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Like many cult classics, The Wind Waker feels like the prototype for a perfect game which will never come to be.
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This video is not a comprehensive or objective review of The Wind Waker. If you want to see a thorough analysis of the mechanics and individual dungeons of the game, I highly recommend watching the forty-minute review by Matthewmatosis. He also has a video about the changes between the Gamecube and Wii U versions of the game, which I won’t be talking about here, so check that out as well.
Like most Zelda games, I’ve grown up watching other people play The Wind Waker, yet only got a chance to play through myself just now, which is cool because it means I got to play it in HD on the Wii U. I like being familiar enough with a game to understand its historical context, without being so familiar that I’d play through it on auto-pilot and dull my critical sense.
That said, I still felt like I gelled into the game instantaneously, less because I’ve watched other people play through it, and more because I’ve played five Zelda games in the last year or so, and it’s pretty much engrained into my conciousness.
Indeed, The Wind Waker may well be my second-favorite Zelda game right now, and it carries, in my opinion, all of the best elements of the franchise. Principle among these is the airtight, cathartic movement and controls, which are far more polished than they were in the N64 games, and not weird like they are in the Wii games, which I’ll have to cover on this show at some point.
I’ve often said that the biggest reason Ocarina of Time is one of my favorite games is that it’s a game wherein just running around and doing backflips is fun. This is equally true of the Wind Waker, though it also raises the issue of my one major dislike about the game, which I’ll talk about later.
The other big thing I look for in Zelda games is having a dense and engrossing world with a lot of things to do, and the Wind Waker has that, although instead of being a small world with tons of things in it, it’s a giant world broken up into a ton of little islands which have stuff to do on them.
And this, it turns out, is the Wind Waker’s double-edged sword. The very thing which is meant to be its selling point, is also its biggest weakness. Ideally, the world of the Wind Waker would feel like a giant, mysterious world full of adventure, but it actually ends up feeling like a relatively small world that’s just kind of a pain in the ass to get around.
Wind Waker’s world is broken up into 49 spaces, each of which contains one island, and ocassionally a submarine or giant octopus or random little outpost thing. A whopping SIX of those islands are nearly identical reefs in which the player sails in, bombs a bunch of canon boats, and gets a treasure chest. Five of them are Great Fairy islands, wherein the player simply goes in and receives some kind of upgrade. Two of them just contain a bunch of spires with birds on them. Three of them are the triangle islands wherein the player sails up, places a certain object, and leaves, which is part of a really cool sequence in the game, but also uses up three whole islands.
This leaves us with 33 actually unique islands, which in fairness is nothing to scoff at. Six of those are dungeons, and two are mini-dungeons which have to be completed as part of the main storyline, while two of them are major towns. That leaves a grand total of 22 unique, optional islands for the player to explore. Even still, a lot of these islands just lead into caves which are cloned four or five times, so my point here is that even though the world seems like it should be big and dense, the majority of it involves doing the same couple of things over and over again.
In this way, the Wind Waker is similar to the Mass Effect games, each of which similarly contains a vast universe full of very small levels, many of which feel like the same mission with a different coat of paint. I would argue that Mass Effect 2 managed to feel the biggest out of all the games in question, but considering Wind Waker is originally a Gamecube game that’s hardly surprising.
However, having said that, I think the defense that Wind Waker is a Gamecube game with big ambition doesn’t necessarily defend it in the context of playing it today. The Minish Cap on the GBA managed to have a more dense, varied, and involving world than its predecessor pricesely because instead of spreading its content out across a massive world, it packed a lot of content into a smaller world. I don’t necessarily think The Minish Cap is a better game than the Wind Waker, but I definitely think it capitalized better on the limits of its hardware and has perhaps the most interesting, dense, and cohesive world of any game in the franchise, at least among those I’ve completed. (We’ll see if Majora’s Mask or Twilight Princess can change my mind.)
As much as I did enjoy the Wind Waker HD, I kind of feel like I’d rather see it rebooted than retreaded. The HD remake introduces little fixes to make the game play more smoothly and the graphical update is more than welcome, but it would be nice to have this concept redone with the varied, rewarding world that it deserves to have.
Even with the disappointing lack of variety between islands, though, exploring the Wind Waker can be a lot of fun, but trying to complete everything in the game brings up the other double-edged sword which the entire Zelda franchise tends to hold on to. Zelda games have always contained a massive amount of hidden content, but have always made it very difficult to keep track of what the player has already collected, where they’ve been, and where they need to go back to.
