Do you ever wonder why Celtic music always sounds so sad? Because it is always lamenting something it lost so long ago it can’t even remember what it is longing for anymore.
The Celtic-infused sea shanty that scores the intro sequence to The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker is the overture. Singing its own microcosm, The Wind Waker’s opening gives way to a declaration of its rights and standings amongst the unfolding Legend. A tapestry of recap. No mere retelling, this Legend. This is the next part of an unbroken, continuous story. A serial. “Act 3, Scene 1” is written on the script of our experiential lives.
Sure, this is a Legend that has been passed down “from generation to generation”. All Legends must be. But this Legend is specifically The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Elevated to the status of myth itself, Ocarina of Time‘s version of The Legend of Zelda has become a story from a distant Golden Age. The new Ur-Zelda and its vaunted status etched into the fabric of the Legend itself. But of course, it would be. Why wouldn’t it be? Ocarina of Time was the greatest and most successful of them all.
But, like all Golden Ages, this is an imagined one. And the Winds of Change blow for it, as they must blow for all things. Their story retold in the broadest of strokes from the coarsest of brushes, the Hero of Time is explicitly namechecked for the first time in a game that is not their own. And it is their absence, and the absence of the Hero archetype they created, that weighs heavy on Hyrule’s people now. After the triumphant events of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time where the Hero travelled across the ages to seal away the Great Evil wielded by the thief of the desert, the stories tell us, Ganondorf Drogmire returned to dominate Hyrule once again. The people believed the Hero of Time would return to defeat the Great Evil just as they had before, but the Hero did not appear. And why would they? While Hyrule had made that child a hero, it was not their land. The Hero of Time did not come back to Hyrule because they had returned home to Termina. The stories do not tell us this, but it is the truth. Hyrule was no longer part of the Hero’s story.
As with all stories of Golden Ages and exalted Heroes, the people of Hyrule clung to Old Myths because they did not yet have the strength to believe in the divine truths inside of themselves. And as with all such stories, the Universe Itself intervenes, enacting a change in the natural order of things to force its people to look inward for the future.
And so Hyrule at that time became a forgotten land. The Sea rose to reclaim that which was born from it. All things in time return to the sea. We are born from nature, and to nature we shall return in death. In The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, artefacts of the old land remain to remind us of its presence, but this presence is never more than the haunting remnants of an age long since gone by. Goron merchants, the last of a race of mountain-folk who lived on Death Mountain during the Hero of Time’s day, now reside in pocket enclaves on the remotest islands of the Great Sea, those highest peaks that alone survived total submersion during the Deluge. The Hero of Time lives on in pure aesthetic iconography only: On Outset Island there is a tradition to dress a chosen boy up in the green tunic and cap of the Hero as part of a festival to honour the memory of the Legend. Ritual emerges to fill the void left by the absence of lived Gnostic experience when younger, more material-minded generations declare that they are no longer interested in old traditions and old spiritualities. Religion and ritual are ghosts themselves.
This then is the true, secret legacy of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. The prophecy was wrong and the Hero of Time was in the wrong story. No prophesied Hero will appear, and now Link can’t even be a Warrior Shaman anymore. This Link is no Hero (or at least, he isn’t yet in this particular moment), he’s just a lost child going through the motions because this is what he’s been told to do. Link’s sister Aryll is an invocation of Marin (and thus Malon and Princess Zelda) to the point even agents of Ganondorf are confused, but, like Link, she’s only wearing her guise. It’s a kind of mask, but the mask doesn’t mean anything anymore. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask took a stand against the patriarchal rite of passage myth to strike out an identity of their own, and that was utterly catastrophic to the History of the Legend. Hyrule, and The Legend of Zelda, has been rejected and outmoded, and the tortured ghosts of its past now cling desperately to the last remaining shreds of its aesthetic power. There’s no such thing as coming of age rites of passage anymore, just the hollow, vacuous aesthetic shell of their iconography. And without the rite of passage, Hyrule is nothing.
