25 Years of Zelda in 25 Days - 2006

Looking Back at Twilight Princess

It doesn’t take much effort on the part of any Zelda fan to remember 2006. It was a milestone for an assortment of reasons. Twilight Princess was released, the Nintendo Wii debuted, and we as fans finally got the first chance to feel the sensation of holding that Master Sword and murdering scores of Bobokins. I recall the months leading up to Twilight Princess were filled with excitement and joy. As a matter of fact, when I first saw the trailer way back when in 2004 (at a time when a little-known film called Napoleon Dynamite would be released and go on to impact popular culture in no way whatsoever) I remember feeling nothing but anticipation. An adult Zelda had come to us, with realistic graphics and a deep storyline with action, drama. As a teenager I recall being able to exaggerate details in things I saw.

That’s not to say I had any problem with Wind Waker. On the contrary, I love it, and view it as the best-looking Zelda game ever designed. Wind Waker’s graphics have held up incredibly well over time, and I firmly believe that outside of a fancier TV and perhaps a little more horsepower, the graphics of that game cannot be improved. It is a beautiful game, one I would love to explore and look at in more depth, but we must return to Twilight Princess.

I was seventeen when Twilight Princess was released. It was a warm day, and I spent the majority of it inside a Wal-Mart with an assortment of friends. We had chairs, we were comfy, and we had board games and books to keep us company. We were waiting for the Nintendo Wii to be released, and with it the newest release of the Legend of Zelda series. I had been keeping close watch on the forums and spoiling myself silly, and I liked what I saw. The dungeons looked complex, the items intrigued me, and I couldn’t believe that the story was twenty to forty hours in length. I had never played a game that long before, certainly not a Zelda title that long.

As I sat with my friends and displayed my prowess as the undisputed king of Monopoly, I counted down the minutes that led up to that release. I recalled being a much younger boy seeing the first trailer on a school computer in Belgium, and how I had traveled across the world to Texas, but Zelda had come to greet me. My friends and I watched the line around us grow, but we were the first in line, which meant we got our hands on the Wii and Zelda first.

Looking back on that night, what I remember most is the amazing time I had with my high school friends instead of getting my Wii or Zelda, and the reason why is coming. It was one of the last times we were all together, before our senior year began causing us to drift apart. We still stay in touch, but I remember how close we were during those days, and how different I am from the boy that stood in the middle of a Wal-Mart parking lot clutching a Wii and Zelda in my hands waiting for my friend Ward to bring the truck around so we could dash off to play. I remember that while we drove home we stopped by the Target to taunt to customers that were camping outside in the cold with our new spoils. They did not appreciate it.

I have only played through Twilight Princess once. This isn’t because it was a bad game by any means; on the contrary I remember enjoying it quite a bit when I played it through. The game simply didn’t make that big of an impression on me. It was like a piece of candy: you enjoy it for what it is, but it doesn’t have nutritional value. You’re just eating to eat, or to stave off hunger, or boredom. That doesn’t make it bad, but you also don’t remember too much about every piece of candy you’ve eaten your whole life.

When I played through Twilight Princess the first time, I recall being frustrated by the fishing and annoyed by the goats. For whatever reason, Twilight Princess just doesn’t have a very strong opening. I don’t know what it is that irks me about it. I remember after getting home, tearing my new Wii out of the box, and jamming the game’s disk in, my first roadblock came when trying to figure out the fishing mechanics and failing. Exhausted, I fell asleep to tackle it the next day.

The next morning, I started working through the game again, and after that snag the game got better…until I spent four hours getting to the first temple. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but Twilight Princess easily has the weakest opening out of the whole Zelda series. What a lot of people look at as world building appeared, to me, to be little more than padding. Sure Colin and Ilia steal the show early on, along with Bo, but for the most part a lot of the opening in Twilight Princess just left a taste in my mouth that gave me the impression that it overstays its welcome. We are introduced to Ordon Village, we meet Midna, Zelda, and the adventure begins…just as soon as you also fill the Vessel of Light. It’s just too much and it’s meant to prolong your entrance to the Forest Temple. While the writing and character development is excellent in this example, the gameplay mechanics just seemed designed to make the game longer instead of fill the game with depth.

That’s a very distinct difference, and I remember through my first playthrough that it wasn’t a problem that Twilight Princess ever manages to correct. Throughout my first runthrough of the game, I kept constantly having to go back and forth for no other reason than to seemingly pad out the game. I would solve a dungeon then go on a fetch quest, then repeat the process all up until my fight with Ganondorf. It was frustrating, especially at the beginning of the game when the warp option is not available. I just wanted to get to the next plot point, but I couldn’t do that unless I spent five minutes traveling between sections of the game. And yes, Epona helped for the most part, but the game is too sparsely populated to make some trips worthwhile.

