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The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (GameCube) artwork

The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker (GameCube) review

"Sometime around June of 99, my life changed. It was then that I became the proud owner of an N64 and, more importantly, a copy of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Now, the series had always been my favorite and all, but I never truly got into it until this came around. It became more than just a game or a time waster - it lead me deep within the world of Hyrule and enveloped me in its rich atmosphere. At the risk of sounding cheesy, it elevated the entire Zelda series to the highest ped..."

Sometime around June of 99, my life changed. It was then that I became the proud owner of an N64 and, more importantly, a copy of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Now, the series had always been my favorite and all, but I never truly got into it until this came around. It became more than just a game or a time waster - it lead me deep within the world of Hyrule and enveloped me in its rich atmosphere. At the risk of sounding cheesy, it elevated the entire Zelda series to the highest pedestal possible, cementing the world of Hyrule into my fondest memories. Yet I knew that Nintendo didn't care about my sentiments, and that this strange love affair couldn't last forever, despite my high regard for Majora's Mask and the Oracle games. But as I stared in anger at my computer screen and read with pain the words of Miyamato and Aonuma shortly after Spaceworld 2001, I knew it was over, that Zelda had become, er, commonplace. And yet, despite knowing this, I never realized just how far it would fall, never guessed that Nintendo could release such a poorly designed Zelda game.

[Note: as with all my lengthy reviews, you better have some idea of what the game is like before you read this, as there will be few descriptions of gameplay and stuff. There's just not enough space for it here, so go read some other reviews first and then come back here.]

I did mention I hated it from the beginning (ie, I hated the cel-shaded look), but hear me out. In all honesty, the game is absolutely beautiful, and the cell shading works marvelously for the environments. Gazing out at the sea or seeing Outset island in all its splendor were worthy sights. In fact, I was often struck by the artistry in the game, like seeing the ash-filled lake in Dragon's Roost. No, it is not the cell shading in general that I despise, but the cartoony atmosphere. Seeing a completely malformed Link, a kid with a giant pile of snot coming out of his nose, or ''wacky'' antics from the moblins was pathetic and deserve no place in the Zelda universe. It's not the cell shading or the fact that it wasn't ''mature and realistic'' (honestly folks, neither was OoT, and nobody seriously wanted blood and guts), it's the pandering to the lowest level that bugs me. Zelda should be like, say, The Lion King - a ''kids movie'' that is lovingly crafted, subtle in its methods, and able to appeal across a very broad range of audiences. Wind Waker is more like a Nickelodean cartoon - cheap, crass, blunt, and aimed towards a rather focused audience. Bleh.

And lest I forget, the expressions pissed me off too. I'm supposed to control Link through his epic quest and to become Link, so why is Nintendo telling me how I should feel? Why does Nintendo think this sledgehammer style characterization (ooh, he's sad now. Now happy! Now determined. Now shocked...) is actually any good? I want to feel the emotion, to allow the feelings to come from within myself, brought about naturally through the atmosphere and the directing; I do NOT want them spoonfed to me. Compare the stupid scene of Link leaving Outset to Link and Saria on the bridge in OoT. On the one hand, we have Link's expression suddenly changing to an exaggerated sad face and waving his arms in a manner that is more comic than sad. On the other, we have a complete lack of music, Saria grimly looking down, Link slowly backing off and then running away, Saria looking on with a blank expression... When I first saw that, I could feel their pain, could feel their loss. I never felt anything similar anywhere in this game, thanks to Nintendo believing I'm too stupid to understand subtlety. OoT was a masterpiece, but this can only be defined as a farce.

What makes all of this even more out of place is the fact that the story is actually pretty decent. Well, it is if you've played OoT. This game is obviously a sequel, and sadly the best parts of the story are only truly meaningful if you've played OoT. Seeing the land under the water, hearing the legends of days passed, listening to many of the speeches... you really only get the whole effect of them if you've played and loved the game they're based on. Anything new that the game tried, such as the new races or the King of the Red Lions or the flooding in general, just seemed kind of pale in comparison. I'm not going to harp on it too much, since I've been waiting for a game that recognized that an overall story for Hyrule can work, but I would have liked the original elements to be a bit better. But still, I won't fault them for actually giving Ganondorf some character (even if I wasn't happy to see him in the game), for actually giving other people besides Link a role in saving the universe, and for further flushing out the mysteries of the Triforce. All told, the story ends up being one of the few islands of happiness within this sea of disappointment.

