Legend of Zelda, The: The Wind Waker (2003)
The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker was released for the Nintendo GameCube in Europe on 3rd May 2003. Following the immense success of previous Zelda games, including A Link to the Past, Link’s Awakening and Ocarina of Time, fans eagerly anticipated the latest instalment in the series for the Nintendo Dolphin, newly dubbed the GameCube.
To demonstrate the power of their upcoming console, a Zelda tech demo was shown as part of Nintendo’s exposition during the SpaceWorld show in the year 2000. It featured a short swordfight between the adult incarnation of Link and Ganondorf, showcasing realistic graphics much improved from the blocky polygons featured in the previous two 3D Zelda games, Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask, both released for the Nintendo 64.
One year later, at the 2001 SpaceWorld expo, a trailer for the latest Zelda game was released. The lifelike demonstration of a year ago was fully dismissed, replaced with a vibrant, cartoonish look featuring the child version of Link. The new Zelda was to employ an animation technique known as cel-shading, used to create a huge variety of bright colours and expressive characters.
Fan reaction was very mixed; many of them were left disappointed by the “kiddy” look of the game, (fandubbed Celda) clamouring instead for the “mature” tech demo that had teased them the previous year. Others welcomed the radical graphic design decision, interpreting its combination of colourful looks and serious gameplay as being rather like fan favourites prior to the 3D games, particularly A Link to the Past.
Ultimately, the game was released to critical acclaim and sold over 4 million units worldwide. However, even after its release, the game garnered criticism: although the graphics were eventually accepted and even widely praised, large numbers of fans found fault with the game with one or more of its new elements. This review examines the game in all its parts, and focuses on where players of the game have traditionally criticised it.
One of the most jarring problems the game has and the one which I personally find the biggest fault with is the fact that the game is clearly unfinished. This in itself is odd: it had not been Nintendo’s practice to release their games unfinished, and long delays were not uncommon – Ocarina of Time’s lengthy development and constant delays through the year 1997 is testament to that. Perhaps Nintendo had wanted to avoid these gutwrenching delays again? Producer Shigeru Miyamoto admitted that two planned dungeons did not make it to the final game, and stated that fewer dungeons were put into the game as many players did not have the time or energy to play to the end, an obvious cop-out.
It is believed, and I agree, that the dungeons were taken out as follows: the first one being when the player is rewarded with Nayru’s Pearl without completing a dungeon but by simply sailing to Greatfish Isle. The second is possibly an expansion of Fire Mountain, where Link finds the Power Bracelets. There were also rumours concerning a third sage in the game, alongside Medli and Makar, who may or may not have had their own third removed dungeon. The infamous, long hunt for the eight Triforce Shards, which most players find especially tedious, points to more signs of the game being released in an unfinished state, contributing to what many perceive as an “artificial lengthening” of the game via “filler” or “padding”. Less tangibly, the player also gains other items relatively easily, namely the Fire and Ice Arrows and the Iron Boots. It is a great shame that the game lets itself down so badly on this count, as obvious rushed elements in a game are never forgotten easily.
One of the elements of The Wind Waker that has always struck a great chord with me is the story of the game. It is a story of a Hyrule completely flooded, already providing a dark setting at odds with its cartoon graphics. The tale follows the adventures of a young boy named Link, who lives with his Grandma and his sister Aryll on Outset Island. On Link’s 13th birthday, he comes of age and is given a green tunic much like the one worn by the Hero of Time during the events of Ocarina of Time.
Looking through his new Telescope, a birthday present from Aryll, Link notices a huge, sinister looking bird carrying a young blonde girl within its talons. The bird is pursued by a large pirate ship, whose crew fire cannonballs at the beast, eventually hitting it and causing it to drop the girl into the nearby Fairy Woods. Sword in hand, Link rushes to her aid, and discovers that the girl’s name is Tetra, and that she is the commander of the pirate ship. Upon their emergence from the Woods, the giant bird captures Aryll, seemingly mistaking her for Tetra.
What follows is Link’s great struggle to save his sister, which takes him to the dreaded Forsaken Fortress where Ganondorf lurks. After witnessing Ganondorf and learning of his great power, Link must seek the Master Sword to save Aryll before completing the Triforce of Courage and bringing peace to the Great Sea. Along the way, Link will engage fierce monsters, fight through dungeons with danger always moments away and, throughout it all, truly come of age and emulate the celebrated Hero of Time. On his quest he is joined by some memorable characters, such as the spunky Tetra and her subordinate crew of pirates, Link’s boat the King of Red Lions, the Rito and Korok races, and eventually Princess Zelda and even the King of Hyrule.
