Setting Sail: The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker

The best example of the classic Zelda formula.

A landscapeshot of the game's various cast of characters, with Link at the center.

At 25YL, we love gaming, and moreover, we love The Legend of Zelda series. That’s why we’re going to cover the entire Nintendo Franchise, including handheld games, every week. This week, we are taking a look at The Wind Waker.

How do you follow up Majora’s Mask, a game that was itself a sequel to one of the most critically praised games ever made? Especially when it completely ejected the tone the series was known for, and implemented extremely experimental mechanics such as an ever ticking clock? If you’re Nintendo, you do so by going back to basics, refining classic stories, and giving the series a gorgeous new art style. The Wind Waker expanded on the original formula while introducing a massive overworld and controversial cartoony graphics. Some people don’t like it, and to call it flawless would be simply wrong. But, to me, it’s the best execution of the classic Zelda story introduced in A Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time.

Link sets off to save his sister with a bunch of pirates when she’s kidnapped by a giant bird. It’s a simple setup, classic hero’s journey stuff. The player explores the quaint Outset Island before embarking on a seafaring journey across the Great Ocean that eventually escalates into a battle for the fate of the world. On paper, there’s nothing really special about this story. It’s basic young hero saves the world stuff, but it’s the way the game slowly escalates the stakes that make the game so effective in its storytelling.

It’s because all the “chosen hero stopping Ganondorf” nonsense doesn’t really start until about halfway through the game. Link, who up until that point had lived on Outset Island all his life, sets out into the larger world to save his sister, which is arguably more noble than simply being a hero fated by the Gods to save everyone. The game lets you explore the world, become familiar with iconic locations such as Dragon Roost Island and Windfall Island, and get a sense of the people who live there. That way, when the larger stakes are revealed, you actually give a damn about what’s happening.

A big part of what makes the game work is its visuals. They were controversial at the time. Fans wanted a darker, more realistic Zelda, and instead Nintendo gave them a cartoony Link with huge, expressive eyes. Character models are similarly unrealistic, with exaggerated features that could never happen in real life. Some thought, “Wind Waker? More like Wind Wanker!” (That’s my degree hard at work, folks). I loved it then, and I still do now. Even in the original Gamecube release, the visuals have aged very well.

Link stands on a dock on Windfall Island, his curious eyes darting from side to side.
While the original Gamecube version hasn’t aged perfectly, the art design still looks fantastic…

To me, realistic art designs only go so far. A big reason I play video games is to escape from the real world. The real world is boring most of the time and filled with things that want to kill you other times (there’s a hawk in my complex that sounds like a dying squirrel, but I’m too smart to fall for its tricks). It’s why gaming’s fascination with being as realistic as possible kind of baffles me. Like, I enjoy a lot of games with realistic art styles, but I also appreciate games with stylized visuals that really transport you to a new world. It’s why I love Wind Waker’s style so much. It’s charming as all hell, and almost feels like a high budget animated movie come to life. To call it childish is to grossly oversimplify its perfect feeling of adventure.

Much like many classic children’s films, the game can be appreciated by pretty much anyone. Kids will love it for its graphics and charming character designs, while adults will appreciate its bigger themes of burying the past. See, the Great Ocean, the game setting, is actually the mountaintops of Ocarina of Time’s Hyrule. The goddesses flooded it when Ganon, but not the Hero of Time, came back. Ganondorf reveals that he wanted to conquer Hyrule because the place he comes from is harsh and dangerous, while Hyrule’s land is abundant and life sustaining.

With the King of Red Lions, Link’s boat, actually being the King of Hyrule, it’s revealed that he just wants to bury the past and needs Link’s help to do it. There’s nothing left of the Hyrule that once was, and only looking to the future will bring any kind of harmony to the world. But Ganondorf is actually kind of sympathetic here. After all, wouldn’t you try and do something about it if you found a better place to live?

Link again stands on Windfall Island, but the HD version makes it look crisper. There are shadows and more textures. The windmill off in the distance spins along by the sea.
…but even a purist like me will admit the HD rerelease for the WiiU is absolutely jaw dropping.

But Link also undergoes a more intimate, personal arc as well. At the end of the game, with the world having been saved, Link leaves his Outset Island, most likely never to return. There’s a final shot of his sister Aryll running down the dock and holding in tears as she smiles and waves goodbye to her brother. He leaves because he understands that returning home would be a peaceful but ultimately dull and pointless existence. Like other games in the series, Link seriously comes of age in a wonderful way in Wind Waker. It’s a wonderfully emotional and bittersweet finale to a game that embodies themes of moving on from the past and redemption.

