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Best of the Decade - The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker

The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker

Platform: GameCube

Release Date: March 24, 2003

Publisher: Nintendo

Developer: Nintendo EAD

The Legend of Zelda series is often accused of being stagnant, of reusing the same tricks over and over again without embracing new ideas. Sure it’s true that most Zelda games feature a similar progression, set of weapons, and basic thematics, but if you look beyond the basics, this is a series that has actually done quite a bit to play around with the formula over the years.

Link’s Awakening brought the series to the portable realm and gave us a rather bizarre little story not at all like the Zelda norm. Majora’s Mask dared to take things in an even darker direction than Ocarina of Time. It featured a more touching storyline and played around with the accepted Zelda mechanics more than perhaps any other game in the series with its time-traveling antics. The handheld pair of Oracle of Seasons and Oracle of Ages saw Nintendo dare to hand the development reigns partially over to an outside studio. Phantom Hourglass showed us how much fun a Zelda game could be when controlled entirely via the touch screen.

The Wind Waker deserves to stand among these series entries that dared to be different. At a time when gamers were clamoring for more Ocarina, for more of that dark, brooding world they had come to love, Nintendo created a vibrant, colorful, and cheerful world that rubbed many the wrong way when it was first announced. Despite the initial skepticism, the world gamers eventually had the opportunity to explore in The Wind Waker is one of the most enthralling and memorable in Zelda history precisely because it was unique. 

The shift also had the welcome side effect of giving the game significantly longer legs than its more realistic peers. The cel-shaded stylings stand the test of time even better than even the more recent realism of Twilight Princess, making it, in my book, the best looking 3D Zelda game. 

Despite the public furor over the change in art direction, The Wind Waker gave us a vast and engrossing world to explore. Never did it feel like a retread of common Zelda tropes. By branching out and doing something different, it allowed gamers to see what Nintendo can do when they’re let off the rails a bit. The results were stunning. 

Behind the cheerful facade was a cast of likable characters and a story more interesting than you might at first believe. By the time the tale concluded, you had faced multiple twists, turns, and surprising revelations, not to mention strong direct links to past games in the series that gave fans something to smile about. 

By changing the art style and introducing players to a different Hyrule than they were used to, Wind Waker managed to avoid the tired Zelda dungeon stereotypes of elemental temples and let players explore far more interesting locales. In typical Zelda fashion, there were plenty of puzzles and epic boss fights, but they all felt fresh and inspired. Even the last boss featured a wonderful twist, a mix of story and gameplay, that still makes me smile when thinking about it. 

That different take on Hyrule also gave us those who value exploration in their Zelda plenty to chew on. Epona was missed, of course, but the trusty King of Red Lions took Link sailing around an ocean-oriented world that, thanks to the vast distances offered by the watery landscape, felt far larger than anything the series had achieved before. It also made for a simply staggering amount of secrets to find and optional places to explore.

The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker is a prime example of Nintendo’s mastery at keeping things the same, yet different. They don’t change what doesn’t need to be changed. At the same time, by altering pretty much everything but the all-important core gameplay, they can keep things feeling fresh while familiar at the same time. 

The Wind Waker should be celebrated for providing a great story, for letting players explore an epic world, for giving us plenty of memorable moments that still bring a smile to my face when they cross my memories, and, most of all, for daring to do something different for the good of the franchise. It may be based on a foundation we’ve seen before, but what really matters is whether the final product stands on its own merits. 

There is no doubt in my mind that The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker is one of the finest Zelda titles ever produced and worthy not only of being called one of my Best of the Decade, but of being one of my favorite games of all time as well.

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