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‘The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker’ and the Call of the Great Sea

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Zelda is a game that values reality over realism.” 

Running from 1989 to 2001, Space World was a trade show hosted by Nintendo between the end of the NES’ lifecycle and the start of the GameCube’s. The event served as an opportunity for the company to showcase its software & hardware currently in development. A Link to the Past was marketed at Space World, Ocarina of Time was shown off as Zelda 64, and Majora’s Mask made a debut when it was still just Zelda Gaiden. The Wind Waker would be the last Zelda game shown off at Space World before the event’s dissolution, bringing an alarming amount of controversy with it. 

A large portion of The Wind Waker’s initial backlash stemmed from the series’ showing at Space World 2000. The Legend of Zelda’s next-gen debut hardly resembled the final product. The Space World demo– a 15 second clip of the Hero of Time & Ganondorf sword fighting– was tonally dark and featured character models evocative of Ocarina of Time’s art style. This demo was never actually indicative of what the next Zelda would look like– only what it could look like. What many interpreted as the calling card for the next 3D Zelda was actually little more than a vague presentation whipped up at the last minute. 

In truth, the development team even deemed the tech demo’s graphics stylistically too similar to Ocarina of Time. The Wind Waker’s design managers– Satoru Takizawa and Yoshiki Haruhana– struggled with which direction to take Zelda’s graphics following Majora’s Mask. In an Iwata Asks leading up to The Wind Waker HD’s release, Takizawa reflected, “we had been trying to figure out which graphical direction to take for the next Zelda game. And we wondered whether continuing the path taken by Ocarina of Time, and evolving upon it by giving it more detail was really the right path.” Series producer and the game’s director Eiji Aonuma further clarified,

“It was difficult for us to imagine ourselves easily coming up with new ideas and expanding on that world if we had chosen that path. Of course, while a game is more than its visuals, it was going to be made mostly by the same people, and the ideas we had within the same team has its limits.”

Taking into consideration that Ocarina of Time’s aesthetic and core gameplay were reused for Majora’s Mask’s development– which itself coincided with the development of Ura Zelda, a remix of Ocarina of Time’s dungeons– it’s only reasonable the team were feeling creatively stifled. Aonuma’s words call out to the importance of variety on a purely creative level. A third game in the exact style of Ocarina of Time could have been a dream come true for fans at the time, but this simply wasn’t a game Nintendo was interested in making. 

The team’s reception towards another game in Ocarina’s style was enough of a concern where Takizawa recalled, “Everyone on the core staff making the game at that time had a sense that proceeding in that direction didn’t feel quite right.” It wasn’t until Haruhana showed off his rough sketch of Link’s redesign where the staff would rally around a clear aesthetic. Beyond calling for a radical graphical shift, toon Link’s loose limbs & cartoony proportions were designed to play off the fluid movements character models could now make on then-current gen hardware.

“The instant I saw that drawing, my designer’s spirit came to life and I thought, ‘With a character like that, we can give him actions that will look and feel good no matter how he moves!’”

– Satoru Takizawa

The consequences of Link’s redesign meant Zelda could make use of clearer visual telegraphs while sporting inspired art direction that could comfortably experiment with color palettes, geography, and anatomy– all while informing puzzle & enemy design. This approach has also ensured a timelessness to The Wind Waker’s aesthetic as cel-shading smooths out any graphical edges the 2002 game would have otherwise had. While Satoru Iwata himself did not work on the game, he did reflect on the graphical issues of the time, “In terms of the graphics required within a game, sometimes more problems arise the more photorealistic it is.” 

A photorealistic game not only risks spilling into the uncanny valley, art direction is held at the mercy of the technology of the time. Photorealism in gaming could only go so far in 2002, but it would only serve to take away the reality present in The Legend of Zelda. The Wind Waker’s art style lends itself to a far more expressive world– one where the grass rustles in the wind, rain doesn’t throttle the frame rate, and the sunset on the open sea rivals even the best looking modern games. The attention to detail present is extremely commendable to this day.

It should come as no surprise that one of the taglines used to market The Wind Waker in Japan was “animation you can touch.” This concept is perhaps best exemplified by Link’s sheer range of emotion. Both Ocarina of Time & Majora’s Mask featured instances of Link visibly reacting & emoting, but only in cutscenes. The Wind Waker extends this treatment to every second of the main game. Link’s eyes move to observe his surroundings (even telegraphing where you should be looking in some instances;) his body is never static, swaying when still. Link smiles, hops when startled, winces in pain, bows his head in respect, and jumps for joy upon defeating a boss. He acts as much as reacts. 

