In retrospect, that the initial reception to The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker -- once branded as "Celda" by embittered fans -- has all but evaporated is rather stunning. Witnessing the shift from the realistic Spaceworld 2000 demo into this brought upon much hellfire; I still remember several of my Zelda-loving friends hating the crap out of it and refusing to do anything with it (a promise that was eventually rescinded; personally, while I loved Majora's Mask and casually enjoyed Link's Awakening, I wasn't invested enough in Zelda to really care). While we could certainly chalk up the switch to poor foresight and communication on Nintendo's part, the shift into cartoonish cel-shaded graphics highlighted the number one complaint of the GameCube days: Nintendo was too childish, too alienating in their kid-oriented direction of Toon Links and the latest Mario game being dubbed Super Mario Sunshine.
Those days are now behind us, yet somehow in the fourteen-plus years since The Wind Waker's release, criticism remains intertwined with the game's identity. This isn't to say the game's not surrounded by a sizeable, adoring fanbase -- you'll find it commonly cited as a series favorite, in fact -- but it remained so dogged by harsh critique that would continue to split the fanbase not just in itself, but pave the road for future titles' division. It's too easy, perhaps too short, and the game's central mechanic of sailing took too long for many.
Most damnably of all, however, was the obvious evidence of it being rushed out to market: there are cut dungeons, abrupt sequences, and an infamous endgame fetch quest that amounts to nothing more than padding. One could even say said padding was the genesis for its plaguing future mainline entries, yet for as much as Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword would be inundated with handholding and bloat, neither possess this glaring, crippling flaw.
One that somehow flew over me when I first played it; it is a video game I have much reverence for, as The Wind Waker was the entry responsible for finally captivating me into the world of Zelda. It's one of my childhood favorites, in fact, taking the No. 4 spot in my "Holy Nintendo Five" alongside the likes of EarthBound, Super Smash Bros. Melee, Super Mario 64 and Kirby Super Star. For a child awakened to nostalgia, it was everything I looked for in a game: a vibrant world possessing that ever-so-rare euphoric warmth in its beauty, setting the imagination aflame of universes beyond our own. So gripping was its atmosphere that I envisioned myself as an explorer who seeped through dimensions, canvassing the musty depths of temples and seas alike.
These days, it's a little different. The Wind Waker is still something I'm very fond of, but time has rendered its flaws unavoidable; being such an ambitious project, those black marks of clumsy, shore-horned segments and stripped elements are only all the more apparent. And yet as I had once done on Nintendojo, even now I'm compelled to defend most of those same flaws. Yes, it is a game that misses opportunities and doesn't build upon them, but I adore so much of what it tries to do that I cannot help but raise an objection to those, well, objections.
Take the game's central context and mechanic: sailing on the wide open sea. The Wind Waker takes place in The Great Sea, divided into island-dotted sectors with all sorts of treasures, secrets and locals waiting for you. Grand as that may seem, many claim it to be a tedious exercise: even with the later aid of warping, sailing from one island to another takes an awful lot of time, and it's been accused of exploiting that for padding purposes via fetch quests. I, for one, cannot get enough of it; you could point to certain stretches of emptiness, but witnessing the game's various weather patterns and hearing The King of Red Lions' soft rocking within silent nights provides a soothing catharsis not found anywhere else in Zelda; as a matter of fact, I've yet to spot any other vehicular transport emulate this level of calm anywhere else.
Much of this has to do with how it perfectly fits into the exploratory heart of Zelda. The gradual process of a distant speck morphing into an island isn't just met with anticipation; it's perhaps the first moment Zelda had an open world-esque inkling of "you can go there." Indeed, The Wind Waker was perhaps the most "open" 3D Zelda in this closing pre-Breath of the Wild era: you won't be choosing dungeons in any which order, but it's not too long until The Great Sea is yours to explore. And perhaps it's not so empty after all: the careful player will notice, for instance, that the treasure-filled Light Circles only appear in certain sectors at night.
