And that innate appeal is what hasn't changed at all since Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask. Hopefully, it never will. Like all the Zeldas before it, Wind Waker takes us right back to what really is enjoyable about videogames. It takes us back to that state of childlike innocence that its young protagonist embodies. It's about the simple joys of play and exploration; nudging ceramic bowls and cups to see how much they wobble before they break; waiting until the unpleasant owner of a house is out of sight before smashing his vases and running for it; chucking hapless squealing pigs into the sea to see how far they float. Those little things are what make the real difference in truly great videogames, and Wind Waker is stuffed full of them. I've not even touched upon the real meat of the game, the dungeons and the storyline, and what's more I don't intend to. Nobody deserves to have even one single second of it spoiled for them. All that needs to be said is that the dungeons are as they've always been: logical, cerebral, inventive, difficult and oh-so-atmospheric. From the green, moist, decay-tinged Forbidden Forest to the later perils of the Temples, they exude quality, imagination and an incredible sense of gravity. The sheer magnitude of the later dungeons especially is at times breathtaking; they literally drip with significance, tense atmosphere and a creeping sense of foreboding.
Wind Waker's sense of atmosphere is unique, but quite exceptionally (and unexpectedly) effective. The new Link's world is a world overshadowed by destiny, haunted by legends of the past and threatened by growing evil. It is young and innocent, hapless at fate's whims, like its hero. The story starts hundreds of years after Ocarina of Time left off and the game slowly reveals what has happened in the intervening years, decades and centuries. Like his predecessors, the new Link faces moments of as much narrative and atmospheric awe as Link to the Past's first step into the twisted Dark Kingdom, or little Link of Ocarina of Time's transformation into the Hero of Time upon grasping the hilt of the Master Sword. The graphical style may look like a cartoon, but it has as much impact as hyper-realism when it comes to telling the story, if not indeed more.
Whether you were a believer from the beginning or a cynic before Wind Waker was released, it's now impossible to say that its style is not an immense graphical achievement. Perfect realism is as yet not an achievable goal, but by simplifying its appearance, Wind Waker has managed to make everything look perfect in its own way. Link's expressions in particular are astounding - the shock, surprise, fear, awe and joy on his little face is enough to make you shake your head in wonder. The style switches straight into menacing mode, too, when needed. It can create dark, gloom and ghostly shadow just as well as it can vibrant, bustling towns. The graphics are almost undoubtedly at their most striking not only in the dungeons, but out at sea; the sun rises and sets and storms pass overhead replete with thunder and lightning as Link's boat cuts through the endless, rising, swelling waves. The lighting, the animation and the numerous effects are all impossible to fault - Wind Waker is undoubtedly a thing of beauty, whether or not the stretched-out anime suits your tastes. People who say that it looks childish have not only clearly never seen some of the dungeons, but are missing the point of Zelda entirely. It's not about being mature and serious. Its entire premise and inherent appeal is dependent on the innocent, childlike pleasures of play and investigation. The graphical style fits around that idea like a perfectly-made glove.
It works extremely well on the forces of evil, too. The enemies' characterisation is exceptional. They are at once comical and menacing, from the pig-like Moblins to the enormous and terrifying bosses at the end of each dungeon. Their intelligence is something to be marvelled at, too - the evil ones have taken another step forward since Ocarina of Time and become snarling, fleeing, gibbering, co-operating fiends. They chuck their lanterns at you, parry your blows, fight with their bare hands if you knock their weapon from their grasp, gang up on you and generally entertain, challenge and occasionally terrify you. The battle system itself is smooth as butter, displaying the glorious invention that is (or used to be) Z-Targeting in all its genius. Link can also pick up the giant swords and lances of his defeated enemies, which can be extremely amusing, if not entirely productive. Its only stumbling point is a problem when dealing with multiple enemies; instead of switching to the next enemy once the last has been defeated, it often returns to behind Link instead, leaving him to slash furiously at air while he tries to regain perspective and see the rest of his adversaries. This, though, is such a minor fault in the context of such a masterwork that it is utterly inconsequential; the only more serious criticism to be made is that Wind Waker is markedly less difficult than Zeldas past. This, however, only contributes to its different feel.
Which, sadly, brings us to Wind Waker's one true, terrible, crippling fault. One day, it has to end. One day, the world will be safe, evil will be vanquished, Link's adventures will have to fade into memory and we will all have to get on with life. Until the next Zelda arrives, that is, at which point we will fall helplessly back under its spell. You can complete Wind Waker in fifteen hours. I took thirty. The compulsion to explore, to take your time, to savour this brief and glorious opportunity to enjoy videogames as they were meant to be enjoyed is simply too strong to resist. To sail from dungeon to dungeon in a rush to see the final cutscene would be to miss the entire point of Zelda. In fact, it would be heartless and terribly wasteful. For Wind Waker is a true masterwork, there to be savoured and enjoyed. Whether or not it's the best Zelda yet really comes down to personal taste, but in this reviewer's opinion, it's got all the charm and brilliance of its predecessors. Though it isn't the utter revolution that Ocarina of Time was when it confidently carried the franchise into 3D, it is an almost flawless evolution. There's simply more of everything that makes Zelda great: more story, more exploration, more diversion, more intelligent combat. It's taken the classic Zelda heritage, tweaked and perfected its balance, added a truly brilliant storyline, chucked in a whole lot of extras and wrapped everything up in a style that is entirely its own.
It's an awful lot easier to be a critic when there is something to criticise; here, there's nothing that detracts from Wind Waker's sheer, bold magnificence as a feat of electronic entertainment. Wind Waker probably won't win everyone over. Some will still sigh and shake their heads and wonder at what might have been had Miyamoto stuck with Ocarina of Time's moody, serious style and created a hyper-realistic aesthetic wonder of a game. There will still be those too blinded by rose-tinted recollections of the wonders that were Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask to see Wind Waker in all its magnificence. There's always a slightly enhanced version of Ocarina of Time on the bonus disc for them. When playing Wind Waker, it's impossible not to succumb to its charm and unashamed freedom of imagination. Zelda: The Wind Waker is a work of genius. Make the most of it.