The Legend of Zelda was a revolutionary game back in '87 (mind you, anything new back then was automatically "revolutionary") and its classic dungeon crawling mechanics have been used in countless games since. Still, Nintendo has managed to keep fans on their toes throughout the years, offering new concepts with every title. They might just have outdone themselves with The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, the first of the series on a next-generation system.
The gist of the Zelda games is simple. Link, the perennial, verdant hero, must travel to various dungeons - between eight and thirteen, or so - and collect some valuable items, the magical powers of which are necessary to save the world. To get through the dungeons, Link must solve puzzles, search for keys, and slash up his enemies. On this latter point, only one significant thing has been added for Wind Waker: a context sensitive dodge button. When the player has locked onto (i.e. fixed the camera on) an enemy, Link's sword may flash green before the enemy attacks. Pushing the B button at this time will cause Link to dodge in different ways, depending on the enemy. Sometimes this dodge will put him into a position that will give him an offensive advantage.
The real sparklingly new stuff has to do with puzzle solving, though. Link can now pick up items and weapons that have been dropped by enemies. If used for their intended purpose, these weapons aren't much to write home about, but if used creatively, such as smashing a door with a big Stalfos sword, then the folks at home will be suitably impressed. Another "innovation" isn't quite so new, since the Zelda series has toyed with it before, and certainly it has been used in many non-RPGs recently. Nonetheless, that innovation is the use of stealth and sneaking to progress through a dungeon. One entire level early in the game has been devoted to this, but it remains to be seen whether or not this concept finds use throughout the game.
As cool as Link is, it can get a bit dull playing as him through large, forty-hour quests. Therefore it is nice that Wind Waker occasionally shifts control to other characters for brief periods. Although it's probably only to solve certain one-time puzzles, the GameCube controller does exert its influence over non-Link characters every now and then. If that variety isn't spicy enough, Wind Waker also allows control to be delegated through another player. This is where the connectivity with The Legend of Zelda: Four Swords comes into play. A second player can help out Link as the clown-fairy Tingle from Majora's Mask. From the GBA screen, Tingle can view data about the in-game time and wind direction, find treasure chests (some of which are invisible to Link), bomb walls and enemies, heal Link, transport Link, or conjure up relevant hints. All of these abilities cost rupees, so be warned.
The last new puzzle-solving mechanism is the Wind Waker itself. The item seems to be a stick of some sort, but it works the same the Ocarina did. Certain button combinations play songs that produce magical effects. The catch is that all the Wind Waker's effects have to do with changing the wind. By controlling the wind, Link can glide using a leaf, blow smoke out of the way, and control his sailboat.
Ah, the sail boat. It's called Wind Waker, but water plays a huge role as well. The world map/overworld field is pure water, and with his sailboat, Link travels between the islands and explores a massive world full of secrets. There's more to do on the cruise than just sail, of course. Link can also fish for items, have cannon ball battles with enemies, and talk to friendly fish who fill in his map. There are also target practice and boat-racing mini-games that can be played on the waves, in addition to the ones that can be played on land. They're based around mundane things such as long jumping or letter sorting, but they could prove addictive.
Control is handled essentially the same way as in the N64 titles. Items can be assigned to the GameCube's extra buttons just like they could for the N64's C buttons. There are only two real changes. One is that the player can highlight up to five targets for the boomerang, so the resulting throw will probably show great disregard for real life physics. The other change is the new ability to change the camera using the C-stick. The camera can be re-centered with the L trigger, but it is still possible to experience camera troubles. Probably a classic case of "free" camera only being free up to a point.
Zelda story lines have typically revolved around defeating the evil warlock Ganon to rescue the Princess Zelda and restore the Triforce. Realizing this is a bit boring, Nintendo has experimented with different things in later years. Although it's a safe bet that this inaugural GC title will follow the classic format, this is not quite evident at the start of the game. The action begins a hundred years after Ocarina of Time, with the kidnapping of Link's sister Arilla by a gigantic bird. After training at the town's dojo, Link finds some pirates who are also seeking the bird, and leaves home. Before long he is separated and forced to make his own way on the harsh, open sea. Triforce or no, Zelda games have always lacked a certain dynamism. There was just a lot of plodding through from dungeon to dungeon, with minimal interaction involving other characters. Could that trend finally be over? Hopefully.
And now, ladies and gentlemen, the long-awaited moment. The most talked about aspect of this game. Yes folks, the graphics are cell-shaded.
The amount of controversy created by this small detail makes one wonder. What is it that people were expecting, exactly? More realistic graphics? What's wrong with a video game looking a bit cartoony? Now, why did Zelda get singled out to be cell-shaded, and does it work best for the game? Those are valid questions, and the best answer is that it works well enough. The graphics make things clearer than ever before, from the plethora of emotions on Link's face to the fluid battle animation. The level of detail is deep enough to allow for nice treats, such as enemies looking around in puzzlement for their lost weapons, or Link providing visual cues by glancing at an important object as he walks by. Although the cell shading also allows for more humouros scenes, the game looks less cartoon-like than it could have, thanks to the omission of black outlines. All these additions greatly benefit the Zelda series, and Nintendo seems to think that it couldn't have put them in without using this graphical style. Whether that's true or not, this game has some of the prettiest cell-shaded scenes around.
Zelda music composing veteran Koji Kondo and his team of sound engineers have put a lot of effort into this game. Unfortunately, they have dropped the orchestras in favor of synthesizers, but reportedly they make excellent use of their imitation instrumentation, and they succeed in making melodies that suit the emotion of the moment. One prominent example is the way the music reacts to Link's attacks. When our hero strikes the enemy, there is a shriek that sounds like the strings (or keys, rather) were hit themselves. Already this game is everything Parappa was, and more!
The GameCube is currently lacking some quality, original RPGs, and Wind Waker is just what the doctor ordered. It comes out on the twenty-fourth of March, and will be available for fifty US dollars.