From Zero to Hero: The Wind Waker's Strange Transformation

How a former black sheep of the Zelda series turned its reputation around.

Article by Bob Mackey, .

In what now seems like The Bronze Age, I worked at a game store during the long lead-up to The Wind Waker's original March 2003 release. And since part of my job description included coercing customers into pre-ordering, I spent this period talking to countless strangers about Link's debut on the GameCube. And, about half of the time, my questions about their possible interest in The Wind Waker were met with either "Isn't that the gay Zelda?" or "That game looks gay."

Even though Link's sexual orientation hasn't figured its way into any of his numerous adventures to date, my manager came up with an ingenious way to sell The Wind Waker to those skeptical/possibly homophobic about the series' dip into the world of vibrant cartooniness: It was just like watching Looney Tunes! Never mind that Bugs Bunny kissed all of those guys right on the mouth, I guess. While The Wind Waker's pre-release period coincided with America's short-lived "anime boom" in what seemed like foolproof synergy, Link's makeover clashed with what many thought a next-gen Zelda -- or any next-gen game, for that matter -- should be.

And then everyone who disparaged the game's art style reached this point and realized they were bad people.

Nintendo had to come up with their own way to market Link's newest transformation, as well, since the distaste found in my game store -- expressed in purely teenage terms -- represented what seemed like a popular sentiment, or at least one from an extremely vocal minority. After Nintendo's 2000 Spaceworld trade show revealed the new Zelda game would feature a squat, goofy, and highly expressive child version of Link, thousands of gamers turned off their RealPlayers (or whatever the Hell we used to watch videos back then) and made thorough accounts of their disgust on the Internet. The promises of the '90s were supposed to be coming true on this new collection of consoles, and Nintendo had used the GameCube to plop a wide-eyed Link into a thoroughly non-gritty world? And as a Powerpuff Girl, at that? No doubt Zelda fans who thought realism was the yardstick for quality fled to the PS2, XBox, and even the Dreamcast, sure that Nintendo had lost their damned minds.

Though Aonuma and Miyamoto didn't budge from The Wind Waker's anime-inspired visual design, the squashy-and-stretchy Spaceworld Link's design became a little more conservative. And, to get the reluctant on board, Nintendo used a timeless strategy: giving away free stuff. Gamers who pre-ordered The Wind Waker at selected stores would receive a GameCube disc featuring The Ocarina of time, along with a brand new "Master Quest" that remixed much of the original game's content. Time passed, and, looking at The Wind Waker's various reviews on Metacritic, it's hard to believe a scandal even happened. Outside of a few common complaints regarding pacing, the gamers who didn't run screaming in terror from the prospect of an interactive cartoon found The Wind Waker to be another solid installment, and one that ended with the hint of a new direction for the Zelda series. (Okay, I guess we were still naive in some respects.)

Since then, we've seen the return of The Wind Waker's art style, but only in the DS games, where the effect of colorful, smoothly animated characters lost something in the translation to this spunky little handheld. Just as moviegoers hold a bias against traditional 2D animation in comparison to CGI, Nintendo has recognized gamers' preference for a Legolas-like Link, as seen in every Zelda console sequel to date. Skyward Sword might have paid some lip service to The Wind Waker with its baby steps towards impressionism, but the lack of serious changes to Zelda since The Wind Waker shows that Nintendo learned that gamers don't handle change well -- and let's not forget, The Wind Waker surfaced just a few years after Majora's Mask, which stood as the most disruptive installment since 1988's The Adventure of Link.

"Well excuuuuuse me, princess.... for looking cartoonish."

With this troubled history behind it, The Wind Waker's newfound relevance strikes me as one of gaming's oddest -- and most heartwarming -- stories of redemption. Make no mistake, though; Nintendo still isn't entirely confident in The Wind Waker. While they're using the HD remake to boost sales of the flagging Wii U, this new edition comes with one major caveat: its formerly bold, flat designs have been "improved" via the various technical tricks created within the last ten years. And while shaders galore certainly give The Wind Waker's visuals a lot more "texture," they still serve to undercut the original's design sense -- which is why the characters look more like Rankin-Bass stop-motion figures on the box art than the thick-lined cartoons of the past. As someone who played quite a bit of the Wind Waker in HD a few years ago via emulation, a minor bump in resolution is really all it takes to make this gorgeous game hold its own against contemporaries.

I'm hoping The Wind Waker HD catches the attention of a few more people this time around, because its look -- even in its compromised state -- deserves more than just a few portable games. And in terms of design, The Wind Waker felt like the last time a Zelda game wasn't afraid to let me roam without guidance. Complaints about endless sailing aside, there's still something magical and unequivocally Zelda about finding yourself in the center of a vast ocean, and being allowed to explore every corner of it at your leisure. Even if floppy haired Link never sees the light of day again, we can at least hope Nintendo remembers what made his GameCube adventure feel so boundless and free.

