Wind Waker is an odd creature, isn’t it? After the comparatively serious one-two console punch of Ocarina Of Time and Majora’s Mask, the Zelda franchise decided to lighten the tone somewhat, changing to a cel-shaded cartoon aesthetic and making Link a dopey young sprout of a kid who seemed much more real that his previous incarnations, even though he looked more like a drawing in the margins of a schoolbook than ever.
And though the critics liked what they saw, the western audience seemed a lot less happy. But then again this was the early 2000s, where gaming was still desperately trying to prove it was mature by adopting a thirteen year-old’s impression of the concept. No niceness, no fun, you hear me? All that stuff is for babies. Give me more WWII shooters, and another GTA game to back that up.
Thankfully it’s now generally accepted that Wind Waker was actually really good, hence the rerelease on the Wii U. And because somebody had a birthday recently (hint, it was me), I suddenly had a brand new console on which to try this HD remake. And good thing too, because Wind Waker is probably the best Zelda game I’ve played, full stop.
Part of why is that Link is much more human and characterised than any former version we’ve seen, except perhaps that god-awful TV Link with the goofy voice. This green-suited kid is still silent, but with an emotive face that portrays a variety of expressions, even in gameplay. And this time he’s not setting out to fulfil some ancient prophecy, oh no. Instead, a condor with a lot of kick-ass tattoos has stolen his little sister, and Link ain’t going to let that fly just because it’s on the endangered species list.
And so he grabs a sword and hops in the nearest boat in order to save her. Because since the last game, Hyrule has had a slight problem with damp. Actually, let’s not mince words – it’s an archipelago now; a scattered mass of small islands with the roiling ocean between them, and so much sunken treasure that it’s a wonder the economy doesn’t collapse every time somebody goes crab fishing.
And everything spirals out from that point. Little Linkette’s kidnapping turns out to be a small part of a far larger web of events, in which we see all the traditional faces come back. Ganon, Tingle, the Deku Tree, Zelda… Actually, let’s talk about the Princess for a moment, with the mandatory spoiler warning thrown up for the next couple of paragraphs.
Because for a while it seemed like nobody had invited Zelda to the party, as she’s the only one who doesn’t get a mention for almost half the game. And the narrative role of determined-female-friend/sort-of love-interest-but-not-really was more than adequately fulfilled by Tetra, a young pirate captain who seemed far more likeable than Zelda had ever been. No traditionalist to be found in me – I was welcoming the change and the disappearance of a tedious character along with it.
Except that Tetra turns out to be Zelda herself, a literal reincarnation of that original character who has her royal persona re-emerge when you all find the sunken remains of Hyrule Castle. And like that, Tetra suddenly became a lot more boring. I don’t mean that I found her inherently dull afterwards, I mean it felt like the writer didn’t care anymore. The second Tetra reappears in that familiar pink dress with the Triforce on her hand, she barely had a word of appreciable dialogue until the very end, where she throws it off and goes back to piracy. I guess we know Zelda’s true gift now – not the ability to defeat Ganon, but the power to kill every scene she’s in.
Speaking of killing power, the combat has had a little bit of a tweak. Not a huge amount – few Nintendo properties are brave enough to go nuts enough to reinvent anything, even the bad ideas – but there’s a little bit more polish here. Link now has a counter-attack, where pressing A just before a goon hits you causes the Hero Of Hyrule to roll around and stab his foe in the butt. Good stuff, and the reintroduction of all the old items doesn’t hurt either. The targeting system is still a nuisance, as the game clearly has better ideas about what you should be aiming at, but on the whole it’s perfectly serviceable and usually fun.
Which is more than most people were saying about the sailing element when the game first hit stores over ten years ago. The idea is that the big open ocean of Hyrule lies before you, and you have to use the titular Wind Waker device to change the angle of the wind and use it to push the sails in your boat. But like many of Link’s toys in the past, this legendary item of the gods is unceremoniously dropped in your lap simply when the game decides it’s time for you to have it, and the same applies to most of the game’s weapons, including the all-important Light Arrows which show up in a box two rooms before the final boss fight.
But I’m getting distracted. The sailing is fundamentally a Good Idea, such a Good Idea that I felt the need to capitalise it, twice. Because the danger was always going to be that the ocean itself would be boring, and the act of travelling it would become boring by extension. Wind Waker skips that problem admirably, making this sandbox a hotspot of weird locales that makes it all too tempting to put off story quests and just head for the next island on the horizon – and there is ALWAYS another island on the horizon.
So the world feels big and ripe for exploration, and though I would’ve liked to have a few more hub towns (where all the most interesting stuff seems to happen), there is a simple joy in filling your map with every island the game has to offer. Sure, there’s a point where the actual act of steering the wind starts to become more of a chore, but when that happens Nintendo offer up a sail that changes the direction of the breezes automatically. And if you’re the kind of hollow-eyed, joyless gimboid who would rather be efficient than think about fun, then a) there’s a ton of e-sports competitions for you to enter, and b) Nintendo have provided an option for fast travelling across the map, where you don’t have to endure a single exciting adventure. Lucky you.
And of course there are puzzles, which feel intriguing in the sandbox setting but get overused in the dungeons – the usual case in Zelda games, quite frankly. But for what it’s worth, the puzzles here are generally taxing and fast-paced enough not to get dull, even when you’re having to bounce beams of light around as normal.
Oh, and what mention of Wind Waker would be complete without due praise given to the audiovisual qualities? Shirking angular polygons in favour of this game’s cel-shaded design was a decision routed in good common sense, with more than a little artistic elegance added into the mix. Whilst Link’s face does occasionally border on the terrifyingly inhuman when he has to express rage or frustration, the characters do generally look cute and the world does feel quaintly endearing, cribbing on a combination of Japanese and Polynesian influences, at least by my estimation. And when you hit the water with the wind in your sails, a triumphant orchestral soundtrack springs into life to give that real feeling of celebratory glee. Pretentiously phrased, but no less true because of it.
Look, I said it earlier: this is the best Zelda game going, at least by my experience. Everything about it seems to be excited and filled with life (bar the curiously bittersweet finale), and the places where it experiments are the places where it tends to shine, so you’re not likely to get this experience from a different entry in the series. If you have a Wii U, this should already be on your shelf. It’s earned its right as a classic.
The Wind Waker is a game about striving for greatness, and manages to match that sense of scale and importance whilst retaining focus on the most human versions of the characters we’ve seen. Give it a go, because it’s unlikely to be topped any time soon.