Fleet Week: THE WIND WAKER and the Never Ending War of Childhood

“Stories about childhood and adolescence are so fascinating and resonate with so many people, because it’s what shaped you into who you are now. Those emotions are so raw and real that they never leave you.” Professor Rose, one of my favorite English professors, was always right.

Time is weird. It’s a currency that only the rich and retired can truly afford to spend. You can absolutely waste time the way retirees burn through their long saved money in a casino. Depending on how you spend your time, it can come with interest. That interest being how your past shapes your future. Recently, for me, I’ve finally started paying off the interest from my childhood.

“Bruh, what does any of this have to do with Fleet Week? You ain’t mention a boat or a fleet once yet.” Fair point, Random Internet Person.

Action-adventure has been my favorite genre and form of escapism since I came out of the womb, and The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker is my favorite action-adventure game that just so happens to be my favorite game of all time. It also happens to be the first video game that I ever played to heavily feature a boat as your main mode of transportation. It’s a major part of the game, and the magical, titular conductor’s baton allows the player to change the direction of the winds. You even, eventually, get a cannon to defend yourself. The sailing gameplay, as well as the cel-shaded cartoon art style, turned a lot of people off before the game came out. It took a little longer for me.

Wind Waker follows a young boy named Link, as does every game in the Zelda franchise. Link’s age and backstory changes to fit the narrative from game to game, but the story almost always revolves around him, an evil wizard/warlock named Ganon, and the titular Princess Zelda. Wind Waker starts off on Link’s birthday, which is also his big Coming Of Age. On Outset Island, Link’s home, it’s customary for boys to wear the iconic green tunic that’s become synonymous with this world’s ancient hero, when they come of a certain age. When we first meet Link, he’s awoken from a nap by his younger sister, Aryll, who chastises him for being lazy. He’s not exactly doing anything heroic, he’s just a kid trying to live his best life. Until Aryll gets kidnapped by a giant bird.

“Yo, pigeons be wildin’ fam.”

Aryll’s kidnapping leads to an incredibly heartbreaking scene: Link’s grandmother hands him the family shield. In typical Zelda fashion, Link turns around triumphantly, holding the shield over his head. As you receive the family heirloom, the classic triumphant “new item” music plays. But, in the background, Link’s grandmother is on the verge of tears. The look on Link’s own face is a mix of anxiety and sadness. He’s a young boy, about to embark on a grand journey, and it starts with his sister getting kidnapped, and his grandma going nearly comatose from the depression. All on his birthday. And, sadly, Link’s journey doesn’t seriously begin until after a failed rescue attempt of his sister and other kidnapped girls.

“So, uh, how does a boat factor into this?” Link’s main guide throughout this entire game is his trusty talking boat, the King of Red Lions. “Wait wha–”

Upon being caught, Link is tossed across the Great Sea by the very bird who kidnapped his sister. However, we see that the bird takes orders from a man shrouded in shadows. We learn a few minutes later from the King of Red Lions, after he saves Link from drowning, that the man is really the evil wizard Ganon. This is when the King asks our hero Link to answer the call to save his sister, and then defeat Ganon to save the world from his vile monsters and magic. You later come to find out that the King of Red Lions is actually King Daphnes Nohansen Hyrule, the last ruler of the kingdom of Hyrule.

“Oh! Little homie is best friends with a king king?!”

Upon revealing his identity, King Hyrule explains to Link and his pirate friend Tetra that the Great Sea is actually the flooded kingdom of Hyrule. King Hyrule wasn’t able to defeat this incarnation of Ganon because the “chosen” Hero of Legend never showed up. So, the King sealed himself in the boat in the hopes of someday finding the new Hero, reunite him with the reincarnated Princess Zelda (Pirate Friend Tetra) and hope they can defeat Ganon. Link is meant to be twelve or thirteen in Wind Waker. So is Tetra/Zelda.

During his quest to save the world, Link encounters kaiju-sized monsters, gets into sea battles with both monsters and bandits, and even gets into a fight with a god. Link is fighting for his life at the request of a King who waited for a chosen one instead of taking action. Link was a child fighting a war, alone, and I could relate.

Earlier, I mentioned that I was terrified of everything as a child. I also realized that it was time for me to finally start paying my interest on the time I spent, or lost, during my childhood.  I didn’t realize until recently, thanks to going to therapy for the first time in my life, that my constant fear stemmed from my father. Or, the way my father treated me, my brother, and my mother.

Growing up, I could never guess my dad’s moods. I never knew if I was going to encounter the man who was excited to take my brother and me to see movies like The Lost World: Jurassic Park, or get the man who forgot my 9th birthday and then got mad at my mom for buying me dinner without getting him something. I wasn’t sure if I was going to get the man who was genuinely proud and excited when he read the first creative story I ever wrote for school when I was in 5th grade, or if I was going to get the man who would later chase my brother out of the house for asking him if he was okay. I wasn’t sure if I’d get the man who enjoyed listening to his favorite songs as loudly as possible, or the man who punched me so hard he broke my glasses and cut my face in high school.

