The Legend of Zelda fills me with fond memories. The original Nintendo version and SNES’ A Link to the Past — a boy alone in a hostile world, bows and arrows and bones and bombs and goblins and magic capes — engulfed many a childhood afternoon. The Ocarina of Time brought Hyrule to 3D and ratched the story up to epic levels. Each game felt like a natural step up and evolution of the one that came before it.
But these memories only go so far as that. I never finished Wind Waker, released in 2003, or Twilight Princess (2006) or even played the latest one. What I remember of Wind Waker was a drastic, cartoony graphic swap, a dearth of innovation, and worst of all — interminable sailing sequences where you had to perform a button input to travel in a certain direction and then might as well have wandered away from the console while your sailboat inched closer to some island destination, only to be given a task that took you halfway across the sea to a different island and forced you to repeat the whole thing again.
Has my outlook changed, revisiting it over ten years later in an improved HD remake?
The biggest improvements have little to do with the perspective time gives and much to do with the improved functionality provided by the Wii U. The Wii U controller-tablet removes the need to pause the game — your inventory and most importantly, your map, is displayed on the touchscreen. You can easily move items around mid-combat or play the wind waker by sliding your finger along a compass axis. This smooths the pacing of the game tremendously. Nintendo also added a new item, obtainable by playing an annoying mini-game, that doubles the speed of the boat and makes it so the wind is automatically placed at your back. It’s one of those minor additions that completely changes the game. Sailing around feels more like exploring and less like tapping your foot, wondering are-we-there-yet. That said, the lengthy end-quest that has you sailing around the entire game world to assemble 8 pieces of the triforce is excessively long; A big world to explore loses much of its appeal when the game asks you to explore every square to continue.
While the sailing is greatly improved, the beautiful cel-shaded graphics have aged very well, and the game is overall fun, it still does not hit the same notes as the earlier titles. It’s easy to think of the “Zelda formula” now, but prior to Wind Waker, it wasn’t so obvious. Zelda wasn’t new anymore and it already entered the realm of 3D. It was this game that solidified the tropes. Enter a dungeon and see locked doorways with ornate eyes above them and you know the bow and arrow will be the dungeon treasure. Light shining in through the windows in the next dungeon? Time for the mirror shield. Block puzzles galore. Visually-stunning bosses that die in under sixty seconds from repeating the same basic task with your ‘new’ item.
The promised new direction for the next incarnation on Wii U is welcome. Shake it up! Traverse new horizons, conjure wonder and mystery.