Mushroom Soup For The Pixelated Soul
Hope everyone had a Happy Holiday.
I would post the yearly acquisitions I received today, but most of it was of the clothing and gift card variety. I did receive an unexpected surprise in the form of an instant Coffee Machine (the kind that takes small coffee insertions like cartridges for a printer), but otherwise everything else was just an addition to the one and only thing I asked for this year:
It’s nice to know I can still feel like an excited kid on Christmas Morning.
It also seems fitting that I was able to have another Zelda-related article ready before I begin my plunge into Nintendo’s latest:
Of all the mainline console games in the Zelda series, The Wind Waker remains my least favorite entry.
Before you imitate the virtual equivalent of storming out of your room, keep in mind that while I do not consider WW as a bad game by any means, it still left the least amount of impact in my long-running relationship with the series.
And in case you are wondering, my criticisms have nothing to do with the cel-shaded visuals; often referred to as “Cel-da” by jaded critics, the cartoony visuals are both beloved and bemoaned by fanboys of every nature. Despite Link’s resemblance to a Powerpuff Girl, I enjoyed the unique visual style (even though I am admittedly a bigger fan of the more 80’s-centric fantasy anime look of the first three games) and engrossing animations persistent throughout, from our hero’s expressive face to even the tiniest blade of grass.
But my issues with the game go far deeper than mere graphics:
While I may not have had an issue with Link’s appearance in Wind Waker (in fact, it’s actually grown on me during the years), I did have an issue with the fact that the Link in Wind Waker isn’t technically part of the original hero’s bloodline.
While timeline discussions have always been a headache in the Zelda community (and it certainly didn’t help that Nintendo recently released an “official” timeline chart that’s even more confusing then we had imagined), it’s always been generally accepted that all the different Links and Zeldas in each game are part of the same bloodline.
But in Wind Waker’s case, the game actually makes a point to tell you that the main hero is not related to Link….at all. His physical resemblance is only a tribute to the Hero of Time, the iconic green tunic used as a tribute in the main hero’s village.
While you can argue that this was an intentional move in order to signify the start of a new era (just as how the King of Hyrule chose to condemn his kingdom in the game’s climax), it also implies that just about any sure-footed kid can walk a mile in Link’s shoes. This also puts a hamper on the original games’ theme of Link being a “chosen hero”, destined to save Hyrule as determined by fate, the Gods, and/or Zelda herself. Meanwhile, WW’s incarnation of Zelda is still tied down by fate to fulfill her role, so the game doesn’t entirely do away with the “chosen by destiny” dynamic regardless.
2. The Mystery Of Hyrule’s Downfall
For such a cartoonish setting, Wind Waker certainly kicks things off on a dark pretense; officially taking place after the events of Ocarina of Time (one of the few Zelda games that directly reference a prior title, in fact), the kingdom of Hyrule was devastated by the return of Ganon, while Link was nowhere to be found during this latest plight. As a countermeasure, Ganon and the entire kingdom was sealed to the underwater depths, resulting in a new Waterworld-like setting consisting of small islands and seemingly endless waters.
There’s no mention whether the Link that became a no-show at the time was the same one from OoT (and if he was, fans tend to place his time in Termina during Majora’s Mask as the reason for his absence), or if there simply did not exist a new incarnation during that era. It sounds like the sort of mystery that would have been revealed during the course of Wind Waker.
Except such a revelation never happens; we never learn why Link did not appear to save Hyrule as he always did in the past, how Ganon was able to return, or why the king chose to forsake his entire kingdom when Ganon’s previous reign over Hyrule lasted several years (during which the young version of OoT Link slumbered beneath the Temple of Time).
For a game that undoubtedly follows a small piece of Zelda’s timeline, it’s disappointing that Nintendo never chose to elaborate further on the tragic fate of Hyrule after players helped Link defend it in one of the most popular games in the series.
3. The Soundtrack
This is another opinion that’s bound to cause some controversy, but I should first make it clear that I had no problem with the songs themselves.
Rather, I was annoyed by the MIDI-like quality of the instruments.
Let’s use the main title theme as an example; As a musical piece, it functions well enough, and while the game lacks any real orchestral pieces (a criticism that everyone was making by the time Twilight Princess came out), the instrumental quality was still an improvement over the N64 era of Zelda games.
That said, the actual composition of the title theme has always been grating to me. The faux flute in particular is too high-pitched…this is especially apparent when playing the game through a home theater.
There are also several pieces of music that are simply uninspired, particularly during cutscenes; these songs are meant to serve purely as background music that moves along with what’s going on in the cutscene, which no doubt was done as an homage of sorts to classic cartoon shorts like Looney Tunes. While they work in the context of the game, they also lack any incentive to experience on an isolated level (a common complaint I share with most cartoon soundtracks).
4. Annoying Vocal Effects
But this could all be forgiven were it not for the game’s voice samples, which are truly irritating no matter what the case; stubbornly choosing not to use any coherent dialog, Nintendo instead attempted to have each character emote through random audio grunts and groans that barely register as human. Not only do these weirdly-edited vocal effects lead to several uncomfortable moments (such as Link’s endlessly looping grunts as he’s stuffed inside a cannon), they also broke tension of during scenes that would have worked better without them.
It’s hard to take the king of Hyrule’s climactic speech seriously when he sounds like a dog that’s got its head stuck inside a paper bag.
