The game is set on a group of islands in a vast sea—a first for the series. What lies beneath this sea are the ruins of the kingdom of Hyrule from Ocarina of Time. The player controls Link, the protagonist of the Zelda series. He struggles against his nemesis, Ganondorf, for control of a sacred relic known as the Triforce. Link spends a significant portion of the game sailing, traveling between islands, and traversing through dungeons and temples to gain the power necessary to defeat Ganondorf. He also spends time trying to find his little sister.
The Wind Waker follows in the footsteps of Ocarina of Time, retaining the basic gameplay and control system from the Nintendo 64 title. A heavy emphasis is placed on using and controlling wind with a baton called the Wind Waker, which aids sailing and floating in air. Critics enjoyed the similarity to Ocarina of Time, but often complained that the large amount of sailing became tedious. Despite this, the game has met commercial success and wide critical acclaim.
The control scheme of The Wind Waker is largely unchanged from Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask. Link's basic actions of walking, running, attacking, defending, and automatic jumping at ledges are retained. Link also uses the control system introduced in Ocarina of Time that allows him to "lock-on" to an enemy or other target. An addition to this basic control scheme is the ability to parry. When Link is locked-on to an opponent and not actively defending, certain attacks by the opponent will trigger a visual cue, a vibration of the controller, and a chime. Attacking at that point causes Link to dodge or parry then counter-attack from the rear or while leaping over the foe's head. This tactic becomes crucial for defeating armored enemies or bosses.
The new art style used in The Wind Waker gives Link eyes that are much larger and more expressive than in previous games. This allows Link to focus his gaze on approaching enemies or important items. For example, if Link needs to solve a puzzle by lighting a torch to set a distant object on fire, his eyes might turn to look at a nearby stick, giving a hint to an observant player on how to proceed.
As with all Zelda games, The Wind Waker features several dungeons—large, enclosed, and often underground areas. Link battles enemies, collects items, and solves puzzles to progress through a dungeon, fighting a boss at the end. To complete a dungeon, Link primarily uses a sword and shield. Other weapons commonly used by Link include a bow and arrow, a boomerang, bombs, and a grappling hook. Certain enemy weapons can be picked up and used, a feature new to the Zelda series.
The Wind Waker, like most Zelda games, includes many sidequests, such as the Nintendo Gallery. When Link is in the Forest Haven, he can use a Deku Leaf to glide to a cylindrical island with a hatch containing the sculptor Carlov and his gallery. Once Link obtains a color camera called the Deluxe Picto Box, he can take pictures of non-player characters and enemies, which Carlov uses to sculpt figurines. There are a total of 134 figurines to collect, but Link can only hold three pictures at a time.
After completing the game, the player can replay it with minor modifications: Link starts with the Deluxe Picto Box, making the Nintendo Gallery side-quest possible to complete; Aryll wears a skull dress given to her by pirates; Link can understand the Hylian language; and Link wears his blue crayfish outfit, worn in the beginning, throughout the game, instead of the traditional green tunic and cap.
Another side-quest present in all Zelda games, collecting Pieces of Heart, returns. The Wind Waker also includes the addition of hunting for Treasure Charts, which are scattered throughout the Great Sea. The player must find, recover, and hunt for whatever is on the map. Treasures include Rupees, Pieces of Heart, and other various charts such as the "Big Octo Chart" and the "Island Hearts Chart".
The Wind Waker is set on a sea consisting of 49 sections arranged on a seven by seven grid. Each section contains an island or small group of islands. Therefore, a significant portion of the game is spent sailing between islands, allowing the game to mask loading times by accessing data while the player is approaching an island.
To sail between areas quickly, Link uses the Wind Waker, a baton that manipulates wind direction with a series of songs. Additionally, wind is often needed to solve puzzles. The Deku Leaf allows Link to use wind to spin turbines or to glide for short distances. By creating a tailwind, Link can glide farther distances to reach remote areas. An on-screen weather vane displays the current wind direction.
