The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker
Players: 1 Player Game | Release Date: 03/24/03 | Genre: Action/RPG
The Legend of Zelda games are probably subject to more scrutiny than any other series of games. There is no doubt that people had extremely high hopes for Link's next adventure on GameCube. When Nintendo first revealed the surprising new graphical style, reactions in America were varied and extreme much more so than in Japan. A few people immediately loved it, some people were curious. They found it pretty interesting, but still shocking at the same time. However, most American gamers outright hated it with a passion. Over the following year or so, the extreme hatred towards it died down. There are still those who are hardnosed about it, but most people have come to accept the new graphical style, if not understand and appreciate it.
The debates still go on now, especially since American gamers can finally experience it for themselves, but for the most part, it's still recognized as a Zelda game, which to most gamers, means that it's a must-own game, regardless of the graphics. Right off of the bat I'd have to say that The Wind Waker delivers. If you're on the fence about this game, I urge you to read on as I explain why this game is definitely worth your time, especially if you have liked any of the previous Zelda games.
I think Nintendo has succeeded in creating the most atmospheric game to date, and that really does start with the graphics. Technically, whether you like the style or not, it can't be denied that The Wind Waker's graphics are amazing. There has never been a game with such a good looking cel shading engine. Still screenshots of the game really do look like a cartoon, and that shows just how advanced the cel shading in the game is. The lighting and shading effects are pretty amazing. They really do provide that cartoon/comic book feel. The shadows are pretty much perfect, but we've come to expect real-time dynamic shadows in most games now. I would like to note that multiple light sourcing is not perfect in The Wind Waker. While multiple light sources work fine on the surrounding environment, they are not completely accurate when acting on characters and objects. For instance, if there are two torches near Link, when Link is between them, you will only notice lighting effects from the torch closest to Link. When Link moves beyond the half-way point between the torches to the other torch, then the lighting on his body will abruptly change. However, you won't really notice this very often. Another rough spot shows up when examining some of the environment textures. For the most part, everything is consistent with the style of the game. However, there are a few textures that are a little too blurry, and they look out of place in what is supposed to be a crisp cartoon world. An example of this that most people will notice is the texture for vines that cling to a building's wall. There are a few other textures like this as well. I fear that I'm being too nitpicky though. This is definitely the best cel shading technology ever seen in a game.
All of the characters are beautifully animated. I think EAD has always excelled at character animation. The animation in The Wind Waker compliments the graphical style perfectly. Link and the enemies are so lively that it just helps draw you into the world that much more. Self shadowing, a variety of facial expressions, and texture details add to it all. Despite what you might expect with cel shading, characters and environments are filled with detail. From the way incoming waves leave wet sand on the beach to the way Link's hood flaps in the wind, Hyrule is just so full of detail that there are nearly endless little things one could stop and admire.
The graphical effects don't end their though. The Wind Waker features plenty of image refraction and reflection. One example is heat shimmering caused by fires or lava. Another effect that is used a lot is depth-of-field blur. Contrary to what you might think, the blur in the distance is not there to ease the graphical stress on the GameCube hardware. In fact, depth-of-field blur is a special graphical effect just like image refraction or reflection. You may remember that Star Fox Adventure used depth-of-field blur to create the impression of a realistic camera that focuses on subjects at different distances. It worked quite well in Star Fox. However, it seems to bother most people in The Wind Waker. The reason that they did use the depth-of-field blur is because of the incredible draw distance. When too much area (at a distance) is in view, it looks too un-natural if everything is sharply in focus. It even gives some people headaches. So depth-of-field blur is used to make things look more natural. However, it still bothers many people. Most people will get used to it fairly quickly, but it would have helped if the distance that the blur occurred at was lengthened. Honestly though, you get used to it within the first hour or two of the game.
The Wind Waker also sports a great particle system. That is really important because particle effects help to show the player how the wind is blowing. The main things that make the particle effects so good are the variety and the quantity of particles. Ashes, leaves, grass and more ride the wind and further help to animate this lively world. Wind Waker keeps the framerate at 30 fps for the most part, but there are a few moments where a large number of enemies and/or numerous special effects on screen at the same time cause the framerate to drop a little. It only happens a very few times though.
The physics in The Wind Waker have significantly improved over the last 3D Zelda game. Much of the improvements are just little details to admire and do not significantly affect gameplay. Pots can tumble and roll over in a gust of wind, small bits of rope attached to a platform move realistically as the platform moves, dishes can be knocked over, and there are still more little details like these. It all helps to make the game world feel less static and livelier.
