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In 2000, Nintendo released a demo featuring short snippets of teasers from a variety of their popular titles to showcase the GameCube’s capabilities and the new graphics that they would be presenting in later titles. Among these teasers was a brief scene of Link and Ganon locked in combat. The few seconds of animation whipped the fan community into a flurry of excitement. Zelda fans were still reeling from the masterpiece that was Majora’s Mask and we were beside ourselves with excitement to see just what Nintendo was planning for us. From the teaser, we had all assumed that the next Zelda release would be dark, gritty, and boast semi-realistic graphics similar to those seen during the teaser. Three years later, The Legend of Zelda: Windwaker was released. The long and short of it is that fans were thrown off their collective seats. The game met with weeks of outrage from fans, especially in North America, for the perceived bait and switch treatment that we received. The grim, realistic game that we had hoped for turned out to be a bright, colorful game with comical character models.
While I was not among those who initially rejected the game on face value, I was a little disappointed to say the least. Yet my disappointment did not last for long as I found that the graphics presented were actually impressive and the world was hardly sunshines and unicorn toots. As an artist, I perhaps had a better idea of how difficult it was to successfully accomplish such a clean, crisp presentation of even seemingly simplistic models and environments. In the end, Windwaker blew my mind. When I heard that Windwaker was being given an HD makeover to showcase the Wii U’s graphics and it was coming out on its own Zelda-themed console, I spent months saving up. The week it was released, my sister and I rushed down to the store to pick up the console with the game pre-loaded into it.
Now before I go on, I do want to point out that the original Windwaker was addressed in an earlier review, so a lot of this will focus on the new content, visuals, and mechanics rather than going into a lot of detail on the overall story as that has remained unchanged from the original.
Windwaker opens with a legend that has been passed down through the generations following the conclusion of Ocarina of Time. It recounts the story of the Hero of Time and his defeat of “The Dark One” as well as the hero’s mysterious disappearance following the great battle. The Dark One re-emerges from his bonds, this time without anyone to oppose him, and the people are forced to turn to the gods for salvation. The gods answer in the form of a global flood that sweeps the land of Hyrule away into a great, vast ocean. The survivors of the flood attempted to re-establish their kingdom from the high places of the world, passing down the legend of the great hero who once saved them from evil and clothing their youths in green in hopes of one day having such a hero return to them.
We are then introduced to the hero of the story, and once again Link is laying face down asleep. Aryll, Link’s younger sister, seeks him out and reminds him that today is his birthday and encourages him to speak with their grandmother. Link does so and is unwillingly roped into complying with the tradition of wearing the green tunic of the hero. He obliges his grandmother and steps outside to show off his new attire to his sister. Aryll insists that it’s only for a day and tries to cheer Link up by giving him a gift of her own: her precious spyglass. Through the lens, Link witnesses an incoming pirate ship attempting to shoot a massive bird out of the sky. The pirates manage to clip the monster, startling it enough to force its burden from its talons, but it flies off otherwise unharmed. Its victim, a young girl, plunges from the sky into the nearby forest. After gaining a sword and a short lesson in how to use it, Link charges up to the forest cresting his home Isle of Windfall, and seeks out the fallen pirate who then reveals herself as Tetra, the captain of the crew waiting offshore.
Upon a successful rescue, Link and Tetra make their way back down towards the town. A shadow plunges from the sky, snatching up the defenseless form of Aryll, who had been eagerly awaiting her brother’s return. Link, apparently a leap before you think sort, charges after the bird and nearly takes a tumble into the sea below. Tetra snatches him from a disastrous fall, and the two are forced to watch the massive bird fly off with Aryll in its talons. After a short, tear-jerking goodbye to his grandmother, Link sets out with Tetra and her gang of pirates to save his sister. It’s revealed that she’s being kept at an old pirate’s cove now known as “The Forsaken Fortress.” After being shot out of a canon in what has to be the most hilarious scene of the game, Link scales the towering fortress and finds his sister imprisoned beside several other young girls. He’s quickly and easily snuffed out by the very same monster-bird that kidnapped Aryll and is thrown into the sea for his efforts. Link is knocked unconscious through the ordeal and awakens far from the pirates in an unfamiliar sail-powered boat. To his surprise, said boat is able to speak with him.
Link, accompanied by the boat the King of Red Lions, sets off in a massive adventure on the endless sea of Hyrule to gain the strength and courage to take on the darkness consuming the world. He encounters entities of old, a variety of colorful races, and is forced to brave dungeons filled with monsters in order to accomplish his goal, save his sister, and put an end to the darkness that the hero of old left behind.
Windwaker begins with a story that touches on unnamed gods being the source for the worldwide flood. These gods are mentioned here and there as the story progresses, but they are never named or given any defining characteristics. While the contrast to the global flood of Noah is powerful, it’s kept vague. Other than that, there are frightening forces of evil within the games, specifically in the earth temple. The terrifying redeads are back along with bubbles, flaming flying skulls, and poes which are essentially angry ghosts.