Not that The Great Sea doesn't forget to include some thrills; even when you're being chased by carnivorous Gyorgs and the helicopter-sounding Peahats, haven't you ever decided to just climb up that watchtower and knock over some Bokoblins? For all its aforementioned catharsis, the adrenaline of combating maritime monsters and bombing enemy battleships within the confines of your tiny boat is just as satisfying (not the least of which are the Big Octos, one of my many water-based phobias in youth).
Which reminds me: the combat has also been derided for undeveloped concepts (you can pick up enemy weapons like spears and longswords, but there's not much to do with them) or overtly-lenient shortcuts (A-button parries against Darknuts, otherwise known as "press A-to-win!"). While there's certainly a case for the former, it's enough for me that I've always found hilarity in the juxtaposition between Toon Link and the oversized weapons, while the latter looks especially cool and has great feedback in control/weight. That they don't detract from the combat in itself is a blessing.
Not exactly the best defense, I know, but to this day, The Wind Waker still possesses my favorite sense of Zelda sword-slicing: a punchy, rhythmical force of impact that conveys not the distinct sword slices of the past two 3D Zeldas, but whaling an enemy in a manner not entirely unlike boxing. It feels wonderful to execute, heightened by "strike" beats in the accompanying music. This isn't even factoring in the other weapons: I can't be the only one who's unable to resist constantly bashing in Moblin heads with a boomerang, right?
I ask that because it's one one of the many, many reasons why the visuals remain The Wind Waker's finest achievement. As mentioned earlier, you'll barely find a trace of graphics complaints to be found, and that's because The Wind Waker's cel-shaded aesthetic is the definition of timeless: fourteen years later, you can hardly spot any limitations found in the animation, texture-work and graphics involved. It is a cartoon truly come to life, with the obvious Asian influences granting it a foreign mystique and enchantment not completely unlike Capcom's Okami.
It goes without saying it still has the has the most beautiful setpieces in all of Zelda, and while Breath of the Wild seems poised to dethrone it in this area, I can't imagine my breath ever ceasing to stop at some of The Wind Waker's best cases of art direction. Is there anything more beautiful on the GameCube than the Fairy Fountains, with their azure colors, nautical-based formations and luminescent walls providing the game's most soothing, jaw-dropping locale? Even the Great Fairies themselves are a mystifying visual treat; no longer are we treated to screeching, scantily-clad nymphs, but graceful multi-limbed deities comprised of petals and spiral cut paper.
When compounded upon by the chorus-filled heaven that is the Fairy Fountain theme -- said chorus being enough to render it the very best version of that classic theme -- they amount to nothing less than spellbinding scenery with an irresistible pull. Not one visit comes to mind where I hadn't just sat there and watched the crowd of ever-rising sprites ascend into the ether, and they're certainly not the only location with such a hypnosis.
So great are The Wind Waker's visuals that I'd even claim they come to aid anytime the gameplay may be lacking; some rag on the dungeons, for instance, for being too linear. The best Zelda dungeons provide an organic flavor of continually traversing across their depths, so perhaps there's a point there. But why should I care when the setpieces involved express the other very best factor of dungeons: making me feel like I'm really there? All five of the game's dungeons excel at this: even now, I cannot help but be pulled in by the chilling, shadowy haze of the Earth Temple or the crowds of spores and writhing, squirming plants in the Forbidden Woods.
The last three -- Tower of the Gods, Earth Temple and Wind Temple -- are probably the best in how appropriately huge they feel: intertwined with the plot, the trio must invoke a grand, majestic aura to convey themselves as appropriately sacred. The Tower of the Gods is my particular favorite, its holographic rainbow bridges and rising water levels expressing a prestigious air echoed by its placement in the game's plot: its ascendance from the ocean after centuries' worth of sleep provokes a musty, ancient feel.
Again, the music is imperative: Tower of the Gods with its powerful chorus is easily the best dungeon theme, but the Wind Temple evokes the more common usage of atmospheric sound: Pikmin-esque instruments introduce the temple (perhaps the biggest hint that Hajime Wakai, one of the game's four composers, was behind this song?) as they segue into a lone, melancholic guitar, perhaps reflecting the solitary slumber of the moss-filled temple itself.
