Reviewed: January 27, 2004
Released: March 25, 2003
When I heard that a Zelda game was being made for the GameCube, the news solidified my decision to purchase that system over a PS2. I'd been away from Nintendo for many years, although I had managed to get a hold of friends' systems and emulators, and play most of the Zelda games that have been released since the glory days of my beloved NES. Having played so many of these masterpieces, I was drooling in anticipation of the new title, but I wondered how the tech heads at Nintendo could possibly top their N64 successes.
I can't explain how any more now than I could before I played it, but one thing is clear to me: the bar has been raised. Again. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker is one of the most impressive games ever created for any system.
Setting all of the burning questions about the "weird graphics" and whatnot aside for a moment, the basic story is that this time, Link is born on an island in the middle of a vast ocean that definitely does NOT bring Hyrule to mind. Many old favorite characters are here again, but often they are unaware of the roles they have played in the past.
The whole mess starts when Link's little sister (yes, he has a sister now), Aryll, gets snatched up by an evil-looking bird as the result of a bizarre mix-up. Aryll is taken away to lands unknown, and Link more or less immediately sets out to rescue her. To give more away would be to ruin the story, but it's a grand adventure in the classic Zelda tradition. As usual, our hero has a massive arsenal of weapons and tools at his disposal, and as usual, he'll need them all to get through every trial. And don't worry, you purists out there: You still have to rescue the Princess Zelda.
While the controls are basically those of the Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask, they have been polished quite a bit in The Wind Waker. Link can set tools and items to one of three function buttons, and pressing that button will cause him to use the set item. You can justify the camera angle or target enemies and objects with another button. Much like in the last two Zelda games, this makes fighting big enemies a whole lot easier. In some cases, targeting and "locking on" to an enemy is actually the only sane option for combat, especially since when Link has a monster in his sights, he can perform crucial counterattack moves that look very cool and can remove armor or weapons.
Many of the old toys that fans know and love are back for an encore performance, including the Boomerang, bombs and potions of various persuasions. If anything, the Wind Waker makes these tools more fun to use, by use of better camerawork and also by thinking up even more uses for them. When players acquire the Boomerang, they'll be amazed at all it can do. There are also several new items, including the namesake of the game itself, the Wind Waker. This is a magical conductor's baton that... hey, don't roll your eyes! It's basically the same principle behind the good old Ocarina of Time. You conduct songs on the wind, which in turn create various powerful (non-combat) effects, such as changing the direction of the wind, which is crucial for getting from place to place.
A lot of time is spent sailing across the vast world from island to island. At sea, there are different enemies with different combat rules that I found to be quite enjoyable, once I got the hang of them. I have read a few writers who gave negative marks to the sea combat of the Wind Waker, but they may have been lulled into a false sense of security by the relatively easy ground combat. Exchanging cannon fire with ships at sea is no more challenging than a Stalfos battle in The Ocarina of Time, and is actually a refreshing diversion from, say, fighting off hordes of obnoxiously fast bats in a mini dungeon. There are also many treasures to be had at sea, for the adventuresome spirit.
In fact, there are so many side-quests and minigames that most players could easily spend a full month just doing them all. Link can participate in auctions, go fishing for treasure with a sea-crane, collect trinkets for townsfolk and more. There's even a pig-catching game for those with the determination to find it! In addition to all of these, which occasionally reward Link with such rarities as Pieces of Heart and Empty Bottles, there is also a super-secret quest that takes as long to complete as the rest of the game's features combined... The Wind Waker offers much to those who are willing to look. And it's all brought together by a spectacular storyline, engaging characters and the best camera work I've ever seen in any 3-D game, period.
Many players who were initiated into the Zelda world by the N64 games have voiced loud and angry concerns about the graphics. On the '64, Nintendo was moving towards a more realistic-looking world and a more realistic-looking Link, as well. I'll grant that the Wind Waker doesn't continue the "realism" streak, but the graphics of this game may very well have turned out to be its biggest and most breathtaking achievement.
