The Legend of Zelda's development crew is currently hard at work on a new 3D installment in the series for the Wii U. However, seeing as Skyward Sword came out five years after Twilight Princess, the previous fully 3D installment, we may have to wait a while. Normally, we'd take this chance to speculate on what the new game will be like once it's finally done. However, this time around, Nintendo decided to keep us from crapping on a game that hasn't even been released yet by throwing an old one back in the spotlight.
A remake of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker will be released for the Wii U later this year, with redone, high-definition graphics, GamePad functionality, and who knows what else. To celebrate this occasion, I think it's time for me to revisit one of the games that defined my first few years of gaming.
Wind Waker was released in late 2002, much to the disdain of everyone. See, when it was announced, people were a little more than skeptical. Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask had already defined an art style for 3D Zelda, which carried on to a tech demo for the Gamecube that showed off what the console could do with the style those games had established. To see Nintendo throw that all away for what seemed like an overly simplistic style that didn't make use of the Gamecube's power was surely a turnoff for many of the fans of the N64 pair of Zeldas. People thought the art style represented what the game was going to be like.
And... they were right. But mostly wrong.
Wind Waker takes place in what is basically a post-apocalyptic Hyrule. After Link went back to the past after Ganon's sealing in Ocarina of Time, the people of that timeline no longer had a hero. Which would've been fine, if Ganondorf hadn't managed to rise from the ashes later on. No one was there to stop him from conquering the world except the deities themselves, who were forced to flood Hyrule to maintain humanity (kind of warped, huh). After life above the seas has been established, Ganondorf returns, and a little boy unrelated to the other Links gets pulled into becoming the hero after his sister gets caught up in Ganondorf's search for Zelda and her Triforce of Wisdom.
Now, this premise is important because it crafts the game's world. Instead of exploring Hyrule, you are exploring the Great Sea and the islands that sit on top of it, getting from place to place on a little sailboat. As seas tend to be vast (especially great seas), the world of Wind Waker is much, much bigger than the world of any other Zelda game. The change in structure this brings about, not the art style, is the most important departure this game takes from what Zelda and games in general usually did.
In Ocarina of Time, when you were told to go somewhere, you would just roll through Hyrule Field as quickly as possible to get there, as the overworld usually only serves as a connector between main areas. There's a hole to fall in every now and then, I guess. In Wind Waker, when you're told to go somewhere, you find a million other places along the way. See, on Wind Waker's map, there are forty-nine squares that make up the sea. Almost every square holds a unique island. Simply travel three squares to the next dungeon and you'll probably find a mini-game, an enemy hideout, and a mini-dungeon, all guarded by islands with unique shapes and themes. Every square on the map and every island within those squares has something to find. If you didn't find anything there, you most likely just didn't look hard enough.
That is the beauty of Wind Waker: it's not about the destination, it's about the journey. Nobody will ever tell you about the islands you'll come across on your way to each destination (except maybe the fish, who only sometimes give vague hints about a nearby island when you feed them), you'll just come across them. It's so exciting seeing somewhere you've never seen or heard of before appearing in the distance, and that's why I often found myself more excited to go sailing again than I was to enter the next dungeon.
Which brings about the topic of atmosphere on the Great Sea. Previous Zelda games had day and night systems, but none felt as natural as the one in Wind Waker. As you sail across the world, time progresses in a way that makes the player feel like they are constantly moving forward. Because you're out on the sea with few obstructions blocking your way from the sky, you'll always see the sun rise, causing adventurous music to rise as well. It's not just day and night that change, though. Often times, a storm will pick up out of nowhere, just because, well, storms happen. The sea never feels artificial in any way.
