Four men sit in a dimly lit conference room. Their expressions are impassive as they watch Nintendo’s conference at E3 2003. The next year finds the same four IGN reporters sitting on a couch as they watch a remote broadcast of Nintendo’s presentation. They erupt into motion, their excitement comically evident on their faces. This dramatic pair of photos has become a meme, with the storytelling of the images surviving long past the memory of their original context.
It was May 2004, and Nintendo had just announced the development of Twilight Princess at E3. Inside the auditorium, the ecstatic cheering of the crowd was so uproarious that it drowned out the soaring orchestral music. A video recording of this announcement posted on YouTube in 2012 has more than 1.5 million views, and hundreds of people have left nostalgic comments on how magical and legendary this moment felt to them.
This is a far cry from the North American reception of The Wind Waker, which was widely mocked by Legend of Zelda series fans just a year previously. Today, The Wind Waker is widely regarded as a classic that helped to establish the potential of open-world environments. Twenty years ago, however, the game’s reception was far less positive. Why were fans so upset about The Wind Waker, and what has changed since then?
The initial disappointment regarding The Wind Waker was largely a result of its cel-shaded graphic style, which was seen as a betrayal of the maturity that the gaming medium was developing in tandem with many millennial gaming fans. In the early 2000s, mature-audience titles such as Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, and Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell were widely lauded for the political impact of their stories along with the realism of their graphic design. As excitement surrounding photorealistic graphics has faded in favor of an appreciation for stylized art direction, however, The Wind Waker managed to weather the test of time and take its place among the pantheon of outstanding works in the development of an emerging medium.
The 1998 N64 game Ocarina of Time was an unqualified success for Nintendo. Not only was it an instant bestseller at the time, but it still continues to receive critical acclaim more than 25 years after its release. A slightly modified version of the original N64 game has been continually popular on Nintendo’s Virtual Console online storefronts, and a graphically remastered version helped drive initial sales of the Nintendo 3DS handheld console. In addition, thriving internet subcultures devoted to making videos of speedruns, annotated walkthroughs, and meta commentaries on the game have helped bolster the game’s evergreen popularity.
Ocarina of Time’s direct sequel, Majora’s Mask, has also enjoyed an extended shelf life due to the efforts of a cult following, which has generated internet-famous fan theories about the eeriness of its setting. At the time of its initial release in 2000, the time-travel gameplay mechanics of Majora’s Mask were not entirely self-explanatory, and the drive to share information and theories about the game coincided with the increased availability of high-speed internet access, especially on college campuses. Partially because Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask were so widely discussed on online forums, the Legend of Zelda series ascended to an appropriately legendary status that transcended the games themselves.
At the turn of the millennium, expectations for the new Legend of Zelda game on the next-generation GameCube console were high. Four months after the release of Majora’s Mask, Nintendo showcased several tech demos for the GameCube at Space World, its annual in-house trade show in Tokyo. One of these demos was a 25-second video depicting a battle between Link and Ganondorf, the villain of Ocarina of Time. The animation is fluid and dynamic, with the thin cloth of Ganondorf’s cape fluttering delicately around him as he moves. The environmental textures of the setting are impressively detailed for the time, and the shadows of the two men dance over the mosaic tiles of the floor. Halfway through the battle, the camera zooms out to show more of the interior of a castle, which is ornamented by curved staircases and hanging tapestries.
Between the eye-catching savagery of the fight and the atmospheric darkness of its setting, it seemed as though the Legend of Zelda game released for the GameCube would be more mature in tone. Like the generation of gamers who cut their teeth on Ocarina of Time, the Zelda series was growing up.
When Nintendo presented The Wind Waker in a video showcased at Space World 2001, however, the tone and visual style were a complete about-face from the previous year’s hardware demo. Instead of a teenage hero fighting amidst the shadows of a gothic castle, Link was a child rendered in brightly colored cartoon graphics. The large head and wide eyes of the character design do not emphasize Link’s fierceness, but rather his cuteness.
Despite his childlike appearance, Link bravely battles a large and piglike Moblin whose dangling lower lip wags comically as the creature brandishes a spear. More Moblins join the fight, and Link seems to flee to safety—a clever plot that tricks his pursuers into running off a platform. They dangle precariously in the air like Wile E. Coyote, and their porcine faces spout streams of tears as they realize their plight. Link faces the camera, raises an eyebrow, and winks at the viewer in a scene straight from a DreamWorks movie.
When screenshots of this video were published in America, the comments spread across the internet in an explosively negative chain reaction. This reception inspired Peer Schneider, one of IGN’s founders, to renew his lapsed “Hyrule Times” column. In “The Shock,” the first edition of the column’s reboot in August 2001, Schneider addresses the flood of comments posted immediately after IGN shared the Space World trailer for The Wind Waker. He summarizes the fan reaction as “consternation, confusion, shock, anger, dismay” and describes the assumption that the screenshots were “nothing but a bad joke.”
Schneider then argues that, on the contrary, it might make sense for the visual design of the next Legend of Zelda game to go in a new direction. He quotes Shigeru Miyamoto’s comments that Nintendo prioritizes innovation, and that the company sets itself apart from its competitors by creating games that are eye-catching and distinctive. If Nintendo tried to create a dark, gritty, and photorealistic Zelda game, it would not be able to stand out from the majority of the games published for the PlayStation 2 console, which had just been released in the previous year along with a slew of first-person shooters and military adventure games like Silent Scope and X-Squad.
