NA Release Date: March 24, 2003 (GCN)
Initial Playthrough: c. March, 2003 (GCN)
Playthrough: c. August – October, 2021 (WiiU)
We’ll begin with a confession: Your humble author was among the grumbling, unwashed masses who were all distraught over the Space World 2001 preview reel. So affronted was I by this demo (specifically, in comparison to the Space World 2000 footage) that I sat down and did what any indignant thirteen year old would do: I wrote an aggressively cringe-worthy letter to the company (achieved here, along with Nintendo’s reply!). Like most everyone else though, I reluctantly got with the program when The Wind Waker launched for GameCube many months later, and ultimately had a fun time playing the game to completion. In the years that have passed since, I’ve thought back fondly on my time the with game, if begrudgingly so- traces of my discontent over the art direction still lingering even after so much distance from it.
Why admit the details of my terrible opinions as an adolescent? Context, friends. There’s nothing like an intervening 20 years to mellow out that boiling hot take. Not to spoil the end for you, but it turns out the Wind Waker is nothing short of an absolute triumph. A stone-cold classic. An absolutely essential member of the highest echelon of Zelda games. For my money, this starts and ends with those very graphics that caused such an uproar on their first release.
In the Eye of the Beholder
My thesis here is that if you can manage to check your expectations at the door, Wind Waker’s art style is completely and totally endearing. It combines the perfect amount of chibi/kawaii sensibility with a spunky propulsion that communicates so effortlessly the idea of adventure. Perhaps just as importantly, this was something totally different that hadn’t been seen anywhere else up to that time. It made quite a strong impression, and was so effective it was utilized in two follow-up titles on the DS, defining this as the design language of the Adult Timeline.
Before we elaborate any further here, consider a counter-example. Link ‘guest starred’ in two other titles for GCN in which he reprises his older more realistic persona. I am of course referring to our intrepid hero’s cameos in both Soul Calibur II and Super Smash Bros. Melee:
There’s nothing wrong with these renditions- they’re faithful updates of the OOT official art for Adult Link from that game. Certainly both are a marked improvement on the SW2000 render, and if this had been our protagonist, I don’t think anyone would have argued. We essentially get this later in TP, albeit with some refinements to the costume. In the context of fighting games looking to include a fan-favorite character, these designs of course make perfect sense… but imagine copy-pasting these dudes into the TWW…? Neither of these guys are a good fit to be grumpy about their hero outfit, get shot out of a barrel, or be blown up by a statue. The tone is all wrong.
Certainly neither of them would be making this awesome face while Ganondorf monologues his heart out before the game’s climactic final duel.
No no, only Toon Link can do those things. As the story goes, TWW development really took off when the team landed on this design- and that seems completely plausible. From this, all of the whimsy, levity, the airy sense of high adventure that defines this game seems to flow. It’s bright, fluid, and heavily stylized, giving it an undeniably distinct ‘voice’ with respect to visual presentation. Only with this much range in expression on the character’s faces can the comedic beats possibly land; for the story they ended up telling, this is basically the only choice.
So maybe the vibe and the art wasn’t for some people ultimately, but it’s undeniable that it imbues TWW with much of the charm and sincerity that defines its unique place in the Zelda canon. Beyond that, it has also helped it stand out and largely above so many of its contemporary titles- this game still looks great today. With the HD remaster accounting for the improvement in display technology, TWW essentially remains as beautiful and inspired as it was upon release. Hindsight has certainly helped me to better appreciate that the art design is very much a feature, and not a bug.
A Worthy Successor
While technically Majora’s Mask is the next game following OOT, since it uses the same engine it’s more of an extension than it is a follow up, at least from a development perspective. From there, it follows that TWW had quite a heavy load to lift as the first true iteration on the formula since the watershed moment that Zelda went 3D. From a technical standpoint, I certainly think TWW answered the challenge here as well.