So why is it so important for the game to make players to feel like they are constantly moving? Because when you get down to it, travelling from island to island takes a little while. The world needs to be big so it feels like an actual sea (seriously, imagine looking around while sailing and being completely surrounded by huge islands, it would just feel scrunched), but it can't be as boring as actual sailing. Sailing isn't boring throughout the majority of the game because there's always something to witness, whether it be a brand new island appearing on the radar, a change in weather, or maybe a small distraction like an enemy boat. But this brings about a big problem: once you've seen almost every square on the chart, the game loses the feeling of excitement that it had relied on so much. See, by the time I beat the final boss, I had every single square on my sea chart filled, yet I was missing seven heart containers. I just said "okay". I knew most of the rest of the heart pieces were scattered across the bottom of the sea in areas that treasure charts lead to, but having already seen what each square holds, looking for them would not be rewarding.
This problem is primarily caused by the concept of treasure charts. Oftentimes, after beating an optional puzzle in a dungeon or reaching the end of a secret cave on an island, instead of being rewarded with an actual treasure, you'll be rewarded with a treasure chart. A treasure chart shows you the way to an area on the sea wherein a treasure chest holding a silver rupee, a heart piece, or later on, a piece of the Triforce of Courage (I'm also pretty sure one of the chests actually holds another treasure chart) lies underneath, which you can then get by stopping and using your hook to fish for it. Essentially, this means you have to collect some treasures twice, even though the second time requires no skill or thought; you simply have to be willing to waste time sailing to a place you've already seen, stop, fish, and boom. This concept isn't completely pointless, as it gives you the option to pick up your reward later if you think it may be a silver rupee and you don't have enough room in your wallet yet. That's... that's, uh, the only point I can think of. After you get the biggest wallet, treasure charts become nothing more than an unfun way to prolong the game.
Another problem is that the game overuses enemy gauntlets as secrets on islands. But before we get to that, why don't we take a look at combat itself? Combat in Wind Waker differs from combat in the N64 games in several ways. The first comes about through the fact that this Link is way better with a sword than the Hero of Time. If you time your first hit perfectly, you can get your enemy caught in a short attack combo by continuously pressing B, which is always satisfying. You can also dodge big attacks and do a counterattack if you press A when an enemy is about to strike. These features emphasize timing over everything else. When a new enemy is introduced, the challenge is usually finding when to strike the enemy rather than where or how. This approach to combat is simple, but it keeps combat from ever feeling gimmicky or choppy.
The coolest thing about combat, however, is the emphasis on the weapons each enemy holds. The weapons are actually treated as separate objects from the enemies themselves, so if you knock down or kill an enemy, you can pick up their weapon and do what you please with it. This feature is used for some neat puzzles in the first half of the game, although after that it becomes smarter to always just use the sword you have. But it goes further than that. Because weapons in this game are individual and unbiased, enemies can actually hurt each other if they get tangled up while going after you. If you're in a room with a couple of Darknuts and a bunch of weaker enemies, the Darknuts will probably conquer a few of them on their way to you. In fact, I'm pretty sure a Darknut actually saved me from a Moblin who was about to attack me once. If a Darknut loses its sword, it can pick up the weapon of a different dead enemy and use it against you. Isn't that just cool? The connectivity weapons bring between enemies gives them depth. In a mob of enemies, enemies actually act like how they would in a real crowd. They get blocked off and hit by other desperate enemies while working off of the weapons of fallen friends. It's awesome how everything means something in this game.
Unfortunately, boss battles are not as dynamic as regular battles. Unlike in Majora's Mask, there are not multiple ways to beat each boss. All of them simply revolve around the item claimed in the dungeon. In fact, the first three bosses serve as nothing but dummies to unleash your new weapons upon; their defenses are always low and their attacks are extremely predictable. The boss battles do get more difficult after this, despite still being used only to showcase the new item up until the final boss battle (an epic sword duel that surely inspired the one-on-one combat of Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword). Jalhalla is an exception. Who knew the power bracelets could be used in tandem with the mirror shield?
Mini-boss battles are used to introduce new regular enemies rather than actual small bosses... with the exception of Phantom Ganon, whose final appearance at the final dungeon is one of the game's highlights. The battle spans a maze of rooms, wherein hitting him will make him lose his sword, which will point toward the next room. This lasts until you reach the final room with the light arrows, with which you can finally kill him once and for all with one shot. The battle didn't even feel like a battle, it was just a really tense series of events. More battles should've broken the boundaries like this. The other mini-boss battles weren't bad at all, though. It was great being introduced to a stronger foe every dungeon, and this structure helped keep combat interesting throughout most of the game.
