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Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover (Or a Zelda By Its Cel Shading) – By Carlos Gomez

At the time, however, I was certain that I needed a more realistic Zelda to tell a more realistic and mature story.

by Carlos Gomez (aka The Lost Hylian)

Ever since I was a small boy, I have loved sci-fi and fantasy. Much of that love was shaped by the original Legend of Zelda and Disney movies like Peter Pan and The Sword in the Stone. Honestly, I think I am just a sucker for a good story, but what happens when you don’t want to give a story a chance because you feel it doesn’t suit what you are expecting or want? Essentially, there is one title in the Zelda series that I judged just that way: The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker.

I know, I know—it's a fan favorite. This particular title is referenced second only to Ocarina of Time, and I would argue it matches or surpasses that title in artistic obsession. It’s an amazing game, and just thinking about it makes me want to let myself drift away on the King of Red Lions for a couple of hours. Yet when the game was nearing release, I couldn’t stand it. I wanted to be far and away from the title, and it was all because of the art style. This was back in 2002 when Sony and Microsoft were releasing games like Hitman 2 and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. This was when Nintendo really earned the label of the “Kiddie System.” In my humble opinion, the only quality mature headliner for the GameCube at the time was Metroid Prime. I felt frustrated; it were as if my nineteen-year-old self was being ignored by Nintendo. I was pinning my hopes that Zelda would meet the mark following the more realistic approach of Ocarina and the darker tone of Majora’s Mask.

That’s not what happened. Instead, I had this tiny-tooney (and somewhat looney) cel-shaded Link. I was absolutely appalled. In defense of my expectations, I must say they were based on a real event. You see, at Space World 2000, Nintendo released a demo featuring a very life-like Link battling Ganondorf. The cut scene shows Link throwing down his shield and colliding with his nemesis in an all-out brawl (check out this link, and you’ll see what I mean). That five-second clip was all I needed to be hooked into the future of the franchise. My expectations of the next installment were formed at that moment.

At the time, however, I was certain that I needed a more realistic Zelda to tell a more realistic and mature story. Don’t get me wrong—realism is still my go to, but I can honestly say that I was 100% wrong on my initial take of Wind Waker. I had judged a book by its cover and jumped to conclusions that were unfounded. I thought that because of the art style, the game would lack scope and depth of storytelling. However, my opinion evolved, and I now say that Wind Waker holds the most mature story in all of Zelda.

Perhaps the creators went with the toon style to lighten the tone and to balance the weight of the lore, or perhaps it was to evoke a sense of hope following the tragedy that is the game's backstory. It certainly needed it, we quickly realized. This adventure takes place after the capturing of Ganon in the Child Timeline. Link disappears (presumably in his search for Navi) and never comes back. Without the Hero of Time, Ganon is free and unstoppable. The only way to curb his reign of terror is to flood the world. It reminds me of back in history class when I would read about villagers burning their fields and towns before fleeing for their lives. It was a final effort to slow down and weaken the enemy, a desperate last gasp that is echoed in Link’s adventure in The Wind Waker.

As I played this game, I immediately realized that though the sing-song theme and bright colors would certainly appeal to the younger crowd, it's only a cel-shade deep. In truth, the world is a dystopian shell of the Hyrule we know from Ocarina of Time. The once vibrant land is now nothing more than a few scattered islands divided by the sea, a sea that is plagued with monsters and pirates. Zelda (reborn as Tetra) is one of those pirates and serves as a villain at the onset of the game (or, at the very least, an antihero). This entire set up is so different and unique from other titles. It’s a world where even the non-playable characters seem to struggle to survive.

If the earlier portion of the game sets the stage for the emotional undercurrents, then it is in Hyrule Castle where the premise is truly realized. In this moment of the journey, we are faced with a Hyrule frozen in time. Devoid of color like an old picture, the once proud halls of Hyrule Castle are overrun with Ganon’s minions. It's an extremely poignant experience running through the halls of a doomed castle knowing the past was already written. Even seeing the statue of past Link in the center heightens the feeling of loss and makes the twist of failure that much sharper. I found myself wanting to explore every inch, frustrated I couldn’t go further and explore the world of the Hyrule I knew. I even had a moment of not wanting to progress: I didn’t want to leave, as if my staying were keeping it alive a little longer. It was a very intense feeling. Deep in character, I felt responsible and wondered why my previous incarnation never made it back from Termina in Majora’s Mask.

The most captivating scene, however, is saved for the end. It is arguably the most graphic scene in Zelda history, which I surmise is achievable only because of the toon style. It is the final scene with Ganondorf and goes down as my favorite boss ending of the entire series. Before the fight, Ganondorf says something that really sums up the dystopian nature of the game: “So many pathetic creatures, scattered across a handful of islands, drifting on this sea like fallen leaves on a forgotten pool… What can they possibly hope to achieve?”

Those words seem to capture the struggle of the entire game perfectly. I realized that no matter what, the great kingdom that I once knew would never return but that there was still hope. Link and Tetra (aka pirate Zelda) battle Ganondorf to the death, and Link vanquishes his foe by slamming the Master Sword in all its cartoon glory through his skull (literally his skull). The game features a closeup with Link standing on his shoulders as Ganon gasps for his last breath. Had that been realistic art, Nintendo would have likely shied away from such a graphic demise, and that ESRB rating of 10+ would have been out the window. Instead, we stare at the former Gerudo prince as he turns into stone, trapping the hero's blade. Just like that, it is all over with--the ocean crashing down around the heroes and the water washing away the last remnants of Hyrule. It is a heart-wrenching moment watching the king and kingdom of Hyrule fade away into the bottomless deep.

The whole Wind Waker experience left me thinking about it days after completion. At that time, I even wondered if there would ever be another Zelda and, if there would be, what direction could it possibly take? The game is absolutely amazing, and by the time it was all said and done, I had fallen in love with the art style. I really couldn't believe I had once railed so hard against. Its light style is a perfect balance to the deep meaning within the game. It offers Nintendo a safe way to explore what losing Hyrule could be like. It was a risk the company took, and, thankfully, we the fans reap the reward. In the end, what I truly learned was not to judge a book by its cover—or a Zelda by its cel shading.

What do you think?! Did I go too deep into the dystopian rabbit hole? Is Wind Waker’s art style just right, or would you have preferred the realistic visuals used in Twilight Princess? Please share your thoughts by reaching me @The_Lost_Hylian on Twitter, thelosthylian on Instagram, or check out my Facebook page, The Lost Hylian.

Cover photo source: Game Informer


Feb 16, 2022

I think you did a great job in recounting your experience. The first time that I encountered The Wind Waker was in college when I saw someone playing it in a neighboring dorm room. I knew it was Zelda, but I didn't quite know what to think. I think my initial thoughts were that I was a little upset at the graphic style. I enjoyed seeing the puzzles that needed to be solved and eventually wanted to play it in full myself. It wasn't until much later that I played it using an old Wii system that could play GameCube games. When I was able to play it through myself I ended up actually liking the art style oppo…

Carlos Gomez
Carlos Gomez
Feb 18, 2022
Replying to

It’s now one of my favorite art styles due to its ability to demonstrate character expressions. I think as I‘ve grown my opinion on what makes good visuals has evolved.

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