Against all odds and prognostications, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker has aged terrifically, and remains a top-tier 3D Zelda title. Lambasted even before its release in 2003 because of its “kiddy” cel-shaded art style, the game practically invites an overhasty assessment. The first few hours, from Outset Island through the boss fight against Gohma in Dragon Roost Cavern, are coated in a syrupy cartoon glaze that does well to trick the player into thinking they’re in for an undemanding, somewhat slow-burning excursion that forsakes the series’s sweeping sense of atmosphere, contingency, and peril. After you’ve finally dispatched the source of the mighty Sky Spirit Valoo’s discomfort, though, The Wind Waker ventures down a path less traveled for the revered franchise, offering up the combination of a serpentine, rather than straightforward, seafaring narrative and some of the most inventive and intuitive combat mechanics in a Zelda game to date. This high-definition rendition for the Wii U does a tremendous job of waxing the surface of a 10-year-old product, making it look right at home on a current-generation system. Yet, even deeper than that, The Wind Waker HD takes note of the gripes lobbed at the original and tweaks details to elevate an already fantastic journey to towering heights. Despite a few minor issues with close-range lighting and bulky, shadowy textures, this is a spotless update of a stone-cold classic.
The Wind Waker has always been a game that succeeds because of how well it thrives off of its own delicate deception. The childlike, pop-up-book visuals mask a much deeper sense of time and place, and the emotions displayed on the faces of the characters rank even above those in Skyward Sword, released over eight years later. Enemy encounters and dungeons also embody a deceptive nature, with each foreign foe and environment presenting tasks more challenging than the last, forcing players to use every acquired item and learned technique to prevail in a variety of predicaments. Playing through The Wind Waker again and trying to imagine how the game would have fared had it been graphically rendered in a manner similar to, let’s say, Twilight Princess, I became a bit queasy at the very thought of there never being a Toon Link. Nintendo doesn’t just do things for the sake of pure experimentation. There’s a rhyme and reason to every decision they make when developing a new Zelda installment, and The Wind Waker just so happened to exhibit an observable change so dramatic that the first reaction from fans was to shake their heads in disgust. Upon closer inspection, however, cel-shading clearly was and is the only route to go with The Wind Waker’s graphical design. This is a game that emphasizes the volatility of oceans and wind, and, with the application of cel-shading, every tumbling wave, every swirling breeze is beautifully pronounced against a backdrop of colorful hillsides, mountains, and coastal locales. Depth perception has been stretched beyond obligation in The Wind Waker HD, visibility is nearly limitless when braving the ripply seas, and lines of sight extend even farther than when roaming the expansive skies around Skyward Sword’s Skyloft.
The Wind Waker HD is the definitive way to guide Link to his final waterlogged battle with Ganondorf, and, surprisingly, the Wii U GamePad is a crucial contributing factor. With the use of its embedded screen and stylus, switching between items can be performed without pausing, allowing players an essentially undisturbed, immersive experience. The GamePad also displays maps of conquered aquatic regions and various treasure locations, so double-checking destination positions doesn’t require a halt in gameplay. Improved camera controls, smoother, expedited battle animations, and the inclusion of Hero Mode, where damage taken is amplified and health can only be regenerated via potions, adds a layer of difficulty that should silence those who feel The Wind Waker is as juvenile in provocation as it is in artistry. Sealing the deal is the introduction of a swift sail, an attachment for the King of Red Lions that can be gained shortly after the inaugural dungeon. With it affixed to your nautical vessel, voyages are dramatically accelerated, making the once excruciatingly draggy last-act Triforce fetch-quest much more tolerable.
With The Wind Waker HD, Nintendo has made an incredible effort to erase the negativity surrounding Toon Link and his fateful crusade to save Hyrule from a watery grave. It faithfully maintains the lighthearted vitality and rascally charm of the GameCube version (just try and get that entrancing theme song out of your head) while addressing the concerns of the naysayers who were so quick to condemn it. Until Wii U gets its proper Zelda sequel, this is a generous placeholder that stands as a testament to one of Nintendo’s crowning achievements.