Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 8, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker

If you skipped this one because of the art style, you only hurt yourself.

I’m ranking the top 101 Nintendo developed/published games of all-time, and you can read about the thought process behind game eligibility and list construction here. You can keep up with the rankings so far through this link.

My favorite Zelda games are the ones that want you to fully explore and immerse yourself in the world in front of you. They want you to engage with this world, the characters in it, the history, the quirks, the geography: there is more to it than just exploring a large, open space, as what is within the space itself matters, too. The exploration needs to be real, not the faux open-world, more linear setup that something like Ocarina of Time has. Ocarina of Time is great, of course — it’s ranked 33rd on this list with good reason —but there is a significant gap for me between that level of greatness and the tier of Zelda games that you find in the top 10 of anything Nintendo has ever made. And much of the difference is in the ability to explore, to immerse, to engage with the world.

The Wind Waker got a poor reputation out of the gate, as it had a “kiddie” art style that a bunch of North American nerds were concerned was going to get them beat up if they dared show appreciation of it. It’s good that we’ve mostly gotten through these kinds of goofy issues in the video game industry, as cutesy and cartoony art is more widely accepted in the North American market than it was at the peak of western insecurity for this sort of thing. And not just because it means we can all appreciate that Wind Waker’s cel-shaded art style has aged far more gracefully and beautifully than its peers that strove for realism. And those peers include Nintendo’s course correction for the backlash against Wind Waker’s art, Twilight Princess (number 29).

Anyone who skipped Wind Waker because it looked cartoony, though, missed out on one of the greatest Zelda titles ever, one of the absolute best games on the GameCube, and, at least according to me, one of the greatest Nintendo games ever, from any franchise or console. It perfectly fits the bill for what makes an ideal Zelda: the game world is large, and is meant to be explored in the ways that only the very best Zeldas manage to pull off. Whatever concerns I had about pacing in the original GameCube release were solved with its Wii U remaster, too: this was already one of the very best Zelda games going, and then it got even better.

There is nothing quite like sailing around the world of Wind Waker, and discovering either a fellow sailor — be they friend or foe — or discovering an uncharted island, which you then have to explore the actual contents of. Is there some secret here, guarded by monsters or puzzles, or both? Is the island simply an entrance to some much larger structure, contained beneath the surface? Or is it just like, a tiny piece of land with a chest with some rupees on it? All are satisfying answers in their own way, as the true joy comes from discovering these places to begin with, and then exploring them to see what it is they have on offer.

Sail, sail, sail, finding the source of the world’s secrets as you do, be they the secrets of angry gods, or merchants, or simply of the past, which you must eventually confront in order to save the world that’s been left in your care. All of the sailing is wonderful on its own, at face value, but then you add in what is, to me, the clear-cut winner for the greatest overworld theme in any Zelda game, and well, sailing becomes even better. Why would you want to spend your time fast traveling when you could instead leisurely sail through the world, uncovering its secrets, with this playing the whole time?

Nothing in my life has ever made me want to get on a boat or ship and see what is to be seen more than the Great Ocean theme. Nothing. It simply evokes adventure, discovery, the freedom of the sea, and it greatly enhances the act of sailing in Wind Waker, much more so than Zelda’s more traditional overworld theme enhances riding around on Link’s steed, Epona. Whatever your favorite ocean- or sailing-related book, it would be better if it somehow had a score written by Wind Waker’s team to accompany it.

The Great Ocean theme isn’t the sole original Wind Waker song worth praising, though. Dragon Roost Island is another killer tune from this OST:

And there is, of course, Ganondorf’s battle theme, one worthy of the glorious battle it scores:

There is a reason that the Wind Waker medley is either my favorite or second-favorite track from the Legend of Zelda 25th Anniversary Orchestra album, and it’s the breadth and depth of the game’s soundtrack:

Give that track a full listen while you read the rest of this. As you can imagine, another thing that helps elevate a Zelda for me is its music, and Wind Waker delivers on that.

