Review by Amanda “AJ” Lange
The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess
Released Nov 2006
Available for Nintendo Gamecube, Wii (version played)
Time Played 55 hours
…a game I highly recommend for fantasy lovers. … However, it is not flawless.
We are on the cusp of a new Legend of Zelda release: Skyward Sword, a game that is getting much attention for its increased Wiimote control fidelity and some reported shakeups of the old-fashioned Zelda formula. Meanwhile, I finished Twilight Princess, its immediate predecessor, around a month ago and for the first time. Nintendo lags far behind its competition in dropping its flagship titles to a price point that I like, and the drop for Twilight Princess to a twenty-dollar, as opposed to premium-price title, occured only recently, around the release of the 3DS edition of another Zelda classic, Ocarina of Time. Thus I purchased Twilight Princess on a gift card splurge, and logged about 55 hours with the title over the course of a month.
According to Metacritic, Ocarina of Time on the 3DS is pretty good, but maybe a few percentage points less good than Ocarina of Time when it’s not on the 3DS. This might be a bit perplexing unless you look closer, seeing that some critics give it the same perfect score others did the original, while others are evaluating its strengths as a remake, only, hampered slightly by the unpopular 3DS hardware.
This brings us to Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess by a roundabout road, because it’s also a remake of Ocarina of Time, in almost every sense that matters. I’m not of the long-held belief that Ocarina is the perfect game. I think a lot of what makes Ocarina what it is is tied up within the era in which it was released. I can’t explain this feeling as well as Jon Irwin, who wrote a piece reviewing Ocarina of Time not long ago at Kill Screen, while I was embroiled in Twilight Princess to the exclusion of other games. The author’s prose is lyrical, and worth reading, but here is the essence of his thesis: “I worry I am now too old for this game.” I also played Ocarina a bit later than most, so my own experience with it wasn’t the apparently seminal experience journalists had with the title when it was new. If you pop in the original (not remake) Ocarina this day and age, it’s hard to get over the reaction that the game isn’t terribly attractive. The primitive 3D graphics haven’t aged well, leaving behind jagged polygons and ragged textures. If you haven’t experienced Ocarina, the remade version (though I haven’t seen it yet) presumably dulls the pain in this regard.
Twilight Princess, however, is attractive, despite what people might say about the Wii’s inferior hardware capacity. Other than a few “Twilight Realm” segments, when the landscape is hit with a sepia wash, the world of Hyrule is bright with color. The pink and blue cast of dawn flickers across craggy ridges and watercolor treetops. Bright days can suddenly give way to dramatic rainstorms, then the brilliant sun peeks out through the clouds. Characters are also well-animated, from the adorable squealing of the Bug Princess to the wary bristling of Link’s wolf form when he enters combat. There are only a few missteps here – I do have to wonder what they were thinking when they designed the Oocoo, a race of chickens with disturbing human heads. But I’m fond of most of the enemy critters, such as the overworld creatures that are essentially goblins, lizardmen, wyverns and orcs, which make me feel as if I’m playing the Dungeons and Dragons game I didn’t realize I wanted. I wouldn’t mistake its style for realism – it’s still using highly stylized graphics, especially where the faces of most characters are concerned – but it is not as “toonish” as Zeldas such as Windwaker which bracketed it.
You don’t need me to go over what the game is about, do you? It is the Legend of Zelda. You play as Link (unless you decide to name him otherwise), the presumed reincarnation of a great destined hero who starts out life as a simple farmboy (as Joseph Campbell has written, so it shall be). After a hard day of herding goats (a nice touch, in my opinion, as good a method as ever of showcasing a boring everyday prior life) and solving townspeople’s mundane problems using his inexplicable falconry skills, Link is then pulled, bodily, by literal grasping hands, in to an adventure. He is transformed in to a wolf by dark magic, and saddled with an annoying but useful companion named Midna who promises him freedom from his curse as long as he helps her collect various powerful items scattered throughout Hyrule. Thus Link will receive a sword, a shield, a boomerang and a bow, and go on adventures that involve themed dungeons and will seem otherwise familiar. The game tries to confuse you by presenting only three dungeons at the start, but you’d be silly to fall for that if you’re familiar with the formula.
From a level design and pacing perspective, the game is, on paper, flawless. Every dungeon area is bracketed with an overworld exploration area, which may include a few minigames or puzzles to add some variety. I say “on paper,” because, in practice, this pacing feels a little padded. When the back of the box says “the biggest Zelda ever,” what they mean by that is that it’s the longest. Someone said what they really wanted from Zelda was a 50-hour epic, and that’s what this is. Some journalists or web commenters say they beat this at around 20 hours, but that must be gunning it at high speed, with very little exploration, mistakes, or backtracking. My run was close to, though not quite, a hundred percent. (The missing percents are composed of ghosts and snowboarding.) Skyward Sword, they claim, will be longer! You will want extra batteries for your Wiimote, and probably an ice pack for the handcramps.
If you explore Twilight Princess thoroughly, spending the full time with it that the designers have touted, the difficulty curve can actually feel a little backwards. The game gives you access to new sword techniques as it progresses, adding to a sense of overall mastery, and you feel a lot stronger near the end of the game than you did at the start. But as a result of this, the end game feels easier even if the dungeons are more complex. Early minigame sections, particularly any that involve horseback, are the most unforgiving parts of the game and caused more deaths by frustration for me than anything in the second half. If falling off a cliff takes away one heart, it’s a much bigger threat in the early game, when you have three, than it is in the later game where you may easily have fifteen.
