This one has been a project for some time, and I'm happy to finally cross it off my list. My second conquest of modern Zelda, my third completed target of the year, Wind Waker.
I had a good experience in general with Ocarina of Time four months ago, so when I was planning my 2012 backlog targets other modern Zelda games were logical choices. I already owned four of them (Majora's Mask, Wind Waker, Twilight Princess, and Phantom Hourglass) and finally completing Ocarina gave me enthusiasm to put time into them. Wind Waker is a direct sequel (of sorts) to Ocarina of Time, and I think I made a good choice in going through with it.
Wind Waker's plot ties into one of the "alternative timelines" that are part of Zelda timeline theory - I only glanced over some charts linked from a news website, but the gist of it is that Ocarina of Time's time travel escapades created three separate timelines, and Wind Waker takes place in one of those, hundreds of years after the events of Ocarina. Things like the Sages and the Hero of Time are well-known legends, but the Kingdom of Hyrule has sunk into the sea, and the world consists of a vast ocean peppered with islands.
Long story short, you're a kid who is dressing as the Hero of legend as part of a coming of age ceremony (well, I suppose that's one excuse for Link's clothes) when your sister is kidnapped by a giant bird. You sail with some passerby pirates in order to rescue her, and after a series of events you're rescued by a sentient talking ship who gives you a magic conductor's baton (the titular Waker) and instructs you to find three magic pearls.
Now if that isn't contrived as fuck, I don't know what is. For the first half of the game or so, that ship basically drags you from island to island, and you're mostly in the dark. Once you complete the fourth major dungeon in the game (there are seven total, plus a few smaller ones), a few major plot details are revealed, the narrative paths open up, and the game goes into a pretty nonlinear explore-a-ganza. More on that later.
So the story starts out a little silly and direct and then shit gets real, after which the game frees up and it's just Link, his map, and the Great Sea. But at its core, Wind Waker is pure Zelda action. Link gets the usual arsenal of weapons and items, and more sidequests and exploration than ever. I'm pretty sure Wind Waker sets the record for most Heart Pieces available, and there are at least ten different types of delivery/tradeable items with their own little quest thing.
Link's arsenal is mostly familiar pieces plus several new items related to sea travel, highlighted by the titular Waker. Using it similar to the instrument in Ocarina of Time, Link can conduct songs that perform multiple functions, but most importantly change the direction the wind blows. Changing the winds in your favor is primarily used to get you sailing in your preferred direction, but also support Link when he's floating on his leaf-parachute.
Overall, the arsenal is about what I expect from a Zelda game, but Wind Waker's focuses less on offense and more on utility (not really a good or bad thing). The baton is a less-compelling music item than the ocarina, but that's probably because Ocarina incorporated its tunes into the game better and Wind Waker's only really interesting music functions were changing the wind's direction and controlling statues and NPCs (more on this later). In terms of Zelda loot and equipment, Wind Waker is more of the same, but not broken or unappealing.
As I mentioned in my Ocarina of Time review, all you really need in your Zelda game is a sword, a shield, keys, and a bow (in retrospect, I might add bombs to that list). Lucky for me, Wind Waker's sword and bow are both fantastic. Link has three basic combo setups that are more fluid and differentiated than any of the swordplay in older Zelda and his bow can switch between types of magic arrow on the fly (doesn't sound like a big deal, but it's a welcome change). There's also a dodge+counter mechanic in CQC that brings Wind Waker a step closer to being a "grown-up" action beat-em-up like a God of War or Devil May Cry. Yes, I know that comparison is totally unfair to all parties involved, but the point is that Zelda's swordplay is way better and I like how dodging works in Wind Waker.
One gameplay mechanic that I was a little more lukewarm on was controlling NPCs. One Wind Waker ability allows you to control NPCs that temporarily accompany you in dungeons, and, well, it's a total mixed bag. On the one hand, it lets you manipulate dungeon puzzles that require two characters, which is often quite clever in how it's implemented, but on the other hand controlling anyone other than Link is awkward as hell and totally devoid of combat. The controlling-NPCs thing was nifty at times and annoying at other times. I'd just as well do without it, but it wasn't a deal-breaker.