When boys of Outset Island come of age, they are customarily dressed in green like the Hero of Time. The elders hope to instill the courage of the Hero in the children. It is Link's birthday as The Wind Waker opens, and he receives the familiar green tunic and hat. Aryll's present to Link is permission to use her telescope; as he looks through it, he spots a large bird carrying a girl to a nearby forest. After retrieving a sword, Link sets out to investigate. Link rescues the girl, only to have Aryll kidnapped by the same bird as it returns. The girl rescued in the forest is Tetra, captain of a pirate ship. At Link's request, they sail to the Forsaken Fortress, where a mysterious figure is holding Aryll and several other girls. Following an unsuccessful raid, Link is thrown from the fortress. A talking boat called the King of Red Lions rescues Link, and tells him that the master of the Forsaken Fortress is Ganon, the evil of legend.
The King of Red Lions gives Link the Wind Waker, a baton able to control the wind and move it in all directions, and instructs Link to sail the Great Sea in search of the three Goddesses' pearls. Link retrieves the pearls and takes them to the three Triangle Islands, causing the Tower of the Gods to rise from the sea. After battling Gohdan in the tower to prove his worth, Link sails into a ring of light and is taken beneath the waters to Hyrule Castle, overrun with enemies and frozen in time. Link descends a hidden staircase and finds the Master Sword, the evil-repelling blade used by the Hero of Time to seal Ganondorf. By removing the sword, Link awakens the castle and all enemies inside. He destroys the enemies and returns to the surface.
With the Master Sword in hand, Link returns to the Forsaken Fortress and joins Tetra and the pirates. He frees the captives and slays the Helmaroc King, but is easily overpowered by Ganondorf. Ganondorf tells Link that taking the Master Sword has fully lifted the seal, unbinding his full power; furthermore, the Master Sword has lost its own power to repel evil. Ganondorf lifts Tetra by the neck, and notices that she is wearing a fragment of the Triforce of Wisdom as a necklace. As he calls her Princess Zelda, two Rito that Link helped while finding the Goddesses' Pearls rescue Link and Tetra, and the dragon Valoo engulfs the fortress in flame.
Link and Tetra sail back to the castle at the bottom of the sea and descend the staircase, where they meet Daphnes Nohansen Hyrule, the king of Hyrule and the voice of the King of Red Lions. He tells Link and Tetra that the prayers of the people in the legend were answered—the gods sealed Ganondorf and all of Hyrule with him by flooding the kingdom with a torrential rainstorm, ordering those chosen to take refuge on the mountaintops. The King combines a piece of the Triforce of Wisdom with the fragment in Tetra's necklace, causing her to transform into the traditional appearance of Princess Zelda. Link plays the Earth God's Lyric to Medli and the Wind God's Aria to Makar, awakening in them the knowledge that they are Sages of Earth and Wind. Their prayers restore the full power of the Master Sword.
Link goes on a variety of quests to find and decode eight Triforce charts that mark the locations of the pieces of the Triforce of Courage. Link raises the pieces from the sea and restores the Triforce of Courage, which dwells inside Link, marking him as the Hero of Winds.
With the restored Master Sword and the Triforce of Courage, Link returns once more to Hyrule Castle, where Zelda disappears before him. Link breaks through the barrier beyond Hyrule Castle and enters Ganon's Tower. Ganondorf reveals himself to Link, claiming that Link is the reborn Hero of Time and that fate has allowed him to bring the Triforce together again, just as he had with the Hero of Time. The three Triforces are extracted from Ganondorf, Link, and Zelda and combine to form the complete Triforce. As who ever touches the complete Triforce gets Their wish granted, Ganondorf demands that the gods expose Hyrule to the sun once more, under his control. Before he can reach the Triforce, however, King Daphnes suddenly appears and touches the Triforce. He asks the gods of the Triforce to give Link and Zelda a future and to wash away Hyrule and Ganondorf. The Triforce splits apart and the ocean above begins to pour down all around the tower.
Knowing that the King has just ensured his own destruction, Ganondorf laughs and begins battling Link. Zelda assists by using Link's bow and shooting Ganondorf with Light Arrows. Once Ganondorf is stunned, Link plunges the Master Sword into Ganondorf's head, turning him to stone. Link and Zelda float to the surface in a bubble, leaving Ganondorf and the king to be buried underwater with Hyrule. Link and Zelda, now in the form of Tetra, sail away on the pirate ship and the now-lifeless King of Red Lions in search of a new land with the wind as their guide. This scene is the beginning of the Nintendo DS game The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass.
