Oh, how I hated The Wind Waker. I distinctly remember the disappointment of discovering how much less realistic in style the aesthetic was compared to Ocarina of Time – I remember how much I lost interest in it during the first run of the Forsaken Fortress, left to the side so more time could be spent on its preorder premium bonus disc containing the afore-mentioned N64 classic.
Oh, how I now love The Wind Waker. It was roughly half a decade after the disappointment of my nine-year old, idiotic self that I came to realize the true artistry of the title – and when it came to be my favorite in the series (a position it still holds to this day). For it is in the endless oceans and mysterious islands of The Wind Waker that I tend to believe Zelda finally mastered its most basic purpose: to embody adventure.
Back in the early months of 2003, I saw a new Zelda game was set to be released for the Gamecube just in time for my birthday. Little did I know that by preordering The Wind Waker, I would receive a copy of Ocarina of Time. After playing through the more realistic anime stylings of the wooded-and-hilly Hyrule, the whimsical palm trees and gentle waves of The Wind Waker felt like a mild insult. I played it for a few hours and went right back to Ocarina like nothing happened.
Fast forward a few years and I decided to give it another chance; it seemed a waste to let it sit there. Being older, wiser and more actively aware of the narrative and artistic elements that tend to magically reveal themselves upon becoming older and wiser, I went back into The Wind Waker. It was true love at second sight.
I was thoroughly shocked to discover just how much it built upon the mythos laid down in Ocarina of Time, taking it and twisting its form and meaning into new and fresh ways. Even though The Wind Waker was almost entirely different in tone and style, it felt like the most natural way to evolve Ocarina. Those royal blue waves rolling across the screen gave way to a fuller, more fleshed out realm of adventure than Hyrule Field could ever hope to. The Great Sea was just so damn big. It was impossible to not get lost in at times.
Sure, some may decry the sailing as excessive and endless – but it honestly didn’t faze me. Something about the sheer size of the world just made you feel small. Your Link is positively dwarfed by this endless plane of blue, bound by a horizon dotted with tantalizing shadows obscuring untold secrets. Who knows what that one island out there would hold? Will it even really be an island, or some giant reef or random platform? No other Zelda has captured the mystery of the unknown as well as The Wind Waker.
It’s in this sense of mystery from which the sense of adventure evolves. If you know the general gist of a world, there’s no questing to be enjoyed from traversing it. It’s a phrase that’s so cliché it’s become a cliché to call it a cliché, but it really does hold true in this scenario: it’s not the destination, but the journey that matters. The Wind Waker is Zelda’s best case of crafting a world built for the journey; a world made not of hubs and branching locations, but of seamless seas and open-ended locations.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that The Wind Waker also boasts one of the better stories in the series, along with the best cast of central characters no less. The stories in the Zelda series have never truly met their potential, always content to suggest potentially intriguing plot threads only to leave them woefully ignored. Also, the writing is consistently below acceptable levels throughout the entire franchise.
But if one Zelda game were to be chosen for the level of its story, it would have to be The Wind Waker. The characters are particularly interesting and draw you into their plights; the events of the plot feel natural and progressively immersive; some of the specific scenes are actually pretty well written (namely near the climax). Again, it’s in the heart of the characters where The Wind Waker’s story really shines. Their various side stories come in second place only to those of the masterful Majora’s Mask in terms of the emotion they inspire.
Oh, but that art style. I don’t think it’s debatable that the biggest controversy in the Zelda fan community’s history is the one that surrounded the initial reveal of The Wind Waker. It was such a dramatic departure from what we had been led to believe “Gamecube Zelda” would look like. Again, my obnoxious twit of a nine-year old self thought it looked too “cartoon-y” and debunked it based solely on this notion.
And yet, you’d now be hard-pressed to find a video game critic who doesn’t say The Wind Waker’s art direction was a good move. It’s given it a sense of agelessness that’s simply not present in the more “realistically styled” games (which I still maintain are hardly realistically styled). Playing Twilight Princess on an HDTV is an exercise in discomfort, whereas The Wind Waker can sit proudly with modern games being released today, not showing a single gray hair. Not to mention the artistic style itself is quite beautiful; it’s simplicity somehow allowing for a more emotive world.
However, if I were to truly pick a part of the aesthetic to place on a pedestal, it would have to be the soundtrack. The music of The Wind Waker easily ranks among the best of the series. The melodies are classic and memorable, and their rhythms are particularly emotional. The Celtic drumbeats, grounding folk strings and mystical flutes meld together with the aesthetic direction to craft a sense of timeless beauty. Not only is The Wind Waker a game about endless adventure, it’s also a game about art. It’s a subtle art at that – one that sneaks up on you and pulls you in.
The Wind Waker still feels fresh to me, another half-decade later. So much of Zelda is built upon layers of nostalgia. Yet, it just so happens that I fell in love with The Wind Waker quite a bit after the age when nostalgic memories can arise. It forever exists as the new Zelda game on the horizon, where so much of the series to be released after it paradoxically feels older. It’s like it always has winds in its sails, endlessly moving just out of the reach of the cluttered nostalgia that sometimes threatens to infect the claustrophobic fields of Hyrule.
The Wind Waker maintains its legacy. It’s not a breath of fresh air for the series – it’s a relentless gust of wind that turns it all upside down and right back up again, thoroughly renewed and refreshed. Those endless seas and little dots on the horizon always sound the call to adventure. Can anyone really resist?