The visual flourishes added by way of the increased power of the console really look great. Among these include the sparking ‘impact’ effect from clashing weapons, the dust that kicks up from character’s feet, the crumbling bits of stone in a pillar about to collapse, and my personal favorite: the smoke explosion when an enemy expires. These are all expertly integrated into the style of the world, going a long way to make you feel immersed in something that looks so outlandish; the sound design flawlessly complements each of these details as well. The fire effects are a wonderful example of how this line between stylized/realistic is expertly managed.
TWW also marks an early datum in an interesting trend which defines mainline console entries since the start of the 3D era, in which set pieces, such as dungeons and/or boss battles, become increasingly complex which each subsequent game. Events like the raising of the Tower of the Gods, the alteration of the dungeon topography itself in the Forbidden Woods, or the sheer scale of the Earth Temple are representative examples, to say nothing of the massive, frozen Hyrule Castle explored at the bottom of the ocean.
Each of these attempts to broaden the scope of what could be achieved in a Zelda game, increasing the literal size of the world and figurative drama of the narrative to further draw the player in. Eventually, this tendency towards successively more elaborate and grandiose self-contained portions of the game would become something of a hindrance (see: Skyward Sword). It was a conscious and aggressive move away from this kind of design which girds many of the decisions made in the development of Breath of the Wild. Still, here in these earlier days of the 3D entries, this instinct was mostly rewarded with quite positive results.
Some Links to the Past
Not one to rest on the laurels of all these myriad technical achievements, TWW is also underpinned by a fantastic story. Echoing the earlier idea that this game is better suited as a successor to OOT, there are so many callbacks to that seminal game that I don’t think I appreciated on my initial playthroughs. Of course, you literally spend time wandering around a limited area of Old Hyrule, but the connective tissue runs far deeper than that. Consider the guardians of the pearls, who actually retain knowledge of the Hero of Time- personally, in the case of the Deku Tree, who canonical materials indicate is none other than OOT’s Deku Tree Sprout all grown up. They speak Ancient Hylian, presumably the dialect that would have been well understood by hylians around the time of OOT.
This is all surprising because to this point, in the real-world chronological release of the times, the ‘lore’ of the series hasn’t really counted for much. The NES games may as well have taken place on another planet, and as such are relegated to the tail end of the Downfall Timeline. OOT was always intended to be a prequel to LTTP, though the relation was rather vague and hand-wavy. MM, while a direct sequel, occurs in a pocket universe, as does LA, and only uses the connection to motivate the initial call to adventure (which is never mentioned again). In light of all that, it’s somewhat striking that key plot points of TWW rely explicitly on the in-world timeline and the deeds and fates of characters in the earlier game. At the time this was red meat for the cottage industry of Zelda Timeline Theorists- setting off yet another endless series of debates that only ceased with the publishing of the official timeline in Hyrule Historia circa 2012.
A fun retcon of SS was to make the evolution/progression of the Goddess Sword to the Master Sword in that game mimic the ‘awakening’ of a weakened Master Sword in TWW. The opening of the ‘wings’ on the hilt was always one of my favorite visual bits from this game:
The pièce de résistance of this whole conceit, however, is the reemergence of Ganondorf as the principal antagonist. “But he turned into a pig monster!” you say. Here in the Adult Timeline, it seems that hundreds of years of imprisonment have given him time to regain his composure as well as human form? [This gimmick, used identically in TP, makes a bit more sense because Ganondorf was still Ganondorf when was sealed/banished…] That strained credulity aside, it’s difficult to deny the heft and gravitas that Ganondorf’s presence brings.
In particular here the character is given a more nuanced motivation for his acts, and the aforementioned expressiveness of the characters makes him come off as tortured and brooding, rather than the more exaggerated/parody villain he was in OOT. Link may not ‘get it’ (see his face in the earlier image), but it adds some depth to the character at the 11th hour, and contextualizes the events of OOT to retroactively make that story a bit more meaningful as well.
