Do you remember that Spaceworld 2000 Zelda demo? I certainly do. Coming off the back of Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask, it was exactly the kind of next-gen Zelda I was looking forward to on Nintendo’s then-unnamed Gamecube. But a year later, at 2001’s Spaceworld, this happened. And I wasn’t happy about it.
It wasn’t the cel-shading (after all, I was already a huge fan of Jet Set Radio, the game that pioneered the technique). It wasn’t even the kiddy, cartoon-in-motion aesthetic. My issue was very simple: after a year of looking forward to something, I was handed the sudden realisation that it didn’t even exist. I was disappointed, and while I wasn’t one of those people decrying the game all over the internet, it did mean that I walked away from the franchise for about a decade.
Upon its 2003 release, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker received massive critical acclaim, yet even this reception, backed up with positive reactions from friends whose gaming opinions I trusted, couldn’t bring me around. I had simply moved on to other games. Or so I thought.
The Zelda series has always held a special place in my heart though (Ocarina and Awakening in particular, the former easily sitting in my top five games of all time), and 2011’s excellent Skyward Sword eventually brought me back into the fold. It was as much the time of year as it was the game; Christmas just feels like a great time to play through one of Link’s adventures, and this past Christmas, it was the Wii U and its HD remake of Wind Waker that was grabbing all my attention. And so, despite having just bought an Xbox One, I ordered a Wii U Wind Waker HD bundle. And I’m glad I did.
The Wind Waker begins on Outset Island, where a young boy has just come of age. The islanders have a tradition of dressing young boys in the image of a legendary hero, hoping to instill that hero’s courage and bravery in them. That boy is Link and his big day is about to be ruined. A monstrous bird soaring high over Outset Island breaks the sleepy day-to-day existence Link has always known, and hot on it’s talons is a pirate ship, aiming its cannons directly at the huge invader. In its clutches is that ship’s captain, a young blonde girl by the name of Tetra, and when the bird is struck by a cannonball, dropping her into the dark, forbidding forest at the summit of the island Link, like any hero worth his salt, sets off to help. Unfortunately for him, having saved Tetra, the huge bird sets its sights on his younger sister Aryll, mistaking her for its prey. She is snatched away before his eyes.
Link hears from Quill, an inter-island flying postman, that the bird has been searching out blonde girls with pointy ears and taking them to the Forsaken Fortress in the far north. The bird is doing the bidding of some dark force that has made the fortress his base of operations and so, joining up with the pirates, Link leaves his island, setting off to save his sister.
What follows will be no surprise to fans of the series; these games have long been married to a certain formula of field exploration, dungeon-puzzling and item acquisition and as a newcomer to a game that many first experienced a decade ago, I found it striking just how similar the game feels to Ocarina of Time. Granted, you sail from location to location across an expansive sea, and yes, there are new gadgets to get to grips with (the grappling hook being a particular favourite, used not only to traverse the environment but also to stun or steal items from enemies), but the core gameplay is identical. You move in the same way, you get around dungeons in the same way, you target and, save for a new button-prompt dodge/counter system, attack enemies in the same way.
Granted, this isn’t really a negative as Ocarina still feels remarkably playable today, some fifteen years after its release. Like Bungie with the first Halo title, Nintendo absolutely nailed 3D Zelda on their first go, and so it’s difficult to begrudge the similarities in game design between the two. It’s also worth pointing out that most people would have played Wind Waker five years after Ocarina; until recently, the only Zelda I’d played since that 1998 masterpiece had been Skyward Sword which, with its motion-controlled swordplay, felt like a different take on the series.
But again, it’s hardly a bad thing that Wind Waker plays so similarly to what may be the greatest game ever made, and there’s plenty here to enjoy over the forty-or-so hours you’ll spend in Link’s company. The Great Sea is dotted with memorable environments, charming characters, satisfying puzzles and epic boss battles; the Tower of the Gods in particular, coming at about the halfway-point in the game, is an almost-perfect distillation of everything that Wind Waker is. And then of course there’s those visuals.
