Toon Link
Image: Nintendo Life

Today marks the 20th anniversary of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker’s Japanese release and after all of these years, we think that it is finally safe to say that Nintendo’s punt paid off. By ‘punt’ we don’t refer to the idea of putting Link on a boat – whatever will they think of next, putting him on a train?? – nor the chance to freely move the camera ourselves. We’re talking about the decision to take the grizzled hero of Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask and make him look like he had gone 12 rounds with Walt Disney.

In the ensuing 20 years, this so-called ‘Toon Link’ has appeared in a number of locations. From handheld series entries to Smash Bros. fighters and amiibo figures, this little guy has been there, done that and got the t-shirt (cue ‘Get Item’ sound effect); but the last time we saw him leading his own adventure was in Tri Force Heroes – securely hammering the final nail into the coffin of the cel-shaded hero.

But there is no reason why this should be the end for Cat-Eye Toon Link. Nintendo wanted to take a punt with this hero and a punt it surely took, but should a couple of less-than-well-received entries really be enough to move away from this style forevermore? We think not. It’s time that Toon Link was given a second chance.

Is this your hero?

The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD
Image: Nintendo

Whether The Wind Waker was your first chance to play as Toon Link or not entirely depends on in which continent you found yourself in the early 2000s. You check out the Hyrule Historia and it is very clear in stating that Wind Waker was the first appearance of the character (even though it does refer to him as ‘cat-eye Link’ instead), though if you found yourself in North America buying games on release day then your collection might tell a different tale.

Technically, the GBA’s ace combo of A Link to the Past and Four Swords released just under two weeks before Wind Waker in ol' NA, the latter technically introducing Toon Link before the Great Sea had a chance to do so. Nonetheless, for most, Wind Waker was the first time that we played this new version of Link, and he made quite the impression.

Looking back over the Zelda games that star Toon Link, the more recent entries make it easy to forget that this guy features in some of the best parts of the franchise. You don't need us to tell you just how good of a game Wind Waker is. That controversial art style is the most adventurous the series has ever gone in terms of aesthetics, and the fact it got a remaster just two generations later speaks for itself. This might not have been the hero of Hyrule that we all knew, but Wind Waker quickly brought us round to the idea.

The Minish Cap (this writer’s personal favourite) is a masterclass in all things Zelda, and Toon Link’s simple style and child-like features really helped sell its central shrinking mechanic beautifully. Can you imagine seeing OOT Link's chiselled looks or ALTTP Link's expressionless mug shrink down inside a tree stump?

Then you take Four Swords Adventures – a game built around a multiplayer mechanic that not all that many people used, but an all-round inventive and good-looking Zelda game nonetheless. It’s not going to be topping anyone’s series ranking, but it is yet another reminder that the good outweighs the bad in Toon Link’s back catalogue.

A cringe cartoon

The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks
Image: Nintendo

There are, however, many who think otherwise. A Did You Know Gaming video from earlier this year revealed that even Miyamoto himself "cringed" when he first saw Wind Waker’s Toon Link and cel-shaded design. While the character went on to have a good run on GameCube and GBA, the DS/3DS entries might have just managed to get everyone else thinking the same way. [Careful, Jim - Ed.]

If you look on any kind of ‘Best Zelda Games’ list, you're unlikely to find Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks near the top of the pack. While there are some brave heroes out there who strive to defend the two DS-exclusive entries (certain Team NL members have a certain nostalgic soft spot for each), to say that they helped the prospect of Toon Link’s continued existence would be a stretch. [Hmm. That train music, though! - Ed.]

When the Four Sword multiplayer gimmick returned in the 3DS’ underwhelming Tri Force Heroes, it became apparent that repeated use of Toon Link was never going to survive the years. A Smash Bros. appearance and amiibo drop later, the prospect of seeing a Wind Waker-style Link at the helm of another entry seems to have long sailed, especially after a totally new style was adopted for A Link Between Worlds and Grezzo's Link's Awakening remake on Switch.

Wait! Look! Listen!

The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap
Image: Nintendo

Yet we would argue that a handful of less-than-glowingly received entries starring the character is not enough to undo all of the good that he's done. Toon Link deserves to be given another shot.

Following Wind Waker, this style of hero has only appeared in the series’ handheld entries. Those that used it were generally speaking looked down upon (PH, ST, TFH), while those that didn’t were praised (A Link Between Worlds, the 3DS remakes of the N64 pair, and, we suppose, Breath of the Wild and Link’s Awakening... and Skyward Sword HD somewhere in the middle). But the times, they are a-changing, and with Nintendo ever-determined to blur the boundary between handheld and home consoles, Toon Link has the opportunity look better than ever before.

The likeliest scenario of Toon Link’s return comes with that Wind Waker HD remaster which is definitely, 100% coming to the Switch any day now (*gulp*). But despite his patchy (spirit) track record when it comes to starring in bona fide video game masterpieces, Toon Link could return triumphant in a brand new series entry. And we can’t help but think that he should. He used to be great, and he could be once more.

While the style has some stinkers sullying its good name [Now now, that's quite enough of that - Ed.], the highlights are just too glowing for Nintendo to leave those cat-eyes gathering dust for too much longer. Let's take a stylistic punt once again, shall we Nintendo?

What do you think? Would you like to see Toon Link return to the mainline Zelda franchise? Cast your cat-eyes over the following poll then sail down to the comments and let us know!