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The case for cute: Why Wind Waker is the best Zelda ever

2:20 PM on 07.06.2009 // Topher Cantler

Yes, I did indeed just say that. If I know my gaming public, and I quite unfortunately do, chances are that many of you are huffing and puffing on the verge of a hissyfit before you've even made it past this article's headline. I've never entirely understood why that was.

Perhaps it's because you're among those who cut their teeth on Ocarina of Time, and you've somehow gotten it into your head that Link was forever meant to be an adult. Maybe you're less than secure in your masculinity and have an aversion to character design that wasn't injected with four different brands of steroids. But as someone who's been playing Zelda games since Ronald Reagan was president, I can assure you that your assumption is a bit off. And as a man, with man hardware, I can assure you that liking things less testosterone-driven than Gears of War will not spontaneously turn you into a girl.

I've wanted for some time to build a case for this game, and now that there's all this hubbub about a new Zelda title with its grown-up Link on the horizon, I may as well get around to it. Hit the jump for why, in my own educated yet humble opinion, Wind Waker is the best Legend of Zelda game there has ever been.

If you're a fan of RetroforceGO!, this comes as no shock to you. I've become conditioned to spit out "Wind Waker was awesome!" in almost Pavlovian fashion whenever the series is so much as mentioned in passing. There are a number of reasons why I believe that, and it isn't just because of the way it looked. But, since that's typically the spark that ignites most flame wars when someone says "Wind Waker," that's the reason I'll start off with.


It was beautiful.

I don't care if you think it "doesn't look like Zelda." What exactly is that supposed to look like? Maybe you hate it because it's not brown and grimy and bump-mapped, or you hate its "cartoony" aura because you're just SO grown-up and mature. Sure, the art style doesn't appeal to everyone, and that's perfectly fine. But if you can't play through this game and at least concede that its visuals have some merit, then you're kidding yourself.

Forget for a moment that it's not Ocarina of Time. I won't bother expounding on the fact that there isn't a blocky N64 game on the planet that can wield any weight when it comes to arguing what's pretty and what's not. Regardless of whatever you're needlessly comparing it to, Wind Waker was gorgeous. In and of itself, Zelda or not, you can't deny that it looked great, even if you hated its styling. Its cel-shading holds up far better than any conventional polygonal graphics from its time period, and perhaps better than some of today's. I'd even venture to say that it still looks better than Twilight Princess, more than six years after its release.

I happened to really love the art style, although I can understand that it's not everyone's cup of tea. Still, the animation was fluid, the motion seamless, and everything that happened on screen flowed together wonderfully. There were no oddly sharp edges, blocky shapes or robotic-looking characters. For what it was, for what it was trying to do, it was almost visually perfect. So seamless, in fact, that at times it was easy to forget you were playing a videogame and not watching an animated film. 


You got a problem with cute?

Why's that? Not to make two separate points on what might be considered the same subject, let's take a moment to think about why exactly you have a problem with the game's specific art direction, regardless of whether you care to admit that it looked great for what it was. Why couldn't it be cute?

Point out to me where Link was ever beefy or gruff. If I remember correctly, he came into this world as a tiny 8-bit sprite, same as his buddy Mario. The only difference is, Mario is still cute and cartoony and nobody seems to have a problem with that. You don't hear anyone clamoring for a hairy, "adult" version of Mario with a burly plumber's physique and enhanced ass crack physics. On the contrary, Paper Mario's art style was cuddly as can be and you loved it. So what's the problem?

The problem is, Ocarina of Time was a fantastic game that we all loved, and some of you never got over the fact that the adult version of Link was specific to that story because he'd traveled forward in time. You just figured he should be a grownup now because his legs were a little less stumpy in Majora's Mask, but if you'd payed attention during Wind Waker, it was already explained to you pretty clearly that (SPOILER) this wasn't the same dude. Like it or not, historically speaking, Link has almost never been portrayed as an adult.

As for why the overall cuteness of the rest of the game bothers you, you can take that up with your therapist. That is, unless, you'd care to pay me whatever their going rate is, in which case I guess we could have a talk about why you need your videogame protagonists to be hulking meatheads wandering rusty, post-apocalyptic wastelands, lest you be tempted to try on any pink lipstick and heels.


I'm on a boat, motherfucker, on a boat

If you've got your masculinity issues under control, let's move on to some of the other reasons this game was awesome. Namely, the fucking boat. How was this not the most badass ride in all of Hyrule? The King of Red Lions: a big, red sailboat with a godamned talking Chinese dragon head on it that spoke all manner of helpful advice. You should be ashamed for not loving it.

