Twilight Princess is either the worst Zelda game or the best Zelda game, depending on who you ask and on what day of the week. Even more than the formula-bending Majora’s Mask and the cel-shaded Wind Waker, Twilight Princess has become the most polarizing entry in Gaming’s Greatest Series. Which is a pretty strange thing, when you think about it, because Twilight Princess was supposed to be the Zelda game for everyone.
It had a similar visual style to The Greatest Game of All, Ocarina of Time. Pre-release hype began gathering that it was dark! and Link was an adult! which is really cool! and the game was so dark! and adult! that it was going to earn a T rating! Enough with all those danged kiddie Zelda games with their cartoon graphics and big-headed children as protagonists! Twilight Princess was going to be the biggest! and the best! and most epic! See? It even says so right on the back of the box! During previews, sentences like “If Wii Sports is for the non-gamers, Twilight Princess is for the hardcore!” were thrown around. IGN’s review was littered with drool-o-riffic statements like “Ocarina, your time is up!” and “this new method of [motion] control obliterates the former one and there is no going back!” and “the greatest Zelda game ever created and one of the best launch titles in the history of launch titles!” The game won approximately a billion Game of the Year awards (this was back when people didn’t arbitrarily hate Nintendo for “abandoning them” with their “casual games”) and was declared by a more than a few gaming outlets to be The Best Game Ever.
Well, Twilight Princess is the first game I ever remember getting backlash. Now, Pre-release Backlash had always been around—the internet practically exploded with Nerd Rage when Wind Waker‘s cel-shaded graphical style was first revealed. But then people actually played it, and realized it was one of the greatest games ever. Twilight Princess, though, received a whole other type of backlash that wasn’t common at the time: It received a mountain of hype, won countless awards, was loved by players everywhere, and then suddenly critics and gamers alike went: “Hang on! Never mind. This game is actually a pile of garbage. Forget all that ‘best game ever’ stuff.”
We can definitely blame the hype, for one thing. The game was in development for years. Years. And with every passing months, and with every comparison to Ocarina of Time, expectations grew; not just for the game to be epic, not just for the game to be great, but to be The Greatest; to permanently alter the gaming landscape the OoT once did, set a new standard for videogames for ages to come and end the war in Iraq.
I remember distinctly being disappointed myself by the game when I first played it. Wind Waker was (and still is) my all-time favorite game, and I recall being thrown off by the game’s muted, naturalistic color scheme; I remember finding the wolf segments boring, and the dungeons far too long, and the characters not as fun or memorable as Wind Waker or Majora’s Mask or Ocarina of Time. Mostly I remember being bored and not particularly wanting to ever play it again.
I have since played the game through to the end approximately seven times. And with this latest playthrough, I’m willing to say (not that the Jacob Crites Stamp of Approval carries much weight) that it is amongst the finest games ever created.
Mostly, perspective. There are many ways to play Twilight Princess, but one of them is wrong: quickly. One simply cannot enjoy this game while trying to rush through it (and I’m finding this to be the case with most Zelda games, as I write this series). Twilight Princess takes its time; it has a slowish sort of pace, and it wants us to match it. The 9th grader (yeah, I know) who rushed home on his bike from the store with his brand new copy of TP and wanted to explore as much as Hyrule as he could before he had to do his homework was bound for disappointment. This is a game for rainy days, for snowed-in weekends, when hours can be spent delving into its strange world of corrupt inter-dimensional kings and ornery monkeys with bugs up their butts, without the frequent interruptions of school or work. It is meant to be played free of hype or expectations that it will shatter the universe with its awesomeness. And if you can play it in that way? You’re in for one of the all-timers.
It’s hard to know where to start with Twilight Princess simply because there’s so much of it. So I suppose we’ll just start with the beginning.
The beginning, by the way, is probably either the reason you love or hate this game. This isn’t A Link to the Past, which jumps right into the action. This one takes its time; you might even call it “slow.” It is, however, good storytelling. Great storytelling, actually, and from its first line it perfectly establishes its themes.
Two friends sit by a shimmering stream; behind them, the forest, their home, and before them a bridge to the outside world; the looming silhouette of the castle where Link will end his adventure. The friends are Link, our hero, an orphan and a farmhand; and Rusl, a family man who has taken Link under his wing. Rusl says to Link:
Tell me…Do you ever feel a strange sadness as dusk falls?
They say it’s the only time when our world intersects with theirs…
…The only time we can feel the lingering regrets of spirits who have left our world.
That is why loneliness always pervades the hour of twilight…
From the first lines, the themes are established; not so much light and dark, but the hour in between—the Twilight. The shades of gray, morally speaking. We will later meet Midna, whose motives are constantly curious, and her earthly counterpart Zelda—both of them princesses with noble souls corrupted by fear, greed, cowardice or some combination of the three. They’ve abandoned their people, and cursed for their choices. And when we meet these characters there is a “strange sort of sadness”; we can “feel the lingering regrets.”
