Wind Waker was a bold artistic venture with a central love for the original Zelda's emphasis on finding things on your own. But as enjoyable as it was to piece things together across pages of notebook paper, the oceanic quest was always a bit sluggish. Juggling three items from the game's menu, two of which were required for any successful venture across the sea, made sailing tedious. Thankfully, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD corrects almost every flaw the original had, simplifying the task of besting evil and finding treasure without ruining what made it so satisfying in the first place. What's new this time around?
Wind Waker HD opts to polish the foundation laid by the original game rather than making any hefty changes of its own. The game's visuals have been improved, adding lighting effects, textures and shadows to spread a bit more detail across Wind Waker HD's coasts. The mandatory Triforce treasure hunt late in the game has also been simplified. Five of the original eight treasure charts have been done away with, making the quest much less of a marathon. Items that require accuracy can be aimed with the GamePad's gyroscope controls, though the established guide of the analog stick is still available for those who prefer it. Wind Waker HD also supports off-TV play, allowing players to pursue objectives without hoarding the TV.
Although pro controller support is offered, using the gamepad screen means you'll never have to pause to sift through maps or swap items (unless you need an extra moment before an enemy's attacks knock you around). Although players will still rotate three active items out of their inventory across the X, Y and R buttons, the d-pad takes responsibility for some items during ventures at sea, like bombs or the wind-directing baton. The sail is also permanently mapped to the A button, so players are free to equip whatever they'd like to use across the three face buttons. Finding the new swift sail also roughly halves the travel time between islands and offers a favorable wind regardless of the direction you're traveling, bypassing the hassle of stopping to redirect the wind while at sea.
Visual improvements brighten up the original's aesthetic with bloom lighting that's comparable to the bleaching sun, an addition that drains a bit of color from its shores in the process. It feels like more of a trade-off than a downgrade, however; the revamped textures and added shadows work well with the lighting, building a crisp, modernized cartoon style that blends with the original's art direction gracefully. The frame rate does slug along during intense battles, however, particularly during multi-enemy fights at sea that demand rapid fire of the cannon.
In case you've already saved this dimension from the evils within Zelda lore, a new Hero Mode stands to make your return a bit more difficult. In this mode, Link takes double damage and won't find recovery hearts, regardless of how many blades of grass he trims. Players can toggle it on or off before continuing a saved game, though, so there's no need to fear taking on more than you can stab. During the first several hours, I found the difficulty to be brutal and almost representative of Dark Souls, in the way that every attack an enemy lands is a big deal. Once I found a few heart pieces and started beefing up my arsenal, however, the limitation of healing only via fairies and potions became fairly irrelevant.
Lastly, the new Tingle Bottles allow players to post messages to Wind Waker HD's Miiverse community without ever leaving the game. Players can ask for help or just bottle up a photo and hurl it into the Great Sea. Tingle Bottles will then show up in the games of other players. Despite being conceptually simple, I actually learned a few things about the game by gathering bottles from other players. It's an amusing distraction that almost always resulted in an immediate detour from whatever I had originally hoped to accomplish. Besides, I'm not sure I'll ever get tired of finding selfies of Link strewn across the sea.
How's it hold up?
Wind Waker's deft blend of sea exploration, swordplay and dungeon-diving is still as alluring as it ever was. The Zelda franchise's tried and true formula of taking a common boy and molding him into a hero – with a metered progression of new equipment and abilities – ensures that you're always discovering something new. That formula is further bolstered by the open sea, naval battles, and some of the most memorable visuals Zelda has ever seen.
While Wind Waker HD's additional tweaks are relatively minor, it proves itself to be a champion over the original game in every way. Streamlining the process of sailing as well as the treasure hunt late in the game makes it a consistent joy to find excuses to explore the Great Sea. Being able to swap out items and check maps on the gamepad while I sailed ensured that I'll have a difficult time playing another Zelda game that forces me to pause for item management. I found myself actively avoiding Wind Waker HD's conclusion because exploring was both satisfying and convenient in a way that it never was before. Even when I was tending to the often-criticized hunt for scattered treasure across the ocean floor, the task's adjusted length felt right. It managed to be a challenge of wit, as it's meant to be, without presenting a challenge to my patience.
Beyond its altered gameplay, Wind Waker's quest remains an inspired chapter in the Zelda series. The script weaves an interesting take on the series' established lore, balancing light-hearted humor with serious events. I was won over by Wind Waker HD's efforts to keep players exploring everything other than its menus. Once the credits rolled and the title screen reappeared, I was tempted to immediately boot up my file and search for all the treasure charts and items I had yet to find – and this was after a decade of playing the original. For everyone else, for anyone with a Wii U who hasn't experienced the high seas adventure, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD is an excellent opportunity to enjoy one of Nintendo's most satisfying experiments, and it should not be missed.
This review is based on an eShop download of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD, provided by Nintendo.