The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD: Reprinting the Legend

Nintendo The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker HD

Wind Waker ends bravely. For a series that is predicated on the eternal return of evil as well as its defeat, whose plot is always a restoration project for the old order, this is saying something. You don’t play a Legend of Zelda game to find out what happens; you play to actually make it happen. This is the logic of destiny, and it ensures that each repetition feels essential, inevitable, and basically spoiler-proof.

And yet Wind Waker ends with a genuine surprise (if you’ve never played and don’t want to know, skip the next two paragraphs). Over the course of the game, you learn that when Hyrule was last threatened and a hero did not appear, the entire realm was locked away in a massive panic room beneath the sea. This measure of last resort meant the kingdom was saved but uninhabitable, and any veteran Zelda player would presume the endgame to involve raising it from its watery tomb. How else could the series continue? How else could we ever get back to the classic Ur-Hyrule of Ocarina of Time and do the same things all over again?

That’s what long-suffering villain Ganondorf wants. It’s what the last king of Hyrule seems to want, too. It’s certainly what the fans want. But Wind Waker denies that longing for the past. The king instead decides to finish the job and wash away the old world completely. He wants Link and Zelda to be free from the legend, to chart their own course to some undiscovered country. He sends them back to the surface and disappears with his kingdom at the bottom of the sea.

In 2003, the drowned world of Wind Waker felt like a palette cleansing, a necessary apocalypse to allow the Zelda series the freedom to explore a new future, not a recycled past. It was bold, gorgeous, and blessed with an ardent heart. If the gameplay and structure still felt overly familiar, the game at least pointed toward a horizon where they, too, might receive as dramatic an overhaul as the graphics. Above all, there was hope Nintendo would continue the unpredictable course it established post-Ocarina and avoid the timid choices made by most video-game franchises. In 2003, such hope was not unreasonable.

The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD raises many interesting questions: Why does it exist? How do you review a re-release? And does its brave ending still have a place in the series? Its very existence is odd because among all the Zeldas, in fact perhaps among all video games, Wind Waker is the least in need of the HD treatment. It’s always curious to look back at old games and feel that dissonance between what you remember being state of the art and what your eyes are now telling you is muddy, blocky, or just plain low-res. Play any old game long enough, though, and the shock fades, just as it does when you face the fashions and mannerisms in movies from before you were born. (When I first saw Robert Altman’s Nashville, I thought I might go blind. Thirty minutes in, all I cared about were the lives of the people onscreen.) It’s all alien at the beginning, and then you adjust.

The original Wind Waker for Nintendo’s GameCube causes no such perceptual shock. Its visuals are as spry and expressive today as they were a decade ago. They’re not perfect, whatever that might mean, but they are beautiful, fully realized, and completely at ease with the hardware limitations of their time. The other changes to this HD remake are minor: a more challenging “hero mode,” a streamlining of the much-maligned Triforce hunt, and a sail for your boat that allows direct control of the wind (which suggests how ill-conceived the titular wind baton was as a basic travel mechanism). Playing it on the Wii U also puts the second screen to good use, decluttering your TV and making item switching less disruptive.

Still, this hardly justifies the re-release. Wind Waker HD is not an expanded version, as some had hoped. It’s not a director’s cut or a truer version of the original. It’s not a reboot hoping to keep the franchise alive, not with a sequel to fan favorite A Link to the Past coming in November. It’s true that the Wii U is struggling, but Wind Waker HD is not a system seller or a plug for any obvious hole that a virtual console version wouldn’t fix. Given that the game is only 10 years old, it’s not even poised to charm a new generation of players.

Wind Waker HD’s purpose may be unclear, but it’s even more tricky to figure out how to evaluate it. Most reviewers have focused on the changes, thrown in a few side-by-side screenshots, reminded us why it’s regarded as a masterpiece, and then confidently declare: still a masterpiece. It “holds up,” it’s “timeless,” they say, and you wonder whether they actually replayed the entire game. As if excellence has been clearly defined in gaming for years and isn’t itself subject to time. As if we all already know what to expect, so let’s just cut to the chase and get back to Grand Theft Auto V.

