So while Twilight Princess is my favorite of the 3D Zelda games, I cannot say it is better than Wind Waker. I do believe each game manages to surpass Ocarina of Time in its own way, but neither manages to be the definitive ideal Zelda game. I think it is for this reason, in addition to nostalgia, that people cling so much to Ocarina of Time as being “the best”.
I would like to begin by noting that Wind Waker is the lone Zelda game to truly give Link a sense of character. He’s still a silent protagonist, but he is the most expressive he has ever been. The art style encouraging exaggerated expressions also reinforces Link’s age, as a child would most certainly behave more dramatically. Fear would be evident, anger and determination visible, and even frustration written clearly on his face. While none of these succeed in making Link a deep character, they give him a sense of personhood.
While I wouldn’t call Twilight Princess “realistic”, as the characters are still clearly modeled after more anime-style renderings, it is certainly far less stylized and exaggerated as Wind Waker. As such, Link’s increased number of expressions provide more emotion than his typically stoic N64 expressions, but he just does not have the character of Wind Waker’s more over-the-top iteration. He glowers when he’s supposed to, he looks shocked when he’s supposed to, and he looks sad when he’s supposed to, but there’s no character to coincide with the expressions. He’s too subdued.
It is only when Link is in Wolf form that a true sense of personality can be found, and often it is a very different one from the Link we see in human form. When Link is a wolf, he comes off as cautiously-aggressive and distrustful. This is likely due to the use of his rumbling growl and the baring of fangs. Aside from a furrowed brow, the game adds additional indicators of aggression to assert Link’s battle-ready condition. Human Link gets no such additional indicators.
Is the answer, then, to give Link more over-the-top body language and sounds? I don’t think so. Doing so would clash with the game’s overall tone. While there are certainly light-hearted moments of comedy, they are never quite so colorful or outrageous as those in The Wind Waker. I also don’t think giving Link a voice and proper speech is the best route to go, either. That Link is continually a silent protagonist kind of helps him live in this role as a returning Hero. That each Link is different, and yet is the Hero of the past reborn. Leaving him silent allows for a sense of continuity and acceptance that, yes, this is the same Link as I played in Ocarina of Time and even A Link to the Past, only reborn again in a different time.
In truth, I believe that it actually works in Twilight Princess’ favor that Link is without personality. As I asserted, it’s not really his story but Midna’s, and Midna has a suitable amount of character to fill the narrative. Wind Waker, on the other hand, is a story more about new beginnings and leaving the past behind. Perhaps intentional, seeing as Wind Waker essentially left Hyrule buried (or rather, submerged) in favor of exploring a new type of world. Despite an obvious extinction-level event having occurred, Wind Waker treated the ocean world as a wonderful, freeing space. Nintendo strove to recreate the feeling of water splashing along the sides of the boat and the wind in your hair with such simple graphics, and as the seagulls soar overhead it’s easy to conjure a memory of the scent of salt water.
Wind Waker is the most delightful post-apocalypse, and rather than focusing on trying to recover the old world, the game’s final confrontation and conclusion instead emphasizes forging a new future. If anything, Wind Waker was nearly a set-up to abandon the tropes of Zelda and forge a new path with its heroes.
Yet it was the public backlash that, I believe, clearly made Nintendo circle back around to Ocarina of Time when they made Twilight Princess. Not just as a result of the look of Wind Waker, but the great departure from the franchise aesthetic and gameplay. Yet this is where Nintendo also became cursed with the franchise. Majora’s Mask and Wind Waker were clear signs that Nintendo was willing to experiment and evolve the franchise, yet fans rebelled once Wind Waker released. Upon the release of Twilight Princess, they suddenly became “damned if you do, damned if you don’t”, as they were developing a reputation for “remaking the same game over and over”. Experimentation leads to a frustrated fanbase, yet stagnation leads to an apathetic (and largely ignorant) outside crowd.
I’m also inclined to believe that Metroid Prime and Metroid Prime: Echoes may have had an impact on Twilight Princess. Not in any clearly visible way, but each of those games had similar mandatory-scavenger-hunts for relics across the game world before unlocking the final dungeon. Such a quest also existed in Wind Waker with finding the separate pieces of the Triforce, and in all three games this fetch quest was largely criticized. It is also possible that there were players—and even critics—that never got a handle on Wind Waker’s combat.
It’s mere speculation and connecting potentially unrelated dots, but I can only assume that this is one of the reasons Twilight Princess is filled with not just content, but optional content. Right down to each of Link’s combat abilities. Otherwise, why include a variety of advanced techniques that the game does not require, and at times specifically repels? Too many fights required basic combat maneuvers and strategy even though the entire purpose of obtaining the advanced strikes was to shortcut combat. Wind Waker rewarded combat mastery, but Twilight Princess ignored or even punished it.
By all intents and purposes it may seem as if I feel Wind Waker is the better game, and were it not for my earlier confession of favoring Twilight Princess I might certainly agree. However, if you recall my analysis of Wind Waker itself, I felt like the vastness of the ocean space was as much a detriment to the game as it was a benefit.
In other words, the greatest failing of both Wind Waker and Twilight Princess is that they were essentially hoisted by their own petards. What they excel at is also what prevents them from being the best of the franchise up to that point.
I do plan on giving Skyward Sword a run, so we’ll see how I feel following completion of that game. From what I can recall, however, the sky is even more empty than the vast ocean of Wind Waker, precisely the wrong direction Nintendo should have gone. As for Majora’s Mask, we’ll see if I can tolerate it’s time-rewind mechanics. For some reason I didn’t mind Dead Rising’s time limitations and necessity of repetition, yet I just have no patience for Majora’s Mask despite knowing there’s a wonderful, artistic gem to be discovered.
Perhaps that itself is worth a write-up one day.