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Comments 12

  • Avatar for manoffeeling #1 manoffeeling 4 years ago
    Not to be all "I liked it before it was cool...", but...yeah. When it was originally released, though, Wind Waker's art direction seemed (to me) inspired by pretty edgy indy comics like "Johnny the Homicidal Maniac" (comics precursor to "Invader Zim") and less aggressively, "Good-bye, Chunky Rice", and far from being an overly conservative move toward renewed "kidiness" seemed to me TERRIBLY hip on Nintendo's part. Anyway, loved it then, both for its looks and its content, and love it still. Also loved the portable renditions, which by no means should be thought of as less significant entries in the series.Edited September 2013 by manoffeeling
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  • Avatar for TPaulBuzan #2 TPaulBuzan 4 years ago
    Wind Waker is the reason I bought a GameCube and remains my favorite 3D Zelda by a country mile. I'm seriously considering a WiiU just to be able to enjoy the game again in bright 'n shiny HD. (By "seriously considering" I mean "vainly trying to convince my wife I need another game console".)
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  • Avatar for Stealth20k #3 Stealth20k 4 years ago
    I dont think zelda has transformed at all
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  • Avatar for Thusian #4 Thusian 4 years ago
    I came back to games after a hiatus and I only know about the backlash on the art as a history lesson, I wasn't there for it. I bought a Game Cube at a mom and pop one day and grabbed a copy of Wind Waker. I was immediately blown away to me they had found a way to take the world as it looked in the top down LoZ games and made it 3D. It was like they moved the camera on a Link to the Past some how. I'm glad I have outgrown hating anything that looks whimsical and can just appreciate something stylish and bright. Haters be whack.
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  • Avatar for Shadowfire #5 Shadowfire 4 years ago
    I never heard Wind Waker being called the "gay Zelda" while at my gaming store, but people were a bit skeptical for sure. When I brought my imported copy to work and let people play in the first dungeon, though, they realized that this was a Zelda ass Zelda and put their money right down.
    Personally? I wasn't sure when I first saw the screenshots, but in motion? I was blown away immediately.
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  • Avatar for aett #6 aett 4 years ago
    I saw the negative reactions to the "Celda" art style before I saw the screenshots, so it's possible that they swayed my opinion a bit, and I remember thinking "Oh yeah, this is really bad" at first. However, as soon as I saw a clip of the game in action, I instantly knew what the developers were going for and I was 100% on board with it.

    I was in Japan around the time of the game's Japanese launch, so I was able to play it at a demo station in a toy store for a few minutes and was even more impressed by the way the game looked. It was really difficult to see all of the negative comments leading up to the US release, but I had a strong feeling that many other people would be pleasantly surprised once they actually saw it in person.
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  • Avatar for Wellman #7 Wellman 4 years ago
    I originally was like many and not a fan of the art style. Heck the only reason I think I got the preorder was to get the Master Quest bonus disk.

    But seeing Wind Wake in action, even on the tiny sub 20" tv screen I had in college blew me away. Link's face, the animation of the enemies, the gameplay that was similar but had differences compared to Ocarina of Time made it glorious. To this day it remains my favorite Zelda game and I wish more Zelda's would try to follow its footsteps instead of trying to recreate Ocarina of Time's glory in terms of items, puzzles and content.
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  • Avatar for Terpiscorei #8 Terpiscorei 4 years ago
    I had an immediate negative reaction to the art when I first saw it, too, but in retrospect, it's my favorite Zelda art style. Wind Waker Link is by far the most expressive and reactive in the series, and this finally allows him to be an actual character in the game instead of a stand-in for the player. It's the only console Zelda that I've ever found intentionally funny. I still love his grimace as he holds aloft the traditional hero's outfit, which he then dons only reluctantly. Furthermore, it's also a nice bit of meta-commentary on the series itself.

    I think it compares particularly favorably to Twilight Princess. I hated it every time that game zoomed in and paused uncomfortably on TP Link's creepy soulless grin.

    At any rate, reading this article yesterday finally pushed me over the edge into buying a Wii U. Thanks, Bob!
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  • Avatar for docexe #9 docexe 4 years ago
    I have to be honest: I’m still not fan of the artistic style of this game, or more specifically, of the character design. Yes, the more stylized and cartoony looking Link is way more expressive than any prior protagonist of the series, but even after all these years (and even after the fact that my tastes no longer focus exclusively on gritty realism and accept whimsical things) I still don’t like it. Outside of a few monsters and creatures like the Korok, the proportions of the characters’ bodies are very off-putting to me for some reason. I really prefer the approach they took for the character design of Skyward Sword: Still stylized and animesque but more realistically proportioned.

    That being said, outside of the characters, I did liked the cel-shading technique they used and how it brought the world to life. It’s something mundane, but I still look at details like the way the grass moves with the wind or how the sea changes with the weather, and marvel at how beautiful the entire scenery looks. And in my opinion, the Forest Haven is one of the most beautiful locales in the history of the series.

    Also, tedious sailing in the last stretch of the game aside, the truth of the matter is that the feel of adventure and journey into the unknown that Wind Waker transmitted me when I played it for the first time was incredible. No other game of the series has truly replicated that feeling since then.

    All in all, I wonder if the gaming world back then was just not prepared for what Nintendo tried to do with this game. As the article mentions, the push for photorealism and seriousness was in vogue in the gaming world back when the game debuted. With so many gamers who are sick to death of brown/grey "photorealistic" shooters and the rise of the indie movement, you have to wonder if the game would be better received if unveiled nowadays.
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  • Avatar for pashaveliki #10 pashaveliki 4 years ago
    Great write up, Bob!
    I am so happy this game is finally getting its comeuppance.
    When this came out my freshman year of college, my Halo loving roomates never ceased to mock me for playing "Celda".
    I loved it though, and was unafraid to admit it. The sense of pure wonder I felt while playing that game remains a high point in my gaming life and has yet to be matched by any other game.
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  • Avatar for pashaveliki #11 pashaveliki 4 years ago
    @TPaulBuzan That bundle is why I now own a Wii U... its just a pity that getting a game console from San Francisco, CA to Bishkek, Kg takes so #$*& long...
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  • Avatar for robfeight57 #12 robfeight57 2 years ago
    Appears as though you are mistaken. Spaceworld 2000 showcased the technical demo which featured an adult, standard 3D version of Link.
    Edited April 2015 by robfeight57
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