If you are someone who played Wind Waker in 2003, like me, it’s impossible to ignore that experience and pretend to see it anew. Our expectations absolutely depend upon the games we’ve already played. What is possible, and necessary, is to try to see Wind Waker HD in its new context. That context being 2013. This is a gaming world that’s been altered by mobile devices, by indie experimentation, by AAA exhaustion, by Minecraft. It is a world with two more console Zeldas that have refuted the ending of Wind Waker and doubled down on the tropes of the past. Our standards for video games — what compels us, bores us, inspires us — are always changing, and replaying an old game encourages us to feel out those changes. Saying a game is “timeless,” however, attempts a shortcut through your experience. It refuses to admit that every video game is played in time, and why that matters.

So what’s it like to play Wind Waker HD in 2013? It is, in part, to be charmed senseless. I am generally skeptical of cute things, not because they have no hold on me, but because they do. And yet none of my defenses are worth a nickel when Tetra gives me her adorable stink eye. The character designs and art style of Wind Waker are so confident and iconic, the faces and landscapes so expressive and elemental, and all of it so perfectly aligned with the simplicity of the story and the graceful movements of Link, that it is nearly unfathomable the visuals were ever a point of contention. The HD “improvements” give an added depth and brightness, but without a side-by-side comparison, any memories are quickly replaced; you quit looking for differences and just let its beauty wash over you.

And yet, playing Wind Waker HD is to be bored senseless as well. I’ve criticized Zelda before, and while Wind Waker may be the best 3-D Zelda, many of the series’ problems persist. The world opens up early on, but you have little access to anything interesting without the right tools. It’s the same series of disguised locks and keys as in other Zeldas, only with leagues of space in between. The ocean breathes like a living thing, rising and falling so wonderfully against each island, and yet there isn’t much spatial logic binding the world together. It’s cool when you first realize certain islands match up to the approximate locations of their undrowned Ocarina counterparts (the Deku Tree, Death Mountain, even the Forsaken Fortress near the former Gerudo Desert). But practically speaking, you could shuffle each sector of ocean around like a giant sliding tile puzzle and do little violence to the integrity of Wind Waker’s world. The game’s striking visuals create a memorable sense of place; its world’s actual structure does not.

This bothered me less in 2003. Sure, the ocean felt spacious yet empty even then, and sailing was mostly a drag, but I didn’t know what else to expect. The gold standard for open worlds at that point, Grand Theft Auto III and Vice City, didn’t even allow swimming. And I certainly had no idea future Zeldas would make their landscapes even more mechanistic and lifeless. But now, with the thick worlds of Minecraft everywhere, having water yet no underwater makes Wind Waker’s entire ocean seem absurdly flat. Even most Zeldas have given their landscapes additional layers of depth. A Link to the Past had worlds of light and dark, Ocarina of Time eras for child and adult, Twilight Princess had its dusky realm, and even the original Legend of Zelda had a second quest that played off the first. But Wind Waker’s drowned world remains mostly out of reach, and the whole adventure has you skimming a literal surface, charming though that surface may be.

Your one significant encounter under the sea before the end remains the most thrilling of the entire game. This pits you against a castleful of Moblins and Darknuts and says this: Clear them out however you see fit. It’s the closest modern Zeldas come to an enemy ecosystem, live and messy and full of clashing bodies as they all scramble to get you. Wind Waker’s Link is a lithe swordsman, and the game’s elegant, musical combat, the best the series has ever seen, makes the entire scene tense, unpredictable, and completely memorable. Since then, Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls and Monster Hunter have made similar encounters even more physical, brutal, and dynamic. And yet, 10 years of Zelda have passed and we’ve barely seen anything like it again.

