If you read my post on Majora's Mask last year, you'd know that there was a time in my life where I hated Zelda games. I thought they were all boring and never bothered to play more than the first hour or so in any of them. Last year, however, I decided to set my hatred aside and give them an honest chance. In a matter of weeks, I tackled all the Game Boy titles, bought Ocarina 3D, and finished my little Zelda kick with Majoraís Mask. Needless to say, I was hooked for a while, there.
I played Wind Waker when it came out, but didnít get terribly far. A few weeks ago, however, I finally sat down and finished it off. What do I think?
Well, itís certainly my second favorite 3D Zelda (first being Majoraís Mask). To rank it among all the Zeldas, 2D or 3D, would be a bit more of a chore. I donít hate it by any means, but I do feel like itís really weak in some important areas which sucks when itís surrounded by so much strength.
So, letís start with said strengths. The art direction is fantastic, obviously. I think a lot of Gamecube games hold up really well graphically, but itís really easy to make a game timeless with some quality cel-shading. The music is also great, maybe the best in the series. The moment that Tetra's true identity is revealed to the tune of the Link to the Past opening (at 2:50 in that video) gave me chills.
Wind Waker also easily has my favorite incarnation of Link. One reason I never really got into the Zelda titles is because I donít generally care for silent protagonists. I have played games where theyíre done right and I enjoy them, but most of the Zelda games were never like that for me. I understand that the idea behind it is that it allows the player to put themselves in the characterís shoes, but I donít get too into that unless the plot is really strong (and I only really felt it was in Majoraís Mask, so I was okay with the silence in that one).
This Link is much less an empty shell, though. Heís constantly expressing emotions, even during gameplay. Honestly, I think I related to this Link more because he was so emotional and had real relationships (with his grandmother and sister for example), which makes him easier to relate to than some soulless puppet of a character. I appreciate that his quest (at the start, anyway) hinged more on the fact that he wanted to save his sister as opposed to simply being told ďHey, you have to save the worldĒ at the beginning and just doing it because thatís what heroes do.
Anyway, thatís about all I have to say as far as strengths go.
As for weaknessesÖwell, the game is super easy. I mean, Ocarina wasnít terribly hard either, but Master Quest (as I understand it) and Majoraís Mask were, so why couldnít we get a bit of that difficulty in Wind Waker? I think easy games can be enjoyable still, but when thereís no challenge in a game like Zelda, I fail to stay interested. I died only once in the entire game and that was on level 43 of a 50-level dungeon where the enemies got tougher as I went downÖand I didnít bring any potions or fairies.
Of course, difficulty isnít simply about combat. Puzzles are really important as well (in fact, I like them more than combat), but Wind Waker seemed a little weak in that area, too. I think Ocarina kind of screwed all the later 3D titles by including something like 11 temples/dungeons, setting the bar pretty high in terms of mainline content. Majoraís Mask only had four, but they were all pretty long and difficult. Plus, the sidequests were a really strong and important aspect of the story as well. In Wind Waker, we got something like five (you could argue more with the Forsaken Fortress and Ganonís Tower, but those were both short and relatively lacking in puzzles) which is okay, but only if theyíre good. And I donít think they were.
I think they were all competent, but none of them really strained my brain or made me stop and appreciate how well-designed they were. Wind Temple is the only one that stands out in my mind as memorable and the only reason is because it was time consuming and frustrating (Iím not sure Iíve ever seen a partner segment like that done well in a game) as opposed to being legitimately difficult. Oh, and my power went out right afterwards and I had to do it AGAIN. Ugh. Even knowing how to solve all the puzzles, the dungeon took me a little over an hour because itís just so damn slow (the very last room is the definition of, requiring you to wear the Iron Boots the entire time and move blocks in a wind tunnel to make a safe path).
Now, the plot was okay. Like I said, I appreciated the ramp up to epic proportions rather than forcing you right into it. However, it didnít really feel like there was all that much to it when the game was finished. I mean, itís a Zelda game, which arenít exactly known for their deep plot (with one shining exception which I promise I will try to stop naming), so Iíll let this particular gripe slide, but let me just say that I was hoping it would try to outdo the title before it rather than returning to the safety of the Link-Zelda-Ganon Triforce story. It was a cool take on it, to be sure (Hyruleís flooded? Awesome), and made for some cool segments, but ultimately Iím going to forget everything beyond the really major plot points in a week.