So we return to the sea, and start anew once more.
Captain Tetra is something new, and, as a true navigator, it is she who plots the course forward. Leader of a gang of pirates patrolling the Great Sea in search of treasure and salty as the sea itself, she’s as sure an example of the Hero of Another Story as exists. Rumours, gossip and conjecture swirl about who she is and where she might have come from, but she never gives us anything concrete. The Helmaroc King captures her because he thinks she’s Aryll, necessitating Link saving her in the opening level. Not an astonishingly encouraging introduction for someone who’s supposed to be the game’s action heroine lead then. But this is Zelda, what do you want?
Like any good pirate, Tetra hides her secrets well, only giving the faintest of clues to those seeking to draw a map and undertake the treasure hunt. Though young, she’s evidently an experienced sailor and pirate captain already. Tetra takes Link to the Forsaken Fortress, where the Helmaroc King took Aryll. She says before it became decrepit and overrun by monsters it used to be home to a ruthless band of pirates she and her crew would cross swords with, and to a weathered eye the Fortress bears a striking resemblance to the one the Terminan Gerudo Pirates of the Great Bay inhabited in The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. And perhaps it’s your hazy vision, but doesn’t Captain Tetra, with her tanned features clad in sandals and sarawali, look more than a little bit like a Gerudo herself?
Tetra and her crew are looking for sunken treasure hidden beneath the surface of the Great Sea. Link is just along for the ride, trying to rescue his kidnapped sister. Along the way, he picks up his own boat, a vessel called The King of Red Lions. Like all ships it has a soul, it’s just that this one can talk. Meaning physically verbalize. He also picks up a magical baton, the titular Wind Waker, that allows him to channel and conduct the winds, changing their course and direction at will. Winds of Change, and in the hands of the next generation of adventurers tasked with plotting their own course to the future. But control over the wind is also an occult secret: Texts from the European middle ages outright described it as a form of witchcraft (a fact which was not lost on one Hayao Miyazaki during the development of a manga he was writing entitled Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind), so Link’s mastery over it gives him the power of forbidden knowledge. But in the world of the Great Sea treasure and secrets are hidden for a reason. Secrets, by definition, are stories and truths that are not meant to be told. And some treasures are cursed.
The Great and Terrible Secret of the Great Sea is Hyrule, flooded and buried beneath the waves once its time was over. The world has been reborn since then, and its inhabitants now happily go about their lives blissfully unburdened by the sins of their past. And yet, the old world wishes to harass and haunt them still. Ganondorf has returned to plague this new world by looking once again for the Triforce, a forgotten relic of an abandoned age. No better than Ganondorf is The King of Red Lions, who is really King Daphnes Nohanson Hyrule, last king of the Hylians in disguise. The Red King has been manipulating Link and Tetra both, hoping to get them to restore the Triforce and defeat Ganondorf so that he may once more reign over a Hyrule he feels entitled to bring before the unblinking, all-seeing gaze of the eternal Sun. The final chapter of the game even has Link contacting the ghosts of the descendants of the Seven Sages from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (or coercing their own descendants to help him), literally disturbing the dead at rest to fulfill the King’s ambition.
Link becomes a hero because he does kind and heroic things, not because a prophecy told him to do them, but the King would force him to accept the mantle and legacy (and baggage) of the Hero of Time out of pointless fealty to contextless and outdated tradition, just like the people on Outset Island. Tetra is a descendant of Princess Zelda, and the King likewise tries to leverage her ancestry to use her as a puppet by forcing her to change who she is to become his idea of “the current incarnation of Zelda”. This results in Tetra once again losing agency, being literally placed under house arrest in a sunken Hyrule Castle for her “safety” until Ganondorf is finally killed, using his final breaths to express genuine remorse for his actions, entrusting the future of the land to its rightful heirs, the children. Only in this moment does the Red King finally see the error in his ways. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker is the final chapter in the Legend. A Legend of Zelda with no Link and no Zelda, it is a story about its own irrelevance in the face of time’s ever-flowing tide.