So then, if combat in this game is so cool, then what's the problem? Well, unfortunately, the game's pacing eventually manages to make combat tedious. The first six dungeons serve as places wherein new enemies are introduced. Now, consider the fact that after you finish the first six of the seven dungeons in the game, there is still at least a quarter of the game left. Yes, it is time to talk about the Triforce of Courage quest. After the sixth dungeon, you are told to find eight special treasure charts and then fish for the eight pieces of the Triforce of Courage they lead to in order to get back to where you need to be. Because most of the charts are in squares that you probably haven't explored yet unless you went way off-track for no reason, the game is still fun for the most part. But after a while, it becomes easy to see why such a huge section wherein you find no new enemies, no new items, and no story developments shouldn't have been slapped right on to the end of the game.
Let's look at a few of the Triforce chart locations, shall we? One chart is in the Ghost Ship, guarded by nothing but a mob of enemies you've already fought a million times. Another is in a hole on an island you've already been to, guarded by a multi-room gauntlet of enemies. Now, you can actually get that Triforce chart earlier on in the game while you're still getting used to some of the new enemies, so that one's no big deal, right? Well, the FINAL Triforce chart is guarded by a gauntlet with the exact same multi-room structure, except this time you've already fought the enemies that lie within a million times. Now, should I really keep saying "a million times"? What is it that really pushes combat into tedious territory? One of the Triforce charts is in a Pit of 100 Trials. Err, thirty-one, and optionally 50. In this area, you fight pretty much every possible combination of every single enemy in the game. If you go for this chart before most of the rest, the rest feel like NOTHING. You've seen everything this game has to offer when it comes to combat once you've gone through this Savage Labyrinth. If you go for this chart after the rest, then it doesn't have any wow factor, because so many of the other charts relied on combat that it just feels redundant.
Now, this section of the game does have some positive contributions to the structure. The Triforce charts are unreadable when you first find them, and you have to get them translated by a character you've met before. For 398 rupees. Each. This means that a player who explored a lot and didn't pass by islands just because they wanted to get to a dungeon is rewarded with not having to scour for hidden rupees nor possibly even a bigger wallet. If you are dedicated to the game's world, you will have all the rupees you need when you reach this section of the game. This perk, however, is not enough to make for the section's lack of new content. If the section contained a dungeon halfway through that introduced a couple of new enemies and mechanics that opened the way to the next Triforce shards, it wouldn't be that bad at all. But there's just nothing. I suppose I can understand if the number of dungeons had to be limited for any reason, but even so, what was the point of having so many Triforce charts if the paths to so many of them are practically the same? The number of Triforce shards could and should have been reduced to five, as doing so not only would've reduced tedium, but also left a few squares of the map unexplored for players to find without being forced.
I seem to be rather confident that another dungeon could've kept the game consistently masterful. That is a testament to how well dungeons and out-of-sea gameplay in general are handled for the most part. But wait, first, I need to say this: the first dungeon, the Forsaken Fortress, is abysmal. The stealth gimmick is lazily thrown on top of a confusing layout. Getting caught will always bring you back to the same room, wherein all your progress will be gone as the only helpful item to claim is the sword... which doesn't appear until the very end. It's choppy, frustrating, gimmicky, unoriginal, and needlessly complicated.
But the thing is, every dungeon afterward is the complete opposite. This is because of strong gameplay mechanics. Let's look at Majora's Mask for a minute. Before you reach Ikana Valley, every area is completely built around what the mask of the day can do alone. You won't need to become a Deku Scrub at Snowhead or Great Bay, and you won't need to become a Goron at Great Bay. The individual transformation mechanics are kept separate until near the very end when they meet through the Elegy of Emptiness, which doesn't even take advantage of what each transformation can do. Now let's look at Twilight Princess for a minute. Every item gets used throughout the game, but many of them are too formulaic to serve as anything more than rites of passage. You'll need the ball and chain to break through a wall of ice every now and then, and sometimes you'll need the spinner to activate an obvious switch in the floor. However, both of these items as well as the dominion rod and ultimately the slingshot are never used to bring any depth to the game, as they were brought in to enforce the gimmick of their respective section. "You can ride on walls in this dungeon!... So what else can this damn thing do?"
