As we approach the final days of the Wii U’s life span with the impending eShop closure, I’ve been reflecting on my time with that system. Although it’s considered a low point for Nintendo, the Wii U and 3DS era was when I truly became a fan of the company, closely following every new announcement and release. I enjoyed many great Nintendo games on Wii U, like Super Mario 3D World and Xenoblade Chronicles X. Still, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD is the Wii U game I still come back to the most.
Maybe it’s because I got the Wind Waker-themed Wii U that included the game as a pack-in, but I fell in love with the HD remaster. Not only did it show off the console’s power with gorgeous updated visuals, but it fixed a couple of issues with the original and used the system’s GamePad seamlessly. On top of that, it’s a charming and surprisingly bold game that still stands as one of the best games in the series 20 years after its North American release on GameCube.
Despite many rumors, The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker HD is still not on Switch, but that doesn’t bother me. Wind Waker HD is one of the Wii U’s most definitive releases in my eyes, and something I recommend picking up in honor of its 20th anniversary before the eShop is discontinued on March 27.
In retrospect, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker was a prime candidate for a remaster heading into the Wii U era. Although the core combat and dungeon exploration isn’t too dissimilar to what’s present in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, it takes plenty of bold swings elsewhere. Much of it is spent exploring a vast ocean on a boat, not quite knowing what Link will encounter next as he charts out the sea and islands scattered about it to defeat Ganondorf.
To me, it’s the first 3D Zelda game that feels like it’s taking place in a living open world, and it captures an exhilarating feeling that the series wouldn’t recapture until players exited the cave for the first time in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Wind Waker isn’t the most revolutionary Zelda game, but it takes a risk and focuses more on its good vibes and the sense of adventure players can get while sailing around more than anything else.
Of course, the most radically different thing about Wind Waker is its cel-shaded art style. While it was incredibly divisive 20 years ago, I adore it. Especially in 2004, a game with this much water going for a realistic style probably wouldn’t have looked great; as such, its art style enables it to have a surprisingly vast world for a 20-year-old game and gives the developers the creative freedom to make each island players come across visually distinct and memorable.
It’s not very controversial nowadays to say Wind Waker is a great game, but it deserves even more credit for holding up so well and demonstrating that taking risks is worth it for storied franchises. And I haven’t even touched on its heartfelt story and quirky cast of characters. I hope Nintendo’s unabashed drive to do something this unique is a spirit that carries over to The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom’s development. The best place to see this all in action is Wind Waker’s Wii U remaster.
The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker HD is still one of Nintendo’s best-looking games ever. That’s not a dig against the Wii U and Nintendo Switch’s graphical capabilities; it’s a compliment to the original’s timeless cel-shaded art style and the fantastic job Nintendo did at upscaling it. When I first played Wind Waker after getting my Wii U, I remember thinking it was one of the most beautiful-looking games I’d ever seen. Of course, the bar has been raised since then, but this is still the game that represents Nintendo’s full transition into the HD era to me.
It’s not just a visual upgrade, though. Some tweaks make Wind Waker better on Wii U, like a Swift Sail that speeds up sailing and simplifies a crucial midgame quest. I never owned Wind Waker on GameCube, so I can’t compare the two experiences. Still, I never felt like sailing around was slow or tedious, and I know my time playing it on Wii U didn’t contain any significant and frustrating delays in progression. The now-defunct Miiverse message-in-a-bottle feature also added a nice social element to the experience when it still worked.
Most importantly, Wind Waker HD used the Wii U’s GamePad extremely well without getting too gimmicky. Not only does it support the gyroscope for specific items that need to be aimed, but it massively simplifies looking at the map and using items, as those menus are omnipresent on that additional screen. Some games on Wii U either ignored the GamePad entirely or tried to do very gimmicky things with the extra screen, but this game’s simple use of the GamePad is still one of the most effective.
Looking from the TV to the GamePad constantly in some games like Star Fox Zero ultimately proved to be immersion-breaking for some people, but almost anyone could see the benefit of decluttering the main screen and putting all of the necessary menu info on the GamePad in Wind Waker HD. It actively enhances the experience. An eventual Nintendo Switch port would lack this, giving some more credence to the idea of playing this remaster on Wii U.
Does the fact that one of the Wii U’s most memorable games is a remaster speak to the platform’s struggles in content? Yes, it does. Still, that doesn’t detract from the fact that The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD is one of my favorite remasters ever. It made a game that was already bold and adventurous even better, subtly playing to the strengths of the Wii U in the process.
Just as my Wii U GamePad is forever marked with Hylian glyphs, I doubt Wind Waker HD will ever leave my Wii U’s hard drive. As the Wii U is sunsetting and the Zelda series keeps charging forward with the release of Tears of the Kingdom, it’s worthwhile to look back and appreciate this Wii U classic. If Metroid Prime Remastered and Resident Evil 4’s remake have gotten you in the mood to play more updated versions of GameCube classics, then The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker HD is the next best candidate to check out before the Wii U eShop’s closure.
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