By Erik Wolpaw
Updated May 02, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT

The most surprising thing about Wind Waker is how long it takes to realize that the last word in the title isn’t walker. (We’re still not convinced.) Other than that, the newest installment in Nintendo’s long-running action-adventure franchise sticks pretty closely to the formula put in place by the most beloved entry in the Zelda series, 1998’s The Ocarina of Time. Though the fundamentals may not have changed much, every element that made Ocarina so great has been spit-shined to a high polish that makes Wind Walk — um, Waker feel almost new again.

In an odd twist, this game doesn’t actually star the elfin hero Link we know from every previous Zelda title. Instead, the adventure centers on a young boy whose grandmother gives him a homemade Link costume just before his sister is kidnapped by a giant bird. Before you can say huh?, one thing leads to another, and soon he and his little green suit embark on a quest to save the world. And the world, in this game, is a series of islands separated by vast stretches of ocean. In place of Ocarina’s horse, Wind Waker features a talking boat that, in addition to transporting you from land to land, is also prone to dispensing advice.

As in previous Zelda games, the quest involves exploring a series of dungeons in an effort to find the items that unlock the next series of dungeons — all of which leads to a final showdown with the world-imperiling boss. The tricky part is figuring out how to get from one place to another. Wind Waker’s puzzles — generally requiring both careful observation and the logical use of various items — are crafty and well-thought-out: Successfully solving them will cause satisfied grins to break out on even the most jaded of players. During its last third, the game drags a bit as the puzzles are replaced by an item-fetching quest that, unfortunately, requires more dogged persistence than any kind of enjoyable problem solving. Thankfully, things pick up again in time for the grand finale.

The game has its shortcomings: Though there’s plenty of dialogue, it’s all presented as written text. The only sounds emitted by the characters are sighs, chirps, moans, and various other nonsense sounds. In such a polished game, this lack of voice acting is a jarring oversight.

Still, it’s immediately forgivable because Wind Waker’s visuals are truly spectacular. The game employs a technique called ”’toon shading” that uses bright colors, clean lines, and simple geometric shapes to re-create the look and feel of traditional cel animation used in TV and movies. The highly stylized characters are brought to life with surprisingly complex facial animations that not only lend them plenty of personality but also make them appear much more alive than the inexpressive mannequins that populate more traditionally ”realistic” titles. This process, combined with addictive gameplay, makes Wind Waker the first videogame that looks and plays like an interactive cartoon.