The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker

Review by Old Rooster
June 2003

As a card-carrying, certifiable member of the "senior citizen" community, I often shy away from sharing my love of PC/video gaming with acquaintances. It's acceptable to talk about travel, tennis, time-sharing, medications and surgeries. But video games? Clearly they're for adolescents, aren't they, with many of them being too nasty to discuss at the AARP gathering. And console games! My goodness, they involve fighting, shooting, racing—all stuff we're much too old and sophisticated for. Don't they? Well—yes, no and maybe. Much like books in a library, you can often find what you wish to find. For every Postal 2 there is a game like The Longest Journey, and for every Soul Caliber fighting game, there is a console experience like Zelda: The Wind Waker.

I must share a caveat regarding this review. Wind Waker is not only my first Zelda experience, but also my first GameCube title, and even my very first console game! With over 300 games in my PC library, and having played most of them (a lot or a little) the last seven years, I've just never ventured into the world of the gamepad. So please be patient when I reflect naivete regarding consoling in general, the gamepad in particular, and Zelda as a revered franchise—a franchise with which, to my regret, I had not been acquainted.

Link—Past and Present

"Legend has it that whenever evil has appeared, a hero named Link has risen to defeat it." So goes the continuing myth of Zelda and its primary hero. The original Legend of Zelda appeared in 1987 on the Nintendo Entertainment System, with Zelda II: The Adventures of Link debuting a year later. In 1992, Zelda: A Link to the Past made the leap to the Super NES console, with Zelda: Ocarina of Time bringing 3D to the Nintendo 64 in 1998. Finally, Zelda: Majora's Mask, a dark adventure, made its way to fans in 2000.

Zelda: Wind Waker has been eagerly anticipated and has a lot to live up to in order to please its zealous fan base. Considerable attention has been drawn to the use of cel-shading, an overall cartoony appearance, and the generally more light-hearted theme of this latest iteration. Again, being naive, and not having played any of the illustrious predecessors, I can only speak of the relative merits and demerits of my experience with Wind Waker.

An Evil Wind Is Rising

Many years after the Link of legend has brought peace to the land, a young lad celebrates his 12th birthday. He, also, is named Link. As is the custom at this time of "coming of age," he dons a green outfit, as did the hero of tradition who once conquered the evil of that time. This happiest of days is shattered when Link's sister, Aryll, is carried off by a monstrous bird. Link later learns that "young girls with long ears" are being kidnapped. Enlisting the support of a motley group of pirates (the leader of whom Link has helped) and having secured some minimal training and equipment, Link ventures forth with all the enthusiasm of an adolescent to find Aryll and perhaps even unravel some deeper mysteries. Of course, Link, and we the players, soon discover that the kidnapping is but a harbinger of a much deeper threat to the people of Outset Island and all the civilized lands of the vast sea encompassing this flooded world (cf. Waterworld).

Now is a good time to speak of the incredible size, scope, variety and depth of the worlds depicted in Wind Waker. There are 49 islands to which Link may sail, many of which are inhabited, can be explored, present challenges, and have residents with whom interaction may occur. Using a ship (more on this later) to traverse the sea (also inhabited by roving submarines, octos, and shop ships), Link spends considerable time and effort, sometimes boringly so until midgame, getting from place to place. These minor tedium tasks, though, are more than compensated for by the payoff of variety and adventure once landing.

We often speak of the optimal desire of having a game world that is open-ended, that we are free to roam, that is populated by colorful NPCs with whom interaction may or may not occur. Yet we also like to have some sense of direction and goal orientation. Wind Waker satisfies these desires as well as any game I've ever played.

"Falling Isn't Part of the Program, Swabbie!" —Friendly Pirate to Link

Or "where's the mouse?" As mentioned, this is all new to me. However, even for an old guy with barnacle-encrusted brain cells, the learning curve of Wind Waker is very gentle. The first portion of the game has a running basic tutorial, supplemented throughout the experience by occasional updates as to what button or lever to push for which action. Indeed, the upper right portion of the screen shows the controller, along with labels for actions of the keys, sometimes changing according to circumstances ("sidle," for example). The GameCube controller fits nicely in my smaller hands, with the clearly labeled and very tactile buttons soon becoming intuitive.

Link is viewed from an over-the-shoulder, third-person perspective, with as fine a camera placement and movement as one may expect with that setup. Further, the area around Link may be viewed vertically and horizontally in almost 360 degrees. This often is essential in order to plan the next movement. Link jumps and climbs automatically when necessary, can crouch and crawl, and exhibits a variety of sword and other fighting techniques. Speaking, opening, and other actions/interactions are obvious when a large yellow arrow appears as Link approaches the appropriate object/person. All in all, and even after having now tried several other GameCube titles, I cannot imagine controls more straightforward and "automatic."

Towers, Temples, Fire and Ice

The first 15 minutes of Wind Waker lead one to think of Disney, children's cartoons, cutesy games. Don't be fooled. This rendition of the Zelda series at first appears, with its cel-shading, large character heads and eyes, and vibrant colors, not to be for adults. However, the themes, storyline, fighting, humor, sophistication all are most satisfying to this adult, even though possibly also appropriate for children around the age of 10 (rating is "E" for everyone).