And speaking of the best parts being from the past, how about that music? I was not surprised to see a host of composers ahead of Koji Kondo's name in the credits, and it would not surprise me if his name is only there for the classic tunes. No, I'm not complaining about the borrowed music - for the most part that was quite cool. Nintendo dug pretty deep, and placing tunes from Link to the Past and even the original Zelda in the old kingdom worked extremely well. Such pieces did help to provide at least some of the fabled Zelda magic to me, and they did bring a smile to my face. But the original stuff is just worthless in comparison. Sure, the ocean tune is catchy enough (and it better be, considering the time you spend out there), but nothing else really caught my ear. Rather than the atmospheric, subtle, and creepy dungeon music of OoT, we get nothing but fluff. The Clock Town's music had character and style, radiating the mood of darkness and uncertainty masked and hidden by jubilation and innocence. Outset and Windfall islands radiated absolutely nothing. I understand the need to train new musicians, but can't they get their training wheels on another game?

What I really can't forgive them for, though, is something most people won't care about. See, after you beat a boss, there's some music before you exit the level - music based heavily off of the Final Six Hours in Majora's Mask. One of the finest pieces created for videogames, a piece emanating a sense of loss, finality, resignation and even anticipation for the end, was bastardized into some vague mysterious sounding piece. Ick. Yes, I know, you don't care, but I do. It's yet another example of how Nintendo took something that was once magical and cruelly deformed it into some sick parody. It made me sad and angry to hear it, yet another nail in the coffin.

But surprisingly, most of the nails came from a direction I did not expect - the gameplay. Even while despising the new artistic direction, I figured I would have few qualms in this area. To my surprise, the game is like a cheap copy of Zelda - similar on the surface but encompassing none of the subtleties and grandness the franchise is known for. Yes, it seems like the same great gameplay we all love. There's still a vast overworld, swordfighting, dungeons, puzzles, items to collect, bosses with weaknesses, etc. The new twists appear to be focused mainly on sailing and a few interesting items. But other than the new way of moving around, the obligatory new puzzles and fighting style, it's still just like OoT, right?

Wrong. See, OoT is great, WW is good at best. The other negative reviews have all harped on the basic faults, but there's nothing wrong with running through them again before we delve deeper into its problems. As you should all know by now, the sea is just too large and too boring. Moving between two neighboring islands takes about a minute or two, which means you can grab a bite to eat or catch up on your reading while making ''progress'' in the game. Yes, there are minutes at a time when you don't even have to press a button. Many have also lamented the size of the game, pointing out that there's only a meager 5 dungeons. They have criticized, and rightly so, the boring fetch quest at the end. Despite the fact that sailing's boring, you'll be spending much of the final portion of the game in your boat moving about the world. Even worse, this process costs a lot of money, which more than likely means you'll find a rupee rich area and consistently move in and out of it to fill up your pockets. Friends, that is not Zelda gameplay; that is mindless boring repetition that should have been avoided. It also means the money management is absolutely horrid in the game, as up to this point you'll be richer than you ever need to be and then suddenly becoming strapped for cash. Finally, I personally found that controlling Link to be a bit more loose than in the N64 games. Even with my horrid N64 controllers, I was randomly jumping off cliffs and missing my shot far less in those two games than here. Maybe it's just my imagination or frustration at the rest of the game, but when I'm bored already these faults just seem to magnify.

And there's one other problem everyone has, the fact that the game is too easy. How often was I in danger of dying? Twice, and one was for my own carelessness rather than any designing on Nintendo's part. It was planned that way - Aonuma's stated before that he doesn't like difficult games (oh, and don't even get me started on the fact that this guy, who is in charge of Zelda, got frustrated with and never beat the original. How on Earth can we trust someone when he dismisses the game's roots?). And it shows here, as you will never be afraid. The odds are not against you, you have nothing to fear, and evil is weak. No more ''Wilst thou save the girl, or die trying?''; you can win even if you are pathetic. Now, I can sympathize with this idea; I don't like Contra-esque difficulty either. But Zelda needs at least the illusion of danger. You need to feel the pressure of running low on hearts in the middle of a dungeon, need to understand the overt caution of playing when you aren't sure if you can get out alive. Part of Zelda is the feeling that you are the underdog, that you are up against an overwhelming evil. Unfortunately, you rarely get that sinking feeling of doom here, as you know you will be flooded with hearts and reinforcements after every battle.

