A game whose adventurous heart and spirit transcend the realm of words and adjectives
On a tiny remote island, a boy comes of age and – as tradition dictates – must garb a green tunic that pays homage to a legendary hero of ages past. The celebration has a reason: a tale told through countless generations speaks of a long-vanished kingdom where a brave young man dressed with the colors of the forest sealed an immense demon after a hard-fought battle between the powers of good and evil for the control of the mighty Triforce ravaged the land.
What was meant to be a day of joy, however, turns to sadness when a gigantic bird who had been flying across the seas kidnapping blond girls with pointy ears mistakes the boy’s sister for a female pirate he had been carrying. As he decides to abandon his peaceful life and journey with the pirates towards the ominous fortress where all missing girls are reportedly being kept for mysterious reasons, the wheels of one of Nintendo’s greatest and most epic adventures are set in motion; the Wind Waker sets sail.
The first thing one takes notice of when playing the game is obvious: its famous cell-shaded visuals. The artists responsible for the game struck on a look that set this particular entry in the series far apart from anything else that had come before, and – more than that – from any other game to ever employ the very same cartoonish technique. Its vivid colors are used in ways that match both the quest’s highest peaks, conjuring feelings of adventure that are unparalleled in the history of the saga; and the hero’s darkest and most dangerous hours, portraying threats and forebodingness in their full glory.
That overflowing prettiness sometimes, though, obscures the two greatest victories found within that stellar art style. The first one is that, even over a decade after its release, when many games of the Gamecube era are starting to show wrinkles, the Wind Waker has simply not aged; as if preserved inside a time-proof bubble, it looks far better than many first-party games that came after it. The second one, meanwhile, lies in how full of expression the characters look. Paired with the huge eyes, which – in the case of Link – can serve as pointers to important items in the scenario, the very distinctive lines of each and every one of the hundreds of characters that populate the game’s universe clearly broadcast endless feelings, thoughts, and intentions with flooring ease.
Looks are not the only road the Wind Waker utilizes to set itself apart within a franchise with such a rich history of unique installments. Its gameplay is also distinctive, and it all starts and goes through the sailing. Set in a world where a gigantic ocean separates forty-nine islands of different shapes, sizes, and purposes, the hero will eventually acquire a talking sailboat – royally named The King of Red Lions – which he will use to travel across the vast water expanse.
True to the rupture it causes in the Zelda fanbase, the sailing has both a bright side and a negative one, but the former outweighs the latter so categorically that its flaws become negligible. Given the nature of his vessel, depending on his next destination, the protagonist must often change the direction of the wind, which breaks the pace of the exploration and does become annoying quickly. However, differently from other Zelda games, on which the focus is on locating the dungeons and tackling them, the Wind Waker feeds on adventure, and that is precisely what the sailing provides.
For starters, as soon as the boat is acquired – which happens very early, players are free to head to wherever their hearts desire. Many of the smaller optional islands are filled with puzzles and treasures that can only be accessed with certain equipment, but whether or not the hero has what is necessary to reach them, it is still rewarding to know what is out there and plan future explorations.
In a way, to those who truly become enchanted by Wind Waker’s explorative nature, the unveiling of the game’s secrets will play out like a Metroid game set at sea: new terrain is easy to find, but most of it requires that Link backtrack there once he is properly equipped.
To those folks, even traveling through relatively long space that separates each island will feel like an exciting activity due to the game’s constant vibe of discovery. The ocean is far more than a huge expanse of blue emptiness punctuated by islands, as its waters are brimming with submarines, aquatic monsters, observation towers, and fish that – when fed – spill out gossip, rumors, and other tales that, aside from making the ocean come alive with personality and activity, often serve as key clues in the finding of items and locations that are either necessary to the completion of the quest or entirely optional.
That incredible sense of freedom serves as fertile ground for what is perhaps Wind Waker’s greatest prowess: its sidequests. They are ridiculously abundant and fun to go through, especially since many of them feature some of the game’s finest moments of puzzle-solving, writing, and exploration. Those become exceptionally engaging due to the fact Wind Waker has interesting rewards to give away. Other than the traditional heart pieces and rupees, the game is loaded with valuable charts that – pirate style – mark the resting place of chests lying on the ocean floor with a cross.
It is true that most of those maps, namely the dozens of ones that are not mandatory, lead to chests packed with rupees, but the exploration is fun nonetheless; in this case, the means are more interesting than the ends. The sheer amount of cash players will collect, though, comes in handy late in the game when a specific portion of the storyline will require unbelievably fat pockets.
Some might feel such demand is a very cheap method Nintendo unearthed to pad the game’s length and force players into taking missions that are otherwise facultative, which is a fair assumption; but most who balance doing sidequests with clearing the main plot will not have much trouble getting by that undoubtedly onerous portion of the quest.
Besides its great degree of exploration, the Wind Waker moves forward much like any other Zelda game; it intercalates investigation and good doses of dialogue with lonely dungeons. The former portion is remarkable. As far as the Zelda franchise goes, no other game nails plot development like Wind Waker. The script has mysteries whose scope is on par with the game’s gigantic ocean, and the storyline unravels constantly, always finding ways to reward players with new tidbits of information or stunning plot twists as major goals are achieved.
To go along with that amazing tale, Nintendo has crafted a set of characters to match. Whether they are involved directly with the inner workings of the plot, or are just part of the peripheral peoples that inhabit the sea (which includes the fantastic Windfall Island, a sort of nautical version of Majora’s Mask Clocktown where civilians with their own secrets and urges go about their daily business in timed and synchronized fashion), remarkable likable characters – perhaps aided by the lovely visuals – surge from every corner.
Sadly, the dungeons just do not follow the same level of superb quality. While none of them are decidedly bad, they fail to be awe-inspiring, often succumbing to tiny design flaws. One of them, for example, which could have become a creative gauntlet focused on sneaking, has the annoying habit of sending Link back to his starting point whenever he is caught.
Meanwhile, the three final labyrinths, which hold top-notch puzzles, fall victim to the fact Link carries allies into them, forcing gamers to constantly have to play a song in order to assume control of the sidekicks, an action that grows dull really fast, constantly stops the exploration on its tracks, and that could have been easily mapped to a button press.
As a more positive turn, though, all dungeons – without exception, are crowned with astounding boss battles that push the game’s graphics to their absolute peak. Even if they are easy, they are positively exciting because of the visual fireworks they provide, which border on cinematic due to their giant smoothness, and the cleverness of their design.
The difficulty issue of the boss battles is also translated to the other combats. The game’s combat system is a slightly refined version of the one present on both Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask. The locking and camera work are flawless. The added twist is that, when the time is right, a loud sound will indicate players that the enemy is vulnerable to a powerful blow, and a timely button press – which is not that hard to pull off – will make Link unleash an effective and visually flashy slash. It is a cool addition, but – for the most part – minor enemies do not pose much of a threat.
A technically perfect game, the Wind Waker complements its visuals and soundtrack, which are the peaks of the franchise in both areas, with a quest whose theme of adventure is executed brilliantly through incredible sidequests, a moving plot, an absurd degree of free-roaming exploration, and a fascinating gargantuan ocean that is populated by easy-to-love characters that give the place life and lore. Its tiny flaws in no way diminish the overwhelming greatness emanating from nearly everything it touches, and the result is a masterfully designed game whose adventurous heart and spirit transcend the realm of words and adjectives. It is something that must be felt either through the over fifty hours of its full content or via the thousands of unforgettable moments that populate its unforgettable quest.