The sound in Wind Waker plays a vital role, which is part of why I’m going on and on about the music. But it’s very much tied into the game and how it’s played and enjoyed. It’s not just that you control the winds with a magical baton, as a conductor would an orchestra, or that the soundtrack is arguably the finest in all of Zelda. Battles themselves are musical affairs, with the music changing based on the timing of your hits, the drama of the fight scored as a reaction to your own behaviors. The playfulness of the music in stealth sections is as vital to the experience as the adventure-inspiring overworld theme, the boss themes lend themselves well to the foes they’re meant to represent and are as varied as the bosses themselves.

Everything you do, everywhere you explore, everyone you fight, feels so significant, and it’s all thanks to the outstanding sound design that embraces what is supposed to be an epic adventure — in the Odyssean sense, not in the epic bacon way — that also looks like a cartoon. That there is such a working blend of cartoonish sounds and songs mixed with the more serious, stirring, songs that fit the epic feel of it all is a testament to the talents of those that created this game, who clearly understand the power of sound as well as they understand how the animation allowed by Wind Waker’s art style made for a game that’s as much fun to look at in motion as it is to play.

The Wii U edition of Wind Waker includes faster sailing than the original, because the Wii U is more powerful than the GameCube, and that meant the world Link sails through could be loaded faster. As explained in a developer direct video prior to the release of Wind Waker HD, Link could have sailed faster in the GameCube version of the game, but it might have resulted in his falling off the edge of the ocean and to his death, since the system’s memory would not have been able to keep up. Two generations of consoles later, this wasn’t a problem any longer, so the Swift Sail was put in as an acquirable item that allows Link to travel at the speeds that limitations in technology kept him from moving at a decade prior.

Fast traveling was one way around having to sail for a long time in the original version of the game, and is useful in the remaster, too, but in a world that’s meant to be fully explored, one where you’re supposed to uncover its many secrets by sailing around looking for them, it’s preferable that you be able to move through the game world quickly, but without simply skipping over large chunks of the map to do it. The Swift Sail is an excellent balance between the two: you can move faster, and without missing anything you might have discovered by jumping around the map.

Faster sailing is a significant benefit that improves the game without actively changing it. The use of the Wii U’s Game Pad as a sea chart is another such improvement, since you don’t need to stop what you’re doing to check the maps, and can instead adjust your course or continue on it with a quick look at the Game Pad. A more significant change, and welcome one, is that the end-game Triforce shard collection has been overhauled, so it feels a lot less game-extending-fetch-quest-y in the Wii U release than in the original. It still requires much of the player (as it should — the Triforce shouldn’t be hidden in plain sight) and loads of exploration, but, as with faster sailing and the improved sea chart structure, there is far less potential for annoyance than there used to be. Throw in how amazing the remastered graphics look in HD, and it’s difficult not to consider Wind Waker one of the finest achievements in re-releases going. It’s easily the definitive version of the game, and its changes from the original are justifiable ones that improved upon a game that didn’t need the help to be considered a classic.

Wind Waker offers significantly more depth and complexity than Ocarina of Time did, enough so that it still holds up today. It’s not just the exploration that trumps the feeling of checking out Ocarina’s Hyrule, but the puzzles and dungeon design are superior as well. That it was discredited because of its art direction — art direction that I must reiterate is excellent — and considered inferior by some to Ocarina remains maddening to this day. A superior game world, more complex and rewarding puzzle and dungeon design, a better soundtrack, a story that still has some out there giving Ganondorf his Thanos moment and debating whether he was in the wrong (he was)… this game has everything. And the Wii U version of it made sure to dispel with the only meaningful complaints against it, making for a better-paced, less tedious game than the original.

The only real downside to Wind Waker that still exists is that you can only get it on the GameCube — empty cases for the game are sometimes selling for as much as the game itself used to — or on the Wii U, which barely anyone owns, and anyone who had or has one probably already picked up Wind Waker HD. There is always the possibility of a Switch port of the Wii U version of the game, maybe even to celebrate the 35th anniversary of Zelda, but that remains, at this point, just that: a possibility. Considering that the Switch already has Breath of the Wild, Link’s Awakening, and soon, Skyward Sword, plus the sequel to BotW, it’s also possible that any additional releases in the Zelda family will have to wait for whatever console Nintendo has next. But maybe we’ll all be in for a surprise announcement this summer, and far more people will get the chance to play the definitive version of one of the absolute upper-tier gems of Zelda’s 35 years.

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