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Review: The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD

Return to the Great Sea in a vibrant remaster of one of Nintendo's greatest games.

By Jack Taylor – 27 January 2014
Reviewed on Wii U (code provided)

There's a certain acceptance of inevitability at Nintendo. Its greatest minds believe that, no matter how much scepticism is aimed at a new title in The Legend of Zelda series and no matter how much hate it gets, the majority will grow to love it as one of their own with time. This was clearly the case with The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker when it launched for Nintendo GameCube; its cute visuals were not only a great departure from the series' norm, they were wildly different from the realistic graphics boasted by a SpaceWorld demo shown off during the development of the GameCube. Yes, The Wind Waker was one of the series' most controversial moments, but it came out the other side as one of the best games Nintendo has ever produced.

Nintendo's decision to redevelop The Wind Waker for Wii U was, we felt, a great one - that was before we'd even seen video footage, or played it. Sure, it could remake one of the more visually realistic titles, but as stunning as they'd look, none of them would be as vibrant or as impressive as The Wind Waker. More than any other game in the series, The Wind Waker could benefit from so many improvements in its visuals, gameplay, controls... you name it, Nintendo could fix it. And, boy, has Nintendo fixed it.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with The Wind Waker, allow us to provide a brief history. Launched in Japan in 2002 and internationally in the first half of 2003, The Wind Waker was the first game in The Legend of Zelda series for Nintendo GameCube. It followed The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, which had not only provided the series' darkest experience, but also its most historically similar: its visuals and core gameplay concept were lifted right out of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, which launched just two years before it. The Wind Waker was a bright, vibrant experience which focused on a young boy, Link, who lived with his sister Aryll and their grandmother on Outset Island, one of many islands on the Great Sea. It was wildly different, and many people took an instant dislike to it because of its visuals, claiming Nintendo had "lost it" or that it was trying to take the series in a direction that nobody wanted to go. It took a gameplay demo by Shigeru Miyamoto to get most fans to realise that the gameplay would be just a good, regardless of the visuals.

If you're a fan of the Zelda series and have never played The Wind Waker before, now is probably a better time to play it than when it was first released. Granted, it's had eleven years to win people over, but the last time it came out, it followed two exemplary but similar games, which left the series with a tough crowd who wanted more of the same. Since its release in 2003, we've had The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess and The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, two games which are both unique and stellar experiences. That has undoubtedly helped The Wind Waker to better "fit in" and has ensured that it's nowhere near as controversial today as it was eleven years ago: now, it fits in perfectly with the rest of the series, and we're very glad to see it back.

At its core, The Wind Waker HD follows the classic Zelda formula: it features a young boy named Link who finds himself with the fate of the world balancing precariously on his shoulders, forcing upon him a journey of trial, tribulations, and particularly ugly monsters. This begins when Link's younger sister, Aryll, is kidnapped and taken from their home on Outset Island by a giant bird, who takes her to the Forsaken Fortress on the outskirts of the Great Sea. From then on, with the aid of a boat named the King of Red Lions and occasional help from a band of not-so-witty pirates (save their savvy leader, Tetra), Link must travel the Great Sea to learn more about his quest while banishing the evil from the world. This, as always, is easier said than done.

Anyone who has played previous games in The Legend of Zelda series will find some aspects of The Wind Waker HD instantly recognisable. As always, there are numerous dungeons which must be beaten in order to properly progress through the game, all of which feature important items to collect and dangerous bosses to dispatch. Outside the dungeons, the Great Sea's 49 islands hold many other secrets to be found, including helpful items and vital upgrades which will prove invaluable as the gameplay gets tougher. Many of Link's recognisable actions and items return along with a few new additions, and a small number of familiar characters also appear throughout the game.

One of The Wind Waker HD's most important features is the ability to sail across the Great Sea to visit these islands and find out what's in store on each of them. While you'll be able to cope just with the items you collect in dungeons, this doesn't help you increase your life meter or your magic meter, both of which will be absolutely critical throughout your entire adventure. Your magic meter will be required in order to use certain items like the Deku Leaf, which means it's important to ensure you can use as much magic as you need; there are obvious reasons for wanting a healthy life meter as well. By travelling the Great Sea and investigating its many islands, you'll find yourself picking up some very useful items and upgrades indeed.

