As shrewd, charming and devious as any of Link’s other post-Ocarina adventures, it’s a game that only shows its age via a few intermittent control quirks, the likes of which are rarely seen today. But again: this is a project that shows Nintendo’s incomparable EAD studio operating at peak capacity, and rookies shouldn’t hesitate to pick it up. This is what your Wii U was purchased for.
For returning Wind Waker veterans this HD redux is almost as easy to recommend, albeit with a few (very) minor caveats. On the whole, this is the same dazzling near-masterpiece that first arrived back in mid-2003, but the complete reluctance to tinker with some of the more problematic control issues is at once completely understandable and quietly infuriating. Remixing cardinal gameplay elements in titles as vast and complicated as this one must be akin to toying with a brittle house of cards, but some of the more archaic kinks can’t help but sour the flavour a little bit.
Outside of combat, the game still (essentially) revolves around the usage of a single button. In addition to the usual issues that arise in that situation – performing an evasive manoeuvre when you’re attempting to pick up an item, for example – the surfeit of buttons on the Wii U Gamepad make its lack of a customisable “hardcore” control method seem like a bit of a missed opportunity. Similarly, you’ll still have to exit and then re-enter rooms if you want its essential perishables to respawn. Changing to a first-person viewpoint still involves having to cue Link up first, because it has nothing to do with the camera’s perspective and everything to do with Link’s. And you’ll still get bored of travelling between islands way before you happen upon the invaluable Warp song; in fact, you’ll tire even after you’ve shelled out for this version’s much-appreciated new “Swift” sail, which renders your ship almost twice as fast.
Wii U Gamepad implementation is also far from perfect. The unbending sensitivity of the unit’s thumbsticks (so beneficial in first-person shooters like Black Ops 2) clearly hasn’t been optimised for the software, and there’s no way of modifying it. This means that (initially, at least) the process of lining up your grappling hook or accurately hurling a boomerang can be a skittish pain in the neck when you’re under pressure. Likewise, conducting music with the Wind Waker baton takes quite a bit of getting used to, simply because the game inexplicably demands needle-point precision from you, irrespective of whether you’re using the thumbsticks or the touchscreen.
But because none of these quibbles are game-breaking – and because all of them can be adapted to – after a couple of hours they briskly wither into outright insignificance. The Wind Waker really is a scintillating piece of entertainment: smart, flamboyant and seemingly always one step ahead of you, it’s a game that almost appears to have been custom-built as a response to anyone who’s ever dared to question Nintendo’s evergreen status in the games industry. It’s destined to be perennially locked in a three-way fan quarrel between Skyward Sword and Twilight Princess – esteemed company indeed – but the truth is that there’s something truly idiosyncratic and singularly bewitching about The Wind Waker.
For one thing, it’s worth noting that the once controversial cel-shaded art style has effectively rendered it timeless. Back in 2003, to play it was to feel as if you were interacting directly with a live cartoon, and that feeling is exacerbated by the breathtaking new HD sheen. Whether you’re observing Link’s wide-eyed responses to any and all questions about his/your quest, or watching a menacing thunder storm glide steadily towards you, it’s both awe-inspiring to behold and quite desperately absorbing. The ongoing quest for photo-realism has never felt less fertile.
But while The Wind Waker stands alone aesthetically, the gameplay is in the same classic mould as its duo of Wii brethren. Combat is taut and always forces you to experiment, the forest-dwelling Koroks are a ludicrously adorable new addition to the character roster, and the climactic boss battle is one of the finest in Zelda history. If your memories remain fond, this HD remake will leave them completely unspoiled. Steadfast Zelda devotees will also be pleased to hear that Skyward Sword’s rock-hard Hero Mode makes an appearance here too, and is thankfully available right from the start. It isn’t so much a difficulty setting as an option for supplementary punishment: enemies not only deal twice as much damage, they’ll also never drop a single recovery heart.
Another significant bonus on Wii U is that the stop-start nature of the original is now gone forever, because your map and inventory now permanently sit on the Gamepad’s touchscreen. It’s difficult to understate what a huge benefit this is: you’ll no longer be forced to consult your map every couple of minutes while tackling the devilish Earth temple, and re-assigning tools and weapons on the fly is a nimble, drag-and-drop pleasure.
So if you’ve played it before, you should leap on the opportunity to revisit The Wind Waker in all of its newfound visual glory. And if this is your first time tackling the hazardous waters of the Great Sea, feel free to view the below score as a horrendous insult.