The gameplay is no slouch either. The first chunk of the game is fairly linear as you bounce between islands and completing a few dungeons, but you also manage to do some greater exploration, going between the game’s 49 locations in search of treasure. The dungeons on offer here are solid enough, if a bit on the easy side (really, the whole game could be argued to be too easy). There are also only a small handful, with five main dungeons before the final one. Many didn’t like this at the time, but like Majora’s Mask before it, Wind Waker instead chooses to flesh out its overworld into an organic, living place filled with opportunity for discovery.

I have a capital O Opinion to state. I like the sailing in this game. It seems the majority of people who play it detest it, calling it a waste of time. And, to be fair, the original Gamecube release (the only version I’ve played) can get tedious at times, mainly with having to use the titular Wind Waker to change the direction of the wind. But to me, it emphasizes the journey and getting lost in the world. Sure, your objective might annoyingly be on the other side of the map, but that means you can take some scenic detours and explore an island. It almost reminds me of playing pretend when I was a kid, except the game itself transports you into this vast, imaginative world with plenty to unearth.

And yes, this capital O Opinion, extends to the late game Triforce quest. You need to bring up 8 pieces of the Triforce from the ocean floor in order to get to the final game. Again, most people hate it, but I enjoy it. It forces you to appreciate the world on offer here and even though it doesn’t always clearly guide you, the Great Ocean is one of the series’ best worlds. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say that up until Breath of the Wild, it was the best world.

Link sails in the King of Red Lions along the Great Ocean
A lot of people don’t like the sailing, but I think it adds to the sense of exploration and scale.

It doesn’t hurt that it has what is arguably the absolute best soundtrack in the entire series, utilizing Celtic influences that feels unique to the series. Instead of the wonderful but fairly typical epic fantasy stuff, instead we’re given something more light hearted. From Windfall Island’s happy go lucky charm, to the overworld’s spectacular use of bass, and even just the title theme, this game is a true treat for the ears.

All of this adds up to a formulaic adventure where every part of the game’s design complements the other. Its over arcing themes of burying the past are reflected in the at-the-time new visual style, and in both its overall arc of stopping Ganondorf, and in Link’s leaving from home at the end. Its world is vast, filled with memorable characters and a jaw dropping amount of stuff to discover. Its soundtrack feels as grand as anything ever produced by Hollywood, only here, you’re in charge of the adventure. To me, these parts all come together in a way that no other game in the series has apart from Majora’s Mask.

Ocarina of Time may have brought the series formula into 3D in a huge way, Twilight Princess may have delivered a darker tone, and Breath of the Wild may have the biggest, most secret-packed world in the entire series, but for me, Wind Waker beats them all. Its structure is tight, gradually opening the world up to the player in a satisfying way, and it delivers a message to players of all ages that other games in the series don’t.

When I was a kid, I cried at the ending, but I was too young to fully understand why. I do now. See, the game isn’t really about saving the world. Instead, it’s about taking that first step into adulthood. It’s about taking that first step into forging your own path. It’s a wonderful, challenging, and sometimes scary thing becoming independent. I think I cried as a kid, because, somewhere deep down, I knew that I would eventually have to take that first step. And once I did, there was no going back.

The Wind Waker is, in a word, magical.

Written by Collin Henderson

Collin enjoys gaming, reading, and writing. He would love to tell you all about his two books, the crime thriller Lemon Sting, and the short horror story collection Silence Under Screams, but only if you find yourself unfortunate enough to be in a conversation with him. He lives in Massachusetts.


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  1. It’s hard to imagine now that these graphics were controversial at the time, as in hindsight they are clearly so beautiful and perfectly suited to the game. The HD remake is the best version to play, mainly because the updated Sailing system just works a lot better and makes sailing a breeze (pun intended). I love this game, and it’s the sign of a great Zelda game where you don’t mind getting lost and absorbed in the world. And while Breath of the Wild is an incredible achievement with a very beautiful and engrossing world, I would welcome another game like Wind Waker.

    • I would absolutely LOVE a game that has the design philosophy/ structure of BOTW, but the sense of adventure and sailing/ exploration of Wind Waker. In many ways, WW was a precursor to BOTW with how much of an emphasis it placed on its overworld.

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