I must have been around ten or eleven when I borrowed The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker from a family friend. It was the first Zelda I ever played. I wasn’t very good at video games at that age, and being that it wasn’t mine – and that I didn’t have a memory card for my GameCube – I never got past the first few levels of the game. That didn’t stop it from having a pretty big impression on me. It was my first glimpse into the expansive, thrilling, adventure-filled world of Zelda and I would go on to play many other games in the series – but I always wanted to go back to Wind Waker and play through it fully. Since completing Breath of the Wild, I made it my mission to play through all of the Zelda games I had yet to beat – preferably in chronological order. After completing Ocarina of Time, I was finally able to get my hands on a used GameCube and a copy of Wind Waker.
My replay of Wind Waker was both a familiar and somewhat struggling experience. Unfortunately, I feel as if some of the wonder I had for the game when I was younger had dissipated, and I was treated to a different experience altogether. That being said, Wind Waker is one of a kind and really stands out amongst the other games in the series, and I’d like to lay out the pros and cons is possesses.
The first thing I’d like to talk about is the style. Personally, I am more of a fan of realistic and older-Link designs, but I can’t deny the appeal of Wind Waker’s cell-shaded, “cartoony” style. It was revolutionary at its time and created a whole new look for the series that became the standard for upcoming games. It still isn’t my favorite style for a series like Zelda, but the game is truly pleasing and wonderful to look at. I applaud how colorful, atmospheric, and stunning the visuals are for the original – and especially the HD remake.
When you load up the game, after the title screen, the first thing you’re introduced to is the prologue. It is simply a text with image affair, but the combination of the old, wood-cut-style artwork, the renaissance-tinted theme, and the tone of the backstory makes for probably the best opening Zelda has pulled off. It truly makes you feel the legend of the story you’re about to play – connecting it with Ocarina of Time while giving you more information in the time that has passed since then: the triumph of the Hero of Time, but the somber, daunting realization of the Hero’s failing to return and Hyrule being swallowed into darkness yet again. It adds a history that I wish was throughout the game a bit more, but it certainly sets up the game wonderfully.
Wind Waker possesses my favorite iterations of some designs – particularly the enemies. The Moblins and Bokoblins possibly have their best designs in Wind Waker. They adhere to the more toony style quite well, while still being imposing and formidable enemies. The strutting gait of the spear-wielding, top-heavy Moblins strike both amusement and fear as you attempt to tiptoe past them in the Forbidden Fortress. Even the Miniblins are vicious little creatures, boinging about with high-pitched chattering as they surround you in high numbers. Another creative and interesting take on a common Zelda enemy is the Wizzrobe. These are my favorite! In Wind Waker, these evil magicians take on dark-toucan, plague-doctor appearance, appearing in your way with an alarming siren and ghostly, warbled chuckles. Even their echoed, low-pitched yell as they’re struck by your sword is appealing. Other classic enemies like Peahats (both huge and small), Keese, and ChuChus appear in unique yet familiar designs – with ReDeads being particularly effective in their slack-jawed, mummified eternal screams that cause you to freeze in terror.
Wind Waker also boasts the reemergence of Phantom Ganon in his coolest design: swirly and ghostly, dark as a black hole and outlined in neon blue, a massive sword and a horned helmet. Despite the simplicity of the battle, I have always found the tense back-and-forth batting of Phantom Ganon’s fireball to be particularly effective and I’m glad we get to see him a few times in Wind Waker.
What would a Zelda game be without its score? In fact, the music is astounding in just about every game – and Wind Waker is no exception. As I mentioned before, the opening theme – titled “The Legendary Hero” on the soundtrack – is an adaptation of The Legend of Zelda’s main theme with flourishes of despair and uncertainty through the accompaniment of renaissance instruments. Probably the most famous level theme of the game is Dragon Roost Island. This uplifting track is truly one of the best compositions to arise from the series; with jaunty, quick strums of guitars, percussions claps, and an airy whistle-flute singing a memorable melody. It adds a new flavor to Zelda we haven’t quite seen before – something a little foreign, maybe a little tropical – while inspiring a familiar tone of uplifting adventure, calling to mind the vibrant blues and greens of the ocean and the grass on the titular island. It’s fair to say that the rest of the game boasts other gems: while the temple/dungeons themes are more ambient, the happy, domestic themes of Windfall Island and Outset Island are some of my favorites. They inspire warmth and joy far better than any “village” themes from past Zelda games. The music that accompanies your Ocean travels, which serves as the game’s overworld theme, is pleasantly more less bombastic than it’s predecessors, but with a similar sense of excitement. The subdued strings and horns with a steady marching drum beat pairs perfectly with the sailing adventure.
