The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess

Game of the Year? Best Zelda ever? It’s been whispered since the first trailer unveiled Twilight Princess‘ early build at E3 2004, and typed in all-caps on the Internet untold millions of times since. But now that it’s all said and done, is this the best Zelda ever? The best answer I can give is almost, with an “if…” The best short answer I can give is simply “no.”

What we have in The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess is really just a good game, built on solid ground with ideas borrowed from quality influences. The work spent on the game shows through in its impressive art direction, compelling dungeons and puzzles, and overall epic length and size. There are some genuine unique feelings here, too, but fewer than in previous chapters in the Zelda saga, and fewer memorable additions to the legendary canon than its grand tradition, scope, and years of hype would suggest. Anyone expecting the end-all be-all of video games is likely to be at least moderately disappointed, but largely because of heightened expectations. Those just expecting another good Nintendo game will find a lot to love.

Drawing from The Legend of Zelda‘s last three console iterations, Twilight Princesshas a serious pedigree that’s slightly hampered by a “been there, done that” feeling. In many ways the game is unfair to itself in its level of homage to past titles, but it helps the title sit side-by-side on the shelf with its predecessors. Following the Zeldablueprints, Link grows up in a small town and is unwillingly called to fight evil when his village’s children are captured by goblins for some unknown reason. The story takes an early turn to the dark, much like in Majora’s Mask, when Link gives chase and finds himself lost in a shadowy new world called the Twilight Realm, which transforms him into a beastly wolf. After passing out, he wakes up imprisoned in an underground dungeon. The ominous sprite Midna breaks Link free from his jail cell and leads him on a quest to disperse the Twilight by defeating bosses in various dungeons and performing other tasks Zelda veterans might expect, like seizing the Master Sword and liberating magical races of people.

It’s hard to say what is actually done wrong in this Zelda, because almost everything about the title is a paradox. For instance, graphically speaking the game doesn’t look like what you’d expect from Nintendo’s last GameCube effort, but the art direction is beyond impressive. Characters and their clothes, as well as the towns they live in, are all clearly well-designed toward a specific style. This means that characters that were becoming repetitious, like the Gorons, have new life breathed into them by virtue of distinct styles of dress, language, and surroundings.

Despite muddy textures and a serious need for anti-aliasing to clear up the ever-present jaggy polygons, the game will melt your soul with experiences like the first steps into the open Hyrule Field. Unfortunately, it’s not an experience felt often enough to make you forget the lack of graphical power, or quench the desire to see what it would look like with truly next-gen graphics (which the Wii version won’t satisfy either, as it looks identical to the GameCube version). However, by focusing on atmosphere and style over polygon count the game wins a victory in this sense.

Unfortunately, for each enriching environment there’s a boring, bleak venue that gives the same painful gut feeling as watching the “Home Team” drop a fumble one play after making a dazzling interception. Hyrule Field once again acts as the “overworld” that connects the various locations, and most time spent traversing its plains is worthwhile enough to abhor the idea of using the many warp points, which undermine all the work put into the in-between portions of the landscape. Most of the areas you would use Hyrule Field to access, however, are uninteresting at best, with towns like Kakariko being downright uncomfortable to be in due to a dusty, Old West motif and hollow woodwind background music. Other areas like Hyrule Castle town, a bustling city that brims with style and vibrance, are contrasted by settings like Link’s own Ordon Province, probably the most forgettable farm town imaginable. I almost felt as if I’d been there before, maybe in Fable.

It’s amazing that Link’s hometown is so incidental and pointless, because the game begins with nearly an hour spent there before anything remotely interesting happens in the plot. Folks who play the GameCube version can pin the blame here on the decision to put Twilight Princess on Wii, because the fallout of Link appearing in the Wii launch is that the game begins with a lengthy — and, to Cube owners, entirely pointless — tutorial disguised as a slowly-advancing plot.

