At this point it's hard to remember all the hoopla Wind Waker caused when it launched in 2003. Nintendo ditched the serious tone of 1998's Ocarina of Time and replaced it with a childish, Saturday morning version of always-hero Link and the kingdom of Hyrule. Many were incensed. But you know what? It's still one of the best puzzle-solving, labyrinth-crawling adventures you'll ever play.
Graphics don't make everything, but here they certainly carry a bright, cheery mood through the whole game. Even though Link's sister is missing and Gannondorf is scheming yet another wild plot, it's hard to feel a sense of danger when everything looks like it's made out of candy. Forgiving the lack of mortal peril, the perfect animation and wispy art style really do feel like playing a cartoon and can't maim the tried-and-true gameplay we've been digging for almost 20 years.
The premise is unchanged from the first Zelda: run through an immense, secret-filled overworld peppered with murky dungeons, obvious (but quietly devious) puzzles, and untold secrets to stop Ganon from usurping the all-powerful Triforce. The sense of adventure and exploration is as powerful here as it's ever been, with every area offering some type of mystery to reel you in. The main quest is engrossing, sure, but blindly heading off to the horizon is what keeps you coming back. The level and creature designs are some of the most creative images ever put on a TV screen, from a lava-soaked centipede monster down to the avian townspeople of a tropical island.
Other than the cel-shaded graphics, the biggest departure here is Waker's immense ocean that covers all of Hyrule. The overworld is almost nonexistent and most of your time will be spent sailing from place to place on a talking boat. It's cool for the first five hours or so, but even when you can use the element-harnessing Wind Waker baton to teleport anywhere on the map you spend too much time manning the sails. Blech.
Further adding to this sense of "filler" gameplay are the relative lack of major dungeons and astonishingly long fetch quest near the end of the game. Rather than unload a new, creative labyrinth to trek through you have to sail the globe (…again) searching for broken Triforce shards. Um … how about some Zelda sprinkled in with the deep-sea diving game? Cutting through the waves, sea-spray in your hair is nice and all, but we want more swordy, puzzly memories.
Wind Waker may copy the previous games a lot, but it's emulating some of the best ever made. As such, singing its praises is like preaching to the choir. We could nitpick this game to death and it'd still be sailing away with high honors. It's a little derivative and probably won't convert non-fans to the GameCube but to say it's not spectacular is a flat-out lie.
Nintendo's created yet another magical world to play in. Dive on in.