dorchadas: (Toon Link happy)
[personal profile] dorchadas
Wind Waker is one of the few Zelda games I've played and beaten around the time it came out, along with only the original Legend of Zelda and Ocarina of Time. My sister owned a GameCube and kept up with the releases, though she never played the games for that long. She pre-ordered the limited edition--I still have the bonus disc with the Ocarina of Time Master Quest on it--and I'm not sure she ever played it, but when I came home from university that summer, I did. I played through and beat the game without reading any of the online invective about it and I really liked it. I didn't care about the happy, cartoony graphics. That was the year that Call of Duty first came out, and I was busy playing Morrowind and Warcraft III. Something light and happy was refreshing, especially when I spent every weekday at a summer job that I hated and was going to spend the next semester studying abroad in Ireland. At the time, it might even have been my favorite Zelda game.

On replaying, it's still good, but the cracks stand out to me in a way they didn't then.

The Japanese title, as is often true, is simple and straightforward--kaze no takuto, "The Baton of the Winds."

Wind Waker - Ship firing Cannon at shore

First, about the art. To be blunt, the graphics are still fantastic and the people who were complaining about them at the time had no idea what they were talking about. Years of playing World of Warcraft taught me that often, the artistic style is far more important in making something look good both at the time and later than constantly chasing the latest technical improvements, and Wind Waker has a fantastic artistic style. The cel-shaded graphics burst with color and vibrancy, making every area a joy to look at. The cartoony explosions and curls of smoke from bombs are simply fantastic, but the way the endless ocean swells as you sail across it, or the ever-present curling white lines that indicate the direction of the winds, never grow old. Wind Waker is gorgeous.

Usually when I play a game of Wind Waker's length, I take about 500 screenshots. This time I took three times that.

And Toon Link is expressive in a way that no other Link has yet been. Pixel Links obvious can't convey many emotions, and in Ocarina of Time, Link had three moods: stoic, shock, and "HA! HA! HYAAAAAAAAAA!" Toon Link jumps in glee when he defeats a dungeon, he grimaces in pain when wizzrobes or his own bombs set him on fire, his mouth sets in determination when he preps his sword for a spin attack, and he narrows his eyes the mailbox tells him "Good evening!" on a stormy night. The eyes alone make the graphics worth it. Large eyes are a design choice in cartoons because it's easier to make them expressive, and Wind Waker takes full advantage of that. Link blinks, he looks around him, he glares, he stares in shock. Even though Link is still a silent protagonist, the dynamism of his face and body language make it much easier to tell what he thinks about the situations he finds himself in.

The same cartoon designs exaggerate the other characters you meet during the game, but also make them more memorable. [personal profile] schoolpsychnerd really took to Link's grandma, especially after the scene where Link first sets out from Puroro Island and sadly waves to her from the back of the boat, and kept urging me to go back and check on her. Ganondorf exudes quiet menace from the first half-visible glimpses of black robe to the confrontation at the top of Ganon's Tower, and his cartoon appearance enhances the pathos in his statement that he desired the Triforce because he envied the cool winds of Hyrule compared to the harsh, hot winds of his desert home and if he had the power of the gods, they would have to grant his wish.

There are design mistakes in Wind Waker, but the graphics are categorically not one of them.

Wind Waker Cute Link obaachan
"Link. Oh, my cute Link."

Perhaps because of that, Wind Waker is the only Legend of Zelda game I've ever played that actually moves me. I was at a Symphony of the Goddesses concert in 2015 when the orchestra started to play the Wind Waker title theme and started getting misty-eyed, and it's hard for me to watch the entire stained-glass-style intro that explains the Hero of Time and the disappearance of Hyrule without needing a tissue. This makes no sense to me. I don't have strong emotional associations with Wind Waker even though I remember it well, and it's not like the story is particularly tragic. It's relatively standard for a Zelda game, with Link needing to find the Master Sword, collect the bits of the Triforce, go into dungeons to help the sages, and defeat Ganon. I can only attribute it to the expressiveness of the art making it easier for me to empathize with the characters. It was [personal profile] schoolpsychnerd's idea, but I did keep going back to check on Link's grandma. While her soup is the best healing item in the game, Wind Waker is easy enough that I never actually needed it. I just did it to make sure she was okay.

This is a major chunk of the game.

The main gimmick of Wind Waker is inherent in the name, since the game takes place on the Great Sea with scattered islands being the only signs of civilization. At this point, not taking place in Hyrule isn't unusual, since half of the games have been set in other lands, but each game still had a recognizable geography. Whether it was Termina or Holodrum or Koholint, there was a beach, a desert, a mountain range, a mysterious forest, and a peaceful town. Wind Waker throws all that out the window and makes 99% of the map a shining sea, extending to the horizon.

This almost works.

