Retro Review: The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker
The GameCube was called the kiddie console of its generation, I suspect, because it didn’t play DVDs, couldn’t crank out games fast enough to defend itself against Sony’s juggernaut, and played only baby discs inside of something that looked way too much like a lunchbox. But Nintendo is still making ports for its controller and Super Smash Bros. Melee is still fifty bucks. The adventures we had on it aren’t easily forgotten, and as The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is reminding everyone what playing a Zelda game is all about, I’m reminded of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker and how much apology we still owe it.
The hardcore Zelda clique was quick to dismiss Wind Waker for the cartoon style they perceived as less convincing than their idea of the mature fantasy universe of Ocarina of Time. Additionally, if there’s one thing you can rely on hardcore fans for it’s an irrational obsession with a franchise’s symbols. Wind Waker was a Zelda game with no ocarina, no Ganon, no Zelda, no Zora/ Deku/ Goron, no Epona, no Termina Field, and no LonLon milking ranch. If you had no idea what made a Zelda game what it is, and bought it only for appearances and references, Wind Waker was a total misfire to you, an arrest of your series into an unrecognizable world.
Much has been written on our misreading of Wind Waker and why in its exploration tactics, combat, openness, and even in its cel-shaded design, it has more in common with Breath of the Wild than any other 3D Zelda. I don’t need to talk about all that.
What I want to discuss is its narrative and its relationship to Ocarina of Time. There is still no imitation of this precedent set by Wind Waker to weave two quests together: in all of video game sequels, none is so investing or creative.
Video game sequels have only recently become like movie sequels. The Uncharted and Halo series play out like episodes in a single narrative, much as a trilogy or a franchise series on the big screen. But video game sequels can be complete departures from their previous entries. They can star new protagonists, boast new game styles, or change genres completely. I wrote an article about this a while ago.
So the two basic choices for a video game series story are: a rigid film-like sequence of linear events or no over-arching tale at all, like every new entry is a reset on the universe. Zelda games had always been the latter. Are you the same Link reincarnated? Just a cog in a cyclical history machine? Is there a timeline? How do these events keep repeating?
Until Wind Waker, I had always assumed it was just video game logic: the new quest was the same because games begin the same. Zelda had canonized New Game for me and my role as Player 1. Wind Waker starts with something that should have blown our little minds. Maybe you haven’t even thought about it yet.
Something tragic happens in Ocarina of Time. The only person who can defeat Ganon and save the world (you) is not yet old enough to do so when the dark lord makes his move on lightness and good in the world. You can’t lift the Master Sword or see above his kneecaps without getting a neck cramp. You, both the player and the character, are not ready. And your training comes at a price. For the seven years that you gestate in the Temple of Time, Ganon ruled and destroyed the world. When you wake up, the world is a crater.
The world you fight the rest of the game in, in which you eventually defeat Ganon, is the world in which Wind Waker begins.
From the perspective of someone on the ground — a Clock Town citizen, let’s say — the Hero of Time failed them in Ocarina. They prayed for him, waited for him, and he never came. He was in the Temple while Ganon destroyed their world. The assumption at the happy end of Ocarina is that Ganon has been defeated in all timelines, but what if this isn’t the case? Wind Waker begins with the assumption that the timeline in which you waited continued into its own future, as time streams must do. This is the world in which you were too late to save it.
The beginning of its legend is of a hero that did not come, a world that was plunged into darkness before the evil lord Ganon mysteriously disappeared (this is when you defeated him, eventually). But where does that leave this world in this new timeline? A world broken into the ruins of its magic and folklore. After it becomes flooded, only scraps of the old tales remain in a world that has evolved beyond history, in places memorial enough to still tell them.
You are born in such a place, an island where the village elders dress their adult men in the hero’s garb. Immediately, Wind Waker features the most interesting Link of any Zelda game because you are not sure if he’s the hero, or just a boy dressed by his grandma to look like one. For the first time, you doubt if you’re truly the person destined to beat the game.
You’re out of time in your own legend in Wind Waker, in a world that takes place in the ruins of that old one. Some people (like the enigmatic Tingle) seem to remember the before time. The Triforce whispers of that old quest. But mostly the world is twisted and evolved, new to time and to you. Its old races are gone and your experience as a young gamer playing perhaps his first adventure in 1998: that is the lore on which the new quest is built.
What a personal demand on young players, to accept their previous victory as a failure for a different world. And most interesting of all is Zelda’s role in the whole thing. As a reincarnated spirit elf, I found her limiting and anti-climactic. But for most of Wind Waker, more so than in any other Zelda game, Zelda really is a legend.
This kind of thinking – basing a quest on a player’s expectations of it, weaving his/ her real experiences into the very lore on which the new world is built – has more in common with the Mass Effect trilogy and the concept of porting save files, than most action RPGs. Wind Waker wasn’t received too well, but now we want to be acknowledged and challenged. We like sinking our teeth into a legend. If you’ve never experienced it before, Wind Waker still holds some of the most investing surprises of any exploratory RPG, and topples every other entry in its series from the basis of its characters and, until Breath of the Wild, its world.
So if you still can’t get your hands on a Switch, maybe the GameCube will tide you over. Personally, it’s been tiding me over since it came out.