Both of those games need to be highlighted so it can become apparent just how different Wind Waker handled gameplay. After the Forsaken Fortress, dungeons never have gimmicks. Instead, dungeons introduce mechanics that will be utilized throughout other dungeons and areas. This would not matter if the mechanics were formulaic. Fortunately, they are not. Rather than being self-contained, gameplay mechanics play off of each other. For example, at one point, you have to use the grappling hook to partially swing across a gap and then use the leaf to glide across the rest. If you're outside, you can use the Wind's Requiem to point the wind in the direction you're facing, and then you can use the leaf to glide a long distance in that direction in order to reach certain areas.
Later on, the Command Melody mechanic is introduced, wherein you can control a character who is traveling with you. There are puzzles in which you must take advantage of that character's abilities and resources with your own arsenal of items. For example, in one puzzle you must place bird girl Medli in a spot so that light reflects off of her harp and then reflect that light with your mirror shield onto an obstacle, and in another puzzle you must place plant boy Makar in areas that can only be reached through his power of flight, wherein he can plant trees that you can use your hookshot to get to. Every item also serves a place in combat, and some of them can be used in tandem. You can use your grappling hook to steal an item from an enemy, then use your boomerang to stun him, then use an arrow to finish him off.
This is what the whole game is like. Every little thing serves a huge purpose that harmonizes with everything else that had been introduced beforehand. Wind Waker doesn't try too hard after its first dungeon. Instead of making every dungeon easily definable by some crazy concept, dungeons are only built around your growing arsenal. In turn, that makes them definable. Dragon Roost is memorable for the way it mixes the individual weapon mechanic with different kinds of barriers, pushing the player into stealing an enemy's stick, lighting it on fire, and using it to burn down a wooden wall, or leading an enemy with a large sword into a fragile wall. The Wind Temple is memorable for bringing harmony between the Command Melody and the hookshot through Makar's flying ability, while the mixing of the iron boots with the leaf allows the player to reach new heights. Because of its philosophy that everything will always be useful and only become more useful as more mechanics are introduced, this game is smooth as butter.
With the gameplay itself out of the way, let's move onto the presentation. First off, the thing that separated the Zelda fanbase in half: the art style. The art style mixes cartoony character and object models with cel shading. The cel shading makes it so that each thing is defined by its colors rather than its outline. This is where the art style excels. Not only do stark color schemes set characters apart from each other, they also play off of each area's own color scheme and lighting perfectly. Let's look at the Kalle Demos battle for a specific example. The room is lit so that Link and the boss are partially covered in shadows. Instead of this making the colors look weaker, Link and Kalle's color schemes almost seem to shine a bit. What is shown of them through the dark makes them stand out from each other and the rest of the room while still maintaining the threatening mood caused by the shadows. If it weren't for the masterful lighting in this game, the colors wouldn't do much. With the creative lighting, Link can be thrust into any dungeon and still look great.
However, the art style doesn't do too much for the size and shape of the most of the characters. Characters are all very close in size, leaving little room for differentiation. So while main characters like Link and Ganondorf manage to look distinct, less important ones will get mixed up in your head. Even though all of Tetra's pirate friends have unique personalities, the six of them take up only two body types. Townspeople look generic. This flaw in character design is hardly noticeable though thanks to the absolutely beautiful terrains the art style allows for. Wind Waker is one of the prettier games I've played, and its smoothness and simplicity perfectly reflect the overall structure of the game.
Wind Waker's soundtrack is perhaps more cartoony than its art style. Most of the tunes are distinct and silly. They're never unfitting, but it's clear that they aren't exactly trying to pull you deep into the game (don't worry, everything else will do that instead). Thanks to this style, however, there are plenty of gems to be found, as every song is completely independent and emphasized. I actually found myself looking forward to getting to the mini-boss in each dungeon more than getting to the boss or obtaining the new item just because the theme is so cool.