From the beginning on Puroro Island through Link's sister getting kidnapped and Link finding the three pearls of the goddesses, I was fully on board. Sailing across the sea as the sun rose and set, clouds raced across the sky and storms rolled in and out, was beautiful. Most of the sea is empty, but that just meant I was free to enjoy sailing without having to constantly dodge enemies all the time. Seeing an island on the horizon and taking a detour to explore it was exciting. Each one was like an candy egg with secrets hidden inside.

But as I played more, I started to notice that most of the islands were gimmicks, with only a single thing to do and no point in ever returning to them, which means that they're just dead space on the map after that. Some islands don't have any place to land at all in favor of gun battles or treasure hunting, and while sailing across the ocean feels wonderful, maneuvering around cannons or enemy ships while trying to fire back is much more finnicky. There's a reason why the game locks the King of Red Lions into a spiraling course when fighting the large octopodes that infest the ocean, and it's not just to provide a time limit. One of the melodies Link learns is a warp melody, but that comes relatively late and doesn't solve the problem that most of the map becomes dead weight that still has to be traversed to reach the interesting spots.

Wind Waker Link Death Stare

And the Triforce hunt is inexcusable. Near the very end, you learn that in order to confront Ganon in his lair, Link needs possession of the Triforce of Courage. As is tradition, it was shattered into eight shards and hidden, and all of its hiding places are now underwater. There are maps that lead to the shards, but the maps are in an ancient language that only Tingle can decipher--for a price. 398 rupees each. So you need to find eight maps, pay 3184 rupees to have them all decoded, and then sail all over the Great Sea to find the shards again. Hunting for treasure is a key mechanic in Wind Waker, but by the point of having to get the shards, I was sick of looking for the points of light on the sea, making sure the ship was in exactly the right position, and dropping the line to haul up the chests. I already did that dozens of times to get enough money for the charts.

The whole hunt completely kills the game's pacing. After getting the Master Sword, confronting Ganon, and learning that the sword requires a reinfusion of the power to defeat evil (退魔の力), you learn that you need to seek out the descendants of the ancient sages and urge them to pray to restore the sword's power. That leads to the Wind and Earth Temples, both well-designed dungeons with interesting puzzles and traversal mechanics. And then, rather than go to the Fire Temple, or the Shadow Temple, or anywhere else related to the elements found in Zelda games, there's a scavenger hunt involving traveling back and forth across the ocean and paying a fortune in rupees. I go back and forth on whether I prefer the dungeons or the overworld in each Zelda game, but in Wind Waker I prefer the dungeons and I can't look at the Triforce hunt as anything other than dungeons that could have been.

And Nintendo agreed that it needed some work, since in Wind Waker HD there's a second sail that makes travel across the ocean faster and five of the charts are removed. Instead, the triforce shards are inside those chests, which is how it should have been in the first place.

Wind Waker plant tree boss
I'm not sure this boss ever even hit me.

Also, Wind Waker is extremely easy.

Obviously, whether this is a good thing or not is subjective, but Wind Waker is the only game during my playthrough of the series where I never died. I never even came close to dying, with a single fairy having spent the entire game sitting forlornly in a bottle as a hedge against running out of hearts. The closest I came was the deep dungeon with dozens of floors, at the bottom of which was a Triforce chart, but even there I got enough hearts along the way that I never dropped too low. The only time I ever heard the low-heart beeping was the very first time I went to Demon Beast Island, before I got any other heart containers. In the final series of fights against Ganon, I used a second fairy I had picked up in the corridor outside as a precaution. That was it.

There's nothing wrong with easy combat, and the graphics means it always looks fantastic. Link moves smoothy and the monsters are well-designed. But they're not dangerous, and that means that most battles are just speedbumps on the way to wherever I wanted to go. Early on I would fight everything and luxuriate in the clouds of violet-black smoke they made as they fell, but by the end I stopped fighting anything except darknuts, wizzrobes, and moblins unless I absolutely had to. At least those fights required timing. Everything else was just run in and mash B until it died.

Wind Waker triforce map
May the way of the Hero lead to the Triforce.

It's hard to condemn Wind Waker too much for these faults. Zelda games past Zelda II haven't been known for their difficulty, and there's no way to have a giant sea as the setting without requiring the player to spend most of their time traversing it. And to Nintendo's credit, there is a warping song available before the triforce hunt, though that doesn't cut out the sailing before it and requires the player to track down the song itself.

Still, while I don't like Wind Waker as much as I did the first time I played and, and while A Link to the Past remains my favorite Zelda game to date, this is my second-favorite. The graphics and music are fantastic, and the HD update from 2013 ameliorates the problems with the Triforce hunt's pacing and the hours spent sailing back and forth across the Great Sea. There's a reason that Nintendo picked this as one of the games to get a facelift, and that's because the basics are so sound. It's still one of the best Zelda games out there. Emoji Link smilie
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