"It's at this point, where you're wondering if you should just grit your teeth and sail against the wind or play the baton again, that you start scratching your head and wondering if something is wrong. The answer, of course, is 'yes.' This one little flaw, repeated into perpetuity, is enough to seriously interfere with your enjoyment of what otherwise is a stunning experience."
It's hard to recall a game that got more attention to its graphics in the months prior to its release than The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. The latest entry in the storied franchise, this title has been on the lips of fanboys, retailers, journalists, and inmates for months, ever since the stunning revelation at the 2002 E3 that Link would not be realistic like everyone was expecting, but would instead look like a cartoon. Now the game is here, the buzz has died down, and a few people have begun discussing and praising the gameplay rather than focusing their attention on the graphics. The whole graphics debacle could soon be a distant memory, it seems. But now that we're past that, what about gameplay? Does The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker live up to its grand heritage, is it a disaster, or is it somewhere in between? Read on.
Any sober fan of the series over seven will tell you that The Legend of Zelda has always been about gameplay over graphics. That's not to say that visuals have not been given attention by the developers. Quite the opposite. Every detail in past iterations has been handled with the fine strokes of an artist intent on painting his final masterpiece. And that's no different here. The cel shaded approach allows for some truly innovative advancements in the realm of character personality, at least for the franchise. In the video gamers saw at E3, Link crept through dungeons, avoided detection by Moblins, and grinned as those enemies pursuing him plummeted to what one might presume were their deaths in a bottomless pit. That scene isn't here now, and the cartoony spirit seems to have been muffled just a bit. However, the cartoon influence remains.
When Link wanders into a dungeon, he looks curious as to what might lie ahead of him (as well he should). When he defeats a boss, he dances a little jig that will make you laugh in spite of yourself, provided you have a soul. And there are other little touches throughout. Watch Link grimace as he's about to be blasted onto an island from a pirate ship, or see his eyes bug out when he misses a sword stroke and hits the rock behind his opponent. Throughout the game, it's the attention to the fine details that will amaze you at every twist and turn. Better yet, this extends past Link, to the cast of lively characters with which he interacts, to the enemies themselves as they maliciously try to end the life of everyone's favorite young adventurer.
Visual splendor isn't limited to characters, though. With the exception of the surprisingly bland--but still very cool when you crest a swelling wave and plunge forward to the next wave--ocean, details abound. Pillars have several colors, depending on the light reflecting from them. Ashes swirl amidst puffs of smoke. Walls rise into darkness above, or to a forest canopy, or wherever else they may need to go. Each of the dungeons Link explores has a unique look, one you're sure to appreciate. Truly, graphics are a highlight of this game.
Sound is pleasant, too. When you first see the title screen, you're likely hoping for that familiar melody from early titles in the franchise. It's not there. But as your disappointment builds and tears form in the corner of your eyes, suddenly everything returns. That's the moment you break into tears and reach for the tissue. It's so beautiful, so familiar. Also familiar are the various sounds your opponents make. The clank of the sword sounds about like it always has, though perhaps a little bit crisper thanks to the GameCube's improved audio capabilities. Thanks to that increased ability, the game is also able to present itself in surround sound. It's fun to hear something crackling to the right, turn, and see that the sound sourcing was nearly perfect. Nowhere is this more evident than when you hear the hum of a treasure chest while out on the seas, and you find where it is just by sound. Truly, audio is another highlight.
But as stated earlier, it's not graphics that make a game, nor is it the sound. What truly makes us play again is the gameplay itself (that or desperation because the game is the only one in our collection). It's here that The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker falters.
See, this game is a definite twist from the normal. As the story explains, this is a world of islands. There are connections to the Hyrule you know and love if you've played past titles in the series, but for the most part this feels like a new world. The main contributor to that is the massive ocean you'll have to explore. Everywhere you turn, there's water and more water. And then when you're done exploring that, there's still more. Islands are spaced out enough that a quick sail from one to the next really isn't possible. Early in the game, you'll likely spend several hours just getting from point 'A' to point 'B' and back. At first, this is fine. You can marvel at the waves, the way the boat isn't so much controlled as the sail is as you interact with the wind. But eventually, this grows tiresome. And about the time it does, you find you've only touched the tip of the liquid iceberg. No matter how good you are, about half the time you spend playing this game will be spent on the water. If you suck or if you want to collect everything from each tiny nook and cranny the game boasts, prepare for that percentage to double.
Perhaps sailing deserves a little more description. Early in the game, you acquire your own boat. This vessel is a companion so much as it is anything. It talks to you, directs you where next to go, and devilishly docks itself a few feet from wherever you left it just so Link has to jump into the water and swim over to where it awaits him. Before you can really sail somewhere, you have to find a sail. This isn't all that hard, and soon you're in control. You're also in possession of what's called The Wind Waker, from which the game obviously derives its name.