Fluid animation puts Link’s personality on full display, helping him become more than just an avatar– instead a completely defined character in his own right. You can tell when Link is happy, sad, or angry– how he feels at any given moment. He isn’t just an observer in his world, but an active participant whose emotional depth lent The Legend of Zelda’s storytelling deeper pathos. Link’s adventure has internal motivation completely independent of the player. His visible horror as his little sister Aryll is kidnapped– and the subsequent sheer determination that drives him to recklessly jump off a cliff to save her– challenge the notion that a silent protagonist can’t be compelling. 

Notably, The Wind Waker was the first sixth-generation game to embrace cel-shading on such a large scale. Link’s proportions & the game’s intended aesthetic wouldn’t lend themselves well to an updated version of Ocarina of Time’s graphics. The staff was curious over what could be done with what was then called “toon shading,” and challenged themselves to develop a game in the style. In Aonuma’s own words, the end result was “an animated world that you can live in, that you can explore in. You can ride this boat and sail across this really expansive sea, and it’s a very free world, and this is unlike any other experience out there.” The Legend of Zelda’s artistic shift becomes a suggestion that The Wind Waker is more alive than its predecessors, and in many respects this notion is true. 

NPCs act like actual residents of the Great Sea, not just island dressing. They aren’t as expressive as Link, but most side characters have fluid movements and gesticulate with enough humanity to keep them realistic even if their models are so definably cartoonish. Aonuma likens artistic realism as “a movement to faithfully replicate the real world to whatever extent possible,” whereas reality “is not mimicking the real world, but rather making players feel like what they are experiencing is real.” The Wind Waker’s art style is only unrealistic on a surface level. In actuality used to highlight a level of minutiae other games either can’t or won’t.

Beyond setting a mood, cel-shading just helps practically. Hyper stylized smoke clouds and unique textures for different terrain make it so players can spot danger at a glance. Bombable walls are definable on sight, preventing them from blending into the background. You can clearly see ripples in the water. Even enemy design is enhanced as long limbs lead to loud gestures & louder telegraphs, giving every action weight and every player a fair opportunity to fight back. Exaggeration emphasizes reality, and The Wind Waker weaponizes this fact for better game design.   

Unfortunately, audiences didn’t see Nintendo’s passion– their ambition– how forward-thinking the use of “toon shading” was. When The Wind Waker was unveiled at Space World 2001, a large subset of fans were disappointed at the shift in graphical style. Mockingly referring to the game as Celda, what fans saw was The Legend of Zelda taking a step back from the maturity it gained on the Nintendo 64. 

Revisiting the reveal trailer, all of TWW’s nuances are on display for the most part. Link is expressive, enemies react dynamically to damage, and there’s an emphasis on showing off the game’s lighting effects– which are particularly sophisticated thanks to cel-shading. Yet reception was negative enough to get Nintendo’s attention. Series creator Shigeru Miyamoto himself even had to defend the game’s aesthetic publicly on occasion. “The graphics aren’t something necessarily dumbed down for kids; you’ll find that the game is governed by a very strong sense of realism.” Miyamoto later expands his definition of ‘realism,’ saying;

“When I talk about this realism, I’m talking about the world itself. I’m not denying that a more realistic graphic tone is necessary for some games. The problem is that the more realistic a game gets, the more jarring it is when something unrealistic happens– for example, when a character bumps into a wall or gets hurt and his facial expression doesn’t change.”

Realism isn’t ignored in The Wind Waker’s design by any stretch of the imagination. When Miyamoto says the game is governed by realism, he means it. When Link gets hurt, he’s visibly in pain. He watches the Wind Waker as he conducts. He’ll take a breath, gasp, sigh if he needs to. The Master Sword trembles in Link’s hand the first time he confronts Ganondorf and fails to cut him down. As such a hyper-stylized character by design, Link doesn’t need to perform these gestures to make him likable or fun to play as, but he does if Nintendo wants his character to be real– and that goes double for the overworld. Without cel-shading, The Wind Waker wouldn’t be half as polished or refined. Its world would be stiff and the game would have never been able to pull off its greatest feat: the Great Sea. 

