How do you start with a game like Zelda?
Ever since I watched the credits roll and put down my Wii remote, I’ve been asking myself that question. How can I pass judgment on a certified masterpiece, a game that shares the same league with Metal Gear Solid, Half-Life, Deus Ex and System Shock 2? After much stalling, I’ve concluded that I should just start at the beginning and go from there.
I’m not going to tell you that The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess is a great game. You know that already. I’m not going to tell you that Nintendo has pushed the envelope, or that Shigeru Miyamoto is a design genius, or that yes, the Wii really does work! All of those things are established facts. I will tell you how and why Twilight Princess is a great game, and why I think Miyamoto has figuratively painted himself into a corner—which is fine by me, because he is conceivably the only person I can imagine who could get himself out of that corner.
There are certainly those who will contest the fact that Twilight Princess is game of the year material, and they are entitled to their opinion. GN’s own Cyril Lachel thought that the new Zelda was too derivative of its predecessors, and he thought that Clover’s Okami was a more original game. He’s probably right. Let me state, however, that I believe Twilight Princess’s close ties to its family make it the best—and last—of its kind. I’ll elaborate on that belief as this review progresses, but for now I’ll explain just why Twilight Princess is the best launch title for the Wii in the traditional sense, and the most fitting swan song for the GameCube.
Playing Twilight Princess will not be a defining experience, the way playing Ocarina of Time or even Mario 64 was. Wii Sports does a better job of conveying the true purpose of the new controller, and that is why it is the pack-in game and Zelda is not. Twilight Princess is not the first step in a new journey, but the last step in the previous one. It is over a decade of refinement, a collection of ideas that have been in the Zelda franchise since A Link to the Past.
If you have been apprehensive about the addition of Wii controls, let me assure you that there is nothing to fear. The implementation of the new controls enhances and refines the experience past anything that was possible on the GameCube, and I personally feel that the Wii version of Twilight Princess is the definitive one.
All of Link’s primary actions have been mapped to hand movements, so hurling rocks or pumpkins is as simple as a flick of the wrist. After a short, amusing side quest to obtain the slingshot, I was given a shooting lesson by the local children. As you can imagine, it is as simple as pointing the remote at the desired target and firing. In a small homage to the original 1986 Zelda, Link’s first weapon in Twilight Princess is a wooden sword. While not one-to-one, the Wii sword control is definitely more intuitive than mashing a button. Twitching my hand back and forth resulted in quick slashes, while strong, definite, Z-targeted moves translated into brutal blows. A new feature of this game is the ability to swing the sword while running. Instead of grinding to a halt, Link will use one hand to mete out quick, weak blows as he runs.
I suspect this ability was created to showcase the dynamic, freeform nature of the remote. In his travels Link learns many new techniques for his blade that seem specifically tailored to the Wii, although they have more traditional (and less visceral) execution methods in the GameCube version. Bashing an enemy with the shield or performing a surprise behind strike is accomplished with hand movements that feel natural and intuitive. Even with the addition of new moves, fans can rest assured that Link’s traditional attacks are included in Twilight Princess. The signature spin attack is still in fine form, but unleashed by shaking the nunchuk attachment rapidly. I found this preferable to charging up the spin attack as I did in previous games—it let me hold the attack in reserve as a last resort.
Each of these movement-augmented abilities is incorporated into more advanced combat, for example the mounted battles that occur once Link travels out onto the awe-inspiringly massive Hyrule Field. For the first time Link can wield his sword while riding, and even perform a variant of the spin attack.
Mounted archery returns from Ocarina, with a few of the same limitations. I initially disliked these boundaries. I wanted to steer my horse and aim my bow at the same time, much like a dual-analog FPS. Only later did I realize this limitation was intentional; if Link is aiming his bow with both hands, he can’t very well hold onto the reins at the same time. Twilight Princess is filled with many such examples of Miyamoto’s pervasive attention to detail.
As the plot evolves out of the familiar Zelda formula, the gameplay makes an accompanying left turn. And then things get very interesting.
