The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD Review

Before I start this review, we should make two things plain. First off, we're fully aware that the Zelda games aren't really RPGs. Not by a proper, strict definition, anyway. We love the games, though, and when readers began to request we cover them, we were happy to oblige.

Second, you all should know that as far as I'm concerned, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker is one of the finest games ever made. Sure enough, the original release, now over a decade ago in all territories, had its issues. The game was a victim of circumstance, really - as the Gamecube lagged and struggled to gain traction in the market, a desperate Nintendo was eager for an Ocarina of Time-level hit, and rushed out the direct sequel to that game just a little too quickly.

Link and the flooded land of Hyrule look crisp and vivid in high definition.

The signs of this are evident in the original Wind Waker release. Content Nintendo would usually cut such as test rooms and beta areas were left behind for hackers to discover, and some of it even pointed to cut and unfinished concepts for dungeons and quests, ideas that it appears were later folded into Twilight Princess.

With dungeons cut, developers hid the loss of content behind the now infamous Triforce Quest, a slow and plodding story beat that would better be suited as a sidequest for completionists than part of the main plot.

It's a testament to the genius and beauty of some of Wind Waker's design that none of this really matters. Sure enough the game slumps three quarters through - and even tweaks to the Triforce Quest can't completely negate that - but Wind Waker bounces back from its slump with force. It stands tall, puffs its chest out and says "Yeah? And?" It's content with its flaws, even more so in this rerelease.

Under the hood this is the same great game it always was, and has aged magnificently. Content changes are actually minimal, mostly aiming to fix the most-criticised aspects of the original release.

People complained about the speed of sailing and having to change the wind's direction too often, for instance. Nintendo's response here was to add an optional item players can pick up from the Auction House mid-game - the Swift Sail. Not only is it over 60% faster than the regular sail, but it ensures the wind is always at your back without having to pull out the game's titular conductor's baton. It's a convenient addition, and entirely optional for purists.

People complained that the Triforce Quest was long and unfriendly, so Nintendo has trimmed it back. Now only three shards need to be found via treasure map, and there's other added shortcuts to streamline the process. Combined with the Swift Sail, this now takes a fraction of the time it used to.

Some complained that the game was too easy, and so for them Nintendo has added the brutally punishing hero mode. Here enemies do double damage and the only way to replenish health is by using potions you've purchased or made; there's no random health drops. I'd consider myself a Zelda veteran, and I was dying loads; it's brutal.

A few other changes are just for fun, too - Link's picograph camera is much improved, and he can now take selfies. Basic Miiverse functionality also gives the game an online twist, though I barely used it.

The new lighting engine does some really fantastic work.

The most significant change to Wind Waker's HD overhaul is, as you'd expect, in the visuals. Some have expressed a distaste for the lens-flaring new lighting system, but the only argument I can make for it is to say that it looks better in motion than it does in stills.

I booted up the original Wind Waker on an emulator and ran it in widescreen, and even ignoring the fact that the HD port's textures are of course higher resolution, the latter simply looks and flows better.

It was always an incredibly expressive and beautiful game, and in HD some of the details are far easier to appreciate. Link's eyes widen in exertion as he goes to lift a heavy rock or barrel. When seagulls sweep down and fly alongside your ship, riding the curve and crest of the billowing wind, the lighting engine does wonderful work on their simplistic, flat-shaded textures.

Out on the great sea the increased draw distance and generally brighter style work wonders, and when the sun is at its zenith the sea is startlingly, brilliantly blue. Combine that with delicately and respectfully rearranged music and sailing the sea is a wonderful experience.

It's true that the new lighting engine does do something to dim the flat, 'Celda' shading that split opinion so much on the original. It's a halfway house between the original Wind Waker and the Toon Link that appeared in Smash Bros Brawl, with flat textures that are made to pop in a more three-dimensional fashion by a much more complex lighting engine.

It doesn't always look great in stills, but in most areas of the game, particularly the brighter ones, it works brilliantly in motion in tandem with already-excellent animation to create a dense and exciting atmosphere.

Beyond increased horsepower the Wii U brings a few other additions to the table - there's the aforementioned online functionality, where you can throw a message in a bottle out to sea for another player to find. There's also gyroscope controls for weapons like the bow and boomerang, both of which work as well here as they did in Ocarina of Time 3D - which is to say surprisingly well.

The new menu system works a treat, especially on the GamePad.

The Wii U GamePad touchscreen does its work here as an inventory management device, allowing quick switching on the fly.

You don't even need to drag and drop - a quick flick is enough, and in a tiny touch only Nintendo would think of it's even been designed so you can 'trick shot' weapons onto your slot of choice by flicking and bouncing them off the corners of the screen. Out at sea and in dungeons it's even more useful, allowing you to have the map open constantly.

For those with an ongoing TV war in the house you can eschew real-time inventory control to play the game on the GamePad with a regular pause menu, which works and looks great. GamePad haters can also avoid the device entirely and play with the Pro Controller - which just makes the game handle as it did on the Gamecube.

Wind Waker's story is unchanged, but is still effective. One of the most sharply-focused iterations of Link joins forces with a capable Zelda against a Ganondorf whose motivation is so well-drawn that one might actually feel a shred of sympathy for him - all set against the backdrop of one of the best and most different iterations of Hyrule.

Some of The Wind Waker's flaws are difficult to fix in what is essentially a remaster rather than a remake. The game still feels as though it has too few dungeons - and those there are aren't quite classics. The rushed back quarter is still clear even with Nintendo's tweaks and changes. The same problems still exist, though lessened by clever changes.

The original release was able to triumph over these flaws, and with its concessions and adjustments Wind Waker HD can do so even more easily.

Link's journey across the great sea has never been so vivid, so brilliant or so convenient. This is the definitive version of a classic, and if you've played it before or not, it deserves your attention.

Disclosure: Reviewed using a Wii U Digital Download copy of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD Provided by Nintendo.