The Wind Waker’s setting was decided early enough in development to infer virtually all of it. Specifically, Aonuma and his team liked how the concept of the open sea would naturally influence mechanics along with the overworld while playing off the visual range offered by cel-shading. Islands can be seen on the horizon, the water’s waves ebb & flow, and it becomes all the easier to immerse in The Legend of Zelda’s sprawling world. The clearest way the Great Sea impacted The Wind Waker is through the implementation of sailing. Where Link rode Epona in the Nintendo 64 entries as his main means of quick travel, his horse has been replaced with a boat– the King of Red Lions. 

Doubling as Link’s companion & periodically offering nuggets of direction, the King of Red Lions is one of the most crucial aspects of The Wind Waker’s gameplay. Hyrule has since been flooded following the events of Ocarina of Time, and most of the overworld is submerged in water as a result. There was always an option to walk instead of riding Epona– completing her side quest isn’t even necessary for finishing Ocarina– but the nature of the Great Sea demands that you set sail and often. Sailing is as inherent to TWW as sword fighting, dungeon crawling, and puzzle-solving. Conversely, it isn’t anywhere near as involved. 

Sailing the Great Sea is relaxing by design, as the King of Red Lions’ controls is generally hands-off. Players simply need to find a current and let the wind do the work. Epona had to be actively controlled and sped up, but sailing is meant to be a predominantly atmospheric experience that helps to deepen immersion. Seagulls fly overhead, flocking together and parting in the distance. Rain falls towards you to create visual depth while white streaks of wind slash across the screen, and the water turns from a bold blue to rose gold as the sun rests in the distance. The moon even moves in cycles, evoking a real sense of time throughout Link’s adventure. In keeping the King of Red Lions’ controls automated, for the most part, players are free to observe more of the world around them. 

Which isn’t to say the whole process is on rails. Through the Wind Waker– the game’s titular baton– Link can conduct the wind himself. Playing the Gale of Winds makes sailing a breeze. Turns are only ever necessary when changing the wind’s direction, but the King of Red Lions doesn’t fight the wind unless completely against it, allowing for some degree of freedom. The Hyrule Encyclopedia (p. 261) stresses the importance of control in a developer’s note about sailing. Players were never meant to be subservient to the wind; “The theme of control pops up in everything from the Deku Leaf to the puppets in the Tower of Gods, and even being able to control seagulls, while the Wind Waker merged wind and control into one waving action.” Even when you’re doing nothing but sailing with the flow, it’s only because you redirected the wind beforehand. 

One understated benefit of spending so much time on the open sea is how it obscures load times. Much like how Resident Evil used door animations to keep your perception of gameplay continuous, The Wind Waker loads its islands as you sail. The game never needs to stop and generate new content, because it’s all been loaded by the time you get there. Islands in the distance turn from a blatant piece of loading into The Wind Waker’s own blend of reality. 

In execution, exploration really is seamless. Even knowing that the Great Sea’s depth is meant to hide loading, its space is framed appropriately. The sea itself is vast, allowing The Wind Waker to indulge in some emptiness. Traversing the overworld is slow-paced by design and by necessity– requiring patience on the player’s part– but it all comes together to play off what originally drove The Legend of Zelda: exploration. 

There are 49 islands altogether to explore, and while they don’t all obviously have the same level of importance, there’s something to do on every grid of the map. Rays of light in the water denote sunken chests that Link can scoop up with his Grappling Hook, the 40+ Treasure Charts in the game triggering new Rupees and Heart Pieces to fish once read. Most islands have their own secrets to find, from more Charts & Heart Pieces, to rare Blue Chu-Chus whose Chu Jelly can make Blue Potions. Any islands with defined ecosystems and societies harbor plenty of secrets & side quests, as well, leading to a Zelda that rivals even Majora’s Mask in regards to side content. 

Life is quiet on Outset Island, but it’s also home to the 50 floor Savage Labyrinth– the single hardest combat challenge in The Wind Waker. The hustle & bustle of Windfall might actually have more side quests than all of Clock Town when it comes down to it, a dynamic island that actively changes over the course of the story and home to a massive amount of secrets in plain sight. 

Dragon Roost and Forest Haven ultimately build up to dungeons, but there are still a few Heart Pieces to unlock on both islands. Not just that, the islands mark the first appearances of the Rito & Korok races respectively, and have their own side content to dig into. Forest Haven in particular features the Nintendo Gallery. Tied to the Pictograph side quest, Link can trade in full color snapshots of every single NPC, enemy, and boss in the game for trophies with their bios. The Nintendo Gallery is one of the most time-consuming quests in the franchise to complete, but it rewards the player with extra characterization that helps the denizens of the Great Sea seem all the more alive. 

