New Zelda game, style succeeds in adding life and humor to long-running series

The Legend of Zelda is without a doubt the most popular among Nintendo’s many series of games, and with good reason. Every game in the Zelda franchise that has been released for a Nintendo system has become a classic. (There were a couple of titles released for the Phillips CD-I system that are truly awful.)

Mixing action and adventure with exploration, problem solving and increasingly intricate storylines, Zelda games offer lasting enjoyment for those privileged enough to have played them. With that in mind, we will now place the newest title in the franchise under the microscope: The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, released this past March for the GameCube.

When you first play The Wind Waker, one aspect of the game immediately stands out, the graphics. The style used is called cel-shading, and it renders the characters and environments in a fashion that very much resembles an animated cartoon. Cel-shading was first made popular by Jet Grind Radio for the Sega Dreamcast, and more recently by JSRF: Jet Set Radio Future for Microsoft’s X-Box.

While this particular style worked very well for these two games, the omnipresent and wholly unwelcome online nerd community raised quite a stink about it being applied to a Zelda game. Their primary concern was that the game would be presented as a cartoon, replete with the ridiculous humor and cartoonish devices one would find in a Warner Bros. short.

But once again, cynical gamers were proved wrong. The use of cel-shading results in very stylized characters and environments that are meticulously animated, with no shortage of detail.

The characters express emotions through facial contortions, objects that are on fire will cause heat distortion directly above them and enemies, when they are defeated, disappear from the screen with a small explosion and plume of smoke. It is an extremely cool-looking game with a story that is almost as good as the graphics.

The background to all Zelda games has been fairly consistent since the original NES game was released back in 1989. You assume the role of Link, the young boy hero of all past games, and find yourself obliged to save the titular princess and her kingdom of Hyrule from Ganon, the Dark King of Thieves.

In your travels across a vast overworld, you encounter a number of underground dungeons that are mazes filled with traps, monsters and a huge boss creature. But as The Wind Waker begins, you immediately realize that something is awry. You are still Link, but on an island that lies on the fringe of a vast ocean, over which you must travel in order to save your younger sister, who was inexplicably kidnapped by a giant bird.

From this point, the story begins to develop, borrowing much from the Nintendo 64 Zelda title, Ocarina of Time, but still remaining original. Two welcome additions are a level of humor and emotion that was not observed in past games.

The humor is subtle, as are the newly-present emotional ties between the characters, and they do not detract from the feel of the game, which can switch from cheerful and lighthearted to threateningly ominous depending on which of the over 50 islands that dot the ocean you are on, the weather and what time of day it is.

In addition to certain elements of the story, The Wind Waker also borrows the control scheme from its Nintendo 64 predecessor, which is a very good thing. Although you no longer have a fairy flying about your head (as was the case in Ocarina), you still lock on to characters and enemies in order to speak to or attack them.

The control scheme is extremely tight, but there are two elements of the gameplay that leave something to be desired. As stated, the game requires you to travel about on a huge ocean on a tiny sailboat. In order to get going in the right direction, you must use a magical conductor’s baton called the Wind Waker to change the direction of the wind. There are 49 map squares, and each one takes over a minute to sail across, making traveling an exercise in tedium until you learn how to warp.

The second aspect of the game that falls short is the lack of underground dungeons and relative ease of those that do exist. The dungeons follow the typical Zelda formula: labyrinthine, dark and foreboding; each containing a treasure or tool required to defeat it.

In The Wind Waker, the dungeons are very linear, which is in stark contrast to the oceanic overworld, in which you are free to travel anywhere. Also, they lack the frustrating-yet-fun puzzles of past titles. The simplicity of the dungeons was made up for in some respects by the difficulty and spectacle of their bosses, which were superbly animated and often several stories taller than Link himself.

The final showdown with Ganon is possibly the best Zelda fight to date. Unfortunately, there were not enough of these boss fights. At the end of the game, you will find yourself asking if it really is the end of the game, as you will only have beaten five or six dungeons.

But the shortcomings of the dungeons are made up for by the fun and variety of the ocean overworld. There are over 50 islands to explore, a number of them required to further the story, but the rest are there just to be explored or be part of a side quest (of which there are plenty to occupy your time).

It is also great fun to salvage sunken treasure, get into cannon fights with wandering pirate ships or simply search about for miles in any direction with your telescope. The ocean, although it takes an absurd amount of time to cross, is where most of the action takes place, so you come to appreciate it.

The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker is a phenomenal game. Its graphical style and story are very original, and its gameplay mimics that of Ocarina, so it is beyond reproach. There are the problems of tedium and ease of completion, but they are compensated in large part by other aspects of the game, most notably the graphics, which are so impressive that they could probably eclipse nearly any problem this game could put forth. This is not a game to be rented or ignored, but purchased immediately. After all, it is a Zelda game – how could it be bad?