I understand the desire not to have obvious checklists of what you’ve aquired in a Zelda game, because it would cut down on the immersion and the sense of mystery and exploration. Zelda has always subtly given the player a sense of progress and information through seeing empty spaces in the inventory and knowing that the maximum number of hearts is 20. This info alone is enough to inform the player that they might be missing something, but it also means that trying to figure out what you’re missing often involves retreading the entire game world in search of clues.
Doing so is not nearly as much of a hassle in a game like Ocarina of Time, which you can roll your way across in less than five minutes, compared to the Wind Waker, wherein, until you acquire the speed sail, you have to play a song every single time you want to change the direction you’re sailing in.
One of the cool things about the original Zelda was that every time the player acquired a new item, they could easily explore all of the areas they’d been to and test the item on everything in search of secret passages. As the game went on and the player found more items, they became able to access areas they couldn’t previously. The Wind Waker has the same capability, but sailing around the world again and again to check every island against each new weapon takes an eternity.
The game seems to be aware of the fact that exploring early on is a big pain, because it relegates a section towards the end specifically to exploring the entire world in search of the well-hidden triforce shards; and all the way until that point, it seems to rush the player between story objectives. Story islands are well-distributed across the map, and the player is often told they need to hurry to the next one. Windfall Island actually supplies a pretty large number of side-quests on its own, so that the player can still break from the main story now and again without bothering with exploration.
Halfway through the game, after sailing across most of the ocean back and forth, the player is made to obtain the teleportation song, which makes travel more inviting. When the triforce shard segment begins, the player can buy the speed sail at the auction house, which not only speeds up travel immensely, but makes it so the player no longer has to play a song to change wind direction. So naturally, on my playthrough, I waited until I had all of the items and travel truncaters in my possession before I tried to explore anything, and then I set out to complete everything.
The Wind Waker actually does a much better job than most Zelda games when it comes to helping the player find stuff; if you explore everything, you’ll gradually pick up tons of charts that show locations of things. But where the game stops just short of being completion-friendly is that it doesn’t show which stuff you’ve already collected on those charts. Yes, it’s cool to know which islands have heart pieces on them, but since I don’t know which ones I’ve already collected, I’d have to revisit all of them after obtaining the chart to retrace my steps.
This strikes me as a big mistake, because this is the one game wherein marking the collected objects wouldn’t break immersion at all. The Big Octo chart actually shows which Octos the player has already killed, and the individual island charts get checked off when you collect the treasures; but the heart pieces, heart piece charts, submarines, and secret caves charts don’t mark where you’ve been. Considering that these are late-game items which are often somewhat difficult to come across, I would expect them to be more helpful then telling me that I pretty much have to go everywhere in the world again and figure it out myself.
I’ve heard from a number of people that the best way to play this game is to draw your own chart and keep track of what things are on each island, which is way more rewarding than just looking up an FAQ and a cool way to play that I approve of, but I think it’s weird that the game has such a complex system of buying bait to feed fish to fill in islands, and completing quests to get charts to find treasures that are often other charts; yet manages to fall short of making these charts useful.
Adding to all of that, the player is going to make at least two trips around the world to get 100% of the treasure because of how treasure charts work. Every island has a hidden treasure which only reveals itself when they’ve got a chart for it, which is always on a different island. So, if the player sails around to every island collecting charts, they’ll have to sail back to a lot of those islands again to collect the treasures that they now have the chart for.
Bear in mind for a second that when I finally got sick of collecting stuff, I had 17 hearts, all of the items, and had logged probably less than thirty hours on the game (hard to know for sure because the game frustratingly lacks a time counter). The Wind Waker has only six dungeons, which take forty minutes to an hour to complete–maybe an hour and a half or more on the wind dungeon because I got lost in that one for a little while. If not for the triforce collection quest, you could probably crush the main questline in ten to fifteen hours, and that’s including cutscene and sailing times. Considering how much of the side-questing involves sailing back and forth and fighting through identical caves, submarines, and reefs, that’s a disturbingly large percentage of playtime spent on repetitive quests, only for the game to come out no longer than Ocarina of Time.
Now, I’ve basically been ragging on The Wind Waker for a couple thousand words now, but I’d like to remind you again that I actually loved this game, and it’s probably sitting somewhere in my favorites. It’s easy to list all the reasons that The Wind Waker HD isn’t my favorite game, but it only hurts so much because the potential was so high for this to be one of my top games of all time.
