In my heart, I know there's something deeply heretical about taking the Zelda game that features, hands-down, the series' most elegant swordplay and treating it like a first-person shooter. But you know... if it works, it works.
The Wind Waker has always been one of my favorite Zelda games. I love its brilliant visual style, which -- with a bit of updated texturing and some new lighting effects -- holds up marvelously 10 years after its debut. I love its vast, open-world design. But most of all, I love its combat.
Fighting in the Wind Waker is a balletic, responsive affair. If enemy encounters were structured as in normal Zelda games, with one or two foes facing off against Link at a time, it might even be considered laughably easy. But the great thing is, it doesn't play like other Zeldas; its creators took advantage of Link's reactive swordplay style (which centers around evasion and counters) to beef up the number of opponents you face at any given time. And it's a testament to how well it works that I was able to jump into the Temple of Time (an area late in the game populated by tons of high-level monsters) and dance my way through on Hero mode despite not having touched Wind Waker in a decade.
Hero mode, as in Skyward Sword, is a more hardcore rendition of Wind Waker where enemies hit twice and hard and the only way to recharge Link's health is to use a potion or collect a Heart Container. Against these odds, I nearly made it through the temple's throng of enemies on 10-year-old muscle memory alone (a Moblin's lucky strike toward the end of the encounters ultimately felled me). It's just as fun and exciting to play today as it was back in 2003.
And yet, after testing my luck playing the "right" way, I decided to take a different approach to Wind Waker. I switch over to Link's bow and arrow and took careful aim in the first-person view by tilting the Wii U Game Pad just so and started taking out enemies from across the room. And then I noticed that Link now has a newly acquired ability to move while in first-person mode rather than being limited to panning around. So I stayed in first-person mode, plinking bad guys from a distance and shooting them again when they recovered. I completely cleared out the walkways above the temple's floor this way, switching to melee controls only when an armored Darknut began bearing down on me. But once his armor was off, a brace of arrows took him down.
What really struck me is not that Wind Waker works as an FPS but rather that it works damn well. Speaking as someone who's spent 150 hours or so firing enchanted bolts into bandit hordes in Skyrim, I found Link's enhanced archery skills to be every bit as second-nature as his dynamic swordplay. I take back some of my recent criticisms of Wii U's Game Pad; while it still has its issues, it works beautifully for first-person gun- (and arrow-) play.
It helps that Wind Waker's implementation of Game Pad panning uses relative centering. That is, unlike Pikmin 3, whose camera mode is more absolute and requires you to move the Game Pad through a full axis of motion in order to orient on objects in relation to what's shown on-screen, in Wind Waker HD the direction you're holding the pad when you enter first-person mode becomes straight ahead. This allows for very subtle tracking movements. Moving Link with the left stick while adjusting his viewpoint with a combination of the right stick and Game Pad makes standard dual-stick controls feel clumsy and antiquated.
Wind Waker's new first-person friendliness is only one of several ways the game feels friendlier to contemporary gaming audiences. Nintendo has made a number of tweaks to the game's mechanics, including adding quick on-screen prompts for parrying enemy attacks, high-speed ocean travel, and a streamlined Triforce quest. Honestly, while most people will almost certainly welcome these changes, they're not entirely necessary. The most incredible thing about Wind Waker HD is how contemporary the underlying game already feels.
I don't know which conclusion I should draw from that fact. Was Wind Waker really so far ahead of its own time that only a decade later does it finally feel like it fits in? Or has the medium stagnated so much that a 10-year-old game can hold its own against the current roster of blockbusters? Consider: Wind Waker features counter-driven combat that almost certainly felt so comfortable to me because of all the Assassin's Creed I've played. Its vast ocean presented a huge open world to explore, like just about every single game announced at this year's E3. It included an in-game photography option, greatly reduced stakes in combat, and a maddening end-game quest that felt like an attempt to pad the play time: All very common elements in contemporary games. Even the graphics haven't been changed that much; Nintendo bumped up the texture quality, added some simple shading to objects, and slapped on a patina of bloom lighting.
At the time of its original release, many gamers rejected The Wind Waker for being too different. I wonder how many will spurn it this time for being too much the same? No matter; I'm eager to revisit the game with its (slightly) new look and try playing it in new and different ways. I didn't think I was, but spending a little time with this remake changed my mind.