Wii U review: Wind Waker HD

WindWakerWorld

To think that Wind Waker’s visual style was initially met with such scrutiny seems almost laughable now. Link’s cap billows behind him as the King of Red Lions parts the vast ocean, one big blue horizon stretching out endlessly, islands dotting the distance like freckled mirages wherever sea meets sky. Beautifully abstracted blocks of color cover large swathes of screen space, infrequent textures layered on in chunky, painterly style.

The great ocean has an essential character all its own, waves rising as white triangles or a roiling froth that spans leagues, pure blue on sunny days and mottled grey in stormy weather. There’s an endlessness to it, and setting sail for the first time is incredible. This is adventure distilled, perfected.

Wind Waker’s ocean may be the ideal template for Zelda overworlds. Players are encouraged to explore and discover; they see the next isle from the last. Every island is a real place in a fantasy world – look out over the walls of Windfall Island and you can see the sailing shop-ship, the gulls, the human-faced fish that tells you all about the world, the waves, the sunset.

Getting a running start, Link leaps straight down into the water that connects everything.

WindWakerLeavingOutset

It’s honestly beautiful. This is just a damned beautiful work. The Wii U version is presented in widescreen HD, with redone colors and subtly reworked textures. A good deal of bloom has been added, atrocious in pre-release pictures but well-considered in-game. It’s essentially the same game that shipped out for Gamecube in 2003, with a little work put in to make it shine graphically and mechanically.

As such, the core strengths remain intact. Dungeons are an understated treat, with natural puzzles that feel instantly intuitive. The game’s sense of freedom is almost unparalleled among Nintendo’s output, with sidequests and main quests dotting every area of the map. The designers seem hell-bent on giving Link his most useful powerups right away, doling out the Deku leaf, grappling hook, and boomerang almost immediately.

And Link’s cartoonish expressiveness shines through as he smirks, gapes, and grumps through every scene. He doesn’t shy from shooting King of Red Lions these smug-ass looks (Red is the talking boat, just fyi), and when he’s roaming the isles he has a look of perpetual cranky determination that kills me.

WindWakerLinksDumb

Little wonder that Link’s camera selfies took off like they did. Link can take photos of himself making goofy faces, then send Tingle bottles out with notes for other players to find. Seeing pictures of the world and reading what other players have to say is a small joy every time, and really highlights the subliminal strength of Wii U’s Miiverse integration.

Wind Waker’s gameplay refinements highlight the system’s strengths as well. Playing through the game on Gamecube, I was struck by how much I hated changing the wind’s direction in order to quickly sail from place to place. Playing Wind Waker HD, though, I realize that what I actually hated was pausing the game, checking my chart, unpausing the game, and then changing the wind’s direction. Having the chart on the gamepad feels much, much smoother.

There are other new features, such as aiming your boomerang, bow, or grappling hook with the gyro sensor. It’s sort of circumstantial, with some situations being better for it than others, but it’s a useful supplement to analog control. There’s also touchscreen item switching, which is a wee bit faster than pausing the game. You can also play the entire game on the gamepad, albeit without some of those features.

WindWakerIdol

And then there’s the big gameplay refinement that Nintendo promised: the fast sail. At first I was reluctant to use it, because the wind-switching felt so much more natural in this version, and I do feel that negating the wind’s influence slightly undermines the game’s original design.

Later on though, the fast sail becomes essential. During the dreaded Triforce hunt, players sail endlessly back and forth between the game’s islands in search of treasure charts and various upgrades. Even with the fast sail, this segment is a slog. Every Zelda game seems to have a section that deters replayability, and the Triforce hunt is definitely Wind Waker’s.

But Wind Waker’s glowing weak spot is the combat mechanics. For most of the game, battles are so easy that the optional hero mode becomes mandatory. Combat difficulty doesn’t usually mean that much to me, but Wind Waker’s battles fail to do justice to the rest of the game.

WindWakerEnemies

Typically, all players have to do is mash the B button to have Link decimate everything onscreen. Moblins, birds, chu-chus, whatever. The game introduces more complex enemies that require specific strategies, but those are mostly cake too. Even the bosses are woefully unprepared for Link’s swordsmanship.

To the game’s credit, things do get more challenging later on. Enemies attack in large swarms, and even simpler enemies get their licks in. There are some nasty wizards that spawn enemies and shoot fireballs, and hulking armored brutes that gang up on Link with vicious sword swipes. Things pick up. But they rarely get particularly involved or challenging, even on hero mode.

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In the larger scheme of things, the low difficulty hardly even matters. Whaling away on enemies is still enjoyable in its own right, just not entirely satisfying. Wind Waker’s true joy comes from exploring a rich fantasy world, searching out the secrets of every island, and charting the uncharted seas. There’s so much heart, beauty, and pure adventure in Wind Waker HD that I can’t recommend it enough.

Every negative aspect of the game, large or small, amounts to nothing against the majesty of scaling Outset Island, exploring every one of Windfall’s secrets,  and sailing the oceans with nothing but the wind and your talking jerkface lion ship to guide you. Wind Waker HD is a sunken treasure, dredged up from the ocean floor and buffed till it shines anew.

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3 Responses to “Wii U review: Wind Waker HD”

  1. cary Says:

    Great review! (Can’t wait to revisit this title myself one day.) In the meantime, here are a couple awards, from me to you! http://recollectionsofplay.wordpress.com/2013/11/27/it-pays-to-be-versatile-and-sunny/

  2. Surprise! The Wii U is fantastic. | Catstronaut Loves Games Says:

    […] Wii U’s library has had time to grow since then, with Super Mario 3D World, Wind Waker HD, and Pikmin 3 sitting alongside strong second and third-party titles like Rayman Legends, Wonderful […]

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