The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker has been one of the few entries in the illustrious series that remains a point of controversy among fans and something of a black sheep in general. When Wind Waker was unveiled for the GameCube at E3 in 2002, the crowd reacted with stunned, confused silence, reportedly prompting Zelda creator Shigeru Miyamoto to ask “why aren’t they cheering?”
The answer was obvious, just not to Nintendo or Miyamoto at the time. After experiencing the sublime paradigm shift of Ocarina of Time and the dark, twisted brilliance of Majora’s Mask, the Zelda fanbase was eager to sink their teeth into another epic, decidedly mature adventure in the kingdom of Hyrule. So when Miyamoto ran the demo reel of the GameCube’s inaugural Zelda game, The Wind Waker, fans were aghast to see a cartoony, bobble-headed version of series protagonist Link, leading a pack of equally buffoonish looking monsters on a chase through a dungeon that looked like it was straight out of a Disney movie.
Adding insult to injury, just two years previous at Space World 2000, Nintendo had shown off a brief tech demo where Link and his nemesis Ganondorf squared off in sword combat, looking decidedly realistic. In the end, this is how Link and Ganondorf ended up looking in Nintendo’s mascot fighting game Super Smash Bros. Brawl, but not in Wind Waker, not by a long shot. Now we know that this huge thematic shift was part of Nintendo’s long-gestating push toward appealing to a wider audience of all ages, but at the time it seemed like Miyamoto was intentionally trying to piss off his most loyal fans.
Zelda fans and gamers in general weren’t happy, and took Winder Waker as fresh, damning evidence that Nintendo had completely lost touch with what gamers wanted. I was one of those disappointed fans, and while I eventually got around to playing a friend’s copy of Wind Waker, I never purchased it for myself. The game still has its ardent defenders, and to be honest they have a good point: once you get past the goofy cel-shaded art style, Wind Waker is just as solid of a Zelda game as most of the others, and after playing through Wind Waker on the GameCube, I had to agree grudgingly. That said, the art style has always irritated me, and the entire time I was playing through the game on the GameCube, the faint residue of betrayal and disappointment hung over the whole experience.
Without the hype glasses on, it was easier for me to see (and accept) a number of the game’s flaws. Like its GameCube-era brethren Metroid Prime, Mario Kart Double Dash and Super Mario Sunshine, Wind Waker was a weird, risky experiment, and I still consider Metroid Prime as the only truly successful experiment out of that group. Instead of being set in a sprawling kingdom, Wind Waker takes place across a vast, sparsely populated ocean. This means there are no loading times, but the world itself feels a lot emptier and is generally much more of a pain in the butt to traverse and explore.
Wind Waker also was lighter on content than previous Zelda titles. Being a Zelda game, Wind Waker is still packed with secrets and things to do, but repetition and backtracking felt at the time to be a much bigger issue. There were fewer dungeons to conquer and a positively agonizing, drawn-out fetch quest mandatory for finishing the game, which almost made me quit toward the end. I had to admit that Wind Waker was a very good game, but that statement has always been filled with caveats, reservations and legitimate criticisms, and to this day Wind Waker is my least favorite of the modern-era Zelda titles.
You might be surprised to learn, then, that I was highly eager to revisit Wind Waker when Nintendo announced they’d be re-releasing an improved HD version for Wii U. While I’ve replayed all of the other modern Zeldas I’ve only run through Wind Waker once, and repeat playthroughs of previous games I disliked the first time through (Bioshock, Metal Gear Solid 2) have softened my distaste for them. Even better, Nintendo promised some new items and gameplay tweaks to improve Wind Waker’s pacing—by far the game’s most glaring flaw. With some trepidation I set out upon the Great Sea once again, the wind in my hair and at the back of my sail.
The first thing I noticed upon booting up Wind Waker HD is that the HD upconvert has done the graphics a lot of favors. The improved resolution and wider aspect ratio let the game’s cel-shaded visuals blend and flow a lot smoother than they ever have before. Whereas other games can end up looking blurry, smeary or just plain dull when brought up to 1080p, Wind Waker’s bright primary-color-dominated palette and low-poly, almost absurdly simplistic meshes make the transition gracefully. I was particularly surprised that a 10-plus-year old game, rough polygonal edges and all, still looked so good; then I realized it’s the same principle behind Team Fortress 2. As long as shapes and silhouettes are instantly recognizable and aesthetically pleasing, a minimalist art style can work really well.
That isn’t to say there aren’t some graphical changes. The colors and shading are more subtle and flow into each other much better. Wind Waker HD isn’t quite as vivid or bright as the GameCube version, but to be honest I really appreciated that. On the GameCube, Wind Waker’s colors were almost too bright and intense, eye-stabbingly so, making the transition from Ocarina and Majora’s rich earth tones to the retina-blasting cel-shaders even more jarring. There was so much stark contrast, such a never-ending cartoon assault on the eyes, that it seemed like Nintendo was trying to raise that middle finger to their fans’ dashed expectations even higher.
Wind Waker HD is thankfully a more subdued experience. The gentle bloom lighting hanging over the ocean softens the sharp cartoon edges out, and adds some pretty creepy glow effects to a lot of the monsters’ eyes. Even better, the developers have also replaced the old textures with brand new, high-resolution ones. The original game had quite a few noticeably muddy textures, no doubt to keep the seamless, load-free ocean world steady at 30 frames per second. It feels like Miyamoto and his team finally fulfilled the potential of the art style they were originally going for, and while I’m still not a fan of that art style, I can at least, objectively, acknowledge Wind Waker as a truly beautiful game.
