Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Wind Waker HD

Post-Launch Review
The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD
Developer: Nintendo EAD
Released: September 2013 (original version released December 2002)
Played: complete in 27h:40min


A boy named Link is celebrating his birthday on Outset Island when his sister is snatched by a giant masked bird in a case of mistaken identity. Link sets sail to save his sister, but gets pulled in to a greater conflict. An ancient evil has returned: Ganondorf seeks the sunken kingdom of Hyrule, and the ultimate power granted by the legendary Triforce.

At Launch 

The Gamecube version of Wind Waker received average review scores of 96%.  Reviewers loved the art style (despite the poor reception pre-launch) and enjoyed the game's humour, combat, and variety. The late-game Triforce quest was criticized for an overreliance on sailing that became tedious. Wind Waker was immediately and widely rated one of the best Gamecube games ever made.

Post Launch

Wind Waker HD bumps the graphics up to full 1080p resolution with some added visual effects. Menus are moved to the Wii U's touchscreen. A few gameplay elements were shortened or streamlined to improve the flow of the game (Triforce quest, grappling hook animations, hidden Swift Sail, etc). Tingle Bottles add a bit of online communication, and a new difficulty setting (Hero Mode) is available immediately.

I originally played Wind Waker on the Gamecube in high school ten years ago. I've always remembered it as being one of my favourite games, even though I hadn't touched it since 2004. Recently I finally decided to pick up the Wii U bundle (Smash Bros is coming soon, must be prepared) and replay Wind Waker in HD.

It was an excellent decision.

The HD remake is a massive improvement on an already great-looking game. Textures, edges, and lines are very sharp, making the cartoon art style look extremely crisp. Vibrant colour and high contrast make character and monster designs really stand out. The detailing on wood textures and water stood out to me: sharp and minimal, but perfectly conveying the material. If I recall correctly, the new bloom effects were somewhat controversial before the game was released, but I think they do a good job of making a sunny day look warm. Another relatively minor graphical feature that popped out to me is that when you steal trophy items with the grappling hook, those items are actually removed from the enemy's model. Neat.

Combat is incredibly smooth. Sword strikes are emphasized with bright colour trails, and every hit is accented with a music note so that you create your own music as you attack. As always, Link uses a shield, but if you aren't blocking and you have good reflexes, you can score counterattacks on your current target, which really helps combat feel more active. Enemies are quite varied and are vulnerable to different attacks or gear, so you have to stay on your toes and mind your equipment - but equipping and using items is fast and doesn't interrupt the flow of combat. Once you get the hang of things you'll be smoothly burning ghosts with your mirror shield, counterattacking heavy knights, and sniping wizards all in the same fight. It feels like a very highly polished action RPG.

But my favourite gameplay element of Wind Waker is the exploration. The variety of activities and side quests is huge. The basic elements are filling out your sea chart (by baiting map fish) and salvaging sunken treasure (by matching your location with treasure maps). These alone kept me going for hours, but there are all kinds of minigames and side quests and hidden locations. You can play Battleship, boat race, or compete in a gliding endurance run. You can take photos of characters and monsters and turn them into collectible figurines. On Windfall Island alone, you can repair the ferris wheel and lighthouse, become a photographic apprentice, catch a thief, deal with delinquent schoolchildren, learn a secret song, help a merchant grow his business, participate in auctions, hunt pigs, earn a villa deed, and more. The map may initially seem pretty empty with all that open sea and such small amounts of land, but with so much to do and so many secrets the world ends up feeling bigger than it looks. And a lot of quests and areas don't open up until later in the game, so it's important to revisit islands. My play time of almost 28 hours included a lot of sailing around hunting for secrets and upgrades.

Since I just mentioned sailing, I might as well talk about one of the new features: the swift sail. This optional sail increases your boat's speed, which is pretty nice because sailing can take a long time before you unlock the travel upgrade. It also creates favourable wind wherever you turn, which I kind of don't like because it means you have to control the wind less, which sort of takes away from this Link's title, Hero of Winds. But overall it's nice. The problem is that it's very easy to miss - the swift sail is obtained only from the night auction on Windfall Island, which many players might not even realize exists if they don't re-explore the whole island at night.

The biggest new feature is how Wind Waker HD uses the Wii U's touchscreen controller. Your inventory, sea charts, and bottles are on the controller's screen, meaning you don't have to pause and navigate menus to switch items or charts (though you can still pause to swap stuff if you want to). The inventory is nice enough - no pausing keeps gameplay flowing - but I really enjoyed looking down to the charts because it made me feel like I was holding an actual map in my hands.

You might've noticed that I said bottles are also on the touchscreen. The bottles are a new online feature that reminds me strongly of the message system from Demon's Souls and Dark Souls. Players can write messages or draw pictures, put them in bottles, and throw them into the sea for other players to find. You can also put photos into bottles and pass them along for other players to unlock in their figurine gallery, which is very helpful if you missed some bosses or unlocked the colour pictobox late in the game.

My favourite thing about Wind Waker is the antagonist. Wind Waker's villain is the same Ganondorf as in Ocarina of Time, but here he's a melancholic, half-crazy old man who can't let go of the past. This Ganondorf is surprisingly sympathetic - thoroughly evil, but with a simple and pure motivation that adds a good deal of depth to the character, reframing his actions in Ocarina of Time. The final boss battle is one of my all-time favourites (highlight for spoilers): a sword duel with Ganondorf atop the tallest tower of sunken Hyrule, in the midst of crashing sheets of ocean as the sea collapses into the old kingdom to bury it forever.

I love this game but I can't say it's completely flawless. The two weakest points (which still aren't bad by any means) are the story slowdowns and the dialogue. The story is strong at the beginning, middle, and end, but there are fairly lengthy slumps in between where you're mostly just sailing around collecting stuff. While there are some intriguing twists to the Zelda mythology and good characterization, the overall formula isn't really anything new for the series. The other weak point is dialogue - not in the writing, but in the fact that it's all text and no voice. When Wind Waker first released on the Gamecube this wasn't particularly unusual, especially for Nintendo's titles, but the complete lack of spoken dialogue is quite noticeable today for a major console release, and it's the only thing about the game that feels dated.

As a final note, I can't finish this review without mentioning the music. The overall soundtrack is quite strong, but I particularly love the main theme and a couple of specific tracks (like sailing, Dragon Roost Island, or the Molgera and Phantom Ganon battles). I'm a little bit disappointed that the soundtrack wasn't redone with a full orchestra because the bits from the 25th anniversary symphony tour are phenomenal, but the music is still great.

Recommendation: play it.

If I hadn't played Wind Waker when it came out, I'd find it hard to believe that this was a game originally launched in 2003. It was so far ahead of its time that even now it feels like it could've been released yesterday. Wind Waker has a crisp, strikingly beautiful art style, tons of variety and exploration, and excellent combat. The upgrades and new features in the HD version make an already great game even better. Wind Waker is one of my favourites and I recommend it very highly.


  1. Voice acting in a Zelda game?

    1. Tradition for the sake of tradition isn't good enough for me. "Because Zelda has never had voice acting" is not a good reason not to have voice acting.

      Besides, I only said it felt dated, not that it ruined the game or anything.