The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker HD overachieves. The holy grail of video game remakes is to provide an experience as good as you remember the original being; Wind Waker HD goes the extra step and is better than you remember.
The harsh reality of remakes is that very often in their attempt to canonize a classic they actually manage to reveal the flaws of the original work, the failings that human memory tends to smooth over. As in: "Wow, was Super Mario Bros. really this hard?" "Gosh, I don't remember Soulcalibur looking quite this rough." "Myst was... kind of boring, huh?" And so forth. When we have a great time playing a video game, we tend to remember the good parts and let our primal instinct to forget unhappiness sand over the bumpy patches. In some cases, we don't remember the flaws of old games because those games did something so new and different at the time that we didn't have enough context to even understand how they failed.
The best remakes therefore tend to be the ones whose creators take the time to evaluate them and recognize the parts that could frustrate or disappoint an older, more experienced audience. Whether it's as simple a matter as improving the graphical frame rate or as subtle as refining the camera or fine-tuning the difficulty, these reworkings poke around beneath the hood just enough to make sure the new rendition is as good as our memory says the original was, rather than as good as it actually was... or wasn't, as the case may be.
This new Zelda goes a step beyond simple tweaks. It's not a comprehensive overhaul along the lines of Bionic Commando Rearmed or Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together, a new take so radically changed as to resemble the original only in broad strokes. Instead, Wind Waker HD holds true to its GameCube source material in every meaningful way while folding in minor revisions. The graphics have been retooled with higher-resolution textures and new shading. The Wii U Game Pad plays a front-and-center role in the interface. The neglected Tingle Tuner has been swapped out for a far more practical Miiverse-based feature. In short, it incorporates the usual minor revisions and hardware-specific updates you'd expect from such a venture.
It doesn't stop there, though. Without materially changing the game, Nintendo has also taken conspicuous steps to refine all the elements that people found so jarring in the original Wind Waker. The opening mission, with its too-touchy stealth sequence? Now you're given warning before Link is discovered, meaning you won't be forced to constantly start anew due to a minor error. The expansive ocean that comprises the overworld no longer feels so empty and dull thanks to a fast-forward feature. The maddening Triforce quest that bogged down the end game has been greatly streamlined to keep things running at a steady pace.
In short, Wind Waker HD is better than you remember, because -- if you played the original -- you almost certainly remember the game's nagging flaws. Those failings stood out because they seemed so out-of-place in such a masterpiece of an adventure. And now they're gone, just like that.
This isn't to say Wind Waker HD is completely free of problems. Like all 3D-era Zelda games, side quests and mandatory achievements can bog down the pacing. The contextual commands can be quite fussy at times, too (there really is nothing more delightful than trying to interact with a piece of scenery while running only to accidentally roll straight forward and off a cliff). And plenty of fans are put off by the game's revised visuals, which lose a good deal of the older work's charm and visual appeal.
In light of all that it does right, though, these complaints seem fairly trivial. Wind Waker HD incorporates a number of excellent fixes and refinements, but they're built on top of one of the finest adventures ever. In some respects, the original Wind Waker was well ahead of its time; in others, it's a last bastion of great classic game design. Its toon-shaded visuals and vast open world feel more like products of 2013 than of 2003, and some of its most striking sequences -- particularly the palace frozen in time and the stunning final showdown -- remain utterly timeless.
But all of these features are matched by an admirable sense of restraint and respect. Wind Waker was the last Zelda to treat its players like intelligent, functioning human beings, nudging them into the quest and then letting them sort out puzzles on their own. For example, in the first major dungeon, you need to toss vases of water into pools of magma to create temporary platforms of hardened rock. The game never explains this, instead offering small visual hints to help you understand the nature of the water pots and the fact that they react to heat through steam. When you manage to figure out how to advance here, you feel a genuine sense of satisfaction at having deduced your actions. It's a small thing, but a meaningful one -- and Wind Waker is full of similar discoveries, left largely to the player to find on his or her own. Sure, the King of Red Lions butts in occasionally, but generally the game's art does the heavy lifting for you: Link is incredibly expressive, with huge eyes that tend to look toward the next objective or secret to guide those who need help. Would that every Nintendo game these days extend its audience the same respect. Wind Waker really is one of a kind -- a game worth celebrating, especially in its new form.
- Visuals: Gorgeous from start to finish, Wind Waker's once-controversial graphics prove to be its most enduring trait. And they look better than ever here.
- Music: Typical Zelda fare, ranging from bombast to pastoral to weird. Lots of motif tie-ins to previous games, too.
- Interface: Almost 100% excellent. Particularly notable is the brilliant implementation of Game Pad-based motion controls... they're much better than you might expect.
- Lasting Appeal: A huge, meaty game... and when you're done, you get to replay it in a lobster shirt.
In many ways, Wind Waker represents a high point for the Zelda series. Its tremendous world, lovely art, amazing combat, and welcome new featuress have yet to be surpassed by its sequels. For my money, Wind Waker is Zelda at its best. But this time, it's even better than before.