The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker
While playing through the latest Zelda offering from Nintendo I couldn't shake the Carlsberg advert slogan from my mind. If Nintendo made an Indiana Jones game 'it would probably be' the best Indiana Jones game in the world. I reference Indiana Jones deliberately as it is not only a great adventure film, but it can be pretty much enjoyed by all ages. The trouble is Nintendo do not make games like Indiana Jones. They make games like Zelda. It is a game that combines technical brilliance with artistic flair but I'm afraid because of its childlike story telling I found it somewhat un-engaging.
Before I start talking about the bad let me first tell you about the good, because there is an awful lot to admire in this game. Obviously the first element that leaps to mind is the graphics on offer, namely Nintendo's use of cell shading. Screen shots can't really do justice to the effect; it is in the lighting and animation that this technique truly shines. Subtle touches like the heat distortion from torches give the game a very rich and vibrant look. Even the theme of the title, wind, is rendered to good effect. Think about it, how do you render wind? Well Nintendo have managed it. I found many of the designs reminiscent of Disney's Hercules, whose style resulted from collaborating with a British artist called Gerald Scarfe. While I don't care for the look of Link, the rest of the cast is interesting and diverse. From strange little tree people to an impressively large dragon, you will love the characters on show.
You'll meet these different characters as you journey from island to island amidst a 'waterworld' that comprises this adventure. Initially you start off on your own small home island, meeting and greeting the inhabitants. Each person there will have a little piece of advice for you regarding different parts of the game. It's a well thought out introduction and superbly implemented, allowing you to spend as much or as little time as you like learning the controls. At the outset you'll have no items to contend with but very soon you are given a sword and also trained in its use. As in the last Zelda offering, sword fighting forms the backbone of most of the combat and it is also very enjoyable, with a number of thrusts and parries at your disposal. Once you've got the hang of things you are drawn into a story that deals with the legend of Hyrule, Tri Force pieces, and all the other trappings of a Zelda game. You're not alone on this journey. You are given a boat to get from A to B, a boat that also happens to talk. From this point onward you sail across the ocean journeying to different islands, each of which will normally yield another item/weapon and another chapter in the story.
At the start sailing on the ocean is very enjoyable and looks fantastic, with islands in the distance appearing as faint silhouettes as you carve through the undulating waves. To keep the sailing varied a number of creatures will attack you and there are whirlwinds to avoid as well as the odd outpost. The trouble is at times you just want to get to your destination with the minimum amount of fuss. You can't just point yourself in the right direction and then go and make a cup of tea, as you have to keep an eye out for danger. Later on you learn a tune to teleport from various squares but by the end of the game you will have probably gotten a little tired of sailing.
Some of the other game play mechanics will be very familiar to Zelda players, like cutting grass for coins, ammo and energy. There is still a criminal lack of empty bottles in the world (they are evidently produced by the same company that made N64 cartridges). You can pick up bomb plants, and later on carry a number of them around. You conduct music rather than play it this time. It's a simple enough process whereby you memorize a given pattern and push the C-stick accordingly. Other items are generally given to you at the start of a section for you to use throughout it. This will then culminate in a boss battle that will push your skills to that extra level of difficulty. The boss battles are by far and away the highlight of the game; perfectly balanced to offer just the right level of challenge. The weapons are well thought out and will come in useful throughout the game in different ways. This also has a nice bearing on the difficulty, so a certain foe may be quite awkward to deal with initially but after gaining, say, the boomerang they can become far easier to kill. Of course as soon as one type of enemy becomes easy to dispatch another is introduced.
Each island you visit has a different theme. For instance one of the earlier settings is a castle with lots of guards and spotlights for you to sneak around. A later level requires you to work with another character and to direct shafts of light. Each setting has a unique element within that's used in interesting puzzles, so there is a great amount of variety to the game play. At time it assumes a leap of logic that isn't entirely obvious. For instance if you'd never played a Zelda game before and saw two symbols on the ground, would you think to stand on one and play a tune? Mostly though this is not the case and many elements will be introduced in a careful way so that you don't feel too overwhelmed.
The path you follow in the game is fairly linear. Sure you can sail to any island you like but if you don't actually possess the appropriate skill you will not be able to do much when you get there. A few islands dotted around house fairies that will grant you power-ups of various kinds, like being able to carry more arrows. But again these are rationed throughout the game with entrances that are blocked by various means. It was strange then that I found myself completely lost at a number of points, particularly towards the end. One of the later challenges is to find eight tri force shards that were scattered around the map. Where was I supposed to look for them? I had not a Scooby. I asked my boat, I asked some fish, still not a clue. The problem was there was no clue. No clue at all. If it wasn't for the ever useful www.gamefaqs.com I would probably still be stuck there to this day. In fact that whole treasure hunt felt like it was thrown in to stretch things out, especially when compared with the other carefully crafted portions of the game.
My main concern with the game though comes from a few small but irritating features. When you conduct the wind you have to sit through the little cut scene every time. When you pick up a joy pendant you are told that joy pendants spread joy like a butterfly spreads hurricanes, or something to that effect. These things get frustrating. The worst aspect though is the story telling, it is watered down to such an extent that I half expected it to start teaching me my a-b-c's. It's not really a fault with the story itself, which is quite good and contains some dramatic cut scene moments. But when things switch back to Link looking dazed, perhaps with an annoying giggle in the background, it becomes rather grating. This is where a weird disparity lies in the game. On the one hand Nintendo show that they can be masters of their craft and with Zelda they are writing the book on how to make a great 3D game. But on the other hand they have elements that would best suit a Gameboy rather than a next generation console. Consider that Enter the Matrix had over an hour professionally shot film, and yet the best Nintendo can muster is to use three different sized fonts preaching platitudes that even Disney would cringe at. By aiming the game at such an infant level they are seizing defeat from the jaws of victory in the console wars. Don't get me wrong Zelda is a great game. Hell at times when things are firing on all cylinders its fantastic. All of the enclosed levels, where you fight weird and wonderful creatures only to then face a massive boss battle are simply magical. It's the surrounding elements that package them that will put many people off. Zelda - The Wind Waker may be suitable for all ages, but I'm just not sure if it's enjoyable for all.