If you’ve ever had the misfortune of drinking with me and bringing up the subject of video games, you’ll have suffered through me telling you how Wind Waker isn’t just my favourite Zelda game of all time, it’s my favourite game of all time.
Note I say my favourite, and not the best. For one, I’m not going to tell you what the best game is. Horses for courses, etc. And secondly, Wind Waker had some serious issues, which I was able to overlook in 2003 but which I concede are totally justifiable reasons to hate the game.
I’ll get to those later. For now, the good stuff. Apologies if this reads as something of a love letter to a decade-old game, but this is an HD version of a decade-old game, and I do love it, and plenty of people haven’t played this game and should, so indulge me!
At least as far as my tastes in gaming go, this is the perfect game. It’s escapism at its finest. Even Skyrim, the poster child for open-world questing, has its boundaries. Wind Waker laughs at the notion of boundaries. If there’s an island you can visit it, if there’s a door you can open it. You don’t need to dock to get out of your ship, you can just… jump out. Or fly over it. Pretty much anywhere.
There are no loading screens. Few segmented areas. For the most part, once the game loads at bootup, that’s it. The transition from the open sea to an island town and back to the sea is seamless, and wonderful, giving you a sense of freedom and cohesiveness to the world that no other Zelda game — or maybe any game — comes close to.
And what a world it is. I flirt between wanting to holiday there, or just move there entirely. The blue skies, the bluer seas, the rich green grass, the cool sea breeze! There’s visible wind in this game! Not even Far Cry 3 can make a game feel so sunny. It must be physically impossible to feel sad playing this game. Or cold.
If it’s not the world putting a smile on your face, it’s the game’s combat. When people talk about Wind Waker, it’s the aesthetic that starts the conversation, and sometimes even ends it, which is a pity, because that overshadows perhaps the game’s other strongpoint: a swift, elegant and even musical combat system that’s a joy to partake in. It’s smooth as butter.
Look at me. I’m talking about a 2003 game like it’s a new release, telling you all about it as if you had no idea what’s going on. But that’s exactly how you should treat it, and I suspect is partly why Nintendo chose to release this game, ahead of others in the series, as its first Wii U remake.
The original was too ahead of its time. Visually, thematically, even its world design. People always call for Nintendo to be braver, more adventurous with its flagship series. Well, this was brave. People just didn’t realise it at the time.
I mean, without going into too many spoilers, this is a post-apocalyptic Zelda. Everything you knew and loved about the series, at least visually, is gone. It’s Link, as Mad Max (or… Waterworld).
It had a true open world. No corridors disguised as mountain ranges, no artificial walls dividing regions, no pause between sailing on the sea and walking on land.
Going back to it, in a world where we’ve since played Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword, only reinforces Wind Waker‘s boldness. This game, and not the two major entries in the series released since, feels the freshest.
So if you’ve ever in the last seven years said Nintendo are too conservative, not willing to take creative risks with one of its most important properties, and haven’t played this game, you really need to.
Note however you’re not playing quite the same game. The visuals have of course been upgraded. Since the original’s were almost timeless, this led some — including myself — to question the decision to mess with stuff like the lighting. But what looked blasphemous in screenshots is just fine in motion. Actually, “just fine” is selling this short. I know this is a 2003 game with hi-res textures and a few extra effects applied, but that doesn’t stop Wind Waker HD being one of the best-looking video games ever made.
It’s also got a few other neat little extras. The game’s camera, essential for serious toy collectors, now lets you take selfies. Really. The use of the Wii U controller also means you get the option of motion-controlled aiming (which works pretty well), and there’s even a first-person mode for walking around and using ranged weapons.
But hey. Enough with the sunshine. The game isn’t perfect, and the visuals aren’t the only thing that’s been changed. Two things stand out for most when talking dirty about Wind Waker: the tedium of sailing (which you do a lot of) and the soul-crushing banality of the game’s final quest.
Nintendo has tried to fix both of these things, with mixed results. It’s as though Nintendo only fixed them because people told them they had to. Doing so reluctantly, huffing, like a child only saying “sorry” because its mother told it to.
Sailing first. Very early on, you get access to the “swift sail”, a magnificent tool which not only makes your ship sail faster, but also removes the need for you to constantly change the direction of the wind every time you wanted to turn a corner (a massive pain in the arse in the original).
This fundamentally game-changing device is, for some reason, kept entirely secret from the player. It’s never hinted at, never announced. You will only find it (randomly in Windfall Island’s auction house) by accident, or by someone telling you (you’re welcome). I’m sure there will be many who buy this game and never find it, especially newcomers to Wind Waker, which… kinda defeats the point of putting it in there in the first place, doesn’t it?
(If you do get it, and get it early… it’s the best, as rather than rushing you through the game, which is maybe why Nintendo kept it quiet, it only encourages further exploration).
The other sore point — and this one is sore — is the game’s Triforce Quest. Near the very end of the game, you’re sent on a hunt to find the eight splintered pieces of the Triforce of Courage. In the original, this was the worst. By this stage you’d built up a head of steam from adventuring and monster-slaying, had readied yourself to face Ganon believing your quest to be at an end and then…surprise! Hours of tedium. Hours and hours of puzzle solving, sailing, finding sea charts and winching up chests off the ocean floor.
Nintendo says it has made this easier. And it has…a little. A few pieces you needed to find a chart for then find the piece of Triforce have been fixed, so now you only need to find the piece itself. Hooray? The quest itself still sticks out though, is still far too long, and still involves too much needless running around. If they were going to really fix it, they should have fixed it.
It’s a shame. One of the reasons Wind Waker is so damn good is that it’s a world you can lose yourself in for dozens, if not hundreds of hours. There’s more peripheral stuff to do than you’ll likely ever see or even attempt. It is the last Zelda game on Earth to require needless padding in its rear section, but between the Triforce Quest and subsequent trudge up Ganon’s Tower, that’s exactly what it got.
Luckily, it’s redeemed by a final battle that may not be memorable for its action, but sure is for its conclusion.
The 2013 version of Wind Waker, then, still isn’t perfect. But it’s still my favourite game of all time. What was once the finest example of an open-world adventure in gaming, a true escapist’s delight, is just as liberating, enjoyable and dare I say important today as it was in 2003.
Only now it looks better. And maybe more people will get the chance to appreciate it for the special game that it is.