The village children are kidnapped, Link’s young love interest is skewered through the back with an arrow, and our hero is clubbed into unconsciousness. Shrugging off the attack, Link ignores his better judgment and pursues his attackers. He stops in his tracks before an eerie black mist that is consuming the land, and his forcibly pulled into it. He awakes hours later…as a wolf, and meets the most desperately needed addition to the Zelda franchise in years: Midna.
This condescending, childish and disturbingly cute little imp is Link’s only means of escape from the hazardous Twilight Realm, and the only person who can help him become acclimated to his unfamiliar new lupine form. The second chapter in the story acts as an introduction to Link’s other body, with Midna providing teasing hints as to how to play as a wolf.
I found this new play style confusing at first, a real change from what I expect out of a Zelda game. With only the cryptic advice of a devilish creature I didn’t trust, it took me some time to get going. The most disorienting aspect of Wolf-Link is his complete lack of tools or weapons—except for the fur on his back, he’s totally bare. His only means of defense are his feral abilities, his teeth, claws and speed.
The wolf segments in the beginning of the game have a sense of desperation, of being hunted, and Link’s abilities reflect this well. His attacks are savage, almost brutal, as he pounces on enemies and tears at them with his jaws. Some creatures are large enough for Link to temporarily latch onto with his claws, and assault with a quick succession of bites. Midna assists with her arcane magical powers by extending an energy field around Link that “tags” enemies. Once multiple targets have been tagged, Link will dispatch each of them in quick succession. This method is the only possible way to defeat some groups of shadow monsters in the Twilight Realm.
Although the wolf gameplay is solid, the actual segments are a little disappointing. The early missions focus on ridding the local area of Twilight by collecting light tears in elaborate fetch quests. Later Link gains the ability to transform into the wolf at will, and his lupine form becomes more of a tool to solve puzzles. Exploring Hyrule as a beast was enjoyable, but the wolf felt generic at these times, because his abilities weren’t focused on specialized tasks. Most of the free-roaming environment is tailored to human Link, with most of the wolf sequences scripted into the story. Hunting for scents with the wolf’s senses and digging up secrets was an enjoyable addition, though.
Despite a few drawbacks, the wolf dynamic works well in tandem with the human element and becomes integrated as the story progresses. One thing is certain, the dual gameplay and the tremendous shot of personality from Midna make Twilight Princess the most robust, plot heavy Zelda in the series. I won’t deny that it borrows heavily from Ocarina of Time, with a few bits of obscurity from Majora’s Mask and much of Wind Waker’s charm, but in the end I think that’s really the point.
Player’s griped about Majora’s disjointed, side-quest feel, and they complained about Wind Waker’s cel-shaded style and monotonous sea-faring. Nintendo probably figured they’d give their fans what they’d been asking for all along: a spiritual sequel to Ocarina, with much of the same feel, gameplay and more than a few revisited puzzles and quests. After playing through Twilight Princess, I don’t think the familiarities are a problem, and the depth and originality of the story make up for them. I’ve given you the most basic of plot setup, but it gets exponentially more complex and involved as the game unfolds, and stays involving the whole time.
I won’t guarantee, however, that the plot will satisfy all of the fans. The parts that differ from Ocarina differ wildly, with some heavy bits of complicated mysticism and a shift away from traditional characters. Zelda herself takes quite a back seat to Midna as the main female protagonist. The Zelda in Twilight Princess has very little personality and only becomes important during the game’s plot heavy interludes, and at the end. Midna more than makes up for Zelda’s surprisingly light involvement, but I still would have liked to see more of the elegant titular character.
Twilight Princess also won’t be the game to make the whole Zelda timeline fall into logical focus. Its ending does not have the feeling of closure that Ocarina did; it is touchingly bittersweet and more than a little contemplative. It reminds me of Half-Life 2’s ending, in that it raises as many questions as it answers. It also leaves the audience craving more, which, again like Gordon Freeman’s second adventure, we probably won’t get for a while. Twilight Princess’s story is the richest in the series so far, but it might not be the archetypal epic you were expecting.