Oral history has no ending, but The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker becomes the Missing Third to a trilogy it itself just invented. It is outmoded and is about being outmoded because it’s a Legend of Zelda made for people who have already experienced The Legend of Zelda, namely, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. In particular, those people who liked it, but not The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, and thus missed the entire point of the story both games must be taken as two halves of. It is seemingly then a regression for the Zelda Myth, which has always reinvented itself for each successive generation. But times are not the same for Nintendo as they once were. The Nintendo GameCube is not doing as well against its competitors the XBOX and PlayStation 2 as the Nintendo 64 did against the SEGA Saturn and original PlayStation, or as the Super Nintendo Entertainment System did against the SEGA Mega Drive, and is coming nowhere near the levels of near-industry monopoly that the NES and Game Boy enjoyed in their respective mediums.
Nintendo is no longer playing as strongly to general audiences as it once did. There is a pivot point in the GameCube’s lifespan corresponding to winter 2003 after which a marked dropoff in sales means the console stops seeing as many populist-oriented games of the sort that characterized its earlier catalog such as Star Wars Rogue Squadron II: Rogue Leader, as well as Nintendo’s own Metroid Prime and Super Mario Sunshine (which, while franchise entries, were different enough from and coming long enough after previous games in their respective series that the GameCube’s audience could comfortably be assumed to be unfamiliar with them, thus serving as soft reboots). While the GameCube did continue to see versions of multiplatform releases for the remainder of its lifespan, its tanking sales meant investing in it beyond the bare required minimum of effort was no longer a priority for third parties. This switch corresponds almost exactly with the release of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker in December 2002 and March 2003, as well as the rise in prominence of the “Hardcore Nintendo Fan” subculture, a concept that did not meaningfully exist before this point.
And so, it fell to The Wind Waker to channel the meaning of the times. Because only The Legend of Zelda can truly speak to the heart of the Hardcore Nintendo Fan, and Link can say things that Mario and Samus cannot.
The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker thus becomes not children’s literature in the traditional sense, but children’s literature for adults who are still reading children’s literature. A gentle, yet firm, message to get on with their lives, make something new and leave childish perspectives (if not childish whimsy and wonder) behind. This was not, as you might expect, a lesson Hardcore Zelda Fans wanted to hear. For quite some time after the fact, The Wind Waker actually managed to supplant Majora’s Mask as the least popular and least loved Legend of Zelda within fandom consensus, despite selling markedly better than Four Swords Adventures (which is technically speaking least-popular Zelda ever, judging only by sales figures). Excuses were made as to why this was the case, mostly revolving around the fact The Wind Waker‘s art direction adopted a stylized cel-shaded animation look radically different from the slightly more realistic Japanese anime style utilized by its two predecessors, which fans had grown accustomed to as the signature “Zelda Look”. This was done both explicitly to contrast The Wind Waker with Ocarina of Time to give the new title its own identity, as well as to compensate for perceived shortcomings in the GameCube’s hardware. No-one remembered that the original Zelda no Densetsu used an art style for its manual that was even cartoonier than that of The Wind Waker, and thus no-one saw.
For the true answer was one they were not willing to comprehend.
Consensus eventually did turn around on The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, it becoming the critical and connoisseur’s choice Zelda game just in time for the release of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD on the Nintendo WiiU in 2013. It’s status as consensus-worst Zelda was granted instead to The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes (the “Kisekae”-era Zelda for Harajuku Girls), while its reputation amongst video game historians, those backwards-looking vanguards of obsolescence and irrelevance, remains assured. Fittingly then, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD is a version of the game that has been overhauled to better placate Hardcore Zelda Fans (who by 2013 were the only people buying Zelda games anymore, the WiiU selling so exponentially worse than even the GameCube due to a series of catastrophic marketing and branding blunders it became an outright financial failure) by giving them exactly what they wanted: A version of The Wind Waker that actively works to subvert The Wind Waker‘s unique identity.
