[ “Tell Me A Story” is a monthly column in which I examine the storytelling elements of specific video games.]
A little over ten years ago, when the Gamecube was in its infancy, Nintendo unveiled to the world a tech demo for a project titled The Legend of Zelda 128. The demo featured a realistically-styled battle between Link and his eternal nemesis Ganon, rendered artfully in real-time. While the company offered no official word on the nature of demo 128, media speculation ran rampant. IGN went so far as to flout the demo as “absolutely everything we could have hoped for in a Gamecube Zelda title.”
A year later, the dark demo was replaced by a cel-shaded one with a whimsical cartoon style, a radically different product from demo 128. When the final product was released, it wasn’t the sober, gritty game intimated by The Legend of Zelda 128. This was the new cartoon version, complete with cheery overtones and a stunningly bright color palette.
In hopes of “[extending] Zelda’s reach to all ages,” in the words of Shigeru Miyamoto, the company released The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker in December of 2002. Nearly ten years have passed, and since then Zelda‘s black sheep has shaken off its initially-accrued confusion in favor of a seat deep in the heart of franchise fans.
[Warning: spoilers ahead.]
My most recent playthrough of the game involved a dear friend who grew up on the series, myself, and my hard-to-impress baby brother who would rather teabag his friends in Call of Duty than participate in “some boring single-player story game.” Before we even got around to rescuing Link’s sister, there were Hearts dancing in his eyes.
Personal anecdotes aside, after a little under a decade of existence The Wind Waker has proven to be more iconic — and classic- than originally thought. The Legend of Zelda Symphony of the Goddess arrangements feature an entire suite dedicated to the game’s Celtic-rooted music. Toon Link’s sweet little mug graces Super Smash Bros. What Zelda fan doesn’t recognize the chiming sound of that infamous baton, echoing the rhythms of the wind? Or better yet, the riff played when Tetra winks?
The story is not your typical Zelda fare — probably because the game’s aesthetic is one of wind and water rather than the elements at large. Players spend an amount of time bordering on inordinate (but still fun) sailing between islands, tendrils of cartoon-drawn wind pushing at your sail. Link’s trips across the waters are frequent and mastering long-range weapons for naval combat is a necessity.
For the first time since A Link to the Past, Link has a family. The presence of Link’s grandmother and little sister, Aryll, raises the stakes. Link has a home to come back to, a home filled with people. Unlike previous Links who have abandoned friends and bachelor households for the sake of his quest, this Link has a base that is both a personal strength and liability. While he has his family as a reason to fight the good fight, his grandmother and sister also present a terrible liability for our hero — jeopardizing their safety is an emotional weakness for Link, who must ultimately save them. This becomes crystal clear when Aryll is kidnapped within the first thirty minutes of the game.
The legend passed down is the story of Ocarina of Time: a boy in green defeats Ganon, and the world becomes the Great Sea. Ganon’s presence creeps back into the world, and while none on Link’s homeland of Outset Island know what became of the fabled Kingdom of Hyrule, they do know that the boy in green, the Hero of Time, did not appear to save them once more. In tradition with this legend, the boys of Outset Island dress in green when they come of age. This method of introducing Link’s classic green tunic with a history and purpose behind it — echoed in the knighting ceremony of Skyward Sword — is a heart-warming sign that the player is controlling a boy who is just beginning to grow up. This spins a thread of the old coming-of-age trope through The Wind Waker. Link changes internally as he leaves his mark on the world around him, developing a sense of his responsibilities in this fantasy hyperbole of maturation.
Zelda’s hold on the game is tenuous at best until her reveal much later on, but there is still a young lady in the middle of the action. The mysterious, unattainable woman that has traditionally been Princess Zelda is replaced by not one but two very real women — Aryll and Tetra. Aryll’s kidnapping is the impetus for Link to venture out with Tetra, and Tetra’s allure as the tomboyish, charming pirate captain is hard to ignore. Aryll is the delicate, helpless princess that Tetra will never be — Tetra, who even after her awakening as a descendant of Zelda, retains the same air of brazen strength about her. These two women — girls, really — serve as foils to each other. Sweet Aryll drives Link to action and keeps him moving forward through the power of their sibling bond. Tetra challenges Link, goading him further by asserting her dominance and superiority. Her initial distrust of our blonde-haired hero gives him the motivation to persevere, to prove his own value.
Whereas past Zeldas give Link their immediate trust and faith, Tetra’s must be earned. Stealing bombs from her own ship and seeking to rescue Aryll himself spark her interest, and as she closely observes him via the Pirate’s Charm she begins to warm up to the idea that there is more to Link than he outwardly demonstrates. The evolution of Tetra’s trust in Link adds to the coming-of-age motif and a deeper element to their relationship. This is not a princess in a dungeon pouring her hope into the hero — this is a smart, careful woman pushing Link to earn her favor. Earning Tetra’s respect is earning the blessing of the princess — and ultimately, her awakening.
Tetra, like Link, is still very young, but has enough of a commanding presence to captain a band of grown men. Zeldas are normally sweet, demure, and the picture of the untouchable princess on her pedestal. Tetra breaks this mold, and in taking Zelda off her pedestal and placing her out in the open she becomes a character that we can interact with on a deeper level — there is no sugar-coating, she is a real and ordinary woman for a majority of the game. Once her ancestry is revealed, Link continues to fight for and alongside her — but the more you know, the more you care, and the player can’t help but become deeply attached to Tetra in a way that is radically different from their attachment to Princess Zelda. The attachment is to a real girl, and there are no preconceived notions about how breathtakingly wonderful she is, or how sweet and how angelic. This Zelda is not a goddess incarnate, she is a woman with flaws — pride and a snarky temper, most notably — that is more easily relatable.
