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Wind Waker Through the Lens of Truth

 
From the moment I saw the first trailer for Wind Waker to its glorious HD remaster for Wii U, it has been a wild ride with this instant classic. I have seldom had so many unique experiences with a game on multiple play throughs, but with so many open-world elements, I can’t help but find something new (or at least something I don’t remember) every time. This week on The Lens of Truth, we will look at a game that stuck to the tried and true Zelda formula while simultaneously changing everything we knew about the series. As always we will look at the graphics, sound, gameplay, and story, so come along to one of the furthest deviations from series norms in nearly every regard.

Graphics

One day after school, an eigth-grade-or-so version of me was greeted by my brother with the words, “They’re making a new Zelda game, Link looks like a Powerpuff Girl.” Aghast that my favorite series was getting a new game, I rushed to the computer so we could view the trailer together, and was even more shocked that Link did indeed look like a Powerpuff Girl. This new style was odd, unexpected, alien, and I did not like the change. It made no sense, as Link’s iconic image had been slightly different from game to game, but never so drastically, and being a grown-up middle school type kid, I did not want to be associated with a little kid’s game.

Perhaps a year went by, I don’t remember exactly, but the people I knew who had played the game had nothing but positive things to say. Eventually Wind Waker got a price drop, and I decided to pick it up. It was a Zelda game at least, how bad could it be? Some forty hours later, I questioned how anybody could think this was a little kid’s game. The graphic style did not hinder the deep storytelling or detract from the action for even a second. Link might have changed appearance, but the hero I knew was still in there, and somehow over the course of playing the game, Link stopped looking like a Powerpuff Girl, and now when I see him, even in toon form, I consider him no less than the hero who returns through the ages. Link is Link no matter what he looks like.

The toon style also has an interesting story behind it. At the time, and in some cases still today, water was hard to animate. Even harder, water with semi-realistic physics, swells rising and falling, flowing with the wind, and so on. Water was a huge part of the game, and to animate it on such an enormous scale, the team found it was easiest to employ this cel-shaded style. After tossing around ideas, Toon Link eventually spawned from the mind of artist Yoshiki Haruhana. Ironically this was partially as a response to the feelings of the art team behind the 2000 tech demo of the GameCube technology that featured a more realistic Link and Ganondorf. Between this and hundreds of other games moving to a more photorealistic 3D at the time, Haruhana and his partner at the time, Satoru Takizawa, thought the toon version of Link would stand out, be a fun challenge to play with, and if nothing else, easy to animate.

I always give bonus points for cleverness, and if the water looked weird I do not believe most of us would care what Link looked like, the game would not have been as good, and if they had gone the same direction as everybody else, I think this game may very well have been swallowed up in a sea of games that all looked the same. In the end, we have a new Link, not a lesser one, and the style of the world fits his image well. It took some time to grow on me, but it is now one of my favorites. Perfect ten.

Sound

I know that the Molgera Battle Theme is playing in your head now because of the image I selected. Legendary composer Koji Kondo spearheaded a team of artists that somehow managed to improve on his already flawless formula. Joining him, along with others, was Toru Minegishi, who had previously collaborated with Kondo for the composition of Majora’s Mask, and more recently took the lead role composing for Splatoon 2.

Together, the composition team crafted tune after tune which captured the feeling of every situation they were paired with, from the freedom of exploring the great sea to the tense story interactions of unforgettable characters such as King Daphnes, Tetra, and the most human version of Ganondorf the series has ever seen.

In addition to the most immersive musical experience a game has ever seen, Wind Waker was the first title in the series to integrate voiceover in a drastic way. While Ocarina and Majora’s Mask included light voice work for Link’s actions and a few key characters, nobody actually spoke. Wind Waker gave a voice to not only Link, but Zelda, Medli, the King of Red Lions, and several others. There was still no voice acted cutscenes, but the small inclusions rode the line between old and new, blending the classic text-based style with just a splash of modernism. I don’t know about you, but I’ve always thought part of Zelda’s charm was the text-heavy cutscenes and the ever silent protagonist. This element gave a classic feeling to many modern games even through to Skyward Sword. I think the little additions of voice in Wind Waker, which remained the norm for the series until this year, did will to make games feel modern while keeping their classic charm.

Between the score that added to the perfection of Kondo’s past work and the minor depth of character expressed through voiceover combined to forge the best sound design in a video game ever. Can I give it an eleven out of ten? If I could I would, but I make the rules and I say no. Still, a perfect ten is not too shabby.

Gameplay

Taking the combat formula from its two Nintendo 64 predecessors, Wind Waker still had to shake it up a little to keep the game feeling fresh. The simple addition of parry techniques was easy and fun as long as you got the timing down. The best part was the cool animations making you feel like a badass swordsman despite being tied to a single button press. Moreover, this made way for the series to expand upon swordplay through to today. Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword gave us shield parry techniques and a handful of other mechanics like this, and Breath of the Wild created the most seamless combat formula yet with the perfect guard and flurry rush mechanics, and every single one of these was a fruit born of the seed planted in Wind Waker. These have basically become a series cliché, and to be the starting point for such is the highest honor any given piece of media can attain.

Beyond just fighting, gameplay focused on exploration, as any good Zelda game. This time around, exploration worked a little differently since Link was traversing the seas rather than the traditional Hyrule overworld. Within the world, there were tons of characters to meet on little islands here and there, and they all had something worth seeing, whether it was a side quest, a hint on your main quest, a free item, or a minigame. I never thought the sea was boring for a moment.