This instrument is the game's equivalent of what many people will tell you was the superior ocarina featured in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time for the Nintendo 64. It allows you to change from day to night, access new dungeons, warp around the seas (about 2/3 of the way through the game and no sooner), and perhaps most importantly change the direction the wind is blowing. This is accomplished by pressing the button you've assigned it to, then tilting the left analog stick in the appropriate direction while you rotate the 'c' stick as the song you are playing dictates. This is more difficult than playing the ocarina was in this game's predecessor, and some players find themselves annoyed early in the game. The real problem is that one is constantly forced to bring out the wind waker in order to advance.
Most frequently, you'll find yourself despising the wind waker when you're off on a trip to collect one series of items or another (more on that momentarily). As an example, let's suppose you're looking for two treasures on a map. They're several squares apart, which early on means about 5 minutes of sailing. You head toward one and the wind isn't blowing in the right direction. No problem. You whip out the wind waker, conduct your little song like the merry little Hylian you are, and everything's golden. With the wind at your back, you sail northwest. 3 minutes later, you're near the treasure. As you sail, you see yourself coming up on a glowing patch over the water. Quickly, you pull down your sail. As you near it, the patch vanishes, so you're left guessing approximately where it is (that or consulting your map every 5 seconds). Your boat goes a little further than you wanted, and now you're left pushing against the wind as you try and get back into position. Then you do and after perhaps 30 seconds to a minute of struggling, you've pulled up the treasure and scored a Heart Piece, or 200 rupees, or whatever the object of your affection may be. So it's time to get the next, only now you have to use the wind waker again because the wind is working against you. It's at this point, where you're wondering if you should just grit your teeth and sail against the wind or play the baton again, that you start scratching your head and wondering if something is wrong. The answer, of course, is 'yes.' This one little flaw, repeated into perpetuity, is enough to seriously interfere with your enjoyment of what otherwise is a stunning experience.
The key word here is 'repeated.' Obviously, you don't start out annoyed with the system. But as time wears on and you're repeatedly exposed to these same elements, these tiny spurts of only minor annoyance, it suddenly grows extremely annoying every time the ship sails impishly past where you wanted it to stop. Gameplay must be restricted to a few hours if you happen to be on an item collecting campaign, lest you end up chucking the controller at the television screen or handing it over to your slobbering, hungry dog you've not fed for a while because you were collecting that piece of the Triforce.
And no, it's not a spoiler to say you collect the Triforce in this game. In fact, it's essential to mention it in order to explain the other area that hurts this game: the collecting. Now, it's true that The Legend of Zelda has always involved a fair amount of item collection. The first one had you collecting 8 pieces of the famed golden triangle to face Ganon, and here it's really no different...except first you have to collect 8 pieces of a map, then you have to collect enough rupees to pay someone to decipher them, and then you can go for the true goods. And of course, there are numerous heart pieces you must collect. More than ever before, in fact. Most of those are extremely difficult to obtain. Just getting them means collecting around 40 treasure maps or so, which are also a pain to collect. Are you seeing a trend here? When someone tells you it's possible to spend 60 hours with this 'lengthy' game, he's not lying. The problem is that most of that length is of the type that has even Rare taking notes. As far as real meat goes, this game doesn't have a lot.
Which is the third and final flaw: this game is just too short if you exclude all the sailing and item collection. When the game begins, all looks rosy. You complete a few little missions, you finish 3 true dungeons, and things are really heating up. Your pulse is pounding. This is a sweet game! Then you talk to a friend and suddenly, your world crashes in. You learn that you're 2/3 of the way through the game. There are, in fact, a total of only 6 true dungeons, and a few somewhat lengthy stops (think Ice Cave from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time) on the way.
Fortunately, each of those dungeons is quite cool. Prepare to spend around 2 to 3 hours conquering each one your first time through, if you insist on finding every treasure chest and such. And the dungeons are somewhat challenging. The puzzles are all similar to what you've seen in the past if you played Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask, but they're well-executed just the same. Switches must be pressed, arrows shot, bombs heaved. You'll also do a bit of backtracking as you switch frequently from one floor to the next in search of the dungeon's item that will let you go back and take a new path to the Boss Key and to the boss itself.
Speaking of bosses, they're another of the game's highlights. In fact, these are arguably the best the franchise has seen. Prepare to be amazed at their size. And there's definitely a different strategy involved in defeating each of them. Once you solve that mystery, you're unlikely to have much trouble. Only one of them enters the realm of truly annoying, and one out of seven isn't half bad. These encounters are exactly as they should be, exhilarating and enjoyable, right up to what is hands down the best series of final boss battles a Zelda game has ever seen.
It's a shame the same couldn't be said about more of the game. While The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker is far from awful, and while it is one of the better titles on this system or any system if you're willing to overlook its flaws, the fact remains that this is still a game with which you are likely to share a love-hate relationship. With a few more dungeons and a lot less sailing, this is one title that would have definitely deserved to be considered perfect. As is, though, it's a flawed masterpiece. Considering the drought of masterpieces gamers have seen lately, though, we'll have to be satisfied until the sequel we're all hoping comes about.
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Staff review by Jason Venter (April 05, 2003)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
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