Naturally, The Wind Waker wants to show all this off with clever manipulations of the camera. Bosses have never been this huge before in Zelda, for example, which gives ample excuse to draw the camera out during each and every battle. Every instance is meant to emphasize Toon Link's relative tininess to everything around him, be it the massive jaws of the sand serpent Molgera or the vast ocean surrounding each of the three Triangle Isles. It's a powerful effect adjusted to one's liking via C-stick, and even now, I can't help but be absorbed by how huge everything is.
And as expected for a game passing itself as a cartoon, the animation is wonderful; the dynamic expressions of Toon Link are commonly cited, but I'm especially taken with the game's horde of enemies. Watching the Moblin's antics (light their arses on fire!) or the armorless, weaponless Darknuts make do with their fists or stray Moblin spear lying around is greatly entertaining, and I've made it a hobby of mine to experiment with Toon Link's various weapons to gauge their reactions. Case in point: smacking Miniblins off the Forsaken Fortress's upper reaches with the Skull Hammer, as watching their puny little bodies launch into a watery grave is not unlike the awe of a soaring golf ball.
It's a good thing the character animation succeeds in its goals, as the story -- perhaps tied with Majora's Mask as being the strongest within Zelda's history -- wouldn't nearly be as good without them. Taking place as something of an alternate sequel to Ocarina of Time, its setting up of a mystery within an entirely new setting --- The Great Sea -- provides a fascinating juxtaposition: we desire to learn the fate of familiar kingdom we learn about in the intro -- a gripping sequence depicted in hieroglyph-esque woodblock prints -- but we're having too much fun with the new world's pirates and bird people and wood spirits for our curiosity to linger too long.
The Wind Waker is different from the previous two games in that strikes a mid-road: the themes and character moments involved aren't nearly as raw, but they ain't exactly subtle. The aforementioned "mystery" introduces a wealth of gravity and import to this new realm, yet even moments like Prince Komali's one-sided affection for Medli echo its biting themes of loss and moving on; in that respect, watching series villain Ganondorf earn his first touch of character is a thing of beauty, and remains the most tantalizing moment of humanization in Zelda history. As a grown man who's watched his cherished childhood slip away, it identifies with me more with each passing year.
So much of what makes this new setting so foreign is in the score: helmed by a four-man team (Kenta Negata, Hajime Wakai, Toru Minegishi and Koji Kondo in his first supervisory role), The Wind Waker brims with Celtic-influences and instruments, namely in the very first song we hear. Best described as the game's main theme, the playful Irish arrangement that is the Title Theme is reverberated throughout The Wind Waker as not just a clever recurring motif, but in tone: we find its whimsy shared in other compelling themes as well (namely the castanet-filled Dragon Roost Island). Personaly, I've always thought of it as a fairy-tale opening.
But it's not Zelda without the adventurous backdrops, which we find in the wonderful ocean theme. Both intrepid and marvelous, The Great Sea encapsulates the very essence of "adventure" in its entire duration, never failing to inspire the swelling need for discovery and the unknown. Everything from climbing Bokoblin watchtowers to watching seagulls fly alongside The King of Red Lions is heightened by this one song.
The Wind Waker is notable for being the first Zelda to establish unique theme for each boss, and while they are spectacular (Molgera and Helmaroc King being the standouts), the recurring mini-boss theme remains my favorite. Making a triumphant first impression through its chiming of bells, the way this valor is carried through the light-hearted whimsy of whistles is nothing less than infectious.
I should highlight one more positive while we're on the subject of sound: the conduction of the Wind Waker itself. I could elaborate on how much I cherish the game's sound effects, but it is one of the most ethereal moments of sound in Zelda, as even simply standing there graces our ears with a celestial air. This isn't even getting into the ascending chimes of the three conduction times, all accompanied by stunning choirs. The baton may not be as functionally deep as the Ocarina, but the sound reverie is enough to render it my favorite Zelda instrument.
