The Legend of Zelda has been an indispensable staple in video games, if not the source of inspiration in a market flooded with numerous imitators. In fact it was one the games that helped redefine and modernize the ever-changing image of Nintendo. Of course I’m referring to the GameCube and The Wind Waker which was released ten years ago. Without a conceivable doubt, its original 2003 release brought a wave of polarizing opinions – many of which range from artistically captivating to uncharacteristically tedious. Whatever the reason, it’s been highly regarded as a definitive classic among gamers and has returned.
Since high definition has become a requirement for console games, visually enhanced re-releases have become fairly commonplace. To be honest, I’ve been largely critical of the trend as most efforts tend to be straightforward ports and not much else beyond that. But when a game like The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD comes along it’s apparent that a considerable effort was taken to reintroduce a beloved title to the Wii U, and impressively enough actually make an incredible game even better.
For the few that are unfamiliar with this Zelda epic, The Wind Waker takes place in a world where the gods have flooded Hyrule in order to quell the evil Ganon from attaining absolute control of the land, one where tales of a true hero have become, well, legend. Once again you play as a boy coincidentally named Link in a nautical cartoon backdrop with pirates, treasure hunting, and open seas. The plot is unchanged and so are the core gameplay mechanics of exploration, cleverly laid-out dungeons, duels between massive bosses, and of course an advanced battle/targeting system that recent games have since built upon.
Needless to say, the basics still hold up darn well, but it’s great how much emphasis was given to make everything else more enjoyable in the process. The biggest complaints about the original game were isolated to slow and tedious pacing. Back then you either loved or hated the experience of braving the open sea for everything, as most players thought sailing in the King of Red Lions was terribly slow and tiresome, especially when you were either at the whim of which direction the wind was going or had to constantly change the breeze with the baton. In Wind Waker HD, these annoyances are largely eliminated with the optional Swift Sail item that can be picked up at the local auction house after beating the first dungeon, making those lonely travels twice as fast and drastically cutting down the time you want to spend on the water.
The pacing improvements also extend to streamlining how the game plays, since you no longer have to pause the game to swap out items now that the GamePad touchscreen can be actively used to change equipment, check maps, or aim your boomerang or arrows with the gyroscopic controls. Switching between basic functions on the sea such as the salvaging crane (Grappling Hook) and cannon (Bombs) are permanently fixed to the D-Pad (along with the Wind Baton on and off the boat), and even some animation sequences (like the Grappling Hook for example) have been shortened to reduce monotony too.
Finally, the notorious chore of tracking down those Triforce shards has been alleviated somewhat. You’ll still have to sail around Hyrule to collect the eight pieces near the end of the game, but they were kind enough make five out of the eight immediately available without giving up a ton of rupees to Tingle for deciphering charts.
Speaking of Tingle, the e-Reader-based Tingle Tuner has been replaced with Tingle Bottles. When enabled, you can pick up messages in bottles and look at photos of what others have done, it’s an optional extra that feels like a gaming version of Instagram with a Hyrulian theme. Think Zelda Selfies. I didn’t use the feature much, but it could be a neat distraction if you’re into seeing what other people are discovering through the Miiverse.
Despite the technical changes, it would’ve been easy to jump on the bandwagon by simply upscaling the resolution and changing the aspect ratio to 16:9, but their first HD remastering is handled with plenty of care. The obvious enhancement comes in the form of cleaner graphics and heavily revised lighting effects, to give the strikingly cel-shaded look a more realistic aura – something that looks organic and natural, or at least that’s the intention behind it. If you remember the GameCube version however, some of these changes will stand out, most notably how the bold and cartoonish colors appear to have been subdued to accommodate the dynamic shading filters for bright sunlight and distance blooming while sailing. It’s a different look that won’t matter much, but it’s about preference more than anything else in my mind.
After playing through this journey for the first time a decade, I’m confident in saying that The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD is not only one of the best examples of a gracefully revived game for next generation consoles, it’s also one of the smarter updates as well. Nintendo was wise to focus their attention on fine-tuning those things that bugged fans while keeping the proven elements intact. Because of the alterations this is more accessible to first-timers and a lot more bearable for established fans, crafting an ocean adventure worth enjoying all over again.