Meanwhile, the forced wolf segments, when you lose your adventuring gear and succumb to the animal curse, aren’t very hard, but I’m not sure how much they add. The early ones are mainly about finding hidden objects in the environment in places you can’t easily reach. There’s a lot of standing around going… “How do I get up there? Do I jump there? Do I dig? Is there a window I can break? Augh.” All of this may have added a bit to my play time without adding too much to my enjoyment.
On the other hand, the bosses in this game are great, all the way up to the last. I thought at first that Twilight Princess owed a great deal to Shadow of the Colossus, one of my favorite action games from the Playstation 2 generation. Then I looked up a timeline, and realized that the games are actually contemporaries. A boss battle where Link jabs his sword, one handed, in to the weak point of a thrashing serpentine monster while music swells seemed a little close to the hilt to me, if you’ll pardon the pun. But I can only assume that it’s a coincidence given the development timing. Like in Shadow, music is reactive to the battles in some cases and does alter appropriately when the target spot on a monster is found. You also may find yourself riding a horse, a lot, but you won’t do this unmolested, since even on horseback the land of Hyrule is crawling with enemies. Later in the game, you’ll see orc-like enemies riding wild boars, a D&D staple. I was frustrated with these guys always being underfoot, but, at least you can hijack the boars.
Your sidekick, Midna, is irritating at first, but she’ll grow on you. Both in terms of execution, and just in personality, she’s a lot better than Navi ever was. Plus, early on in the game, you can tell from body language that Link is irritated with her, which I like. Her context-sensitive clues are usually (though, not always) actually helpful to the particular situation, and she doesn’t (again, usually) bother you with them without your permission.
Ranged weapons are also much better than they were in Ocarina, at least if you’re playing on the Wii. The Wiimote turns a difficult action, like trying to fire arrows while on horseback, into a matter of point-and-click. But some secondary weapons do add to the padded-out feeling of the game. For example I’m not sure I was really yearning for a Zelda game to include extreme-sports rail grinding on the back of a spinning metal top. And that spinning ball and chain! When Link puts it back in to his pocket, and his heavy steps get twice as light, I wonder where the hell he’s storing the thing. It was included to break down ice barriers, and the ice barriers were included so the ball and chain would have something to break.
I often find myself wishing Link would speak more, because that would make his life much easier. It would allow him to explain his story to people who ask, and solve several puzzles much more easily. We know Link can speak, since he tells his story to the mayor of his hometown early on in the game, but he doesn’t choose to do this later to anyone else, even if it would save him a lot of work. It would also allow me to start up flirtations with the eligible girls in the game. I’ve found myself wishing I could flirt with them even if it wasn’t going to go anywhere. The game makes an attempt to build wordless sexual tension in a cutscene involving the “girl next door”… which is pointless, because she isn’t Princess Zelda, and we know how these stories go. Still, I would flirt with girls in this game even if getting shot down was guaranteed. I want a mod called “Leisure Suit Link.” But I know it’s dangerous to want Link to talk, since so many of us felt betrayed when Samus Aran started providing her own dialog. So I could say “I wish this game had conversation options,” but then you say it wouldn’t be Zelda, and I guess I’d have to concede that point. The little shakeups being what they may, Zelda games can do nothing but be Zelda games at this point in their heritage.
Reviews that were written when the title came out raved, but kept asking the question: is Twilight Princess better than Ocarina? I’m here to claim that it is. This could be written off as a matter of opinion, but, since the games are almost the same game, the comparison is so easy to make that you can do it by bullet points. Better graphics? Absolutely. Better sound? Some of the musical tricks aren’t as clever, but a lot of the songs are exactly the same, so it’s at least a draw. Better controls? Definitely. Better characters? Mostly. Better level design? It’s about the same, but with less sticking points like Ocarina’s infamous water-themed levels, so, let’s go with: yes.
Yet I’ve heard people characterize Twilight Princess as, in retrospect, “forgettable.” And if you’ve read reviews of the 3DS re-release, even Ocarina, again, can not really be Ocarina again. So Ocarina again, but better, can’t give you that either. Some things are tied forever to a particular time and place, tied to the person you were when you encountered them. By pure logical proof, Ocarina of Time can’t be the best game ever made. And yet maybe it was for you because it just was, that day, and nothing can be the same. This is why as a reviewer I’ll probably always be hesitant to stick scores on things, despite that being the format of the site. The video game in particular is a medium which is hard to separate entirely from its context.
Twilight Princess is a game I highly recommend for fantasy lovers. You don’t need me to say that, though, since you probably already played it ages ago if you wanted it, and I was the only person who wanted to wait to buy it for twenty dollars. However, it is not flawless, nor are the flaws it does have the kind of flaws that will make it stick, the kind of creative unique flaws that demand a game stand up and be counted. That’s why my rating for the game is “almost perfect…” a rating that would’ve made some angry when it was released, but I wager seems pretty logical now that it’s on its fifth birthday. It’s very possible that Skyward Sword will release soon to the same perfect fives and tens as any other Zelda game. But only history can judge if it holds up to these expectations five years later. Twilight Princess, mostly, does.
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