It's been a full decade since Nintendo released The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker on GameCube back in 2003, and to celebrate the occasion an HD version has hit the market. The Wind Waker marks an odd chapter in the history of what is arguably the most enduring franchise in gaming history and was a game that subverted many of the expectations fans had going in.
Back when the GameCube was codenamed 'Dolphin,' a tech demo was shown at the Space World expo in 2000, leading many hopeful fans to believe this would be the successor to the critically-acclaimed Ocarina of Time. Done in the same style, the demo depicted a grown-up Link engaging in an epic swordfight with Ganondorf that was met with all-around approval by the Zelda faithful. One year later when footage was shown of The Wind Waker, much of that faith was shattered.
Angry that the mature style had been supplanted by a bright, goofy cel-shading style reminiscent of a cartoon, the disgruntled fanbase had nicknamed the game 'Celda' to let Nintendo know loud and clear that they didn't like the new direction. Nintendo was hoping to curb any more negativity by waiting to show actual gameplay so the project would be judged on those merits versus its aesthetics.
Beyond the controversy over the decision, Nintendo was at an odd place with its GameCube console. The decision to pick up a GameCube over a PlayStation 2 or Xbox boiled down to one important question: can you live without Mario, Zelda, and Samus? If the answer was no then you got a GameCube, but what you gave up was access to the wealth of quality third-party titles that were readily available on the other consoles.
Capcom had pledged support with five exclusive titles, one of which was canceled and three that went multi-platform. Rather than follow in the footsteps of Xbox Live and PS2's network adapter, Nintendo had decided that gimmickry would instead win the day and made connectivity between the GameCube and GameBoy Advance a huge selling point that didn't exactly go over well with the public, a feature that eventually made its way into The Wind Waker.
Released in Japan on December, 2002 and later in Spring 2003 to the rest of the world, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker still received massive critical praise that translated into solid sales that were, unfortunately, lower than the numbers Ocarina of Time saw. Early adopters were also rewarded with a revamped version of Ocarina of Time (along with the original) featuring reworked dungeons that was initially planned to debut on the doomed Nintendo 64DD.
Players found themselves in a very different rendition of Hyrule than they'd ever experienced before. The world has been swallowed by the ocean with only a handful of tiny islands where people still live. On Outset Island, a young boy named Link is celebrating his birthday when a massive bird swoops in to kidnap his sister in a case of mistaken identity, setting off a chain of events that leads him to work with pirates led by captain Tetra and eventually facing off against a powerful Ganon.
As per tradition, Link progresses through the game by defeating the bosses in multiple dungeons and acquiring equipment that will aid him and open access to places that were previously closed off. When he's not adventuring, Link can explore the various islands for side activities or things that will make his quest easier such as heart pieces. One of the main complaints about The Wind Waker's gameplay is how much sailing is involved and how little the playable world actually is. Even with the option to teleport to multiple locations and summon gusts capable of propelling Link's boat at great speeds, the majority of the game still involved Link having to take the time to see which way the wind was blowing, use the magic wand to conduct a spell, and pick a course to sail.
While sailing could quickly grow tiresome, there were some welcomed mechanical additions. Stealth sections were introduced and in combat Link could pick up weapons other than his signature sword and use them, though they'd degrade with use. Link also could dodge and parry enemy attacks, then counter them for a great deal of damage. These additions made combat more fun and engaging than anything previously seen in the series.
The cel-shaded style turned out to work for the best, and was actually one of the best qualities of the game. This world was bright and perfectly captured the sort of whimsy found in a high-end Disney cartoon. Link himself was far more expressive with his eyes and facial expressions than most characters are with hundreds of lines of dialogue. It was impossible not to know what he was thinking at any given moment"”and emotions like fear, surprise, awe, or excitement were plain to see on his face and in his ridiculously-oversized eyes.
Maybe in the end Nintendo did pay the price for stubbornly going against what fans had demanded out of The Wind Waker in terms of sales, and has since backpedaled somewhat with a return to the more mature style found in The Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword. Despite that, its unique style showed to have some longevity as it was used in other titles like Four Swords Adventures, The Minish Cap, Phantom Hourglass, and Spirit Tracks. If anything, The Wind Waker serves as an example that even with such an established series with many things people have come to expect time and time again, you can still do something different and go out on a limb. It's a lesson many well-worn franchises should heed, and it's one that's kept The Legend of Zelda series still fresh after over twenty-five years.