The ultimate contrast between Daphnes Nohansen Hyrule and Ganondorf is an excellent beat that gives TWW’s plot a surprising amount of depth. Sure, Link’s gotta collect Import Things to save his sister from danger, and fight Big Bads along the way, but there’s a lot more at stake here. Ganondorf wants to bring Hyrule back. Even after dozens of lifetimes imprisoned in some nether-dimension as punishment for his lust of power and coveting the bounty of Hyrule, he still can’t let it go. Daphnes, too, remains tethered to that past life from ages ago- his castle literally frozen in time until recently when Link withdraws the Master Sword.
That the King realizes at the crucial moment only in letting go of his old life, his old world, can this viscous cycle be broken, is a powerful moment in the story. The resolve with which the final King of Hyrule wishes upon the Triforce to extinguish all that remains of the old land to provide some hope for the future is plain to see… and while the final battle with Ganondorf is still of interest due to the player’s investment in Link and Tetra’s survival, at that point the die has already been cast. Hyrule will disappear, and Ganon’s final attack is merely giving voice to his anguish, rather than any strategic move that still achieve his desired ends.
Strong Female Character
The writing in TWW also quite deftly solves one of the more common grievances with the franchise: that the titular character is often relegated to a mere plot device, and worst still a mere Damsel In Distress. Recall in LTTP where Zelda telepathically calls Link and just sortof assumes that he cares and will help; usually Link just steps up and helps because he is a Solid Dude, and Because Video Games. Here though, the character of Aryl, Link’s sister, is introduced as the one who is missing and must be saved. Having her be Link’s sister, and seeing in the establishing scenes their relationship and how he cares for her, quickly communicates Link’s motivation to take up the quest. Casting Aryl as a young child who cannot fend for herself, while making Tetra an experienced, hyper-capable pirate is progress in terms of giving a main female character a more active role in the story, while also better explaining Link’s own emotional investment.
Unfortunately, old habits die hard. Seemingly the moment we get the big ‘reveal’ that Tetra is in fact the successor to the lineage of Princesses Zelda, she suddenly disappears from the narrative, to ‘stay safe’ below the surface with King Daphnes. The revelation of Tetra’s heritage, accompanied by an outfit change/makeover to a traditionally feminine design, instantly stripping most of her agency (she is subsequently kidnapped) is a pretty huge ‘miss’ for me. The dynamic of Link and Tetra as partners, where she, as the captain and seasoned adventure, has much more power in the relationship was fascinating- to tacitly abandon this in favor of the most trite and shallow trope of the series is such a disappointment.
Sure, she shows up later to shoot some light arrows, and that’s cool, but talk about a squandered chance to do something amazing with such a neat character. This is one of the chief reasons I’m looking forward to Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks, where hopefully Tetra/Zelda has additional opportunities to flex her muscles instead of the truncated arc we got in TWW.
After the hellscape that was AOL, The Wind Waker just seems like the Zelda equivalent of comfort food. Pretty much everything about it is polished and friendly- it’s easy on the eyes, and the themes never get too grim or dark. It’s mostly a fun, swashbuckling adventure that puts a maritime spin on the classic Zelda formula that never really asks too much of the player. In that sense, I guess a criticism might be that it’s too easy…? As much as I do enjoy a challenge from time to time (never a shortage of them, given I’m pretty terrible at games), I think making TWW only a modestly difficult game is a smart decision in keeping with the general tone of the work. The light, airy face it puts on would seem disingenuous when paired to a punishing, tough-as-nails gameplay experience.
Even then, I can’t help but feel like the game is a little too light in places. I was legitimately shocked when, upon tracking down Jabun, he simply gives you the pearl. In-world, this is great! Someone is actually trying to help you for once, by just giving you the thing they have which you need… but in the context of a game, it rings a little hollow. Three McGuffins should have three temples, three bosses, three key items to go with them. It’s well-known that this third temple was cut due to time constraints, and has been theorized that the Fire/Ice mini-dungeons were also supposed to be more fully-developed. That suddenly a measly two sages are supposed to handle saving the world when (as per the magnificent stained glass chamber beneath Hyrule Castle) that was formerly a six/seven person job also just seems a little deflated.
