I have said several times that there is a certain romance to freedom of the seas. It’s a case of “if that’s your road, take it, but it’s not the road for me”: I couldn’t endure a life spent roaming the seas, but there’s always been this inherent sense of beauty and amazement at the core of that ideal that I have admired. What earns The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker a spot among the best games of all time is how well it captures this adventurous allure of the sea.
The Zelda series has always been known for its overworld design – from the hidden secrets that littered the 2D titles such as the original Legend of Zelda and A Link to the Past to the breathtakingly rendered worlds in Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask – but The Wind Waker takes this aspect of the game and turns it on its head. Whereas previous games were loosely connected chunks, accessed through a small loading time concealed by an animation of Link wandering off screen or into a dark corridor, this game is truly persistent. From any island in the game, Link can sail directly to any other island, free of loading screens and free of canned animation. It removes a layer of game design from the experience, allowing the player a few lucid moments where the game’s restrictions vanish, and they can be overcome by a strong sense of freedom.
That’s a critical component of the game’s feel: removing barriers. I don’t want to use the buzz word “immersion”, partially because I hate the word and partially because I think the idea has little merit, but this is about as close to the idea as I will willing get: The Wind Waker is a game that achieves a remarkable balance in its environment and art design, breaking down barriers between the player and the game, and enabling the illusion on a greater level than most games. This is a critical point in most of my analysis of gaming: breaking the barriers that are raised between the player and the game by the framework of game design and mechanics.
The Wind Waker has a large quantity of islands to explore, and even if those islands are small and often insubstantial – as one of the most common criticisms of the games claims – the feeling of exploration is far greater, amplified by the act of sailing. Sailing itself is a blissfully entertaining task, encouraged by the stirring Great Sea musical theme and the gentle cel-shaded animation, but the slow approach of an island as its features rise slowly into view from the horizon wells a strong feeling of curiosity within the player. From the moment when land is sighted – that immediate “whoa, what’s that over there?” feeling – to the moment the player washes up to the shore, the game’s art and music begins to inspire a tremendous desire to explore within the player. They need to reach this island and discover its secrets, and no matter how short the discovery takes, the feeling of having sighted the island and exploring it on one’s own, with nothing pointing them there or encouraging them to explore it, takes over and fills the player with a sense of euphoric joy.
The hallmarks of the Zelda series are naturally on display, here, with an arsenal of intriguing items – some new (Grappling Hook and Deku Leaf) and some old (Hookshot, Bow and Magical Arrows) – that are used to traverse intricately designed, sprawling dungeons beneath the surface, leading up to a boss fight with some much larger foe. And as always these elements are engaging and exciting. The story, too, is interesting for its delightfully gleeful post-apocalyptic landscape, a welcome departure from the over saturated societal collapse post-apocalypse variety, with some surprisingly deep and complex character development on display. But ultimately the core of this game is that romance of the sea: of exploring and sailing, unrestricted by the laws of man or the laws of the game.
While I will freely admit that this game has a strong personal resonance, I am also a firm believer that the concept of “nostalgia goggles” does not exist. This game has engendered strong memories of emotional reactions within me, but those reactions do not color my modern perception of the game: each time I play this game I am struck by new aspects of it, rather than being struck by old memories returning to the surface.