Although the opinions of the other IGN staff writers appear to be mixed, most seemed to be willing to trust the developers at Nintendo. “I honestly believe that once all of the initial craziness dies down and the shock of the all-new look fades away, everyone will remember why they’ve loved the series so much and will get used to, and even grow to love, the new look,” Schneider concludes. After all, while Metal Gear Solid and Devil May Cry are excellent examples of how video games have “grown up”—not every video game needs to reference real-world geopolitics or revel in edgy ultraviolence. In any case, Schneider adds, it would probably be better to play The Wind Waker before judging it.
The following week’s edition of “Hyrule Times” (which was appropriately titled “Reader Backlash”) nevertheless contained an extended discussion of even stronger and more negative reactions, a trend continued through the limited run of the column. In a Reddit thread from 2021, a poster suggests that mainstream video game fandom was entering a “teenage phase.” In other words, the poster argues, “Gamers wanted to be taken seriously, and for games to not be considered toys. So they shunned anything that could be considered childish.” And indeed, many people who posted comments about The Wind Waker on IGN forums in 2001 seemed to feel personally insulted, as if Nintendo were treating them like children.
As Schneider noted, Nintendo was struggling to compete against the PlayStation and PlayStation 2, both of which sold in record numbers. The Wind Waker reflects what was emerging as Nintendo’s embrace of its “Blue Ocean Strategy.” Namely, the company was attempting to create a new, “blue” market separate from the intense competition that had already stained the waters of the gaming industry red with blood.
As gaming journalist Jeff Ryan explains in his book Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America, Nintendo was courting younger players, as well as players who might be put off by graphic depictions of violence. The company finally hit its stride in 2004 with the release of the Nintendo DS handheld console, and The Wind Waker served as a preview of the meticulously crafted and imminently accessible games that would encourage sales of the DS for almost a decade.
Eventually, despite issues stemming from a rushed production schedule, The Wind Waker was well received by the gaming press in Japan, North America, and Europe in 2003, as was its remastered release for the WiiU in 2013. The Wind Waker’s cel-shaded graphics continue to shine in a red ocean of gritty photorealism, and Legend of Zelda fans have grown to appreciate the game’s surprisingly “mature” story of ruined kingdoms and frustrated ambitions.
The gradual shift in the reception of The Wind Waker is interesting in the context of contemporary gaming culture, in which long development cycles are offset against rapid-fire fandom communication and speculation on social media. This is especially relevant given the fervor of the conversation surrounding the upcoming release of Tears of the Kingdom, which must contend with the accumulation of almost four years’ worth of conversation since Nintendo released the game’s first teaser trailer in June 2019.
In response to the Nintendo Direct videos showcasing gameplay elements of Tears of the Kingdom prior to its release in May 2023, Tumblr user @thebreathofthewild wrote:
TOTK feels like peak nintendo philosophy in that they clearly spent 98% of their time developing and polishing new gameplay mechanics meanwhile the story is probably “link. zelda fell in a hole. gotta get her.”
@thebreathofthewild’s post on Tears of the Kingdom echoes the criticisms levied against The Wind Waker, namely, that Nintendo has failed to grow up along with its fans. I have to admit that I agree with this Tumblr post, as well as its extended commentary. While I don’t mind goofy gameplay mechanics, I’m tired of the damseled princess trope. Ideally, I’d also like for Tears of the Kingdom to have a villain who transcends imperialist stereotypes of angry outsiders from marginalized territories. I’m a fan of the innovative gameplay and brilliant dungeon design of the Legend of Zelda games, but I also want to enjoy an interesting and complicated story that feels appropriate to a polished and engaging work of art.
For better or worse, gamers have grown up, and video games have developed as an artistic medium alongside us. In the case of The Wind Waker, the Legend of Zelda fandom has matured enough to appreciate the depth of the game’s story and design, as well as the unique character of its graphic style. Meanwhile, the challenge Tears of the Kingdom will face is that many of the younger players who embraced Breath of the Wild are now seven years older, and they expect the game’s sequel to reflect the seven years of cultural progression they experienced alongside gaming fandom on social media, from the #MeToo movement to Black Lives Matter.
To return to the Twilight Princess reaction meme referenced at the beginning of this essay, the image of four men watching the screening of an E3 announcement in a dimly lit convention center is a time capsule from 2004. Almost twenty years later, the image of video game fandom has significantly changed. Nintendo successfully navigated intense competition to find its “blue ocean,” and the audience for video games has expanded and diversified.
It would be difficult for one game to satisfy the demands of all players, of course. Regardless, the initial reception of The Wind Waker marked a meaningful sea change. Generations of adults now take it for granted that video games are a legitimate means of creative expression. Now that landmark titles like Breath of the Wild have emerged as a form of modern mythology shared by generations of people who have grown up in virtual worlds, it’s impossible for the medium of video games to return to its childhood.
Kathryn is a writer and comic artist who lurks at the center of a digital labyrinth in Philadelphia. They tweet about books, plants, and video game villains as @kathrynthehuman.