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20 Years Later, Wind Waker Link is Just the Best



The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker Link

Link has never been a complicated man/boy/elf. As far as characters who wear their hearts on their sleeves, Link is as transparent as they come, even without the use of speech. Sure, he’s capable of the occasional satisfying guffaw or agonized growl, but he’s largely just a bundle of emotions for the player to adopt and personify.

Though he regularly tops online lists of the all-time greatest characters in all of gaming (see GameFAQs regular polls in that regard), this fact alone is amusing in a lot of ways. The character he usually finds himself battling for the crown with is Final Fantasy VII’s Cloud Strife, a carefully crafted and deliberately written character who has a clear arc and a definitive role in only a single game. In this way, you couldn’t find two more diametrically opposed characters, and, one supposes, that’s likely why (among other reasons) the two often wind up sizing up against one another in these kinds of things.

You better believe Link just woke up. Just give him a second to get it together.

But whereas the characterization of Cloud only succeeds because of its place in the narrative of FFVII (see the various spin-offs and guest appearances for some evidence), Link is a character as elastic as he is relatable. This is because he’s essentially an empty vessel with a job to do. Like Samus Aran or Mario in the Nintendo camp, Link doesn’t succeed because of how he’s written or the role he plays in a journey but because of what players are able to project upon the blank canvas of his character.

There is, however, one exception to that rule, and that is his portrayal in The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. Somehow, in Wind Waker Link is able to tell you more in the first hour about who he is and how he operates than other Links have been able to communicate in the entirety of their adventures. From the dazed look on his face when he first awakens to the solemn countenance, he adopts when he waves goodbye to his grandmother, Wind Waker‘s Link is the most personable and emotive in the entire series.
Take another moment in that same opening hour when Link finds himself unwittingly strapped to a catapult in an effort to rescue his sister. The look on his face changes three times as the countdown commences, from abject terror to steely resilience to accepting readiness. When the counter strikes one, he looks less afraid than when it was at three but more afraid than when it was at two. This level of idiosyncrasy speaks to the talent of the animation behind Wind Waker, something that makes itself even more apparent in the HD rendering released a few years back for the Wii U.

Tell me this dude isn’t gonna miss his grandma. His heart is broken. Tetra, on the other hand, has run out of fucks to give at a remarkably young age.

Seriously, if you can find any other iteration of Link (outside of the later portable titles, which adopted a similar, though less effective, persona for Link) that could get away with both making a silly cat noise to get out of a jam, and doing a plunging sword attack into the skull of his enemies, I’d love to see it.

In this way, the natural approach to animating and designing the Link of Wind Waker is animalistic in a lot of ways. Like a dog, a cat (mrowwwwww…), or a bevy of other animals, Link can appear adorable and approachable during moments of dormant idleness or playful eccentricity while still being allowed to turn on a dime into a vicious force of indomitable rage and violence when he is threatened.

Just look at his face. This is a man that needs to know where that treasure is at.

The onion-like layers of this Link are revealed further in the series staple of opening a treasure chest. While Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask were able to animate this regular sequence with a bit of personality, it is only in Wind Waker that Link absolutely HAS to know what is inside each chest. Seriously, Link can get excited like it’s Christmas morning for every single piece of treasure in the game, and the simple fact that you believe it every time is no small feat.

A fact like this just goes to show how easy it is to underestimate the smallest of contributions to a game. Anyone who has sat through the credits of a video game knows that it’s really about just watching the scrawl and hoping for a stinger scene (suck it Marvel, video games have been doing this for decades). This time, though, I’m going to actually be scanning the credits as I replay one of Link’s most memorable adventures.

Facial animation technician? Emotional response animator? Like a lot of people, I don’t know what I’m looking for, but I’ll know it when I see it.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on December 24, 2016.

Mike Worby is a human who spends way too much of his free time playing, writing and podcasting about pop culture. Through some miracle he's still able to function in society as if he were a regular person, and if there's hope for him, there's hope for everyone.



  1. Rowan

    December 26, 2016 at 10:02 pm

    Haha, love it. Wind Waker Link (or “Toon Link”) is easily my favourite iteration for exactly this reason – though it helps that he was in the best Zelda game.

    Big props to the “eyebrow wranglers” at various studios – especially to those who worked on Wind Waker and the Witcher 3.

  2. Mike Worby

    December 27, 2016 at 4:04 am

    Definitely, he’s a charmer. There’s no other Zelda game where I regularly just laugh out loud at Link’s facial expressions.

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