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Holism: The Wind Waker’s Cel Shaded Graphics

The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker is a game that lends itself to adoration. Since its 2002 release, this GameCube classic has charmed players with its high seas and bombastic fights and excess of personality, a landmark game in a landmark series that along with a number of other classics helped defined the sixth generation of gaming consoles. And its place there, and as one of the most acclaimed and beloved games in Nintendo’s famous Legend of Zelda series, is somewhat interesting, as it was not considered as much upon its release.

Part of that comes from its history, but part is from how it functions as a game. Because on a purely mechanical level, The Wind Waker is rather flawed. It’s far too padded, with a late game fetch quest, reused bosses, and dungeons that are too few in number and less interesting. It has excellent qualities too – the combat, the score and sound design, the story and characters – but it certainly suffers from a number of problems. And yet, it’s seen by many as among the best in the series, myself included. I think in the end, it comes down to something I’ve discussed before: immersion. It’s easy and enjoyable to get swept up in the world of The Wind Waker, a blue, gorgeous ocean in which adventure, danger, and treasure abound. It was the first truly “open world” entry since the first one – and the last until Breath of the Wild – and while it is far more linear than both of those, it’s also deeply rewarding to explore the Great Sea at your leisure. That comes from a number of things, like the unique way of travel (as Link cannot swim for more than a short time, you navigate the world on a boat, controlling the wind’s direction with a conductor’s baton) and fun items like a grappling hook and magical leaf. But the biggest is from its graphics, an iconic and immediately identifiable example of cel shading, a rendering style that gives three dimensional objects an appearance akin to a cartoon.

While it got a snazzy 2013 HD remake for the Wii U, the game’s original graphics still look as fresh and dynamic as they did in 2002. The bright and bold colors highlight the gorgeous islands of the game’s world, a wide array of islands that evoke the Pacific Islands and Japan as much as they do the series’ traditional mishmash of European fantasy tropes. It’s a world where wind comes in beautiful, large streams, fires come in wide bursts, and waves are actual giant lines on the ocean. To play The Wind Waker is to be the hero of an exciting, adventurous cartoon, though without the meta self-consciousness of something like Cuphead or The Deadly Tower of Monsters. It simply feels different that other games in its genres.

The decision to go in this direction was not made lightly; it was fundamental to the entire production. The massive technological jump from the Nintendo 64 to GameCube allowed a much greater degree of art direction in 3D games, and developers were able to explore and experiment with art direction to a greater degree than ever before. However, there were still a number of limitations to what developers could do graphically, largely due to their continued exploration of graphical capability.

Nintendo’s major early games for the GameCube focused extensively on getting around that through immersion, particularly with believable spaces and animation, and The Wind Waker’s graphics were a part of that. Like Luigi in Luigi’s Mansion, Link turns his massive eyes and head at important objects, both a useful tool for attentive players and an animation that makes him more “plausible” or interesting as a character. In general, he’s much more expressive and emotive as a hero, which helps offset the potential lack of personality from a silent protagonist. Fittingly, design manager Yoshiki Haruhana’s first piece of concept artwork for the game was of Link, which both sold the idea to the team and drove the rest of the game’s visual direction (one of the other earliest pieces of art was of a new version of the Moblin, a series enemy whose wonderfully emotive design became another representation of the art direction).

The art allows it to develop these spaces in a way that is substantially different from the heavy detailing of GameCube counterparts Pikmin and Metroid Prime, but no less compelling. In many ways, the focus on animation and color over physical details has also let the game age more gracefully than many of its contemporaries; smoke and water effects don’t look as dated as more realistically rendered games of the time, because they weren’t trying to aspire to a level of realism that simply wasn’t possible then (it’s worth noting that three two GameCube games, along with other titles like Ico and Silent Hill 2, are among a small group of games from 2000 to 2002 whose graphics have aged noticeably well. Many of them also use at least some form of visual exaggeration).

