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As an old saying goes, changes to a legendary franchise can be a double-edged sword. Some were made with disappointing reactions from hardcore fans while others embraced it with open arms. Nintendo took a chance in 2003 drastically changing the visual style of the iconic Legend of Zelda series to a cel-shaded cartoon starring a younger Link. Those risks paid off with Wind Waker being not only one of the best games on the GameCube, but also one of the better Zelda games generally. I’ll be honest out of the gate: I didn’t beat the original Wind Waker, was a little disappointed with Twilight Princess, and skipped Skyward Sword. Like some people, I was wishing some drastic changes can be made again to the Zelda formula in the future. Ten years later, Nintendo decided to bring The Wind Waker back in HD for the Wii U to ease the wait for a newer Zelda game. Playing through this game again reminded me of three things: games were really something else last generation with no hand holding, it was one of the better looking games back in 2003 as the HD improvements here are beautiful, and refreshing in general to play a Zelda game again after sitting out for a few years.
If you’re not familiar with Wind Waker HD’s storyline, it is Link’s birthday at Outset Island even though he seems to forget about it. His sister, Aryll, gets kidnapped by a big bird known as the Helmaroc King, and he goes to rescue her along with a group of pirates led by a girl named Tetra. The rescue attempt goes wrong at the Forsaken Fortress as Link gets sent flying by Helmaroc King. He later wakes up in a talking boat known as The King of Red Lions. The two join forces to save Aryll from the Helmaroc King’s clutches and of course the traditional Zelda tropes kick in when Ganon and the Triforce gets involved. The Wind Waker’s story is pretty simple and yet so charming at the same time with the cartoony aesthetic.
While the traditional Zelda formula remained intact in terms of going to a dungeon, collecting its new weapon, and using that to defeat the boss, The Wind Waker did flip the script a bit as far as the overworld is concerned. The overworld is the Great Sea and you have to sail around with The King of Red Lions to your locales whether doing a fetching sidequest, collecting treasures hidden throughout the ocean, and completing dungeons. It was one of the shorter Zelda games back in 2003 and still is today because of having less dungeons to beat if you just want to breeze through the main story. Of course, it will be longer to casually collect everything the game offers, which is around 30 or more hours. Like Grand Theft Auto V, playing through Wind Waker HD has been refreshing because of how long it takes to beat the game normally compared to majority of today’s games this console generation usually taking only a few hours.
As much as The Wind Waker was one of the better Zelda games, it was also filled with flaws. This HD version addresses those flaws for an easier, accessible, and convenient experience. These changes for the sake of convenience and accessibility are for the better thanks to the Wii U Gamepad’s interface. After playing through the whole game with the Gamepad, it is going to be hard for me to go back to playing Zelda games with a traditional controller. Item management is as easy as swiping the specific weapon or item to the designated button on the Gamepad screen, which all of this can be done without pausing. Maps and treasure charts can be seen on the second screen making finding collectibles and heart pieces easier to get without constantly pausing trying to figure out where it is. Keep in mind I haven’t played any the Zelda games on the DS, but now I know why a second screen benefits players a lot for these games. The Gamepad also allows off-TV play as well if you rather have something else on your TV. Traditionalists can still play with the Pro Controller if you prefer that style.
Other flaws that Wind Waker HD addressed involve the structure of the game. The sailing felt slow and tedious back in the original. Nintendo’s solution for this issue is the new Swift Sail, which you have to win an auction to acquire it. The Swift Sail allows the King of Red Lions to sail at faster speeds and there is no need to change the wind with the Wind Waker constantly anymore. This change also makes the title item less used frequently, but it still has the uses in key events and traversal sequences with the Deku Leaf. The sailing still feels tedious even with the Swift Sail on, which I wish it can be acquired in a different way than an auction, but at least you’ll reach your destination faster than you used to in the original.
