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Fantastic voyage … Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker.
Fantastic voyage … Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. Photograph: Nintendo
Fantastic voyage … Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker. Photograph: Nintendo

The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker at 20 – this under-appreciated Zelda game is also one of the best

Derided at first, in the 20 years since its launch this cartoonish high-seas adventure has claimed its rightful place as one of the best Zelda games

When people ask what my favourite video game of all time is and I tell them, they inevitably wrinkle their nose and say: “What, the one with all the sailing?” To many, that’s all The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker is: a 20-year-old GameCube release in which toon Link endlessly sails the vast sea on his trusty talking boat. In 2013, when the game was re-released on Wii U a decade after its debut, Nintendo took the criticisms on board (the talking boat) and added a “swift sail”, allowing players to bypass hours of sluggish seafaring. For shame. The seafaring was the point.

It has now been two decades since the original Wind Waker was released in Europe in May 2003 and it’s time that landlubber critics accepted they were wrong. The game’s expansive ocean was not only soundtracked stunningly, but filled with endless side quests and mini-games, emphasising exploration in a way not seen again in a Zelda game until 2017’s Breath of the Wild. As an 11-year-old girl clicking the little gold disc into place inside her (sister’s) first GameCube, I realised just how engrossing video game worlds can be.

‘I realised just how engrossing video game worlds can be’
‘I realised just how engrossing video game worlds can be’ Photograph: Nintendo

The story begins on Link’s birthday, the very best place for any story to start. A plucky, pleasant musical theme welcomes you to his home island, but the music – and his destiny – changes forever when Link’s little sister Aryll is kidnapped by a big bird whom you later discover was sent by your evil archenemy Ganon. Pirates, dragons, and the discovery of a sunken Hyrule follow. I’ve completed Wind Waker about seven times and picked it up to play here and there many, many more times than that.

I fondly recall school holidays plonked in front of my fat little telly in my bedroom, the game filling an empty summer that stretched farther ahead of me than any animated ocean ever could. I paused only to eat and drink – but I was so desperate to return to the sea that I fortuitously discovered that you don’t actually have to bake flapjacks. It’s far better to take the bowl to your bedroom and eat the raw mixture with a wooden spoon.

As I’d only played Ocarina of Time before this point (badly, as my enduring fear of Skulltulas lasted longer than my time with the game), I was unaware of the controversy that surrounded Wind Waker prior to its release. Forums were flooded with hate after a demo was played at Nintendo’s 2001’s Space World trade show. Long-time Zelda fans lamented the “childish” cel-shaded art style and even Zelda creator Shigeru Miyamoto “cringed” on first seeing early footage.

“It ticks me off that they have to make it so kiddy,” complained one gamer on an “Official Zelda Bitch Thread” hosted on IGN’s forums. Another user simply said: “I think I’m going to cry.” Specialist Nintendo publication NGC Magazine made a (then topical) Anne Robinson gag: “You are the strangest Link. Hello!” Two decades later, this once-maligned art style has proved timeless, meaning the game has aged far better than its contemporaries. You can play it today and not feel its age; I should know, because I do. Last September, frustrated by Nintendo’s seeming unwillingness to re-release the game on Switch, I frivolously spent £70 on an adapter that would allow me to plug my (sister’s) GameCube into my modern telly without resulting in a load of fuzz.

Timeless … fighting a boss.
Timeless … fighting a boss. Photograph: Nintendo

It makes me feel slightly unserious to not praise Wind Waker’s dungeons, puzzles, and fluid fighting, but truthfully it’s the game’s side quests that I’ve always been enamoured with. For me, no other Zelda game has really lived up to it in that regard. I mean: a school teacher asks you to collect 20 necklaces for her and in exchange she gives you a deed to your very own island cabana! Inside your private oasis, there are multiple sliding picture puzzles via which you can win almost 1,000 rupees!

Elsewhere, you can sort letters, collect feathers, and set up two young people on a date by taking two well-timed photographs. You can play a game of battleships with a bored-looking shop owner who shouts the words “SPLOOSH” and “KA-BOOM”! There’s an entire morality tale about a rich man and a poor man swapping places and within this, there is one of the greatest bits of Zelda meta humour. “Do you think you can just break someone’s vases and leave without paying for them?” the rich man asks, when you do what Link does best and enter someone’s dwelling uninvited before smashing up their pots. You’re forced to pay 10 rupees for each broken vase.

Thanks to the art style, the characters in Wind Waker are almost all unforgettable. We meet Zelda as a punchy, un-princess-y pirate named Tetra. She loves to wink. Meanwhile, Link’s stooped and soup-making grandmother reminds me so much of my own that it moves me to interact with her. And then there’s a kid named Zill that my siblings and I have only ever known as “snotty kid” thanks to the huge glob of mucus that hangs from his nose.

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Of course, the game had its fair share of heart-pumping moments too. Zombie-like ReDeads paralyse you, let out a bone-chilling scream and then chomp on your head. When you slash at a big friendly pig on your home island, its snout turns red and it chases you around town until it murders you. I’ve rarely felt adrenaline like it.

Wonderfully expressive … toon Link.
Wonderfully expressive … toon Link. Photograph: Nintendo

Wind Waker began life as an underestimated underdog, but multiple publications named it game of the year after its release. Twenty years on, no one would dare criticise its graphics (even if people still grumble about the slow sailing). “I feel like we did a really great job of creating an animated world that you can live in, that you can explore,” Wind Waker director Eiji Aonuma said a decade after the game’s release. Once Shigeru Miyamoto stopped cringing, he too praised the impact of Wind Waker’s bold new direction: “It’s when you’re really able to do something revolutionary within a medi[um] that’s existed for some time that I think you’re able to shock and startle people.”

Wind Waker may have shocked and startled initially, but it is pure comfort to me today. Early armchair critics may have condemned it as “kiddy” – but I was a kid, and I (mostly) fondly recall introducing the game to other kids (it was only mildly frustrating when the younger girl my mum looked after once a week refused to do anything other than cut grass). Today, the game is just as delightful as ever. When I click the top left button on my GameCube and am greeted by the blazing sun and crisp blue sea of Wind Waker’s title screen, I can confidently say that the only thing that has aged is me.

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