I won’t go into detail about how fan reaction to The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker has rubber-banded since its initial unveiling back in 2002, however tempting it may be. In the ten years since its GameCube debut, several other Zelda games have come and gone, but Wind Waker continues to hold a special place in the hearts of many. Nintendo’s high-definition re-release of the game gave me a unique opportunity to ask myself the question: was Wind Waker really that revolutionary, or are my memories so swathed in nostalgia that I’m remembering incorrectly? After playing it for the first time in ages, I wouldn’t argue that Wind Waker has grown better over the years; rather, it was terrific to begin with, and its second stint in the spotlight is merely a reiteration of that truth. Like a monochrome photograph restored to brilliant color, the game’s composition hasn’t drastically changed, but its inherent beauty has been drawn out for a whole new generation to relish.
One of Link’s more unconventional adventures, Wind Waker attempted to shake up the Zelda structure in several ways. Instead of immediately rushing out to protect Hyrule from Ganon, Link spends the first half of the game trying to rescue his little sister, Aryll, and Princess Zelda is not properly introduced until late in the narrative. Her emboldened alter ego (whose identity I won’t reveal) remains a welcome departure from her previous incarnations. The story has some interesting wrinkles, but it’s still a Zelda story, meaning that while the overall tale is engaging, it doesn’t stray far from tradition. It also features a greater emphasis on traversing the world at large instead quickly hopping from dungeon to dungeon. There are some pacing issues to consider, most notably the stealth sequence which occurs very early in the game, along with the relatively few number of dungeons, but the fact remains that Wind Waker HD is a consistently fun game.
I can’t help but be amused by how indignant people were about Wind Waker’s art style ten years ago; what was once contentious is now regarded as timeless. Wind Waker HD uses a completely new graphical engine, but retains the same cartoony style. The engine seems to share its bones with Nintendoland, with bright and vibrantly colorful graphics that make extensive use of sharp lines and shadows. Link in particular is more expressive than ever, thanks to his wide eyes and often-comical countenance. Because the game has been essentially rebuilt instead of simply being upscaled, the entire world pops with eye-catching detail. It was a delight to explore ten years ago, and it’s a delight to explore now. Similarly, the game’s soundtrack has been remastered with higher-quality instrumentation, although the music has not been arranged, as far as I can tell. Wind Waker had a good soundtrack in the first place, so while I would have appreciated a more robust update to the game’s music, most fans will be satisfied with this modest upgrade.
The improvements to this new version of the game are plentiful, but none are large-scale. The most notable change is the introduction of the Swift Sail, an item that doubles the speed of Link’s boat and ensures that a favorable wind is always at his back — no more conducting the Wind’s Requiem over and over. The infamous late-game “Triforce Hunt” has also been simplified, as most pieces of the Triforce are now found directly in chests instead of having to be salvaged from the ocean using expensive sea charts. These two additions alone quicken the pace of the game immensely, putting the focus back on exploration and puzzle-solving instead of padding Link’s quest with tedium. Other small changes include an intuitive menu system displayed on the Wii U Gamepad, increased cash flow from slaying enemies, and the Tingle Bottle item, which allows players to share messages and hilarious in-game photos across a different electronic ocean — the internet. All of these tweaks make Wind Waker HD inarguably the definitive version of the game. My only issue? Thanks to the Swift Sail, the bar for water-based exploration has been raised so high that I’ll never be able to play Suikoden IV again. Not that I was planning to, of course.
Whenever fans discuss the Zelda series, much like with Final Fantasy, divergent opinions abound. Some prefer the darker tone of Twilight Princess, while others enjoy the whimsical retro trappings of A Link to the Past. We can probably all agree, however, that just about every Zelda game is worth playing (man, those Phillips CD-i games just scream quality, don’t they). The Wind Waker has always been a worthy entry in the series, and this new version is more gorgeous and accessible than ever. Is it the best Zelda game ever? Your mileage will vary depending on how much you enjoy the game’s art style and somewhat uneven pacing, but its flaws are so minor that I can’t regard Wind Waker HD with anything short of adulation.