In the movie industry, we often hear the terms “cult classic” or “cult following” when referring to certain films. Evil Dead II is a personal favorite. With a humorously down-on-his-luck lead and a solid horror theme, this raucous film defined the “splatstick” genre where horror and comedy intersect. By definition, Evil Dead II has one of the largest cult followings among horror fans. But at the time, its box office score was just shy of $6 million. Even at an inflation-adjusted average ticket price of $3.91, this 1987 film didn’t reach many people. It later grew in popularity in the ’90s with its home video release. Now, you can’t find a horror aficionado who isn’t also a fan of the seminal Sam Raimi film. So in a change of pace, let’s apply this phenomenon to — at the time of its release — one of the most under-appreciated games in The Legend of Zelda franchise: The Wind Waker.
Wind Waker of Time?
Make no mistake — in the gaming industry, The Legend of Zelda series has earned the “legend” status in its title. It has one of the most ardent and loyal fan bases in gaming with widespread appeal across industry consumers. But like with any franchise, there are highs and lows. The lows for The Legend of Zelda aren’t quite so low, but there were many that scoffed when Majora’s Mask succeeded the superb Ocarina of Time. Then Nintendo tried to move in a different direction. Thus, we received the cel-shaded cartoon-ish The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker.
If we were to describe The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker using terms from the movie industry, “cult following” might do the trick. Wind Waker was under-served by its position in the Zelda release timeline. Like A Link to the Past before it, Ocarina of Time left an indelible mark not just on the franchise but on the standard of gaming as a whole. When I was in junior high, I would play and replay Ocarina like it was the only game in existence. In retrospect, I pity the Zelda games that followed. It took time for these incredible games to come into the sunlight escaping the long shadow that Ocarina cast over them.
While most Zelda games follow a particular formula, Wind Waker dared to flaunt its own unique colors. So much so, in fact, that the changes were abrasive towards franchise fans. Let’s start with the obvious — the aesthetics. I remember being confounded by the announcement of Wind Waker. The cel shading exterior is not what bothered me. I couldn’t wrap my brain around the Saturday cartoon invasion of my favorite Nintendo franchise. (Although, yeah, Zelda actually was a Saturday cartoon once…)
Like most high school sophomores, I was beyond childish things. I turned Wind Waker away in disgust. Eventually, my curiosity led me to rent the game. I played it off and on during my five-day rental period, but ultimately, I just couldn’t get around the design. Once I returned the game, that was that. This seemed to be the experience of many and Wind Waker sales suffered for it. The game didn’t churn out the same sales figures as Ocarina or even Majora’s Mask.
Sure, part of my dismay was that the game didn’t look anything like Ocarina or Majora’s Mask — the two previous console games I was accustomed to. But Wind Waker also came a couple years after the excitement of the Zelda tech demo that hit the public spotlight. It showcased the GameCube’s power with a thrilling next-gen Link engaging Ganondorf in combat. In an age with less information inter-connectivity than we have with today’s social media, many didn’t understand that the demo was only that — a showcase of GameCube’s power. In terms of public perception, Wind Waker had everything working against it. Sadly, it took some time for the majority of us to pull our heads out of the sand and truly embrace the game. You can check out a glimpse of the old tech demo below.
Like fine wine…
Nowadays, Wind Waker is lauded as a classic. It even received a Wii U HD port. (Let’s hope we receive a Switch port as well.) And had it received the praise then that it does now, a direct sequel would have been a reality instead of Nintendo shifting back to a familiar aesthetic in Twilight Princess. But after several other entries in the Zelda series, fans have embraced “Toon Link,” as he’s come to be known. What changed? Why has The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker only gotten better over the years? The obvious answer is that the surge of nostalgia we’ve been experiencing in recent years has driven many of us back to past generations, and Wind Waker was just waiting to be discovered by a broader audience.
It’s entirely possible that the game was overlooked by many who passed on it based on word of mouth or their own impressions. It also resonated with a new generation of gamers. Likely, its modern popularity is caused by a combination of these things. And the game contains one of the most unique backbones of any Zelda title — open-world sailing. Nintendo pioneered this before Assassin’s Creed was even a glimmer in the eyes of Ubisoft!
Being a decade and a half older, my stubborn ways have subsided. In fact, when I finished my adventure in Breath of the Wild, (Though let’s not kid ourselves — who really “finishes” adventuring in Breath of the Wild?) I yearned for another Zelda experience. I turned to the one Zelda game (aside from Skyward Sword) that I had never fully played, Wind Waker. Without the noise over the aesthetics concerning me any longer, what I found was a thoughtfully crafted tale that directly references and succeeds Ocarina of Time.
All the classic tropes of Zelda games are there. But now, sailing the open seas and using the power of the Wind Waker in my adventure have placed the most refreshingly unique spin on a series I’ve known and loved my entire life. The cel shading and cartoon design are quite endearing as the game, at its core, is about the youthful desire for adventure. With the legend of the Hero of Time ever present in the minds of the people, Toon Link was groomed his entire life to live out his own tale.
Cemented in history
In 2018, I made two new Zelda gaming memories. After countless hours of exploring and adventuring, I finally triumphed over Calamity Ganon in Breath of the Wild. And strikingly, when discovering the first shrine instructing me how to harness the power of the wind with my Wind Waker, I felt an overwhelming sense of satisfaction using this power to guide my journey in the open seas. Yes, something completely basic was so satisfying that it was comparable, in my mind, to my battle with Calamity Ganon. The vibrancy of the colors, the characters’ gleeful designs, and the spark of imaginative adventure with my boat and Wind Waker all coalesced into one joyous experience.
The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker has received the credit it deserves years later. And if you’re one of those folks shouting, “I knew how great Wind Waker was from the get-go!” then I congratulate you on your find and ignoring the whims of angsty teens like myself, too stubborn to embrace something so bright and colorful. If you haven’t played Wind Waker, I implore you to pick up a GameCube or Wii U copy and immerse yourself in the vast and sunny oceans with your delightful avatar, Toon Link. You won’t regret it.