In The Wind Waker, we were presented a completely different over-world from anything we’d ever experienced. Instead of giving players a Hyrule similar to A Link to the Past or Ocarina of Time, The Wind Waker covered the land with a near-endless amount of salt water, then expected players to traverse this new world using a boat which possessed the ability of speech. Many were disappointed with this new idea. What happened to the colourful, vast field of Hyrule? Why is this new world so plain-looking? Why are most locations mere, insignificant specs on the map? Why are we supposed to spend minutes on end doing nothing but moving through solid-coloured water?!Indeed, there was quite a bit to complain about with the Great Sea. Most islands were insignificant and held nothing more than a side quest which could be completed in five minutes. On top of this problem, the sea was generally too large. Before learning the Ballad of Gales, players could spend five or more minutes just sailing to the next destination. While a new island is passed every minute, most islands were just too tiny to even be considered detours. After sitting on the King of Red Lions and doing nothing for so long, many players would have preferred to sink their teeth into more than a mere appetizer of a side quest. Even the significant islands were very small; Forest Haven was a mere path to the Great Deku Tree and Hollo, and Greatfish Isle held a mere side quest puzzle. Thus, the Great Sea was disliked by many.
The video clips of Gamecube Zelda 2005 show water only as part of streams and storms, but the land itself is rock-solid. Many players are now anticipating the use of a horse over a grassy field, much like in Ocarina of Time. I thought something different when I laid eyes on the trailer. “Why was the sea concept abandoned when it had so much potential?” As much as I dislike the long sailing trips, I feel that the Great Sea has so much to offer over a traditional land. The many advantages of the Great Sea can easily be overlooked, but a few flaws let these advantages leave the spotlight.
First of all, the Great Sea seems unconquered in the beginning of The Wind Waker, and this is more apparent here than the other Zelda games. Ocarina of Time gave us an explanation about the Kokiri being vulnerable to the outside world, with Mido blocking Link’s path out of the forest. The hero in A Link to the Past couldn’t leave his yard because guards blocked the outside paths due to dangerous monsters. However, these ideas just seemed artificial to me. It was as if the game designers were telling me, “You can’t leave yet; you have to finish your first task before we let you leave.” The Wind Waker, on the other hand, gave us a perfect explanation for the hero’s unexplored world; he just physically couldn’t depart without a ship. You can spy the horizon using Aryll’s telescope, peering over at Six-Eye Reef and a small portion of Needle Rock Isle. You can swim part-way to these islands with infinite futility. Yet you’re given a perfect reason for not leaving your home; you’re an island boy, and with no ship in tow, you won’t ever leave your family and friends to explore the untamed Great Sea with infinite possibilities in the distance. While the beginnings of most Zelda games limit the hero’s exploration abilities, The Wind Waker’s over world obstacles felt the most natural. With no ship, there’s no way to conquer the sea. This point may seem minor, but to me an over world experience is enhanced when it is seemingly fresh, new, and unconquered to the hero.
As well, the Great Sea allows the player to feel much more like an explorer than in any other Zelda game. Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask offered players the map in the beginning (well, not Majora’s Mask, but we’re told the whole “Swamp, Mountain, Ocean, Canyon” spiel so we know what the land contains). As each task is given to us in the game, we know approximately what we’re going to approach. Is Death Mountain our goal? The map tells us exactly where it is and what it is. Ditto for Lake Hylia and Gerudo Desert. The amount of areas in the game is around five, on top of two towns, a ranch, a field, and sub-areas. However, the Sea Chart in the Wind Waker offers players a whopping forty-six areas to uncover, with three areas charted automatically for the player. Forty-six areas! An over-world that size could take a week or two to fully explore. Artificial restrictions are placed, mind you, during the first two dungeons on where you can go, but consider that the alternative of allowing full exploration during the beginning of the game wouldn’t be user-friendly. After the first two dungeons, the entire sea can be explored. You can’t accomplish every task on every island until you have the right items, but being able to approach every island after the second dungeon allows for more freedom than any Zelda game since the first Legend of Zelda. The only hints given to what lies ahead are main quest destinations. Even then, the player cannot know what the island looks like until it appears on the horizon. During the trip to the next destination, numerous islands are discovered, and like a true explorer, the player has no way of predicting the next land until it rises out of the distance. The fact that each island can be completely different from the last one offers a sense of anticipation when exploring for side quests.
Of course, the two problems mentioned earlier come to plague exploration at times. First off, sailing for minutes on end doesn’t seem like much fun when there’s nothing at all except water and more water. Then when you hit an island, it’s very disappointing to walk around a bit, find a small puzzle, finish it, then move on. Had these problems been fixed, the true advantages of sea exploration would have been magnified tenfold.
In addition to exploration, the Great Sea offers a different kind of over-world battle involving cannons. After sword-fighting through a dungeon or temple, sword-fighting on the over world just seems like more of the same, although not necessarily bad. But what about completely changing the fighting style when it comes time to explore the over world? I found fighting on the Great Sea fun when using the cannon because it was so much different than the fighting in mini-dungeons and temples. Launching explosives at giant sea monsters and reef artillery provides a fresh battle experience that was never done before in Zelda. Additionally, sea combat could have been a solution to the problem of lengthy travel on the Great Sea; if the hero could have fired off cannons at swarms of monsters while sailing, the trips would have felt more exciting.
Finally, the Great Sea offers so much variety. The variety is there, despite the usual atmosphere of water and… more water. Pirate platforms keep a watchful eye over our hero while guarded reefs attack our hero mercilessly. Many islands have shop ships circling about, some with valuable goods, and other islands hold secret caves beneath the rocky surfaces. These caves could contain a puzzle which earns a heart piece, or the player could be blindsided by an army of monsters. Treasure lies beneath the waters while other areas are home to giant Octos who can be detected by little more than a flock of seagulls. These seagulls can be controlled to reach the highest peak of any island. Heart pieces are scattered across every area of the ocean, as are Great Fairies which contain the power to upgrade our hero’s abilities. An endless supply of different charts help the hero find treasure, powerups, and even enemy strongholds, but even these charts are hidden. Old and new enemies attack the hero periodically, from the sea-evolved octos and peahats to Ganondorf’s army of pirates and artillery. While some of these ideas were implemented in previous Zelda games, the use of ocean and islands can make these ideas fresh.
Unfortunately, the two main problems come back to haunt the variety of the ocean. It’s hard to think of the Great Sea as full of things to do when 90% of the travel involves nothing more than sitting on your boat and watching the time pass by. Then this variety is cut short when the islands are so ridiculously small. If the islands were larger and the trips were shorter, the searches for sea treasure, heart pieces, and hidden caves would have had more substance, meaning, and perhaps even challenge.
See, all of the advantages of the Great Sea are overshadowed by two glaring problems: the long trips with nothing to do and the small islands. Had the trip length been cut down, the minor islands made to be about as large as Ice Ring Isle, and the major islands made larger for exploration purposes, the Great Sea could very well have been the best Zelda over world yet, perhaps even better than the Hyrule seen in Ocarina of Time. Those who like the Great Sea are probably patient people, and these players can appreciate the fun to be had upon the Great Sea. For the rest of us, though, we need a land which involves more than just running through a blank field or sailing over a blank ocean. We should be able to appreciate a great over-world, and not just notice the great parts.