Not only did it flat-out look rad, it was fun. I remember sailing around in my awesome boat, not giving a fiddler's fart how out-of-the-way my next destination was, sometimes even feeling a little disappointed when I got there because that meant I had to get out of my awesome fucking boat. Furthermore, it let your hookshot double as a crane so you could dig for buried pirate treasure, and your bombs turned into a cannon that could blow enemy ships out of the water. KABOOM! Explain to me how that's not like ... a billion times cooler than some boring old horse.

If I had that boat, I'd sell all my crap for fruit snacks and bottled water, and then I'd ride around on that motherfucker until I got old and died on it. Just look at it. You love it and you wish you had one for real, and if you don't, you're fucking looney.


The soundtrack was phenomenal

Zelda games have always been praised for their outstanding music, but Wind Waker seemed to put more emphasis than usual on its tuneage. Given, maybe I'm a bit partial to its Celtic flavors, freckled Paddy that I am, but there were also Incan and Andean influences that could be heard throughout, in addition to more traditional scores. Everything fit perfectly with the tone and atmosphere of the game, and there was even a foreboding little tune that would ramp up as unseen enemies approached. Swing that sword a few times and see if the music doesn't follow right along with it. Brilliantly done, and once again, seamlessly integrated.


No Navi

Come on. For as much as you people grit your teeth over her constant pestering, you should really be a little more open to the only recent game in which she's nowhere to be found. Hear that? That's the sound of peace and fucking quiet. Instead of dooming you to a quest plagued by "HEY! LISTEN!," the developers chose to give Link a brain of his own, letting him find things for himself. When there was something you were supposed to see, Link's eyes would shift toward it. Clean and simple, which brings me to my next point.


Quiet innovation

As is often the case, it was all the little things coming together that made this game truly shine. Some of them had been seen before elsewhere, but never so many of them in one package. Stand on a hill or an elevated step in Wind Waker. Do Link's feet hang out in open air or stab into the environment? No, they bend at the ankles. When he's on a staircase, one leg is lower than the other. It sounds like a silly little detail, but pop in most current-gen, supposedly high-quality games and see if your character doesn't look like a levitating mannequin when you hit some stairs, or mysteriously lose his feet when walking up a hill.

The facial expressions of NPCs, the countless bits of Foley art that made the world feel like you were a part of it, fleeting frames of animation that made everything come to life. So much of it slips by completely unnoticed, and that's the mark of success in that arena. The subtle twitch of an eyebrow to convey an emotion, or wet footprints drying in the hot sand are but simple things that we are cheated out of every day as gamers placed into virtual worlds. 

Take the game for a spin sometime and try to notice all the tiny things that it gets right, when even the most high-profile 360 or PS3 games are still neglecting these minute details that come together to make a game that much more immersive. It had these fine points spit-shined six years ago, when many hyper-realistic games of today still don't bother.


A vast new world, with so much to discover

Different people have different reasons for liking the Zelda franchise, and to each his own. Some enjoy the puzzles; others love to crawl through dungeons or take on the bosses -- but for me, it's always been about exploration and discovery. Wind Waker does an unprecedented job of making you feel like there's a whole reality out there for you to sift through, with its many side quests, bonuses, hidden items and prize-laden islands that weren't even on the damn map. I took my time sailing its waters, checking every rock and lagoon for hidden goodies, and I'm still not sure I found everything it had to offer. 

Secret places like the underground area beneath the vacation house (somewhat of a hidden spot itself), Tingle's tower where he put his brothers to work, the Goron islands and countless other blips on the radar were scattered far and wide, just waiting to be found. Sure, all Zelda games had hidden spots full of Easter eggs, but this wasn't the same old grassy field, full of the same old talking rocks and golden spiders. For the first time ever, you were out in the middle of the ocean, and there was no telling what you might run into. 


It's got all the required hallmarks of a great Zelda title, but it's still NEW

Go right ahead, Inspector Fanboy. Take a look. Like any respectable game in the franchise, you'll find everything on your checklist. Gorons, Triforce pieces, ghosts, fairy caves, Hyrule castle, Ganon, all the important weapons and items. Sure, Epona is now a boat and the Zoras have evolved into somewhat of their antithesis via a race of bird-people, but everything you've come to expect out of a Zelda game is tucked neatly into its respective slot. Not to mention a decent plot twist, GBA connectivity (multiplayer!) and a slew of other awesome stuff you'd never seen or done before.

The only difference is, it's new. We berated Nintendo for years to shake things up and offer us something that wasn't the same old tired trek through Hyrule, and guess what? Here it is. So what's the problem? There's a reason it's my favorite Zelda title, and a reason that Famitsu gave it a perfect score. I would encourage you to give this game another shot and see if you can't find a reason to love it as well.

Topher Cantler,
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