A lot of times, Nintendo gets flak for being too conservative and playing it safe. I personally think they should be famous for taking risks, and this game happens to be one of the biggest in the company’s history. At Nintendo’s Space World Expo in 2000, they showcased a Zelda demo video to show off the then codenamed “Dolphin’s” graphical and technical ability. The video showed Link facing off against Ganondorf in a graphical style very reminiscent of the N64 iterations, and the future of the series looked bright (or dark and gritty, as it were).
However, all of this was set aside for completely different color palettes, character designs, and art style. The result? The brilliantly cel-shaded work of art that we know to today as The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. The game first hit open waters late 2002 in Japan and 2003 for the rest of the world, and more or less shut up most of the non-believers. It immediately made the difference in hardware between the N64 and the GameCube apparent.
Everything in the game is on a much bigger scale than ever before, despite its “childish” graphics and bright pastels. Trust me, The Wind Waker is as Zelda as they come. The game takes the joy (and occasional frustration) of exploration and multiplies it over a massive, gorgeous, ocean world. This aspect of discovering the unknown is a large part of the series’s charm, and The Wind Waker pretty much gives you free reign over the entire ocean (with no loading times!). Who’s never dreamed of being a pirate, looting unexplored caves around the world?
But what’s the point of the exploring a boring world? Sure, most of this game’s overworld is covered by water, but let’s be honest, it’s incredibly beautiful and scenic. Everything from the slowly ebbing tides to the gentle (and visible!) sea breezes paints a brilliant picture that perfectly sets up the mood for adventure. Even in the smallest and seemingly most insignificant caves, there’s a ton of detail put into every blade of grass and scattered rock. Just the existence of these small sanctuaries is enough to tickle the explorer’s imagination and curiosity.
Speaking of pirates, they’re part of reason Link sets off on his wild pillaging journey in the first place. After chasing the giant Helmaroc King across the sea, the pirates drive the bird to a certain Outset Island, home of Link and his sister Aryll. I believe this is the closest family member Link ever has in a video game. In every other game, he’s either an orphan or has an uncle that dies within two minutes. But here, he has a sister and even a grandmother. This gives Link a lot more relatability and personality, whereas before he was just this stoic, voiceless hero. Now, we know about his family and what drives him on his quest. I mean, he’s really just a caring young boy who wants to protect those who are dear to him.
And this, in turn, makes us care more about him and the rest of the characters in the game. The scene where Link leaves Outset Island for the first time, waving goodbye to his neighbors while his grandmother sadly watches, is tearjerking. A lot of it has to do with the establishment of these relations and motives, but we also have Link’s facial expressions. One definite advantage to this new anime style character design is that it allows for much more emotion to be expressed through Link’s face, especially his eyes. Watching Link’s face as he finds his grandmother outside to see him off gets me every time, I swear. Check out the HD version of the scene here.
Going off what I’ve said about Majora’s Mask, this game has continued the progression adding personality into the series. Not only does Link have his motivations, but even the NPC’s have lives of their own. On islands like Windfall Island, you’ll get to know all of inhabitants and help them out with their life problems, much like we did in Majora’s Mask. When we think of Link’s deeds as a hero, we typically imagine him vanquishing Ganon and restoring light to the world. However, we tend to forget that the times when Link plays with kids, plants trees, sorts mail, takes secret photos for a creepy dude, finds jewelry for a teacher, or nurses his grandmother are all heroic deeds in their own right.
Rather than playing music, as had been a stable of the series, Link now conducts it with the titular Wind Waker baton. In this sense, the winds that prevail throughout the world ARE his instruments this time around. Much like a conductor who demands control from his musicians, so does Link demand dominion over the forces of nature. How cool is that? To match this new aesthetic, we have a masterful soundtrack by Koji Kondo and company, and most of the tunes adopt an exotic, folkish, and tropical feel. As I’ve alluded to before, the game features what are probably my favorite themes from the entire franchise: the Earth’s God Lyric and the Wind God’s Aria, which go together to birth the game’s title theme.
As with any good game, there are sure to be a few shortcomings. For The Wind Waker, it’s probably the notorious spots of the game that kill its momentum, namely the Forsaken Fortress at the beginning and the Triforce quest at the end. The second problem would be the game’s overall easy difficulty, probably making it the easiest in the franchise. This compounded with its “kiddy” graphics, doesn’t help its appeal towards self-conscious adults.
Still, say what you want about its supposed target age group, I think everyone can get behind this game. The Zelda franchise has and always will be about building an immersive atmosphere. The Wind Waker takes that philosophy and rides with it into the wind across the great blue ocean. There’s just so much to explore in this storybook adventure, and I’m honestly glad that Nintendo brought it back with the HD edition because there are very few video game experiences quite like it.