There’s been a lot of Zelda in our house recently. I got the nostalgic itch to play Minish Cap in July, then Nintendo Selects released a $20 version of The Wind Waker’s HD remaster which we’d been meaning to pick up since we got the Wii U in November, and then Grant got jealous and picked up Oracle of Seasons for the 3DS, and he’s planning to pick up Ages when he’s done. This–along with the Breath of the Wild hype that’s been going around since E3–reminded me how much I love Zelda.
Since Jessica rightly pointed out that sometimes there’s too much salt in modern gaming culture, I wanted to take a moment to remember all the cool stuff that makes the Legend of Zelda series what it is, and really, Wind Waker gives me more than enough reasons.
As an action-adventure game, any time Link’s capacities grow, it’s because you picked up something cool. In a series with as long and storied a history as Zelda, it’d be easy enough to rest on the classic items (boomerang, bow and arrow, bombs, etc.) and maybe add a new item or two for kicks. But they never rest on their laurels. They could just throw new challenges at Link, based around his iconic tools, but that’s never been good enough for Zelda.
The games go out of their way to make up items that are not only new, but versatile. In Wind Waker (and since I’m currently in the middle of playing Wind Waker, get used to me talking about it for the rest of the article), Link gets the Deku Leaf pretty early on. Not only does it allow Link to glide across gaps like previous games’ Roc feathers, the Deku Leaf can be used to stun enemies with puffed air or push gusts of wind to turn wheels and navigate puzzles. It also reinforces the usefulness of the game’s eponymous Wind Waker, by making wind direction useful when gliding, not just sailing.
One of the critiques of Zelda games is that whenever you reach an obstacle, the answer is always to use the item you found in that dungeon. While it isn’t an unfair criticism, it doesn’t give the whole picture. By introducing a host of new and unique items in every entry in the series, Zelda makes new items exciting. If it was just a matter of giving you a roc feather every game, it’d be a boring repetition. Oh, this is the dungeon with a lot of short gaps. Whee. Instead, when I get a new item, I’m excited to see the various ways the devs thought to use “stick that commands the winds” and what new kinds of puzzles it opens up.
Great Boss Designs
There are two main pitfalls I’ve noticed in game’s boss design. The first is a boss who doesn’t really have an interesting gimmick. Beating them is just a matter of hitting them in the face with a pointy stick or bullets enough times to make them fall over. The second is when boss tricks are so obscurely explained (or not explained at all) that you spend most of the battle frustratedly wondering why nothing you try makes a dent before realizing that you’re supposed to hit the scales on their back in a certain order that lines up with the tune of a rhyme that your party member sang as a child, except notes are inverted in their alien tongue. Or something.
Zelda games live in a very happy middle ground. Because you go into the battle knowing you’re probably going to use the item you picked up in that dungeon, you already have a clue of what you should try when you’re taking on the boss, but it’s never as easy as “hit it with the thing.” There are levels of strategy about how to use your new tools and sword to outsmart the enemy.
The level designs in Zelda just make you feel smart. They’re a combination of puzzles based around your items and puzzles based around critical thinking. Case in point: one of the rooms in Wind Waker’s Forbidden Woods is a room where unbreakable spikes appear whenever you walk too far forward, except on certain paths, creating a labyrinth that Link has to navigate as he goes. The solution to the room is a combination of very careful steps, lateral thinking and of course, some good old fashioned item exploitation when you use your deku leaf to soar over the spikes in certain areas.
Zelda for the most part, does a great job of giving you enough hints and enough space to make you feel challenged but not too frustrated, smart but not patronized.
Compelling Side Quests
While the main game is important and challenging, Zelda doesn’t ignore making the side quests stupidly compelling.
When I’m playing Wind Waker, the stupid joy of catching a pig, playing Battleship, or mind controlling a seagull (I never claimed it was a normal game) was enough to make me completely ignore the main plot and dive headfirst into the kinda useless minigames. At the same time, the game offers these as additional content if you want it. They’re smart enough to leave a lot of mini-games that add content but not headaches (I’m looking at you Riddler Trophies).
Zelda could have been as lazy as it wanted when it came to characters. I’d argue that their gameplay is strong enough to get away with the paint-by-numbers plot of “Bad guy steals the princess because she has the item of great power.” Mario is still going strong despite the fact that Luigi’s entire characterization consists of “Is not Mario, is scared of ghosts.” (Mario’s RPG offshoots did create some great side characters, but they never made it back into main lore). Zelda, on the other hand, is great at making you love its characters (with the exception of Tingle) very quickly.
Even minor characters like the man who runs the minigame shop on Windfall Island is delightfully bombastic. Why does he get so into his Sea Captain persona? Why is he so sad? We may never know, but I know when I replayed the game, I was delighted to see him again.
Even Zelda isn’t just a damsel in distress. In other games, she’s the kind princess and Link’s childhood friend, or the mysterious ninja-ish Sheik, but my favorite incarnation might be in Wind Waker. Tetra, the no-nonsense pirate captain leading a hapless crew, is strong and clever. It’s not new, but I love her tough on the outside, kind on the inside take on what it means to be Zelda. She’s always much more than a sexy lamp to save.
Even Link as silent protagonist still gets characterization. He might not talk, but his emotions create a personality. Even in this short clip from Wind Waker, it’s absolutely one hundred percent clear what he’s thinking.
If Breath of the Wild is able to keep up the legacy that Wind Waker embodies, I’ll be very happy to add it to my shelves. Thankfully, there’s a big enough backlog of quality puzzle adventure-y Zelda games to keep me happy until it finally comes out.
What do you think makes Zelda great or not so great? What do you want to see again in Breath of the Wild? Join the conversation in the comments.