The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker is a modern classic. Time has been extremely kind to the game, which polarized popular opinion upon release- the art style, which was instantly dismissed by an industry in the throes of the growing pains of adolescence, has come to be widely regarded as timeless and stunning, and graphically, the game holds its own even today, ten years later.
This, coupled with its incredible soundtrack (arguably the best soundtrack in a series known for its excellent music), as well as the charming characters, great atmosphere, and the wonderful story, have all led to the game being held in incredibly high regard today. It is not uncommon to hear refrains of ‘The Wind Waker is the best Zelda game ever,’ or, ‘The Wind Waker is the greatest game ever.’
What has not held up all that well in The Wind Waker, ironically enough especially for a Nintendo game, is its actual core game design. Before the release of Skyward Sword, The Wind Waker was indisputably the weakest of the mainline Zelda games in terms of game structure, pacing, and dungeon design. A lot of its faults were excusable back then- today, the game doesn’t hold up nearly half as well because of said issues.
In a remake of the game, therefore, you would expect Nintendo to not focus on the presentation aspects of Wind Waker’s design as much- they’ve held up so well, after all- and instead to concentrate on bringing the gameplay and structural portions of title up to speed. For whatever reason, Nintendo have done the exact opposite, polishing the visual and audio side of Wind Waker, while interfering with the gameplay as little as possible. The result is a modern classic that remains as charming and atmospheric to play as ever, but feels like a bit of a missed opportunity, considering how some parts of the core design stick out like a sore thumb today.
Let’s start with the most obvious part, first- the graphics. The Wind Waker is widely considered to be a graphical masterpiece today, so when Nintendo unveiled the new style for the HD remake, people were appalled (amusingly enough, The Wind Waker is now probably the only title in history to have split public opinion based on its graphical art style, twice). Complaints of character models appearing to be made of clay, and excessive bloom, were common refrains. Right up to the game’s release, even when the newer videos and screenshots clearly showed the game to be stunning in motion, people remained skeptical.
They should not have been. The Wind Waker HD looks incredible, and it is the perfect HD realization of the original game’s visual style. The game has to actually be seen in motion to be believed, as still images won’t do its stark, yet subtle, beauty justice. The bloom, one of the leading causes of complaints when initial screenshots were released, has actually been used pretty smartly, only in the outdoors during the day, to give off the impression of a tropical island (which, after all, is the setting of the game).
The characters are animated incredibly well, the textures have been redone from the original, the draw distance is loads better- this is The Wind Waker, looking as good as you remember it, but actually better, as it now lives up to the game as you remember it through your nostalgia filter, and not as it actually used to look.
The other aspect of The Wind Waker’s presentation- the soundtrack. The game, released back on the Gamecube, did not use orchestrated music, instead relying on MIDI samples. To the best of my knowledge, the sound here, while remastered, is still MIDI. However, it is a testament to the game’s incredible soundtrack that you barely, if ever, notice it.
Music from The Wind Waker is iconic- tracks like Outset Island, The Great Sea, Dragon Roost Island, and Makar’s Prayer, all stand out as the best the series has had to offer musically. The celtic flavor of The Wind Waker’s soundtrack is as alive in the remake as ever, and it sounds just as good as you remember it to be. It is, in fact, bar none, the greatest soundtrack in a game since the release of the original Wind Waker ten years ago.
As well as the graphics and sound hold up here, the issues lie with the game’s structure and pacing, and, almost shockingly for a Zelda game, the dungeon design. The Wind Waker (and now, The WInd Waker HD) has the weakest dungeons for any mainline Zelda game. They simply do not hold up to the devious complexity of other titles, particularly Twilight Princess or Skyward Sword- they’re largely simple, linear in progression, and don’t even necessitate a lot of time to complete them.
Considering the dungeons are actually the meat of Zelda gameplay, their simplicity definitely hurts the title, and more so now than it did back in 2003 when The Wind Waker first released. Back then, the revelation of the graphics and the soundtrack, as well as the fact that open world 3D action adventure games were still in their nascence, definitely helped mask the flaws. But in the ten years since, game design has improved, and The Wind Waker’s own successors highlight its weaknesses.
Another issue with The Wind Waker HD as far as dungeons are concerned is that there’s just not enough of them- barring maybe Majora’s Mask, The Wind Waker has the least amount of dungeons for any main Zelda game, but unlike Majora’s Mask, which was a dense, compact game loaded with character driven sidequests, and which featured incredibly diabolical dungeons, The Wind Waker doesn’t have anything to cover for the lack of dungeons.
Popular legend has it that the game, which was rushed to stimulate the Gamecube’s flagging sales, was to have two more dungeons than it did, but they were excised to release it as soon as possible. Whereas this remake might have been a great excuse to incorporate those dungeons back into the game, Nintendo made it clear that that would not be possible, as those dungeons had been used in later Zelda games.
This lack of dungeons in the second half of the game leads to the game’s biggest issue: pacing. The infamous Triforce Quest is still here, although Nintendo has greatly expedited it with this release, and only two pieces require to be recovered in the same, infuriatingly maddening way as in the original game. It still grinds the pace of the game to a halt, and kills a lot of momentum, but it’s easier to swallow this time than it was the first time around.
For as much as the game lacks in the dungeons area, it excels in the world design. The Wind Waker had what is probably the best world for any Zelda game, and that statement certainly reinforces itself with The Wind Waker HD. The thrill and joy of exploring a fully realized ocean, dotted with islands, each with their own hidden nooks and crannies, the sea itself hiding treasures, remains as visceral today as it was back then. It’s incredibly fun, and the sense of adventure in The Wind Waker HD is second to none. You can spend hours just exploring the sea, and the various islands and their inhabitants. The one issue with exploration int he original game, which was the slow movement of the boat, has been addressed in this release with variable speeds for your boat as well.
Other aspects of The Wind Waker remain as great as ever. This includes the story, which is a stunning, moving, apocalyptic tale unlike any told in the series until then or since, and one which largely manages the feat of humanizing main series villain Ganondorf, against all odds. The characters are as charming and lovable as ever before, aided, in no small part, by their expressive faces.
Of course, one of the pertinent questions with The Wind Waker HD is undoubtedly how it utilizes the Wii U’s special features. The answer to that is, surprisingly well. Gamepad play is roughly what you would expect, although the new UI allows you to have key items mapped permanently to persistent buttons, which makes gameplay a whole lot easier. In addition, Off TV Play is fully supported too.
More satisfactory than the use of the Gamepad is the use of Miiverse. The Wind Waker HD fully embraces and utilizes Miiverse in its gameplay, allowing players to use the Tingle Tuner to send each other messages via Miiverse at any time. For a game like Zelda, which requires players to puzzle it out, Miiverse integration is a whole lot more help than you would imagine, and it breathes new life into the game.
The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD is probably the most unnecessary remake of all time, at least in its present format, which fixes issues which never existed, and ignores the ones that did. And yet, it is a re-release of one of the greatest games ever made, that largely stands the test of time and remains incredibly fun to play, even today. There are issues with The Wind Waker, and yes they stand out more today than they did back in the day, but the game is, incredibly enough, still better than 90% of the games on the market today, and is largely better than all Zelda games that followed.
It is a must have for anyone who never got the chance to play it when it first released, and largely recommended for anyone who did, and wants to revisit The Great Sea again. The Wind Waker was a triumph of storytelling in games, and that still stands today, a full decade later. In what must be the most bittersweet victory for Nintendo, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD is the best title presently available on the Wii U.
This game was reviewed on Nintendo Wii U.