The first thing you realize is that it's like watching an animated feature film. The character and object animations are so fluid and seamless that I feel it will, much like the first Zelda, never look shabby. Everything runs, walks, crawls and jumps with such convincing movement that it seems as though you're watching an adventure movie rather than playing a game. And there are a vast array of possible movements for most of the enemies and characters, as well. I laughed out loud the first time I accidentally stabbed a Moblin in the foot and watched him hop around holding it, cartoon tears showering from his beady eyes.
The facial expressions in the Wind Waker are also worth noting. Rather than tough it out with realistic faces that just... won't... quite... make the right expression (as in Squaresoft's otherwise-masterful Final Fantasy X), this game continues in the cartoony vein, with bright eyes and weirdly shaped faces that can smile, frown, laugh, cry and be startled with convincing emotion. There was a little of this in the N64 Zelda games, but it's been expanded upon in the Wind Waker, and it's wonderful. I found myself caring about Link in a way that I never have before. The facial expressions connect players to the characters, and they do it more effectively than any other game I've played.
Despite the "cartoony" graphics, this game looks genuinely cool. It has a very unique look to it, with a lot of awesome-looking villains and awe-inspiring sights. I give highest honors to the Wind Waker's spectacular graphics.
As with every Nintendo game I've played, the voice acting in the Wind Waker is kept to a minimum, which is fine by me. The kind of talent that could do justice to the Wind Waker's often whimsical dialogue is hard to come by, and I have a feeling that full voice acting would have detracted from this game in the end. The few voice samples that do appear are appropriate and often very funny.
Non-speaking sound effects are here in profusion and add another dimension of believability to the world of The Wind Waker. Fire, flapping wings, running water and falling rocks all have plenty of detailed and well-matched sound.
On the whole, the music in the Wind Waker is more understated than that of previous Zelda games, particularly in the dungeons. I wasn't sure if I liked this change at first, but after playing for a bit I had nothing but praise for the obvious amount of care that went into creating this game's wonderful soundtrack.
The music is very well-fit to the situation and can often be quite moving. An early dungeon involves a lot of slinking around and hiding from enemies, and the music has that "tiptoe," Pink Panther feel to it. Link's home island has a happy and memorable theme that could actually make many a college student homesick. The best piece is probably the sailing theme, a sweeping, grand, adventuresome fanfare that caused me many a long moment of involuntary daydreaming.
There are a couple of songs that have been stolen from previous titles, but by the time you figure out the whole story of the game, these just work even better than before. Nintendo could not have done better with the musical score for this game.
It's hard to talk about the value of this game without giving away secrets, but let's just say that you'll want to play through it at least twice, whether or not you go in for the side-quests. The more persistent you are, the more The Wind Waker will reward you with. Of course, there aren't any other play modes besides the adventure, but that's a moot point for any Zelda game, or any platform/adventure title, for that matter. Besides, visiting The Wind Waker's startlingly unique world will never get old.
Most importantly, though, The Wind Waker is so charming, unique and inherently playable that owners will be taking it for frequent spins for years to come. I still break out the first Zelda game and play through it two or three times a year, and the newest addition to my Zelda library will be getting the same treatment.
For an adventure game with only one story to tell, the amount of replay value the designers squeezed into this game is astonishing, and the time it will take players to unlock all of the delicious secrets it has to offer should add up to more than the time spent on most "replayable" games (such as racing, fighting or sports games). The game's world is one of the most richly realized locales I've had the pleasure to visit, thanks to a stirring soundtrack and graphics that must be seen to be believed.
Best of all, just when everyone thought that the series' gameplay couldn't get more polished than Majora's Mask, this new Zelda game blows all the bad stuff away and delivers a devastatingly wonderful gaming experience with none of the swearing associated with the occasional camera troubles of its N64 counterparts.
The Wind Waker is deep, diverse and bursting at the seams with goodies. Not since I was a little kid has a game instilled this much pure excitement in me. It is an utter masterpiece.