Since its English language release in 2003, I've always thought of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker as my favorite game. It's hardly been a controversial choice—while many Zelda fans insist that Ocarina of Time has a stronger sense of focus, and that its landlocked rendition of Hyrule is preferable to Wind Waker's wide stretches of ocean, my preference is generally respected. Now, I'm nearing the end of Breath of the Wild, having tamed three of its Divine Beasts, and the game is putting me in a difficult position: I think love it even more than I loved Wind Waker.
But calling the game my "new favorite" feels like a huge statement to make, while it's still so fresh. As such, I've had the merits of both games bouncing around in my head, and I've come to an odd realization about a link (as opposed to a Link) between my experiences with both games.
Part of my affection towards both Breath of the Wild and Wind Waker stems from stupid mistakes I made in their early moments. Misunderstandings stretched out the first few hours of both, slowing progress right down—but this ultimately saw me form a deeper emotional attachment to their depictions of Link.
A few hours into Wind Waker, you have everything you need to set sail on the game's Great Sea. On Windfall Island you meet the talking boat you'll be traveling on, and complete a short quest to find a sail for it, which you then map to one of the buttons on your controller. You can furl or unfurl your sail at any time while on the boat, letting you jet along in whichever direction the wind is blowing. For the first voyage between Windfall Island and Dragon Roost Island, all you need to do is point your boat forward, open your sail, and let the wind carry you.
Except, I didn't do that. For reasons that have remained unclear to me in the years that followed, I didn't realize on that first journey that I needed to equip and attach the sail to move faster. So I floated the boat for the entire journey, sail free, moving at a pace that couldn't have been more than a quarter of Link's running speed. A trip that should have taken two minutes instead lasted over half an hour.
As I bobbed slowly though the ocean, the sun set and then rose again. Windfall Island slowly shrank away, and Dragon Roost Island beckoned on the horizon. I never questioned whether or not I was doing the right thing, if the trip was meant to take that long. I settled in and kept a watch over the sea, worried that it might turn angry, or assault me in some way.
People's favorite pieces of entertainment are often influenced not just by their quality, but the conditions under which they played or saw, read or heard them. Folks will tell you that their favorite works changed their life in some meaningful way, or told them more about who they are. I don't know that Wind Waker changed me in any identifiable way, but that slow float between islands is something I've come back to in my head over and over again in the years since, as a metaphor for where my life was at the time.
Wind Waker, as with several Zelda games, is all about growing up. And at 15, there was no greater metaphor for what I was feeling than a slow, terrifying journey across the ocean.
I was 15 when I played and finished Wind Waker, and very unhappy. I was suffering through severe family issues, sudden financial instability, and a crippling lack of self-worth. I was depressed. Not only did I not know what my path forward was, but I wasn't sure if my approaching adulthood would exacerbate my problems or put me in a position to better deal with them. I didn't know if I was ready for what was ahead.
Wind Waker, as with several Zelda games, is all about growing up. It's about stepping outside of the bubble you've lived your life in and contending with the wider world that has previously been closed off to you. At 15, there was no greater metaphor for what I was feeling than a slow, terrifying journey across the ocean. Perhaps that's why it never seemed weird to me that the boat moved so slowly—the act of warily watching every horizon, moving slowly and cautiously, the fear of being stranded at sea, it all felt right.
And, of course, I got there in the end. Nothing bad happens on that first trip. You collect some rupees that float up, you watch flocks of seagulls, and you learn that the ocean isn't necessarily totally hostile towards you. I felt like an idiot, later on, when I found out how to use the sail, but my experience going forward was colored by that half hour of fear and trepidation and painfully slow movement that gradually turned into excitement and relief as Dragon Roost Island loomed large in front of me.
Wind Waker wasn't just a game about growing up for me. It was a game that suggested that everything, ultimately, could turn out okay, so long as you could make it through the terrifying parts. I imagine that's not the experience that everyone had, but my early mistake changed everything. There's another moment in Wind Waker I come back to in my head often, far later on, when you get your hands on the Master Sword and the frozen denizens of the sunken Hyrule Castle return to life and attack you. I remember the power of that moment, the feeling of how far Link and I had come together, the confidence I had that I could face whatever the game threw at me. I sometimes wonder how strongly this scene resonated for players who didn't spend half an hour slowly floating through the ocean early in the game.
