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December 13, 2013

Season's Wii-tings: Wind Waker HD

A funny thing happened the other day.

There was a pretty big snowstorm the other day -- and by “snowstorm” I mean “here’s lots of ice, so screw you if you want to make a snowman” -- so me, my brother, and my buddy piled in to play video games.  In the midst of the two of them taking turns playing Resident Evil 4, my buddy made a proposition: if my brother gave him a ride to the nearby Wal-Mart to pick up some sour cream (seeing as how said buddy had to walk to game with us), then he’d offer us some tacos at his place.  Said brother wasn’t on board, but when he heard that he’d be able to snag Resident Evil 6 on the cheap, he figured it was worth braving the elements.  Anything for his beloved “great game, great experience.”

It turned out that with all the ice, his car was useless.  So if we wanted to get to Wal-Mart, we’d have to go there on our feet.  In the ice.  With night falling.  And that’s exactly what we did, against ALL of our better judgment.  It was a journey made in the name of tacos and terrible video games -- one that I just happened to go on by virtue of “going with the flow”, but one that I stayed annoyingly optimistic about all the way through…to the obvious displeasure of a brother who complained all the way there and back.  The trip took about an hour, and we slipped and tripped a little, but I had fun.  It would have been more fun if not for that miserable cold, but it’s not something I’ll forget for a while.

I get the sneaking suspicion that a lot of adventures are sparked by stupid decisions -- but once they’re done and everyone’s in their safe haven, what was once just stupid becomes something precious.  Something necessary.  We need adventure.

Which brings me (as circuitously as possible) to The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD.

I guess it’s worth giving my thoughts on the Wii U hardware before I get ahead of myself.  Far be it from me to critique the craftsmanship of a company that’s released five separate consoles in its lifetime, but seeing as how you’re essentially playing with an iPad I’d wager it’s worth at least a bit of lip service.

For anyone who’s worried about how the GamePad feels in your hands after a lengthy gaming session, I can say with some confidence that the Wii U won’t leave you hurting.  It’s larger than, say, a PS3 or GameCube pad, and while it’s probably heavier than both of those combined, it doesn’t exactly beg for you to pump iron beforehand.  It’s comfortable to hold, and the buttons are all a healthy size.  What really surprises me about the pad is that the Big N has dramatically updated its microphone technology.  I remember having to shoot compressed air into the DS’ mic to clear parts of Bowser’s Inside Story, but you barely have to try when playing Mario 3D World -- something my buddy learned after spewing all over the screen.

The GamePad doesn’t have any major, deal-breaking flaws; it’s just that it takes a bit of getting used to.  I have yet to learn which face button is which without looking at it (probably because of my time with the Xbox 360), and because of the way I hold pads -- and my time with the GameCube pad -- I always end up forgetting that there are additional trigger buttons, ZL and ZR.  Also, while there is a second stick on the GamePad, I haven’t gotten accustomed to tilting it to change the camera, which a number of Wii U games allow at certain junctures.  What’s the neutral position?  How far should I tilt?  Should I hold my hands like this or like that?  All stuff I’ll probably figure out as time passes.  I learned how to handle the DS, and what is the Wii U if not a gigantic, free-floating version of that?

Now, the question that these next-gen consoles are all going to have to answer is “How will this technology make the games we play better?”  The PS4 and Xbone are going to give their answers eventually (because they aren’t doing it right now), but as for the Wii U, it’s making a compelling argument with Wind Waker HD.  Not a revolution, mind.  But the potential is a lot more obvious here than with its competitors.  Like I said, it’s pretty much a gigantic DS; it’s hard to go wrong with that formula.

Wind Waker HD is all about making the game a faster experience.  It all starts with the GamePad; rather than sticking every item in multiple screens and slots you have to access by pausing your adventure, all you have to do is use the second screen.  Need your grappling hook in a hurry?  Drag and drop onto your button of choice.  Need to look at the dungeon map?  No need to stop the game; just have a look at the GamePad and you can see yourself moving to the door you want to enter in real time. 

