I've read that, when it debuted, some people hated the cel-shaded art style of The Wind Waker. In retrospect that's hard to fathom, because the game is such a visual delight. The cartoony style and feel of the game is probably its strongest feature, at least for me. Sailing the seas and exploring the game's many islands is a joyous process of discovery. There are all sorts of quirky citizens to meet and interact with, including an auction house, bird people (the Rito), pirates, a traveling merchant (Beedle), temples, and the long-lost, sunken kingdom of Hyrule. The mid-game twist delighted me: Link learns he's the reincarnation of a hero from an ancient kingdom that was demolished by a flood, and that the irreverent pirate Tetra is the reincarnation of its Princess Zelda. In a game about sailing and islands, it was a shock to learn that we'd been sailing above Hyrule all along.
The game's chief innovation and gimmick is that the world is an ocean, divided into a 7x7 grid. Each square contains something of interest, usually one or more islands. Link sails a boat animated by the ghost of the king of Hyrule. He is able to alter the direction of the wind at will by using a magical baton called the Wind Waker. Link can learn six different magical songs throughout the game. You have to input the correct notes on the control stick, with the correct timing, in order to perform a song. This gimmick is very similar to the titular ocarina from the Ocarina of Time. Obviously Nintendo didn't want to mess too much with success.
Like most players, I enjoyed finding the different islands and searching for secrets and pieces of heart. Exploration is what Zelda games are all about. While combat is integral—a Zelda game without weapons and fighting would be terrible—it's secondary to puzzles and secrets. This is one reason why Zelda II: The Adventure of Link is worse than the rest of the series: it emphasizes sword combat and has few puzzles. The combat in Wind Waker is intuitive, fluid, easy, and fun, but by itself doesn't amount to much. Probably the best part about it is the colorful enemies. Just picturing the cartoony ChuChus, Moblins, and Bokoblins makes me smile. I also like how, in the Forbidden Fortress, Link can sneak around the Bokoblins without alerting them to his presence.
|ChuChus! (source: https://www.zeldadungeon.net)|
In terms of gameplay, Wind Waker builds upon The Ocarina of Time. You move Link through fully-realized 3D environments, solving puzzles and discovering secrets. The centerpieces of the game are seven dungeons. I haven't replayed the game since the Wii U–since I'm still waiting for the Switch re-release, Nintendo!—so I can't recall every dungeon. The one that stands out the most to me is Dragon Roost. I struggled with it even though it's only the second. Wind Waker isn't a hard game, but because I had never played a 3D Zelda game before there was a learning curve for me. Once I did finish Dragon Roost, I was hooked and sailed through the rest of the game.
As usual, the game features a bevy of items and weapons, which Link needs to solve puzzles. Most of these are standards in the series: the power bracelet, hookshot (strangely, the game also contains a grappling hook), boomerang, bombs, bottles, and mirror shield all return, as do Ocarina of Time's iron boots. While in that game they allowed Link to sink and walk underwater, here they protect him from being blown away by wind. New items include the Deku leaf, telescope, and magic armor. The telescope does the same thing a telescope does in real life. The Deku leaf lets Link float through the air, which is quite fun (though nothing compared to the paraglider in Breath of the Wild...). The magic armor makes Link invincible. A magic meter limits how long Link can use the Deku leaf and magic armor. In the HD remake (the version I played), the magic armor was changed so that it can be used indefinitely, but with the drawback that Link loses rupees every time he is hit. I'm not sure why they changed it.
An interesting aspect of the game that I didn't always enjoy was the side quests that involved taking pictures of various citizens. While the picture-taking element was interesting and new to me, I eventually grew tired of it.
This post is shorter than my usual reviews because it's been almost a decade since I played the game. I haven't replayed the Wii U version because I still believe Nintendo will eventually put both Wind Waker HD (and Twilight Princess HD) on the Switch. The long-awaited release of Metroid Prime Remastered last month has only increased this expectation. If and when that day comes, I will revise this post to include additional reflections.
"Overall the Wind Waker is a huge achievement in every way. It provides a decent storyline, complemented by stunning visuals, beautiful melodies and a fantastic battle system."
— David Snoddy, Nintendo Life, 9/10