The Wind Waker HD soars above most other titles this year in terms of art direction, level design and gameplay, taking the incredible foundations of the original and building upon them to create a extremely refined – and entirely unmatched – experience.
You must know the story by now: a boy, a princess and a villain, a quest across the land to find the ultimate power and lock away the evil which has taken over everything. It’s a tale that has been told time and time again, in a variety of different ways, throughout the Zelda franchise and one which has been told in the exact same way before with the original version of The Wind Waker on GameCube.
And while the story may remain the same, the game has been upgraded and refined in almost every other way possible. Aside from the new high definition visuals mentioned in the title, the gameplay has been streamlined, online functionality has been added and even the sound has been remastered, to essentially create the ultimate Zelda package.
We’ll get past the old hastily before heading into new territory. The same, brilliant game still lies under all of the additional bells and whistles: the level design is immaculate, the puzzles are challenging and the gameplay – everything from the swordplay to the exploration – is sublime.
You see, The Wind Waker on GameCube, at the time, was already very much a perfect game in my eyes. The stunning art style was marvellous, hardly rivalled in the ten years since, never mind with competitors at the time. The Great Sea was a bold new direction for the legend, and while not as brilliant as Ocarina of Time, the dungeons and temples dotted across the map offered some of the most original and creative interplay of ideas, methods and puzzle-solving.
It was truly an incredible feat, and one of my most cherished and loved adventures, albeit one which had some pacing issues and couldn’t quite reach its true potential on the GameCube, unlike the original release of Ocarina of Time and its own remake on the 3DS. The items work perfectly, the islands all offer something unique and every single bit of the game feels better than the last, leaving you in awe at how something can be this consistently impressive.
Naturally then, The Wind Waker HD needs to be judged on how it holds up in regard to today’s standards. You might think, considering how far gaming has come in this generation alone, that this is a cause for concern, but The Wind Waker has come a surprisingly long way too – while the composition of Zelda’s many locales have an inherent timelessness, no matter how big or how realistic other games become, the Wii U version of the game brings some new ideas to the table, which not only put the original release but many modern titles to shame.
Perhaps this might seem like an odd statement, but it feels as though the Wii U was made for The Wind Waker HD, allowing Nintendo to not only up the visuals as the game required, but to alleviate any issues found with pacing or checking the map.
This is realised through the use of the GamePad, which is perhaps the best we’ve seen yet, surpassing the useful though somewhat forced features found in ZombiU. There’s no gimmicks here – the controller only serves to make the experience better than you could ever hope for. Items, maps and information all lies on the second screen, which you’re able to utilise with a variety of touch-based features.
These touch features include the ability to drag items into the X, Y and R slots on the fly, meaning that switching your Hookshot for your Boomerang won’t be a chore. Everything fits in place on the screen and it’ll soon become second nature – there’s even a pop-up on-screen overlay so that you only need to glance at where the item is before dragging it, though you’re still able to pause the game if you want more time to think out your strategy. This means the more underused items won’t be lost forever, always a few inches away from your fingers.
Likewise, the map being, well, mapped to the controller’s screen means no immersion-breaking interruptions as you try to find the direction you need to sail, with the ability to zoom in on specific islands and see information you’ve collected helping all the more. As well as this, you’re able to overlay any charts – treasure or otherwise – and Link’s icon will move across the screen in realtime. It’s something that makes you wonder whether you’ll be able to ever play another Zelda game without the second screen – and even how you managed in the past.
That’s the beauty of The Wind Waker HD: it makes you question whether the original was that good since this new version surpasses everything we’ve seen from Zelda before, improving on the gameplay massively with new features. This feels more than a remastering – it’s a showcase of Nintendo’s aim for perfection in this franchise, realised with the Wii U GamePad.
Everything has been thought over – the titular baton now sits on the digital pad, along with the ship’s items, meaning no tedious picking and choosing of what to carry. It just all makes so much sense, with intuitive touch controls for conducting and shorter scenes removing any frustration. And the “Triumph Forks” quest even feels that much better, without changing too much at all, so as to not take away from the original vision – there’s no third dungeon, but that doesn’t get a chance to cross your mind with the amount of fantastic content on show, and the added communication via the Miiverse bottles making the world feel even fuller.
There’s also Hero Mode, for the fans who have played through the game enough times to find it far too easy. It doesn’t change the dungeons like Ocarina’s Master Quest, but it does mean that enemies will deal double the damage and you won’t find a single recovery heart lying around, so you’ll need to prepare if you want to succeed and stock up on potions when you can. This mode can be switched on or off at any time, so you’ll be able to leave it untouched as you learn the new controls and turn it off on the main menu if you ever get too stuck.
On top of all that, Nintendo have surpassed not only themselves but the medium as a whole with their incredible, artistic approach to the remastered graphics – the remastered art. While, yes, there is a heavy dose of bloom to be found, it’s almost a complete overhaul of the original and one of the most stunning things to see in motion.
It almost compliments the GameCube version, moving towards a more three dimensional feeling set of environments through the new global lighting, while keeping the same vibrant and distinct colouring system of the original. That really doesn’t take anything away – it’s unlike anything else around and akin to a contemporary repainting of a classic interior.
The real power behind these visuals is the art direction of the original. Along with the deep blues of The Great Sea, each section and island has its own colour palette and style, which means that every hour or so you’ll have something new and beautiful to marvel at. The only constant is Link, and this really highlights how incredible the few sepia sections look.
One particular moment that you’ll be in awe at comes just before the first proper dungeon of the game, in the Forest Haven; the refined particle effects system really shows The Wind Waker HD in all of its glory. It might seem a bit of a cop-out, but words can’t describe the feeling you’ll have as you step into the cool waters below the Deku Tree and see this for yourself – it’s a truly inspiring moment, despite it essentially being the backdrop to the main event.
With these improved visuals comes an increased range of sight while sailing. Although you’re not able to see everything in the distance and things will still disappear after you reach a certain point, the central tower and islands can be seen from much further away. There’s a huge improvement in the visuals, then, only hindered by some minor slowdown when a lot is happening on screen at once.
Any Zelda fan will know that music lies at the heart of these games as much as the incredible design, and The Wind Waker HD does not disappoint in this regard. The sounds feel fuller, fanfares blast louder and around the environment, the instruments can be heard in all their glory, as they always should. The Great Sea Theme, Dragon Roost Island, The Wind God’s Aria – these euphonic blasts of aural nostalgia sound better than ever, leaving you humming along as you go and then being stuck in your head for weeks after completion, reminding you of just how great the adventure was.
The Wind Waker HD is the ultimate version of any Zelda game ever made. While the GameCube original didn’t quite live up to Ocarina of Time’s standards, the GamePad features remove any pacing issues and the gameplay is even better, creating one of the best experiences not only of this generation but ever in gaming. All of this, along with visuals and music that, much like the original, will still hold up many years later make this game essential.
While it’s still the masterful display of level design we’ve experienced before, it’s ultimately a showcase of how, on the second time round, things can be refined so much that you’d have to make big leaps in order to describe them as anything other than perfection.