The shading has mechanical benefits as well. A more cartoony art style allows a level of exaggeration and caricature that would look odd with a more realistic look, letting enemies and bosses telegraph attacks more clearly with broader movements. Wind Waker made tweaks to Ocarina of Time’s samurai-inspired combat with parries and enemies that could lose their weapons and armor, and the graphics provided a style that was both broader and cleaner. It’s far easier to get a handle on fights or environments, the former of which also have a satisfying “oomph” from big animations. It’s a similar effect to how fighting games like Street Fighter and Super Smash Bros. use exaggerated attacks to both clarify and dramatize the actions happening. During a presentation at this year’s Game Developer’s Conference, the directors of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild – a game which often feels like a Wind Waker successor and was partially inspired by the development of the HD remake – discussed how the physics of games need to create “clever lies” that express actions that feel like they should happen (wooden objects immediately bursting into flame, for instance), regardless of how plausible they are in the real world. It went with a cel shaded art style to aid in that while reflecting the game’s influence from en plein air art. The original Wind Waker did this as well, using hyper-stylized visuals to express ideas and impart information with clarity.

Other benefits of the direction include a strong visual consistency that keeps the immersion from breaking, great draw distances – while the game had to separate islands far apart to avoid loading screens, it also lets you see them from very far away – and a variety of subtle effects like the screen slightly blurring around fires and objects seemingly reacting to wind. The HD remake also added a substantial amount of bloom lighting, for better and worse; it gives the game a light-drenched look befitting of a tropical island and subtler lighting effects, but it also makes the game look less distinctive.

But beyond mechanical or stylistic value, art and visual design are paramount for video games because the latter is almost entirely a visual medium, and the interaction between graphics and art direction can give games a direction and identity they might otherwise lack. And The Wind Waker, with its iconic and memorable art direction, is an important part of the medium’s history with visual style. In the early 2000s, 3D games had moved beyond the technical hurdles of the Nintendo 64 and PlayStation, and the sixth generation celebrated that by exploring and experimenting with what could be done visually in a similar way to the graphical experimentation of the NES and SNES eras. Horror games got more subtle smoke and lighting effects, while greater computing power allowed Katamari Damacy and Grand Theft Auto 3 to include larger spaces and more effects on screen at once. In the case of Zelda, it used cel shading – a unique rendering style first seen in 2000 cult classic Jet Set Radio – to mimic the appearance of a cartoon. It was a hard turn from the more detailed, naturalistic directions used by Metal Gear Solid 2 and Ninja Gaiden, and made it stand out in the market.

The graphics ended up defining The Wind Waker over every other aspect of its design, and not initially for its benefit. It was incredibly divisive on its release, with a large swath of the fanbase decrying it as “Celda,” a kiddy game representing Nintendo and the GameCube’s branding struggles against the PlayStation 2. Fans considered it a betrayal of their interests, especially after Nintendo showed a more traditionally realistic, plasticine 2000 SpaceWorld demo used to show off the GameCube’s technological power. It had lower sales, which while not entirely due to the backlash – keep in mind that it was released on a third place console in a year stuffed with classics – was at least partially from it. While Nintendo’s Zelda team went with the more gritty, dark style for their next major release, Twilight Princess, for a number of reasons (most notably a conscious desire to make something different), there was an internal recognition that a lot of fans pointedly did not want a Zelda they saw as insufficiently “mature.”

Ultimately, though, the trend reversed itself. The Wind Waker is the most known example of the “Zelda cycle,” a term Nintendo executive Bill Trinen uses to describe how entries in the series often start out controversial among series devotees before being fully embraced after the fact. On a broader level, it was one of the major early cel shading success stories, and despite having a mixed reception among Zelda fans at the time it helped popularize the rendering style. Cel shading became a graphical staple for the rest of the decade, and while it’s become less used over the past five years, we still have some stellar examples: Bastion, Antichamber, and Breath of the Wild. The game’s art style ended up becoming the most used one for the whole series, with over five games copying it and the cat-eyed “Toon Link” appearing in multiple crossover games. What started as a pariah of the series became a staple, and a version that looked more like that more generic SpaceWorld demo may have not had its reversal of fortune.

The Wind Waker is an excellent (arguably one of the most excellent, along with titles like Ōkami, Yoshi’s Island, Limbo, Team Fortress 2, and Journey) example of how graphics and art can drive a game, giving it a style, focus, and direction. It wasn’t just a game that made a unique art style for its own sake – though that would be justification enough – but one that used that art to create and direct everything else. Every part of the game, from fights to level design to even its more animated, emotional storytelling, draws from how it looks. The cel shading makes the game’s mechanics more satisfying, further its own personality and vision, and gives the game a purpose and identity. It’s somewhat rare for major releases to have particularly unique or memorable artwork, far rarer for them to integrate it with their gameplay and direction. The Wind Waker shows how important and valuable both can be.