Nintendo said nothing more about the possibility of a GameCube Zelda game until one year later at Space World 2001, where a completely new Zelda was shown. Replacing the dark, gritty demo of 2000 was a new cel-shaded look, which resembled an interactive cartoon. Shigeru Miyamoto said the new look was designed to "extend Zeldas reach to all ages". The cel-shaded approach was a radical shift and IGN staff wondered if two separate games might be in concurrent development.
While some at the event enjoyed the new look, there was a backlash from disappointed fans who had been expecting a realistic Zelda game. Many critics referred to the game as "Celda", a portmanteau of "Zelda" and "Cel-shading". Miyamoto was surprised at the reaction to the footage and the media's claim that Nintendo was shifting its focus to a younger audience, and he refused to reveal anything further until a playable demonstration became available. It was hoped that once critics played the game, they would focus on the all-important gameplay, rather than simply reacting to the new graphic style.
Miyamoto promised a playable version for E3 2002 and a release later that year. When Nintendo did exhibit a playable demo at E3 2002 it was well-received, and picked up the 2002 Game Critics Awards for Best Console Game at E3. An editor at IGN said the cartoon look "works very nicely" and that "it feels very much like Zelda". The whimsical style was compared to A Link to the Past and promotional artwork from previous Zelda games. E3 also introduced new features, such as the ability to connect to the Game Boy Advance and receive help from Tingle.
On October 15, 2002, the Japanese subtitle Kaze no Takuto (Baton of Wind) was revealed, to emphasize the role of wind in the game. Nintendo announced the official translation, The Wind Waker, on December 2, 2002, and a North American release date of March 24, 2003 was set two days later.
On November 17, 2003, Nintendo released a new GameCube bundle that included The Legend of Zelda: Collector's Edition, a compilation disc containing versions of The Legend of Zelda, The Adventure of Link, Ocarina of Time, Majora's Mask, a twenty-minute playable demo of The Wind Waker, and two short featurettes. The disc was also given to consumers who registered a GameCube and two games at Nintendo's website or subscribed or renewed a subscription to Nintendo Power.
Wal-Mart customers could buy a special Nintendo GameCube bundle, including The Wind Waker, the Ocarina of Time bonus disc (each in the same case), and a Nintendo GameCube Game Boy Advance Cable for a limited time. In Australia, Collector's Edition was available with the purchase of two GameCube games or a GameCube console; Australians could also purchase a bundle with the console, The Wind Waker and Collector's Edition for a limited time.
The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass, a direct sequel with a similar art style, was released for the Nintendo DS in 2007. In it, Link sails the Great Sea with Tetra and the pirates, but is separated after an encounter with a ghost ship. Director Eiji Aonuma was inspired to create the sequel out of his desire to continue The Wind Wakers art style. A modified version of The Wind Wakers engine was used in The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, released in 2006. Twilight Princess uses a realistic art style, but some cel-shaded elements remain.
Super Smash Bros. Brawl has a second playable Link character, called "Toon Link", based on the style of The Wind Waker. Other content based on The Wind Waker includes trophies, stickers, songs, and a partially cel-shaded pirate ship stage.
The game's most common criticism is the heavy emphasis on sailing. GameSpot noted that the game "starts out in a very brisk manner", but that in the last third of the game, the "focus on sailing … is pretty tedious". IGN complained that viewing the animation of using the Wind Waker "hundreds of times" became "a tedious nuisance", and that the lack of an option to skip the animation "is more bothersome still". Some critics also felt that the game was easier than previous Zelda games. GameSpot thought that some players would be "a little put off" by the "easy puzzles and boss battles"; IGN called the boss battles "slightly simplistic" and noted that enemies "inflict little damage onto Link". GamePro, on the other hand, felt that the dungeons tended to be "huger and more challenging with new twists", with treasure hunts that would "tax even the most accomplished Zelda gamer".
Despite these negative comments, critics consistently gave The Wind Waker high reviews, with Nintendo Power calling the game the fourth best game to ever appear on a Nintendo console. The game also met commercial success, propelling sales of the GameCube console, and becoming the most successful pre-order campaign in Nintendo history. As of July 2006, The Wind Waker is the thirteenth highest-selling game of the 21st century in the United States, with 2.2 million copies sold. It's also the fifth best-selling GameCube title in Japan, with 742,000 units.