The general gameplay is where I’ll probably get more into the cons than the pros – but lets meet in the middle for now. The islands that make up the games levels generally have an “outside” portion and an “inside” portion, with the “inside” areas being a little more invested and often leading to the dungeon or temple you have to beat. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the shortness of the “outside” portions was a detriment for me, because I enjoyed the scenery and interaction with the environment in those areas – particularly on the Forest Haven. That being said, the actual levels and islands of the game are overall very satisfying to play. The difficulty level is pretty low. My only criticism of the controls is that Link is fairly quick-moving and with the camera not always linked to your advantage, it can cause some problems. Whenever Link hits a ledge, he takes an enormous leap of faith off of it. I don’t think I died once in this game from enemies, but I did unintentionally jump to my death on a number of occasions.
My biggest issue with the gameplay is actually what makes it special: the ocean and the wind waker. Unlike it’s predecessor, Ocarina of Time, I would say that Wind Waker returns to the general open overworld dynamic of most Zelda games. You can’t play any level in any order you’d like in terms of the storyline, but the map of the open ocean is fairly free to explore in any way you like. This is a good thing, but the fact that it is an ocean is at times detrimental to the accessibility of the locations – specifically paired with the wind waker. In the game, you have to use the wind waker to set the direction of the wind in order to sail. This is a fairly realistic dynamic, and I understand where they are coming from, but this gives you a directional handicap that at times makes it difficult to truly explore the open world freely. If you need to turn ninety degrees – or, god forbid, turn around entirely – you will most likely have to break out the wind waker again to change the direction of the wind so you can move. The reason why this was such an annoyance to me is because most of the islands on the map are fairly small, and sometimes on your journey you see multiple places on the horizon and in your peripheral that you want to check out, but the wind prevents you from going from one place to another with free will. There were many times where I found myself wanting to turn around, or circle around an island (especially if I was coming at it from the wrong angle) but the wind got in my way. This ultimately prevented me from doing a lot of exploring that I usually try to do in all of my Zelda experiences.
Battling enemies on the ocean is a nightmare. Most of the time I found myself avoiding them altogether or jumping over them, but there are certain areas of the game that forces you to deal with the enemies in your midst. The directional limitations I just mentioned are often at your disadvantage when dealing with enemies. While they move freely around you, you’re forced to mainly stop in your tracks to battle them. You cannot move while using your main seafaring weapon – a cannon – anyway. The cannon is oftentimes a struggle to aim and use against multiple enemies at once. Getting hit by an enemy attack sends Link flying from his boat into the water, which only adds to the clunky nature of the fights and prolongs it even further.
Some lower-level grievances I have are finding treasure chests. Link procures treasure charts along your travels, which allows said treasure to appear as a little glowing ring on the ocean when you are around it. However, the closer you get to it makes the glowing ring disappear and you have to rely mostly on your ears to sense how loud the shimmery sound effect of the treasure is before trying to anchor it up. This can often lead to many trail and errors of sinking your anchor only to hit nothing, moving an inch forward, and trying to get the treasure once more. I often found myself leaving the vicinity until the glowing ring appeared once more and repositioning myself to try and get a better shot at approaching it once more. More important treasures (like triforce shards) appear as a pillar of light in the water and disappear even sooner as you approach it than normal treasures. It wasn’t until the end of my playing experience did I realize you can open your treasure charts and just align your cursor to the X on the map for a more accurate hit.
The ocean itself is a joy to sail in if you’re just coasting from point A to point B. The design of the waves, the wind, and the sky are beautiful to look at. I applaud Nintendo for trying out something new for their overworld, but it was mostly a miss for me in terms of gameplay.
Towards the end of the plot, Link must find the broken shards of the Triforce of Courage – quite similar to what you have to do in the original Legend of Zelda. In the GameCube version, you have to find eight triforce charts, get them translated, and then get all eight triforce shards. This was a little excessive in my opinion, especially since finding the triforce charts consisted of fun puzzles and challenges of skill – which was actually one of my favorite parts of the game – while actually finding the triforce shards was just more treasure chest hunts in the ocean – which we all already know how I feel about that.
I’m sure I could go even further into what this game offers. Although it may seemed as if I harped on a lot of things about this game, to assume I dislike it is far from the truth. It is still a tightly made and enjoyable game. The dungeons and temples aren’t as challenging as those in Ocarina of Time, but they aren’t so boring to be unenjoyable. The Forest Haven and Wind Temple are two of my favorites, while the final battle with Ganondorf actually felt like I was having a sword fight with him! Teaming up with Zelda to defeat Ganondorf was satisfying and was a great gameplay dynamic. The colors, themes, and designs of the islands are vibrant and appealing. Wind Waker also introduced us to the Rito and Koroks, two additions I love, which have since appeared in other Zelda titles. Like I said, I could go on and on about what I love about this game, along with some things that irked me.
Is it my favorite Zelda game? No. It is in my top three? Probably not. But, as a Zelda game, it is already miles ahead of many and one I would still put in as one of the most enjoyable games to play or watch.