"The entire sailing element is a love-hate sort of experience: if you don’t mind occasionally spending five minutes crossing the entire ocean to get from point A to point B or constantly changing the direction of the wind, then you can easily dismiss the potential frustration and realize that it is actually a rather fun experience, and simply exploring the ocean, finding all the islands and their respective objectives, is actually enjoyable."
When it was first announced during Spaceworld of 2000, the GameCube version of the acclaimed Zelda series was received with unprecedented triumph—an incredibly realistic, adult Link stood opposite Ganondorf, the Master Sword in his hand glistening in the light of the flickering torches around the room. After an exchange of taunts, the opponents leap forward in a clash of metal, thus ending the beautiful demo. Fans were ecstatic.
Then, one year later, Shigeru Miyamoto proudly stood by the screen as the updated demo rolled, giving the public the first glimpse of the title’s true form: Link, armed with his standard sword, shield, and emerald tunic, was a cartoon. The change from the more realistic graphic style of Ocarina of Time on the N64 was a controversial one—fans were now outraged, calling Miyamoto a heretic to the videogame world. He simply responded with a plea to first play the game, then complain about it, which reveals his belief in where The Wind Waker truly shines: the polished, loyal, and often downright fantastic gameplay.
As the stage is set the legend of the Hero of Time—essentially the story of Ocarina of Time--is told, explaining how the seal of Ganon’s tomb was eventually broken after a dark, evil wind spread across the land as the people begged for the Hero to return. Alas, no hero emerged, until one day, as the sun-bathed Outset Island celebrates a boy’s birthday, regarding it as “coming of age,” the age where he is allowed to don the clothing of the Hero of Time, young Link’s sister is kidnapped by a giant bird. Desperate to save his sibling, Link sets sail—with the help of a band of pirates—for the Forsaken Fortress, where he learns just how large his task is.
The story is arguably the best of the series, with a few well-thought twists that keep the player tuned to the always-outstanding plot. The world, rather than a centralized kingdom similar to Hyrule, is basically a vast ocean peppered with islands, illustrated on a grid—appropriately titled the Sea Chart—that replaces the standard world map.
In order to traverse the great sea, Link invests in the help of a talking boat (which is actually incredibly cheesy at first, but the story does actually justify the odd premise) and a sail, and by using the direction of the wind to guide the vessel, it functions much like Epona did in Ocarina of Time. However, the world often seems much too large for its own good, with only one real town and three other islands with more than one inhabitant. While some monsters litter the ocean offering aggressive resistance, they are almost too difficult to defeat, and when eliminating them requires removing the sail and simply cruising as you try to strike with your bow, boomerang, or cannon, it becomes an incredibly frustrating, seemingly unnecessary distraction.
The entire sailing element is a love-hate sort of experience: if you don’t mind occasionally spending five minutes crossing the entire ocean to get from point A to point B or constantly changing the direction of the wind, then you can easily dismiss the potential frustration and realize that it is actually a rather fun experience, and simply exploring the ocean, finding all the islands and their respective objectives, is actually enjoyable.
By using the Wind Waker—a magical conductor’s baton, similar to the ocarina/flute of previous titles—Link can change the direction of the wind, an action that is sometimes used to such a large extent that it becomes annoying, even aggravating, to keep having to constantly take out the Wind Waker and conduct the same songs (none of which are as fun to play or hear as in OoT) repeatedly. The Wind Waker, although fun to watch as Link’s eyes and motions reflect the direction of his conducting, is actually harder to play than the ocarina—a disturbance that many people might find intimidating. Playing a song involves moving both the control stick and the C-stick, so less-coordinated players might have trouble conducting. Nonetheless, the instrument is used just as effectively as it was in Ocarina of Time, and is a welcome addition by all means.
The combat engine, updated from OoT is perhaps the game’s greatest strength. It is, in every single respect, absolutely flawless. Sword attacks are executed by simply pressing B, and the sheer amount of animations for a single sword swing—all in all over a dozen—is impressive, although the targeting system, in where the camera locks on to a target as long as you hold the button, can be frustrating when there are many enemies on screen. Taking out a specific enemy, for example, while ignoring the others is as difficult as it is unnecessary—having the target cycle along the opponents individually each time the button is pressed would have been a much more effective, efficient manner. The Wind Waker does introduce a new move, however: the parry technique. By pressing the action button during the right moment, Link can execute a defensive roll, leap, or sidestep that also attacks the enemy, usually with a much more powerful strike than a normal swipe. The parry is not only cool but incredibly stylish as well, and mastering the technique will help a player gain not only an advantage during battle, but also present a very entertaining and attractive experience to watch.
The graphics, despite their controversy, are not only full of gorgeous models, flawless animation, and real-time lighting effects (on cel-shaded characters, mind you), but also several subtle effects that actually add to the already-tremendous presentation of the engine. When standing still, for instance, Link’s eyes may point to an otherwise overlooked object that may be the key to a difficult puzzle, while during cut-scenes, Link’s emotions are expressed with great effect by simply altering his facial expression (yes, the giant eyes do serve a purpose). Distant objects are blurred in order to show depth, while far-away objects can be seen from an incredible distance; one island in particular can be seen from almost any point in the world, rendered and darkened with actual depth. Although the game may seem like a simple cartoon at first glance, the environments are surprisingly realistic and much darker and more mysterious than they initially appear to be. Many enemies look more intimidating than their previous incarnations—Re-deads in particular have undergone quite the positive makeover.
The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker is one of the best-looking videogames ever made, period.
Sound, also, is essentially perfect. The Hyrule Overture so disappointingly absent from Ocarina of Time returns as a remix for the ocean’s background music, while other classic Zelda melodies, including the Kakiriko Village theme (a personal favorite), make a return along with several original tracks. Link’s reserved personality returns, consisting of mere screams and yelps that actually improve both combat and the overall atmosphere of the game. Other classic sound effects, such as the chime of a puzzle’s solution or the excited opening of a treasure chest, return with great effect. During a battle, also, each strike of the weapon is accompanied by an accent in the music, an effect that, although subtle, really adds to the overall presentation.
The game also makes use of the GameCube-Game Boy Advance connectivity by adding a Tingle Tuner to Link’s inventory, which allows a second player (or a multi-tasking single player) to join in for a cooperative adventure. Although it is a nice addition, it isn’t really a necessary tool. It is fun, but it is hard to imagine any player really taking advantage of it, although it does not hurt the game by any means.
During the latter moments of the game, however, Link is required to undergo a rather tedious task that involves searching for pieces of a legendary artifact that admittedly takes much too long when instead another dungeon or two could have been added in its stead. The quest only involves around four actual dungeons, though each one is designed with such attention to detail and gameplay in mind that they simply create one mesmerizing, breathtaking adventure. Composed of the standard block-pushing, switch-hitting, enemy-slashing, key-hoarding puzzles found throughout the franchise, every dungeon is both brilliant and entertaining.
Boasting an unprecedented combat system, absolutely mesmerizing visuals, and some of the best bosses the series has ever seen (including one of the most fun, engaging final battles ever devised), The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker is a title that, despite its flaws, is such a wonderfully crafted, polished game that it could easily be argued as the best the franchise has to offer, and is without a doubt a must-have title for any self-respecting GameCube owner, as well as one of the most remarkable videogames in the entire next-generation library.
Staff review by Zack M (April 09, 2003)
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