See it in Action!
Over the years, the releases of new Legend of Zelda games have been major events in the lives of Nintendo's consoles. In addition to serving as showcases for the prowess of Nintendo's development teams, the highly anticipated games have always managed to ably show off the technical merits of the hardware. The latest entry in the series, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, brings a fresh new perspective to the franchise. We had a chance to play around with a Japanese version of the game earlier this month in Seattle and came away quite pleased by what we saw. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker looks like it will be a promising evolution of the franchise that offers a compelling mix of old and new.
The game's story centers on a young boy named Link. But it's not the Link we've seen before. Set 100 years after the events in the classic Ocarina of Time for the Nintendo 64, this game feature an all-new Link. The game opens with an extended intro that ties the Zelda adventures to a local legend about "the hero of time." According to the legend, a hero will always rise to fight evil in the world. The island's custom associated with the legend is to give young boys a green outfit that is symbolic of the hero's garb when they reach a certain age, in the hopes that they will grow to become the new hero. While it all sounds like a bit of a crapshoot for picking a hero, we feel pretty safe in saying that the new Link will be probably be able to rise to the occasion and live up to the legend.
Right from the start, he displays the "can do" attitude you'd expect from someone meant to save the world, his tiny stature notwithstanding. When an enormous bird kidnaps a young girl, Link rescues her shortly after rolling out of bed and learning the basics of combat from a local pot-bellied sensei. Not long after Link performs his first heroic deed of the day, his sister is kidnapped by an enormous bird. The fledgling hero sets out to rescue her with the aid of the recently rescued girl, who turns out to be a pirate.
If you're familiar with the basics of the Zelda series, the Wind Waker should feel like sliding into a comfortable pair of jeans. The game appears to unfold in much the same way as the Nintendo 64 games did, and Link's island home is populated by an eccentric cast of characters who all offer tips on the basics of gameplay. Once you have the basics down, you'll set out on your quest and explore areas, interact with characters, and tackle dungeons that will cough up a nice item once you've beat the boss. The scope has changed quite a bit thanks to the introduction of a boat that allows you to travel on water. The traditional land-based world map appears to be the open ocean and features islands you'll have to get to. Your travel options are limited at the start of the game due to wind patterns that prevent you from exploring certain areas with your ship. However, once you gain the wind waker, you'll be able to bend the winds to your liking by waving it in the air like a conductor's baton in specific patterns you'll learn over the course of your adventures, much like learning the tunes for the Ocarina in the previous games.
The core exploration aspects of The Wind Waker are true to the system used in the Nintendo 64 games. You'll move Link with the analog stick. The B button will use your weapon, while the A button will serve a variety of context-sensitive purposes depending on the situation. You'll be able to assign items from your inventory to the X, Y, and Z buttons. The C stick will let you move the camera. The left trigger will lock on to your enemies and initiate combat, and the right trigger will block during combat and let you crawl on your belly while exploring. The D pad will let you toggle the area map on or off.
While the exploration elements haven't changed much since the Nintendo 64 games, the combat has been tweaked a great deal. Once you've locked on to an enemy with the L trigger, you'll be able to perform attack combos with the B button. Your combos will vary depending on the direction you hold on the analog stick. There's a slight pause during battle after you finish a combo or defeat an enemy. The pause takes some getting used to, and we're not entirely sure it works well, but we'll reserve judgment until after we've spent some more time with the game. The coolest tweak to the game's fighting system, however, has to be the evasive move you can trigger before an attack. During combat, the A button assumes a new function just before an enemy strikes. If you press the button with the proper timing, Link will dodge the attack and retaliate. In addition to looking cool, the move will let you take on armored foes such as knights, whose protective raiment can be sliced away, allowing you inflict considerably more damage. Another very cool aspect of combat is the ability to use weapons dropped by your foes. Given Link's size, using an enemy's weapon may not always be the smartest thing to do. Some weapons, such as large spears, will hinder your ability to attack quickly, although you'll do a lot more damage. Yet another cool aspect of combat is the ability to use Link's hookshot to swipe items off your foes before taking them out.
Items that Link uses in his adventure also come into play when you are cruising the ocean on your ship. Nintendo reps showed how some of the items would interact with your ship and serve new purposes while sailing. You'll be able to launch bombs from a miniature cannon on the ship to deal with breakable obstacles or use the hookshot as a winch to pull up good old-fashioned treasure chests from the ocean depths.
Another very cool aspect of the gameplay is the ability to connect the game to a Game Boy Advance. Nintendo reps showed off this connectivity feature, which allows a second player to interact with you while you play the game. When the Game Boy Advance is connected to the GameCube, Tingle, the fairy seen in Majora's Mask, will be downloaded into the GBA. A second person will then be able to use Tingle to assist--or torment--the player. By using the Game Boy Advance, the second player will be able to see tips on what to do next, point out important areas or locations with an onscreen cursor, purchase helpful items such as balloons that ensure Link can't fall if he walks off a ledge, or uncover secret areas that would be impossible to find without using the Tingle feature. Be warned, though: Tingle can also perform mischievous tasks, such as bombing Link, that can seriously impede your progress in the game. When you access the Tingle feature, you'll find a green Game Boy Advance in Link's inventory that you can select to initiate the feature. The look of fascination on Link's face as he fires it up certainly gave us a chuckle.
The graphics in The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker--probably the most scrutinized aspect of the game since it was first unveiled at Space World last year--are simply gorgeous. The game's toon-shaded look is a slick refinement on the standard cel-shading technique that became popular a few years ago, and the animation in the game is absolutely top-notch. The combination of the smooth animation, the highly detailed graphics, and the great physics system makes for an amazing visual experience, and we'd even say the game looks on par with a top-tier Disney cartoon. When we were attacked by spear-wielding enemies, we were impressed by the tassels at the end of their spears, which moved independently and reacted to the spears' movement. The animation on the enemies we faced in the game was extremely impressive, and it brought them to life. The reactive AI in the game ensured every enemy in the game moved smoothly and with unique style. As impressive as that was, the animation on Link was even better. The little guy's expressive face and body language showcased an amazing attention to detail and brought him to life like never before. Link's expressive eyes are an integral part of the gameplay, as they'll draw your attention to important areas if you stand still. His entire body reflects his condition, so when you're low on health, he'll slouch and pant, and when he's pressed up against a wall or hiding from an enemy, he'll look appropriately sneaky.
The game's audio is shaping up to be another strong component in the game's presentation, thanks to a dynamic soundtrack that adapts to the onscreen action. Each area we saw in the game featured impressive ambient sound that helped set the mood for the area. The game's score is a catchy collection of old and new tunes played on a variety of musical instruments, and it adds to the truly unique flavor that fans expect from the Zelda series.
Judging from what we've seen, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker will be a slick new entry in the series. The deep gameplay and involving quest appear to be just what the doctor ordered for fans eager for a Link fix. Look for much more on the game in the coming weeks as we explore the import version of the game. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker is slated to ship in March for the GameCube in the US.