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Wind Waker’s Sprawling Ocean Is Still The Best Open World Ever Made

The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker was the first time a game felt truly endless to me. The reality is far more manageable once I cut through the nostalgic fog, but as a child it felt like this vision of Hyrule went on forever. In a generation where open world games were only just finding their feet, Nintendo managed to achieve something that even today still floors me.

Link befriends the King of the Red Lions and embarks on a journey to rescue his sister from the clutches of Ganon, and despite this epic quest our hero has the world at his fingertips. A sky blue expanse of unpredictable waves and raucous winds that dictate the direction our vessel happens to move in. Yet we have power over that elemental destiny, able to chart a course fueled by little more than our own curiosity. Few Zelda games have managed to satisfy this thirst, and the setting of Wind Waker still makes it such a unique experience.

Wind Waker begins in isolation. Outset Island is a dense landmass filled with familiar faces and only a handful of potential places to seek out. Link has never left this place, dedicated to his small family and tending the land to keep them fed and satisfied. He doesn’t know he’s a Hero of Time, and that a vast responsibility awaits him in the days to come. This opening is peerless because it draws us in so perfectly. Link awakens, and it’s his birthday, tasked with meeting his sister atop the lookout tower to receive a present and get the ball rolling.

Small conversations with locals and optional side quests add a layer of complexity, with the added benefit of combat and exploration only coming when our protagonist is ready to take the next step just as we are. His sister’s kidnapping is the spark that brings forth the flame, an invitation for Link to abandon his mundane existence out of heroic necessity. He’s afraid to leave home as he boards Tetra’s ship, tearfully waving goodbye as he sails away into the vast ocean for the very first time. Freedom comes with sacrifice, and it’s executed perfectly.

A few additional tutorials and linear dungeons await before Link is afforded true freedom, including some unskippable dialogue and stealth sequences that have aged terribly. But once you awaken in the trusting arms of the Red Lion, all of that tedium feels worthwhile.

Link is asked to fetch a sail and converse with the locals on a few smaller errands before finally being unleashed upon the sea. Granted you can’t go far without a few spells for the titular Wind Waker, but once those are in your possession the world is quite literally your oyster. The main quest is a linear affair, but the game allows us to approach whatever awaits us on the horizon. These can be random dungeons, surprising boss battles, or smaller homesteads filled with fascinating characters to meet. There’s also Tingle. Fuck that guy.

If I sat back and looked at the wider topography I imagine the world is much smaller than my mind believes, and the layout is relatively predictable with a generous selection of locations that give the illusion of an endless ocean. Wind Waker moves at such a speed and boasts such a timeless aesthetic that it becomes so easy to fall in love with its landscape, one that offers seemingly limitless possibilities to a hero in way over his head. This was achieved on the GameCube almost two decades ago, building upon the masterful Ocarina of Time with a new entry that was equal parts familiar and subversive. Naysayers wanted to write this game off upon its reveal because of the cartoony visuals, but that is precisely why Wind Waker has stood the test of time so beautifully. Even today I’m still transfixed by its sense of scale.

The moments that will always stick with me are times when the wind dies down in the middle of night, my vessel coming to a standstill amidst the endless blue as I’m forced to make my next move. Music has faded away, the call to adventure replaced by a sombre melancholy as I take my hands of the whatever a boat's steering wheel is called and glance around in search of something to cling onto. Suddenly I spot a shadow on the horizon, and with no other destination in mind I clamber towards it in hopes of salvation. Each new discovery, no matter how small, was a surprise, a feat that even Breath of the Wild wasn’t capable of sustaining forever. Nintendo needs to hurry up and port this to the Switch already.

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