Title  : The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker
Platforms  : Nintendo GameCube
Publisher  : Nintendo
ESRB Rating  : Everyone
Game Rating  : 9.5
Review by  : Ken Gagne

Nintendo is not afraid to innovate, often knowing what gamers want better than gamers do. As examples: Metroid Prime was decried for its first person perspective, yet the final product was infinitely satisfying. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time brought the rarely-visited land of Hyrule into 3D, and is often regarded as one of the best games ever. 

There are exceptions, of course, such as the change in genre from shooter to adventure that Star Fox recently made. It has been with great trepidation that fans watched the progress of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, which not only brought the hero Link to the GameCube, but drew him and his world with the vivid, cartoonish cel-shading technique. Hardly the mature adventure many gamers demanded, this new game, sardonically dubbed "Celda" by pundits, proves to be Zelda nonetheless, despite its surface elements. 

The hero of Wind Waker, though bearing the name and look of the legendary Link, is a different lad from past games, and lives many generations after the events of Ocarina of Time. Many of the play mechanics and villains remain familiar, however. 

In this brave new world, Link spends much time at sea, as his world is primarily a vast ocean dotted with both inhabited and mysterious islands. In this way, a failing inherent to the world's nature is evident early on. The many furlongs that separate the islands are slow and uneventful to traverse. Players can often set sail and walk away from the television for several minutes without missing anything. Later, as Link gains more control over his destinations, the ocean will seem veritably expansive with places to explore, but getting there will almost forever be a nuisance. The first dungeon is repetitive and will leave players not even realizing it is the first dungeon. Later exploits are more obvious and gratifying, though there are only six dungeons — the fewest of any Zelda game I've seen. 

The GameCube controller is not as well suited to Link's exploits as was the N64 pad, but it accomplishes many identical functions. The left shoulder button automatically targets an enemy, allowing Link to stay focused and circle the foe — though admittedly, there's more exploration and puzzle-solving than there is swordplay. I regularly found myself craving each dungeon's end, where the boss might provide my hand-eye coordination with an adequate challenge. Gamers who aren't keen on action sequences will feel right at home here, where even the jumping is automatic whenever Link reaches an edge. 

The directional pad switches to the various map screens, of which there are many. The ocean is mostly uncharted, requiring Link to be both explorer and cartographer, collecting maps that point him to new dungeons and treasures. 

The X, Y, and Z buttons can be designated to any three of Link's items, of which there are many. Even given this flexibility, players will still switch among the items as the environment can change quickly, especially as Link moves between seaward and landlubber. The Z button is also a bit awkward to use, since items are interchangeable among all three buttons while Z requires a different finger from the other two. 

The game's subtitle is taken from the Wind Waker, an item Link acquires early on that gives him control of the wind and various other elements. This tool functions similarly to the ocarina in his Nintendo 64 adventure, casting magic that is called for at precise moments. These minor sequences are irritating only when repeated, such as the several seconds necessary to change the wind every time players wish to sail in a different direction. 

Music plays a role in this new talent, but at other times, the aural component tends to be somewhat low-key, not always proportionate to the action quotient. When sailing the seas, powerful takes on the classic theme fill the sails, but the music settles into the background with quiet tunes as Link plumbs dungeon depths. It provides a useful context clue, alerting players to nearby enemies. 

A new feature for this installment is connectivity with the Game Boy Advance. When Link uses his Tingle Tuner, he summons the aid of a helpful elf who can plant bombs, cast spells, and map areas. The best use for the Tuner is also the simplest: in some perplexing dungeon scenarios, Tingle offers tips on how to proceed, allowing players a nudge in the right direction without cheating. 

The graphics are colorful and vibrant, with fluid animation that retains the flexibility of Link's repertoire. The level of detail and lighting is somewhat lower than in other cel-shaded games such as Dark Cloud 2, however. The water, for example, though a vivid blue color, is comprised almost solely of that, broken only by the occasional white crest. Realistic water effects such as those found in Wave Race are absent, being antithetical to Link's cel-shaded world. The gameplay is absorbing enough that eventually the newness and gimmicky feel that critics may experience will eventually wear off. 

Fine storytelling is evident no matter the presentation, but the drama and difficulty of earlier Zelda games seems to have been lost to a more childlike, comic approach. The humor is scattered and, though effective, feels mildly out of place in a Zelda game. Ultimately, even the bosses feel less intimidating, commanding little of the fear and respect their Nintendo 64 counterparts presented. 

If I have highlighted this game's weaknesses, it is only because so much is expected of it. Despite having a different feel and setting from its predecessors, this game still earns a rank in the franchise, and captivated me through to the end, which Majora's Mask did not. Ocarina of Time was revolutionary, while Wind Waker is not; but compared with its contemporaries, Wind Waker is a sterling adventure game for any console. The tedium of sailing is balanced by the freedom of nearly full access to the large, uncharted world. Whether by land or by sea, Zelda is still legendary.


This article is copyright (c) 2003, 2007 by Ken Gagne. All rights reserved. Not to be distributed without permission.

Original publication: Tech News, 15-Apr-03