I keep harping on this, yet the original Zelda really isn’t that sequenced. There are certain barriers you can’t get past without certain items, yet you find most of those items early on — and you can at least explore most regions and dungeons to a certain extent, whatever equipment you have. You can beat the entire game without a sword, if you want. You don’t require half the items the game offers; they’re just convenient to have. Most of the things you do require, you can buy in a shop.
What Wind Waker kind of does is try to pull the design back in that direction, only more so — yet it doesn’t completely have the confidence to break with the sequencing and hand-holding. Which, for such an otherwise free-spirited design, is kind of frustrating. It’s like it’s taunting you with excellence. This is almost such a great game. It just needed more encouragement. Or a rewrite.
You know that business at the start where you’re picking up weapons and items all over? Imagine if the entire game were kind of like that, until you found the Master Sword. Instead of necessarily having specific “treasures”, each with its own specialized use (grapple versus hookshot, for instance), you’d mostly just find and hang onto whatever objects seemed convenient to the task at hand, or looked like they’d be useful down the road. If you found really special, “permanent” items, they’d mostly just serve as a shortcut for tasks you could perform otherwise only with a bit more effort and inconvenience. Kind of like how paths open to earlier areas in Metroid games, to allow you to cut back and forth instead of taking the long route every time.
I like that Link is a real character, for once, with his own life, ideas, likes, dislikes, and priorities, that the player and the quest are just intruding on. I like the way it treats all the previous Zelda games as, literally, a legend; a relic of an unthinkable time, that doesn’t really matter to anyone anymore. I like the implication that Link actually failed at one point, by not appearing when he was needed. Someone suggested once that Wind Waker is sort of the follow-up to Majora’s Mask, in that the historical Link went off somewhere and never came back, without growing up to save Hyrule as he was supposed to. That’s pretty interesting.
And, again, I like that nobody except Ganon really cares. Hyrule is gone; life goes on.
The world has a certain coherence and thought put into it, strictly for its own sake, that the main series rarely has. It’s very much a reinvention of the franchise, in the form of a storybook; an acknowledgment that the same story will keep repeating, even if nobody believes in it anymore. Somewhere out there, maybe in the real world, there is a Link and there is a Zelda, even if they don’t know it. There is a Hyrule, buried somewhere, if you know where to look. This is pretty good stuff.
Mechanically, the game feels smooth and cozy to play. For a while, anyway, there is a real sense of adventure and discovery; that anything could be out there. The fact that you can pick up and use all manner of stuff even if it’s not an “important” item adds to the sense of improvisation. The game puts a lot of work into this feeling. It also undermines most of that work, but we’ve had that discussion.
The entire game is sort of jaded about the idea of a Zelda-like quest. (In theory; it becomes credulous as hell, in practice.) Yeah, we’ve seen this all before; tell us a new one. Isn’t the whole thing a little twee? I mean, look at this green outfit. Who on Earth would wear something like that? Yet it’s also joyful and energetic, almost driving home the message that although, yeah, this story has been told countless times before, what matters isn’t the broad structure and gestures; it’s the individual lives that are affected, and what it feels like for them to take part in that story.
It’s a very postmodern take on the series, and pretty sophisticated. Again, though, it just doesn’t go all the way — which keeps the game from really making its point as solidly as it might.