Graphical detailing, apparently helped by the use of cel-shading, is phenomenal. Facial animations, particularly of Link, express emotions of surprise, suspicion, fear and joy. The islands are alive with activity, each having a distinctive look. Colorful characters, figuratively and literally, go about their daily routines. Monsters and bosses are frightening, sometimes huge. Link makes footprint impressions on the sand, drips water a bit after emerging from a swim, glances with those huge eyes to potential interactive objects/persons. The horizon is vast but often can be brought into stunning detail with the use of Link's telescope. Weather effects are realistic, particularly wind and storms. The destruction of enemies in a puff of smoke is satisfying without being gory. Lava and flame effects are terrifying. Even the most jaded of gamers would have to become immersed in this admittedly cartoony, but also strangely real, world of islands.

Speak up, Link!

There is no voice acting in Wind Waker. Indeed, Link doesn't speak at all! Considerable, and very well-written, text becomes available upon Link's interaction with everyone from his grandma to any resident he may bump into, to the King of Red Lions, his magical talking boat. Given the often-uneven quality of voice acting in games, I'm happy with the decision to let me use my imagination with the expositions of characters. As to Link not speaking at all, even in written text, apparently this was a deliberate designer decision to allow even further use of the individual player's idea of what might be said in given situations. Whatever the thinking, it works, and works well.

Environmental sound effects and musical accompaniments are perfect. From the softness of Link's footfalls to the clank of a sword on armor, everything works as it should. Wind rustles the leaves, whooshes or howls, depending on circumstances. Storms rage, boats creak, doors squeak. Clearly, the "aural detailing" of Wind Waker was done with as much love and care as the rest of the game. Indeed, the musical themes are so memorable that a CD has been issued in Japan. The opening theme is a melody you'll be sure to hum even when away from the game.

Link the Swinger

No, not that kind of swinger. This is a full family game, after all. Our Link enjoys rope and chandelier swinging. And platform jumping; and fighting, bomb and boomerang throwing, puzzle-solving; swimming; flying; sailing; even sneaking about. Indeed, at one point I was thinking of "Splinter Link"—a la the wonderful Splinter Cell game involving as much quiet discretion as all-out action. Those who take pleasure in the subtleties of sword play, including defense and rolls, will enjoy the lively encounters with multiple "bad guys" along Link's path. But I would think of Wind Waker as being more of an adventure than action experience. There is nothing truly insurmountable, if you're willing to explore the surroundings first and engage in several trials. Perhaps one of the biggest threats is not paying attention to an imminent danger due to looking at the gorgeous environment the first time through a particular episode.

Clues abound, sometimes given by Link's peculiar companion—a talking boat—the King of Red Lions. At other points, a person to be aided, such as Medli, a young female bird who has trouble flying, will give countless hints, along with considerable humor. Sea charts, dungeon maps and a compass all become available and are readily accessed with the control pad. Objects and items can be called up from inventory and assigned to the X, Y, or Z button for immediate usage. Among these is the Wind Waker—a magical baton allowing Link to direct the wind behind his boat's sails and other important actions. As an addendum, Link is also able to access an attached Game Boy Advance for special hints by using his Tingle Tuner.

Link seems to have nine lives. It's very difficult to deplete the "life gauge" if you take care in the observation and accumulation of hearts. So, too, with rupees, which abound in sufficient amounts to readily allow purchase of upgrades along the way. Game saving is done automatically at level changes and can be done manually within a level. However, on restarting you are brought back to the beginning of the level, even though you still keep acquired items. This doesn't turn out badly at all, and typically it takes only a few minutes to return to the place of saving. It's even easier just prior to a "boss" encounter, where you have the option to save at that point in case things don't go well the first (or second, or third, etc.) time through your battle.

Saving only at one point throughout the game was a feature I was prepared not to like. However, even though I would prefer multiple saves, such as with the levels in GameCube's 007: Nightfire, this singular approach of Wind Waker works. The story is fairly linear, but Link can return to previously visited locations, talk to residents, gather more information and even shop for items. Many side quests are available, some of them incidental to the main narrative, others fairly essential in terms of rewards, and all of them interesting and fun.

Welcome to the Chorus

I'm often an oppositional kind of guy. Zelda: Wind Waker is one of the most praised games of all time, on any platform. So one of my initial inclinations was to find something wrong, some components to complain about. It can't be that good, can it? Yes, my friends, it can be and is. I'm now prepared to blend my melodic bass renditions with the grand chorus of Wind Waker accolades.

Wind Waker has it all. What do you wish for in your "perfect game?" Is a story that involves you, leading you to be anxious to "turn the next page," important? Wind Waker has it. Is a huge and fully realized world in which you can roam, with countless quests, ingenious levels and dozens of possible interactions significant? Wind Waker has that. Are fine graphics, character depictions, environmental sounds critical for your gaming enjoyment? Wind Waker has those. Is a gradual building of your hero's skills, accompanied by a gentle learning curve, desirable? Wind Waker exemplifies the best of that game involvement. Adventuring ... hero development ... variations of combat and fighting ... challenging and fun side quests ... a literate script enlivened by humor ... up to 50 hours of available playing time ... flawless control scheme ... Wind Waker has all of these. And needless to say, it's all tremendously entertaining!

Of the 300-plus games I have played, Zelda: Wind Waker ranks in my top three of all time. It's elegant, enchanting, engrossing, beautifully stylized, perfectly polished—a gaming work of art—a masterpiece. This game alone makes the GameCube a worthwhile purchase, becoming the most easily recommended game I have ever reviewed. The End

The Verdict

The Lowdown

Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Release Date: March 24, 2003

Available for: Game Cube

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