The other significant flaw the original had and where I stopped playing back then was the infamous Triforce quest. Ten years ago you needed an absurd amount of rupees to decipher a certain number of charts in order to find Triforce Shards hidden throughout the Great Sea. This fetching quest was too time consuming and a hassle to play through in order to unlock the final stretch of the game. It is a less of a hassle now in Wind Waker HD as you only have to decipher three charts for less rupees and the other shards can be found at specific islands than the sea itself. This is a change I approve of so players like myself that gave up at that part have a chance of redemption with this HD version.
Combat-wise, Wind Waker HD feels great with the Gamepad. After dabbling with motion controls with Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword, it is nice to play a Zelda game with a traditional scheme again. The only form of motion control with the GamePad is gyro aiming with certain weapons. This can be turned off especially if you’re someone that can not relax their hands with the Gamepad as it can be also controlled with the right analog stick. The Zelda staples in terms of Link’s arsenal are here from the boomerang, bombs, bow/arrows, and the hookshot, but the new items introduced in this game such as the grappling hook and the Deku Leaf, which allows Link to glide through long distances with the wind, are solid additions. The Wind Waker is also easy to use with the GamePad since the songs are on the second screen in case you forget them. As far as the ship combat is concerned, it is fine for the most part with easier aiming with the bombs, but controlling it in hairy situations can be a bit of a hassle finicking around with the analog sticks to get your boat aligned right.
The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker HD also includes a big social media aspect, which is becoming a new standard for a Nintendo game. Taking a cue from the Souls games, Tingle Bottles can be found throughout the overworld with either pictures or a text-based status update a la Twitter and Facebook (these can also be posted to Miiverse). These Tingle bottles replace the original version’s Tingle Tuner and having these bottles around makes this game act like its own social media platform, which is pretty cool adding another layer to a special game. Even the picto box can be used for social media purposes when posting cool pics of the action and even selfies of Link himself. Link can basically have his own Instagram account at this rate with the amount of great selfies players are taking every day. After playing two recent games with elaborate selfie systems, Wind Waker HD has better selfies than Grand Theft Auto V easily.
Of course, a HD remake of this caliber also means improved graphics and if you thought the original GameCube version already looked beautiful ten years ago, it looks even more gorgeous in this HD facelift on the Wii U. This is where the infamous cartoony, cel-shaded art style really shines from Link’s facial expressions and the whole overworld itself. Ever since the game’s initial showing earlier this year, the game has been critically bashed by some fans for the overusage of bloom lighting, but good thing it was toned down enough to the final game that it is not much of a distraction. At many points in the game, I wanted to stop and soak in the scenery for a minute, which seems to be a case with recent games with a big overworld. As much as the graphics still look amazing today, the framerate hitches do hamper the game’s technical quality a bit as these usually happen at frantic scenes when things get too chaotic especially at the seas. The remastered soundtrack, however, is great for certain songs and there is always a certain charm with the characters’ lack of voices. If Nintendo ever decides to include actual voice overs in future Zelda games, it will definitely lose some of its signature charm.
With all the significant changes and improvements made from the original, The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker HD redefines how a “HD remake” should be made. The amount of simplicity and accessibility with the Gamepad makes gameplay more fun and convenient. Item management and looking at maps/charts on the second screen make the experience more seamless with less need of pausing to check things or assign items to certain buttons. The structure changes from the faster sailing and shorter TriForce quest are much needed since those were the main flaws the original had. The sailing does still feel a bit tedious when it comes to collecting everything, which will players take about 30 hours casually. Then there’s the option for Hero Mode, a harder version of the game as Link only heals with fairies/potions and takes double damage from enemies, to increase the game’s replay value besides the second quest. The HD facelift looks even more beautiful making the game’s infamous cel-shaded, cartoony art style shine even more. The framerate hitches in chaotic moments are a bummer, but besides that, the game runs fine at a consistent 30 frames per second.
It is impressive how Nintendo was able to make this whole game in just six months, but Wind Waker HD is a great enough teaser on the Wii U to set the tone for the new Zelda game with certain expectations. If you’re itching to play one of the better games of this iconic franchise again or for the first time on the Wii U, The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker HD is easily worth the $50 price and one of the best games to get as Nintendo’s latest console turns a year old next month.