So it should come as no surprise that many long time fans of the series were immediately turned off when early screens of Link on the GameCube, digitally rendered in all his glory, were replaced by a childlike, cartoony, cel-shaded new appearance. These fans had lived it up with a similarly 3-d rendered Zelda in both of his incredible N64 jaunts, and expected more of the same on the new Nintendo system. When Miyamoto and the rest of the team trashed those old renders and went in an entirely new direction, fans felt alienated. Betrayed. I should know, I counted myself among them. Why would Nintendo throw away such a promising graphical advance for something that looked to be straight out of a children's storybook? Despite my worries about the new look, I was tempted into pre-ordering the title, thanks in large part to the free inclusion of a free GameCube disc, containing the revamped Ocarina of Time on Nintendo's new system.
Within the first three minutes, my worries were washed aside. Graphically, this is as much of a leap forward from The Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask as those revolutionary titles were from A Link to the Past. It's still filled with the same great gameplay experience you grew to love on the NES, SNES and N64, yet it's pleasantly a beast unto itself. Truly, this was the right step for the masters behind the Zelda series to have taken.
Even more surprising, to me anyway, was the logical and successful explanation of the hero's wardrobe, as well as the planet's backstory. Rather than simply falling back on their old standby, "Here's a guy named Link who wears a hideous green combination and embarks on a long quest," the storyline immediately addresses the obvious questions and firmly bases the quest in a much more believable reality. Ages ago, the dark wizard Ganon overtook the land, only to be foiled at the last possible moment by a stranger wearing green. This hero mysteriously appeared, defeated the enemy and disappeared once again, and has become almost a mythological religious icon. So revered, is this legendary hero of time, that every boy in the world dresses in a similar green outfit on their eighth birthday in a traditional coming of age ceremony. It's a sort of messed up combination bar mitzvah / first communion, and the kids hate it.
Though you've always been able to change your main character's name, in the end players have always known in their hearts that the little guy in green was meant to be addressed as Link. In The Wind Waker, you portray a young boy going through this very ceremony. At the game's outset, the lead character complains about his green wardrobe, and would be much happier in a t-shirt and shorts. As the storyline moves on, however, he becomes more comfortable in the gear, and begins to resemble the legendary hero he's meant to be saluting. As one thing leads to another, your character finds himself more and more intertwined in machinations of a grand scale, roaming the open seas and fighting larger and larger bosses. There's a real dramatic element introduced in this title, something that was missing from each Zelda title before. It feels more professional, more complete. The fairly linear story isn't without a few surprises, and a few moments that will live in your imagination for years to come. Perhaps the most striking moment of the game occurs a split second after you've defeated the final boss... not that I'm going to spoil it for you. They've really put everything in exactly the right places here, and it makes the entire quest that much more enjoyable.
The ocean is an enormous part of this title's storyline, as you immediately fall in with a crew of pirates and eventually head out on your own, touring the world in a rickety old one-seater. As you advance further into the game, you'll be spending progressively more time out on the waves, traveling from one point to another. Occasionally you'll be assaulted by a roaming gang of flying sharks, or a particularly aggressive sea squid. You'll find treasure beneath the waves, and it's possible to discover an uninhabited island or to merely sail around the world seeing the sights. The majority of The Wind Waker is conducted at a leisurely pace, giving gamers plenty of time to complete their side quests and explore the full depth of the disc. One minor annoyance, however, is the inability to sail from one side of the map to the other. Where it would make sense to sail off the western edge of the map and reappear on the far eastern end, that's not an option in the title. It only serves to annoy and elongate travels, and was really something that should have been included in the final release.
The gameplay is a near-flawless translation of the system broken in by the N64 titles, at the same time benefitting from the modifications made to the GameCube's controller. Where the N64 controller offered four directional "C" buttons (which were used to activate items in your inventory), the GameCube offers a second analog stick, labeled the "C stick", which is used to control the camera angle. Items are now activated through the use of the X, Y and Z buttons, a layout which requires some minor adjustment due to the "Z" button's location, away from the other two. Assaults are performed with the "B" button, and various actions are all done with "A". Instead of locking onto enemies with the "Z" (or trigger) button, as on the N64, you may lock on with "L". The "R" buttons gets Link down on his belly, or when his weapon is drawn enables him to parry attacks with his shield.
Though the system remains magnificent, there remain two fairly glaring problems with this layout. For one, the player still cannot control if and when Link jumps or climbs. This particular flaw becomes critical when navigating small ledges or attempting to scale relatively short walls, as the little man on the screen will occasionally choose to plummet to his doom without a moment's notice. I've nearly lost my mind, standing in front of a three foot wall that my character simply refused to climb. The second problem I had was with the camera control. As the owner of a rather large screen TV, I tend to pull the camera as far back from a character as possible, so I can take advantage of my larger screen by viewing more of the surrounding environment. In The Wind Waker, pulling back the camera also lifts it skyward. So, if I want a wider view of my surroundings, I also lose a lot of my range of vision and must maneuver Link from above. Needless to say, this is not ideal.
Despite my qualms, and the seemingly enormous amount of buttons, this remains an easy title to pick up and enjoy right away. Novice players and old pros alike will be up and off within a few minutes, exploring the possibilities (and the limits) of the current layout. Without the annoyance of "navi" floating around your head, shouting and spitting out endless lectures at the drop of a hat, the game plays much more easily. Instructions are there, if you need to know how to do something, but they don't beat you over the head. Battles are very easy to learn, and even offer a few advanced fighting tactics. By the time I met up with the last boss, I was a mean fighting machine who'd taken down upwards of six men at one time. Artificial Intelligence has also been given a slight boost, though many enemies remain too easy. Rather than standing and swinging wildly, enemies will group together and attack you at once. They'll drop weapons and run across the room to pick them up as though their life depended upon it (which, in the end, it does.) Every bit of the old magic is here, as players must learn an enemy's weakness and exploit it through constant battles, trial and error.
