I’ve been slowly working my way deeper into the rabbit hole of what the internet has had to say about The Wind Waker, and I’m surprised at just how gendered reactions to the game’s sailing mechanics are. It seems that, in male-gendered spaces (like IGN message boards), people unequivocally hate it. Meanwhile, in female-gendered spaces (like Tumblr), people tentatively confess that they might actually kind of love it.
During my current playthrough of the game, I’ve gone from being annoyed by the sailing to becoming almost addicted to it. There’s just something about the creaking of the mast and the tiller combined with the sounds of the waves against the wooden boat and the cawing of gulls that I find incredibly soothing. The color of the sky and the quality of the light change as the sun rises and sets and the moon shifts through its phases. Link can see the wind as it rushes alongside him, and the Great Sea can go from balmy to stormy in an instant, with the surface of the ocean transformed accordingly. Between secret caves and strange ruins and sunken treasure and Link’s fellow travelers, there are all manner of weird things that the player can discover, and even wandering around aimlessly is a joy.
It’s this sense of exploration and discovery that I find most appealing about the Zelda series.
The original The Legend of Zelda was the first video game I ever played. The office of the one dentist in my hometown had an old Nintendo in the waiting room, and my mom would take me with her while she got orthodontic work done. I was a tiny creature, and I didn’t really understand what the game was or what I was supposed to do with it. Still, I knew I was experiencing something special. Between visits to the dentist, I would think about the game and try to draw maps from memory as I came up with strategies for where to go the next time I got a chance to play. Since I didn’t have a lot of time to spend getting good at the game, I died something like every five minutes, but every time I discovered something it was a major victory. When I stumbled into the first dungeon almost by accident, my mind was blown by the concept that there was a smaller gameworld within the larger gameworld.
The first Zelda game I played as an actual sentient being was A Link to the Past, which is much less punishing. Game critics (and specifically Tevis Thompson in his essay Saving Zelda) have pointed to A Link to the Past as the point at which the Zelda series started to turn away from its potential as an open-world exploration simulator, but I think what these critics are missing (aside from the obvious reality that different people enjoy different things) is that there are a lot of little kids playing the Zelda games. Whereas an adult would see an irregularity in a wall and think “Oh, I should try to bomb this spot,” a child who hasn’t been alive long enough to play that many video games is going to have to figure out the mechanics of the game environment for herself. If there are no hints at all, then the lauded exploration elements might as well be nonexistent to many (if not most) players.
My own experience as a baby gamer cutting her teeth on A Link to the Past was nothing short of transformative. Every time I played through the game I uncovered something new, and I felt that Hyrule contained infinite secrets and endless possibilities. Like any good Zelda game, A Link to the Past trains the player to look and read closely, to pay careful attention to the world, to navigate by memory, and to keep trying various solutions to puzzles until something works. In other words, the Zelda games train players to become Sherlock Holmes style geniuses within their self-contained universes.
I should clarify that I don’t think of The Wind Waker as being “an open world Zelda,” because it most certainly is not. To begin with, the game isn’t very large, and it feels empty and unfinished (probably because its production was rushed and it was, in fact, empty and unfinished). Moreover, there is a clear order to the dungeons and story events, and the player is strongly discouraged from or flat-out not allowed to veer off the rails at certain points. The gameworld isn’t procedurally generated, so there’s only so much that the player can do, and exploration is often dependent on plot advancement. Regardless, Wind Waker contains all manner of strange and interesting things waiting to be uncovered by an adventurous player.
I’ve therefore been occupying myself with various sidequests.
On Horseshoe Island, so named because of its distinct curve, Link can win treasure by using his Deku Leaf to blow a series of large seeds into holes in the ground. Because he is prevented from approaching the seeds by aggressive thorny vines, it’s important that Link get the angle exactly right, almost if he were playing a fantasy version of golf.
On Needle Rock Isle, Link can win a heart piece perched at the top of the eponymous rock spire by taking control of a seagull by means of a Hyoi Pear, which causes him to enter a trance when he places one on his head. Flying a seagull is not difficult (at least not when compared to the Loftwings in Skyward Sword), but it takes time to get the hang of the mechanics, especially since the seagull is chased by a flock of Kargaroks defending their nests. Thankfully, Hyoi Pears are cheap and easy to obtain, and it’s a lot of fun to play aerial cat-and-mouse games while swooping around the island.
All across the Great Sea are Lookout Platforms occupied by Bokoblins and Submarines manned by Moblins. Most of these structures contain treasure, usually in the form of sea charts that reveal the location of sunken chests that can be salvaged for heart pieces or large caches of rupees.
Along with the Bokoblins and Moblins, Link shares the sea with all manner of drifters and travelers, from the sunburned Salvage Corps divers to Beedle the merchant (who sells Hyoi Pears, among other things) to Salvatore, the disaffected man who runs the Sinking Ships minigame on Windfall Island. Salvatore has also set up a minigame on one of the hills of Spectacle Island, from which Link can launch bombs at barrels. As he does on Windfall Island, Salvatore enacts silly frame narratives for his games using painted boards, all the while pretending to not care despite the fact that it’s obvious he’s not-so-secretly enjoying himself.
What I love about The Wind Waker is that its world seems to exist fairly independently of Link’s quest. In most Let’s Play videos (my favorite is the series by Game Grumps, who are far too adorable to live), almost half of the game is left unexplored simply because it’s off the beaten path. A lot of people say that The Wind Waker is strange and random, and it absolutely is – that’s what makes it such a joy to play.
( header image by Joltick on Tumblr )