Nintendo's Legend of Zelda franchise over the years has defined a genre, first revolutionizing the action-adventure and then evolving it with several critically acclaimed sequels spanning multiple console and handheld platforms. For many, the Zelda brand represents the pinnacle of gaming, a perfect convergence of polished design, tightly crafted control and beautiful presentation. Indeed, the N64 Ocarina of Time is widely considered the best videogame ever created.
So to say that the GameCube Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker has a lot to live up to is, simply put, the understatement of the year.
And yet, Nintendo delivers. Director Eiji Aonuma's latest offering is a breathtakingly epic romp into a dramatically changed world 100 years after the events in the N64 classic. Wind Waker masterfully baits and hooks us in with its scope and host of improvements over previous Zelda titles, and then it takes us on a long, ultimately satisfying voyage across troubled seas, into dangerous dungeons and against unforgiving foes. It's not a game without flaws -- there are a few minor shortcomings to speak of, but where it succeeds, it is absolutely unparalleled. GameCube owners, Link is back.
* Epic 3D action-adventure from Nintendo/EAD director Eiji Aonuma
* Become legendary hero Link and set out on an all-new quest 100 years after the Ocarina of Time
* Explore a gargantuan-sized world on foot or sail across the seas on Link's own boat
* Polished, tight real-time combat mechanics mingle with exploration, puzzle-solving and dungeon action
* Use a variety of weapons and items including Link's famous master sword
* Change the direction of the wind with Link's Wind Waker and then sail with it
* Fight massive bosses scattered throughout the world
* 20+ hours of gameplay and as much as twice that for completionists
* GCN-to-GBA link functionality
* Runs in progressive scan mode
* Supports Dolby Pro Logic II
* Requires 12 memory blocks for saves
It's Link's birthday and he's walked to his grandmother's house to get a present, a green costume that is given to every boy after they've reached a certain age on his home of Outset Island. It's a tradition, for there was once a great hero who donned the same outfit and fought away a dark evil that threatened to rule the land. Little does Link know that before the end of the day his sister will be kidnapped, he will embark on a long and troubled quest with a group of pirates, and by the time his journey has truly ended he too will be a legend. Wind Waker's story, like so many Nintendo games, let alone Zelda titles, initially revolves around rescuing the damsel in distress. But, as players advance, there will be delightfully unexpected twists and turns that separate this adventure from the norm. The character will encounter recognizable figures from the past, meet new friends, and likewise visit both familiar and completely fresh locations. Final Fantasy this is not, but Wind Waker's story nonetheless can and often does charm with a splash of good-natured cute, a pinch of dark and moody, and a still a pinch more of intense action.
Gamers must for a moment forget that Wind Waker looks totally different from Ocarina of Time because in actuality these two games are very much alike. The GameCube adventure is clearly inspired by its N64 predecessor where design and play mechanics are concerned. Link once again travels through an immense world -- except this time not by horse, but by boat. The character is still called upon to solve countless environmental puzzles, to drudge through dungeons, to engage in fierce combat with enemies, to learn spells, to use a variety of weapons and items and more. It all still controls and moves along at a pace that will be déjà vu for anyone who's swung the Master Sword at Ganon in the past. In fact, everything from the way in which Link is maneuvered to the lock-on battle camera and the very way players can assign individual items like the boomerang and hookshot to specific buttons is all almost identical to Ocarina of Time -- a good thing.
The biggest difference in this regard is that there have also been a number of tweaks and improvements to just about every area.
It's all about polish, an ingredient that spills from the very tops of Wind Waker. Moving Link about the various 3D environments is a thing of joy because of it. Control is exceptionally intuitive and tight and the world is unrivaled in its level of interactivity. Link can do just about everything from run and roll to strike with his sword, shoot arrows, throw bombs, conduct the wind, take flight as a bird, and so much more. Each action can be executed with a precision that few other games could offer. Moreover, the enhancements over previous Zeldas are immediately apparent. The C-Stick now offers analog control of the camera, which is already so smart that it rarely needs manual correction. Meanwhile, in battle, Link is not only treated to dynamic musical cues whenever he connects with an enemy, but players can tap the A button at specific times to perform a cinematic special move. Additionally, when a foe has been knocked about it's possible to actually take their weapon and use it against them. Items such as the boomerang have been seriously enhanced so that Link can now target multiple enemies with one powerful swipe. Sailing Link's boat across rainy waters (with lightning flashing in the distance) or gliding with the deku leaf over a chasm for the first time will leave players in awe. It'd be too easy to rattle on for pages about this facet of the game, all the while praising it, so in an attempt to stay in some form of brevity we'll just note that the mechanics in place make everything else out there seem raw and unbalanced by comparison.
It's hard to run into the blocks and limits that hinder lesser games because Nintendo has thought of them all and logically worked ways around them. Usually, if Link can see a spot, he can get to it. The point is that he may not be able to reach it without the assistance of a required upgrade, which drives the adventure along. For instance, he can't lift heavy objects that cover gateways to necessary areas until he has retrieved an item which will enable him to do so and that rarely happens until the adventure has truly started to develop. It's classic Zelda, of course, and it's as well executed as ever.
