With The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker‘s HD remake hurtling towards its Fall release, I thought it would be a good time to aim the spotlight back on one of Link’s greatest adventures. “Greatest” being an ironic choice of words considering the vitriol hurled at the title prior to its 2003 release. Wind Waker‘s unveiling at Space World 2001 left many fans crying out in anger, as the previous year’s Space World had showcased a very different, hyper-realistic looking tech demo for the upcoming GameCube Zelda installment. The chibi-ish renditioning of Link and his world was polarizing to say the least, with many skeptical of the series’ new visual direction. While fans were scared the next Zelda game was going to be dumbed-down for kids, their fears were swept away as soon as they actually playedWind Waker. While not perfect, Wind Waker managed to simultaneously reinvent the narrative style of the Zelda series and firmly establish the importance of a distinctive visual design over mindlessly pushing for photo-realistic graphics.
I’ve mentioned this in previous pieces, but the videogame industry of today is massively different from what it was just ten years ago. I speak particularly about game journalism, which was far more narrow-minded at the time Wind Waker was being revealed to the public. If you think debating the notion of games as art is hard now, imagine trying to do it at a time when the 2D platformer was treated like a leper. So as you might imagine, whenWind Waker‘s cornucopia of color flashed across screens and magazine pages, gamers and writers alike were not receptive to the idea of a game having a distinct visual style as opposed to striving for stark realism. I’ve always found that initial rejection of Wind Waker‘s graphics reminiscent of the plight of impressionist painters, who were mocked and scorned for their unrealistic art. Now, it’s hard to imagine someone deriding artists like Manet and Cezanne, whose works are some of the most beautiful and sought-after in the world. For videogame developers working at the start of the new millennium, there were very similar, rigid expectations for how a game should look. Thus, while disappointing, it’s with little surprise that Wind Waker was so scathingly ridiculed.
Thankfully, Nintendo wasn’t dissuaded by the vocal detractors and continued with their vision for Wind Waker unhampered. In an interesting twist, Nintendo employed what would become one of their most successful pre-order strategies of all-time for Wind Waker; players who reserved a copy of the game could receive a free port of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, which also included the un-released remix of the game called Master Quest. The pairing of Ocarina and the formerly Japan-only Master Quest was too much for even the most ardent Wind Waker-haters to resist, drawing thousands of pre-orders across the country. When Wind Waker finally came out, though, many of those people ended up leaving their copies of Ocarina to collect dust, as Nintendo had hit another one out of the park.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what makes Wind Waker so special. The visuals to this day are some of the most stunning the Zelda series has ever seen. Characters were more expressive than ever, in particular Link, whose face could even lend players a hint as to how to proceed through an area (all in the eyes, folks). I’ve been happy with what I’ve seen of the HD port for Wind Waker, but I honestly would have been happy just to see the pixel count of the original upped and maybe smooth some textures. Wind Waker as it exists on the GameCube has aged remarkably well compared to many of its contemporaries. The reason for this preservation is that the animated look of Wind Waker is timeless. As has been demonstrated with every new console released in the past thirty-plus years, photo-realism is entirely relative to the technology of the day. Nintendo’s implementation of their own take on the cel-shading techniques of the time remains one of their greatest creative decisions (cel-shading, though generally different from what Nintendo would ultimately do with Wind Waker, had become a bit of a fad, which further fueled some critics’ ire).
Wind Waker‘s success can also be owed to its engaging narrative. Unlike previous installments in the series, Wind Waker embraced story, drawing in the player with humor, drama, clever twists, and an unforgettable ending. The excess of great characters is highly reminiscent of Majora’s Mask, but set to the backdrop of a grander stage. Wind Waker truly feels like an adventure, taking the player from one end of The Great Sea to the other. The overworld sells a sense of grandeur better than almost any game before it, though this is where many people’s complaints are levied. For some, sailing across the sea is too time consuming, with little to do but watch Link effortlessly glide to his destination. There are only a handful of islands with true towns and activities to engage in, further limiting some critics’ enjoyment of the game. Factor in the infamous “fetch-quest” at the latter part of the game, and some say Wind Waker can drag too much.
I personally beg to differ, because it’s those exact things that made Wind Waker so compelling to me. The sensation of time passing as I physically traveled across vast swaths of ocean remains unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in a game. Nitpicking just a bit, there’s a reason within the narrative for the desolation of The Great Sea that legitimizes the necessity for the overworld being how it is. Still, I can admit that I wish there was a bit more to do on the various islands peppered across the water. Regardless, don’t let those criticisms scare you away from trying this game. There’s plenty to do in Wind Waker and it’s very worth experiencing. What it boils down to is patience, and just how much of it you’re willing to offer in order to beat the game. The time spent sailing is nowhere near as atrocious as some would suggest, and if you can get in the right mindset it adds more to the fun. Wind Waker is unusual in that it asks the player to invest more than is usual of their time and self, but it pays off in ways you wouldn’t expect.
Razed by critics before its release but now nearly universally lauded, Wind Waker holds a unique place in franchise history. Wind Waker brought a fresh take on narrative and exploration to Zelda games that paved the way for titles like Skyward Sword. While there are aspects of Wind Waker that might try your patience, its unorthodox approach to traveling can be very rewarding if you plant yourself firmly within Link’s boots and let yourself go. Definitely keep the HD remake on your radar if you’ve been starving for a new Zelda game, especially those of you who never got to experience Wind Waker the first time around. Here’s hoping Aonuma includes the two dungeons that were supposedly cut from the game!
Released 2003. Developed and published by Nintendo.
The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker is available on the GameCube. A HD remake is slated for release in the Fall of 2013.