With Nintendo constantly touting its innovation and creativity, it begs the questions: What does cel shading make possible? Does it allow for new gameplay? Well, I wouldn't say that it creates innovations in gameplay specifically. What it does allow is for a great sense of atmosphere and an incredible amount of consistency. In games that are big and expansive, like Zelda, the situations that the main character is in can be wide and varied. For instance, in The Wind Waker, Link will be battling huge monsters, playing hide-and-seek, and sorting mail, among dozens of other activities. In games such as sports games, realistic graphics tend to hold up very well with the relatively confined set of activities that occur. However, in huge adventures, realistic graphics tend to break down at some point because we do not yet have the technology to keep everything consistent. So the main character might be modeled with tens of thousands of polygons and he might have near photographic textures, but his face always has the same ugly expression (*cough*Max Payne*ahem*), or maybe when the character enters the water and then exits, a few drops of water fall from his shirt and then 10 seconds later he's completely dry again. Or how about when you have to blow up an obstacle to progress? Usually the rock, door, or whatever that can be destroyed is painfully obvious. When you blow it up, the object breaks into several pieces and then they fade away. Meanwhile, the surrounding objects and environment remain in pristine condition save for a black splotch on the floor. I could go on and on. It's just the kind of thing we're used to, but imagine reading a great book, except that at the end of every page it said, "YOU ARE READING A BOOK." That is kind of what the limitations of realistic graphics are like. With the cartoon style, Nintendo has come much closer to making everything in the world consistent. It's not perfect, but I think it's the best so far. You can really get drawn into the world because so much of the reality can be abstractly represented with this cartoon style. From the animations, to the lighting effects, to even the way the water looks, there are very few things to break you from your involvement in the game. You can get wrapped up into it much more easily. It doesn't end with just the visuals though. Things like avoiding guards by sneaking around in an empty barrel, floating with a magical leaf, or violence (sword fighting, bombing) without gore just jive better in a cartoon world. For instance, when an enemy is defeated, his body disappears in a beautiful puff of smoke. It seems just fine in this cartoon world, where as realistic graphics would cause another inconsistency in the realism as you watch the body fade and disappear to save memory. Speaking of puffs of smoke, the game is highly stylized. Smoke, dust, steam, and sometimes fire are represented with swirling little clouds. In fact, you'll notice swirls everywhere. It is a visual theme in the game. Personally I like this touch. Explosions look beautiful, and within the game, everything feels like it's in the right context.
So regardless of whether or not you like the cel shading, it must be noted that it is both a great technical achievement, and it was very well executed. It's not just a cel shaded game. It's a highly stylized cel shaded game with much care and effort put into all of the little details. You cannot let the cel shading be your only roadblock to buying this game, or at least renting it. I am seriously seeing many, many turn-overs on Internet message boards. People accept the new visual style and still enjoy the game even if they don't like the graphics. I also think it's safe to say that most people who own the game actually like the graphics or at least are indifferent about it. The only people who hate the game haven't spent any time with it or don't like Zelda in general.
The sound in The Wind Waker is marvelous if you're not an audiophile. The composition is excellent. There is a good mix of original songs and remixes of past Zelda songs. You'll be humming some of the tracks long after playing. Audiophiles will notice that the quality of sound in the different musical tracks is not consistent. Some just sound better than others. MIDI-like sounds can be recognized in some of the music. Most players won't even notice it at all, but it's something audiophiles might be worried about. One cool addition is that during combat, each time Link strikes an enemy, a musical burst occurs that somehow manages to always compliment the background music that is already playing. It helps to make the battles seem more dramatic. I can't complain about the sound effects. There is a huge variety of sound effects to compliment the huge variety of enemies, characters, objects, and locales that Link will encounter.