I was terrified while playing The Wind Waker as a ten-year-old because I felt the danger that twelve-year-old Link felt. And oftentimes that fear left me feeling lonely because I knew most of my friends didn’t understand what it was like to be scared to go home. They didn’t understand the fear that I felt, and that often left me feeling unbearably lonely.

As I mentioned before, you encounter enemies as you travel the Great Sea. The only indicator you get that an enemy is nearby is the classic Zelda battle music. Being on the open ocean alone, combined with the slightly foreboding music always terrified me as a kid. The worst instance I remember was when I was about halfway through the game and a gyrog, a common shark-like enemy, jumped out of the water, and knocked me off the boat. I rotated the camera and immediately saw 2 more gyrogs swimming for me. I panicked and turned off the game.

I didn’t play the game again for another six months.

The worst kind of violence is the kind you can’t see coming, but once you see it coming you see it everywhere. You see danger in every sudden movement, hear it in certain questions. The violence that you know is always there, always keeps you on eggshells, but you can never see it coming. The kind of violence that stays with you and eventually comes to impact your future relationships in ways never considered.

“Wait, wait, wait. That’s sad and all, but how does loneliness factor into fear?”

Outside of The King of Red Lions, Link travels completely by himself. He meets new people and makes friends, but outside of one dungeon where a character you befriended in the earlier hours of the game aids you, along with Zelda’s aid during the final fight, Link is a boy on a mission to save his sister and the world with the help of an impotent king that set him on this journey in the first place. A failed king, trapped as a boat, sends a 12-year-old boy to war.

One thing I always appreciated most about Wind Waker is that it’s the first game where Link makes faces to express how he feels outside of cutscenes. Every time Link was worried, I was worried. I wasn’t worried merely because I was controlling Link, and in charge of his fate, but because I understood the fear of unexpected anger and violence.

“I dunno fam this don’t sound like war to me. Plus, the kid has family and friends he could visit at any point back home! Sounds like a fun little pleasure cruise for a kid while he learns how to be a hero!”

War is more than just physical violence and brutality. I did not realize how deep the trauma from my father’s abuse ran until I finally had a candid conversation with my mother about it last month. The next day she apologized to me for her part in what my dad had said and done to me. I had to explain to my mom that, while there were times where she enabled him, she was also a victim of his abuse. My mom almost cried when she realized what I said.

I feel like, more than any other franchise in gaming, The Legend of Zelda is ultimately a series of tales about how lonely and violent it is to be a warrior, especially a stereotypical “chosen one.” In every single game, Link is alone. He always has a companion of sorts with him, whether it be Navi the Fairy from Ocarina of Time, or the King of Red Lions, to give him occasional combat tips. I didn’t ever truly become aware of this aspect until Mikey Neumann of FilmJoy and Movies with Mikey (a great series of video essays on YouTube that I highly suggest) pointed this out. Hell, even in Skyward Sword, the game that establishes that Link, Zelda, and Ganon will forever be trapped in a never-ending battle (giving Nintendo infinite narrative fuel and money), gives Link a companion that turns into the series iconic weapon: the Master Sword.

Yes, the first Link’s (Link Prime, if you will) closest friend, a friendly spirit named Fi, who cared so much about Link Prime that she instructs Zelda on how to save him in a later game, gets turned into a weapon that is later wielded by future incarnations of himself. At the end of Skyward Sword, Fi asks Link to put her in the franchise’s iconic pedestal where the Master Sword is always retrieved by Link so she can continue to serve her “purpose.” Right before Link Prime does so, Fi tells him how much she truly valued their friendship and that she hopes that they meet again.

As Link puts Fi in the pedestal, her consciousness begins to fade away into the sword, essentially putting Fi into an endless coma, and leaving her solely as the Master Sword and nothing else.

“Damn, fam. Whoever thought all this shit up must be a messed up dude.” Well, no, actually.

The Legend of Zelda is a franchise that was inspired by childhood adventures. The creator, Shigeru Miyamoto, even told The New Yorker so back in 2010 “He filled his games with his childlike interpretation of the world as a carnival of quirky perils and hidden delights. Hyrule, he once said, is “a miniature garden that you can put into a drawer and revisit anytime you like.” That child-like wonder is essential to Zelda, to the adventure genre, as well as the inherent nature of actual adventuring. But, adventure always comes with danger.

Danger and adventure go hand in hand. Seeing our hero in peril is one of the most exciting aspects of the adventure.

So, when you’re a ten-year-old controlling a twelve-year-old as he sails across an ocean that is actually just a flooded nation, you’re going to be scared. When you’re a warrior destined to repeat the same lonely battles and fight the same lonely wars for the same kings , you’re going to be scared.

But when you’re a ten-year-old who has experienced violence at home, and you play a game where a twelve-year-old loses his sister, sails with pirates to stage a rescue, travels a world filled with monsters, travel back to the fortress he was tossed out of to finally save his sister and several others, and then finally defeat the evil wizard who kidnapped your sister by impaling a magic sword in his head with the help of the princess you befriend, you learn how to face the day to day violence of the world. You learn what true courage in an endless war looks like. You grow into a man, slowly learning how to heal and how to stop hurting those around him.

Professor Rose was always right.