Once the speed sail made exploration tolerable and I got used to the sailing controls, I actually enjoyed exploring the world; I just wanted there to be more substantial content to make it feel like I wasn’t just sailing uninterrupted for hours. The controls and combat felt really fantastic, but they mostly got explored through endless repeats of the same enemy gauntlet. Windfall island was a really fantastic hub town with lots of interesting quests that would change the nature of the town in small ways, which I thought was super cool, but it would’ve been nice if that kind of stuff happened all over the world and not just on one island.
This is where I need to mention that The Wind Waker HD is perhaps the most pleasant game to look at that I’ve ever played. Some reviewers have criticized the addition of a stupid amount of bloom to the daytime sky, and how the change in graphical style makes the faces look weird, and while these are reasonable complaints, they feel nitpicky to me in the face of just how much this game’s colors explode from the screen in HD. The Wind Waker features some of the most memorable enemy designs that I’ve ever seen in a 3D game, alongside a plethora of fun NPCs and a color palette that never ceases to impress. Every dungeon has a totally unique look and feel through color that brings them to life, although admittedly they aren’t the most memorable dungeons in Zelda history in terms of how they’re played.
One of the funny things about The Wind Waker is that the negative hype which surrounded the reveal of the game’s art style before its release has remained a big talking point of it’s reputation, with frequent claims that the game is or was underrated because of it. This always struck me as funny though, because the Wind Waker has received universally positive reviews since the time of its release. The game didn’t sell nearly as well as Ocarina of Time, which was largely attributed to its art style, but it still sold well over three million copies, making it the fourth-highest selling Gamecube game and still in the upper echelons of game sales altogether. The sad fact of the matter is really that no one bought the Gamecube to begin with, and the one-two cocktease of the E3 Zelda trailer and having adult link in Super Smash Bros. Melee had people anticipating a different game. But this doesn’t change the fact that, by all rights, The Wind Waker was an instant classic.
None of this is particularly important from a critical standpoint, but I find it rather fascinating that these factors led to The Wind Waker being regarded as a sort of cult hit, or the little Zelda that could. Had this game not been a part of the Zelda franchise or released by mega hit-house Nintendo, but still made those sales and had that critical reception, it would’ve been regarded as a breakout hit and received immediate sequels in a manner similar to the Dark Souls series. This game sold and reviewed better than the first Mass Effect, and like that game it would’ve benefitted greatly from a sequel that could expand on and polish the core concepts of the game. The Minish Cap, Phantom Hourglass, and Spirit Tracks have all used a similar graphical style to The Wind Waker, and while Phantom Hourglass actually sold better than the game it’s a direct sequel to, none of these games lead the sales on their respective consoles, and the two DS games feature wildly different controls compared to the rest of the franchise. Considering the miserable sales of the Wii U console and, in turn, this game, I don’t see a sequel ever happening.
Speaking of the Wii U, I oddly enough discovered that I totally loved the Wii U tablet controller. I found it comfortable and never had any wrist pain after ten-hour game sessions, which isn’t even true of normal controllers. My brother who played the game before me felt the same, although he didn’t share my one big complaint about the controller, which is the brightness of the screen. My room isn’t very well lit, so the brightness on my TV already isn’t at its highest, and some of the dungeons or nighttime sailing could be fairly dark, but the tablet screen was always beaming at full brightness. This proved both distracting to me at times and a subtle strain on my eyes, which isn’t a big complaint but I think it was a slip-up on Nintendo’s part to not include a brightness control somewhere on the controller. There’s certainly space for one.
Otherwise, I thought it was cool that I could move the game to the tablet screen if I wanted to hop on the computer for a moment or go take a shit and still be playing the game. The touchscreen’s offer of uninterrupted play didn’t always work out so well though because while switching weapons on the fly was easy, I still needed to pause the game to do so in combat because I couldn’t look down at the tablet while also keeping track of the enemies on screen. This isn’t even really a complaint though, just a note.
The Wind Waker HD is, at the end of the day, an unfulfilled promise of one of the best games ever made. It has the best artwork of any game in the franchise, but was unsuccessful because of it. It had the most expansive world, but not enough to do in it. If you could somehow combine the art, storyline, and gimmick of this game with the scope and density of Twiilght Princess you’d probably have the ultimate Zelda game, but it looks like Nintendo tried to do that with Skyward Sword, and everyone considers it the worst. I’ll let you know what I think when I get around to playing it.