The tale of Wind Waker’s big reveal to the world is as famous as the game itself. While the industry expected a Zelda game powered by visuals that would push the series closer towards epic realism, Nintendo went the opposite way and dressed up the Zelda world in cartoonish lines. When it was unveiled, average reactions ranged from frustration to utter disappointment; ten years later, Wind Waker was hand-picked by Nintendo to be the first Zelda to jump into the high definition realm. Although it is a choice partially guided by the overwhelming quality of the game’s graphics, it is also a gigantic statement on the game’s quality. Ocarina of Time gets deserved praise for being a nearly flawless game in every single aspect that is vital to an entry in the Zelda franchise – not to mention the gameplay advances that it brought to the table – but Wind Waker manages to top it in almost every area, and it does so with remarkable ease.
In Wind Waker, it all starts with the graphics. It is a fact of life that games age. Those that age gracefully manage to present timeless gameplay that supports the ever wrinkling visuals, and those that age poorly both look and play like very old games. Regardless of the group on which a game falls into, one thing is inevitable: its graphics will grow older with every passing generation. Unless, of course, said title happens to be The Wind Waker. For all effects and purposes, it could have been released yesterday and its visuals would still floor a large portion of the audience. The Wind Waker, much like Okami, stumbled upon some hidden fountain of youth that has kept it flawlessly preserved. Whether it is on the 2003 Gamecube disc or on the newly released Wii U remake, being indifferent towards sailing The Great Sea and watching its beautiful islands go by is not an option.
Wind Waker’s universe is not just constructed out of visual spectacle, though. Its story and characters are, by a large margin, the peak of Nintendo’s writing skills. The world-building is excellent, and the tale of a flooded Hyrule whose tallest peaks are now the sea’s tiny islands wraps the game in an intriguing layer of desolation and powerlessness. The forces at play here are clearly grand beyond comprehension, and in the midst of all that in comes Link. All Zelda games work with the premise of a simple boy against great evil powers, but the scope of Wind Waker’s setting, the cozy and delicate way with which his home island and family are shown during the game’s first hour, and the heartbreaking way on which his sister is taken away without any warning all contribute to highlighting that specific characteristic of the series’ storytelling.
On one happy sunny day an innocent relationship of brotherhood is brutally torn apart, and a blond boy whose only heroic traits are his clothes needs to leave his loving grandmother to set out into this gargantuan blue sea with unknown amounts of dangers, mysteries, tales, stories and civilizations. And then, enter the pirates. Tetra and her crew provide, at a key moment, a sense of humorous relief to a game that has suddenly taken a turn towards the bleak. They lighten up the mood, and their whimsical ways combined with bravery quickly give fun and hope to a daunting adventure. They are the first taste of what kinds of characters inhabit the Great Sea; characters that are full of expression – thanks to the art style – and whose personalities, whether they appear on screen for hours or for seconds, are incredibly developed and tridimensional.
The master key to Wind Waker’s storytelling is how constantly the plot is developed and how tightly it is tied up with the many individual chapters within the game. Link’s visits to the Rito people of Dragon Roost Island or the Koroks living inside Forest Haven are not just a mean to get to a dungeon in order to collect an item. They work towards adding new pieces to a plot that is full of threads; they give delicate nods to the old Hyrule beneath the sea, hence allowing Zelda veterans to draw parallels between civilizations; and, most importantly, through Makar and Medli, they teach Link important lessons, eventually revealing that great powers sometimes lie hidden in completely unexpected places, something that is more than vital in Link’s ordeal to face a nearly unbeatable evil power that has awaken after centuries of slumber.
Tying all forty-nine islands, many submarines, numerous secrets, and uncountable watchtowers together is the polarizing Great Sea. It has been rightfully criticized as empty (just like any sea out there in the real world), but it gives a sense of freedom and exploration that had yet not been reproduced by any other game. It is natural to rave about Ocarina of Time’s Hyrule Field given its impact at the time, but the Great Sea goes, literally, miles and miles beyond its reach. Watching the sun set and rise while you are alone in the middle of nowhere travelling from one island to the other, finding an abandoned submarine roaming around the waters and conquering it for treasure, coming across gigantic octopuses or storms, or simply getting excited because the shadow of a new island has appeared on the horizon are feelings that cannot be replicated. Some say the journey is far more important than the destination and, if that’s really the case, Wind Waker absolutely nails it.
A large portion of the game’s second half is spent on the now infamous Triforce Quest, on which Link must travel across the sea looking for charts leading to Triforce pieces. However, the unreadable charts can only be deciphered by Tingle for a ridiculous amount of money, which – in turn – leads to more sea exploration. Although often criticized, the Triforce Quest is one of Wind Waker’s finest moments. Taking advantage of the incredible extent of the Great Sea, it is a quest that sends Link sailing all around it uncovering many secrets and level design treats, some of which are mandatory for completion of the quest and others that merely lead to heart pieces, rupees or charts that point out the location of the sea’s many secrets. Even if on its surface it is a fetch quest, it gives players the chance to stumble upon uncountable sidequests or hidden challenges that make Wind Waker the gem that it is. And even if an useless amount of rupees is not a very attractive final reward, the fun of beating down enemies and clearing puzzles is often more important than the final reward anyway.
The greatest of Wind Waker’s many extras is the amazing Windfall Island. Borrowing the depth of Majora’s Mask and its Clock Town, it is a densely populated island (for the sea’s standards) that is packed to the brim with stellar characters that go about their daily routines according to the clock and that have many secrets to hide. It is an enormous hub of delightful sidequests that will either send Link to far away locations around the sea or that will simply have him investigate relationships and interactions within the island itself. In a way, it summarizes the whole of Wind Waker; a game that alternates moments of heartwarming familiarity and great personal stories, with segments on which the weight of a big world threatened by impending corruption falls on the shoulders of a young boy and his equally young friends.
In all of those areas, not to mention its unforgettable soundtrack, Wind Waker represents the very peak of the Zelda franchise. However, it takes a major stumble in one feature that is a valuable part of the series’ gameplay: the dungeons. Dragon Roost Carven and Forbidden Woods are on par with the first dungeons of other Zelda games; they are engaging, but merely introductory. Unfortunately, the three later dungeons on which the game was supposed to shine (Tower of the Gods, Earth Temple and Wind Temple) have terrible pacing problems that come from the fact that Link must, every once in a while, play a song in order to take control of his in-dungeon partner. It is annoying, and it turns even brilliant puzzles into a chore. The other one of the game’s dungeons, the Forsaken Fortress, has an interesting focus on sneaking around. Sadly, that means that whenever Link is caught, players have to start back from a previous checkpoint, making the whole thing rather frustrating.
The dungeons are a considerable and impossible to overlook flaw, and are the weight that keeps Wind Waker from flying higher than Ocarina of Time as the 3-D game from the Zelda series that manages to do everything incredibly well. Still, Wind Waker’s journey remains an enormous landmark for the franchise and for Nintendo. It is a tale full of heart, challenges and truly shocking twists, but the most important of the game’s qualities is that it emanates a feeling of adventure and exploration that is hard to achieve. It shows Nintendo’s high degree of sensitivity and their delicate dedication to detail, and its return ten years later shows that it remains ageless and enchanting. It is an epic quest that cannot, and will not, be forgotten.