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20 Years Ago Wind Waker Was the Prototype for Breath of the Wild



The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker

When The Legend of Zelda was released in 1987 it gave gamers a promise. That old man in the cave giving you a sword because it was dangerous to go alone wasn’t just the start of the game. It was a promise of a new kind of interactive adventure, one where you weren’t shackled by the boundaries placed on you by the developers. Where you were not funneled to specific places at specific points that someone else determined you had to be. When Link walked out of that cave, with that sword, you as the player were free to go off in whatever direction you wanted. No longer shackled, this adventure was indeed yours. 

There were limitations still and you are forced to complete some dungeons before you can others but it offered a freedom that games didn’t back then. The ability to explore where you wanted instead of where the game led you on a leash. But as the series continues it became more linear. The Legend of Zelda series still offered the grandest of adventures but after the first game, player freedom dissipated into curated experiences. Link’s adventures had set paths and you went from dungeon one to dungeon two to dungeon three and so on. There were still some dungeons you could do out of order but exploring was no longer open and free. You were funneled from area to area.

Enter Wind Waker. Much can be said of how the game popularized cel-shading (even despite Zelda fans being so outraged about it originally that it borders on parody) or how the game finally gave Ganondorf true depth as a villain with real emotion-driven motivations. But the true triumph of wind Waker is how it finally brought the original Zelda’s promise of freedom into the third dimension. 

Wind Waker starts off much like the Zelda games that came before. It’s a fairly linear adventure where you explore small curated areas on your way to a dungeon. But then something magical happens, after the second the dungeon you gain the ability to sail wherever you want on the Great Sea. The main quest is still linear but you now have the freedom to explore the vast ocean of what was once Hyrule. You are free to explore the sea in whichever direction you want and go to whichever islands you want. 

The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker Odyssey
Image: Nintendo

The horizon is yours to explore in Wind Waker, the promise of the original game, of an adventure of your own undertaking, was finally back and in full 3D. You could go do the main quest or you could sail around, finding optional islands, each of which has something worthwhile on it. It isn’t the biggest game world, especially by today’s standards but it’s full of the same awe and wonder that the first Zelda had. 

It may not come close to the expansiveness of Breath of the Wild but it was an important first step to getting there. Gamers at the time could barely handle a new art style, a complete upheaval of the Zelda formula they had grown to love may not have gone over well. Wind Waker brilliantly uses the familiar of the linear formula to ease players into the reintroduction of the original promise. 

This is Zelda as people who had played Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask knew but with the added freedom of the Great Sea. And what freedom it was. The optional islands that populate the flooded Hyrule of Wind Waker aren’t just an illusion of exploration. Each of them offers something meaningful, whether it’s new characters to interact with, optional puzzles and dungeons, and excellent rewards to help Link on his journey. 

The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker Link
Image: Nintendo

Open-world games were extremely new in 2003 and yet Nintendo was still able to make one that is almost perfect. It’s large enough to have a sense of adventure but compact enough to never feel overwhelming. Wind Waker offers you a horizon that calls to you, the distant shadows of islands beckoning you to them to expand your adventure. It’s that same philosophy and design that Nintendo later used in Breath of the Wild.

Wind Waker was a radical Zelda game, from its new cel-shaded art style, and its deeper characterization of Ganon but its most radical element was its return to the original promise of the series. It may not offer complete freedom and the series may have returned to linearity afterward but Wind Waker was an important step towards Breath of the Wild finally fulfilling the original promise of Zelda in full. 20 years later it’s still one heck of an adventure.  

30% Water, 70% James Bond movies. Matt is a writer, gamer, film enthusiast & silly person. The winner of various fictitious awards, he's fluent in English & pop culture references.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Gregamo

    March 29, 2023 at 5:25 am

    Really interesting article. I loved LOZ Wind Waker and still to this day play it on the Gamecube.

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