Not only is this simplicity a flaw in itself, but it compounds the problems with the combat in the game. In every other Zelda game, you were in danger of dying if you played too carelessly, as those stalfos and ironknuckles would make mincemeat out of an arrogant young Hylian. You had to be cautious, which meant forming strategies and tactics, which meant the combat actually had some depth to it. But since you have no fear of dying here, you can run in and hack away without any problems whatsoever. There were times when I couldn't even see what was going on thanks to a poor camera, and yet had no problem surviving merely by mashing a button as fast as I could. Oh sure, Nintendo pretended they did something special with the counter maneuver, but in reality it made no difference. In a normal battle, why use it when you can mash your button and kill with ease? And when fighting darknuts, they move so slow (as opposed to the original Zelda) that all you need to do is sit and wait and press one button when the time comes. That's it. Similar problems abound with the rest of the battle ''enhancements.'' Picking up enemy weapons is interesting at first, but you'll soon find it's a complete waste of time with no real advantages or disadvantages. The fact that multiple enemies will attack you at once means absolutely nothing, since you can either mash your way out of it with ease or do the wonderful stand-still-then-counter maneuver that works so well. It's pathetic, and oh so blindingly obvious. Weak enemies combined with numerous hearts leads to a lack of experimentation and caution, which leads to utterly boring combat.

Still don't believe me? Consider this: I took a break from playing this game to replay OoT for the 12th time. I found an entirely new way of fighting ironknuckles as young Link. There were still a few places where I became a bit concerned about my heart supply. Meanwhile, I just mashed my way through that massive cave where they don't even give you hearts and throw tons of enemies at you in WW, and I had no problems getting to the thing I needed. I suppose I could have gone further in the cave and fought even more people, but it had already been 20 minutes of mind-numbing repetition. I never used my shield anywhere in the game except for obligatory puzzles. I never had any problems. This isn't Zelda, people! Zelda should not be this boring!

And let us not forget the dungeons themselves. I mean, they have no character at all. In Ocarina of Time, the temples were finely crafted, with the architecture focusing around themes (two towers in the Fire Temple, a mix of wildlife and construction in the Forest Temple, etc) and the temples themselves felt whole, as if they had a character about themselves. In Wind Waker, they felt like... levels in a game. Oh, they tried to give them some sense of structure, like the giant pit in the Wind Temple, but mostly it just felt like a bunch of rooms put together in an artificial manner. I mean, just look at the Tower of the Gods. It's just there, full of lifeless rooms and serving no purpose other than to give you some pathetic thing called ''gameplay.'' I want more than that; I want to be impressed, immersed, and overwhelmed.

Within these artificial dungeons are artificial challenges. You enter a room, kill the easy enemies inside, and then set to work on figuring out the dull puzzles. Besides the return of several ''aren't these old yet'' puzzles like lighting torches and using your mirror shield, there are plenty of new ones as well. I admit, some were pretty good (like cutting down a rope bridge - anything that reminds me of Indiana Jones can't be that bad!), but it just seems like a ''been there, done that'' sort of thing. Perhaps it's not their fault - the traditional Zelda structure may very well just be getting stale. But it is Nintendo's job to insure it doesn't become stale, to come up with fresh new ideas while retaining the Zelda style. Unfortunately, the biggest new idea - a partner system, was executed horribly. The puzzles it used were exceedingly lame and blatantly obvious, and even worse was the execution. If I'm going to have to switch between people in every room in a dungeon (and sometimes multiple times in the same room), I don't want to execute and watch the same bloody 8 second long transition sequence every single time! And I wish they could have come up with better uses for these people then flying to otherwise inaccessible regions and stepping on switches. There was so much potential in this idea, yet it was squandered by clunky execution and limited uses.