One of the more interesting additions is the Tingle Bottle system; grab a bottle floating in the water, and you can see a picture and/or message made by another player.  No one’s forcing you to use it (and given that you can miss Tingle until the exact moment in the game when you need him, he’s probably been overlooked by a few players), but it adds an interesting dimension to the game to be able to go out to sea and drift, and read messages you find while on your way to the next island.  It’s probably an anti-tedium measure on Nintendo’s part, seeing as how a lot of people blasted the game for “boring” sailing sections, but it is a thought-provoking concept. 

It’s hard to say how much of a knee-jerk reaction the Big N had to complaints about WW, but for the record there has been some effort put in.  I don’t think the game itself has been sped up any, but even beyond making item-switching a quicker affair, they’ve made some minor improvements for the speed runner in all of us.  As noted by others, the Swift Sail lets you move faster on your boat and removes the need to constantly stop and adjust the wind to change directions -- so if you hated the sailing in the original game, you’re in luck with the remake.  (Though that begs the question of why you’d get the remake in the first place.)  The grappling hook’s animations have practically been slashed in half.  Swinging on ropes no longer requires you to come to a complete halt for you to readjust your trajectory.  Play the Wind Waker on your boat or in dungeons, and you don’t have to watch the song play every time.  Those are just some of the changes off the top of my head; I know there’s a list floating around somewhere out there with more.

While there have been some obvious improvements going from vanilla to HD, a part of me thinks that the game could have gone even farther.  For example, one of the things that I kind of wanted to see in the HD version is a more dynamic ocean.  In light of the recent Assassin’s Creed games, we’ve been shown oceans that have been ferocious and full of life -- storms, big waves, deadly sea creatures, and the like.  WW has that as well, but even now it feels like the ocean is much too peaceful.  Yeah, you can run into a Big Octo or the occasional sea monster, but you can either breeze past them or not even know they’re there, for all the times they show up on your travels.  The sea is peaceful and pleasant -- and while I shudder to think that I’m suggesting a Zelda game take inspiration from the AC series, there really could have been more offshore turmoil.

Also, I can’t tell if some of the songs in this game have been remixed or not.  It feels like some of them are, but having played the vanilla version semi-recently I know that a good number of them aren’t.  Maybe all of them aren’t, and I’m just imagining things.  That’s really a shame, though; the guys over at Zelda Reorchestrated have put out fantastic versions of the games’ songs, WW included.  I don’t know how they did it, but it’s safe to say they didn’t exactly have a full orchestra on hand.  If that’s the case, then couldn’t Nintendo have sprung for some updated tracks?  I mean, the HD Remix of Street Fighter II brought in arrangers and remixers from OverClocked Remix; I’d assume that Nintendo’s not exactly the type to crib on user-created content, but they could have done something in-house, couldn’t they?  It’s not a game-breaker, but it is a missed opportunity.

To be fair, those are minor complaints.  And more importantly, pretty much all the effort for this game went toward making it the absolute best-looking it could be.  (The visuals are pretty much all Nintendo COULD improve, considering that the game was already fantastic the first time around.)  It’s not just a matter of upped resolution or whatever input-output device they use to make the game HD ready; the colors are brighter, the menus cleaner, and the character models smoother.  There’s more shading and shadows, the lighting is more vibrant (with bloom for good measure), and I swear the sky is absolutely breathtaking.  It’s a great looking game…which makes me wonder why Nintendo, the company eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeveryone is convinced is backwards and stuck in the past, can make better looking games in one of its first HD outings than some companies can do at the tail end of the seventh console generation.

