Genius. Perfection. Magnificence. All words that have been applied to Zelda games past. Bringing the series to the next generation has undoubtedly been a formidable challenge, especially as Wind Waker’s direct predecessors are none other than Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask – the games that carried the Zelda series triumphantly into 3D and completely reinterpreted the Zelda theme in their own unique but equally effective ways. Nintendo often staggers under the burden of its fans’ heaped expectations, and with Zelda it looks as if it might trip up and fall altogether. The fans didn’t want their memories of Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask tarnished by an entirely unique but inferior sequel, but they didn’t want to be presented with a mere shadow of former titles’ glory either.
Above all, though, they didn’t want too radical a change, which might explain the absolute outcry that has been ringing in the industry’s ears ever since Zelda’s ‘new look’ was unveiled. Videogames series often change, but few have made as radical and controversial a transformation as this franchise in recent years. Having tantalised gamers with clips of a hyper-realistic battle between Link and much-loved evil carrot-man Ganondorf on the pre-release GameCube trailer, Miyamoto chose to unveil something utterly different to the expectant crowds at E3 2001. And for the most part, they didn’t like it very much. ‘Oh my God, what on earth have they done to Link?’ was the cry on many people’s lips, mine included. Nintendo was bombarded with petitions and complaints from worried, confused and downright furious fans, but, as always, it paid not the slightest bit of attention to its clamouring public. For once, however, we should all be thankful that it didn’t listen.
For the graphics are not all that is different about Wind Waker. Everything else has changed a bit as well. Everybody would have been happy with a graphically improved Ocarina of Time. Miyamoto could easily have got away with it. However, as we all know, that’s just not the way he does things. Instead of churning out an update, Miyamoto has gone all the way with Zelda: The Wind Waker and, bravely, created a full-on evolution. Zelda veterans will be holding their collective breath for the first twenty minutes that they spend with Wind Waker, hoping and praying that it won’t disappoint them, either by drastically changing a perfect formula or by providing but a pale imitation of past Zelda greatness. Somehow – and it truly is a miraculous feat – Wind Waker manages to avoid doing either. It’s both true to its heritage and suitably different to justify calling it the next step forward for the Zelda series. Worried Zelda diehards can breathe a sigh of relief, as it’s as immersive, as engaging, and as utterly wonderful as ever before. Welcome to the next generation, ladies and gentlemen – I can assure you, you’ll love it here.
The obvious differences, graphics aside, are plain to see; there’s a new Link, a new setting and a new storyline. The kingdom of Hyrule has faded into distant legend, as has the Hero of Time, his Master Sword and the evil power that he vanquished with it. The new hero’s flooded world is a vast, nameless sea, peppered with plenty of islands to sail between and explore. As the Waker of the Winds, the new hero continues Zelda games’ musical tradition by controlling the elements with his baton, the Wind Waker itself, changing the winds to aid the world and enable him to sail the vast ocean on his mysterious talking boat, the King of Red Dragons. Wind Waker’s plot is the richest and most complex yet to grace a Nintendo game, filled with twists, turns and constant surprises.
In addition to this, however, there are significant changes to the universally-lauded formula of Zelda games past. The balance of action and brainwork has been shifted slightly. There’s slightly more freedom to divert from Link’s quest and explore his world, sailing around the islands at will in between visiting the dungeons. There is more travel due to the game’s seafaring premise, and with it comes a richer sense of discovery. There are about fifty islands and even the smallest has its own hidden surprises with which to reward eager explorers. The largest are veritable goldmines of opportunity, bursting with people, side-quests and hidden mysteries. The compulsion to explore, play and delight in your surroundings is utterly irresistible. It’s that compulsion that has always made Zelda games so very special and, thankfully, it remains an integral aspect of Wind Waker’s enjoyability.
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.