The difficulty has been increased (because Hardcore Gamers only care about how punishingly unfair a game is), The King of Red Lions moves significantly faster (so gamers don’t have to “waste time” sailing and just get on with the dungeon crawling and story progression) and an iconic part of the back half of the game in which Link would have to explore the ocean looking for and decrypting secret treasure maps coded in a mysterious cipher to look for sunken Triforce shards has been dramatically shortened such that it no longer carries the same weight or makes as much of an impact. Most notably Tingle, a character introduced in Majora’s Mask who plays a more significant role in The Wind Waker, has had a key component of his part of the game entirely excised. In the original game, players would get a “Tingle Tuner” that facilitated communication between players’ Nintendo GameCube and Game Boy Advance systems in order to gain access to certain buffs, this “connectivity” being a defining feature of the GameCube experience. In The Wind Waker HD, the Tingle Tuner has been replaced by a message bottle that allows players to upload status updates to the WiiU’s Miiverse social media network.
Tingle’s role was likely downplayed in The Wind Waker HD because he is a character who, while beloved by Japanese players, is resoundingly hated by US Zelda fans. And Zelda as a series has always been significantly more popular in the US than in Japan. Tingle was created to be a loving parody of grown men who still enjoy fairy tales and children’s literature.
The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD is notable as being the first remake of a Zelda game that fails to improve the original in any significant or meaningful way, except as a technical proof-of-concept that The Wind Waker‘s art style was not an aesthetic mistake as the visuals look even more stunning in 1080p. But in many ways this was an inevitability. The Wind Waker was always destined to anger fans, and the reactionary backlash was equal parts swift, harsh and unavoidable. The Wind Waker HD was only the final nail, as the murder of Tetra’s new world was being plotted even before her game’s final curtain call. And when sequels attempted to continue the story of Tetra and Link’s pirate adventures, there was only one thing they could do. In The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass, Tetra has zero agency from the beginning, a stock tsundere damsel who gets kidnapped by a ghost ship and taken to a Dark World, where she sits out the entire game as Link searches for a magical sword to reverse the effects of the titular hourglass.
Phantom Hourglass got a sequel in 2009 called The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks. This game is set in the realm of “New Hyrule”. Spirit Tracks explicitly establishes that, following the events of The Wind Waker and Phantom Hourglass, Tetra and Link reached the shores of a new land upon which they founded a new Hylian dynasty and a new kingdom of Hyrule. A stained glass window portrait of Tetra appears in Hyrule Castle’s throne room in Spirit Tracks just as stained glass portraits of Zelda and the Sages of Ocarina of Time appear in the throne room of the sunken ruins of Hyrule Castle in The Wind Waker. Tetra’s descendants are this game’s Princess Zelda and an elderly woman named Anjean, who resembles an aged version of the pirate captain. This seems an odd stylistic choice for the Zelda games gracing the Nintendo DS which, in stark contrast to the GameCube and WiiU, is one of the highest and best selling video game console of all time, but The Legend of Zelda always moves to the tune of its own symphony.
This is the real truth of the Great Sea. The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker brought upon its own demise. We become what we invoke, and that which we cast into textual form shapes our identity and destiny. Any story that positions itself as an ending will doom itself with Patriarchal Epic Time and its masculinist tales of torch-passing and dynastic succession; subsumed by the very eschaton it itself laments. The true tragedy that is the story of Captain Tetra is that she was never allowed to explore the ocean and discover the true depths of its mysteries. Here at the edge of the map there be Dragons; sea serpents guarding sunken treasure and the waters of enlightened ascension. There are squalls ahead that swell up and force us to face the elements one-on-one, and mermaids silently and cautiously observing our actions from afar. The birthright of any True Queen lies beyond the waves, and the greatest crime that can be committed against her is to deprive her of this.
Ironically, yet inevitably, the future lies within the past. The Fair Folk will have their say now.