The Wind Waker is classic Zelda with enough improvements and new elements to warrant the new adventure. Like previous Zelda games before it, The Wind Waker builds upon elements previously introduced in the series and adds several improvements as well as a new theme to make it unique. The plot and the supporting elements are the best seen so far in a Zelda game. That's not to say that this story rivals those in huge RPGs, but the story in The Wind Waker is much more involving than in past Zelda games, and it throws a few twists and surprises that are bound to please Zelda fans. The game also seems to convey emotion a lot better than in the past. Again, it's not like this is an Oscar-winning screenplay, but the great use of facial expressions and the way the story unfolds draws the player in much better than in past Zelda games. Although we all thought it was cool back then, please allow me to mock it a little now. In The Ocarina of Time, a giant sentient tree calls Link and basically tells him, "Link, I think that you're a child of destiny. Go on this huge adventure to save the world." The Wind Waker stands in a sharp contrast to this in the way it draws Link (and the player) into this huge adventure. As in all Zelda games, Link starts out in a friendly hometown. There are lots of opportunities to practice basic game controls and learn little hints and tips. In the Wind Waker, the players are introduced to Link as he wakes up on his 12th birthday, which is a significant milestone in his hometown. Link (the player) explores his village and receives birthday greetings from all of his neighbors and even receives special gifts from his grandmother and sister. You start to feel like you're a part of this small, peaceful town. Then, unexpectedly, a large bird being chased by pirates drops a girl into the forest that overlooks the village. It's a worrisome turn of events, but it's exciting at the same time. Link finds and rescues the girl, who turns out to be a pirate leader. The giant bird returns, but this time the bird mistakenly swoops up Link's sister and carries her out of sight. Thus, the adventure begins. Link sets off with the pirates in an attempt to rescue his sister. For some reason this just seems more adventurous and exciting. Link does not wake up one morning to be told, "Hey, here is a sword. Go get these mystical artifacts otherwise the world will be destroyed. Only you can do it!" Instead, it's more personal, and it makes more sense. Link sets off to rescue his sister. Little does he know that he will be drawn into a huge adventure as he discovers the plot behind his sister's kidnapping. I don't know about everyone else, but I found this to be much more exciting than past Zelda games.
The gameplay builds upon the basic staples of all Zelda games. Link must work his way through several dungeons in order to defeat some powerful creature inside that is causing problems. Each dungeon is filled with extremely clever puzzles and hordes of enemies to overcome. At the end of each dungeon, a huge boss enemy awaits. Throughout his adventure, Link will acquire a myriad of items with a wide range of functions. Examples of this are a grappling hook that allows Link to swing across gaps, bombs to blow stuff up, a boomerang, and even a camera to take pictures. There are many more items. In short, an item can be almost anything. The Wind Waker features a great mix of favorite items that appeared in past games, and all-new items that offer new abilities. Nintendo's level design is top-notch. You must use the items at your disposal in many clever ways to get more items, upgrade, and clear dungeons. Of course, The Wind Waker features a healthy amount of mini-games and side quests too. There is a lot to do. Mini-games include a mock version of Battleship, bidding at auctions, a boating course, and more. The obligatory trading sequence, camera missions, and Game Boy Advance secrets are just a few of the side quests. All of this is standard in a Zelda game.
Of course, The Wind Waker features the new theme of the wind. This helps set it apart from other Zelda games. Many of the dungeon puzzles involve the wind and the air. It's not just part of the title. You will see many puzzles that Link must correctly use the wind to solve. Of course, one of the things you'll notice right on the cover of the box is Link sailing in a boat. This is truly one of the coolest new elements in a Zelda game. Link no longer travels the lands of Hyrule, but rather, the seas of Hyrule. When we first played this game at E3, the fact that the over world was an ocean was not revealed yet. Sailing was showed off of as nothing more than a mini-game. In my preview, I speculated that if the ocean was the over world, Link could explore all kinds of ocean caves and mysterious islands. In fact, I dreamed that would be the case. I'm so glad it is. It's a new, exciting setting for a Zelda game. Sailing is very fun at first. The ocean is gigantic. To give you an idea, the ocean is divided into a 7x7 grid of squares. Each square takes about a minute to travel through under best wind conditions. The boat is not slow either. Sail by one of the larger town islands and you'll see that you'll pass by it in a matter of 30 seconds. I can't adequately describe it. I can only say that the ocean, the over world, is absolutely massive. When I say it's divided into 49 large squares, I only mean that is how it is represented on your map. The actual game world is seamless. This is amazing. You've never seen a game world this huge without breaking points or loading screens. It's just an incredibly amazing sight. You can start from one island on the western side of the map and sail directly across the whole map to an island on the eastern side. Everything is loaded on the fly. For the most part, you really can see as far as the eye can see. A small speck will show up on the horizon. As you sail towards it, you will start to see a silhouette of the island, but it is still very far away. As you sail closer and closer, the island