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The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD (almost) perfects a classic

by Steve Watts, Oct 03, 2013 12:00pm PDT

Editor's note: Given its similarities to the original Gamecube release, we decided against a formal review of the recently-released Wii U version. Instead, we focus on how the HD release improves upon the original.


I don't know if I've ever seen a widespread opinion shift like it has for The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. When it first came out as I was in college--yes, I'm an old man--opponents to its unique visual style were overwhelmingly vocal. In the eight years since, gamers have almost uniformly softened on it, as it has aged gracefully while others from the same era have not. If any skeptics remain nowadays, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD is the final salvo to win them over. It's gorgeous.

It's rare for me to be wowed by visual punch in games, mostly because so many games attempt some form of realism and fall just short of achieving that goal. But the stylistic touches of Wind Waker have aged well, and seeing them given an HD makeover really shows how the art direction itself holds up beautifully. Big splashy fields of color and sharp angular geometry may have been a concession to hardware power in its day, but if nothing else it now proves that great artistry can flourish when given some constraints.

In fact, the entire world is brimming with that same level of personality. These are still some of the most visually interesting monsters, expressive characters, and varied gameplay types in any Zelda title. Link, in particular, benefits from a design that accents wide eyes and a varied expressions.

The story provides a fresh take on the Zelda mythos for those who haven't experienced it, but I enjoyed reliving the twists and turns over again. Unfortunately, the setting of this particular legend involves a world covered almost entirely with water, which makes for lengthy bits of sailing between dungeons. Nintendo has made a few concessions to reduce backtracking, particularly in the case of an infamous fetch-quest near the end. But, you'll still find yourself going on long sailing trips between islands, sometimes only to learn some new bit of information and then go on yet another journey. It's stirring the first few times the score kicks up as Link's trademark hat flaps in the ocean breeze, but too much of the time is still spent simply setting a course and sailing straight. You could go make yourself a sandwich.

The GamePad functionality does little to correct this issue, which feels like a missed opportunity. At the very least, I expected an easier toggle for the wind direction, rather than having to use the titular Wind Waker baton every time. In most other ways, though, it makes for a handy tool. It provides easy access to the dungeon map and swapping items without going through the trouble of entering a menu screen. Given that Zelda games depend on a lot of item-juggling, this was a hassle-saver.

Nintendo's tentative step into experimental multiplayer is a welcome one too. I've only picked up a few Tingle Bottles, placed as a simple diversion when sailing around, but it's always nice finding little messages left behind by other players. It even smartly lets you choose whether you want spoilers in your messages or not. First-timers would be theoretically safe, but it's hard to tell how closely Nintendo is monitoring that aspect. One message I collected had a story point where a shop owner is tied up, with a message about him being into "kinky stuff." Clearly some level of adult content is getting through, so spoilers might be too.

Wind Waker was and remains a shorter Zelda game, especially compared to the staggering length of Skyward Sword. It was criticized in its day for being a little too short after Zelda fans had come to expect eight massive dungeons, but as I get less patient with overlong games, one that knows when to quit feels just right.

And looking back, that's what I appreciate so much about Wind Waker. It tried so many new things, and was mostly careful not to overstep. The visual style is quirky but not too childish, the story is different but maintains the Zelda touchstones, the dialogue is snappy without being snarky. It was one of the most satisfying Zelda games I'd played when it came out, and it remains among the best of a deservedly revered series.


This review is based on download code provided by the publisher. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD will be available at retail on Wii U tomorrow. It is also currently available digitally on the eShop for $49.99. It is rated E10+.





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