Platform: Wii U
Developer: Nintendo EAD
For those of you who remember reading the Dealspwn Game of the Year 2012 Highlights will remember me stating that my most anticipated game for this year would be a Zelda Wii U game. Well 10 months down the line, and I’d be lying if I thought or hoped that game would have been a remake of a game I’d completed a decade ago. I wanted new Zelda, never-before-seen Zelda, and what I got from Nintendo was Wind Waker HD. I said before that Nintendo needed a Zelda game to propel them forward – a stance that has further been emphasised by a quiet first-half of 2013 and imminent next-gen console launches. So this review is not just any old review. On its shoulders is not just an evaluation of how good a Wii U game Wind Waker HD is, but also whether it can fill that need and push the Wii U forward. And also more importantly (to me at least) was my prediction vindicated that this would be the game of the year? You’ll be able to tell by my smugness at the end.
For those unfamiliar with the original game, or who simply weren’t gaming back when Busted were topping the charts in the UK, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker was the main Zelda franchise release for the Nintendo GameCube. It took a few notably different steps to its gameplay and style off the back of previous N64 powerhouses - Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask. Despite gamers of the time (myself included) drooling over higher-res, detailed graphics thanks to a Spaceworld demo in 2000, Nintendo decided cel-shading was the way to go – putting a higher emphasis on the emotion of Link and other characters, something they felt was more achievable in this art style. Cue the witty “Cel-da” puns from games journalists and players alike, unable to see how a game that looked like a cartoon could carry on such a serious and beloved franchise.
The other major difference to Wind Waker introduced against other Zelda titles was that the overworld was covered in water, with a boat and sail required for travel. The titular Wind Waker acted as an instrument that could control the wind’s direction to aid sailing (as well as other wind-orientated puzzling). There was also a newly-introduced parry system which meant that with a well-timed press of the A button, Link would perform an acrobatic move that would strike an enemy’s weak point allowing for link to lay the sword smackdown in his usual fashion.
Throw in a smattering of Zelda franchise favourites, such as bombs, boomerangs and a bow and arrow, as well as some new and ingenious items for Link to use such as a Deku Leaf that Link uses to blow away enemies or use as a parachute to glide over long distances, and we quickly realised that The Wind Waker felt the same as other Zelda games, though possessing enough uniqueness about it to offer something new to proceedings. The original was a well-executed game, full of humour, character and charm as well as the great level design and fun we all expect from a Zelda game. Its reviews and scores show that.
The game was not perfect, however. And it didn’t resonate with all Zelda fans.
Wind Waker, more than any other Zelda is the game I hear most often criticised. A lot of comments along the lines of “not my favourite Zelda” or “put me off the series” can be read online. Much of the rationale for these feelings boil down to the art style feeling bland, the sailing sections feeling too long, the game being too easy (particularly with the parry mechanic), and there being a rather overly time consuming and convoluted ending sequence involving the Triforce of Courage. All fair criticisms, and whilst these don’t stop it being a very good game, they prevented the original from being a classic in many gamers’ eyes.
At the time, I definitely agreed.
But let us move on to Wind Waker HD. For me a remake of any kind has to be measured against two things - on how it stacks up against today’s market, and also the level of improvements made to the original to improve the experience as a whole. This is Nintendo’s opportunity to not only give us a Zelda game in HD, or indeed to introduce a generation to Link’s adventure on the Great Sea, but also an opportunity to right the wrongs of the first game, and meet that criticism that was levelled at it head on.
It sounds daft to state the obvious, but the first thing you notice about Wind Waker HD is just how absolutely gorgeous the game looks. It’s hard to describe in words how stunning these HD cel-shaded graphics look. I found myself gasping and grinning just by simply running around Outset Island – Link’s home – and looking at how everything looked so crisp, clean and beautiful. But it doesn’t just stop there: I was drooling over lighting effects on pirate ships, doing 360O panoramic views as I was sailing through the sea, and peering at far off islands through my telescope, and every time I was amazed – it truly is stunning, and by far the nicest looking game on Wii U. For all those doubting how “cartoon graphics” could possibly be improved by HD, I implore you to play the game, and then I’ll watch as you visually eat a big helping of humble pie.
The game – as beautiful as it is – progresses in very much the same way as the original did. Link’s sister get’s kidnapped by a giant bird, and with the help of a group of pirates, he sets off in search of her rescue. But we all know before he can come home and have his tea, he’s going to have to trawl some dungeons, get some items, beat some bosses, and ultimately save the land. And that nasty Ganondorf figure is bound to be involved in it all as well. So yes, it’s familiar a Zelda story, however it is up there with some of the Zelda series’ better storylines, made all the better by the character interaction (and emotion) that is conveyed through the facial animations achieved with the cel shaded style, which is as cute and interesting in HD as it was in the original.
When you get a hold of your boat and begin your sailing in earnest and you can change the wind using the Wind Waker, this is when the game introduces the second of its key enhancements versus the original. In order to combat the oft-criticised long sailing sections in the game, there is the option to obtain a special Swift Sail which makes you boat sail 50% faster than the standard sail. It also automatically changes the wind direction to the direction your boat is sailing, meaning you won’t have to keep using the Wind Waker to do it yourself. On the face of it, this seems like a very cheap item that removes the game of one of its central mechanics, and indeed its titular item. However this is only partially true and context is needed. Firstly, not only is the Wind Waker required for other melodies you will learn, but the game (and some sidequests) will require you to change the wind direction away from your boat, thus the Wind Waker itself is not exactly redundant. Also the other important thing to remember is that the Swift Sail is an optional extra. You have to go out of your way to obtain it, and even when you have it, its use is manual rather than automatic, and the player can switch between the swift and regular sail at any time. What this boils down to for me is a perfect solution to the sailing issues some may have had with the original. It means that those who want an extra burst of speed and improved manoeuvrability can use the swift sail, but purists can stick to the regular one, without harming the gameplay. I myself tended to use a mixture of both depending on whether I wanted to move in a straight line or turn quickly – as the swift sail has a larger turning circle than the regular sail. And the fact that it is just a button push whilst sailing makes it very easy to use and well implemented.