comes into view. There is no pop-up or fade in, the island just comes into view as you would naturally expect. Now, in a few areas I did notice some pop-up for some smaller objects sitting on an island, but it is not very noticeable and it occurs when the island is still very far away. You're only going to see it a few times. Sailing away from an island is just a reversal of this process. You can turn the camera around to see the island shrink into the distance behind you. The ocean is realized with textures that perfectly accommodate the cartoon style. When you're out on the ocean, both the time and the weather change. It looks beautiful. The clouds also stretch to the horizon and slowly move with the wind. The rolling waves vary in size depending on the weather and your location. Try as I might, I couldn't see any polygon edges in the ocean waves either. When it is not calm, you experience rolling waves that look smooth and round, just like real waves in the middle of the ocean. It's amazing that you can't see polygon edges in the waves. In fact the water throughout all areas of the game looks perfect. It really does look like a cartoon. This big, expansive ocean does come at a price however. Nintendo wanted the ocean to be open and huge to make it really feel like an ocean rather than some confined game world. However, sailing will eventually get tedious. It's pretty fun while you still have unexplored areas to uncover. Each of the 49 squares has at least one island or structure, and each of these has at least one mystery to solve, game to play, or challenge to conquer. However, because the world is so large, sailing will become tedious once you have a known destination that you just want to get to, and you've already seen and done everything else in between. There are plenty of enemies on the ocean, but once you have fun fighting them a few times, they'll become an annoyance in your journey to a certain location. Like every Zelda game, there are warps, but depending on where you are going, you're still going to be spending a good amount of time sailing. It's hard to criticize the game for this though, because the idea of an ocean as an over world is fresh, and it would be pathetic if it wasn't the size that it is.
Early in the game, Link receives the Wind Waker, which is a magical conductor's baton. It serves the same purpose as the ocarina did for the Nintendo 64 games. It allows Link to play songs that cast magical spells. Probably the most important among these spells is the ability to control the direction of the wind. Although it is an interesting change at first, using the Wind Waker takes too much time and effort. I won't go into too much detail, but the C-stick must be pushed in certain directions to match the timing (not exactly) of a metronome. On the N64, the ocarina was played simply by pushing a combination of buttons. Once you learned the songs, you could play your ocarina very fast. However, in The Wind Waker, using the baton is too slow, no matter how well you have memorized the commands. You will have to use it hundreds of times during your adventure, and it will become a little tedious.
Aside from the overall theme of the wind, The Wind Waker upgrades the Zelda franchise with many small new additions to almost every aspect of the game. The controls are nearly identical to the N64 games, and that's great because the controls work wonderfully. There is one new addition with the C-stick. It can be used as a manual camera. Most of the time, you will still be using the lock-on targeting system, but now you have the option to manually zoom and pan the camera however you like. Not only does this help out with certain tasks (for instance, it may be useful to get an overhead view or peek around a corner in certain situations), but it is also a lot of fun. Sometimes you'll want to just move the camera to get a more dramatic looking angle. You might want to watch the sun rise behind you as you sail towards the west, you might want to see the village below as you cross a lofty bridge, or you might want to see Links face as he pushes a block. The camera system allows for more dynamic control, and it's easy to revert back to the automatic camera when you need to.
The battle system has received several upgrades as well. Not only does link have more items that do a wider variety of things, but he's got some new sword moves too. Like the N64 games, to fight, you push the trigger button with your left index finger to lock on to an enemy. Then you can perform the same variety of sword attacks and defensive maneuvers. However there is a new maneuver that is quite cool. At a certain point, when the timing is just right, the A button icon will flash, and this is also accompanied by an audio cue and a little rumble. If you hit the A button during this moment, Link will perform a special attack that involves some cool acrobatic maneuvers. Also, you will face more enemies at once than in the past. You'll have to be on your toes too, because even if you're locked on one enemy, the other enemies won't be nice and wait their turn to attack you. You'll have to deal with all of them at the same time. However, in your favor, the enemies can accidentally attack each other too. Not only that, but intense fights can cause enemies to break nearby pots and topple surrounding objects as they swing their weapons or crash to the ground and into walls. Once an enemy is defeated or even just stunned, Link can pick up his weapon and use it himself. The enemies will frantically search for another weapon to use, and if they can't find one, they'll still go hand-to-sword with you. Most of the time, it is just gives Link a little extra power and is just kind of fun. Sometimes though, these weapons will be used as tools to solve puzzles. There are still yet more improvements and additions to the franchise, such as the fact that Link can now swing on ropes or steal items from enemies. They are mostly all minor improvements, but I could ramble on endlessly about all of the new things.
