There’s this topic I’ve been toying around with writing about for the longest time, but haven’t got around to as of yet. It has to do with the differences in a normal game-player’s tastes and those of someone who plays through a lot of games to review them (and how that experience with many other types of games that succeed and fail in similar ways makes one less forgiving of flaws), and it’s something that Wind Waker demonstrates wonderfully. Once upon a time, I enjoyed this game greatly and found it to be a refreshing change from the previous games, which is why I decided to replay it in the first place. Going through it again with a critical eye, however, I’ve come to see it as a low point for the series. In fact, I was so disgusted with its busywork that I couldn’t even finish it this time. That’s not to say that some people don’t or won’t enjoy it, but glossing over its flaws because “it’s Zelda and Zelda is good” isn’t possible when you’ve played through enough good and bad games to recognize just how bad Wind Waker’s missteps truly are.
The Wii U version fixes a lot of problems
I don’t have a Wii U, but I watched some gameplay on Youtube and noticed that many of the problems I had with the Gamecube version of the game are alleviated somewhat by changes made in the HD version. Off the top of my head, I noticed a faster animation for the grappling hook, faster obtaining of the triforce of courage by giving you the actual shards where the original gave you charts that had to be deciphered for lots of money and then fished out of the ocean (groan), the ability to save faster, and faster wind direction changes in addition to a new sail that automatically puts the wind behind you as you sail. It’s hard to say if I would have still hated the game quite as much as I did if I had played the HD version, but some of the problems—most notably those of random fluff that pad out the game unnecessarily and the story’s lack of any standout moments—remain in both versions, so I’d still caution against the game in any form.
It’s open-world Zelda
Sure, one could look at the game and see that the beginning is actually fairly linear in the sense that you’re on a set track that you’re not allowed to deviate from, but the same could be said of many open-world games from The Witcher 3 to Fallout 2 and beyond. Once you’re past that point, the game opens up and allows you to go anywhere, though certain events have to be done in a specific order in order to progress. Again, this is no different than what other open-world games do.
The story is kind of meh until the end
One of the things I never recognized about the earlier games until I was playing through Wind Waker was their focus on creating emotion. Think about it—that scene with Saria as you leave the forest in Ocarina of Time is brutal, as is the beach scene with Marin in Link’s Awakening and how it ties into the “good” ending that you get when you beat the game without dying once. Majora’s Mask cranked all of that up to 11 and tore the knob off, with Anju and Kafei’s whole thing, Tatl’s protectiveness of her brother, and even the Skull Kid’s friendship with the four giants. The closest Wind Waker gets to anything like that is giving you a slightly more sympathetic villain, but even this is only apparent at the very end of the game, with nothing truly memorable before that point like in other Zelda games.
What makes this especially disappointing is the fact that this game ties deeply into the story of the N64 games, with the world being covered with water when evil returned to the world of Ocarina but the hero of those games didn’t show up to help, forcing the people to appeal the gods for help. Help that came in the form of severe flooding, inconveniently enough. All of this is from the very opening of the game, and if the ties weren’t already obvious enough, you later come across stained-glass windows of the sages from Ocarina decorating the room where you find the master sword. Wind Waker never really captures the magic of Ocarina, though, and I was instead left with the distinct impression that it was constantly going, “hey, remember how much fun you had in that other game?” It just lacks the oomph that the N64 games had when it comes to the characters and story, and the gimmick of a large open world that necessitates long bits of sailing where nothing’s happening ensures that the pacing has taken quite the hit, as well.
The gameplay feels less sticky
Something I was surprised by was how different the actual gameplay felt compared to the N64 games. It’s hard to put into words, but it feels much more slick for better and worse, with your character able to move around a bit more fluidly than in earlier games, but the game’s edge detection also being much less forgiving. I can’t even count the number of times I tried to use the leaf item to float to a ledge that would have been supremely grabbable in earlier games, only to deactivate the leaf and fail to grab the edge for some inexplicable reason. This also applies when jumping to ledges, which is always a dungeon favorite; if you jump at a slightly wrong angle, you’re liable to graze the lip of whatever you were jumping to instead of grabbing it like you’d expect, falling in the process and having to backtrack.
Dungeons range from okay to terrible
That’s hardly the only instance of the game being weirdly picky about how you approach things, either, with most of its irritatingly specific solutions occurring in dungeons. Dungeons are one of the weirder elements in Wind Waker because of how unlike previous games they are; where before ropes were indestructible and you had to run around with a lit deku stick if you wanted to set things on fire, ropes in the very first dungeon can be cut with your sword to drop you to a lower level (which is very cool) and lit deku sticks can be thrown to set faraway objects on fire.