For the majority of the game, on-screen violence is pretty mild. Link uses a sword against his enemies. When Link lands a blow there’s a striking sound and the enemies react. When they die, they fall over and vanish in a puff of smoke. There is absolutely no blood or gore to be seen, no limbs falling off, etc. However, there are skeletons and bones here and there, and animated corpses in the form of redeads and stalfos. They’re presented in a cartoony fashion, but there’s something unsettling about them nonetheless.
One thing to note is that Link plunges his sword into the forehead of a certain notable opponent. While there’s no blood and gore, the screen lingers on the sword and its new resting place. For a cartoony game, this is pretty violent. I believe that the game got away with more violence than most other Zelda titles because of the style. Had this moment been relieved in any other Zelda game or style, it may have been cause for a bump in the game’s rating.
There’s no mention of drugs, but there is a tavern. While alcohol is not directly referenced, an assumption of consumption is built into the location.
The Windwaker is an upbeat, happy game on the surface. The deeper, somber, and spiritual messages are easy to miss in the light-hearted way that the story is presented and how the characters present themselves. In this installment of The Legend of Zelda, we are presented with arguably the youngest Link in the series. He has clearly already known tragedy in his life as he is being raised by a single grandmother in place of a mother and a father. There’s little mention of his parents or his grandfather, but it’s very clear that his grandmother clings to her two grandchildren as the only two precious things that she has left in the world.
The family dynamic is the most powerful in any of the Zelda games. Link has a deep, profound love and respect for his grandmother and he will do anything to honor her. In a culture where parents and elders are so often disrespected, it’s very refreshing to see a character like Link. He’s also a compassionate, stronger older brother. Not once do we see him tease or torment his younger sister. He takes any jabs to his own character with a smile or a shrug. Link’s respect for his family and the lengths that he’s willing to go for them is something that’s very endearing and actually getting to be a bit of a rarity these days.
Link’s family isn’t the only one that the game focuses on either. The character Komali is outright traumatized following the death of his own grandmother. He’s lost his courage, and he has become something of a disappointment to his father. Nowhere is his mother to be seen so again, we’re looking at a very young character with high regard for his family who’s suffering from a personal loss. Tetra, yet another orphan, is raised by pirates and has created a surrogate family for herself. All these broken households somehow find strength and resolve through Link, a child whose own household has been shattered. Komali finds his courage and rises to become a strong successor to his father following Link’s example. In assisting Link, Tetra and her crew throw themselves into the conflict for the greater good and show that there’s a few diamonds in the rough.
Windwaker HD is played using the Wii U Gamepad and while I was skeptical at first, I found the adjustment to be a fairly quick and easy one. While the game gives you the option to use the Wii U Pro Controller, I found that the gamepad actually improved the gameplay. The controls are generally the same; my hands sat just a few more inches apart than they would have been on the GCN controller which I actually found to be comfortable. I never had a problem reaching any of the buttons and the new controls really did not disrupt my gameplay in the slightest.
The gamepad really adds a lot of convenience to the gameplay. For one, you can have your map displayed on the pad as you sail around, so you save precious moments from flipping back and forth to a map while sailing and instead can just glance down at your gamepad to see where you are. Accessing your inventory is just as simple as well. The items are displayed on the screen and with a tap you could switch them out quickly.
The main item of the game, the Windwaker, is a tool in which Link calls upon the spirits of the wind to change the direction of the air currents around him. He must direct his the baton in the correct direction and time it perfectly in order to perform a successful spell. It’s very similar to the ocarina from Ocarina of Time in function as there are a variety of songs with a variety of effects to them when played. The gamepad makes this process much easier by displaying the songs that have been learned so you don’t have to keep flipping back and forth to the song sheets and the main screen to play the right song. Instead, you can tap the song you want and the correct notes will be displayed, allowing you to hit the right notes the first time. Changing the wind was a constant thing in the old version, but in the HD version, it’s really only essential during puzzles and dungeons. I can hardly remember my own cell phone number, much less a plethora of songs, so this feature was a very welcome addition to the formula.
As an added bonus, if the TV was in demand for someone else to use, I could swap to playing the game entirely on the gamepad while someone else flipped the channel to watch TV. So long as the Wii U was left on, the Wii U is in range of the gamepad, and I didn’t run out my charge, I could play uninterrupted. Mind, the charge doesn’t last that long. I highly doubt anyone in their right mind would take their gamepad out for a few hours and play on the subway or anything else, but it was nice to be able to retreat back to my room and continue playing without interrupting anyone else’s viewing schedule.
