I confess that no matter what happens in this review, a little bias may shine through (hey, that rhymed). You see, I adore The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. It has been for many years, and will likely always be, my all-time favourite videogame. I know some people found it too easy, and people hated the sailing, and the main quest was too short, and many other things that we’ll get to later; but for me, a little lad no older than ten, it encapsulated a sense of wonder and exploration that the series has never quite managed to replicate sense. I know that’s exactly how a lot of older fans feel about the original Zelda, or for A Link to the Past; but for me it’s The Wind Waker – with its expansive oceans and endless sense of discovery on the high seas – that is the high point for the series.
Stick a ten year old kid into the middle of a huge ocean, dotted with islands, and he’s gonna have a whale of a time (no pun intended… actually, pun intended). I think a lot of people felt that there wasn’t much to the Great Sea, but I disagree. Every island had at least one secret hidden away. Every square of the map had a pirate base to be raided, a submarine to be plundered, or a watchtower to conquer. Almost every inch of the ocean had a treasure or a monster lurking at the bottom of it, and I loved it. I used to play Wind Waker at least once every year. No matter how many times I uncovered all of its secrets, it wasn’t long before I was ready to jump back in and go again.
So you can imagine my joy when Nintendo announced that they were remaking my all time favourite game in HD with new features. Now, a year after its release, I eagerly booted it up hoping that none of the game’s capacity to charm and delight had been lost. Would it survive the transition intact? Would it feel too similar to the original? These questions and concerns – and plenty more – ran through my mind as I waited for the game to start.
Thankfully I needn’t have worried, because The Wind Waker HD is bloody wonderful. I may have played the game from start to finish about a dozen times before, but standing on Outset Island in shiny new high definition, I couldn’t wait to go through it all over again. There are a couple of ever-so-small wrinkles to the sailcloth, but Nintendo has done an excellent job of taking a game from two generations ago and bringing it bang up to date for a new audience.
As I started the latest version of the game for the first time, one thing struck me: even with the HD treatment, the game doesn’t look hugely different. The original Wind Waker was easily one of the best looking games of its era and holds up well today; but while there have been some subtle changes here and there, this is still largely the same game you remember fondly in your rose-tinted memories. Sure, the world looks a little brighter, the sea looks deeper and the sky looks bluer – but those cel-shaded visuals remain just as great to look at now as they were back then. The big difference is that now you can experience everything in full 1080p.
Mention should be made here of that much-debated change to the lighting engine which proved so controversial, with fans arguing over whether it was an improvement, or whether it detracted from the game’s living-cartoon aesthetic. In reality, while you can definitely notice the difference – characters look a bit more 3D now as a result of the changes – its not something you’ll spend your playthrough being bothered about. In fact, you’ll hardly notice it after a while.
Wind Waker offers quite possibly the greatest and most heartfelt Zelda yarn to date. The basic presmise is simple: you take control of a young kid who sails across the world to save his sister. That’s essentially it. At the start, there’s no great conquest, or princess to save – just that simple, single, relatable concept of crossing the ocean to save somebody you love. The world becomes deeper and grander once you care about it enough, and Nintendo definitely makes you care about this version of Link and the (largely) ocean-covered Hyrule he finds himself in. In a genius storytelling move from Nintendo, they get you invested with a more personal tale before expanding the story to epic proportions, with plenty of twists along the way. As a series, The Legend of Zelda can hardly be accused of ever offering the deepest of tales – essentially it’s a simple re-telling of the same basic story with each installment; but its stories have always been delivered with warmth and sense of fun about them (aside from the unusually depressing Majora’s Mask).
Of course, a great story wouldn’t mean much without a great cast of characters to play it out. Besides being the most expressive Link we’ve ever seen, he has two whole family members, both of which are fully realized characters instead of just a random man who appears at the start (cough, Link to the Past). Returning to your home for the first time about halfway through the game to find Link’s grandmother basically sick from worry and loneliness is genuinely upsetting, and shockingly deep stuff for what many initially wrote off as a Zelda for kiddies when it was initially announced all those years ago. Then there’s Ganondorf, who is easily more interesting in this game than he has ever been, a fantastic and comedic cast of pirates, and tons of NPC’s with intricate side-quests and back stories for you to discover, like the girl who fell in love with a Moblin, or a weird emo guy who likes to look at the moon. Seriously, where is my Disney Pixar-produced Wind Waker movie, Nintendo? Get on it.