So remember how I mentioned that there are seven dungeons in Wind Waker? Well, there are. And that's my single biggest gripe. I like Zelda dungeons. Completing dungeons always the crux of the main quest, and dungeon variety in theme, puzzle, and overall content is a crucial part of my Zelda enjoyment. The dungeons in Wind Waker are quite good, but there are only seven. That's counting the final area (which is a little bare-bones) and the Forsaken Fortress, which is also light on content and navigated twice to boot. Ocarina of Time had nine dungeons and A Link to the Past had twelve. Wind Waker's dungeons were pretty good (my favorite was probably the Earth Temple), but goddamn do I wish there was more.
Instead of focusing on dungeons, Wind Waker cares more about its ocean. The world is divided into a large 7x7 grid, with each set of coordinates containing a single island. Link travels all over the grid, updating his chart by seeking out Map Fish and discovering the secrets each island has to offer. I explored perhaps 75% or so of the grid, but you could definitely beat the game without traveling to about half of the islands. For better or for worse, exploring the ocean is key to Wind Waker. Most of the treasure in the game is found in chests on the bottom of the sea (you find maps to their locations and then reel them in with a grappling hook), and the game's single largest chunk of quests involves tracking down eight special charts and chests (sort of avoiding spoilers, I guess).
Now, this whole map exploration thing is a ballsy move by Wind Waker's design team. Without linear stages and pathways, players really have to search the whole map systematically to uncover secrets. This is actually pretty cool on paper, but is ultimately done in by two unfortunate truths: Wind Waker's selection of islands is samey and gets uninteresting real fast, and the whole exploring / sailing / fishing for treasure process gets tedious, since you do it dozens of times. With a lack of variety or depth to a good 60% of the islands (three eye reef, four eye reef, five eye reef, etc.) and a lack of secrets within islands that aren't A) elucidated in the towns or B) a necessary part of the plot explained by a Map Fish, the whole world seems too vast and too empty to really suck you in. Sailing is fun at first, but it wears down on you, and by the time you're searching for eight sunken MacGuffins you're ready for the game to be over.
But wait a second, I haven't mentioned the audio or visuals yet! Wind Waker's soundtrack is pretty good, with a piratey world-music vibe that suits its style. Dragon Roost Island is a track beloved by many for good reason. But while the soundtrack's good, the visuals are simultaneously stunning, kinetic, and controversial. The bright, bold colors give a cartoony feel and everything from basic movement to the puffs of smoke given off by defeated enemies looks gorgeous. A great many fans complained that Wind Waker was a return to a younger Link ("Toon Link" in SSB Brawl) and they wanted something darker, more akin to the Ocarina of Time time-skip. They got what they wanted a few years later in Twilight Princess, but I fuckin' love Wind Waker's aesthetic. It's bright and beautiful and gorgeous, and it made the monotonous sailing and treasure hunting that much more tolerable.
Long story short, I thought Wind Waker was great. I wasn't impressed with the expository plot framework when I seemed to be sailing for arbitrary reasons, but by the game's midpoint I was 100% invested. The action, the visuals, and the exploration hit a fabulous high during Wind Waker's two big penultimate dungeons, but sadly the excessive mandatory treasure hunting dampens the experience. Maybe it's because I feel absolutely zero zeitgeist, but I thought that Wind Waker was better than Ocarina in every respect other than the selection of dungeons. If you don't mind looking over endless blue cartoon oceans for 25+ hours, then Wind Waker is well worth a play.
Games Beaten: 2012 Edition
1. Super Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins
2. Radiant Historia
3. Mass Effect
4. Mass Effect 2
5. Breath of Death VII: The Beginning (Hard mode)
6. Grandia II
7. On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness - Episode 2
8. Mass Effect 3
10. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker
I'm behind on my goals, natch, but I'll keep at it. Next up I'm going to try and finish a Rockstar Games game for the first time. Red Dead Redemption, you're on deck.