The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker may have had some vocal detractors pre-release, but the years since it came to the GameCube have been remarkably kind. The original high seas variation on Link’s epic adventures is so worthy of all the praise heaped upon it that a remake hardly seems necessary. And yet, here’s Wind Waker HD for the Wii U, full of tweaks and fixes that somehow improve upon arguably the best Zelda game ever made, making this once more a must-play experience.
Wind Waker’s plot strikes a great balance between fresh ideas and tradition. The courageous young hero Link once again takes up the sword and shield to save a kidnapped young girl; only, this time he’s joined by a team of pirates that help him sail the vast ocean covering his world. Link faces many recognizable enemies and has the expected task of collecting magical items in order to save the day, but the overly familiar tropes are smoothed over by some helpful self-awareness.
The characters in the game’s world know “the legend of Zelda,” paying tribute to the green-clad Hero of Time that defeated great evil long ago. When the characters know the plot of titles like Ocarina of Time, it allows for some very inventive variations on tradition--changes that shouldn’t be spoiled for those coming to Wind Waker for the first time. The writing here remains some of the strongest in the franchise, not feeling dated in the least a decade later.
Like the plot, the setting isn’t exactly what it seems. When compared to the enemy-filled solid ground of the fields of Hyrule, the massive ocean looks empty, but the seas of Wind Waker are packed with a ton of secrets to uncover. Exploring every inch of the massive ocean reveals the many islands that dot the map, each begging to be explored. The search for those islands has been considerably condensed; players move to important destinations at a much faster pace compared to the original. Wind Waker’s 7x7 tiled map is now placed on the Wii U GamePad, streamlining the search for a specific island dramatically while still keeping the thrill of looking for just the right location of the next treasure.
Some of those islands have towns bursting with unique characters, or treasure chests hiding a life-extending Heart Piece, but Wind Waker’s massive dungeons are the ocean’s most important attractions. Solving puzzles and battling monsters over multi-tiered fortresses is the heart of the Zelda experience, and Wind Waker finds clever new ways to cover familiar territory. Forest and lava themes aren’t all that original for game settings (Zelda’s in particular), but Wind Waker’s dungeons get an added boost from inventive new items like the grappling hook and Deku leaf. Even iconic tools like the boomerang get smart gameplay upgrades that have since become a standard of adventure games.
It’s also in the dungeons where Wind Waker showcases its surprisingly versatile gameplay. The sword-based combat was expanded in later sequels, but Wind Waker’s single-button combos and reactive, defensive swordplay remain a brilliantly simple approach to action. And while it’s a simple pleasure, hearing the soundtrack react to each landed blow adds drama to even the most basic of encounters. And when the game occasionally takes away the sword and pushes players into stealth situations, the sneaky sections are an enjoyable change of pace instead of boring or frustrating. Getting that fundamental gameplay right allows Wind Waker room to grow later on.
When the original appeared, Wind Waker’s art style had fans up in arms, but the once-rejected look has aged well thanks the timeless quality of the cel-shaded visuals. The Wii U re-release adds an HD coat of paint to the game, but it doesn’t lose sight of how the original’s sparse art was one of its strongest assets. The world now has better lighting and shaders--among other technical advancements--that enhance the core vision for Wind Waker without needlessly complicating the unforgettable look. Whether chasing the setting sun across the waves, or scouring Outset Island, the game has never looked better.
No game is perfect, but the HD redux inches Wind Waker ever closer to that ideal. The game’s pacing had some hiccups the first time around, mainly thanks to a notoriously annoying fetch quest late in the story. That fetch quest is still there, but its challenges are more diverse and it moves along a good deal faster. The speedy fixes first appear in the form of a sail that dramatically speeds up Link’s boat, and it removes the annoying need to continually stop and change the direction of the wind when sailing. These and other, subtler fixes update Wind Waker in necessary ways while maintaining what makes the game special.
Wind Waker HD is proof that the 3D Zelda formula peaked on the GameCube and has yet to truly be improved upon. While players wait for a new Legend of Zelda that utilizes all the special abilities of the Wii U, this HD remake is the best version of the best Zelda game to date. And here’s hoping that returning to Wind Waker gave Nintendo the inspiration to one day top it.
This game was reviewed on Wii U.