Much has been made of the “emptiness” of The Wind Waker’s overworld. Sailing requires a significant investment of time, and the player is rarely required to do more than manipulate the camera or change the direction of the wind. Many gamers find this aspect of the gameplay boring, an unnecessary bridge between the much more exciting, enclosed islands located within the 49 squares that make up the overworld.
There is some merit to this argument. To call the Great Sea vast is an understatement; the majority of The Wind Waker’s overworld is the ocean, and majority of the ocean appears to be empty. Without constant changes in elevation or atmosphere, The Wind Waker can seem very monotonous indeed. Classic Zelda games were made up almost entirely of confined, mazelike overworlds in which there was never a shortage of exciting activities or challenges. While Ocarina of Time introduced an empty central “field,” other areas of the overworld echoed the classics, designed almost as interlocking rooms full of treasure, caves, minigames, and NPCs. While The Wind Waker certainly offers its fair share of such challenges, they are so widely spread out that they probably take up a smaller proportion of gameplay.
The Wind Waker is not just unique among Zelda games, but among games in general. When JRPGs, for example, offer an equally large overworld, the designers usually scale it down or offer a means of transportation that makes travelling easier. Zelda 2, which resembles RPGs in overworld design if not in gameplay, contains what could be the largest overworld in Zelda canon—but it is reduced enough in size that towns and dungeons never seem too far away. The Wind Waker, like other Zelda games, has its “warps” to make traversing the overworld easier, but there is still a significant amount of space between each “square.” While the warps can reduce the time spent on the Great Sea, travel still takes a long time.
How could anyone hope to defend this inconvenient, boring choice of game design? Given how far away the islands are from each other, it seems as though Nintendo incorporated this overworld just to increase gameplay time. Certainly, the Triforce quest, the definitive challenge of the Great Sea, is longer than it needs to be.
I believe, however, that the Great Sea is instrumental to The Wind Waker’s success as a quality Zelda title. It builds on what came before while forging a unique, spirited world for Link’s first cel-shaded adventure. The criticisms leveled against it, while valid, stem from a distaste for the game’s fundamental design. Without the Great Sea, The Wind Waker would be a much less exciting endeavor.
The original Legend of Zelda was incredibly ambitious for its time. One major reason for this was probably the construction of the overworld and the way gameplay revolved around it; it was revolutionary, and it’s hard to find a game in this day and age that challenges the player’s sense of exploration as much. The “field” was broken up into separate squares, and while a number of them simply contained enemies, several of the squares contained secrets. Much of the overworld was non-essential, but enriched the gameplay experience as a whole. Secrets were hidden well; some were not hinted at at all, while others were addressed by NPC’s, who were uniformly portrayed as old, hooded men. This added an extra layer of challenge to the game, but also frustration for those who weren’t willing to bomb every wall or seek out every NPC.
Hand-holding was gradually increased throughout the series; never again was there another Zelda game that challenged the gamer, as far as exploration was concerned, nearly as much as the original Legend of Zelda. By the time Link’s Awakening was released, most secrets were hidden in plain sight. Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask contained some obscurely-hidden secret grottos, but for the most part, the original game’s level of challenge would not be revisited.
The Wind Waker partly recalls the original Legend of Zelda, while still employing many of the conventions introduced later in the series. The allusions are obvious; like the original game, the overworld in The Wind Waker is broken up into squares, and each square has its own individual identity. Secrets are well-hidden and require fulfillment of different challenges. Treasure maps replace the old men, though characters on populated islands speak of things they’ve seen in certain squares, during certain weather conditions, dates, or times of day. Most of these challenges are non-mandatory, though some (like the Ghost Ship) are necessary to advance the game.
It is now much easier to stumble upon an obscure situation that the gamer is not prepared for than it was in previous games. There are more inaccessible, hidden secrets. By the time the early parts of the game are done, the entire overworld is free to explore, contributing to a sense of non-linearity and adventure (even if the main quest is linear) where previous 3D games, especially, could not. It effectively echoes the sense of being lost in the original Legend of Zelda without making it too difficult to progress. It places classic gameplay elements in a modern context.
Much criticism stems from the large size of the overworld. While islands are separated by a good deal of ocean, it is absolutely wrong to say there is “nothing to do,” and this is where the game’s structure is most misunderstood. The focus is not on defeating enemies like classic Zelda games, but on seeing what the overworld has to offer, much like Ocarina of Time. That is why it’s easy to sail from one island to another without even getting hit. The gamer is rarely penalized for failing to pay attention, but he is certainly rewarded for paying attention—with new songs, Triforce maps, and even minidungeons and battles. Furthermore, as Treasure maps are accumulated (which requires vigilance on islands and in the ocean), covering old ground becomes much more interesting. Rupees and even pieces of heart can be just around the corner. Even without treasure maps, there are outposts, randomly generated treasures, mermen, and even massive, large-scale battles waiting for the player. The moments of relaxation the player finds on the ocean are ideally split up by moments of exploration, but it is up to the player to pursue them.
For the most part, The Wind Waker succeeds in its application of classic elements. Where it stumbles is in the new elements or design choices. Some of these work, while others simply make the game unnecessarily frustrating.
The main traveling mechanic is unnecessarily tedious. Changing wind direction and moving forward is a multi-step process. First, the player must use the Wind Waker to play the Wind’s Requiem. This is followed by an overlong animation. Then, the sail must be hoisted and the boat must be turned in the right direction, which takes a good amount of time in itself. This may not sound difficult, but when the player is required to do this several times over, it is at the very least annoying. Attaining treasure can be unnecessarily difficult. The light that indicates treasure’s location is extremely helpful, but its disappearance can make deploying the grappling hook too much of a nuisance. Pursuing treasures on the map requires switching between the map and the boat controls, while attempting to gain treasure for which there is no map requires the player to distance themselves from the light every time they miss the relative location of the treasure. Finally, defending the boat is hard, as hoisting the cannon requires the ship to come to a full stop, and aiming is imprecise. All of the boat’s functions require use of The Wind Waker, the sail, the grappling hook, and the cannon. It is impossible to set all these items at once, making sailing much more tedious than it needs to be.
The requirement that the player collect multiple maps, have them decoded for an expensive price at a single location, and then proceed to seek out the treasure is just too much for some gamers, for very obvious reasons. While this game mechanic was well-intentioned, it is too long to be genuinely entertaining. The obscure locations of the maps means that hand-holding is shed for part of the game, and the player is forced to explore, much as he or she was in the original Legend of Zelda. The concept of having the player collect Triforce maps is a good one, and actually collecting the maps can be great fun—yet another secret requiring exploration of the overworld. If Nintendo had simply left it at that, perhaps substituting Triforce pieces for the maps and making it impossible to collect the very last one until the last dungeon was over, they would have preserved the sense of adventure from the original Legend of Zelda without making collection overly tedious.
Despite its weaknesses, the sailing mechanic in The Wind Waker works well for the most part, with few flaws. It also proves vital to the sense of adventure, and a worthwhile break from both dungeon and island exploration. Those who see it as a nuisance are unlikely to change their minds; but I hope this article has at least helped them understand why some of us view the sailing mechanic as a strength.