5. Little Character Development
Wind Waker is chalk full of brand new characters that are instantly likeable; there’s Link’s sister Aryll, pirate leader Tetra, a talking boat, a duck-billed girl, and forest creatures ripped right out of Princess Mononoke.
With the exception of Tetra and the boat, however, few of the characters are given proper development, or even screen-time. Despite being Link’s first family member since his dying uncle in LttP, Aryll’s total screen-time probably equates to less than 10 minutes. Going on a few swashbuckling adventures with Tetra’s crew also would have led to some entertaining moments, but you barely get time to get attached to any of them before you’re literally blasted off their ship.
While the Zelda games have never been given the same narrative attention as a typical RPG (especially since the series has more often been classified as an Action/Adventure game), I still felt that many of the characters came and went too fast before they could leave a lasting impact.
6. The Stealth Sections
It’s a typically accepted fact among gamers that forced stealth sections in games that do not primarily rely on the mechanic are no fun at all. Wind Waker doesn’t just strengthen this argument, it defines it.
While the N64 games had their own moments that required Link to be sneaky rather than stabby, these sections were typically brief and didn’t require much backtracking in the event players got discovered. In Wind Waker’s case, Link must sneak around inside a barrel for several sections across a sea fortress….and should he get spotted, he gets immediately tossed back in a holding cell and must repeat the entire process over.
And it is a very slow, very agonizing process with a very poor level of detection; even players who achieved the Big Boss ranking in Metal Gear Solid would struggle with this game’s tight corridors and lumbering scouts, and the general tedium likely resulted in a collective sigh of relief once the game finally provided Link with a weapon.
7. Technical Issues
However you feel about the visual aesthetic, there’s no denying that Wind Waker is a fantastic looking game. As more and more cel-shaded titles continue to crop up, very few of them have managed to match the fidelity and splendor of this Gamecube exclusive, even on today’s HD consoles.
Unfortunately, there is one very apparent flaw that keeps the graphics from reaching perfection: While difficult to tell in screenshots, players may have noticed a row of vertical lines extending across their TV screens from top to bottom. Several gamers (myself included) worried this was some sort of issue with their TV, or that their Gamecube cables (or the Gamecube itself) was on the fritz. In truth, this is the result of dithering, which is a result of the system’s technical limitations.
Technically speaking, there was simply no way around these lines, as WW was clearly achieving something thought to be impossible on any hardware. While most people either didn’t notice the lines or felt it was a small sacrifice in light of the game’s graphics, it was difficult at times to overlook, especially as they happened to crop up during the game’s prettiest moments (which were basically anywhere outside and during the day).
Consequently, this also makes Wind Waker the most requested Nintendo game to get an HD re-release. You only need take a look at one of several videos and/or screenshots of WW running off the Dolphin emulator to be convinced of how incredible such a port could look.
8. The Dungeons
The overall dungeon variety in Wind Waker did not grab me in the same way previous dungeons did.
It’s hard to explain specifically why this was the case; perhaps it was due to the lack of unique areas (OoT already had a forest and lava-themed dungeon) or that they felt more puzzle-y (especially when you had to make use of escort characters).
But in truth, it was likely because there were so few of them; director Eiji Aunoma admitted that two of the game’s dungeons were nixed for time, to which part of the original dungeons could be found in the game’s source code. These dungeons would probably have helped achieve better pacing for a certain fetch quest….
9. The Triforce Shard Hunt
In theory, the concept of traveling across the seas in search of the greatest conceivable treasure in the Zelda universe (the Triforce) sounds like a neat idea.
In practice, it was without a doubt the most tedious moment in the entire series; not only were you suddenly required to collect the 8 pieces of the Triforce in order to advance the story (instead of spacing out the overall search in chunks….or better yet, include them in dungeons like in the original Zelda), you were first required to collect the charts that pointed you to the general direction of the shards.
That’s sixteen items you have to search for altogether, with no dungeons or any other real objectives available to break the tension. This is literally an extended fetch quest you have to do in order to unlock the next area.
It was boring, it was obnoxious, and it was yet another mechanic Aunoma apologized for. If he wasn’t doing such a stellar job with the series now, I would have begun worrying for the future of the franchise.
10. It Was Too Easy
The first two Zelda games were admittedly designed for hardcore gamers….which at the time excluded a great deal of young players who had just barely learned how to play Super Mario Bros (it took a friend from school at the time to show me how to even beat the first Goomba). Even when you understood the game’s mechanics, the numerous and powerful enemies led to a dreaded Game Over screen more than once.
Link to the Past was the first game to ease up on the difficulty, but it was Ocarina of Time that ultimately found a happy medium: not too hard, but not too difficult. It allowed gamers new and old to freely explore the vast open world without consequence, but also kept them on their toes during some of the deadlier enemies and bosses.
In Wind Waker, the only time I ever got a Game Over was in the game’s optional Savage Labyrinth (and even then, it was likely the result of fatigue after 50 floors rather then the tenacity of the enemies). It also didn’t help that the game was not only overly generous with hearts, it was also heavily lenient with its dodge rolling, which rendered Link’s shield virtually useless. Only the final boss battle felt like a proper sword fight meant that kept players on their toes.
For the rest of the game, you could survive every encounter in your sleep. While the freedom of exploring the vast open sea could be argued as the defining feature of the game, the lack of any significant danger turned what should have been an epic voyage into a senior citizen’s day cruise.