Here's the problem faced by Nintendo at the Wii U's launch last year: no new Zelda game. With Scribblenauts perennially delayed, and the admittedly awesome LEGO City Undercover missing the launch by a few months, Nintendo's latest console was left to fend on its own with nothing but a fairly average Zombie game, and the equally average New Super Mario Bros U for company. And that left Nintendo with something of a problem. With flagging sales, and an all new Zelda game still being a few years away, the big N were in desperate need of a stop-gap - something to get people interested again, that they could get out the door fast. Going back through their enviable back-catalogue of stone cold classics, someone at Nintendo decided it was time to dust down and spruce up one of the most cherished (and under-rated) games ever to feature the little elf guy in green - The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, giving it an HD sheen of paint, and adding a few neat tweaks, before releasing it to a whole new audience. And what a decision it was.
While there's been very little information about the all-new Zelda that's set to arrive on Wii U at some point in the future, The Wind Waker was a perfect example of Nintendo at their finest - going against the grain, to give people something they didn't even know they wanted. Originally released on the Gamecube in 2003, and initially dismissed by the 'hardcore' fans on account of the cartoony (and therefore in their eyes "childish") new direction, the game came to be revered as one of Nintendo's best - so it's not hard to see why it was chosen to receive the HD treatment.
With all Zelda games, adventure is the name of the game, and The Wind Waker is certainly no exception. Fighting enemies, exploring strange dungeons and meeting new allies are all par for the course, but there's a certain magic to this one that's hard to beat. While the nuts and bolts of the game are similar to what came before (and what's come after) Wind Waker's nautical theme and vibrant graphical style set it apart from the pack. Things start off fairly slowly, as you're introduced to young Link on the sleepy island of Outset. You can grab a sword and shield here, which is handy, as soon Link's sister Aryll is spirited away by a colossal bird - and it's up to you to track her down. And so the stage is set for an epic seafaring adventure. Along the way you'll encounter a motley pirate crew, birdmen, dragons, gods and a paintbrush-toting fish in a tale that feels like an interactive Disney or Studio Ghibli movie that's up there with Ni No Kuni.
Our diminutive hero Link controls just as intuitively with the Wii U GamePad as he did all those years ago on the GameCube. Using the left stick to move him around and the right stick to adjust the camera feels natural, and the ability to assign items and weapons to whichever face button you like means that you can customise the controls to your liking. The GamePad's touch screen also comes in handy, allowing you to swap items around and check your map without having to pause and break the flow of the game. Off TV Play is fully supported too, so with a quick tap of the -minus button you can switch the whole game to the Pad and continue playing when the TV's needed for other things. This is a feature we love in Wii U games, and it's great to see it implemented here.
Early on in the adventure you'll find your trusty boat, and with it one of the most divisive aspects of the game. As Link is all at sea for a good chunk of the game, it's only natural that you'll spend a fair amount of time sailing. The only problem is, as the world map is quite large it can take an awfully long time to get anywhere (at least until you discover a short-cut technique later on). Thankfully Nintendo has included a new item in this release which doubles the sailing speed, but unless you know where to find it, it could easily be missed. We think that the fast sail option should have been included by default rather than having to go and find it, but we're glad it's included anyway as it makes travelling the seas far less of a chore.
The strong emphasis on story means it's a fairly linear game, so for the most part you'll have a clear goal in mind as you sail the open seas, with your companion always on hand to remind you of your most pressing objective. However, while you may have a set goal, you're always free to chart a course for anywhere on the map on a whim if you'd rather take a little detour before resuming your quest. That's one of the brilliant things about The Wind Waker. If you can see a vague outline of a far off island on the horizon, you can set sail and head straight for it. While this may not seem all that impressive now, at the time the game was first released it was quite a revelation that the islands and structures off in the distance weren't just background decoration but fully realised locations. It's this sense of exploration that's really something special, and discovering a secret-filled little island far out at sea is genuinely exciting. And there's so much to discover too. Away from the main quest, which sees you island hopping to find dungeons and special items, there are a multitude of smaller mysteries waiting to be found. Each square of the map holds a secret, from deserted cabanas and tropical hideaways to submarines and pirate outposts (and the nefarious Beedle), making the world feel alive and engaging, and encouraging you to fill in every last chunk of the map.
It's the dungeons that provide the meat of the game though, and while this is one of the shorter titles in the series there's a great deal of variety on offer and some truly memorable locations to explore. From eerie forests and blistering volcanoes to ancient towers and fortresses complete with searchlights, each dungeon is unique both in terms of visuals and gameplay, but is packed with puzzles, enemies, and, of course, a boss for you to fight. There are a few twists on the familiar Zelda formula in The Wind Waker, such as using remote-control to guide helpful statues around while you hide in cover, but for the most part dungeon puzzles rely on some combination of pushing blocks, lighting torches and making use of the many items at your disposal. Favourites like the boomerang and bombs are joined this time by the Deku leaf, which you can use as a glider or a fan, and the Wind Waker itself: a magical baton which gives you command over the winds. The dungeons are as inventive as ever, and although the main quest is over fairly quickly you won't feel short changed, especially if you seek out all the game's secrets.
Nintendo's taken the opportunity to have a bit of a tinker under the bonnet with this re-release, and there are a few tweaks here and there to make the game a little more at home in 2013. Firstly, and unsurprisingly, Miiverse (Nintendo's own social network) is integrated into the game. Thanks to a new item, the 'Tingle Bottle', you can scribble down a message, hint or even an in-game photo, pop it in a bottle and send it out to sea. Other players will then see the bottle bobbing at the shore in their own game and can read your words of wisdom for themselves. It's a cute and novel way of integrating community messages in the game, and it's entirely optional so you can ignore the bottles if you want to go it alone. Gyroscopic controls (tilting the GamePad) have been introduced for certain actions, too: aiming the bow or the grappling hook for example, and these work well. Beyond this, the pacing of the game has been adjusted too, smoothing out the previously uneven second half, and of course there's the aforementioned Swift Sail to speed the whole journey up. Other than that, and of course the hugely improved graphics, the experience is pretty close to the original release.
Speaking of those graphics, it's worth mentioning that this is an extremely pretty game. As an HD remake of an already gorgeous game, it's no surprise that The Wind Waker HD looks stunning, and is testament to the fact that games can be incredible without striving for realism. Pictures and videos online are one thing, but seeing the silky smooth cartoon-like animation in person on an HD TV is really something to behold. In fact it gives many new games a run for their money, which shows just how impressive the game was to begin with. This is an example of an HD remaster done right, and while nice graphics certainly don't make a game, it's great to see this classic looking so good. The tunes are as memorable as we'd expect from a series which features excellent music as standard, and they complement the stirring nautical feel of the game perfectly.
As you might have guessed by now, we were more than impressed with The Wind Waker HD. It's a fantastic update to a bona fide classic, and it looks and plays better than ever before. The few changes that have been made make perfect sense and don't detract from the experience. The story is a bit on the short side, sure, but there's absolutely tons to do: treasure chests to excavate from the ocean floor, figurines to collect, a huge map to fill in, numerous errands to run and more. Some may disagree with Nintendo charging full price for what is essentially a ten year old game, but there's more content here than meets the eye, if you're willing to explore.
Format Reviewed: Nintendo Wii U