Nintendo’s choice of graphical style has certainly been vindicated with the passage of time. The game just hasn’t aged visually at all. Like the aforementioned Jet Set Radio it’s still strikingly beautiful, and if you didn’t know any better you could easily mistake this HD remastering for a new-for-2013 release. Eiji Aonuma’s team have attempted to give Wind Waker HD the same respectful makeover that Grezzo afforded the 2011 3DS release of Ocarina – that game looked much as you remember it, until you saw comparison shots side by side, and that’s much the same for this re-release. Slightly dampening that intended goal is a new lighting system that, while giving the game a more modern sheen, can occasionally take away from the flat, cartoon-y look the original release sought to create, sometimes highlighting contours and gradients on character models that make them appear like small figurines in a diorama. The effect is not enough to diminish the enhancements elsewhere in the production however, as Wind Waker HD is a stunningly clean, sharp and colourful presentation.
This aesthetic direction also affords Wind Waker the most expressive incarnation of the legendary hero we’ve ever seen. Link has always been a silent character, essentially a cipher for the player to project themselves into his adventures throughout Hyrule. While that’s still the case here, Link’s character design makes his emotions easy to read, his big, expressive eyes telegraphing everything from bold courage, fear, exhaustion and sadness all the way through to delight. And his facial expression in his ‘sidle’ animation is enough to melt the heart of anyone still decrying the choice of art style.
The developers also managed to absolutely nail the tone of the game, every aspect of the production coming together to deliver a playful, almost childlike experience. From the sunny, colourful visuals to the memorable supporting cast (Tetra, Medli and Makar being my personal favourites) to the excellent soundtrack, it all combines to create a sense of whimsical adventure. The story and setting even manage to leave some room for a bit of gentle shading later on, as Link delves beneath the Great Sea and learns the truth behind the ancient civilization that secretly lies far below the surface in a sequence that ties the events of this game to Ocarina of Time. Even the despotic villain Ganon is afforded a bit of humanity, with the writers giving him some motivation for his acts of evil.
Over the years, I’ve seen claims that Wind Waker is a better Zelda than Ocarina, and though I absolutely loved my time with it I can’t agree. For a start, the pacing is nowhere near as tight as the older game. I can count on one finger the amount of times I felt Ocarina was becoming fatiguing (and I don’t mean the Water Temple), but the last couple of hours of Wind Waker felt poorly paced to me. The infamous Triforce Hunt has in this version been toned down, yet I feel they could have halved it again as much of it just felt like busy work – especially the horrid ‘savage labyrinth’ area on Outset Island. Thirty floors of combat isn’t so much fun as it is somewhat wearying.
Secondly, sailing across the sea from island to island can be a bit tedious – often, I’d set my direction, hoist my sail and then read something until I reached my destination (a habit which can prove dangerous if you’re sailing near to the Forsaken Fortress and head straight into a mine). I’d imagine ten years ago the sheer scale of the Great Sea would have been impressive, the promise of hoisting your sail and heading off in any direction imparting a sense of freedom rarely felt in its contemporaries. In the here and now, when more games than not seem to feature an open world, it feels a bit empty. Granted, the Great Sea is divided into 49 squares, and every tile on the map is home to an island or some other feature to discover and explore, but the distances between them (and the slow nature of travel until you can get the new fast sail) make travelling a bit tedious. I managed to completely fill out my map more through a completist’s compulsion than a desire to see what else the ocean had to offer.
But that’s a handful of dull hours out of forty excellent ones, and when you’re deep in the bowels of a multi-level dungeon, using your latest piece of gear in a novel way to get past a meticulously crafted puzzle, or methodically taking down an enormous screen-filling boss monster, none of that matters. The Zelda series has always been about those dungeons, and here they’re as good as they’ve always been. It speaks volumes about Nintendo’s almost-timeless game design sensibilities that The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD can be re-released ten years later and still be one of the best games I played in 2013.