How long has it been since you last played The Wind Waker? For me, it was nearly ten years ago at its release, as I’ve only ever finished the game once. I still remember the heated debate that was raging at the time regarding the so-called “kiddy” graphics as the GameCube tried desperately to escape its reputation as the younger gamer’s console of that generation. When it was first announced at the press conference, audible groans could be heard from the impressionable gaming throngs.
However, history has been mostly kind to the game, and that’s partially thanks to its unique graphical presentation. As with Wii software, stylizing the graphics always went a long way toward disguising the technical deficiencies of the time—and as such, the game has aged better than many of its counterparts. Plus, it’s safe to say that Wind Waker was one of the most unique Zelda titles in the series to date, completely ditching the traditional Hyrule design and instead replacing it with a vast expanse of water and nonlinear explorative playground. This was the closest thing that we’d seen to an open-world Zelda to date, and it’s these attributes that have painted the game opaquely in the memories of so many gamers.
I look back on it with fondness, though I had many of the same complaints about the finished product that did most other gamers: the sailing interludes were looooong-winded and sometimes pretty boring, there arguably weren’t enough dungeons, and the Triforce “fetch quest” near the end of the game was one of the most shameless time-grabs that Nintendo had ever installed as filler in a first-party, high-profile title.
While it doesn’t correct all of this, The Wind Waker HD shows that Nintendo has listened. Contrary to its title, the game really is a bit more than a mere graphical upres. It also features some much-appreciated rebalancing to make the game more accessible, and it’s all the better for it.
First of all, the game is absolutely beautiful. Screenshots and perhaps even video don’t do it justice; you have to play the game firsthand to appreciate how much of a difference the modernized presentation makes. Most of it is indeed graphical: you’ll be treated to a rock-solid 1080p resolution at 60 frames per second in TWWHD, with much sharper (some completely redone) textures, a longer draw distance, reworked lighting and shadow effects, fog effects, and plenty of bloom lighting. This is in contrast to the original game’s 480p @ 30 fps, which was still beautiful for its time. There are also other graphical tweaks at work: for instance, in some (uncommon) situations, a more realistic form of shading is implemented to emphasize what’s happening. These moments blend seamlessly with the overwhelmingly cell-shaded approach, and they aren’t as jarring as they are simply pretty.
The music has also been marginally improved, mostly by way of higher-quality MIDI samples (there are no live tracks, regrettably, as that would have been awesome). The soundtrack was already one of the most memorable of its time—and easily among the best of the entire Zelda series—but it’s even better (however subtly) following these revisions.
What’s more interesting and perhaps less apparent, however, are the gameplay changes. As mentioned earlier, it’s mostly stuff that could be described as “rebalancing” or retuning, but its influence on the overall experience is pretty significant. For starters, two of the biggest gripes about the original have been totally resolved. Didn’t like how slow sailing was and how often you had to change the wind? No big deal; once you acquire the new Swift Sail (fairly early on in the experience), you can simply hold A to sail at turbo speeds in any direction, regardless of the current winds. Got bored of the Triforce fetch quest (who didn’t?). No sweat; now it’s less than half as long as before.
These changes are already enough to sweeten the experience, but there are plenty of other subtle adjustments that have also been made: truncated item use animations, faster and less annoying text flow, and an option to disable the on-screen HUD, for starters.
Expounding upon that last item, one of the other biggest differences is (naturally) the use of the Wii U Gamepad, which is (in this case) intelligently implemented and very useful. It basically serves as a companion to your adventuring, featuring a tabbed interface that toggles between the map and your inventory. Equipping items is now incredibly simple; just drag them to the button of your choice on the touch screen—you don’t even have to pause. Meanwhile, critical items (such as the Wind Waker) occupy a slot on the D-pad, so you’ll never have to swap out items to access them. You can even play the entire adventure on the Gamepad if you so choose.
A few other minor changes have been made, such as some improvements to the PictoBox item (you know, the camera) which allow you to upload photos to Miiverse, as well as the addition of a new item called a Tingle Bottle that can be used to send messages to another player’s games. Finally, the Hero Mode option from Skyward Sword makes a return, where hearts are few and far between and enemies are twice as touch (and more numerous).
In light of the streamlining and refinement, how well does the game hold up? After digesting the experience once again for myself, I can honestly say that it’s still impressive even ten years later. More than anything, the sense of exploration, adventure, and wonder is something most games struggle to replicate—and the dungeon designs and environments are uniquely memorable. If you’ve never played it before, you may find some of the pacing slightly dated—but don’t feel embarrassed to resort to a guide from time to time if so. The good news is that most of the barriers to entry/completion of the original game have been rectified by the gameplay adjustments in Wind Waker HD. If I may spoil it for you, the one important thing to know is how to get the Swift Sail (as it really renders the experience more palatable): it’s available at the Auction House at Windfall Island after you finish with the first dungeon. The game doesn’t make this obvious, but I feel that it should.
It is admittedly a bit disappointing that Nintendo didn’t take this opportunity to add another dungeon (since one seems so sorely missing in the early going) or orchestrate the soundtrack, but if you appreciated the GameCube original, you will very likely find Wind Waker HD worth your time. On the other hand, if you’ve never got around to playing it, this is all the more reason to consider it. TWWHD is most certainly the definitive version of the game; it looks and feels modern for a game that originated 10 years ago, and while it isn’t perfect and it won’t sell systems for Nintendo, it’s absolutely a welcomed addition to the Wii U’s library.