Finally, let me address the complicated issue of the most time consuming part of the game: the sailing. I donít hate it. I donít love it. I love the idea of it. I have mixed feelings about the execution. I donít mind setting course and taking a bathroom break while I sail. I do mind having to use the Wind Waker every ten damn minutes to set the wind direction (and even then, the total number of times I played the Windís Requiem only barely rises above the number of times I played the Command Melody in the Wind Temple alone) and later realizing that I had to do it all over again because the plot demanded I return.
I spent way more of my time in Wind Waker doing sidequests than doing plot stuff. Thatís fine. However, I often spent more time doing exploring the ocean because I was much more invested in the extra stuff than in completing the next plot point. There were a number of times where I would just sail around and fill in my map rather than get anything of value done because I thought the hidden secrets of the islands less traveled and deep sea treasures were a hell of a lot more interesting than the main story.
In this sense, I think the game hits its mark really well. The world is full of treasure and hidden goodies, most of which is rupees and heart containers, which arenít especially interesting on their own, but itís more the journey than the reward. I had a lot of fun obtaining new charts and looking for more money or hearts because the islands were often unique, strange, and fun to explore. The fact that this game has such a huge upgradable wallet makes it clear that youíre supposed to embrace the treasure hunting aspect.
Which does bring me to my last point of complaint: The use of mandatory treasure hunting.
I really like when games allow me to feel like Iím ďbreakingĒ the game. Itís a very cool sense of freedom when you do something youíre not supposed to, even if it was intended by the developers all along. Portal is a great example of this. Nearly every moment of that game, I feel like Iím ďcheatingĒ my way through, even though Iím playing the game exactly the way it was designed to be played.
Wind Waker does this to a limited extent. Finding islands way off-course makes me feel like Iím exploring new and exciting locations with all kinds of hidden goodies that the game developers put there, sure, but at what point did they intend me to find it? Maybe there will be some really kickass secret weapon or something that I wonít need until way later! Of course, I know Zelda better than that by now and knew Iíd never find anything more thrilling than a heart container, but it was a fun adventure nonetheless. Well, it was fun until the game cheapened it.
At one point, you have to search for Triforce shards in the ocean. This is a time-consuming process that is forced upon you during the plotline, which makes it less fun than doing it of your own volition. There are eight Triforce charts to be found (which are hidden on those far off-islands that youíve already been to), each of which must be deciphered by Tingle for a couple hundred rupees (forcing you to spend around three thousand rupees on a plot device), and then you have to actually use the charts to find the Triforce shards (which, again, are in non-plot areas).
This part really bothered me. I understand that the developers probably wanted their vast game world to be appreciated even by the players that only do the bare minimum to beat the game, but it really cheapens the experience for the rest of us. When thereís a portion of the map dedicated to plot-centric areas but all this unknown stuff surrounding it, thatís exciting. When nearly the whole map needs to be visited for the sake of the plot, it gets tedious and makes me pissed that I bothered to explore early. I shouldnít feel like Iím being punished for exploring early.
Now, thereís a fair argument in that this bolsters the treasure hunting aspect of the game. Thatís true, but why are some of the best ďsidequestsĒ used in the plot? The aforementioned 50-level dungeon is a great example. Itís fifty levels of tedium thanks to the boring combat (which, to be fair, is the best Iíve experienced in a 3D Zelda so far, but thatís not saying much) which COULD have been made a little more daunting had I stumbled upon it a few hours into the game, but being a major part of the plot progression, Iím forced to wait until Iím already badass enough to wreck it easily. Whatís worse is that you get the Triforce chart after only 30 levels, but exiting the dungeon starts you at the beginning again, so the gameís mild attempt to make part of this sidequest optional is instantly tossed aside when the player realizes they pretty much have to do the extra part right then if they want to do it at all.
Anyway, Iím going to stop ranting quite so much and just sum up my feelings: I like Wind Waker. I had fun with it. The art direction and music are great. It takes the good qualities of Ocarina of Time and Majoraís Mask and attempts to make them into a unique new adventure. However, I think the majority of the plot is forgettable and the game itself is unsatisfyingly easy, with any leftover enjoyment in treasure hunting and sidequesting destroyed by the insistence that you do these things to beat the game.
Iím playing Phantom Hourglass now and itís fun. It has that 2D Zelda feel that I generally prefer to the 3D games with the world of Wind Waker which I really like. I just hope it doesnít ruin itself like Wind Waker eventually did.