The Wind Waker cannot be brought up without discussing the boat. The King of Red Lions is The Wind Waker‘s answer to Navi and Tatl and to an extent Epona. Link cannot bring the boat onto dry land, therefore forcing the player to think through puzzles without their trigger finger on the “hint” button. Removing Link’s faithful companion from most of the puzzles he must solve forces the player to think a little harder.
The Wind Waker is deeply tied to Ocarina of Time, both in its legendary and historical tradition and in its presentation. Knowledge of Ocarina, while not necessary to understand Wind Waker, enriches certain parts of the game. For example, the castle in Hyrule displays seven stained glass windows, each bearing an image of a sage from Ocarina.
Both physically and plot-wise, the story is driven by wind. Wind is what guides the King of Red Lions over the waves, and often is what you need to solve certain puzzles. There is a heavy Celtic aesthetic to The Wind Waker, and in Celtic lore “wind” is more closely synonymous with the element of “spirit.” The wind is the spirit of the game, the only primary element capable of overcoming water — use of the Wind Waker is the only way to navigate and conquer the seemingly endless Great Sea.
The Wind Waker also carries a hefty amount of literary tradition on its shoulders. Like Odysseus of The Odyssey, Link must battle his way through storms from island to island, acquaint himself with strange new races and take down mythical beasts. Without directly referencing the story, characters such as the Master of the Winds (the Greek god Aeolis) are taken directly from the epic. Link’s journey to retrieve the Triforce smacks of Jason and the Argonauts. As he defeats monsters, forges alliances, and awakens sages to his aid and goblins to his wrath, Link grows to become a legendary hero much like Jason.
The Celtic influence coupled with its cartoonish art style creates an atmosphere akin to that of unveiling an ancient story or legend. Like the legend the people of Outset Island pass among themselves, the player is being passed the story of this Link, the Hero of the Winds, who could conduct air and bend it to his will. The vivid color palette and rounded, almost over-exaggerated shapes and shading presents a moving storybook, a gorgeous foray into what a child’s imagination must look like. The player is watching a new story, a new history unfold, and the art style reflects the wide-eyed sense of wonder we are meant to experience. As always, Link provides enough of a blank slate on which to project ourselves and make our own decisions in game progression, but to an extent the production team has wanted us to feel like the start-struck children Nintendo hoped to reach out to with The Wind Waker.
Nintendo has integrated storytelling elements into the actual functionality of the game. A significant amount of time is spent sailing between islands, battling creatures that swim and ride cyclones along the way. This allows the game to mask its loading times by rendering the data as the player approaches the island. Use of the Wind Waker changes the direction of the wind. In order to discover (or unlock) certain islands, Link must search for map pieces including the eight TriForce charts that he must decode. If the player is taking too long to figure out a course of action, be it on a random small island or in the middle of a dungeon, Link’s big, expressive cartoon eyes will often look in the direction you need to go.
But perhaps the most tantalizing element from The Wind Waker is its particular incarnation of Ganon. Wielding dual swords, this Ganon towers high over Link, hiding in the Forbidden Fortress and abducting girls in hopes that one of them may be Zelda. As he tells Link, the wind in his homeland always brought death, a sharp contrast to the guiding wind of the Great Sea. Ganon coveted this wind, which is the same peaceful wind that blew over Hyrule. He sought the Triforce in order to fulfill his wish — to expose Hyrule to the sun so that he may conquer it.
Ganon seeks to conquer Hyrule because he desires freedom from destruction — he seeks to destroy so that he may find peace. He may be maniacal and extreme in his ways, but Ganon only wants to tame a wind that nurtures rather than kills, though he will kill for it.
Before the battle with Puppet Ganon, he tells Link and Tetra: “So many pathetic creatures, scattered across a handful of islands, drifting on this sea like fallen leaves on a forgotten pool… What can they possibly hope to achieve? Don’t you see? All of you… Your gods destroyed you!” Like the Great Flood of the Bible, the land and its people were washed away by the gods’ desire to hit the reset button, to seal an evil entity for which they were running out of options to combat. Ganon is a realist; he isn’t spinning stories, he is telling it like it is from the viewpoint of someone who has been raised in a life of hardship. You can’t help by sympathize with Ganon, or at least feel a little sorry for his predicament.
A man from a far-off country (which by the look of his clothes may be Asia) has traveled the world to attract the attention of a new set of gods, and to seek a more comforting wind — or spirit, if you’ve been keeping up with the Celtic undertones. His final speech is poignant, powerful, and sad… Actually, I’ll let Ganon tell you himself.
The man’s last words are a cry out to whatever gods are listening, from his homeland or Hyrule. As he feels his own spirit leave his body, he sighs: “The wind… it is blowing…”
A colorful cast of characters and an even brighter design make The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker a real treat for gamers, for both hardcore and casual Zelda fans. A break in the traditional mold Nintendo has set for the series, The Wind Waker is a refreshing breath of air, a treat of a game with hidden depth beneath its main quest. The game builds on what Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask have already established, but with the added twist of unique artistic style and a foundation built on an ancient culture deeply invested in its legends and spirituality. The game presents a story that is both fun and heart-warming, light and dark, proving that legends and fantastic tales are not just for children but those of all ages.