We’ve heard the confident, unyielding refrain for 10 years now: “The Wind Waker’s visuals will never age!”
Yes, but what about the game itself?
Even those who’ve never played the 2003 GameCube original have likely heard about the infamous late-game Triforce-shard quest that slowed the proceedings to a crawl, but I always scratched my head at that being the chief complaint among players. For me, The Wind Waker’s problems started far earlier than that.
They began an hour into the game, in fact, during what has to be one of the least-enjoyable opening segments of any major Nintendo release I’ve ever played. I don’t know if Shigeru Miyamoto engaged Hideo Kojima in some drunken bet over dinner in Kyoto—“Ha! You think stealth is hard? Watch me shove it into the next Zelda for no particular reason!”—but whatever the cause, Wind Waker begins in earnest with a stealth segment in which an unarmed, helpless Link, recast as some green-clad Solid Snake, has to sidle around a convoluted fortress and disable searchlights to make it to the top of a tower.
It’s a segment that might have worked a little better halfway through the game, though it would’ve been greatly unwelcome even then. But at the start, when you can’t wait to start slashing, rolling, and spinning as Link? It’s simply unbearable. I still recall putting down The Wind Waker in frustration several times over the course of a few weeks and trying to pick it up again, only to be utterly disgusted at the very sight of the fortress. I eventually persevered, but it left a rotten taste in my mouth at the start—and the same thing happened again a decade later.
Imagine if the old man at the start of the original Legend of Zelda had instead told Link, “It’s dangerous to go alone! …Well, good luck out there, kid. Maybe you’ll find a blade in a couple of hours!” That’s what Wind Waker’s first few hours feel like, and 10 years have only exacerbated the design flaws.
And that’s why The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD, for all of its excellent high spots—and there are certainly plenty—can be a frustrating endeavor for the modern gamer. It’s filled with epic confrontations, intriguing exploration on the high seas, and charming characters and locales—but it’s also a game that director Eiji Aonuma would, by his own admission, likely make differently today.
It’s telling that when playing through the GameCube version of The Wind Waker in preparation for the HD project, Aonuma and his staff realized how user-unfriendly some segments were—and they did all they could to improve upon them. Most of these tweaks relate to the bulk of the game: navigating The Wind Waker’s vast ocean. This HD version shortens the salvaging animation by several seconds, adds a Swift Sail available for purchase at Windfall Island’s auction house (which allows you to go in any direction you wish and bypass the hassle of changing the wind’s direction with the titular baton), and streamlines the notorious search for Triforce shards at the bottom of the ocean. Minor changes can even be felt during the dungeons, where tightened-up animations generally make exploration faster and more enjoyable.
While all of these little fixes are welcome, it’s the big flaws in Wind Waker that still stand out and come off as dated. Aside from the awful opening stealth segment and the ill-advised back-to-back escort-centric dungeons (remember, this was nearly two years before Ashley Graham and Resident Evil 4 galvanized the gaming community to declare that we’d finally had enough of escort missions), the sea still feels more barren that it should, and there’s an empty hole mid-game that really deserves to be filled. You can really feel the portions of the experience where two dungeons were famously cut—and fans will be crushed to know they aren’t returning here (Aonuma has said it wasn’t a possibility, since this content was eventually used in later Zelda titles).
Outside of those glaring issues—some of which were obvious even at the time of the original release—The Wind Waker stands up remarkably well for a 10-year-old game. As expected—and predicted—the cartoony, cel-shaded visuals and spectacular art direction hold up just fine. In fact, while the HD improvements seen here are impressive, I went back and checked the original game, and I was surprised at how much of what wowed me on the Wii U was also present in the GameCube original. Sure, if you have some allergic reaction to bloom lighting, you might have some issues with what Nintendo’s done, but as an HD upgrade, this is about as good as it gets.
And once the game removes the artificial barriers a few hours in and just lets you explore, The Wind Waker truly shines. It’s no accident that after its initial lukewarm reception, fans pined for the expressive visuals and distinct gameplay found here. Twilight Princess felt like more of the same, but The Wind Waker—to this day—feels like no other Zelda experience. It may not be as accessible as Ocarina of Time or as expertly paced as the original NES incarnation, but perhaps more than any entry in the series, The Wind Waker comes across as a wholly original adventure. If you’ve played it before, it’s still a joy to experience again with the enhancements, and if you’ve never given the game a shot, this is definitely the version to go with. It’s one Zelda game that every fan should play to completion, in spite of the flaws.
Several design flaws are noticeable a decade after the original release, but with a host of minor, welcome gameplay tweaks and a gorgeous HD upgrade, this is the definitive version of perhaps the most original Zelda adventure.
E10+ – Everyone 10+
|The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD is available on Wii U. Primary version played was for Wii U. Code/hardware was provided by Nintendo for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.|