My largest gripe with this new Zelda lies in its sound. As a next-gen system running custom DVDs, the GameCube has more than enough room to allow for high quality, dolby-style audio tracks. This system should be pumping out better sounding tracks than your average CD, as evidenced by the tight ambient soundtrack of Metroid Prime. Instead, Zelda falls back on the same old MIDI-sounding synth score we endured on the N64. Many of the songs are exactly the same as heard on "Ocarina", with only a few slight tweaks and modifications, which is an undeniable no-no for a title of this magnitude. Imagine if the Ocarina of Time had shipped with the same screeches and dings heard on the NES original.
The occasional voice is thrown in for the non-central characters (usually a goofy "HEY!" or "THANKK YOUU!!"), in addition to the exact same striking, falling and action voice samples used for Link himself in the aforementioned N64 classics. All in all, it feels like the game was rushed through production and the audio department was the only real casualty. It's certainly not an impressive game as far as one's ears are concerned, and that's a major downfall.
But, where one could complete the entire game without the aid of sound, the same cannot be said for visuals. You can put in a CD, mute the television and forget all about a poor soundtrack (as I've done many times in the past), but if the screen is turned off, the game isn't playable. For this reason, I hold visuals and gameplay mechanics to a much higher standard than soundtracks, which is an opinion I'm sure I share with the majority of other gamers. In this aspect, the new Zelda really shines. This is more than a natural step forward for the series, it's a revolution. I've seen cel shading done well in the past, but absolutely nothing can hold a torch to what's been accomplished with The Wind Waker. Absolutely everything has been accounted for, from the big picture to the tiny details. Afterthoughts such as the water bursting off the front of your boat and tiny clouds of dust kicking up beneath your feet on a beach are attended to with uncanny attention to detail. When your character climbs from the water, he'll drip dry for the next few minutes. A monstrous enemy resembling a warthog marches through several dungeons on his hind legs. His lower lip juts out, flapping in the wind, and individual bits of saliva sail through the air with his every move. It's incredible. There are more frames of animation in that enemy's lip than in all of the original Zelda. Taking this game in is more than just an experience. It's a revelation.
The visual style is top notch, as well. This is a total package, every screen designed seamlessly and beautifully, from the "press start" screen (which changes from night to day and back again, depending on the time your internal clock reads) to the item selection screen and back again. Your maps actually LOOK like maps, not a wireframe thrown in to make things easier. They're worn, scribbled and sketched upon and ripped. This is one of the most professional visual packages I've ever seen, without a doubt, and it's all laid out with a decidedly Japanese edge. Ganon looks twice as intimidating, throwing his weight around in a thick ceremonial Japanese gown.
The levels are laid out equally well. You'll run into a new challenge around every corner, and feel proud of yourself when it's finally solved. Rather than being granted an entire world map at one specific moment, you must travel to each end of the world and meet with "magical" local animals. They will then sketch a relatively reliable approximation of the mainland onto your map, and you'll be on your way. If you're looking for the entire world at a glance, you'll have to pay for it with time and energy. Dungeons are remarkable, and completely deserving of the Zelda name, and the bosses.... they're a reward in and of themselves. I've never found myself looking forward to a level's final battle as much as I was with this title. The boss fights are just that incredible.
If sidequests are your game, Nintendo has got you covered. While the normal game itself could be conceivably defeated in eight or nine hours, there remain easily an additional ten hours' worth of extras left, tempting players to tackle the game in its entirety. It's a nicely paced game, though there are times where play begins to lag.
Finally, Zelda boasts complete connectivity with the GameBoy Advance system, through the ingenious GCN-GBA Connect Cable. Once you've discovered the "Tingle Tuner", a surprisingly GBA-shaped item within the game, a friend can plug in the portable console and play along. While the player using the big screen carries on his or her business, the player using the handheld floats around the same room with complete freedom. They can explore areas unavailable to Link himself, drop bombs from thin air (at a cost of ten rupees a piece), deliver life-giving potions, give Link the ability to walk on air for a limited time, and a number of other surprises. There's even a unique sidequest involving the Tingle Tuner that can't be completed without a GBA.
Unfortunately, the connectivity serves as more of a hindrance than anything else. The only visual appearance of the player using a GameBoy on the television is a small green circle, floating around the screen. In addition, whenever the "A" button is pressed on the GBA, Link stops what he's doing, puts down anything he's carrying and looks at the circle as it shouts "HEEYYY!!!" I'd guess it's a quick and easy way to show the GameCube player where the GameBoy player is on the screen, but it gets overused in very short order. All in all, it's something that could've been really cool and helpful but wound up being a non-factor in the big picture.
As one package, this is an unbelievable game. If it weren't for the mild, yet necessary tweaks required of the controls and the sore lack of acceptable music and audio, I might be tempted to call this perfect. As is, the remainder of the game is good enough to account for the inexcusable audio and then some. The storyline is utterly enveloping, while the gameplay is everything you'd expect from a Miyamoto title. The Wind Waker is a tremendous step for the GameCube, reaffirming Nintendo's place in the industry and capturing the imaginations of anyone willing to give it a chance. Don't let your preconceived notions about the shift in visual style fool you, this belongs in your collection right alongside the other titles in the legendary Zelda series.
Overall Score: 9.5