The Legend Of Zelda: The Wind Waker begins with a myth: Once, a great evil came upon the kingdom of Hyrule, and all seemed lost until a young boy appeared to challenge it. The people called him The Hero Of Time, and he vanquished the evil before mysteriously disappearing. To us, this is likely a familiar tale; it’s the plot of The Legend Of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time, passed on as folklore. But the story doesn’t stop there. It goes on to say that, after much time had passed, the great evil returned. The people, remembering their stories, waited. “Surely The Hero Of Time will come and save us,” they thought. He didn’t, and at the last hour, the people of that kingdom had no recourse but prayer.
It’s an especially grim ending for a prologue to a game that’s remembered for being bright and cartoonish, but the tale’s calamitous conclusion reads as cautionary. The desperate situation in which the denizens of Hyrule found themselves seems to be a result of their own belief. They waited for a hero when none were forthcoming, dooming themselves with blind faith. Despite enacting this same familiar fairy tale journey, Wind Waker takes this warning to heart. It’s a fairy tale against fairy tales, showing reverence for received stories even as it warns that they should not be blindly trusted.
The Link you play as in Wind Waker bears no relation to The Hero Of Time, though he does live in his shadow. When the game begins, he receives the ceremonial green pointy hat and skivvies of Links long past, which he wears for the rest of the game (and as many characters point out—in keeping with the theme of skepticism—are far too warm for ocean living). As his sister is kidnapped and Link crosses paths with the revived Ganondorf (the opening legend’s great evil and the series’ recurring bad guy), he’s forced into The Hero Of Time’s quest: gathering three magical stones, claiming the Master Sword, and fighting the villain. Even the names of the locales he visits point to the way Link is tied up in the same old story. The journey begins on Outset Island. His mid-game test is in the Tower Of The Gods, hearkening back to the turning point of Ocarina Of Time where The Hero Of Time slept for seven years in the intangible Sacred Realm of Hyrule’s goddesses. After emerging from the Tower, Wind Waker’s Link even gets a name to befit the weight of his legacy. He is The Hero Of Winds, inheritor of the mantle of Hero Of Time.
Throughout all of this, Link is accompanied by his faithful talking boat, The King Of Red Lions. If Link is playing the legend’s hero, the King plays the storyteller, weaving Link into the myth by leading him to the magic stones that make way to the Tower Of The Gods. The King also shapes the supporting cast, dragging in Tetra, the leader of a merry band of G-rated pirates who occasionally aid the hero. He insists that she accompany Link to a mysterious portal that opens up after the events at the Tower. It leads to the Hyrule of legend, which has been frozen in time. This was the old land’s ultimate fate. The gods, unable to defy Ganondorf’s might, locked him and the rest of Hyrule away, burying it under the sea.
In the frozen Hyrule, the King’s story finds all its players. He reveals Tetra to be Zelda, the direct descendant of the princess. The King Of Red Lions is revealed to be an avatar of the king of Hyrule, who’s been directing events from afar while remaining a guardian of sorts for the abandoned land. The final player is Ganondorf, who puts everything in place for another retelling of the legend codified in Ocarina Of Time and retold at the beginning of Wind Waker when he invades and sets up shop in Hyrule Castle. The great evil will capture the princess; the Hero will save her and seal the monster away, completing the cycle and leaving it to be renewed again when Ganondorf escapes.
But that’s not what happens. When the time comes for the tale’s players to enact the same choices as their predecessors, they reject the familiar plot. They fashion a new ending, one that demonstrates how Wind Waker’s characters have taken the lessons of its mythological prologue to heart. Even Ganondorf realizes the futility of blindly reenacting the past. He reflects on his actions with some regret. “The winds that blew across the green fields of Hyrule brought something other than suffering and ruin,” he says. “I coveted that wind, I suppose.”
But he seems trapped by the story, gone too far to do anything but play the villain. The heroes, on the other hand, begin to break away. When Ganondorf and Link finally clash, Link’s victory is far more decisive than those of heroes past, who only managed to imprison the evil in some other realm. Here, he stabs the Master Sword through Ganondorf’s head, presumably killing him, and his corpse turns to stone.
The King, too, rethinks the story he’s been telling. Before Link and Ganondorf’s duel, the villain reforms the mythical Triforce, but the King is the one who ends up touching it and using its power to fulfill a single wish: for there to be a future for our heroes. “I have lived regretting the past,” the King says to Link and Tetra. “In that sense, I was the same as Ganondorf. But you… I want you to live for the future.” With that, the seal around Hyrule is broken, and it begins to drown for good along with the King, Ganondorf, and the Master Sword. As Link and Tetra drift back to the surface, watching the old world sink to its death, they’re not the Hero and the Princess. They’re just two kids. By letting go of the past and its recurring players, the King, our storyteller, breaks the recurring Zelda cycle and frees them from its grasp.
Despite how hard Wind Waker initially works to marry the story of its Link to the Links of yore, its ultimate lesson is about correcting and escaping the mistakes of the past. The Hyruleans believed in their myths and neglected their own chance to shape the future, a neglect that led to the destruction of Hyrule. Wind Waker’s heroes take a better path and demonstrate that our ancestors’ stories are inherited, not to be followed blindly, but to be learned from. The final scene shows Link and Tetra (back to her old piratical self) embarking on a journey to find a new life and new land among Wind Waker’s endless seas. Link rides on his old red boat, but its magic is gone. It’s still a vessel but no longer a guide binding him to a predetermined path. This time, Link’s in the lead, and the stories these kids tell will be their own.