And “loneliness”…well there’s a whole lot of that. There’s the depressing far-off town of Ordon, set apart from civilization, a town which never recovers from the loneliness brought about by its kidnapped children; there is Zelda, lonely in her tower, confined to watch alone as the world she once ruled is corrupted and twisted by result of her own decisions; there is Midna, cursed to an impish form and separated from her own realm and people; there is strange little Agatha, whose only company is golden insects; there is the spirit of Rutela, who must linger on alone and watch her son think she abandoned him in his hour of need; there’s uh…that weird clown dude with the cannon.
And yet Twilight Princess, for all its themes of loneliness, is not a depressing game.
Rusl’s little monologue was heavy-handed, and he knows it; in the next sentence he laughs at himself and brushes it aside, turning the conversation to lighter matters. Once again the opening scene of the game sets the tone for the rest of the adventure, and gives us a glimpse at the key to the game’s success: balancing its darker themes with lighthearted whimsy. This sombre conversation is followed by Link wrangling goats and chasing troublesome cats. After Link’s (beautifully shot) transformation into a frightening beast and his journey with the imp Midna across the darkened Hyrule rooftops, he goes on a spirited quest for a sword and shield; after killing evil Shadow Bugs in an evil, shadowy forest, the dungeon he goes to next involves fighting a monkey who’s turned evil simply because he had a bug up its butt. At nearly every juncture, Twilight Princess follows its bouts of darkness with bursts of light.
Now, maybe it’s just because I’ve recently been reading a lot of J.R.R. Tolkien, but Twilight Princess strikes me as the Zelda game that owes the most to the renowned medievalist’s series. One can draw a line between most fantasy works in the past fifty years and Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, but Zelda has always had a tone and style all to its own. Twilight Princess‘ naturalistic, medieval art direction, however, and its themes of Greed and Corruption openly invite the comparison. Which is not a bad thing, by the way. After the twisted and impressionistic Majora’s Mask and the philosophical Wind Waker, Twilight Princess presents us with a good ol’ fashioned Tolkien-esque Epic, with an omniscient villain (Ganon recalling Sauron), a morally dubious imp (Midna recalling Gollum) and behind it all a golden force with the power to corrupt even the noblest of creatures (The Triforce recalling The One Ring). And most importantly, not to beat the point into the ground, it is a tale that nearly perfectly balances the light and the dark in a way that only Tolkien besides ever really mastered.
As in Tolkien’s work, there is something striking about the game’s ominous depiction of greed and corruption. We see it first in small ways—the monkey corrupted by the bug up his bum, or Jovani, so lustful for gold he’s transformed into gold himself and—later in frightening ways—Link is showed how someone even as good-hearted as himself could be corrupted by the Triforce or sweet Yeta could be turned into a horrible beast by her demonic lust for The Mirror Shard. By the middle of the game (till the very end), corruption literally looms over all: always visible in the distance is Zant’s corrupted Hyrule Castle, and dotting the skies are swirling black portals to a darker, still even more corrupted dimension.
Hey, speaking of the middle of the game, let’s talk about structure. Because more than any game in the series, Twilight Princess is a game of two halves: the first half is almost completely linear, with few allowances for going off the beaten path; the second half, on the other hand, is about as close to a 3D version of the original The Legend of Zelda as we might ever get, with a massive overworld to explore at your leisure, tons of sidequests, and seemingly endless hidden caves.
Both halves are spectacular, though both for different reasons. The storytelling in the first half of the game is some of the best gaming has to offer. So much of the storytelling is visual: the small farm village of Ordon just looks lonely; it feels like a town forgotten by the outside world, with its sunken roofs, eroded cliff sides and grass that’s been yellowed and deadened by time. Link’s feelings for Ilia and fondness for the Ordonian children can be seen in his expressions alone. And yet the game is also proof that cutscenes can work. Whereas most cinematic cutscenes in games break up the pacing and create a disconnect between what we see in cinematics and what we can actually do with the controller (see: Metal Gear Solid, where Snake can jump around like a cheetah and surf on missiles in cutscenes, but can barely jump over a box in the game) Twilight Princess‘ cutscenes feel like a natural extension of its structure. The gameplay proper is often broken up by long conversations, and so it feels perfectly natural that the longest conversations are relayed by cinematic cutscenes. And what’s more, they’re beautifully shot, and used sparingly enough that each is allowed to stand out and sink in. When I think of Skyward Sword, I think of the fun I had swinging that Wii Remote; when I think of Twilight Princess, I think of visual moments: Link standing before the towering, ominous wall of Twilight; Zelda dropping her sword before the terrifying Zant; a corrupted Link running toward the Triforce on a darkened hilltop. These cutscenes do what cutscenes should do: impart crucial information in a cinematic way, while establishing the tone for the gameplay ahead.