Few islands are immediately fully explorable, however. The Wind Waker makes use of Metroidvania-esque gatekeeping for most secrets, designed around dungeon items. This not only paces out upgrades (most notable with the Great Fairy islands,) it ensures items don’t just collect dust in the equipment menu once their dungeons are over. Just about every single Zelda game comes out the other end with an excess of equipment Link won’t be using all that often– but not The Wind Waker

The tradeoff here is that there are only six full dungeons. Not just that, dungeons are easier to navigate and solve than in Ocarina of Time or Majora’s Mask, albeit mainly due to stronger art direction. Puzzles are easily identifiable and room layouts are memorably built. The Wind Waker is home to an easy set of dungeons, but they’re impeccably put together with an eye for natural set pieces & constant progression. Tower of the Gods is especially exemplary of this design philosophy. It’s the only dungeon where Link uses the King of Red Lions to navigate, and the first half of the tower is engulfed in water that keeps rising & falling. 

You need to cruise around the temple, using the water levels to solve puzzles and reach otherwise inaccessible areas. The Tower of the God’s puzzle dense back-half trades the water level gimmick for a gauntlet of challenges designed around the Wind Waker’s Command Medley and the Hero’s Bow. Dungeons in The Wind Waker are less about challenging the player and more offering a novel experience. Tower of the Gods wouldn’t work without a core sailing mechanic like the King of Lions, nor the Wind Waker to play the Command Melody. What the game lacks in thought-provoking difficulty, The Wind Waker makes up for it in thoughtful puzzle design that plays to its strengths & sensibilities. 

There’s so much that can be done during the moment to moment gameplay. Link’s controls are far more fluid and precise than they were on the N64, which is reflected in the level design. Sidling, hanging onto ledges, more auto-jump platforming (enhanced by the Deku Leaf,) and swinging on ropes all make use of Link’s looser control scheme. Even combat’s been improved considerably. Link can now parry, pick up enemy weapons, and steal spoils with the Grappling Hook. The action is easy, but never unsatisfying.  

“The Triforce of Courage is the only key that will once again open the door to Hyrule.” 

Upon completing the Wind Temple, the King of Red Lions will task Link with reforming the Triforce of Courage before they can confront Ganondorf. Split into eight pieces, the Triforce was drowned alongside the rest of Hyrule. The Triforce of Courage has played a significant role in The Legend of Zelda since its introduction in The Adventure of Link, but The Wind Waker is the first game to highlight the ToC with such narrative prominence. The piece of the Triforce best associated with Link, Courage doesn’t divinely manifest on the back of the Hero of Winds’ hand like it does with his predecessors. Instead, Link needs to prove his worth by repairing the Triforce of Courage much like the Hero of Hyrule did with the Triforce of Wisdom back in The Hyrule Fantasy that started it all. 

Like the original game, players are left to their own devices as they explore the overworld and hunt for the Triforce shards. Shards can only be plundered once Link’s found their respective chart– each tied to a specific set piece– taking the Hero of Winds 30 floors deep into the Savage Labyrinth, a horrifying crypt underneath his very own private oasis and a Ghost Ship that changes location based on the phases of the moon. Presumably, because the Triforce Charts map out every shard’s location prior to Hyrule’s flooding, Link has to get them deciphered by Tingle before they’ll appear in the Great Sea. While players will spend over 3000 Rupees on their expedition, The Wind Waker comes out the other end with a Rupee economy that actually matters. 

Calling for players to explore the entire overworld, anyone who’s been filling in their Sea Chart will see some immediate payoff. Rather than having access to a world map like in most console Zelda games, Link has to map out the Great Sea himself. Every grid of the map has at least one fish splashing around who, when fed Bait, will paint in a square of Link’s map. Making an active effort to complete the Sea Chart is not only satisfying, it makes digging up sunken treasure all the easier. The Game Boy Zelda games feature a similar mechanic, but by removing the automated fill-in, The Wind Waker’s exploration leaves a greater impact. Looking at a fully mapped out Sea Chart is proof that you’ve truly explored the Great Sea. 

