Wind Waker’s Controversial Graphics Make It a Truly Timeless Zelda Game

20 years after its U.S. release, The Wind Waker has achieved the kind of redemption that this timeless Legend of Zelda game never actually needed.

By now, you probably know some version of the story. The first trailer for The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker was revealed during the SpaceWorld 2001 show and immediately drew widespread backlash, much of which was directed at the game’s cel-shaded art style. It’s a controversy that has arguably become as big of a part of the Wind Waker’s legacy as the game itself. 

However, to fully appreciate that controversy, you have to look at some of what people actually said about the game at that time. Thankfully (relatively speaking) you can do that by checking out this preserved IGN forum thread titled “Official Zelda Bitch Thread.” Yes, it turns out IGN comments have always been the way they are. Here are some of the highlights (presented without grammatical corrections):

“I can’t beleive what they di dto that Zelda game, just when I was saying that nintendo caters to old school gamers, they go and make zelda look like a frigging puppet show for 5 year olds. Mario SUNSHINE?”

“why why why. what have they done i fell so sad now thats not the joy i was wanting why why why. where is the game that i think is a real world where is my mature zelda this just at right *craws under a rock and dies*”

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“OMG!!!! WTF HAPPENED?!?!?!?! Zelda looks like a little weak sissy bitch!! I just saw the movie/pics like 2 mins ago and what a pile of stinking crap!”

While there were positive (or optimistic) reactions to the reveal, comments like those certainly captured the mood at the time. Even Shigeru Miyamoto initially wasn’t a fan of the game’s looks. Zelda producer Eiji Aonuma said Miyamoto “literally cringed” when he saw Wind Waker for the first time. 

Don’t be too hard on those fans, though. If you were old enough at the time, you may have very well been one of the fans who cried for a darker and more mature Zelda game that looked more like this famous GameCube tech demo. Hell, fans today still complain when they think something is an insult to their dark and “mature” palates. It’s why Batman isn’t allowed to have fun and Superman has to destroy buildings rather than rescue kittens from trees. Nintendo said that they even received some letters from fans complaining that the new Link wasn’t sexy enough for their fan fiction desires, which…well, some things don’t change. The fan culture that spawned the reactions to Wind Waker’s looks hasn’t gone away; it’s evolved and spread. 

However, the Wind Waker eventually rose above all that. 20 years after its U.S. release, The Wind Waker is now considered to be one of the absolute best Legend of Zelda games as well as arguably the last great “traditional” 3D Zelda game. While there is a timeless nature to many great Zelda games that makes them easy to return to, Wind Waker’s unique status as a Zelda game that feels fresher than ever can easily be traced back to what its controversial graphics achieved and represented. 

Aonuma and the Wind Waker team dared to disagree with Miyamoto himself because they felt passionate about what they were doing. They had a vision that brought them joy and excitement because it was a vision that they believed in. They were willing to be wrong for the chance to share that joy and that vision with others. Besides, the team also knew that caving into the demands to change the game’s art style would cost an astonishing amount of money and delay the game for years to come. 

Aspects of that story feel downright mythical when you look at them through the lens of modern gaming. Delays can certainly be a good thing, but the modern game production cycle makes it nearly impossible for a team to deliver a project in a reasonable amount of time. The budgets are too big, the production schedules are too unwieldy, and trends that a game was greenlit to chase often change by the time that game is actually released. The Wind Waker team wanted to get a new Zelda game in fans’ hands, even as many of those fans were treating them like traitors.

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As simple as it may sound, there’s also something special about the team’s desire to commit to an idea and fight for it. At a time when the infuriating rise of AI-generated art is being fuelled by both a lack of appreciation for what artists actually do and the idea that creativity is just an expensive line item, the Wind Waker team’s passion for something they believed in was the driving force that brought this game to life in spite of the protests and internal concerns. 

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the Wind Waker team was right.

