Throwback Bit Thursday: The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker

The Legend of Zelda Wind Waker Boat

The GameCube was one of Nintendo’s less successful systems in terms of sales numbers. However, the little purple console had some truly great games. One of these games was the system’s first The Legend of Zelda entry: The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker.

The Wind Waker’s Controversial Look

toon link Wind Waker
An early capture of “Toon Link” set the internet ablaze in 2001 due to the jarring unexpected visual change from the previous year’s realistic trailer tech showcase.

After Ocarina of Time, which in 1998 was one of the more ‘realistic’ (when you get past the fact that you are in a world full of elfin people and other fantasy creatures) looking games in consoles, its direct sequel, Majora’s Mask, continued the dark ‘realistic’ look going as it ran on the same engine and utilized the same assets.

Thus, most gamers expected the GameCube’s Zelda entry to continue the dark, realistic look going as it was powered by stronger hardware.

Nintendo’s 2000 Spaceworld demo of Link fighting Ganondorf certainly hinted at graphical style that fell in line with Ocarina’s. The video would set high bar that Nintendo would purposely miss with The Wind Waker.

When the game was revealed in 2001, the response to the visual style was divided amongst Zelda loyalists. Some fans accepted and even loved the new direction, while others felt disappointment at Nintendo’s reluctance to allow the series to mature.

Space World 2000 Link
The Space World 2000 showcase set the bar too high…it could be argued that even the current BotW’s Link doesn’t quite look as good as this.

To be honest, I was in the latter camp. After Nintendo’s magical 2000 Space World trailer I was dreaming with something that would blow the doors out any other game that I had played to that point, and instead, Nintendo gave me a “super deformed” cartoony Link for my troubles.

I would remain disappointed for months, but would still place my preorder for the game. After all, I loved Zelda. After how great Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask had been I felt that Nintendo deserved the benefit of the doubt.

A Wonderful Entry in the Series

The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker launched in the United States on March, 2003. Despite my initial reservations, I enjoyed the game’s art direction. If given a choice, I will always prefer Twilight Princess’ look over Wind Waker’s, but I can still appreciate the game’s cartoony cel-shaded look.

The game was huge in size (greatly in part to its overly large ocean), had brilliant dungeons, and the awesome combat pioneered by Ocarina of Time. It was a Zelda game through and through.

While The Wind Waker and Skyward Sword are the only Zelda games that I haven’t replayed after finishing a single play through, I can vouch for its greatness. I thought that in terms of storytelling, Wind Waker actually did a better Job than Ocarina of Time (especially after the huge twist), and was only bothered by some of the long stretches of sailing required by the game’s gameplay.

Critical Reception was Great But…

The Wind Waker was only second to Metroid Prime in terms of critical reception on the GameCube. Nintendo’s cartoony Zelda holds a 96 Metacritic rating which puts it in the great company of Twilight Princess, and Resident Evil 4, and only below Ocarina of Time and Breath of the Wild as one the greatest rated Zelda games.

Where The Wind Waker faltered was in its sales, as the game sold only 4.6 million units…3 million copies less than Ocarina had sold on the Nintendo 64. Nintendo blamed the downgrade in commercial response to the game’s visuals, and thus, Twilight Princess returned Zelda to the darker, more realistic look that Ocarina of Time had featured.

Cel Shaded Legacy

Wind Waker’s “Toon Link” look would be utilized on later portable Zelda games such as the Phantom Hourglass, and Spirit Tracks.

Nintendo didn’t give up in its pursuit of a ‘stylized’ Legend of Zelda game. Perhaps due to the fact that Nintendo EAD is always working on outdated (or underpowered) hardware, the developers to pursued a similar style on the Switch’s Breath of the Wild which was really a Wii U port at its core.

Breath of the Wild is a ‘cel-shaded’ work in terms of its characters, and enemies. The style fits, because the Wii U, and consequently the Switch hardware would have struggled with a more realistic approach to the huge open world visuals featured on the game.

Wink Waker HD

Wind Waker HD
Playing The Wind Waker HD on the Wii U is one of the best (if not the best) ways to enjoy the game today.

Perhaps the best way to play the game today isn’t in its (still fine looking) original form but on the HD Wii U update that the game received in 2013. With a massive bump in resolution, and new lighting the game showcases an art style that in retrospective has been quite ageless.

Playing the Wii U HD version of the game is also the cheaper way to go in order to play the game as the GameCube version of Wind Waker is retailing for as high as $399 on Amazon these days due to its collector’s value.

The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker is certainly a must play for fans of the series, and one of its best entries despite Nintendo’s divisive choice for the game’s art direction.

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By Samuel Rivera

An avid video game player and book reader, Samuel has been playing video games for the last 31 years. He has played nearly every PS1 JRPG known to man, and loves Ocarina of Time more than any other game.