It's often said that Nintendo are best when backed into a corner. The Wii U's misfire gave us Super Mario 3D World, Bayonetta 2, Pushmo. It gave us Andi's favourite shooter, Splatoon. But before this, the last time Nintendo was on the backfoot was the Gamecube, their lovely little box of power. I loved that box. I even used the handle! GC-era Nintendo gave us F-Zero GX, Paper Mario 2, Custom Robo, Donkey Konga. A golden age of creative games.
But of course, there were also Nintendo’s core series, but they had a shake-up too. Mario got some mad water cannon. Metroid went to first-person. And Zelda became a cartoon.
The Wind Waker, at its reveal, wasn't well received. Fans had been shown a realistic tech demo at Spaceworld the previous year, and this was seen as an 'insult' by gamers [chokes]. The Wind Waker has a secret, though. It's dark and mature, perhaps more so even than fan-favourite Majora's Mask.
Link's adventure starts, ostensibly, as a mission to rescue his sister. Link, in this game, is no chosen hero. He's just a wee lad who wants to stop his little sis from being eaten by an enormous bird. But in doing so, Link ventures below the surface of his ocean world, revealing a beautiful Hyrule long-lost. A world frozen in time, with no-one left but monsters and a King with no subjects. Ganon is from this lost world.
Ganon is fascinating in Wind Waker. Normally a boring big bad, Ganon in this has seen his world destroyed. He’s old and wise and yearns for a land that was taken from him. He knows the life Hyrule’s residents live above the waves is depleted, a half-life compared to that of their predecessors below the waves. Ganon’s aim is to restore that world, to bring the people of Hyrule back to a world they deserve.
A lot was made, at the time, of how long you spent sailing. It was a limitation of the Gamecube, of course, but I like to think it’s summative of this life that the sea-dwellers live. Travel is limited and governed by winds, with most populated islands relying on passing boats for any of their supplies. Beedle has a monopoly on meatballs. Even when the wind is with you, progress is slow. Rito, the only intelligent creatures capable of flight, are reduced to being postmen, not by choice, but by necessity. Multiple races are on the brink of extinction – the Gorons are only briefly seen on rafts, the Kokiri are now just a family of around 10 small plants.
The world is dying, and Link’s actions in the game doom it further. King Daphnes, after Link defeats Ganon, requests that Link and Tetra venture away to new lands. It is implied that this is because the current one he lives in is doomed to die, slowly and painfully.
Tetra is another interesting move. A person of colour as a main character in a Zelda game is rare enough; That she is swashbuckling, smart, and generally better equipped to take on Ganon than Link is something else. Unfortunately, this is all rather spoilt when she is revealed (and transformed into) Zelda halfway through the game – Nintendo even going so far as to change her to a white woman. Maybe next time, eh lads?
The Wind Waker is an odd experiment. Very divisive at the time, and very different to the two games before it, it stands alone as a total mix-up of Zelda’s formula. It holds a very special place in my heart.