Some are claiming that The Wind Waker is too easy compared to previous Zelda games. I think they are basing it on the fact that you probably won't come close to dying. It is true that the combat in The Wind Waker is easier than in past games. Part of this is due to the fact that Link takes less damage from attacks than in previous games. A second reason is that Link will get a better variety of weapons sooner in his quest. By using the right weapons, it's very easy to avoid taking damage from enemies. The enemies don't really even have a chance when you repeatedly stun them. So the combat is easier. However, there are more factors to game difficulty than just how often you will die. In fact, dieing in most modern games doesn't even really mean anything since you can save anywhere, and there are no levels really. One other factor in game difficulty is how long it will take you to figure out puzzles. How many things do you have to try before you get it right? Can you find all of the upgrades and complete the side quests without using a guide? In these areas, I think The Wind Waker is about par with the rest of the series. Combat is easier, but that's only one aspect of the game. You can't progress through the game by beating up baddies. You still have to conquer a maze of dungeons and master all of your items. There are many side quests, heart pieces, and other upgrades to discover. None of this is easier than other Zelda games.
The Wind Waker also features awesome connectivity features with the Game Boy Advance. Using a GBA (no extra software required), players can connect the GameCube and the handheld together and download a Tingle program to their Game Boy Advance. Tingle is an odd character first encountered in Majora's Mask. One player can switch between using Tingle and playing the GameCube, but it is really meant to be played with two players simultaneously. Tingle has a variety of helpful abilities to help out the player who is controlling Link on the GameCube. On the GBA screen, you will see a map of the current area, and menus that allow you to access Tingle's abilities and help screens. For a modest sum of Link's rupees (game's currency), Tingle can perform actions like dropping a bomb (even before Link has acquired them), protecting Link with a magic shield, allowing Link to walk on air for a short time and more. The map on the GBA is updated in real time and shows enemy locations as well as points of interest. It offers hints about what to do, it points out areas that might hold a secret, and there are even a few secrets that only Tingle can reveal. On the TV screen, an icon represents Tingle's location and it is also updated in real time. The actions of the GBA player are immediately shown on the TV screen in the GameCube game. There are even a few little games that can be played to earn rupees. For instance, in the major town island, Windfall Island, Tingle might ask the player to start a kind of scavenger hunt. Clues will be displayed on the GBA and the GBA player must relay these clues to the person playing Link on the GameCube. The GameCube player must take Link to the locations described by the clues, and when complete, he can find some rupees. Of course, for the most part, using Tingle makes the game easier. This is ideal for younger players. Two younger players can work together and use the extra clues that Tingle provides to solve problems that they may not have been able to do otherwise. Also, as I mentioned, there are a few items and other secrets that only Tingle can reveal, so everyone should at least try it out. Although most gamers don't want to make the game easier, this GBA connectivity is still a great addition to The Wind Waker because it is a very creative and innovative use of connectivity between the handheld and the console. This is really a great example of how the connectivity should be applied. Unlocking data is okay, trading data between GBA and GameCube games is even better, but what EAD did with The Wind Waker the GBA is great. It's completely original.
Old Zelda games have stood the test of time, and I believe that the Wind Waker will too. It will definitely be a classic. It takes all of the best elements of previous Zelda games and applies them perfectly. Then, in addition, it adds several new improvements and addition to nearly every aspect of the game, from the battles, to the camera, to the new object physics, and more. I don't think anyone even remotely interested in this game should worry about the gameplay design. Many are saying it's the best Zelda yet, and at the very least, it is in the same league with the rest of the series.
If people are worried about anything, it's most likely the graphics. All I can offer is this: The visual style is executed so well that you have to at least appreciate the design and technology. You may not like the way Link looks, but just try it out. I'm sure it will grow on you. Link, and all characters are just as capable of showing fear, anger, and determination, as much as they are capable of showing happiness, surprise, dizziness, and other silly things. I have always thought of Zelda games as light hearted with serious moments. The past games have their fair share of silly villagers, mini-games, and up beat times. Zelda is not all about slogging through the bowels of the earth and slaying monsters. The new visual style helps express both extremes believably more than ever before. Of course this game is not perfect, but all complaints are nitpicky compared to the excellence that spills out of this game. They probably wouldn't even be mentioned if this wasn't the Zelda franchise. It's the only franchise that deserve this much scrutiny. A game can't really be much better than this. If you don't think so, then 3D Zelda is just not your thing.
For special details on the Master Quest bonus disc, check out this article.