It’s quite obvious that the quest to recover the Triforce of Courage fragments was the band-aid slapped on to pad out the back half of the game, and the rote-ness of this portion was one of the major sticking points in the original incarnation. The HD version remedies this by reducing the number of charts you need to find, making an easy-but-tedious process now just pretty easy. I find myself split on the merits of this quest, even with the streamlining. On the one hand, given the choice, I think I would choose more dungeons, but at the same time, this really gives TWW a chance to lean in on the premise of exploring a big, wide-open world. When evaluated as a whole, that idea seems pretty damn-near essential to the work, and so maybe the Triforce Trawl actually ends up giving the game more of a defined personality that it would otherwise have.
In other corners it’s been suggested that the original intent was to have much more of Old Hyrule be accessible for gameplay. This, far more than the premise of a few extra dungeons, is for me the most tantalizing aspect of what could have been. It certainly would fit with the long-running meta theme of ‘alternate’ worlds (ie: Light/Dark, Child/Adult, Sky/Surface, Hyrule/Lorule, etc.). Imagine that the Triforce quest proceeds normally on the surface, but instead of just hauling up the pieces you find portals to Old Hyrule, where trials await you in ancient yet familiar locations from OOT- and it is there that you recover the missing fragments. This makes even more sense given that the Hero of Time would have been the one to stash the fragments in places well known to him… Alas, I get too distracted thinking about how much I want to play that version of TWW.
Winner: Great and Standard Fairy Designs. This might be notable as the only console entry in the series to feature Great Fairies who are not overtly sexualized for some reason. OOT/MM/TP/BOTW all have this issue; not that I need Zelda games to be aggressively puritan by any means, but it always struck me as out of place in those other titles. That aside, this design has a weird ethereal quality to it that I wish they’d tried to tap in the other iterations (the Fairy Queen takes this to an even spookier place yet still).
Even the standard bottled varieties have a some personality. Look how bummed that little dude is to be stuck in a jar!
Loser: Tingle. As discussed previously, just a big ‘No Thank You’ to whatever the hell his deal is here or basically anywhere else he pops up.
Winner: Swift Sail. It’s fantastic that the Swift Sail is still unavailable for the early portion of HD version the game, forcing you to really relive the complete sailing experience. When you can finally get it, it’s at just the right moment in the game, when some of the novelty of sailing has worn off and the plot starts to pick up, making it preferable to quickly get from place to place.
Such a small addition almost single-handedly justifies the HD remake, turning sailing into an easy, fun mechanic and removing the tedium, almost as if Link himself is become a more capable sailor.
Loser: Rito Design. I never got this design. They’re people, but with half-beaks for noses? So they’re birds? Someone them have wings…? They must, because they fly. And there’s this half-baked lore bit about how they evolved from the Zoras, which is a little silly: why would an aquatic race of people need to evolve wings when the world becomes flooded? I guess maybe the Zora were freshwater folk and couldn’t handle the salinity in the Great Sea… who knows.
Winner: Grandma, who is the best. I did not know this, but you can cure her depression by gifting her a fairy, and she makes you yummy soup which turns out to be a fantastically useful curative item. Each bottle (which she fills for free) has two servings, each of which fully fills hearts/magic, and temporarily doubles your sword damage.
Loser: Ganondorf’s prefrontal cortex. TWW’s final battle ends on an astonishingly violent note, though the sheer power-move of it I would argue ultimately satisfies. To this day, this is one of the strongest images from this game that has stuck with me:
This game aged really well, particularly with the aid of the HD remaster. TWW was a bold experiment at the time whose legacy has come to cement it as one of the most beloved entries in the series. Countless subtle technical achievements create an immersive, comprehensive open-world experience on the ocean totally unlike any Zelda which preceded it. The wealth of charm and personality bestowed on a colorful cast of characters make for such a pleasant experience, while the more lore-heavy focus elevates the story to one of the strongest narratives yet explored for the franchise.
Phantom Hourglass (2DS)