendly, cel-shaded artstyle. I bring it up anyway, and as often as I can, as a reminder of how terribly short-sighted and wrong these people were, since “Celda” ended up being one of the most beautiful games in the series, and definitely holds up better than the grittier Twilight Princess that succeeded it.
Wind Waker resembles a cartoon with vibrant colors, exaggerated proportions, and expressive characters. Link himself is a clear example of this as the hero of this beloved series has never before or again been this defined. I love how he looks around areas suspiciously or cheers with excitement; there is always something about Link that is moving and all of it showcases his personality. He is simply adorable and the moments where he is sad really hit hard.
It would take way too long to describe all the beautiful effects that Nintendo achieved here, but some of the highlights include the vast, open sea that can take many forms. Sometimes it’s welcoming and calm, with light blue water and little waves your boat bounces around on. At other times it’s threatening, with dark, greenish water, heavy downpour, and enemies besetting your little boat from all sides. Another touch I really appreciate are the ambient, often saturated colors used in dungeons and boss battles. The entire atmosphere of a room changes when the dynamic of the fight shifts, which is hard to notice as it happens, yet becomes pretty amazing to see when you become aware of it.
Supporting these beautiful looks is potentially the best soundtrack in the series, and considering the competition that is a pretty big claim on my part. A lot of the music in Wind Waker is new or so drastically remixed that it’s effectively unrecognizable, which fixes my problems with the last few games reusing familiar music tracks. The new songs cover a wide array of styles, from the frankly thrilling boss themes to the adventurous tune accompanying your journeys across the sea, and the calm, relaxing tracks found on safe islands. Many of my favorite songs in the series come from this game and many of them are only used once or twice in the entire game, like Sage Laruto’s theme, Earth God’s Lyric, Wind God’s Aria, and Molgera’s battle music.
The game also features an evolution in regards to comedy. While Ocarina of Time had a few, funny scenes, Wind Waker‘s cartoon style helps make these a lot more memorable. The expressions the characters are capable of now are used to great effect and are mixed in with some good comedic timing to make some of the best and funniest cutscenes the series has ever seen.
Wind Waker feels in every aspect of the presentation fresh while, at the same time, still feeling distinctly like a Zelda game despite lacking the more realistic style and many other iconic elements. In many ways, this shows that you don’t need a horse, medieval fantasy land, or even Link in a green tunic to convey the feel and soul of a Zelda game.
Presentation score: 10/10
No sea shanties to collect
Wind Waker has no shortage of content and extras to do, with each square of its map featuring an island that always has at least one task for the player. In fact, the map itself is already an extra to unlock, as you start off with an empty scroll and need to track down an NPC in each area that will color in the map for you, which isn’t as tedious as it sounds actually. It’s fun to gradually see the map fill up with locations you have visited and the NPC in question will give you some useful advice.
While not all the islands are that interesting and many of them are copies, like the treasure reefs and fairy islands, there is still fun to be had on those that remain and, in general, there is just so much to see and do out at sea that I still run into new stuff even after my third run through. There are mini-game islands featuring fun distractions, collection quests where you steal shiny stuff from enemies to trade with villagers, and you can decorate Windfall Island by meeting merchants out at sea and trade goods with them, unlocking new decorations and filling up the Windfall store.
Playing the HD remake for the Wii U is well worth considering, though some of its changes are unnecessary or even detrimental, overall it brings a classic game to a newer system that people are more likely to have available. The addition of the fast sail that can be unlocked and the massive overhaul of the triforce quest alone make this well worth your time, and the HD version has other tweaks that are subtle, yet save a lot of time in the long run, such as animations that are shortened and songs no longer playing back to you every time you use the wind waker.
Some of the side-activities do feel a tad lackluster. Hunting for treasures in a game like this sounds like it should be a given, but it is by far the most pointless thing you can do. Money is plentiful as it is with your wallet maxing out quickly, so dragging up treasures will just make some money disappear, as it can’t fit in your wallet and you can’t toss it back into the water. I ended up with a ton of charts that were pointless until you get the last wallet upgrade, and even then there are few worthwhile investments for all that cash. Likewise, the Nintendo Gallery where you are asked to take pictures of every single NPC was tedious in the original game due to the camera having a limit of only 3 pictures, after which you had to sail back to get them developed. The HD remake upgrades the capacity of your camera, though it doesn’t fix the fact that some characters can disappear forever if you don’t get their picture in time. Both of these activities are entirely optional, however, so it’s not too big of a deal.
Extras score: 8/10
There is no doubt in my mind that Wind Waker is one of the best games in the series, which makes it a shame that its flaws really stand out. It’s the most emotional game in the series and has the most likable iteration of Link taking on a fun adventure with good dungeons and a wonderful cast of characters, but it’s held back by the tedium of the triforce quest, the obviously cut content, and the perplexing choice to start the player off with the Forsaken Fortress as the first dungeon. Once those are out of the way, however, you are left with an amazing adventure and an entry in the Zelda series no fan should miss out on.