Regardless of the nature of the story, it would not evoke such emotion without a canvas to paint it on. Like all good virtual artists, Miyamoto and his collaborator Eiji Onouma have pushed the boundaries of Zelda’s visual and aural presentation to their final limits on the current hardware. I’m not speaking in terms of advanced pixel shaders or polygon counts in the ten-thousands. The Wii is in its infancy, and its graphical potential has yet to be explored. In addition Twilight Princess is, at its core, a GameCube game, sometimes noticeably so. There have been no substantial visual upgrades to the Wii build that differentiate it from its GameCube. Imagination, experience and clever technical tricks are the meat of this game’s presentation, and in the end they create a genuinely beautiful world.
From the instant I walked out onto Hyrule Field, I was genuinely astonished at what had been accomplished. A rolling expanse of green hills, dotted with patches of trees stretched out before me. It was a smart move by Nintendo to deprive Link of his horse for this first excursion, as it punctuates the sheer scale of the world they’ve created. I later learned that this area was but one of many that made up Hyrule, and each field section is easily bigger than the hub field of Ocarina.
Each area has its own distinguishing features as well. One is lightly forested and holds a small pond; another lies in the shadow of craggy mountains and has a river running through it; a third is open, dusty, connected to a majestic bridge and lends itself well to mounted combat. Traveling across these living believable expanses as day turned to ominous night, and the sun then finally crested over the glowing horizon made me remember why I like the Zelda series so much, even after the relatively bland sea in Wind Waker.
These fields serve to connect the game’s other, equally awe-inspiring locations. Again, many have been borrowed from previous Zelda entries but updated and expanded upon. The climb up Death Mountain to meet the proud, noble Gorons is a rugged ordeal fraught with jetting steam and perilous heights. Lake Hylia is actually the size of a real lake now, with a hidden sanctuary off to the side and mysteries in its depths. The domain of the mysterious Zora tribe is nearby, at the top of a roaring waterfall. Arid Garudo Desert shimmers with blistering heat and contains the brutal cave of ordeals. Hyrule Castle Town is the crowning location of the kingdom and bustles with daily activity. Shops, houses and a few side quests await within its hewn-granite walls, and the monumental castle itself is the site of the final showdown.
A word of warning to those who were charmed by the cel-shaded Wind Waker—Twilight Princess’s graphical style is by far the darkest, most serious of the Zelda games. At times it is more unnerving and murky than Majora’s Mask, which in and of itself was Miyamoto and Onouma’s surrealist phase. Enemies do not possess the exaggerated, comical appearance of their cel-shaded predecessors. There are no bumbling, bug-eyed pig guards, effeminate pirates and, thank god, no Tingle. In their place are arachnophobia-inducing skulltulas, shambling Redead corpses and shadow creatures ripped right out of a Lovecraft novel. You won’t be giggling very often when you play this game, and while there is no explicit gore or blood, combat is more violent, the visual themes are overtly sinister and the environments truly forbidding. I’d almost suspect that Hideo Kojima had a hand in a few of the cutscenes.
This visual sense of dark intimidation and its pervasive presence in the many locales sets the stage for the quest and give the game its cohesiveness. The real gameplay however, still lies in the bread and butter of any Zelda game: the dungeons. Twilight Princess has nine core dungeons and a collection of smaller “lantern caves,” and each one embodies its surrounding environment. The Gorons hold dominion over lava-scorched mines, a monkey-infested temple dominates the forest, haunted ruins overlook the barren deserts, and the Temple of Time…well, you’ll have to experience that one for yourself. I don’t want to give away some of the more exotic dungeons, but I can safely say that any Zelda fan will be more than satisfied. The puzzles are clever in their execution, taking bits and pieces from older games and mixing them with new ideas based on the dungeons’ environmental themes.