Before the Twilight descends and the ball starts rolling on Link’s adventure, our hero will find himself fishing, goat herding and re-goat herding, demonstrating swordplay and slingshot marksmanship, retrieving baby baskets, and breaking bee hives to satisfy the inane demands of his selfish neighbors. Some of these tasks are fun to try out for the first time with a Wii Remote, and important to learn with the new control method. When played with a GameCube controller, especially to anyone who’s played a Zelda game since Ocarina of Time, they are beyond tedious and could quite possibly turn new adopters off to the entire idea.

Sadly, none of this neighborly portion helps the storyline; it’s unlikely gamers will be inspired to feel any affection for or loyalty to characters that later need saving. Other than Malo, an enterprising and impossibly cynical toddler, the entire town is populated by characters that might as well be sign posts with a line or two of dialogue written on them. Up until Link meets Midna, the impish Twilight Princess who guides him through his quest, you could play through the game in a language you can’t read and you wouldn’t miss a single line of interest. In fact, other than Midna, it would barely be an exaggeration to say this rule follows for the entire game. It’s hard to imagine, but there are almost no memorable characters in the entirety of this new Hyrule. Think Star Wars prequel trilogy.

The game gets the basics of the Zelda formula, but with more stress on certain elements and a waning of others, which gives a strong sense that directors tried too scientifically to replicate what’s already worked with the series. The obvious step after a disappointing lack of dungeons in Majora’s Mask and The Wind Waker was to beef up the game’s length, and so gamers are treated with more to conquer than we’ve seen since Link to the Past. Surprisingly, this doesn’t mean that with more quantity comes less quality, because comparatively, Twilight Princess‘ dungeons and enemy camps are a step above even the impressive temples of older games. They will challenge you to the very extent of your sanity without pushing you past your frustration threshold, so while you’ll be able to make it through this quest without the aid of a strategy guide or walkthrough, it’s still a satisfying accomplishment you can be proud of.

On the inevitable flipside of the coin, almost none of the bosses of these labyrinthine locales are more than a test to see if you can use the special weapon derived from the dungeon itself. While typically original and daunting in appearance, the behemoth monsters Link faces are as fun as they are dangerous, which is to say barely at all. The boss battles are drawn out and typically result in Link repeating a single action with a single item again and again, with everything set up for him to easily accomplish this. The same follows for the other enemies in dungeons, which are noticeably sparse and provide much less resistance toward the penetration of their fortress than do the myriad of challenging puzzles.

In fact, rare is the enemy in Twilight Princess who represents a potential threat to Link’s heart meter, even among the ranks of the ghastly Twili army, modern-art denizens of the Twilight. At this point it seems clear that Nintendo is unwilling to alienate the non-gamer/youth crowd by upping the challenge to what the series used to offer, which either means finally making the concession of offering a “hard mode” or alienating the franchise’s existing fanbase.

Twilight Princess has a focus on the core missions of the game, which themselves can occupy forty or more hours of gametime and will satisfy anyone suffering from a lack of action in Wii’s post-launch lineup. And while Link’s wolf form doesn’t differ so much from his human self that gameplay alters drastically, it does add variety, depth, and mood to the title. It makes for one last option when all others are exhausted to revert to wolf form and sniff around for clues, and many of the gameplay elements associated with Link’s canine abilities world are made to emphasize the experience. Prowling through villages, hunting enemies, and tracking scents are all engaging in a way that Link trotting around on a horse couldn’t be.

For his human form, Link’s items aren’t quite as fun to use as they are in the Wii version, but there’s still a lot of fun to be had for anyone who isn’t overly concerned with challenge. Despite what detractors say, there’s a definite evolution in the way Link plays, and his interactions with his assortment of weapons is smarter this time around, feeling smoother and at times tweaked.

With no magic meter at all, Link’s typical cache of weapons is thankfully a touch different than it’s been since Ocarina made them standard. Some weapons that it seemed Link couldn’t survive without are absent, others are evolved for better and more creative uses: for instance, the Hookshot has changed to a Clawshot, which acts as a true grappling hook and allows Link to remain fixed on a wall or moving object after latching on. Add to this that Link has several new sword techniques to unleash on enemies and a more immersive horseback gameplay experience, and it’s almost puzzling why enemies in the game are so weak, because Link is easily equipped to punish much tougher foes.