None of this would matter a jot if the gameplay isn’t up to snuff of course. While it rarely deviates far from the established template, The Wind Waker HD improves on an already brilliant system. Combat is endlessly fun and never becomes stale. Link’s arsenal has never been better, or more rewarding to use, and everything flows flawlessly in combat. Within seconds you can freeze an enemy with an ice arrow and then shatter them apart with the hammer, or steal the treasure from around their necks with your grappling hook and let ’em have it with the Master Sword. No matter how you take out an enemy, it’s always satisfying. Some of the best moments are reserved for the dungeons. The boss battles are all series stand-outs (including that final scrap with Ganon). Playing on the Wii U also means that swapping out items and consulting your map has never been easier. It was never going to be too difficult to update the controls for the gamepad, and using the gamepad’s screen for inventory and map functions might seem unimaginative, but it works well and does at least mean that you don’t have to pause the action to navigate through menus. You can aim the bow using the controller’s gyroscopic sensors as well, which is a nice little touch.
With so much water to traverse, sailing obviously features rather heavily in The Wind Waker. Originally, some players grumbled that it took too long to get anywhere, and that the game’s pacing suffered as a result. Not to worry – sailing is the single standout aspect of this game that has been massively improved. In the Gamecube version, every time you wanted to change direction while sailing you had to stop, play a song on your Wind Waker and change the direction of the wind yourself. Mercifully, the HD edition has a swift sail available to purchase after a certain point in the story. The Swift Sail not only doubles sailing speed, but does away with the pesky need to change the direction of the wind every time you take a wrong turn. I always adored travelling across the sea anyway, but with this new feature – and being able to consult the gamepad without stopping to confirm where in Hyrule you are – hopefully the naysayers can finally enjoy this game. Nintendo also cut down on the cumbersome Triforce fetch quest by doing away with entire segments. Personally, I was disappointed by this, as I enjoyed trawling the high seas on a lengthy treasure hunt. But in this regard, I’ll concede my judgement may very well be clouded by nostalgia, and I understand why Nintendo felt the need to cut it down.
Other changes made include raising the starting limit on Rupees, faster animations for the grappling hook, and unlocking Hero mode – a more difficult version of the game – from the outset, negating the need to complete the story first before giving yourself a sterner challenge. In the absence of the Game Boy Advance functionality in the original, a new feature allows you to send messages to the Miiverse community asking for help about what you need to do next, while a new item, the Picto Box, allows you to take screenshots – including selfies, complete with a small number of facial expressions to choose from. These can then also be posted on Miiverse.
I hate to sound like an over-privileged, whiny gamer, but the one area I always found lacking in Wind Waker was the number of dungeons. With only five proper dungeons to explore, it was disappointing in the original release and sadly it remains so here. Every time I play the HD edition I can’t help but see this as a missed opportunity (they could have been optional so as not to disrupt the flow of the game). Nintendo has previously stated that the two dungeons which were cut during developed later cropped up in some form elsewhere, namely the disappointing Twilight Princess, but there’s no denying that Wind Waker feels rather short compared to other games in the series – particularly given the changes to the Triforce quest. There’s still plenty to do mind, and even a short Zelda game is longer than many other titles released these days, but there was the opportunity here to add something a bit more substantial, and it’s a shame that Nintendo didn’t take it.
You could just call me selfish though. By the time you reach the end of the Link’s latest adventure, you’ll wish it didn’t have to end. From beginning to end, every moment of The Wind Waker HD is a joy. It’s certainly one of Nintendo’s best games (queue controversy), and the HD remake has added some glorious improvements and an excellent lick of new paint. Now it’s not only one of the publisher’s best games, it’s stands tall as being one of the best games available on the Wii U. There isn’t much I wouldn’t do to spend just a little more time in one of Link’s most vibrant and epic worlds, and the next game in the series will have to be truly special to surpass the simple pleasures of simply sailing around Hyrule.
The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker is one of the most charming, inventive, and heartfelt games that I’ve ever played, and now it looks (and plays) better than ever. Any self-respecting Wii U owner should consider it an essential purchase.