The thrilling and complex dungeons are only hampered by their entirely too easy boss battles. I was never in any real danger of dying after the first few hours of the game, and accumulating heart containers diminished the challenge further. Each boss is intimidating or grotesque in its appearance, but poses a very small threat to a well-equipped Link and even an average player. After slogging and thinking my way through a grueling dungeon and even fighting a mini-boss along the way, the end battles were almost always anticlimactic. The strategies to defeat each one are very original on paper, but the damage dealt by the bosses isn’t significant enough and conversely, the bosses only take two or three critical hits before falling. I expected heart-pumping, health-grinding struggles like the ones in Metroid Prime 2.
The musical accompaniment during these fights however is suitably epic, as is most of the music in the rest of the game. While the majority of the pieces are not fully orchestrated, Twilight Princess arguably has the best synthesized music of this generation. The embarrassing parts of Wind Waker’s soundtrack, such as the cringe-worthy synthetic horns, have been replaced with more natural sounding instruments. The best parts like the beats, haunting chants and iconic fanfares have been retained and even improved upon. The dynamic music is practically perfect in its transitions, which is most evident on Hyrule Field. The heroic tunes will change pitch and tempo if Link is riding Epona, switches back while he’s traveling on foot, and when he enters a more subdued area the melody will change to a perilous tune as enemies begin to close in.
As always, Koji Kondo’s masterful composition and evocative melodies are in top form. Many of the new pieces he’s scored are sure to become classics. My only small qualm with the music was, yet again, a surprising lack of the Zelda overworld theme. It was mostly absent in Ocarina and we only had an interpretation of it in Wind Waker. The darker militaristic march version in Majora was powerful and met with fan enthusiasm, so I’m left wondering why it is mostly absent from Link’s new adventure. There are tantalizing hints of the theme worked into the Hyrule Field music, and it comprises a small compelling stretch of the credits, but there is no fully realized rendition.
The audio companion of the music, sound effects and voice, is the piece of Twilight Princess that anchors it most firmly in the past. For some unknown reason, Nintendo has chosen to forgo full voice acting, instead falling back on the same dialogue standard they’ve been using for years. Characters will verbalize their general emotions with laughs, grunts, shrieks and the like, but all speech is represented as text. There is a certain nostalgic quality to this method, but in the end it feels very last-generation. For a high budget title, especially Zelda, spoken dialogue is a must. I am aware that Link’s silence is a hallmark of the series and I don’t want that to change, but the highly animated characters he meets would be all the more expressive if they had voices.
On a high note, the ever-entertaining Midna does have voice acting…sort of. Her speech is a garbled, distorted dialect, similar to the Lylat-speak found in some Star Fox games. Her high-pitched jabbering in this bizarre Twilight lingo makes her cuter and more disturbing at the same time, adding an alien mystique. It’s certainly more satisfying than Navi’s incessant “Hey, Listen!”, and uncomfortably endearing too. I found myself liking the little imp, even after the incessant insults she threw at Link in her quirky language.
In terms of the most basic of sound effects, Twilight Princess borrows most heavily from Wind Waker. This is not a serious problem, as the previous GameCube endeavor had superb sound work, but a little too much of the game’s innocent taste creeps through. The bomb explosions come to mind—they were not jarring enough in my opinion. The new effects created for Twilight Princess are considerably more satisfying. Combat sounds are more perilous with the addition of hard metal clanks and crashes, and the arrow impacts sound sharp, painful. Twilight Princess has, in the end, the grandest scope of effects from several years’ worth of Zelda games, distilled down into a selection of the best.
In a way, nearly all of Twilight Princess embodies that perfectionism. It is not the first of the new, but the best of the old, the sum total of the Zelda series from all the way back in 1986. No, you probably won’t be amazed from the get-go, and you might not feel the concept of the Wii in its fullest in this game. The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess is simply the best Nintendo can accomplish with their current idea of what Zelda is. It surpasses every one of its predecessors in interactivity, presentation and sheer volume of content. It is the last of its kind. What comes next will be truly revolutionary.