So the first dungeon is quite a bit of fun. Unfortunately, things quickly go downhill from there, with later dungeons being inconsistent and awkward. For example, the fans in the above video. Shoot wind to the left, it spins one way. Shoot again to the left, it brings you back the opposite direction. Shoot it in the middle, nothing happens. Shoot left again, nothing happens. Talk about infuriating and tedious, and that’s just a warm up for the two dungeons you have to go through with NPCs, often switching to them using the long command melody 10-20 times throughout when you’re not just carrying them. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an interesting idea that had a lot of promise. It just doesn’t deliver on that promise.
Take the first of the two, which you go through with a bird person you meet earlier in the game. Her instrument has the ability to reflect light, as does the shield you obtain inside the dungeon, and later parts of the dungeon require using her to reflect light at you so that you can reflect it at something else in a specific direction. Problem is, you crouch when you use your shield to aim the light (I suppose you could L-target to stand while using the shield, but you can’t freely change your shield angle that way), and the game’s so unforgiving about where you have her aim the light that it’ll miss you entirely if you don’t aim at your feet, forcing you to use the command melody again and waste a bunch of time getting the game’s mechanics to actually work with you. All for a disgustingly simple puzzle that’d be immediately solvable if the mechanics weren’t so awkward.
Lots and lots of meaningless padding
A lot of this could be forgiven if not for the absurd amount of padding that’s been included. The game world is far larger than it has any right to be, forcing you to sail long distances for no obvious reason aside from showing off the bigness of the world, and that’s the least frustrating instance of padding. The second most frustrating would definitely be the frequency of pendants and rupees in chests; in previous games, a chest either had a fun new item to use, a key that you needed to progress, or the dungeon map/compass (which have always been a bit of a middle finger). Now you can be exploring a dungeon and stumble on a chest, only for it to be a completely meaningless joy pendant. This means that you still have to explore each dungeon’s nooks and crannies just in case that secret area with a chest isn’t something completely meaningless, but the odds are greater than ever that whatever you find won’t actually be useful to you.
And that’s nothing compared to the giant fetch quest for the triforce of courage, which has been split up into 8 different parts. You don’t just hunt them down, though—no, first you buy tons of bait and use it on fishes so that they open up your map and start to tell you where triforce maps are. Then you hunt down the maps, but the maps are coded, so you have to go to Tingle (seriously) to decipher each chart, with the total number of rupees you have to pay him being 3184 for all 8 charts. This is mandatory. Then you’re finally free to fish out the triforce pieces, or at least I seem to remember that being the case. I beat the game 8 years ago and couldn’t be bothered to do the triforce tediousness again, so I’m not entirely clear on the sequence of events around this point. It’s just too much to include a giant, mandatory fetch quest. It’s not fun, and this hasn’t aged well at all, as evidenced by the HD remake streamlining the process somewhat.
Something that was incredibly annoying
So I went around exploring the world and gathering items necessary to progress, and I got to a point where I was ready to tackle the dungeons that you go through with the NPCs. A character tells you to find someone who uses a specific instrument and teach them a song to open the way, so I go to where that character is, only to be told that he’s hiding and can’t be found (so don’t bother looking!), but that he’ll probably be back later. You know why this happened? Because I tried to do the dungeons in the wrong order, and there’s a very specific order you have to complete them in. If I hadn’t looked this up online, I’d have probably given up on the game because of how counter-intuitive it is to give you access to the song and everything, only to hide a mandatory character in the most game-y way possible because “oops, you’re not supposed to go here yet!” This could be structured so much better by making access to the area you learn the song at dependent on the item you find in the first NPC dungeon. Why it isn’t set up that way is beyond me.
The graphics are okay
I’m not one of those people who were calling for someone’s head on a platter when the game first released because the game was suddenly all cartoony. In fact, I really like the visuals. The cel-shaded aesthetic was unexpected when it came out, but they have a good look to them. That said, the Gamecube version has lots of ugly blur effects in addition to significant pop up as you sail closer to areas. From what I’ve seen, though, the HD remake is gorgeous, and the cel-shading has allowed a game from 2002-2003 to remain relevant even a decade later, which is quite the feat. All in all, I don’t really have any complaints about the graphics.
The music is terrible, though
The soundtrack, on the other hand, is nowhere near the standard set by other games. There are a few areas with unique tracks that are decent enough, but that’s about it. After that, just about everything is either rehashed or awful. Familiar songs reoccur for the millionth time in the series, and while some overlap in the soundtrack was appreciated when the games moved from 2D to 3D, this definitely wore out its welcome by the time Wind Waker landed and it started to seem like they just couldn’t write anything of that quality anymore. Nothing drives home that impression quite like the new playable songs; whereas the ocarina in the previous games played songs that were then followed by fairly varied instrumentation, everything you can play in Wind Waker ends up playing in the exact same boring choral style (barring two that you only use for the NPC dungeons). There aren’t even any moments like in the windmill hut or the lost woods where the background track ends up being the same as the song you learn, allowing you to hear a more elaborate version of it. The musical creativity of earlier titles just isn’t here.