All this and more is enough to propel The Wind Waker into the upper echelons of Zelda...but alas, for all its ambitions, it misses the very top. Everything to do with this relates to its rushed status: this is something not immediately apparent, but by end of the game's first act (roughly by the third dungeon), it becomes undeniably evident this ambitious title did not fully achieve its vision. Such a failure is not uncommon in the industry, but when it sinks to levels of wasting the player's time, it becomes a major detriment.
Case in point: the cut dungeons. After the game's opening stages, the story makes a point of collecting three magical pearls after completing the early dungeons. The first two are acquired in this matter without a hitch, but after a protracted dash to nab Nayru's Pearl, it's suddenly handed to you by the water spirit Jabun. The aforementioned Nintendojo article does have a defense for this -- that the "water" dungeon role may've been filled by the Tower of the Gods, which immediately follows -- but there's just no getting around how abrupt the Jabun sequence is.
One can't also help but wonder if the "mini-dungeons" -- Fire Mountain and Ice-Ring Isle, used to obtain certain equipment -- were the two cut dungeons, and yet they're so short even the term "mini-dungeon" does them a disservice (aside from a cool secret in the latter). This isn't to say they're terrible in themselves -- they actually fit relatively seamlessly into the progression -- but one also cannot help but imagine if these dungeons were tied into the game's mid-game twist: one I shall not spoil for those who have yet to plunder The Wind Waker's depths, but it's a gripping possibility that would've opened up the game's already massive world two-fold.
Of course, the elephant in the room is the Triforce Hunt: a blatant case of padding that would set the example for bloated, uneventful events that would later plague the series. This is the one area my article faltered in defending, as it not only abruptly shoehorns itself into the narrative but its repetitive lazy cycle speaks for itself: you sail all over The Great Sea to find a Triforce Chart, hand it over to Tingle to translate for hundreds of rupees, and then go off to recover the Triforce piece.
This is a process repeated seven times, and to make matters worse, it gets thoroughly openly lazy. Practically every one of them jams in enemy brawls, homogenizing even its rare inspirations into an endless, tiring cascade of swordplay. Take the chart involving the Ghost Ship: it's a perfect concept for a game set on the high seas, with the set-up involving an elaborate quest to obtain an ocean villa, discover a zombie-infested basement within and acquire the bewitched Ghost Ship Chart. All riveting stuff, especially when the ship itself greets itself in the night, its demonic chanting alerting us to its presence...only to end up being yet another enemy horde.
While The Wind Waker is not as shockingly amateurish as its Mario GameCube contemporary (Super Mario Sunshine) in compensating for rushed development, its failure stings a bit more in that it's this close to achieving masterwork status...only to slip up in Nintendo's drive to meet the Japanese holiday season. It is a game I still fervently defend and regard as superior to the mediocre 3D efforts over the next decade, but that simple fact undermines not just any arguments I push forward, but a rare betrayal to Nintendo's values and work ethic regarding development.
To my mind, I can imagine a Wind Waker that stands up with the very best of Zelda. It is absolutely a visual masterpiece, one that will certainly be held up as one of the finest applications of aesthetics found in a Nintendo game. But I cannot claim the same as an actual game; visuals will only get you so far, after all, and between the likes of its lack of unique mini-bosses and the undeveloped enemy weapon system and once again doing the "Ganon's Tower is a hodgepodge of previous dungeon concepts" endgame shtick, there's the sense it's just not trying hard enough. By itself, it's a betrayal to its graphical ambitions; as a Zelda game, it's perhaps the most disappointing thing of all.
And yet to me, it doesn't really matter. Do I still lament The Wind Waker doesn't achieve its dreams? On some days. Do I lament we never got the planned sequel? Definitely, and that's because I love so much of what it earnestly tries to accomplish that it still sets a reputable bar. It's an even rarer example of a game where I don't care it has flaws, I don't care it makes missteps; above all, its infatuating sense of catharsis is enough to lull me into sweet, sweet rapture, one where another world is active and awake.
Even now, that is still everything I'm looking for. The Wind Waker is not the best Zelda, but it is the Zelda that still speaks to me the most as an adult with its brilliant themes and meaty exploration; to my inner child with whimsy nostalgia and a warm, beating heart. For that alone, it remains my favorite Zelda.