The classic story of Zelda games is usually much-loved though quite simple, with most games involving Link the hero saving Zelda the princess from Ganon the villain. The story of The Wind Waker, however, is considered by many, including myself, to be a cut above the rest. It follows on from the surreal, in-depth experience provided by Majora’s Mask and I would probably rank it as my joint favourite Zelda story, alongside Link’s Awakening. The fluent combat mechanics, the fantastic music and the vivid graphics make it a strong Zelda game, but it is the story, the setting and the characters that primarily make it worth playing for me. These things are strong enough to make me want to endure the less fun aspects of the game, which is a tremendous credit to the storywriters.
The Legend of Zelda’s leap into the third dimension with Ocarina of Time was heralded as a huge success, thanks in no small part to the new movement, combat and camera systems it employed: players could use a technique known was ‘Z-targeting’ to lock onto enemies, allowing them then to strafe freely around their targets. Players could also refocus the game’s camera behind Link at all times, and could employ a first-person view to easily survey their surroundings. The control system was revolutionary, a step above even the 3D marvels found in Super Mario 64, and enabled three-dimensional Link to travel through Hyrule just as comfortably as his 8-bit and 16-bit counterparts.
The battle system of the time allowed for locking on and free use of both Link’s sword as well as three other selectable items, which could be assigned to the Nintendo 64 controller’s C-buttons. Link developed some useful moves like back-flipping and lunging with his blade, making combat more involved than ever before. It was a smart system, brilliant in its simplicity, and therefore a prime candidate for imitation by many 3D action-adventure games (just take a look at Star Fox Adventures for the closest copy).
Here, all of Link’s moves from the N64 games such as automatic jumping, rolling, lunging, back-flipping and sidestepping return, but The Wind Waker’s combat system would need to show off a few tricks of its own if Zelda was to continue setting trends, and this it did with the introduction of parrying – counterattacking moves by Link which go on to become one of his most deadly manoeuvres. Not only that, but they also adhered to the rule of cool, allowing Link to nimbly roll to his enemy’s rear or even leap right over their heads and strike, both showcasing fluid and slick animation not possible in Ocarina of Time or Majora’s Mask. Such a simple addition provided a wonderful shake-up to the combat: players could attack either frantically or patiently, and find reward doing either. Parrying also made the skill of good timing a necessity, particularly later in the game against the well-armoured Darknut enemies (Twilight Princess and The Minish Cap would later add more handy and impressive moves to Link’s repertoire, before Skyward Sword and the DS instalments took two steps back).
The GameCube controller’s C-Stick is a godsend for The Wind Waker, allowing the player free and constant control over the camera at almost any time in the game, while still retaining the targeting and camera centring systems from the N64 games. Having a free camera available allows the player to observe elements in Link’s vicinity which might point to the solution of a puzzle, or simply allows them to savour the graphics when desired. If nothing else, it gives great use to the otherwise mostly unnecessary Telescope item.
At a glance, the game could be assumed to have fewer items than others in the series due to a reduced amount of dungeons, but in fact most of the series staples are there: Bombs, Boomerang, Bow and Arrows (including Fire, Ice and Light arrows), Hammer, Hookshot, Mirror Shield, Bottles and Power Bracelets. Following complaints about Ocarina of Time‘s Iron Boots, regarding the tedium of having to pause the game and access the menu each and every time one wanted to equip or equip them, The Wind Waker provides the obvious solution: this game’s Iron Boots have simply become an item that may be assigned to the X, Y or Z item buttons, allowing them to be worn and taken off in an instant, a change adopted by Nintendo for Ocarina of Time 3D. Also unlike Ocarina of Time is the inability to equip different swords or shields and mix and match them, which is unfortunate, and you’ll be wearing the Hero’s green garb for the whole game (at least, you will be if it’s your first time through).
Still, The Wind Waker brings some clever new items to the table, the two major additions to the fold being the Grappling Hook and the Deku Leaf. The Grappling Hook allows Link to latch onto overhanging arches and cantilevered columns in order to swing across pits. It also doubles as a tool for stealing enemy items and triples as a crane for your boat, thus ensuring that the Hookshot doesn’t render the Hook totally redundant. The Deku Leaf is a nice item, which serves as a type of hand-glider for Link, allowing him to harness the wind and use it to propel him across great distances, at the cost of magic power, which the Leaf burns rather quickly.