That reminds me: Gameplay! I’m almost four Word pages into this, and I haven’t even mentioned the gameplay. Well, this is where we arguably run into problems. Not because the gameplay is bad, but because it largely fails to surprise us. This is a Zelda game, which means movement is slick, swordplay is satisfying and riding Epona never fails to illicit a sense of adventure, especially with the added ability of fighting on horseback. There are hidden dungeons to be conquered, caves to be explored, and, if I may, awesome new items to use. The main dungeons are perhaps the most well-designed in the series. And mini-games? Holy cow, have we got mini-games. Goat wrangling, balloon popping, roll-goaling, kayaking, snowboaring, grapple-hooking and the best fishing simulator on Wii.
Twilight Princess gets the big things right. What we don’t find a lot of are the smaller things. There are many treasure chests to find with bright shiny rupees, but not a whole lot to spend those rupees on, exactly. There are many (again) awwwwwwesome items, but perhaps not enough to do with them outside their dungeons. The ability to talk to animals as Wolf Link was a stroke of genius on the designers’ part, but we only ever do it a couple times. Perhaps most importantly: We have a great cast of main characters, but not the wide variety of entertaining side characters we’ve come to expect. It’s a sad thing that the beautifully designed Castle Town (seriously—it’s beautiful. And not just the architecture. Even the background characters are all whimsically drawn and uniquely detailed) is filled to the brim with characters, but only one or two of them have a memorable personality.
Basically, Twilight Princess marks the reason why Skyward Sword scaled down. Hyrule, in Princess, is maybe a little too big. With the smaller worlds of Ocarina, Majora, Wind Waker and Skyward, Nintendo was able to fill them to the brim with well-written characters with distinctive personalities and lives. In its quest to be Epic, Twilight Princess concentrated on creating a huge world dense with secrets and hidden treasure, but on the way, it spread its characters a little too thin. This isn’t to say there aren’t any great characters; it’s just that there aren’t as many, and they’re quite spread out. Midna, of course is perhaps the greatest character in the series, and we also have fan-favorites Yeto and Yeta; upon replay, the Spirit of Rutella comes across as one of my new favorites. But there’s a whole cast of Revolutionaries who, despite their importance in the story, we never really get to know on a personal level. Telma seems interesting upon introduction, but then she just sort of stays in that bar and gives us hints as to where to go next. The Mayor of Ordon ends up having a potentially fascinating backstory with the Gorons, but after he teaches us a new skill, we never get to hear of that backstory again.
Think of all the minute details The Wind Waker added to make it that much more deep and interesting. Did it need a moon cycle? Did it need Lenzo, the owner of a shop that many players might not have even entered during their playthrough, to have a personal life, backstory and a secret love? Did we need to see the town rich man become the town poor man, and vice-versa, as a result of our actions? Probably not. But those things helped The Great Sea feel like a place; they’re what helped separate Zelda from the other increasingly numerous fantasy epics and Zelda rip-offs out there.
There ain’t a whole lot of that in Twilight Princess.
But depending on what draws you to the series, you might not care, and since Twilight Princess is its own game, and should be viewed on its own merits, maybe it doesn’t matter. There are many who love Zelda games because they like exploring Hyrule, riding Epona, slaying monsters and conquering dungeons. These fans like A Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time, and love Twilight Princess. Keep in mind that in the eyes of the general public at the time of Princess‘ release, Majora’s Mask and The Wind Waker (by all accounts the entries most responsible for the series’ focus on side characters) were considered boring failures that failed to capture the “epicness” of Ocarina. But as I wrote about in my piece on Skyward Sword, Zelda has since become, to many (including me) a series where the characters are expected to be just as fun to explore as Hyrule itself. Fans raised on Majora’s Mask and Wind Waker are probably the ones that found themselves disappointed by Twilight Princess.
And yet they’re also the fans I would urge to try it with a fresh pair of eyes. Because on its own merits, played without the expectation of it being the next Ocarina, the game is unquestionably a masterpiece. Twilight Princess wanted to present us with a good old fashioned Epic, and on that it succeeds more than nearly every other fantasy game outside the Zelda universe. When it comes to the small things, it leaves a little to be desired. But the next time you play it, try to play it for the big things: For the incredibly detailed art direction; for Midna; for its grand, sweeping story of Good, Evil and Corruption; for its vast overworld full of hidden caves, treasure and addictive side-games; for riding Epona into the sinking sunset; for its massive, taxing dungeons; for its (dude, seriously) AWESOME items; for that uh… clown dude with the cannon. Twilight Princess, unlike most recent Zelda games, presents us with a world that’s significantly more fun to explore and interact with than its characters. The more I play it, the more I wonder if that’s such a bad thing after all.
Jacob Crites frequently enjoys saving princesses, slaying Moblins, and screwing up the timing to beautiful harp songs. While not out on adventures and getting fired from Nintendo Life, he can be found writing articles about his favorite games at his blog Sequence/Breaking.