Top 50 Games - 3. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker
I could explain the reasoning behind this game's position on my list in three words: my first Zelda. But The Wind Waker deserves much more than that. It deserves recognition as not just the Gamecube entry in the console-spanning series or the one with the controversial 'Toon Link.' It deserves to be recognized as the ideal game: charming, fun, exciting, big, beautiful, emotional. It never bores me, never angers me, never does less than provide the most wonderful imaginary world I've ever gotten lost in.
The biggest and most noticeable change Wind Waker brought to Zelda, while temporary, was in its visuals. The 8-bit original did its admirable best to convey a medieval fantasy world, A Link To The Past portrayed a whimsical 16-bit kingdom, and Ocarina of Time stood out in the 3D gaming scene by attempting pseudo-realism without looking god-awful. The Wind Waker adopts the style known as "toon-shading," similar to cel-shading (colors applied to objects instead of textures) but without the black outlines. Toon Link is stout and childlike, with tiny swaying arms, a disproportionately large head, and moon-sized eyes. Fans who grew up with Ocarina of Time's "realistic" adult Link were furious. For some inexplicable reason (probably the corrupting idiocy of adolescence), they wanted The Legend of Zelda to become a dark, "mature" fantasy epic starring a fully grown, battle-hardened Link. What they got was a Disney movie. For this I have to thank Shigeru Miyamoto and Eiji Anouma, as they know what makes a great game much better than fans do. It was a bold move, but it all worked out in the end because The Wind Waker is fucking beautiful. The animation is lively and, though comically exaggerated, convincing. The nautical world holds unforgettable detail: curly white lines flowing in the wind's direction, sprite-based explosion and smoke effects, bright blue waves lapping calmly upon exotic shores. Seven years later and the visuals are still jaw-dropping, still unrivaled by today's graphical elite. It's rare for a 3D game's graphics to be considered timeless, but the artistic choices that Nintendo made regarding those on display in The Wind Waker point towards a beauty that in ten years will not have faded.
While the visuals are certainly a treat, The Wind Waker's greatest achievement is its wide and captivating world. In another alteration to the formula, this game takes place not in the typical confines of Hyrule, but on a vast, uncharted ocean aptly dubbed the Great Sea. Stretching across the horizon farther than the eye can see is an overwhelmingly grand expanse of blue, dotted with countless islands, all containing their own secrets to be uncovered. With the aid of his trusty talking boat, the King of Red Lions, Link spends a good deal of the game sailing the high seas, charting the lands he ventures upon, pulling up sunken treasures, engaging in cannon battles with enemy ships, and even directing the wind itself. Similar to Ocarina of Time's eponymous clay flute, the key item Link receives in The Wind Waker is, you guessed it, the Wind Waker, a legendary conductor's baton that allows Link to change the direction of the wind (an invaluable time-saver when sailing), assume control of allies, turn day to night, warp around the Great Sea, and more. It's a convenient tool that plays heavily into the story and removes any frustration that could have accompanied the game's central sailing mechanic. While the endless blue itself is full of character, the islands that Link visits are all undeniably charming and varied. From Link's hometown on Outset Island to the Forbidden Fortress, each location is imbued with a strong dose of personality and clever design, leading to a rare sense of giddy excitement whenever a new destination is in sight. Sailing to the edges of the map leads the King of Red Lions to warn you of the danger present in doing so, and he promptly turns himself around. For some reason, I have a memory of glimpsing that cold, empty nighttime horizon that never fails to instill a dreamy feeling of melancholic mystery. Cruising the Great Sea and taking in its nautical magic will never, I repeat never get old. Exploration like this is what I look to video games for.
Poking around the overworld is all well and good, but many gamers find the juiciest sections of a Zelda game underground. I must admit, Wind Waker's assortment of dungeons is not the best in the series. Although they were new to me, any Ocarina of Time veteran could tell you that he'd already bested them at least once before. There are the obligatory fire and forest temples, sure, and the the total number of them is less than in OoT or A Link To The Past, but they are all elegantly designed. Just before and halfway through each dungeon crawl, Link obtains a new item to help him in his quest. Each of these tools, from the traditional Hookshot to the new Deku Leaf, is fun to use and smartly implemented. While Wind Waker's colorful combat (complete with musical cues!) is quite easy, the numerous puzzles can lead to some serious head-scratching, and both aspects of the gameplay incorporate Link's arsenal to great effect. While the most noticeable addition to dungeon design appears late-game in the form of allies, my favorite interior excursion in a Zelda game occurs about halfway through, in the Tower of the Gods. Jutting confidently out of the Great Sea, the Tower of the Gods is a magnificent work of architecture that positively beckons you to to conquer its challenges and ascend its height. The only dungeon that the King of Red Lions can enter, the tower's lower level is flooded with a fluctuating water level. This curious design leads to some interesting puzzles, and the surprises (bridges made of light, Darknuts, unexpected allies, etc.) never stop coming until Link rings the big bell at the very top. The Tower of the Gods is so good that I've had dreams about it.
Wind Waker has the best story of the Zelda series. There, I said it. Initially about Link rescuing his sister Aryll from Ganondorf's clutches, the tale soon shows its true depth. The fate of Hyrule is revealed, as is the voice behind the King of Red Lions and the lineage of the rascally pirate Tetra. It's a very well-constructed plot, and I remember on my first playthrough marveling at its surprising intricacy. Everything that Link does in the main quest, from collecting the pearls of the Goddesses to ringing that bell atop the Tower of the Gods, serves at least one purpose. Upon receiving Din's Pearl, the first of the three, you are thanked by the shy prince of the Rito tribe. I'm not going to lie; that "Thanks!" was truly touching. The story of The Wind Waker, however, would not be nearly as great without its memorable cast of characters. Link himself is the most gorgeous, expressive, and fun to control Hylian that's ever swung a Master Sword. His wide eyes and big black pupils clue players in to nearby points of interest, and his modest frame only makes it that much more satisfying when Ganon's evil forces are vanquished. The duck-billed Medli, the knee-high wood sprite Makar, the disturbing wannabe fairy Tingle, the pot-bellied dragon Valoo, the jolly wind god Zephos and his mischievous brother Cyclos... The list of fantastic characters never ends. Every single one is special. I believe that the most brilliant characterization in The Wind Waker, however, is that of someone who has traditionally been illustrated as little more than a pig-man. Yes, I'm talking about Ganondorf. This entry's dark-skinned ginger is better designed and more fleshed out than he has been in any other Zelda title. With small hints of a tragic backstory and a haunting final monologue (not to mention a ridiculously cool death animation), Ganondorf is the true heart of The Wind Waker's moving tale.
Speaking of moving, I would be remiss not to mention this game's music. But what can I say? It's my second favorite video game soundtrack. With a Celtic-influenced assortment of fiddles and flutes, the music feels appropriately windy and downright enchanting. These impossibly perfect melodies, some of the most inspiring and adventurous I've ever heard, will never leave me. At the end of the closing credits, the main Wind Waker theme becomes Zelda's Lullaby. The last note, ringing with warmth, is one of the most perfect musical moments I know. It almost makes me cry.
Does nostalgia have something to do with my love for The Wind Waker? Of course. Who can forget their first Zelda game? Do the graphics have something to do with it? Yes, they represent a timeless display of virtual artistry. Does the music have something to do with it? Abso-fucking-lutely. It all has "something to do with it." The only thing that I don't appreciate about this game is the absence of Zephos in the last scene. That's it. I love The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, and although I'm hopeful, I can't help but doubt that I'll ever have as magical an experience with a video game again.