On the ground, the Leaf can be used to blow a great gust of wind at objects or enemies (again, only if stocked with magic power, otherwise the Deku Leaf becomes so much brittle black tendrils. Curiously, though the Leaf requires magic power to shoot a blast of wind, it does not actually consume any). Using the wind from the Deku Leaf will solve several puzzles for you, though its dizzying effect on common enemies tends to be an unnecessary waste of time.
It is the dungeons and to a lesser extent the overworld which tends to make or break a Zelda game, and The Wind Waker is a little off the mark in both cases. Most famously, the classic Zelda overworld has been turned into a sea, The Great Sea at that, which Link must traverse via his own personal boat, named The King of Red Lions. The sailing in this game comes in time and time again for criticism. In general it is not so bad, and not the chore that it might appear to be; some of the most defining moments of the game take place on the Great Sea, and sailing into the rising sun as the everlasting Great Sea theme kicks in is a classic Zelda moment. What is unfortunate is that, although the game provides 49 separate reefs and isles to discover, almost all are devoid of humans and many, like the Eye Reefs and the Star Isles, are repeats. Lots of other isles, if not necessary for story reasons, tend to contain a solitary Heart Piece and little else. More time could have been spent on these isles, certainly, but it is a rewarding experience to sail to some of them and chart them, before extracting any goodies Link can find.
We’ve previously looked at the scarcity of dungeons in the game, which is a terrible shame and, it must unfortunately be said, holds The Wind Waker back. There are five full dungeons in total, six if the Forsaken Fortress is counted, seven if the final boss’s lair is as well. A maximum of seven (more realistically five, or maybe five and a half) mightn’t seem too bad in comparison to Majora’s Mask or The Minish Cap, with 4 each, but to the former’s credit, far more emphasis is placed on character interaction in that game. What dungeons we do have are quite strong; that said, the game could not have started out any worse than with the first trip to the Forsaken Fortress, which deprives you of your sword and imposes stealth sections, although it is mercifully short and easy if you know what you’re doing.
Dragon Roost Cavern and the Forbidden Woods are a little close to formulaic but are saved by the aforementioned new items, the Grappling Hook and the Deku Leaf respectively (the Deku Leaf being acquired immediately prior to the dungeon). The Tower of the Gods is where the real action begins; upon its completion, Link travels beneath the Great Sea into sunken Hyrule and draws the Master Sword, leaving players salivating for more after a quick sojourn back to the Forsaken Fortress, legendary blade in hand. The game doesn’t disappoint here, serving up a salvo of the Earth Temple and the Wind Temple in quick succession, with both being probably the best dungeons of the game and among the best in the series. The game then slows to a glacial pace with the Triforce Shard hunt, before Link takes a trip back down to sunken Hyrule and confronts Ganondorf.
The game’s middle section is where the juice is, with the beginning being necessarily slow to set up and establish characters and the setting. The latter part of the game, with that obnoxious Triforce Hunt waiting, is enough for many players to lose heart and call it a day, which is a big pity, as the game’s ending, including the final showdown with Ganondorf, is a treat.
Sidequests are a pleasant part of the Zelda experience, though The Wind Waker drops the ball a little here: there is the usual Heart Piece collection quest (44 in total), upgrades to Bomb and Arrow capacities, a trading quest which grants you the Magic Armor item etc., but other than those there is little reward for any other undertakings the game would have you complete. You can find Treasure Charts to indicate where you can use your boat’s crane to pull up some treasure from the sea. The contents of these chests are almost always Rupees, and, like most other Zelda games, Rupees are not too difficult to find normally.
The game’s biggest sidequest is the Nintendo Gallery, which requires players to take pictures of almost every character and enemy in the game (good quality ones from the front, or else they will be rejected) and have them made into figurines. There are 134 figures to be made, and your method of taking pictures, the Deluxe Picto Box item, can only hold three pictographs at a time (and the item itself is not immediately available, meaning you’ll be playing through the game at least twice for this). This makes for massive amounts of backtracking to the Gallery where a character makes figurines out of the pictures you provide him with. If the picture is not of sufficient quality, then you’ve wasted much time. It also takes him one in-game day to make the figurine. Even by playing the song which allows one to skip time, the player will have thrown away about two or three careers in the time it takes to complete the sidequest. The reward, of course, is one more figurine. That scream of frustration and terror you just heard was probably you. Bragging rights it ain’t.
