The Legend of Zelda has been my favorite video game franchise for pretty much my whole life. With Tears of the Kingdom finally upon us, I decided to embark on a journey over the past year to replay as many Zelda games as I could, and see if this crash course through gaming history could help me glean any new insight into a series that has meant so much to me. I’ll be relaying my thoughts through a set of short features highlighting one thing that stood out to me from each game.
Today’s game – 2003’s The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker.
The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker is a transportative game. Right from its incredible opening theme, which uses a Celtic-inspired mix of mandolins, pan flutes, drums, and bagpipes, the energy on display brings us to this entirely different setting from anything the series has shown us before. The vast blue ocean that stretches out until it fades into the horizon is quite the departure from the familiar biomes of Hyrule, and yet it’s still filled with that tantalizing sense of adventure that Zelda does so well.
But while Wind Waker takes so many elements of the Zelda formula and molds them into its own, there’s one staple that it leaves behind, and it’s all the better for it. The Great Sea is no place for a horse, and Wind Waker trading in Link’s four-legged companion for one of the more wooden variety solidifies a thought I had during my recent Zelda playthrough – Epona kinda sucks, and these adventures are better off without her.
I know, that might sound like heresy, but hear me out. I know a lot of fans have a deep fondness for Epona, and I get it. Memories of seeing her grow up from a foal in Ocarina of Time to galloping across Hyrule Field in Twilight Princess are ingrained in a lot of us. When we think of Epona, we’re reminded of the games we loved that hit us at a formative moment in time. But when the smoke clears from this nostalgia, you’re left with a horse companion who controls like a tank, gets caught up in the level geometry on a regular basis, and is the focal point of Twilight Princess’s goat-herding mini game, which is pretty much a low point in the series for me, Zelda II included.
In the pantheon of great video game horses, Epona falls several lengths behind. There are so many more enjoyable equine pals in games – Agro from Shadow of the Colossus is brimming with heart, Torrent from Elden Ring gives us a bit of comfort in an uncomfortable world, D-Horse from Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain epitomizes the game’s playful mechanics, and even any of the weirdo horse pals who wander into your Animal Crossing village and stick around thanks to squatter’s rights at least remember your birthday. And so, among the many, many things that Wind Waker gets right, swapping out Epona for the King of Red Lions might be one that I appreciate the most.
Spoilers from 2002, but having your companion this time around be a sentient boat imbued with the spirit of the King of Hyrule lends a sense of wonder and importance every time you set sail on the Great Sea. I can’t express how much I love the feeling of just existing out on the water in Wind Waker. Much like my pal Yahtzee, I adore the tangible sense of adventure and excitement of charting your course from island to island.
The sound of the waves mixing in with the rising score, the stylish look of the wind rushing by, and the way silhouettes slowly appear in the distance and tease what may lie ahead hasn’t gotten old, even 20 years later. The Great Sea is a much more dynamic and textured open space than the fresh air of Skyward Sword, and in my mind, it is only topped by the masterful design of Breath of the Wild.
Whenever I have to get from one place to another in Ocarina of Time or Twilight Princess without the use of fast travel, I’d dread the time I had to spend with Epona. I have nothing against her as a person… err… horse, but navigating her around the geometry of Hyrule Field always devolves into a cumbersome affair. Honestly, I’d rather just roll the entire way there. It’s a bit faster than running, and I’ve developed Stockholm Syndrome from Link’s weird grunts over the past 25 years.
That’s not the case with the King of Red Lions. His expressive nature makes spending time with him enjoyable, and though his personality might ironically be a bit dry, he’s never annoying, which is more than I can say for a lot of Zelda companions. And the evolution of dredging for goodies and the occasional cannon battle lends actual depth and intrigue to the gameplay itself.
Now, Wind Waker is by no means a perfect game. The small handful of proper dungeons point to development troubles, the quest for Triforce Charts is a drag, and having to micromanage the wind itself can be a bit finicky. Thankfully, the HD version on Wii U remedies a lot of this due to the Swift Sail, smart use of the Wii U’s Fisher Price GamePad, and a streamlining of the Triforce collection.
So for a bit of inside baseball, for my Zelda franchise replay up to this point, I just jammed through each game on Switch via NES / SNES / Nintendo 64 Online and the remake of Link’s Awakening. But because Nintendo has made the baffling decision of leaving Wind Waker HD and Twilight Princess HD stranded on Wii U island, I had to dig out that dusty contraption from 2012 for the two games. I was reacquainted with both the painfully slow menus and UI, as well as the delightfully chill vibes of WaraWara Plaza filled with the ghosts of hundreds of Miis. So I guess it wasn’t all bad.
Side note, digging out my Wii U also led to my panic-purchasing a bunch of games on the last night before the eShop closed, like Link trying to wrap up a dungeon in Majora’s Mask with only a short time to spare before the moon comes crashing down. Good times.
It still boggles my mind to think about the negative reception Wind Waker got upon first being revealed. Just goes to show you that it’s hard for most people to think outside of the tired and rigid preconception in their heads when it comes to the media they consume. But I’m forever glad that Nintendo went with such a unique and timeless art style that helped deliver unforgettable memories like revisiting a familiar Hyrule frozen in time, an incredible final battle with Ganondorf, and the realization that Epona kinda sucks.
Check out other entries in this ongoing Zelda series below.
- The Legend of Zelda’s Secret Weapon Is Trust
- Zelda II: The Adventure of Link Is a Bold and Important Failure
- In A Link to the Past, One Moment Made Zelda Feel Truly Magical
- Link’s Awakening Shows There’s More to Zelda Than Saving the World
- Ocarina of Time’s Forest Temple Is Zelda Dungeon Perfection
- Majora’s Mask Isn’t Just a Video Game
- The Best Dungeon in Twilight Princess Finds Love in a Hopeless Game