Unfortunately, the side-effect to Twilight Princess‘ focus on the main quest is that this is one of the most linear games in Zelda‘s history, and thus the game feels more segmented than previous titles. There are fewer of the series-staple side-quests to distract Link from his task at hand, and the game feels built to ignore them, as gamers interested in exploring will have to carefully stake out time for idle exploration between tackling the storyline adventure, which is often a “no going back” scenario. Even so, oftentimes exploration will accidentally lead the game to lock Link into a course of action and he has no choice but to follow through. Entering the Twilight Realm transforms Link into a wolf and there’s no way to do much of anything until he hunts and destroys enough insects of the Twilight to break the spell. Other times, Link might find himself crossing a bridge to search a new area, and then by virtue of a plot-twisting cinema, forced to follow a linear set of plot requirements before he’s able to do anything, much less advance the storyline further.

All this makes the game feel decidedly non-Zelda. That excitement after leaving a dungeon with a new weapon, eager to try it out in the overworld and see the results? Lacking. There’s certainly more to do in the vast breadth of Hyrule Field than gallop across it, but comparative to its size it’s not very full of secrets, which means exploration is less often rewarded and is thus less compelling. Side-quests like catching bugs or fishing are welcome, but they’re more like hobbies because they’re so self-contained. There are no times when exploration yields results important to the plot, so gamers will feel a very definite divide in their mind: they’re either moving along the plot or just goofing around gathering rupees and heart pieces, neither of which are worth the time what with the simple difficulty level.

Even the Zelda theme, the core of the series’ soundtrack since its conception, is almost entirely lacking in Twilight Princess. The game abandons several of its older themes and draws upon new ones that capture and define the moods of Hyrule’s various areas, such as Lake Hylia and Gerudo Desert. Older ocarina songs such as Epona’s Song and Zelda’s Lullaby return, and others such as the Oath to Order and Song of Healing cameo in scenes where Wolf Link must howl along with a spirit wolf to gain new techniques. Again, though, the musical aspect is a mixed bag, and as often as it blows you away it’s likely to bum you out or simply go by unnoticed.

By the end of the adventure it becomes clear that Twilight Princess is like that effeminate friend who defies everyone’s ability to tell if they’re just eccentric or legitimately homosexual. It’s an epic adventure that never comes out of the closet, and instead we get an above-average adventure game that acts like an epic. It sets up the chess pieces elaborately and intricately, yet fails to achieve a climactic checkmate in either the gameplay or the storyline. Again and again the game hints at chillling or surprising plot twists, but then altogether abandons the idea as if it’s content to merely mention the possibility of such a twist.

Of course, it’s understandable that fans expected more than Twilight Princessultimately delivered, because every trailer for the game is filled with a wide range of crazy-epic looking scenes that one would assume, when connected, would produce a work that would shame all previous Zelda works as well as the entire Star Wars saga and Homer’s Illiad-Odyssey Duology. Due largely to a weak narrative and perhaps a lack of focus on what makes Zelda fun, it ends up feeling more like a tribute to the franchise that goes through the motions than an important new step in Hyrule’s legacy.

Steady Beat – It’s not the best Zelda ever made,

but I think we can all live with that.

When weighed against the factors of all other video games, Twilight Princessimpresses and astounds in various ways. There’s polish here, ingenuity, and a balance in gameplay and atmosphere between novel adventure and classic Zeldacharm. At the same time, its construction from the finest ingredients hand-picked from past adventures leaves it lacking its own unique soul; the game represents a product that is less than the sum of its parts. Of course, factoring in that those parts are Ocarina of TimeMajora’s Mask, and The Wind Waker — three of the greatest adventure games of all time — it’s easy to see past most of Twilight Princess‘ problems. But it’s just as easy to look forward to the series finally taking a new turn and releasing the next Ocarina of Time rather than simply trying to remake the last one.

A particular note should be made: if you can manage to snag a Wii, or manage to wait until they’re available, get the Wii version of Twilight Princess. It is possibly the only Wii launch port with forced motion control that actually surpasses its button-input equivalent. You’ll never want to fire an arrow with an analog stick again after trying the Wii Remote.