The single most defining and unique aspect of The Wind Waker is its lush graphical style. It employs complex cel shading and cartoon movements and animation to showcase graphics which are still seriously impressive to this day. Although I personally prefer the more realistic looking Zelda titles, I can at least say that The Wind Waker has already aged better than Twilight Princess. Like many, I was more than sceptical at first, and did not buy the game immediately upon release. Playing through the game and seeing the graphics, particularly the characters and their animations, is rewarding in itself. Link’s new distinctive design is stunning, and one of the best new features in this game is how Link’s expressions convey his thoughts, feelings and opinions in a way that was not previously possible, a great boon to one of gaming’s most famous silent protagonists. Even Link’s eyes are expressive, often looking at points of interest in dungeons which might aid the player, although I never found much use for it.
It’s a little bit of a pity that much of what you’ll be seeing in The Wind Waker is vast blue nothingness; it would have been tremendous to see a sprawling, cel-shaded overworld, far removed from the fairly sparse although still brilliant Hyrule Field of Ocarina of Time. That said, I don’t use that as a criticism against the game’s graphics, as I’m sure it would have taken an unbearable amount of time to render a full overworld in The Wind Waker’s style, and time was evidently not on the developer’s side. To be fair, enough time was put into the game making each and every one of the game’s diverse cast of characters and enemy creatures look and animate uniquely, and it shows.
MUSIC AND SOUND
Another pleasure which sometimes passes without much mention, this game’s music and sound direction are among the strongest of the series. Thrillingly for me, there’s a great Irish/Scottish influence to many of the tunes, as well as numerous allusions to previous games and their motifs. Recurring themes throughout the game, in particular the enemy battle, the Great Sea and the Windfall Island, Outset Island and Dragon Roost Island themes never grate or get old, which is an achievement.
Many enemies have their own sound effects, and Link himself sounds far less shrill than the N64 versions of younger Link. Though not a slight on the game’s music and sound by itself, the game’s instrument, the eponymous Wind Waker, is a little bit of a disappointment following the Ocarina, which was fully playable. The Wind Waker item is actually a conductor’s baton, and a limited amount of notes are playable in three distinct time signatures. This was a bit of a shame for me but nothing major. What is a little bit irritating is having to play the Wind’s Requiem, the tune used to change the wind’s direction, so often, but again it is nothing too detrimental to the game. I can find absolutely no major or minor real fault with the music and sound of this game, with the soundtrack in particular being varied and rich.
PLUSES AND MINUSES
+ The excellent graphics never once look poor or lazily put together – each area is distinct and pretty.
+ Some tremendous tunes, among my favourites being Phantom Ganon’s theme, the Earth and Wind Temple themes and Molgera’s theme.
+ The story and cast of characters is tremendous, and the final showdown with Ganondorf is sublime. The final battle’s conclusion and the ending of the game are spectacular.
– The sailing can be a little tedious, which wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t require constant attention so as not to be thrown overboard by a rabid shark or furious Octorok.
– The padding of the game in an effort to mask its unfinished state becomes very objectionable with the Triforce Shard quest.
Whether the final game matched the developers’ original vision or not, I find the history of The Wind Waker as well as the game itself to be very interesting. I don’t rate it as highly as most other games in the series (certainly behind A Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time, below Twilight Princess, Link’s Awakening and possibly Oracle of Seasons) but the setting and atmosphere of the game, as well as its graphics which I do still enjoy, make it worth playing for me.
Unfortunately, it is glaringly obvious and irritating that the game is so unfinished. I feel it would have benefitted immeasurably from having just two more dungeons, and better still with three. That and the obstructive sailing mechanics and bolted-on Triforce Shard hunt stop me from considering it the excellent Zelda game that almost everyone expects each one to be, for when a game is added to a series containing A Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time it simply can’t escape being judged by the highest standards. The Wind Waker is unlikely to wow you like those two, and it is regrettable that it was pushed out the door so quickly. But it does have enough of its own unique elements, interesting characters, stunning graphics and fantastic music to earn its place among the most memorable of experiences that the mighty Nintendo GameCube has to offer, which is high praise indeed.
Postscript: This review was written before the HD Re-release of The Wind Waker for Wii U was announced. At present, it remains to be seen what will be changed in that game bar the graphics. Of course, this review covers the original GameCube game only. That’s obvious, I know, but I just wanted to imply that it was I who brought about this HD remastering with my heroic words.