The Wind Waker apparently was a controversial game when released. Dropping an aesthetic established in two medium-defining games and replacing it with colorful cel-shading was a bold move. For a perfect example of the backlash, the only year Link legitimately lost one of the many GameFAQs character popularity contests was 2003, when the picture for the match featured Wind Waker Link against Cloud Strife’s new and improved Kingdom Hearts model.
As someone who really started gaming during the Gamecube era, Wind Waker was actually my introduction to the Zelda series. The backlash has certainly died down in the ensuing years, and for very good reason. With early 3D video games, a stylistic art style trumps realistic graphics. The Wind Waker still holds up where many of its contemporaries now look dated. If I have repeatedly praised Nintendo for this feat, it is only because their dedication to making their games actually hold up visually was surprisingly uncommon. The Wind Waker has a charm like few others, and its colorful nature actually heightens the darker moments.
While Wind Waker’s ocean can feel a bit empty (it is an ocean, after all), I always enjoyed weaving my way through uncharted waters while moving to the next destination. There’s a sense of mystery behind this design, and knowing each square of the map has to contain something worthwhile gives a purpose to this exploration. This barren world in contrast to the open plains of Ocarina of Time also heightens the stakes; how could the world be left in such a state?
While each Zelda game since Ocarina of Time has had its own unique gimmick (barring Twilight Princess, which essentially operates as OoT 2.0), Wind Waker is one of the few to capture its own unique presentation while perfectly incorporating Ocarina of Time’s sense of progression. Each of the central dungeons have their own distinct appeal. Dragon Roost Cavern and Forbidden Woods both have a grand sense of scale which is then outsized by the even grander Tower of the Gods. The Earth and Water Temples make great use of Link’s allies.
The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker is in an odd position where most of its exceptional qualities are outdone by other installments in its series. The fact it still manages to be an all-time classic simply showcases the quality of Zelda’s basic formula. The dungeons might not compare to Ocarina of Time, the world certainly isn’t as expansive as Breath of the Wild, and the ocean gimmick doesn’t match the impact of Majora’s Mask’s three day cycle. But Wind Waker consistently displays all of the key elements in a surprisingly disparate series. If I had to suggest one game to truly capture the spirit of The Legend of Zelda in its entirety, The Wind Waker would be at the top of my list.