As I mentioned earlier, a lot of the original’s criticism was based around the last portion of the game where the player has to complete a series of tasks around the Triforce of Courage. Complaints were placed at how repetitive this end game was and how it shamelessly extended the play time of the game by forcing lots of travel and to-ing and fro-ing to a specific location. It jarred with the flowing nature normally found within Zelda games, and naturally lacked the depth that an additional dungeon would have provided. Facing this criticism, the game aims to streamline this process by removing some of the legwork required to obtain information, and just gives it to you upfront at a certain point in the game. Whilst this feels like cheating, and to some will feel cheap – I think it only feels that way when you compare it to the original game. If one approached Wind Waker as the first version of the game, I think people would be much happier with this effort. It makes it less time-consuming, much more fluid, and less jarring with what we expect from Zelda games. To put it bluntly, this section of the original prevented me from playing it through a second time, as it felt unnecessary. However with the streamlined version in the Wind Waker HD, I can see myself in the future playing this game through again with no reservations.
All these improvements to the original may leave you screaming one thing at me. “The game was already easy – now they’re making it even easier!” And on the face of it, I would completely agree with you. The improvements up until now will make the game easier, make it more accessible to a wider audience and hopefully reduce the frustration of players at the same time. Having said that, I know we all like a challenge, and a game like Zelda is not meant to be an exercise in just seeing the story through, it should be a challenging set of puzzles and dungeons, finished with interesting boss fights. To combat this, the game has implemented a Hero mode, which was first introduced in Skyward Sword. Playing on Hero Mode means enemies do twice as much damage to you and there are no recovery hearts. That’s right, none at all. It may seem like a cheap solution to the difficulty problem, until you give it a go. I like to think of myself as something of a Zelda veteran, someone who is skilled in the series, and can complete the games with reasonable ease. I’m not the world’s best but I don’t die very often, if at all on an adventure. 20 years of practice will do that to you, and with that experience comes a bit of apathy towards the challenge at hand. It was this sort of challenge that made games like Link to the Past such key games in my childhood, but when I play them now, some of the magic is lost because I’m better at Zelda games than I was.
But what impressed me the most about Hero Mode in Wind Waker is that by making you take more damage and having no easy way of recovering health, it puts that excitement and challenge back into the game that I have lost over the years. It means for the first dungeon – with three hearts – you can only get hit 6 times in total before you’re flat on the ground with the Game Over screen leering at you. And I won’t deny that that happened to me a few times in the early dungeons, where my heart count was low. And that sort of thing never happens to me in a Zelda game these days, and for me it was a great feeling, because rather than this experience being a run through of a decade-old game, it felt like a fresh challenge. If anything I was thankful for the Parry mechanic to give me the edge, and I quickly had to work out the most effective way for dealing with each individual enemy. ‘Slash and hope’ will only get you so far.
This revelation extended beyond the dungeons though. It meant that it was out of necessity that I actively searched for the Heart Pieces to increase my life rather than the completionist in me. Fairy locations had to be memorised, and bottles needed to be found, I was seeking out treasure charts for treasure and more heart pieces to make my life easier. For the first time in a while, the Zelda main quest, and side-quests felt more aligned and more purposeful than they ever have. With this Hero Mode, not only have Nintendo made the game harder, but they’ve actually made it more like Zelda again for the veteran, which is an amazing feat.
I said earlier that remakes need to be judged on the improvements made to the original and how well they stack up today. Zelda games, in the main, are pretty timeless games that work as well now as they did on release, and Wind Waker is no exception. Had The Wind Waker been released brand new on Wii U just in HD it would score as highly as it did way back in 2003, because the design of the game, the amazing score, the emotion and humour within the visual expressions of characters, and the game as a whole are all finished to an amazingly high standard. However where The Wind Waker HD really shines is when you see what it has done to build on the original. Think the visuals looked bland in 2003? Look at them now in HD. Sailing sections too long and boring – especially the Triforce section at the end of the game? Say hello to the optional Swift Sail and a streamlined process which plays much smoother. Think the game is too easy? Whack it on Hero Mode from the start and see how you get on.
It’s great to see for once that improvements to a game are just that – improvements, and ones that have been made by admitting to faults with the original and Nintendo having such boldness to face all of them head on. Each solution feeling natural to the game already built, as though they existed from the start. What it leaves us with is The Wind Waker HD being more like the original Wind Waker version 2.0, a second crack at the whip from Nintendo to realise the dream they had over a decade ago. And what they’ve achieved is turning what was already a great game into a classic.
So yes, thanks to Nintendo’s brilliant work, I was right. For me this is the best game on Wii U and a good a reason as any to own the console if you don’t already. It quite simply is that good.
- Gorgeous visuals throughout
- Great dungeon design and puzzles
- Fantastic soundtrack
- Emotion and humour not normally seen in Zelda games
- Improvements solve major issues with original
- Hero Mode makes it feel like a true Zelda game again
- If you hated the original, chances are you still won’t like this
- With all that water, there's still no fishing mini-game.
The Short Version: The Zelda franchise normally serves up games of very high quality and the original Wind Waker was no exception. What the HD remake manages to do is provide solutions to all the bug bears of the original to provide a sublime experience for all. It takes a great game and makes it simply unmissable. Plus for veterans of the series, stick the game in Hero Mode and see your love affair with the series rekindled anew. A perfect example of how to do a remake.