Back when The Wind Waker first launched, sailing divided fans and critics alike: some found it an enjoyable and relaxing addition to the series; others felt it was long-winded and, at times, very tedious. This time around, the development team has gone to great lengths to improve the sailing experience, which is possibly the biggest improvement in the entire game. Fans of the original game will know that there are three boat-specific items included: the salvage arm, a version of the grappling hook for collecting sunken treasure; the cannon, available once you've collected bombs; and, of course, the sail. In the original game, these had to be equipped to your usual item slots on the XYZ buttons if you wanted to use them; in The Wind Waker HD, the cannon and the salvage arm are assigned to D-Pad buttons along with the Wind Waker itself, meaning you don't need to assign these to the XYR buttons to use them.

This is just one of several improvements to sailing, which will probably feel an awful lot more tedious in the original as a result. Another big change, which also takes place on land, is evident when you're using the Wind Waker, the game's instrument: Zelda games are notorious for repeating melodies once you've played them, but this will only happen the first time you play a song after booting up The Wind Waker HD, saving you a bit of time. Part of the way through the game, you'll also be able to get the Swift Sail, which makes sailing twice as fast and automatically sets the wind to blow from behind you whenever you change direction. The biggest change, however, is possible because of the Wii U GamePad: when you're sailing, you'll need access to your maps, and these can all be seen on the GamePad without having to pause. You can move seamlessly from your sea chart to your treasure charts, and you can also view advice that you've been given by the fish that will fill your sea chart in for you. If you're playing using the Wii U Pro Controller, this is all available within the menus as well.

In fact, the GamePad makes a considerable difference to the game. Your item menu is always displayed on the GamePad screen and you're able to simply drag an item to an item slot - X, Y, or R - to assign it to that button without pausing the gameplay. You can also check the status menu from here, which shows your collected heart pieces, Wind Waker melodies, and more besides. When you want to use the Wind Waker, all the melodies you've learned will appear on the bottom screen by default, so you don't need to check the menu screen if you don't remember them. Another bonus of the GamePad is its motion controls, which offer incredibly accurate aiming with some items, as well as much better control of the telescope or first-person view for looking around. It's important to note that the right control stick can be used to aim instead, as motion controls are completely optional - though they're certainly worth trying, as the improved aiming is a great bonus.

Regardless of whether you're playing using the Wii U GamePad or the Wii U Pro Controller, the game's controls have been greatly improved this time around, partly through little tweaks to the gameplay itself. One positive example is rope swinging: you'll sometimes need to do this to get from A to B within a dungeon or on an island, but it was a little more difficult in The Wind Waker as you had to stop swinging in order to change direction. You're now able to change direction freely, even while you're swinging, making some tasks much easier. You've also got easy access to a first-person camera by pressing the right control stick at any time, and this can also be used to easily rotate the camera around Link as well. Another nice feature making its return from Skyward Sword is the ability to hide much of the user interface, leaving just your life meter, magic meter, and rupee count on the screen for a nice clear view; this is a bonus if you're using on-TV play with the GamePad as you can see your button equips - and more besides - on the GamePad screen.

After the announcement that The Wind Waker HD was coming to Wii U, fans immediately began voicing their hopes for improvements to some of the quests within the game; we're pleased to say Nintendo has listened, as two of the quests within the game have been markedly improved. One of these is the Triforce Quest, which comes later in the game and originally involved a lot of rupees and a lot of Treasure Charts; without spoiling too much about what this quest involves, you originally needed eight Treasure Charts, whereas you now only need three, cutting the length of the quest down nicely. Completionists will also be thrilled to hear the Nintendo Gallery, a massive sidequest involving pictographs and sculptures, is also far easier to complete: you'll receive the required items far earlier in the game and you'll be able to hold far more photos at once, as well as being able to have multiple sculptures made at the same time.

The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD was one of the bigger surprises to come out of the Nintendo Direct presentation we were treated to in January 2013, and it immediately became one of the year's most anticipated Wii U titles. The original game has an army of fans to this day, but there have also been countless souls who have wanted to play the game for the first time. The Wind Waker HD doesn't disappoint, with wonderful visuals, a pleasing soundtrack - even if it isn't orchestrated, which is a shame - and brilliant gameplay.

Recommendation of this title comes easy, regardless of whether you've already played and beaten The Wind Waker in the past decade, because it remains a timeless experience. There are, some might think, the occasional flaw - there are still only five real dungeons - but it allows the experience to remain true to the original, while still providing an exciting new feeling all this time later. If you loved the original, give yourself the chance to fall in love with it again; if you've never played it, this is nothing short of an essential purchase.

Verdict: Incredible

The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker