Review: The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD (Wii U)

Putting the wind back into the sails of The Legend of Zelda

From the moment Nintendo first announced The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD for Wii U, it has consistently reminded us that the project is about more than just bringing HD graphics to a classic game. In fact, this remake arguably serves a much greater purpose than any Legend of Zelda game since The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time made the successful jump to full 3D gameplay. That’s because Eiji Aonuma and his team at Nintendo are aware that The Legend of Zelda series runs the risk of becoming stale and predictable if it continues as it is and, therefore, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD represents a testing ground of sorts ahead of the next instalment. It has given the development team the opportunity to revisit one of its classic works and transform it into a more refined experience — one quite possibly more in keeping with future games. The question is, has it succeeded in doing just that?

There are two very obvious reasons why The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker was the ideal choice for Nintendo’s first (and possibly only) HD remake. Firstly, the original title was a visual masterpiece when it hit the GameCube back in 2003 and its unusual art style most certainly stands the test of time; giving it a HD makeover was only ever going to make it look even more impressive. Secondly – and perhaps more importantly – it’s a Legend of Zelda title which, despite its critically acclaimed status, has its fair share of flaws, the majority of which had a negative effect on the overall pace of the game. Nintendo, it seems, realises this more than anyone else and, as a result, has combed through the entire game, making a number of worthwhile gameplay improvements in the process. The end result is a classic title that has been beautifully remastered for modern sensibilities, and one which makes us feel very hopeful for the future of the franchise.

The first thing you notice when you start playing The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD is just how much at home its colourful world looks on Wii U, and that none of its charm has been lost during its transition. In fact, with the exception of the odd basic animation here and there, it doesn’t look out of place at all when compared alongside modern efforts on Wii U and other HD systems. Distant objects are no longer subject to blurring and the improved lighting results in a brighter, much more vibrant look and feel. If there's one minor gripe that can be levelled at the game it's the fact that the frame rate still drops now and again when things get a little hectic. It's not damaging to the gameplay in any way, but it's just a shame that such slowdown is present despite Wind Waker being on a much more advanced system.

The move to HD is only partly responsible for the game's lush graphics — the main reason why the visuals excel is all down to the original art direction taken by Nintendo; it has a timeless quality and the fact that a simple resolution boost and improved lighting can make it look as good as it does now just goes to show far how ahead of its time the GameCube version truly was. Moreover, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD’s game world is brimming with emotion and character, making it the perfect story to be retold in high definition.

Link’s journey across the Great Sea to save his sister – and later the world – sees him visiting a wealth of exciting locations and interacting with all kinds of people and creatures. It’s one of the few games in the franchise where each character physically portrays what they’re thinking and how they’re feeling – even Link shows off his emotional side through a range of fun, cartoony expressions. The ability to take amusing 'selfies' of the green-garbed hero while he’s on his travels just goes to show that Nintendo clearly wanted the player to experience the playful and whimsical mood evoked by the setting and presentation. This is further complemented by the rich soundtrack, which superbly captures the sense of exploration, discovery and danger you encounter along the way.

However, there’s so much more to The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD than just its pretty makeover. An extensive number of tweaks have been made to the core gameplay, nearly all of which have helped to drastically improve the overall pacing. The core content and structure remain mostly unchanged and this is just as well; the dungeon design and puzzle-solving elements were never in need of an overhaul and still hold up very well today. The most substantial difference in this regard is found within the notorious Triforce Quest segment. For the uninitiated, it is essentially a glorified fetch quest where you locate eight shards of the Triforce of Courage. It was clearly inserted in the original as a means to artificially lengthen it, and not only did this completely kill the relatively smooth pace of the game up until that point, but it also highlighted how few dungeons there were to explore.

Unfortunately, Nintendo hasn’t opted to insert new dungeons in its place, but it has at least streamlined the entire process of collecting Triforce shards. Previously you had to find a sea chart for each shard, get it deciphered for an absurd amount of Rupees and then use it to locate the shard. Now you can simply find most shards straight away, although you’ll need to complete a simple puzzle or beat a bad guy or two beforehand. It’s definitely a lot better in terms of pacing, but many of the shard mini-quests fail to match the inventiveness of the core dungeons. It’s important to note that there still are some map translating/navigating and minor puzzle-solving challenges during this part of the game – which makes sense as it retains an element of exploration – but it’s just nowhere near as fun as working your way through a large themed dungeon. Without spoiling it, other assets are also re-used to pad out the final stages; a clear sign that Nintendo had a demanding schedule to meet in 2003, but also – and more worryingly – that it doesn’t see any problem with this part 10 years later. As a result, the second half pales in comparison to the first, with the exception of the epic confrontation that takes place at the end.

Nevertheless, exploration remains a key aspect of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD. While it'll often prod you in the right direction, it’s not always a straightforward affair, and in most instances you’ll need to explore the overworld, updating your sea chart and knowledge of each island you find along the way. This is where it truly comes into its own, providing a sense of adventure and discovery that’s rarely found in most modern titles. Moreover, it’s vastly improved thanks to a number of minor — yet notable — refinements.

For example, Link now has access to a new and improved sail, which allows him to travel the seas at a greater speed than was previously possible. The best thing about this, however, is that you never have to change the direction of the wind when using it, thus reducing the frequency on which you have to depend on the Wind Waker. Your success in the main quest is wholly dependent on your knowledge of the open seas – a time-consuming affair in itself – but one which is much more enjoyable thanks to these improvements. Exploration is undoubtedly one of the title's strongest and most sacred elements and it’s remarkable just how well it stands out against today’s drudgery of linear, set-piece borefests, despite being a decade old.

A key area of consternation that previously existed in the original version involves the use of the Wind Waker. It’s an item that plays an important role throughout the entirety of your quest and you have to use it on very regular basis. What made it so bothersome before was that you had to switch it out with other items in order to use, not to mention that every time you did you had to sit through a full mini-cutscene for each song conducted. Thankfully, this is no longer case in both instances; the Wind Waker is permanently assigned to the D-Pad and the animations are only shown the first time you conduct a song (although it seems to do this every time you boot up the game).

While it’s certainly a considerable improvement, Nintendo could have taken this focus much further. In later dungeons you rely on the Command Melody to take control of another character, who you also have to guide through the hazardous environments along with Link. You must conduct the song each time in order to do this, which — despite the improved speed — still brings things to a brief halt. Could the developers not have made it so that after you’ve played the song once, you simply just press a button to take control again? Given that only one direction on the D-Pad is ever used when on foot – and for the Wind Waker no less – it’s certainly something that could have quite easily been implemented.

Thankfully, the unique features of the Wii U GamePad make up for this small oversight by streamlining other areas of your item management. It worth noting that it is possible to play the game with the Wii U Pro Controller, but if you do you’re missing out on a great deal of convenience. That’s because managing items via the GamePad’s touch screen no longer requires you to pause the game — unless you are using the off-TV play mode. Within mere seconds, you can effortlessly shift things around, making it especially useful for the surprisingly varied dungeons.

Items must still be assigned to specific buttons, which makes sense given how most of them work, but it’s disappointing that you can’t assign anything to the D-Pad when on foot. What makes this omission even more baffling is that you are able to use the D-Pad to access your cannon and crane whilst sailing in the King of Red Lions. That’s not to say that this still isn’t a nice improvement over the original; you can, after all, access your inventory whilst on the move and it’s definitely quicker. It’s more the fact that Nintendo could have quite easily done more in this area.

The maps are also accessed via the GamePad and provide detailed information in real-time, which is especially useful when traversing the high seas. Annoyingly, you can’t do this when playing in off-TV mode and, to make matters worse, you don’t even have the option to display a mini-map in the bottom-left corner of the screen as per the GameCube version. Still, in normal play mode, it’s a godsend and one which makes navigating both fun and effortless. Otherwise, the GamePad is used to provide motion controls. Purists may see it as a shoehorned attempt by Nintendo to make The Legend of Zelda more accessible to casual players, but the reality is that it’s just far more intuitive. Aiming with the bow or the boomerang in both normal and off-TV play feels natural and responsive – it’s especially useful when it comes to the game’s more hectic moments.

From a value perspective, it’s hard not to add up all these features and compare them against the full retail price that Nintendo is asking. Do the changes justify the relatively high mark-up? If you’ve never experienced The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker before then it’s a very simple choice: the Wii U version is without a doubt the definitive experience and there’s very little reason not to choose this over its older counterpart. For veterans, however, it really boils down to how you view the original; while Nintendo has made a number of useful improvements, it’s essentially the same game in terms of content, albeit with a lick of new, high-quality paint. With that said, the tweaks do have quite a considerable impact on the overall flow of the game, and if you really struggled through the original as a result of its issues, then this remastering will likely provide that sense of enjoyment that was previously missing in key areas.


Nintendo has done a valiant job of breathing new life into what was already an exceptional Legend of Zelda title. It has taken the game’s timeless art style and given it a glorious new sheen thanks to HD technology, while also making an extensive amount of worthwhile improvements to previously flawed aspects of the gameplay. Sailing across the Great Sea, discovering new islands and exploring exciting dungeons — the designs of which still shine even today – has simply never been as much fun as it is on Wii U. Even so, it’s fair to say that Nintendo could have done more in certain areas and there really isn’t anything substantial in the way of new content.

Therefore, to some this might not seem like a great enough effort to warrant a full-priced release. However, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker was never in need of a drastic overhaul; the fact that it still offers more gameplay and entertainment value than most modern titles on the market speaks volumes about its undeniable quality. This refined experience will appeal to newcomers and veterans alike, and we can only hope that the small, yet significant steps that Nintendo has taken with this wonderful remake are a promising sign of things to come with its upcoming, all-new entry in The Legend of Zelda series.

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