My mess up in Breath of the Wild makes more sense to me than my Wind Waker slow-float does, although that could just be a matter of proximity. Early in the game, you're given two very broad quests: find and tame the four Divine Beasts, and reclaim your memories. One is the game's secondary major objective (right after "defeat Ganon"), while the other is largely a storytelling device, rewarding you with flashback cutscenes if you can visit the spots portrayed in several photos on the massive world map.
Related, on Waypoint: 'Breath of the Wild' Is the Zelda Adventure I've Always Wanted
I love the memory quest. I spent a solid two hours trying to find the spots where photos that featured Hyrule Castle in the background were taken, stepping far outside my early-game comfort zone in the process. The areas that are easiest to identify are also the most dangerous, a clever touch that helps to establish the danger of the castle early on. I eventually found a much quieter memory spot by a pond, thanks to another prominent piece of architecture, and traveled back to Impa to fulfill the initial quest's "find one memory" condition.
It was at this point where my misunderstanding led me astray. That objective changed to "find all other memories" after this, and the dot on the map stayed firmly on Impa's home in Kakariko Village. I decided I wouldn't do that, though—I wanted to make a start on those Divine Beasts.
Plenty of writers before me have advocated turning off the mini-map in Breath of the Wild, but I managed to accidentally take things further than this. For the next two days (encompassing at least five hours of play time), I didn't realize that changing my main objective in the menus would point me in the directions of the Divine Beasts. I thought the whole game was going to replicate the memory quest's "just adventure until you find them" structure, and I set off into Hyrule in search of towns.
Half a lifetime has passed since Wind Waker. I turn 30 this year. Things are better for me, much better, but I still struggle sometimes. I feel like I'm not living to my full potential, that I've let myself fall into a rut, that other people are pushing themselves further than I am, and that I'm letting myself down in too many ways. I don't need a game to tell me that everything could work out anymore. I need experiences that challenge me, projects that remind me that I'm capable, that I can take control of my circumstances. Breath of the Wild has given me that.
For two days, I felt like a cross between a surveyor and a detective as I explored Hyrule, activating towers and hunting for clues. I knew that there were four races to look out for, and from general chatter with other players that most of them had headed to Zora's Domain first, although these conversations never went far enough for me to discern that this wasn't just a pure coincidence, and that they had actually just gone to the glowing point on the map that was closest to Kakariko Village.
Exploring with no sense of where the objectives are fundamentally changes Breath of the Wild. I started to really unpack just how much land there was in the game.
Exploring with no sense of where the objectives are fundamentally changes Breath of the Wild. I searched wider than I might have otherwise, scaling mountains to seek out life, trekking through swampy jungles and across windswept plains and over dangerous-looking valleys. I started to really unpack just how much land there was in the game, filling out my map and establishing a sense of the game's ecosystem, and what I was or wasn't ready to handle.
This is, I suppose, something that most players have gotten from the game in some form or another—but I'd like to think that my absolute reliance on clues from NPCs represents a rare way to play. I started to really pay attention to what people at ranches, and those wandering the roads, would tell me as I passed them.
Eventually, I noticed that a lot of people were talking about a race of bird people, the Rito, who apparently had a village nearby. I stopped straying too far from the main footpath at this point: I grabbed myself a horse and took off down the road, stopping whenever I'd encounter anything that seemed significant (including an extra memory spot or two), but mostly barreling forward, excited at the prospect of finding a Divine Beast.
Eventually it became very clear that I was minutes away from Rito Village—a merchant I met had just come from there—so I paused to tell a friend about my discovery. It was in this discussion that I finally realized that I could change my primary objective and see where the Divine Beasts were. I wandered into the village, triumphant in my discovery, but also oddly disappointed that there actually was actually an easier in-game method of finding it.
As much as I've continued to love Breath of the Wild, in those first few days I was more aware of my surroundings than I have been since. I was more tuned into the subtle ways my environment guided me, into the acts of cartography that had me observing my map and environment for clues.
Both of my mix-ups, these wrong starts some 14 years apart, have made me reflect on where I am and what I'm doing. As a teenager I drifted alone until I reached the safety of land, and it seemed significant. As an adult I ventured out and found my own path without help, and again it felt special. I can't say for sure whether these mistakes were a result of inattentiveness, or not poking around in the menus enough, or even whether, on some level, these are mistakes I made intentionally. I'm just glad that I found such engaging, rewarding ways to fail.