Aah, but it is exploration that lies at the heart of Zelda, and it was here, on the overworld, that I was the most disappointed. What makes it worse is that I thought that was going to be the thing I'd love the most about the game. A grid-like pattern of distinct islands to explore! Secrets waiting to be uncovered, plenty of room for fresh new ideas, tons of ground to investigate! But what we get is a waste, and not just because the islands are too small and the sea too big. The fundamental flaw here is that almost every island is just too simple, making it more of a check-box than true exploration. You go in, seek out the obvious ''secret'' entranceway, do whatever it asks of you, and get your reward. Each one was not a unique environment, they were all just one-trick stops.

Contrast that with, say, the scientist's lab near Lake Hylia in OoT. There, you looked around, fiddled about a bit, and then left, confused about its purpose. Eventually, you would dive down in the pool with your golden scales and be rewarded with a piece of heart, race to him as part of the trading sequence, grab a skulltula off the back of the house, and hookshot your way up onto the roof for another piece of heart. For that matter, sink to the bottom of the pool and look around for Jaws. None of these were obvious when you first arrived there, all of them required returning to the house at different times and trying different things. And this is just one tiny house, yet it had more character and more explorative potential than almost all of the islands in Wind Waker!

This is absolutely unforgiveable. Exploration is the heart of the Zelda series, it is its defining characteristic, and this hollow shell takes it and mashes it to the most simplistic form. Each island has one purpose. Each purpose is pretty obvious as soon as you arrive. And once you do one small task you can put the island to your rudder and ne'er return. My favorite aspect of the series reduced to rubble, requiring no observation, no experimentation, no guessing, nothing but patience. Oh, to what depths have we plunged?

And if that's not enough, consider how long it takes before your stupid boat lets you explore in the first place. First you must get your boat and sail, which I guess makes sense. But when you want to sail into the great unknown, your boat outright refuses, pushing you along in your objectives. What?!? If I want to go off on my own, why is Nintendo telling me I can't? In the original Zelda, you could reach all but two screens without any special equipment at all, yet here you are artificially bound to your course for two more major events (all told, you won't be able to explore for the first 1/3 or so of the game!). Inexcusable.

And as we come to the end of this tirade, I feel the need to point out not all was lost. Although few and far between, there were a few bright ideas mixed in with this dull adventure. I didn't care much for any of the new weapons or gadgets, except for the cannon. Yeah, sailing might be boring, but naval battles never are! Firing away at the pirate ships and forts (not to mention giant squids!) was one of the brightest spots in the game, and I thoroughly enjoyed all of my encounters. The only thing that could make it better is if there was more of a punishment for getting hit yourself - being knocked off of the ship is more annoying than anything else. Also of note is Ganondorf himself. Despite being unhappy to see him in the game, I must admit I was glad to see him as more of a character and less of a stock villain. Even better was the fight against him, a fight I have dreamed about since Dark Link in OoT. Now this is what the rest of the combat should have been - frantic, frightening, a true test of skills. And I must express my pleasure at seeing Zelda's role in the final battle (although the final execution was lame), especially since I predicted it years ago. In any case, that final battle was excellent, a joy to play and almost making the rest of the game worth it.

But while admitting its excellence in some places, I still wonder what happened to the rest of the game. Yes, it seemed to be a typical Zelda game, seemingly full of all the elements. But those elements were only there on the surface, and once you scratch the surface you find there's nothing underneath. Nintendo missed the boat completely, failing to comprehend what makes an adventure game truly great. Perhaps dropping everything on Anouma's shoulders was a bad idea, despite the excellent Majora's Mask. Perhaps Nintendo focused so much on doing something different with the graphics that they didn't have time to lovingly craft a game (Nintendo focusing on graphics over gameplay, isn't that ironic?). Perhaps they thought we wouldn't notice or wouldn't care. I don't know. All I know is that this is the first Zelda game that didn't do anything for me, the first one that did not feel like a magical, awe-inspiring experience. I know the GameCube is the first Nintendo console I bought for a reason other than Zelda, or the fact that Metroid Prime reminded me more of Ocarina of Time than this game ever did. And I cannot forgive Nintendo for crushing such a series, for thinking so little of it that they could hash out this inferior copy of OoT and expect me to be satisfied. Playing the other Zelda games is about as close to videogame heaven as I have ever found. And now that paradise is lost.

mariner's avatar
Community review by mariner (May 12, 2004)

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