Developer: Nintendo EAD Group No. 3 / Publisher: Nintendo / Played on: Wii U / Price: $49.99 / ESRB: Everyone 10+ [Animated Blood, Fantasy Violence]
There’s so much baggage involved with a Wind Waker HD review, some of which may be kicking around in your head if you’re considering the game. How much of my appreciation of the game is just nostalgia? What would I think about it if it were released today without the Zelda brand? Most importantly, how does it hold up today? Is it a fun game or not?
It is. It’s a very fun game. Whether or not you played the original Wind Waker back in 2003, you should play The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD. Why? Because it’s a fun game regardless of time or context.
Here are the Zelda basics: You play as Link, a young boy set loose in an open world tasked with toppling the evil Ganon. Over the course of the game, you alternate between open-world exploration and dungeon-running, finding health upgrades, new items, and abilities along the way. The gameplay mix is solid; you get the overworld freedom of exploration in equal doses with difficult, combat-focused dungeons. It’s the formula Zelda originally pioneered back in 1986 and it works just as well now as it always has.
Wind Waker’s overworld is unique in that it’s mostly covered in water; while there are some interesting story hooks if you’re in to Zelda continuity, it’s most useful in making your main mode of travel a boat. Setting sail into parts unknown gives you a special feeling of freedom that you rarely find in a game. While Wind Waker does put some clamps on your exploration in the first few hours, the ability to sail anywhere and make landfall on an uncharted island is pure magic.
Naturally you won’t be able to scramble all over the world from the get-go. Many areas and upgrades are hidden behind a variety of gates that you need particular items to cross, whether it’s a chasm to be crossed with the grappling hook or a wooden gate that must be blown up with bombs. You find those items in the game’s dungeons, each of which are geared around a particular item’s use and ending with a boss requiring mastery of that item.
The dungeons aren’t as sprawling or devious as Link to the Past’s, but strike a good balance of difficulty without frustrating you because you can’t find that last goddamn key. As for combat, Wind Waker can toss some tricky enemies your way, but it won’t make you sweat too much on normal difficulty.
If you want some perspiration, try playing on “Hero Mode,” which is available on the first play-through in this HD remaster. With this enabled, all enemies in the game do double damage and health-recovering hearts no longer drop from smashed pots and cut grass. This fundamentally changes the dungeon experience to something more like Dark Souls, and I don’t say that as a synonym for “it’s hard.” Potions are your only health recover items (similar to Souls’ Esuts Flasks), and because of this, you have to play very deliberately and safely. An errant hit here and there will see you dead in two or three rooms, sending you right back to the entrance with a paltry three hearts to work on. Just like Souls, playing on Hero Mode means you have to be aware of your attack timings and know how to exploit your enemies. If you’ve been disappointed by the softer nature of Zelda in recent years, or you just like a stiff challenge, Hero Mode will surprise you.
There are other tweaks to the Wii U iteration of Wind Waker aside from Hero Mode. The most obvious is the game’s controller–playing with the Wii U gamepad gives you immediate access to all of your inventory at all times. Instead of pausing the game to juggle items, one flick of your finger puts any item at your disposal. Other control tweaks make the game a smoother experience as well: the Wind Waker, ship cannon, and ship crane are all bound to dedicated directions on the D-pad and Link automatically climbs on boxes without having to hit “A.” Miiverse integration is clever as well; you can put messages and pictures in bottles and toss them out to sea where they will wash ashore in other players’ games. In grand 2013 fashion, Link can also snap selfies and post them to Miiverse, a feature that’s already being used brilliantly.
Despite those modernizations, some relics of the past linger. Wind Waker HD is a fundamentally slow game. Traveling from place to place on the overworld can be very time-consuming, depending on your outlook. If you want to get from point A to B as fast as possible, you’ll probably check Twitter more than once before you get there. If you’re a more relaxed gamer–maybe you stop to check out islands along the way–you’ll enjoy the game’s tempered pace. Some other bits are less excusable, like enduring a long animation every time you want to exchange rare items for a healing potion.
That said, Wind Waker HD’s biggest improvement is right there in the title. Wind Waker looks brilliant in HD, a success that can mostly be attributed to the game’s incredible art design. The game looked like a living cartoon in 2003, and with its HD revamp it competes with today’s best in artistic charm. Something as simple as watching Link bob his head back and forth and smile is disarmingly adorable. The game’s soundtrack is equally timeless, naturally mixing celtic flavors with classic Zelda themes.
It’s incredibly telling that all Wind Waker needs is an HD spit-shine to belong in 2013. No game is released in a vacuum, but the greatest games are fun no matter when you play them. This re-release puts Wind Waker in that column, right along classics like Super Mario Bros. and Pac-Man. It’s an incredible game. Play it!