In any case, you didn’t come here to read about me gush about the graphics (maybe sit through another allusion to hot dogs, perhaps), so I’ll leave the visuals aside for now.  It’s worth noting that from the moment you turn on the game, “Hero Mode” is available.  Select it, and you’ll inter WWHD’s version of Hard Mode -- where you’ll not only take double-damage, but you also won’t be able to find hearts in grass and pots.  (You can still use fairies and potions, though.)  I wasn’t going to choose it at first, but my brother goaded me into choosing it, and I couldn’t back down from his challenge…which would also help to explain why I ventured through an ice-laden neighborhood to help him satisfy his need for tacos.  But I digress.

The assumption when going into the mode was that I’d only have to worry about the game’s skirmishes -- a problem that would be erased once I got the boomerang, and thus could stun-lock 90% of the game’s enemies, if not kill them outright.  (Seriously, the boomerang breaks that game wide open.  Then again, I don’t mind; boomerangs are awesome.)  But I made a grave miscalculation.  Link doesn’t just take double-damage from enemies; he takes double-damage from everything.  Essentially, Hero Mode isn’t testing your battle prowess as much as it is your ability to be a hero.  Every step you take has to be spot-on, or else you run the risk of getting a game over -- which I have, several times, after seeing it all of never times in the original game.  Be wary of your jumps.  Be wary of lava.  Be wary of your Deku Leaf flights.  Be wary of lasers.  There’s so much you have to take into consideration when you don’t have the promise of extra hearts around the corner.  When you’re in the Forsaken Fortress and you realize that scampering rats could deal you a game over, you know you’re in for a rough time.  But frankly, it’s worth it -- to the point where I’d recommend playing on that mode from the get-go.

I don’t want to say too much about the story here, because I want to do a more thorough post on it sometime in the future -- and indeed, there is a lot I could say about the game.  But for now I’ll go ahead and say that one of the more important elements of the story, as far as I can tell, is the concept of tradition

If you haven’t played the game (in which case, why are you even here?  Go play it, you putz), it starts off with this version of Link taking on the famous green jammies as a part of a birthday ritual.  His discomfort is more than a little obvious, and it’s hard to blame him; the game hammers in that his costume is awkward and uncomfortable in the heat, for one thing.  But more importantly, you have to realize that Link is effectively doing cosplay as he travels around the world.  It’s only natural for him to get strange looks, and for people to not take him seriously (which they don’t).  But he’s doing it as a tribute to the past…and because that’s the only clothes he has on hand, but the fact remains.

But Link’s not the only one bound by tradition.  The first two dungeons are specifically devoted to Link sorting out the issues caused by the high seas’ evils -- and with it, ensuring that the traditions of other peoples go on unimpeded.  Dragon Roost Island has you calming down a dragon so a young boy can literally earn his wings.  The Forest Haven has you saving a lost violinist so he can play the song to scatter his seed brothers across the world.  In a way, even the big plot twist of the game is a sort of rite of passage -- a forced rite, but one that literally transforms one person into another for the sake of accepting responsibilities that would make Spider-Man quiver in his tights.  Pretty much every major character -- at least those standing about three feet tall -- is going on some sort of journey, and being forced to leave their childhood behind.  Their past selves.  There’s something kind of paradoxical about that, given that they’re forced to change because of the past.

But that’s all I’m going to say about that for now.  And really, that’s all I can say about this game, period.  I shouldn’t have to tell you that it’s good, because you should know this already.  And I know this already.  I just played the vanilla version almost to completion a couple of months ago, but I didn’t have any problems jumping back onto The King of Red Lions to start my adventure all over again.  Why?  Not just because it’s good; it’s because I wanted that adventure.  I wanted to feel that sprawling world full of endless possibilities before me.  I wanted to do stupid things and be able to laugh about it later, but feel that sense of accomplishment when the journey’s said and done.  I wanted to play a game that, more than countless others, is a true “great game, great experience.”

…You should play it, is what I’m trying to say here.  But even so, there may be another game you have to play first.  Another game that, dare I say it, no gamer should miss out on.


I mean...see you next time.   

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