He’s wrong, then, my housemate, but I can see where he’s coming from. There was a time when I might have agreed with him – in the first months of 2003, when I was an embarrassingly disenchanted teenager out of love with video games and, by extension, pretty much out of love with life. Wind Waker saved me. It reminded me why I had loved games in the first place, not because it was so similar to the Zelda games I’d played as a child, but because it was so different.
Wind Waker is the bravest game in a series that doesn’t get much credit for bravery. It took guts to veer away from Noughties games’ obsession with grimy realism and commit itself to a colourfully minimalist, cartoon art style that reflected the Zelda series’ sense of childish wonder instead. It took bravery to quite literally wash away the open fields and mountains and lakes of old Hyrule, with all the familiar locations and characters and villains and mythology, and replace it with a vast ocean dotted with little islands. Although Wind Waker’s world would reveal itself to be more closely connected to the Hyrule of old than it first appeared, it was still arrestingly, powerfully new.
And like many new things, Wind Waker initially struggled to find a place in the hearts of the hardcore. The new art style caused a fanboy ruckus equal in recent memory only to that stirred up by Ninja Theory’s new Dante (which proved equally spurious in the end). What we didn’t understand until Wind Waker actually came out was that the visual style of the game perfectly reflects the childlike, ingenuous delight in exploration and discovery at the Zelda series’ heart. Link’s credulous little face is disarmingly alive. The game leaps from the screen.
Its characterisation was different, too. Instead of the largely absent Princess Zelda of the series’ past, we got the vivacious, wise-cracking, fiercely independent Tetra – not a wan damsel in need of saving, but a pirate who was as much Link’s mentor as his friend. This is a mantle that Skyward Sword took up, crafting a sweet and totally unpatronising relationship between Zelda and Link that lent a new dimension to the series, adding smart writing and a touch of humanity to a set of characters that were previously impersonal.
Wind Waker wasn’t a stepping-stone to something else, as significant games sometimes are. It was – is – self-contained, which is one of the reasons it still feels fresh when you play it. It was perfectly cognisant of the limitations of the GameCube technology, and crafted a visual style that worked within them rather than pushing them to breaking point; where the semi-realistic games of the time look painfully dated now, Wind Waker still looks great, because it looks like itself.
Everyone has their special games, the ones that came along at a pivotal time in life. Wind Waker is mine, but it’s not just nostalgic affection that makes me delighted to see it in HD. Wind Waker is a bold refutation to anyone who says that the Zelda series never changes, a reminder that this isn’t a complacent series, or an exploitative one – that actually, it’s never been afraid of reinventing itself.