Although the majority of the Great Sea is composed of calm water and calmer island life, the Triforce hunt will naturally bring you to the ocean’s most dangerous corners. Warships firebombs from afar, Big Octos trap the King of Red Lions into their whirlpool & lock you into a fight, Seahats attack on sight, and Gyorgs will actively follow Link for as long as they can. Nautical combat doesn’t pop up often, but it’s a nice way of adding tension to a mechanic that’s otherwise fairly relaxing. At worst, Link will need to snipe a flock of Seahats from afar to buy enough time to dig up treasure, but it’s possible to maneuver around Warships & Gyorgs just enough to avoid direct confrontation. 

Best of all, the Triforce hunt serves as the perfect opportunity to round up any missing Heart Pieces and wrap up unfinished side quests before the end of the game. While there is a narrative urgency to defeat Ganondorf, there’s likewise an understanding that collecting all eight shards is a time-consuming process. Players aren’t rushed by any means and can enjoy their last great voyage on the Great Sea. The Triforce hunt is something of a pace killer for the story itself, but it’s an excellent way to cap off The Wind Waker gameplay-wise. You’re given full freedom to explore the entire world, all while rebuilding an important piece of Zelda iconography. 

“Oceans as far as the eye can see. They are vast seas . . . None can swim across them . . . ” 

With an intact Triforce of Courage, Link is granted safe passage into the flooded Hyrule. It’s there where, deep beneath the Great Sea, Link and Ganondorf come to their final confrontation. Notably, The Wind Waker marks the first time that Zelda plays an active role during the final battle itself– not just that, the story’s finale features perhaps the most extensive character work for the franchise’s main trio. Link fights through visible exhaustion just to get to Ganondorf– cutting through three phases of Puppet Ganon in the process. Zelda wields the Light Arrows and comes up with a winning strategy that opens up Ganondorf for the killing blow. And Ganondorf himself shows more nuance than ever, sparing Link & Zelda when he normally wouldn’t while sparing time to wax poetic. 

Even the Triforce’s dramatic role is pronounced. Ganondorf very nearly wins, unflooding Hyrule and dictating himself its ruler, but his wish on the Triforce is stolen by the King of Red Lions’ human host, King Daphnes Nohansen Hyrule. The final battle takes place surrounded by rushing water, a downpour flooding Hyrule once & for all– this time leaving no trace of the once-great kingdom. As the tenth game in the franchise, there’s a natural poignancy to The Wind Waker flooding Hyrule on-screen so aggressively. The last act makes especially good use of fluid animation, complete with Ganondorf beating up Link with his bare hands and the Hero of Winds dramatically impaling the Gerudo Thief in the head. 

Resigning himself to die with Hyrule, King Daphness leaves Link and Zelda off with one final message: to move on from Hyrule. The Wind Waker is a game that makes use of Ocarina of Time’s structure and story quite prominently, but never without purpose. More importantly, The Wind Waker eschewed the franchise’s usual familiarity in favor of a bolder art style that lent itself to bolder gameplay. Daphnes’ message at the end of the game rings as loud as it does because The Wind Waker is proof that Zelda can exist without Hyrule or a Hylian-esque setting. 

When it comes down to it, the Great Sea is unlike anything that was ever seen in The Legend of Zelda up to that point. Even in light of Phantom Hourglass– another Zelda game with sailing as a core mechanic– The Wind Waker’s world remains completely unique by placing the franchise’s traditional structure into a completely non-traditional overworld. The mere presence of so much water fundamentally changes how the game can be played, how exploration is encouraged, how secrets are hidden. Yet at the same time, The Wind Waker never feels like it’s not The Legend of Zelda. It isn’t the next logical step, but it’s something even better: original. 

The Wind Waker became so much more than whatever Space World 2000’s Zelda tech demo would have eventually turned into. Even in spite of the vitriol the game attracted, Nintendo’s ambitions paid off. Aesthetically, it’s as if the graphics haven’t aged a day. Gameplay-wise, sailing offers a change of pace for the franchise that’s as refreshing today as it was in 2002. The islanders of the Great Sea are some of the most defined & expressive characters in the entire franchise. The Legend of Zelda is a series that changes often and considerably– at times even taking perceived steps backward– but The Wind Waker was the first time Nintendo altered Zelda so radically. The call of the Great Sea changed The Legend of Zelda for the better.

An avid-lover of all things Metal Gear Solid, Devil May Cry, and The Legend of Zelda, Renan spends most of his time passionately raving about Dragon Ball and thinking about how to apply Marxist theory to whatever video game he's currently playing.

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