Link does a lot of sailing in Wind Waker and the size of the ocean is impressively staggering. It's huge. It'll take players several minutes to travel from one side of the map to the next (until they learn to warp). This presents the refreshing feeling that the world is wide-open, that it's totally non-linear, and in some sense that is true. As soon as players get Link's boat, which happens fairly early on, they can immediately travel to just about any spot on the map. There will be areas that won't be accessible for whatever (logical) reason, but there will be just as many locales that can be explored. Often they're filled with useful items, side-quests and a handful of mini-games. Some of these seemingly unimportant extras are extremely entertaining and fun nonetheless, an accomplishment for sure. Indeed, Nintendo has successfully created this living, connected world and it works; players will totally fall for it and be sucked into it. However, the layout of dungeons is very linear in nature. Link cannot randomly choose one from another -- there is an order, and they must be completed in sequence, which is mildly disappointing given that this conflicts with the otherwise go-anywhere-do-anything nature of the experience.
Ironically, using the Wind Waker item in the game turns frustrating and annoying. At first, the idea that Link can change the direction of the wind with the wand and then sail accordingly is novel. But after going through the animation sequence to do so hundreds of times during the course of play, it becomes a tedious nuisance, plain and simple. The fact that there is no way to skip the animation -- ever, is more bothersome still.
Gamers who played the Japanese version of the title, though, will be happy to learn that Nintendo has for the most part improved the US incarnation by eliminating some of the extra tediousness surrounding the collection of some Triforce pieces in the water. It can still be frustrating, gathering all sorts of Triforce maps in order to endlessly search out pieces of the artifact, but at least it's now possible to see where they are directly on a map. (In the Japanese version, one such quest had you find a map, that led to a map, that led to a map, that led to a Triforce map. That one thankfully got the axe.) The sheer amount of time saved by this addition is practically immeasurable, so thanks, Nintendo.
Between sailing and exploring islands, players will journey into several major dungeons. There aren't nearly as many of them as there should have been, and the variation between some dungeons is lacking. Indeed, there are times when it feels as though Nintendo cut the adventure shorter than it had initially intended and perhaps sacrificed a dungeon or two in order to get the game out on time. But what's there is still remarkably designed and saturated with clever puzzles and enemy encounters.
Link will have to use his head to get through some of these areas, especially later in the game when players must devise ways to travel both the hero and his passenger through a dungeon using their combined abilities. It's hard not to fall in love with the designs here, the logic hidden behind each obstacle, or the satisfaction gained after having figured the puzzle out. It all comes together triumphantly.
A thrilling and highly intuitive, but slightly simplistic boss fight awaits Link at the end of each dungeon. Figuring out how to defeat a boss character is half the battle and always fun, but for our money these encounters, while atmospheric and initially impressive, are sadly never overly difficult. The same, though, can be said about the game as a whole. In playing through Wind Waker the first time, we never died. In fact, we barely came in danger of dying. Enemies inflict little damage onto Link and by the time he has several hearts of power filled, and especially after he's got an entire row on his side, he becomes nearly invincible, which is a true shortcoming as far as we concerned.
That's not to suggest that Wind Waker can be 'blown' through either, pardon the pun. It's an ambitious undertaking filled with challenges and goals. Most players are sure to get 20+ hours out of the game and some -- completionists -- will likely suck double that. Each day on the sea presents enticing new puzzles, new boss encounters and so much more. There's so much to do and see, so many unique locales, so many secrets, that it's impossible to do anything but cherish every hour in Link's larger-than-life world.
There are bound to be differences of opinion and more probably heated disputes over Wind Waker's style. The cartoony presentation shocked gamers when Nintendo unveiled it for the first time and sure enough some long-time Zelda fanatics even swore off the franchise because of it. But whether one's in favor of the graphic choice or not, there can be no disagreement over Nintendo's triumphant execution of it. It is, perhaps, the most beautiful cel-shaded videogame to date, period.
The sad truth is that the mainstream audience may, with no understanding of the technology required to realize the style, shrug Wind Waker's visuals off as primitive. However, players with keen eyes and an appreciation for the art of making games will know that Nintendo has not only created a hugely stylistic world down to every last detail, but also pushed the power of GameCube to do so.
The environments, from the open sea to the dozens of islands that Link explores, are so gigantic in size that it's an achievement in of itself. But the level of clarity that blankets each locale is just amazing. The draw distance is unchallenged by any other game and as such it's possible to look literally miles into the distance with Link's telescope. Ocean waves animate onto sand, birds flock around in the distance, the leaves of palm trees blow around, particles float lazily, and all sorts of characters run about while doing their own scripted thing, all with fluid, cartoon-like motions. But that's hardly all. The models are all detailed and well textured, fitted with self-shadowing and facial animation, too. There are effects like heat-shimmering and huge particle explosions, real-time lighting, depth of field blur, reflections, transparencies, refraction and more. Everything runs fairly constant at 30 frames and the title also supports progressive scan mode. The game is just gorgeous.
There are highs and lows. On the upside, the title does support Dolby Pro Logic II for a full surround sound experience. Also, some of music in the game is crisp, clear and well composed, with some classic tunes from titles such as A Link From The Past reemerging in thumping good, updated form. Additionally, the sound effects used for enemy battles, from the clash of the sword to music combo cues, grunts, clanks of weapons, and so much more, are absolutely satisfying, and the same can be said for so much of the environmental effects. Wind sounds exactly as it should, and the swoosh of the sail as it catches air and takes the boat for a ride rings just about perfect. On the other hand, while most of the NPC character noises are humorous on some level, the lack of any real voice work is evident and disappointing -- there's a sensation of muteness about the characters that is avoided in other next-generation games through speaking parts. There are also some musical pieces that seem to lack the high sound qualities of others and as a result have a decidedly MIDI element about them, another shortcoming. Still, all in all very well done.
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