In addition to the ease of navigation thanks to the gamepad, Windwaker HD introducesthe Swift Sail, an item that you can use in place of the standard Sail on the King of the Red Lions. Before, you could spend a lot of idle time just sailing from one square to the next, stopping to change the wind’s direction, sailing for a bit, stopping, changing the wind, sailing a little more, rinse and repeat. With the swift sail, not only does your boat move like a jet, but the wind is also always at your back. You can sail freely without having to stop and change the wind. This item is available early on in the game within the Auction House at Windfall Island following the completion of the first dungeon. It saves literal hours of gameplay and allowed me to enjoy the visuals of the sea rather than having to fight and grind against the wind for every inch of progress I made on the map.
Another fun feature added to the game are the Tingle Bottles. The camera returns from the GCN Windwaker, as does the figurine gallery, but the developers obviously had a lot of fun making fun of our selfie culture and decided that Link needed to join in the insanity. The camera now allows you to snap selfies of Link, change his expressions, and send them out in Tingle Bottles that will be sent over the Nintendo Network and hidden within the games of others playing. I found quite a few gems, each with hilarious captions and wonderful moments. Some were quite impressive and others weren’t exactly mature, but it was all in good fun. It’s such a small feature but you could spend hours trying to out-do everyone with your own photos. Sometimes, it costs a heart or two, but it’s all in the name of art.
Or social media.
The game also brings back “Hero Mode,” a mode that you can unlock upon completing the game. In this mode, the difficulty is increased, Link wears his starting outfit, and you are challenged to stay alive with only three hearts and less heart drops out of enemies. It’s very difficult and I’ll never beat it, but metagamers will enjoy it.
Just about everything else plays the same way as in the original GCN version. Combat is expanded upon in that enemies require a bit of strategy to defeat. Earlier Zelda games were simple hack and slash games but Windwaker set the course for strategy-based combat and using various elements from the environment to get the better of the enemy. Some enemies have heavy armor, for example, and they will deflect direct attacks. Link can perform a rolling slash attack if he guards until the right moment, dodges the attack, and leaps up behind the enemy, slashing through the straps holding the armor on. This leaves the enemy without his chest plate, opening a hole in his defenses. It sounds harder than it actually is, but it takes some time to master. Windwaker also allows Link to steal the weapons of his enemy—if they’re dull enough to drop them—and use them himself. This is a mechanic that’s really a lot of fun and it added to the experience and strategy of combat. The gamepad did nothing to complicate the combat process or slow it down. I was in control of my actions and any screw-ups I might have made were my own fault, not that of the hardware.
Link also is able to sneak, crawl, hide in barrels a-la-Metal Gear Solid, and tip-toe to avoid conflict or detection. This is essential in the first stages of the game and comes in very handy later on. Again, the mechanics are very similar to those of the original release so I won’t expand on them here. The bottom line is that the HD version has taken already wonderful controls and mechanics and improved upon them. The mechanics that were weak or lacking were combed over and given upgrades. All in all, I prefer the gameplay mechanics of the HD version over the original if only for the ease of use. I can focus on the game itself rather than muddling myself up over controls.
Windwaker HD was Nintendo’s way of boasting the graphic capabilities of their new system and it certainly shows, as it is stunning to look at. The gameplay and cutscenes merge together without a seam, the animations are more fluid and natural, and what sharp edges and crude finishes that the old textures had are completely gone. Visually, there’s much more depth to the models and environments than before. The colors just come alive. The sunsets and sunrises are absolutely stunning, bathing the world in glowing golden colors. In all seriousness, the visuals of Windwaker look like they could be right out of a 3D animated feature rather than a video game.
I never personally had a problem with the graphics or style of Windwaker. I found Windwaker Link to be the most expressive, animated incarnation of the hero within the series. He is still the silent protagonist (if you don’t count his screaming, which happens a lot) but he speaks volumes. The other characters within the games are designed with so much personality and unique charm that it really just adds to the world. Zelda games have always been very good about giving even the minor characters some depth to them and Windwaker is certainly no exception.
Finally, the music is incredible. I have always loved the soundtrack to Windwaker for its atmosphere and its stacks of memorable tunes. The Opening Theme, The Legendary Hero, and the theme of Dragonroost Island are three of my favorites. The music perfectly captures the environment, the mood, and the culture to which it’s assigned. Even as stand-alone music without any context behind it, it’s fantastic. The music was given the same polish as the rest of the game’s presentation and it’s well worth another listen.
I loved the original Windwaker, even in the face of all the disappointment and drama surrounding it. The remake not only brings forward an out and out classic to a new console, but it improves on it. The weak points were strengthened, the strong points were refined further, and the game was released as a more solid version than the original. Newcomers to the series and returning players alike will find something to love about Windwaker HD.
The Bottom Line
The Legend of Zelda: The Windwaker HD takes an old gem and puts a new shine on it. Visually, the game is heart-breakingly beautiful, the characters are unforgettable, the story is very strong, and it's a game that can be played over and over and still have new charm added to every run. If anything, this game gives Nintendo consumers a reason to pick up a Wii U console.