The rest of Wind Waker HD is filled with typical Zelda adventuring. The dungeons are few but also some of the least imaginative and most tedious in the series’ history, and they get progressively worse as you go along. The last three (of five) require constant manipulation of some puppet companion, not with the simple press of a button, but through the repeated use of your conductor’s baton to play the right melody. For all its elegant reduction, Wind Waker still manages to run some form of interference every other minute. The maps and items on your sub screen demand constant attention. You can’t just poke around and find interesting secrets. You must consult charts and gather collectibles and follow trails of bread crumbs to find any treasure beyond a piddly rupee. Most of this isn’t really new for Zelda, but another decade on, it’s even more exhausting.

The story that runs through all this is thankfully simple and contributes a lot to the sense of freedom you have on the high seas. The details of the plot are a mixed bag of familiar tropes and an undisguised desire to move past them. Ganondorf casts a wide net in his attempt to find Zelda, and so the damseling of girls, your sister among them, is front and center. Once Tetra is revealed to be Zelda, she transforms from pirate leader to captive princess and even apologizes to Link for involving him (this also happens in Skyward Sword). This was disappointing 10 years ago and feels even less tolerable now, and yet Wind Waker, unlike Skyward Sword, seems to be seeking a way past this. The ultimate rejection of old Hyrule also means the rejection of Zelda’s role as damseled princess, and when she surfaces at the end, it’s once again as pirate captain Tetra. Before the credits roll, she sets off with Link to find a new continent, and it’s hard to imagine her ever returning to her former, fated role.

Of course, she does. The very things in Wind Waker that gave me hope in 2003 arouse something akin to pity now. The winds blew a different way, and the Zelda that followed, Twilight Princess, took a hard turn toward fan service and dark classicism following the outcry over Wind Waker’s style. Skyward Sword retreated even further into the past and attempted a prequel origin story that answered questions no one was asking (wherever did the Master Sword come from?). Both resumed the restoration narratives of Zeldas past, and the Wind Waker time line, if not its ethos, continued in a couple of handheld titles.

Is it fair to let Wind Waker’s failed Zelda revolution affect one’s evaluation of the game now? Perhaps not, but it does anyway. Just as everything that’s happened in the past 10 years affects our playing of the HD re-release. For some the years have brought greater appreciation, and for others a more severe disappointment. But either way, it’s simply no longer possible to evaluate it in terms of 2003.

I’ve always felt kindly toward Wind Waker, even as my memory of it has faltered. Its charms can still overpower, and even now, a few days out, I have more affection for the re-release than I did while actually playing. If you’d asked me a year ago how I would have scored Wind Waker based on memory alone, I would have said it was something like an 8 out of 10. But it’s bad practice to score games you haven’t played recently, for scores expire like milk. After playing through the re-release, I can say it’s more like a 6. I use the full range of the scale, so a 6 out of 10 is certainly worthwhile. Though hardly timeless.

I still can’t figure out why Nintendo chose to re-release Wind Waker now. But I hope it signals a renewed belief in what it originally tried to do. If Nintendo is serious about “rethinking the conventions of Zelda, as it says it is, then perhaps Wind Waker HD is another gesture toward this, a re-release of a reboot, a show of good faith. There are plenty of reasons to think it’s nothing of the sort, but if Nintendo’s been willing to sink old Hyrule to the bottom of the ocean before, perhaps it’s willing to again. At the very least, a re-release stems the tide of obsolescence that threatens every video game. And despite its flaws, Wind Waker is a Zelda whose legend deserves to be passed on a while longer.

In truth, video games have no timeless masterpieces. There will come a day, sooner than we think, when no one will play Wind Waker. Or Chrono Trigger. Or Super Metroid. No one but curators and historians. And eventually, not even them. Tetris will not last, nor will Super Mario Bros. In a few years, who will be willing to survive fungal zombies for 15 hours just to reach the emotional climax of The Last of Us? For a medium so dependent on its players’ engagement, on their sustained attention, the question is not simply whether old games can technically be played, but will they? I think we sense this. And we want to protect our games while we can. We long to declare masterpieces and preserve them for the future because we are afraid: that one day, the game that meant so much to us will no longer have a player. Or even a legend to remember it by.

Tevis Thompson (@tevisthompson) writes video game essays and fiction. You can read more of his work here.

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