In terms of gameplay, Wind Waker HD’s improvements are more subtle but arguably much farther-reaching than simply up-rezzing the graphics. The game can be played on either the Wii U GamePad or the classic-style Pro Controller, and because both have similar layouts the control scheme is roughly identical across both controllers. The GamePad however puts the inventory menu, sea charts, world map and even the HUD on the touch screen, freeing up your TV. There are also some neat bonuses for playing on the GamePad; for example, when you equip the wind waker baton to play a song, a list of all the conducting tablatures you’ve unlocked appear on the touch screen.
Strangely enough, even when you’re playing with the Pro Controller, the GamePad stays active and displays menus, maps and extra features as if you were using it. This has the unfortunate side effect of draining the GamePad’s meager batteries, but I kind of enjoyed keeping the GamePad handy, almost like a reference book. It would be a cool use of asymmetric gameplay in future Zelda titles, if they utilized the Wii remote for motion control gameplay like in Skyward Sword, but kept the GamePad on hand for taking notes, scribbling on maps and managing inventory, like the bottom screen in the DS Zelda games. It would allow Nintendo to preserve the excellent motion swordplay from Skyward Sword and also give the GamePad a headlining role in the next Zelda game they’re developing.
In terms of in-game changes, there are two that really tighten up the experience. The first is the Swift Sail. This item becomes available after you beat the first dungeon, and is the final item in the auction house on Windfall Island. You’ll need somewhat deep pockets to buy the four prior items at the auction, which is annoying, but once you get the Swift Sail it is well worth the effort. This sail doubles your sailing speed and changes the wind’s direction automatically to where your ship is pointing, even as you steer and change direction.
This means that once you get the Swift Sail, you’ll never have to go through the cumbersome process of pulling out the wind waker, playing the wind song, and adjusting the wind to the direction you want to travel. This removes all the headaches of sailing the Great Sea, makes changing direction much quicker, and the faster travel speed cuts down on the previous monotony of sailing, giving you just enough time to enjoy cruising along the open seas. At first it felt a little bit like cheating, but then I remembered how quickly the novelty of sailing had worn off on the GameCube, and how simple travel had turned to tedium in short order. The Swift Sail alone makes the game hugely more enjoyable and removes one of my biggest original criticisms.
Wind Waker had one more serious issue holding it back, and thankfully that’s been addressed too. The Triforce hunt near the end of the game originally required that Link retrieve eight charts, then pay the perpetually irritating Tingle character an obscene quantity of rupees to decipher the charts, so that you could finally
complete the last leg of this absurd fetch quest and collect the eight shards of the Triforce. The whole thing felt like padding—something uncharacteristic of the Zelda series—and I suspect a dungeon or two was axed late in development and this wild goose chase was hastily substituted.
In the HD version, things are more streamlined. You can now grab five of the Triforce shards directly, only requiring Tingle to decipher three charts. I would’ve preferred that Nintendo remove Tingle altogether and include a new dungeon (or three) but perhaps that’s flying too close to the sun. The Triforce quest is a lot more bearable now, and on the upside, Tingle’s prior Game Boy Advance functionality has been replaced with a “message in a bottle” mechanic that lets you toss messages into the “ocean” of Miiverse, for other adventurers to find.
About the only other criticism I have is that the music is mostly unchanged. There might be a couple enhanced fanfares and the overall audio quality might have been cleaned up, but by and large it’s the same synthesized music and sound I remember. I can accept the same sound effects (some of which were fresh at the time, and others downright creepy) but I wish some key pieces of the music had been redone with a full orchestra. I’ve heard some fan-made remixes of the Great Sea overworld theme that are much more exhilarating, and there’s a woodwinds, violin and chant remix of the Dragon Roost music that has practically brought me to tears. I wouldn’t ask Nintendo to completely rescore the game—it still has an excellent soundtrack as it is. But after the powerful, evocative orchestra pieces in Skyward Sword, I’m eager to hear how Koji Kondo would rework Wind Waker’s now classic music into something grander. I had a similar complaint about Ocarina of Time’s re-release on 3DS, but that’s an issue for another day.
The rest of the game is largely the same as I remember it, with a few tweaks here and there to make gameplay faster and smoother. Wind Waker is still my least favorite of the modern Zelda games, but the HD version has softened or removed much of what I didn’t like about it, and allowed me to appreciate some of the game’s best aspects. It has fewer dungeons than most recent Zeldas, but the dungeons themselves have some of the best, most creative level and puzzle design in the series; two of them even require Link to work with a partner to solve puzzles and reach new areas. There are even a few aspects that I like better than in any of the other games, like the incredibly terrifying take on the Redead zombies.
The shift to a vast, seamless ocean was a bold move, and while I still prefer galloping across Hyrule field on my trusty steed Epona, in retrospect the Great Sea was an innovative direction to take the series and for the most part, it worked. With the release of the official Zelda timeline in the Hyrule Historia art book, the story makes more sense too. It finally slots into place, and so many of the bizarre and, to the Zelda faithful, frankly blasphemous, story elements are clear now. With multiple timelines exploring numerous eventualities, sinking the entirety of Hyrule beneath the waves doesn’t seem like cutting off a narrative limb anymore. The story of this particular Link and Zelda explores some curious “what ifs,” and personally I’m a lot more comfortable now following the legend of them
and their heirs in Phantom Hourglass, Spirit Tracks, and wherever Nintendo wants to take their path in the future.
Wind Waker HD is truly the definitive version of this slightly troubled, slightly misunderstood, but nonetheless classic Zelda game. If you skipped Wind Waker the first time around, now is the perfect time to finally give it a try. If you played Wind Waker before but, like me, were disillusioned and put off, the HD remake on Wii U is the perfect opportunity to revisit it. In either case, I have a feeling you’ll be pleasantly surprised.