The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker
The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker tries to differentiate itself from its predecessors by adopting an unique art style – cel-shaded to simulate a cartoon – and delivering an adventure lighter in tone. However, it’s simple and less-than-inspired design has led to the repetition of ideas and activities, making it the weakest 3D installment in the series to date.
The story of The Wind Waker begins the day Link is about to receive the green robes that symbolize his passage into adulthood. The festivities, however, are interrupted when a group of pirates, in pursuit of a gigantic bird, arrives on his island. After helping the pirates regain their leader, Link sees his sister being kidnapped by the same bird and needs to travel with the pirates to rescue her.
The narrative structure of the game is its main strength. The affection that Link feels for his sister, for example, is the first element to be established when the character wakes up, which makes the kidnapping more dramatically strong. In the same way, the protagonist’s goal, which starts being personal in nature, quickly evolves into the epic undertones expected of the franchise.
Containing some twists and turns that, although expected, work by reinforcing the narrative role of certain characters, the story of The Wind Waker is agile and busier than that of Ocarina of Time, albeit it does not even attempt to have the complexity of Majora’s Mask: there is nothing here that compares to the nuances of the themes discussed in the previous game and that can lead to different interpretations.
Although the story is simpler and more blunt, it remains properly developed. Link’s narrative arc, for example, though clichéd, being a coming-of-age story, is well delineated. The game begins by interrupting the preparations for his transition into adulthood, and his journey serves to complete this process: if at first the characters see the boy’s courage as foolish because of his age and appearance, near the end, they already respect and understand that he is able to fulfill his purpose.
Benefited also by being one of the few installments in the series that tries to humanize, even briefly, its most iconic villain, the story of the game still capitalizes on the mythology built up so far, bringing the Triforce to the center of the stage, which has the potential to thrill fans of the franchise.
The art style used in the game, based on the cel shading technique – which renders 3D images to give them a 2D animation look – is also effective in conveying the characters’ emotions, especially those of Link, besides being responsible for giving a lighter and comical tone to the events. The faces and mouths that the protagonist makes when he is about to be “thrown” into the fortress guarded by his sister, for example, are fun because they are able to capture the absurdity of the moment. Now, the instant that a fairy reveals that Link “is her type,” the expression on the boy’s face has nuances enough to be a mixture of embarrassment and a confident “Yeah, I can’t help it.”
The Wind Waker also innovates in its setting: the horse-riding fields of Hyrule and Termina go away and enters a great navigable ocean. Using a baton, Link can command wind directions and use his mysterious sailing boat – which speaks – to explore the countless islands and lost ships that populate the place. Nintendo tries to develop this theme to the fullest, placing pirates as central characters in the narrative and a ghost ship haunting certain waters, introducing battles at sea with cannons, and even guiding the exploration through treasure maps that mark with a X the place where the treasures are hidden.
However, if the story and the art style work in The Wind Waker, the same cannot be said about most of its dungeons. The first two in The Wind Waker suffer from being very simple and linear. In Dragon Roost Cavern, for example, there is only one path to follow until the end. Whenever Link returns to a room that he has been before, he still manages to be walking in a straight line, and the player does not need to worry about the design of the place: after winning a challenge, a shortcut opens that takes the player, by the hands, back to the rooms that they need to go. Shortcuts are useful in complex spaces that invite exploration, making it both rewarding and practical. In The Wind Waker, however, they are used to prevent the player from leaving the pre-established path. Instead of being a reward for exploration, the shortcut is a tool that produces linearity: it makes the way to an earlier room the only way to be taken. One of the last challenges of this temple becomes actually funny: the player is finally in a dead end and what they need to find out is that they have to turn around to get to the boss’s room. Meanwhile, back at Deku Tree in Ocarina of Time, the player needed to understand both the layout of the place and the mechanics introduced so far to figure out how to clear the way to the place’s underground area.
On the other hand, the third temple, called Tower of the Gods, stands out for abandoning linearity on its first floor. The player is free to explore the place, since the map, the compass and a key can be acquired in any order. Its puzzles, in turn, present a gradation in their logic: at one point it is necessary to position blocks to be used as platforms when the water level rises, at another, the player have to use wooden sticks to light torches, and, at a third, use the blocks to pass with the flaming sticks over the water. Now, on the second floor, Link needs to take statues up to certain switches. Initially, he needs to pick them up and carry them with him. Later, the statues start to follow him, and then they have to be commanded from a distance. It is only a pity to note that there is no dynamic between these two floors: when players arrive at the second one they can forget that the first ever existed, as the logic of the puzzles also changes between them, making the floors mechanically disconnected.
And the last two dungeons show problems in their use of a companion. Link’s partner in the Temple of the Earth at least has constant utility in puzzles, diverting rays of light, and in movement, providing a way for Link to reach distant places without spending magic, but his companion in the Temple of the Wind is completely useless: it only creates trees in predetermined places so that they can be targeted by the hook and even spends most of the time trapped. The key problem of these companions is that they do not compensate for the fact that Link needs to spend a great deal of time playing a song to control them from a distance, which pauses the action constantly. If this happened only in the Temple of the Earth, it would be acceptable, but this music is also used in the Tower of the Gods and in the Temple of the Wind without change, which shows a lack of creativity from the part of the developers and also exhausts the player.