20 years ago, Wind Waker’s graphics felt like an insult to many gamers. It was the age of gritty games and emerging photorealism. Some notably vocal people felt that gaming needed to shed its “for kids” reputation and push for grimy realism in order to get the industry where it needed to be. Whether that reputation was real, or if it even mattered, was less relevant than the popular idea that some were tired of being treated like children for playing games and even making games.

20 years later, Wind Waker’s bright colors, creative designs, and expressive characters feel practically revolutionary compared to the browns, greys, and “photorealistic” joyless designs that have come to dominate the gaming industry. Many trends become tiresome if they stick around for long enough, but that trend is a bit different. Many games that strive for revolutionary looks often feel outdated by the time they’re actually released. They too often let the technical capabilities of hardware or the latest engine be the start rather than showcasing how that technology can bring incredible artistic ambitions to life.

Wind Waker, meanwhile, looks better than ever thanks not just to its art direction but the way all those colors pop on advanced modern TVs usually burdened with rendering the latest filtered piece of post-production CGI or some interactive tour through the uncanny valley. 

Wind Waker’s timelessness isn’t just limited to the beauty of its visuals, though. The Wind Waker team says much of the game was largely inspired by the anime they grew up on, and those visuals are only a small reflection of that inspiration. It can also be found in the ways that Wind Waker offers a kind of classic high-seas adventure filled with exploration, treasures, dangers, and a childish avatar at the center of it all. Actually, the Wind Waker team has said that they almost considered the title to be less of a Zelda game and more of a classic adventure that has Link stand in for the person playing the game. 

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I get what they’re saying, but I would argue that Wind Waker is actually a fantastic Zelda game that captures the very things that really make the franchise work despite shedding many of its conventions up until that point. 

Yes, the Wind Waker is quite different from nearly every Zelda game that came before or after. No, not all of those changes were for the best. Many found the constant sailing to be tedious, some of the game’s quests and dungeons felt incomplete, elements of the experience easily became repetitious (especially playing and replaying songs), and some of the game’s 3D controls remind us that it was released in the relatively early days of true 3D gaming. The game’s excellent HD upgrade fixed some of those problems, but Wind Waker remains a game that fans of previous and future Zelda titles are not guaranteed to love. 

When it comes to consistently replicating the feeling of playing your first Zelda game, though, Wind Waker is arguably unrivaled. After all, Zelda games practically exist to not only open a new generation of gamers’ eyes to incredible possibilities but remind previous generations of gamers how great adventure games can invoke something inside of them they thought wasn’t there anymore. 

When you’re young, you’d do anything to be treated like an adult and be allowed to enjoy the things you believe adults are allowed to enjoy. When you’re an adult, you’d give anything to feel the way you did when the world felt as Zelda‘s worlds often do: full of infinite exciting possibilities just waiting to be discovered and enjoyed. There is real value in the things that can awaken that feeling, if only for a few hours.

Yes, Wind Waker’s visuals and characters are childlike, but so are we. Those visuals encourage us to embrace our own childlike spirit rather than run from it out of fear that others will see it and think less of us. Anyone who allows themselves to embrace that spirit will find that it’s the perfect companion to Wind Waker’s vast world and the many adventures it holds. The best Zelda games often feel uncharted, and Wind Waker excels at allowing you to believe that there is always something incredible just over the horizon just waiting for you to find it. Not since the days when you pretended a tree house was your ship’s nest has a dangerous journey like that felt so pure. 

20 years later, Wind Waker’s redemption is mostly complete. Selfishly, I even want a proper Wind Waker sequel (due respect to Spirit Tracks and Phantom Hourglass) more than I want the next Breath of the Wild game, though there are obviously many who don’t feel quite the same way. At the very least, though, there is a general consensus that the controversy that preceded the game was at least a bit ridiculous and that Wind Waker is a more than worthy entry into one of gaming’s greatest franchises

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Wind Waker never needed redemption, though. Not really. It was always great, it was always magical, and if you were one of those who left cynical comments about the game rather than taking the time to experience it yourself…well, that’s really not a problem. It turns out that Wind Waker feels even more special today than ever before.