Related: The Legend of Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass (NDS sequel)
Similar: Witcher 3
Golden Sun 2: The Lost Age
Platforms: GameCube, Wii U (HD remaster)
Genre: Action Adventure
Length: ~31 hrs. with moderate exploration
- Rewarding exploration.
- Loaded with charm.
- Sharp combat.
- Toon Link.
- Timeless art.
- Varied dungeons and items.
- A treasure hunt quest instead of the penultimate dungeon of other Zelda games.
When The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker was first revealed with its cel-shaded art, many were quick to deride the style as too ‘kiddy,’ but now, so many years later, Wind Waker’s art is timeless in a way the more realistic styles can’t match.
Wind Waker follows the quest of Link as he rescues his kidnapped sister, snatched away by a giant bird to the Forsaken Fortress. He enlists the help of pirates and a talking boat to navigate the seas packed with squid monsters, Bokoblins, and sharks. The open sea is at the core of Wind Waker, for out at sea there are secrets to be uncovered and chests to be plundered. As many open world games, such as the recent Watch Dogs, have shown, a larger world isn’t always a positive, especially when said world is drowning in watered down chores. Thankfully, Nintendo kept the world at just the right size – big enough to feel vast, but never repetitive.
Wind Waker is a game of exploration. When the music swells as you hit the open sea…fantastic. There is so much to discover. You may want to keep a notepad for secrets you should come back to later with the right equipment. When one hits a new island, there is that sense of mystery, of excitement at what one may find. It can range from a chest hidden behind a wall of fire to an entire dungeon. It isn’t predictable. In fact, a favourite feature of mine, and a key to the sense of discovery, is how little information the game gives you. These days, you look at the map in an open world game and you’re met with hundreds of icons telling you where everything is and what to expect upon arrival. Rarely do they have any mystery to them. Two crossed swords – yep, that’s a combat task. A chest icon – why does no one else take this treasure if it’s marked on every map?
The game guides you in subtle ways instead. For example, the world map is a blank grid to begin with. A blank tile says, ‘If lost on where to go, why not try that area over there?’ What will you find? Who knows… There is enough information to get started, but not so much that it feels like you’re hooked by the lip and dragged across the ocean.
You can fill the map by feeding a master painter fish (go with it) in each tile, who greets you with a “Shveh! (Hey, small fry!)” and gives a little information, usually on the island. Even with the map filled, the information is minimal, as it should be. It never feels like a checklist.
The artist fish is one of many charming features you will meet in Wind Waker. This game never seems to stop with the charm. Link’s wide, expressive eyes follow butterflies when he runs past, strangers watch you with peculiar interest at your approach, and that tiptoe sound effect when Link sidles along a ledge! One that always makes me laugh is the man who runs the Battleships mini-game on Windfall Island, the hub of activity. He adds his own sound effects to the mini-game; hearing that “Splooooooosh” should be infuriating at another missed cannonball, but it’s too charming to anger me. Even the enemies have charm. Moblins, a normally serious staple of Zelda, swagger around, lanterns aloft as they patrol the Forsaken Fortress. But poke them in the bum with your sword and they jump to the ceiling, tears comically streaming from their eyes before they run around in circles clutching their backsides. Be careful, however, as they will recover and go to retrieve their dropped weapon, though you can get to it first. Nothing quite like seeing tiny Link wield a serrated blade three times his size.
To battle these foes, Wind Waker uses a combat system as sharp as any action adventure game. The lock-on system invented by Ocarina of Time allows focus on the combat rather than the camera. Attacks are quick and precise, changing in nature depending on the direction of the control stick. A forward tilt plus ‘A’ results in a leaping strike – powerful, but leaves you open, whereas a mere tap of ‘A’ delivers a quick jab. Combos increase your power and can disarm or stagger enemies. Link can also execute deft counters with a well-timed press of the button. The combat is about timing and knowing the enemy’s weakness.
Wind Waker’s dungeons aren’t as good as the likes of Ocarina and Twilight Princess, but they are great nonetheless and the items feel relevant throughout the adventure. The equipment also serves a greater purpose than in other Zelda games. You can salvage treasure under the sea using the grappling hook, while the bombs add a canon to your boat, further increasing tools of exploration.
The exploration and discovery make Wind Waker an essential game to play. It captures the feeling that there is something new just over the horizon, a quality few games have managed to grasp. And once you reach your destination, you have an excellent combat system, beautiful cel-shaded environments, varied enemies, and fun dungeons. Don’t forget the endless charm.
What about Ocarina of Time or other games in the Zelda franchise?
To say Wind Waker is the essential Zelda game is a bold statement in the face of such competition. Every 3D entry into the franchise is the best at something. Yes, Twilight Princess has the best dungeons and Ocarina of Time has the best story, but Wind Waker brings every element together better than the others do. Keep in mind: Wind Waker’s dungeons and story are great, even if not as great as the other two.
The Wii U difference.
The Wii U version is an exemplar in how remasters should be done. It increases the resolution from 480p to 1080p widescreen and overhauls the lighting engine with better volume and shadows. The touchscreen on the gamepad helps maintain flow by not having to pause to check your map or change items. For veteran gamers, there is a Hero Mode option that doubles enemy damage and disables heart regeneration outside of potions and fairies. The Picto Box camera can store twelve photos instead of three for the Pokémon Snap-esque mini-game.
Lastly, a new Swift Sail greatly improves travel speed for those who want to get around faster, but not so fast it may as well have teleported you. It also conveniently changes the wind direction for ideal travel without the need of the Wind Waker to manipulate the wind. The Swift Sail will save at least a couple of hours overall, depending on how much you explore.
Recommendation: If you can access the Wii U version, it is certainly worth it; however, the GameCube will still give you the essential Wind Waker goodness.