So we're coming up to the 35th anniversary of The Legend Of Zelda franchise. Happy Birthday, old friend. I love you with all my heart - but how best to mark the occasion?
I could talk about how the original NES release set the template for all open-world games that followed it. I could talk about why Ocarina Of Time remains one of the greatest games ever made, even after all these years. I could even probably write an entire essay on why I think the official Zelda timeline is completely inaccurate because it doesn't include the original animated series or the Monopoly set, but my bosses rejected that pitch as the "unhinged ramblings of a man who has been in lockdown for too long". Cowards.
Instead, I'm going to explain why The Legend Of Zelda: The Wind Waker is a hugely underrated masterpiece and one of the very best Zelda games ever made. Because I'm tired of pretending it's not, I really am.
The Wind Waker is a game that all too often gets dismissed as the "kiddie" Zelda, which in itself irritates me, as if something is bad or not worth our time just because it's aimed at kids. Folks say it's too cartoony, too short, too easy, or too silly. Nonsense. If The Wind Waker is "too" anything, it's goddamn adorable. It's a game that oozes charm from start to finish. An epic nautical adventure with a satisfying and believable arc for our main character rooted in supporting NPCs that we truly care about, from loveable sister Aryll and roguish pirate Tetra right through to that asshole that runs the bomb shop in Windfall Island. Maybe not Tingle though. Stay away from that guy.
This Link, who has since been dubbed "Toon Link" by Nintendo, goes on a journey, man. I'm not just talking about the physical journey as he darts from island to island across a gorgeous deep blue sea that still looks roughly 1000x better than the water in most modern games, I'm talking about that emotional journey, yo.
At the beginning of our tale, Link is this dumbass little kid who can't really do anything right... but he risks everything to save his sister from an unknown evil because he's inherently good. Reckless? You bet, but a kind and inherently heroic figure. Over the course of the game he learns and grows, and even though he's still a reckless dumbass, he comes to see the world as it really is - fundamentally controlled by tired old men who refuse to let go of the past.
Sorry, but this is so far above any of the stories in any of the other Zelda games. I grant you that's not a terribly high bar, but The Wind Waker is a game that's full of these powerful stomach-punch moments that just hit differently, perhaps because they're wrapped up in a game that looks like a Saturday morning cartoon. Case in point? Your dear, sweet gran's mystery illness - aka depression caused by intense loneliness.
Do you really want to tell me your eyes don't get all watery when you have to leave your gran all alone, only to come back halfway through your light-hearted adventure and see her isolation has broken her to the point of near-death? You want to look me dead in the eye and tell me that shit is just for kids? You disgust me. The Wind Waker remains the closest a Zelda game has ever come to feeling like a Pixar movie, and I'm talking Quality Pixar like Toy Story 3 and Monsters Inc, not Cars 3 and The Good Dinosaur.
Maybe you don't care about the story because your heart has been replaced by a giant turgid lump of cat poo, fair enough. The gameplay still, for my money, represents the best of the classic 3D Zelda games, taking everything that made Ocarina Of Time work without going ridiculously overboard like Twilight Princess did.
No dumbass Spinners here, my friends, just the items you need for a good time. It doesn't hurt that almost every item, from the massive Skull Hammer and bow and arrows, to the boomerang and hookshot, have genuine uses in combat as well as outside of it. Items that are just for solving puzzles are for nerds. I want to freeze a Moblin with an ice arrow and shatter it into a million pieces with my mighty hammer.
Then there are the dungeons. Sure, there might be far less of them, and I'll admit that they're hardly up there with the best and brightest Zelda has ever had to offer, but each one feels truly distinct. Whether you're exploring the ruins of the Earth Temple with a feathered friend or clambering to the top of the Tower Of The Gods to prove your worth, there are enough puzzles and challenges to keep players satisfied. Oh, and the bosses that lie at the end of each dungeon are, in fact, up there with the best and brightest Zelda has to offer. So... there.
Besides which, I've always preferred the freedom to explore the overworld over the musty old dungeons in Zelda games, and The Wind Waker's Great Sea is one of best Zelda overworlds ever made. Each of the game's 49 islands are packed with their own secrets to discover, from lonely rain-soaked rocks in the middle of the ocean to thriving towns full of sidequests and minigames. That's before you factor in all the submarines, enemy towers, giant Octoroks, and treasure dotted around the ocean itself.
"But Ewan, what about the rubbish sailing and the Triforce fetch quest at the end of the ga-" shut up. Just shut your damn mouth. There was nothing wrong with the sailing in The Wind Waker. So you had to change the direction of the wind every now and again? Whatever. It literally takes a matter of seconds and you're back on the move, speeding across the rich blue waters as the Great Sea theme soars in the background, propelling you towards new adventures and undiscovered secrets. At any rate, the HD port of the game on Wii U fixed that problem so if it ever gets re-released for Switch you'll all see with new eyes how genuinely wonderful The Wind Waker's world was.
As for cutting around the ocean looking for Triforce shards as part of a late-game fetch quest? I loved it. It might have compounded all of the game's biggest flaws for a lot of people, but as far as I was concerned it was an opportunity to embrace what the game did best: explore the ocean and dredge up ancient treasure. I was more than happy to take that over an extra few dungeons.
Maybe I'm in the minority. In fact, I know I am. When people talk about the best Zelda games ever made, it will always be Ocarina Of Time this and Breath Of The Wild that. But for me, the bright, beautiful, brilliant story of a young hero that set off across the sea to save his sister will forever be Nintendo's finest treasure.
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