Despite my feelings, many complain of the sea being too large and empty, and that sailing moved too slowly, even forcing Nintendo’s inclusion of the Swift Sail in the HD remake for Wii U. I personally never considered this a problem. While the Swift Sail is convenient, I consider controlling the wind manually an underrated mechanic. Having to keep the wind direction in mind made for a completely unique experience travelling, in ship-to-ship combat, and especially navigating through the “Eye Reef” islands. If you were not completely aware of which way the wind was going and how it could affect you, you could get in a mess of trouble easily. This was tedious at times, but most of the time I thought it was unique and fun.

The only major grievance I have ever had with the game was the triforce fetch quest, and honestly I made a silly mistake the first time, and fixed it every consecutive playthrough, so I give that a pass as well. If you are paying attention and getting your maps deciphered as you go, the quest is not really all that hard. My hang up the first time was that I spent a few hours finding all the triforce charts first and then went to decipher them. If you decipher them as you go, you will find plenty of rupees at the location of the next chart, so you don’t have to farm rupees for hours. I wish I’d known this the first time through the game, but again, I’ve learned and moved on. People complain about this, but really it’s like a much easier version of the same quest people have praised for thirty years spawned by the original Zelda. It’s not super fun, but it’s not hard, and the puzzle fits the story so big whoop.

Legitimately, Wind Waker had one problem. Sometimes when you were walking on the ice toward an edge, Link would not jump. The frustration incurred by any ice-based level is about ten times worse when you are faced with an ice-based, platforming challenge level and the game glitches often enough that you have to retry the entire challenge several times before you get it. They fixed it in the HD remake, but this was an issue that should have been repaired before release. Still, that’s literally the only problem that the game has that isn’t caused by user error.

Overall, the gameplay felt like a natural progression of the series’ classic elements. It took everything from previous games, but enhanced it just a bit. I don’t think it was perfect, since I did have some minor complaints, but my live and learn attitude towards these matters gives this game a nine out of ten for gameplay.

Story

As I have stated in previous articles, when somebody calls Majora’s Mask the darkest game in the series, I scoff. This is not as dark as Link’s Awakening, but it’s definitely got a leg up on the former. Hyrule got so screwed up by Ganon that the gods themselves came down and flooded the entire world, sealing him at the bottom of the sea in hopes that he could not be reached. In the end, Ganon did of course emerge from his incarceration, as he always does, and showed us a more believable character than we have ever had in a Zelda villain.

Ganondorf revealed his motives, and they were surprisingly human. In every past title, as well as those going forward, Ganon in whatever form he took at the time appeared as a relatively bland and generic villain. While usually still compelling enough to drive the story forward, his range of emotion has been from Twilight Princess’s “I don’t like the world because Link beat me in the previous game canonically,” to Breath of the Wild’s “Rawr, I am Ganon.” His backstory has usually been something to the effect of “Ganon was resurrected because history repeats itself endlessly in this series.” Basically Ganon has always been the villain for the sake of having a final boss, but this time around it was different. Ganon was human; he showed emotions like jealousy, smugness, and despair. Having such a grand capstone to complete this game was like no other, and we got the most brutally violent ending in the series as well, which added to the overall feel of the game. The entire final boss sequence made me question why this game was rated “E for Everyone.”

Beyond the primary story, the world showed off a number of memorable characters on each island, as I touched on in the gameplay review. Everywhere you go, there are quirky, whimsical characters to throw off the heavy-hitting main story. From Beedle to the travelling family of treasure-hunting divers, pretty much every NPC you meet turns out to have a funny little story connected to the world, and I think this is why many people consider the game to be lighthearted overall. Take them away and the game would be bleak and depressing the whole way through, but offsetting this with the charming and often wacky characters really makes this game stand out in both regards.

Here’s the kicker, though, Wind Waker is the game that made the timeline matter. All those timeline theories back in the day took most of their information from this game, as at the time, it was literally the only game that ever referenced any other, outside of direct sequels, and honestly it referenced Ocarina of Time even more than Majora’s Mask did. Since it was the first game to directly state what we knew in Ocarina of TIme to be true, it was the first time that the question was begged, “How do all of these games fit into one solid timeline?” With that, the debates began and people kept looking through other games for things that might be references in order to form a cohesive story connecting them all.

Almost fifteen years later we are still debating the timeline, and this is especially surprising because Nintendo published Hyrule Historia to solidify the official chronology. All the debates from how the book cannot be right, or the book has to be right because it was made by the guys who make the game, to placing each new game within the timeline, all of it started with Wind Waker. This game had a story so great we are still talking about it a decade and a half later. Yeah, that’s perfect ten material right there.

Overall

If it weren’t for a scarce few annoyances, this game would be perfect, but a thirty-nine still places it pretty high on the list. Plus it gets an honorary forty just because the music was so damn good. Now that I’ve had my say, go ahead and let me know your thought in the comments or on Twitter. Is Wind Waker a terrible game because of the cartoony graphics, or does the game suck sans the Swift Sail? Shout out and keep the conversation trotting.

Current Rankings

Oracle of Ages/Oracle of Seasons: 40/40
Ocarina of Time: 40/40
Link’s Awakening: 40/40
A Link to the Past: 39/40
Wind Waker: 39/40
Majora’s Mask: 33/40
The Legend of Zelda: 30/40
Four Swords: 28/40
The Adventure of Link: 19/40