So what does all of this mean for the story and characters? While I think Skyward Sword has the best story in a Zelda game for its exceptionally fleshed-out, well-defined characters, Wind Waker has the coolest scenario. After being thrown into a completely different Hyrule than the one they explored in Ocarina of Time, the player slowly figures out what has become of the land and legends they once took a part in. What is Ganondorf trying to do now? Where is Zelda? Is the legend over, or is it continuing? Wind Waker's world builds on the world of Ocarina of Time in the most unique way possible. An amazing section in the middle of the game makes perfect use of the scenario, throwing the player under the sea into a completely dead Hyrule to fetch the Master Sword. The game communicates much of its story through showing rather than telling.
The main characters are generally well-written. In fact, for the first time ever, Link actually has something of a personality. He always goes after things even if he knows he can't reach them. He's brash, but only because he cares about his sister and his friends so much. His personality is also greatly aided by his design. You can see the determination in his eyes because of his emphasized eyebrows, and when he doesn't manage to achieve something, you'll feel sad for him. Look at those big, sad eyes... Ganondorf is a much better character than he was in Ocarina of Time, too. In this game, he actually has a motivation. You kinda feel bad for the guy. I mean, he just wanted his people to be happy, and instead he got crushed by an entire ocean. Twice, by the end of the game. The King of Red Lions is a very genuine companion, seeing as he's the one who crafts out the path for Link and Tetra.
Speaking of Tetra, she's a likeable character, being a clever young girl who puts that cleverness to use by causing trouble as a pirate. As you may know, the big reveal within the game is that she is actually Zelda reincarnated, carrying the Triforce of Wisdom that Ganondorf is searching for. It's a great twist that adds to the plot. However, Tetra isn't really written well after this reveal. Not only does Tetra look completely different after being revealed to be Zelda (why'd her skin color have to change again?), she acts completely different, too. Out of nowhere, she becomes an apologetic little girl who is perfectly fine with sitting and waiting while Link does the rest of the work. I'm not saying she should've reacted to the reveal by being a jerk, but come on, she's a pirate. She can't possibly be that accepting of actually being a princess who now has to sit in a temple for a few weeks. She should have at least shown confusion.
The game doesn't put too much effort into making very minor characters stand out (see my "Townspeople are generic" comment), but if the character has any plot significance, they probably end up being decently fleshed-out by the end of the game. Medli is a fan-favorite, and with good reason, growing from a girl who aides Link out of concern for her friend into a worthy sage who (along with Makar) gives Link the power to defeat Ganondorf. A character worth special mention is Tingle. Everybody who plays Wind Waker HATES this guy, and that's a testament to how great of a character he is. His personality is established through gameplay. You have to break this guy out of a prison that contains a tunnel full of skulls so that he can return to his slave island, where he will translate your Triforce charts for 398 rupees a piece. Through all of this, he pretends to be a friendly admirer of fairy-like people, when in reality he's a con man, a kidnapper, a slave master, a thief, and a MURDERER in a little green suit. And you are forced to have this complete and utter atrocity as a companion. The way the gameplay structure contributes to his strange characterization and vice versa is very reminiscent of how Majora's Mask handled things.
Once Wind Waker HD is around the corner, I suggest you start clearing up your schedule, because for a month or so, your whole essence is going to be aboard the King of Red Lions as you get to know the Great Sea all over again. It's absolutely impossible not to get invested in this game, as the world is structured just so that you're always on the brink of discovery. The length of the Triforce of Courage quest is not enough to take away from this experience like no other. From a technical perspective, Wind Waker is polished beyond belief, with dynamic weapons that make enemy interactions realistic and smooth level structure that constantly puts everything you've gained throughout the game to use in new ways. All of this lies under a layer of beautiful colors, charming music, and an overall gorgeous atmosphere for each area. Wind Waker is an essential game.