It’s time to feel old! Today, December 13th 2022, marks the twentieth anniversary of the original release of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker on the Nintendo GameCube in Japan.
Like many of Nintendo’s franchises, The Legend of Zelda made the transition to 3D on the Nintendo 64. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was released in 1998 and became one of the most acclaimed games of all time. It was followed two years later by The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, which was similarly heralded. Zelda’s presence on the Nintendo 64 created one of the most impactful one-two punches in gaming history. As such, many fans were clamoring for what the third 3D installment of The Legend of Zelda would be like, especially since it was to be released on the (then upcoming) Nintendo GameCube.
Fans were taken aback when The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker was revealed, with a heavily stylized, cartoony art style. Many gamers hated the look of the game, decrying it as being “kiddy” and referring to it as “Celda” in mockery of its cel-shaded art. Even Shigeru Miyamoto, the original creator of The Legend of Zelda, reportedly cringed when he first saw footage of the game (of course, Shigeru Miyamoto also thought removing the RPG elements in Paper Mario was a good idea. He may be the world’s greatest game designer, but he’s also been wrong a number of times).
Well, the joke was on them, because that same art direction has ensured that The Wind Waker has remained the most timeless of 3D Zelda titles. One of the most timeless games of all time really, which is saying something since 2002 was still relatively early in gaming’s rough 3D pioneering period.
Everything that made Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask memorable was still present in The Wind Waker. If anything, Wind Waker improved on its predecessors by making the combat more fluid and intuitive than ever, and added new elements such as stealth and sailing to the equation. Hell, the “Great Sea” of Wind Waker introduced an open-world to Zelda more than a decade before Breath of the Wild. And I’m just going to say it: Wind Waker has the best overall soundtrack in the series.
It’s true that, because of the GameCube’s less-than ideal sales numbers, Wind Waker was somewhat rushed in order to get another blockbuster game on the console. As such, a few ideas for the game had to be scrapped, including an entire dungeon or two. And Nintendo decided to add that Triforce fetch quest in there to pad things out a bit. So okay, Wind Waker isn’t perfect, but I would argue that it may very well be, on the whole, the best 3D Zelda.
Again, Wind Waker basically perfected the gameplay established by its N64 predecessors. Its massive open-world gave way to a sense of discovery and sidequests that are second to none in the series. It probably has the best story in the series (with the best versions of Zelda and Ganon to boot). The aforementioned soundtrack is sublime. And that cel-shaded art style – once so heavily derided by your typical gamer ignorance – have proven to be the best thing to ever happen to video game visuals.
The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker was made even better with the release of an HD remake on the Wii U in 2013 (yes, the remake alone is nearly ten-years old). Although you could argue that Wind Waker was the Zelda in the least need of an overhaul, The Wind Waker HD did make some notable improvements, like the inclusion of a special sail that allowed Link to traverse the Great Sea faster, and that Triforce quest was trimmed down considerably. Not to mention the Wii U Gamepad actually managed to smoothen out the classic Zelda gameplay (no more constant pausing to swap items). The HD re-release made an all-time great all the greater. And now that a whole decade has nearly passed, I think another re-release of The Wind Waker is due.
The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker may have had a rougher road to pave and a steeper hill to climb than most games that bear the Zelda name, but it – quite beautifully – proved the naysayers wrong as it continues to be hailed as one of the best entries in the revered series.
It may have taken a little longer to get there, but in the end, the game once ridiculed as “Celda” proved itself to be a legend indeed.
Happy 20th Anniversary, Wind Waker!