The Temple of the Earth, in particular, even suffers from being thematically displaced. It is artistically poor, with no striking features in its design justifying its name: the temple could have been very well called Temple of Shadow or Light that would make more sense, since its specific mechanics involves both elements.
In addition, there is no need for the Temple of the Wind to be solved after the Temple of the Earth. The game could have opened its structure and let the player choose which of the two to explore first, but, in an arbitrary decision, it forces the Earth to be solved earlier. One final detail about dungeons is that they usually have one or two optional rooms containing treasure maps. This is a setback in comparison to the several fairies available in Majora’s Mask, but it works to break, even if briefly, the exacerbated linearity of the design.
However, the main problem afflicting The Wind Waker is the absurd focus on its combat system. While previous games offered a number of secondary activities, such as solving puzzles, protecting caravans, preventing alien abductions, betting in races, and target practicing, The Wind Waker continually puts “defeat all enemies” as the goal for the player without any special context. Whenever Link finds a boat, he must defeat all the enemies inside. Whenever he climbs into a lookout post, he must defeat all enemies up there. Whenever he finds an island shaped like the face of a die, he must destroy all the cannons around the place. Almost every time he enters a cave, he must destroy all the enemies there. Sometimes the cave looks like a sanctuary, sometimes it looks like a cave, but that does not make the challenge stop being killing all the enemies in there. The climax of this design is a cave with more than thirty levels in which the challenge in each of them is … to kill all the enemies. As an extra task in the midst of many different ones, this cave would work, but, coming after many other battles, it’s just tiresome.
As The Wind Waker is not an action game, but one about adventure, its combat system is not nearly complex enough to sustain so much repetition. Yes, in comparison to its predecessors, it is enhanced, containing a kind of counterattack by pressing the A button at the right time, and giving the possibility of using a few weapons dropped by enemies. These additions, however, do not change the fact that it remains extremely simple with only one attack button with some variations depending on the direction of the analog stick and whether the enemy is locked on or not. Enemies, in turn, do not react differently depending on the strike they receive and only two types need some strategy: Darknuts need to take an initial counterattack, while Moblins are easier to hit from behind.
That coupled with the fact that the difficulty of the game is not high – although it can be increased in the Wii U version – makes The Wind Waker’s hundreds of battles a chore. After all, the first five Darknuts that the player faces will provide the same challenge as the other twenty. Just as the first five Bokoblins will be equal to the subsequent fifty.
Even the missions surrounding the secondary characters are tied to combat. Each monster, when defeated, can drop a specific item: Moblins drop collars while Bokoblins, pendants. By delivering a certain amount of these items to some characters, Link gets rewards. A teacher, for example, loves pendants and her students decide to hire Link to present her with twenty of them. Unlike Majora’s Mask, few minor characters in the game have any semblance of narrative arc or even personality. The teacher, for example, likes pendants and that’s it. A frustrated boy sitting on a ladder just needs a random photo to be happy for the rest of the game. While Majora’s Mask had a love story that encompassed many missions and had a strong tragic nature, the one present here is resolved quickly and without major consequences.
The Wind Waker also does not show a lot of care with language, making all the characters speak with the same voice: a feat, considering that some of them are pirates. In the game, the dialogues always go direct to the point, being much more concerned with transmitting information to the player than reflecting the personality of the speaker. While the fairy Tat’l in Majora’s Mask differs from the Na’vi in Ocarina of Time because of the harshness of her comments, Link’s accompanying ship in The Wind Waker cannot differentiate itself even from its fellow companions. Some characters, as is customary in the franchise, are in fact eccentric, as evidenced by the naval battle minigame attendant, who simulates a children’s story with pictures, reproducing the sounds of the confrontations, but the few personalities they have are due to the their striking design and not to a particular voice or interesting narrative arc.
The game even fails to make most of its rewards relevant. Some maps purchased near the end, for example, tell you where to get treasure maps that lead to pieces of heart, as well as the location of hidden caves and lookouts. However, they do not point out which maps have already been obtained or which caves have already been explored by the player, rendering them useless. One, for example, says there are five treasure maps leading to pieces of heart on Windfall Island. If players have not marked somewhere how many they have picked up at each location over the course of the more than twenty-five hours adventure, this information will not serve them at all.
Finally, the Wii U version of The Wind Waker deserves some additional comments. It expands the limit of photos that can be taken from three to twelve, making its secondary mission less unbearable, and decreases the wait time to pull treasures from the seabed and the number of maps that need to be deciphered by a character at the end of the game. On the other hand, the new lighting system used, although effective in open places, makes Link look like a plastic doll in various situations, such as when opening chests. It is also worth mentioning that the HD version available for Wii U contains a sail that doubles the speed of Link’s boat, making exploration faster.
The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker may even have innovated with its unusual art style and told an exciting story, but repeated design flaws put it below the rest of its companions in the series.
December 14, 2018.
Originally published in Portuguese on February 17, 2017.
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