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The vast majority of early legitimate critics who have sampled the results are unanimous - the game is the best Zelda yet, and the look serves the game well. There is still a vocal Internet section which still has skepticism, even disdain for the look of the game. Some even go so far as to admit it will probably be an excellent game but they still refuse to accept the new look. Part of this is due to the fact that some Zelda footage was shown in 2000 when Nintendo unveiled the GameCube for the first time and in this footage Link & Ganon look realistic, not cartoonish. Perhaps part of the disdain is the shock of the change.
Personally, my take is this - the creators of the original The Legend of Zelda for the NES in 1986 (many of which, including Miyamoto, are still with the game's development team), always wanted Zelda to be a cartoon. They even tried to make the Nintendo 64 games a cartoon, but it didn't work out too well with the capabilities of the hardware. They might lose some customers with this move but I for one think it's great that they have the resources and backing to even try anything new.
And they're using cell shading, which has been used to some degree in games recently. But personally, games like Jet Set Radio and Dragon's Lair 3D never looked all that much like cartoons to me - they looked like Daria or Clerks, a very exaggerated thick-lined style. I've played a short demo of Wind Waker and it looks like a real cartoon - and we're talking top notch Disney Animated Feature stuff, too.
This got me thinking - when a movie like Treasure Planet tanks and Ice Age does well the pundits start thinking that traditional 2-D animation is dead and 3-D computer-generated animation is the way of the future. I say why can't we do both? Just do the traditional 2-D animated Lilo & Stitch stuff with the engines like Wind Waker runs on. And who needs Pixar's render farms? Wind Waker runs on a stock $149 GameCube. Hell, wouldn't that be cool - an animated cartoon you can watch in different ways in your living room since it's being rendered on the fly.
The other way this release is noteworthy is due to its preorder bonus. I've preordered mine and if you haven't yet you might want to get on that. The preorder bonus, which ships on February 17th, is a GameCube disc which has two games on it - The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time Master Quest. There's some confusion on this, so I'll clear it up.
The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time is of course the 1998 Nintendo 64 game which won pretty much every award in the world which Half-Life didn't win.
In 1996 when development began on the game the largest cartridge ROM size was 8MB (8 Megabytes, 64 Megabits). Nintendo was in the unfortunate spot of unveiling a cartridge based system in a CD-ROM based world, so they quickly announced that a CD-ROM drive add-on for the Nintendo 64 would be forthcoming. Shortly thereafter they changed their tune and announced the 64DD, a removable disk-based storage device which used large magnetic disks (think Zip drive) that were 64MB (256 Megabits) in size. Nintendo decided they needed a killer app for the system, and they decided that the Nintendo 64 Zelda game would be a good match, so development of the title started with the 64DD in mind.
The 64DD, in addition to having more storage capability, also allowed for the writing of data on parts of the disk, had an internal clock, and came with a 4MB memory upgrade. However, as time went on it kept being delayed, to the point where games which were formerly for the drive were being repositioned for cartridges. When Nintendo lost out in 1997's Christmas buying season, the heat was on for Zelda to be delivered on time for the 1998 season, so it was squeezed onto a cartridge.
At the time the biggest cart was 32MB, so this meant that a certian amount of the game had to be cut out. In addition, changes to the existing game were made for various reasons of clarity. The plan was then to program the cartridge game with 64DD "hooks", so that a 64DD add-on disk could be released later on and the removed portions restored, and both the Japanese and American cartridges were released with these hooks programmed in. When the cartridge was teamed with the 64DD add-on disk, which was to be called Ura Zelda, the original game was playable.
But the 64DD was repeatedly delayed. In Japan the device didn't make sense since the Nintendo 64 never sold all that well and in America it didn't make sense since it would segment the user base. In addition it had the same problem which plagued the Famicom Disk System in the days of the Famicom/NES - eventually its main draw (that magnetic disk space was cheaper than solid state media) was rendered obsolete by technology advances. It was released in Japan in 2000 with eight titles, didn't sell, and was declared a dud. I've read conflicting reports on wheteher or not the Ura Zelda disk was actually released, but I don't think it was. The 64DD was never released in America.
So what then is The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time Master Quest then? Simple, it's Ura Zelda. Consequently, anyone who preorders The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker in the United States will finally get to play the original uncut Ocarina of Time.
This move isn't unprecedented. The game which was released in America as Super Mario Bros. 2 for the NES was a modification of a Japanese game called Doki Doki Panic (which was why it was so radically different than Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Bros. 3). The Japanese version of Super Mario Bros. 2 was basically the Super Mario Bros. engine with different levels, released for the aforementioned Famicom Disk System. I've heard various reasons over the years as to why Nintendo did this (everything from the levels being too hard for American kids to the idea that Americans might not want to pay for another game made on dated technology), but it saw the light of Eastern shores when the SNES title Super Mario All-Stars featured upgraded versions of the SMB trilogy, along with the Japanese SMB2 under the title The Lost Levels.
Switching gears back to Zelda, the series is an odd one for continuity. Essentially, there isn't any. The general crux is that the player controls a character called Link who lives in the Kingdom of Hyrule and he either needs to rescue the Princess Zelda from the clutches of Ganon, or he gets transported to a mysterious faraway land (usually shipwrecked or somesuch) and must right some wrong before he can go home. Half of the games are Link saving Zelda from Ganon, the other games involve Link mysteriously transported. Some believe (as I do) that the games are essentially retellings of each other, eschewing things like upgrades in favor of simply keeping the basic elements in place and redoing the rest. Others believe that the series is in fact a long series of continuous events, meaning that either Link and Zelda continuously pretend as if they didn't just get finished with this "save the princess" routine, or they're descendants of the other Link & Zelda (and of course Ganon's a descendant, too). One theory I read was that there are in fact three Links and three Zeldas.
My take is the former, that these games are simply "timeless" characters and the story is simply being retold. Why not? It still works. No one questions why the characters in Soul Calibur need to get back together and fight (though in the GameCube version of Soul Calibur II, Link is a playable character). Some say that every Zelda game is essentially the same thing - but it still works. And so what if the basic gameplay mechanic is unchanged from the Nintendo 64 Zelda games - those worked, too.
Anywho, I'm going to go home and play The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, the second (released) Nintendo 64 Zelda game which I never did finish...