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• The Legend of Zelda – The Wind Waker HD

developed & published by Nintendo
1 player / Nintendo Wii U / 2013.9.20

Wind Waker HD artwork

Having just completed The Legend of Zelda – Breath of the Wild, I wondered how well The Wind Waker would hold up. Originally released on the Game Cube in 2003, the HD remaster arrived on the Wii U a decade later. Not only was it easy to get back into, in doing so I was struck by how many of its ideas blossomed in Breath of the Wild.

Link stops to chat with a fish in Wind Waker HD

Formative Concepts

The Wind Waker features a seamless open world to explore, the first in a 3D Zelda title, albeit separated into islands in a vast ocean. The islands are home to two races first introduced here: the bird-like Rito and the tree-like Koroks. With such a large ocean to fill, the designers copy-pasted enemy bases, lookout towers, giant squids, and submarines. These give the player something optional to do in between islands.

The two games also share several key game mechanics. You have a stamina meter for swimming, and the Korok Leaf functions as a fan and a glider (limited by magic). Link can also disarm his enemies and steal their weapons, which can be thrown. All of the above was more or less reworked to great effect in Breath of the Wild.

One thing you can do in The Wind Waker that you can’t do in Breath of the Wild is swing from ropes. That, and the ability to latch onto something with the grappling hook and then climb up or down the rope isn’t done often, but it could have been interesting in a game like Breath of the Wild. Another interesting idea that is underused are the “cooperative” dungeons (where you can take control of an ally to complete puzzles and explore).

Inspired settings in Wind Waker HD

Imaginative settings straight out of an animated film set this game apart

Changes & Fixes

Many complaints with the game’s pacing have been addressed. Small changes speed up routine tasks, like salvaging treasure which takes just a quarter of the time it used to. The three most important changes are to the Triforce Hunt, the Picto Box and sailing in general.

In the HD version the Triforce Hunt has been shortened, with 5 of the 8 pieces now obtained where you’d normally find a chart that led to that piece. The Picto Box now holds 12 photos instead of 3, and an icon shows if your photos can work in the Nintendo Gallery (a neat model viewer). Most importantly the auction’s Swift Sail cuts sailing time in half and when deployed always puts the wind at your back, so you don’t have to conduct the wind every time you want to change direction.

Other changes feel pretty unnecessary. There’s new Tingle Bottles which contain messages from Nintendo’s failed social network (that can be disabled). And there’s various Game Pad stuff like touch-based equipment management and gyroscopic controls for the bow and arrow, but these changes don’t really improve the game.

Allies help Link in his quest

The bird-like Rito make their first appearance

Stormy Seas

One of my biggest complaints could be fixed very easily, but wasn’t. You’re likely to miss a few treasure charts or heart pieces by the end of the game, and finding them is like looking for a needle in a haystack. You can get maps that show you the locations of lookout towers, submarines, heart pieces, and so on, but these maps don’t automatically cross off the ones you’ve conquered! Completionists lacking a photographic memory will have to spend hours methodically revisiting every location to find those last few trinkets, when the maps themselves could have easily solved this dilemma.

Expressive characters in Wind Waker HD

Some Blemishes Won’t Go Away

The Wind Waker was originally rushed to publication to spur sales of the floundering Game Cube console. Ironically, its pre-order bonus (a disc that contains four Zelda games given away for free) could have been sold on shelves. This would have allowed Nintendo the time needed to polish it, and made a nice profit too. Similar to how the Wii U’s Zelda HD remasters were sold to satiate fans as they waited for Breath of the Wild. But that didn’t happen.

Unfortunately the ramifications are still being felt years later with this HD remaster. The Zoras, the aquatic Zelda race, barely put in a cameo. The fire and ice isles are disappointing single room affairs that barely qualify as mini-dungeons. Jabu Jabu, the giant fish, seems underused. And the Ghost Ship (which should be one of the highlights of the game) is just another enemy submarine in disguise. The final dungeon is basically just a boss rush, but it at least has a satisfying final confrontation that feels like several bosses in one. With hindsight being 20/20, these shortcomings are more apparent and it’s a shame we are left wondering “what could have been”.

Art direction inspired by Toei animated films

Character maquettes from The Little Prince and The Eight Headed Dragon

Presentation

The Wind Waker is arguably the most controversial game in the Zelda pantheon, all because of its art direction. It was shocking when it was first revealed, but it didn’t take long to grow on me. The designers gave the Zelda universe an entirely new visual identity, inspired by classic Toei animated films from the 1960s (see Wanpaku Oji no Orochi Taiji aka The Little Prince and the Eight Headed Dragon). Sadly the most recent release of this stunning looking film was on DVD and in Japan only.

The characters, creatures, and settings are full of exaggerated personality and thanks to their cartoony designs they haven’t aged a day compared to games that chase photorealism. This stylistic choice probably wouldn’t have riled anyone had Nintendo revived its Kid Icarus series with it instead. As a Zelda fan it’s neat to view it through this peculiar lens, and it looks great in HD.

An odd issue is that at certain times the lighting that creates the cel-shading seems to switch off, leaving a dull smooth-shaded appearance. This is most noticeable when Link holds up an item from a treasure chest, and in the dimly lit places like the auction house. Another small issue that becomes more noticeable in the HD remaster is that the character’s mouths don’t move when speaking.

Link meets with Jabu Jabu

Conclusion

It will take a larger commitment from Nintendo for The Wind Waker to reach its full potential. As is, this HD remaster remains merely “good”. In the future, Nintendo could entice fans to take a third dip in the pool by restoring the original plans for the Ghost Ship (and others). Some significant changes were made to Majora’s Mask 3D, so anything is possible.

Though I have focused on the negatives in this review, I would honestly rather play The Wind Waker than most new releases. Even having just finished Breath of the Wild, it wasn’t difficult to adjust to The Wind Waker’s quirks. When judged next to its contemporaries Kingdom Hearts, Samurai Legend Musashi, or Dark Cloud 2, it beats them all hands-down. The HD version irons out some minor irritations, it looks sharp, and deserves a place in your Wii U collection.

PROs:
+ A visual marvel, truly an interactive cartoon
+ Several issues (Triforce Hunt, etc) have been addressed
+ Introduced new game mechanics, races, and creatures
+ “Nintendo Gallery” model viewer is cool (sadly missing in others)

CONs:
– Sense of incompleteness carries over from Game Cube era
– Maps don’t show what objectives have been completed
– Trading mini-game is probably the worst in the Zelda series

 

Official website
Iwata Asks: The Wind Waker HD
Official website (Nintendo)