Another problem with the game is that I played the Wii edition of the game with the motion controls which, while revolutionary (and I can’t stress enough how excited I am to use the motion controls in Skyward Sword) never really felt like an integral part of Twilight Princess and just had me flailing my wrist like a madman. The motion controls were further useless in Wolf Link sections, and I always ended up doing a spin attack or jump strike rather than the usual strikes. I don’t know what it was about the controls, but they just didn’t seem to suit the game. Again, this is more the fact that the game was developed for the Gamecube instead, so I can’t fault the game for this.

So after I put the game up, I sort of forgot about it for a few years. College happened, grad school started, girlfriend became an increasingly important factor in my life. You know, the usual things that happen when geeks start growing up. In previous years I would replay a Zelda game several times after buying it to find out all its secrets, and I just never did that with Twilight Princess.

A few weeks ago though, it suddenly dawned on me that Skyward Sword was being released soon, and I had to do precisely everything to avoid spoilers (I spoiled myself silly for Twilight Princess, and decided just once I would keep myself relatively spoiler-free). So I borrowed the Gamecube version of Twilight Princess from some of my younger cousins and fired it up for a second look at what some people have called the finest entry in the Zelda series.

Second First Impressions

My first instinct reminds me that I’m running on borrowed time, as I’m saving my game on an old Madcatz memory card that keeps constantly failing and forcing me to reboot the whole card and lose my game data. So I’m already trying to finish a game knowing that at any moment the game could erase and I would be back to square one. With this impending sense of doom, I load up Twilight Princess and open a new save file.

My immediate first reaction is that the introduction is still incredibly long and, for the most part, contains gameplay mechanics that still will not play important roles in the remainder of the game, but the Gamecube version, and I am entirely unafraid to say this, is the superior version of this game. The ability to control the camera, even if it isn’t as advanced as the Wind Waker model, is very appreciated and makes the world seem bigger. One of the primary problems with the Wii version of Twilight Princess and the N64 entries to the series is an absolute lack of ability to control the camera. With that control returned to me, it became much easier to become entangled with the world that Link lives in and get a sense for how vast it is. This does not help the lengthy introduction but it does make it easier to explore.

Similarly, the controls in the Gamecube version just seem sharper. Link seems more alert, which may have to something to do with the fact that Link’s controls in the Wii were not as developed as they will likely be for Skyward Sword. When it was first announced that Twilight Princess was coming to the Wii, the only thing that made it an essential purchase on that system was it was being released first there. Had I the option, odds are exceedingly good I would have opted to just get the Gamecube version. It’s nothing personal, Wii devotees, it’s merely my opinion.

The introduction to this game is still far too long. I have not, not will I ever, care about Link’s prowess in goat handling. No one ever has or ever will, aside from some fringe fetishists that no doubt exist somewhere. Having said that, the character development, particularly the relationship between Link and Ilia, is surprisingly strong. Their chaste relationship gives greater urgency to the beginnings of Link’s journey, as do the children.

I remember liking the character of Midna, and still like her now. She is not quite as annoying as Navi, yet not as edgy as Tatl. But then again, Midna has a lot more to lose than either fairy did. And she actually comes off as regal, ordering Link around like a servant. This initially comes off as rude, but as the story progresses Midna becomes a valuable companion and ally.

You know, through the years I had never understood the need for an ally in these games until Twilight Princess. I mean, Link to the Past worked well enough without one. But without Midna in Twilight Princess, the world would be much too empty. Hyrule is too large in Twilight Princess for there not to be someone to share the journey with. Link would be lonely, as would the player.

So we come again to the question: is Twilight Princess good? Well, it is and it isn’t. It’s definitely the most immersive experience Nintendo has given us, with a rich, compelling backstory and highly developed characters. The dungeon designs are impressive and one really gets the sense that this is the world Miyamoto always meant Hyrule to be. And we have Link as an adult, which I appreciate (I love Wind Waker, don’t get me wrong, but I could never understand why Hyrule continuously relies on a tween to save the day).

Having said that, it certainly isn’t the most complicated Zelda game, which will continue to be Majora’s Mask until I see how Skyward Sword develops its story. The problem with Twilight Princess lies not in the graphics or the characters, but of how superficial it can be. Take away the goats, take away the Tears of Light, and one has a half hour to get to the first temple. Take out the long journeys on horseback from one side of the kingdom to the other, and you breeze through the game. Twilight Princess is lengthened considerably from the last entry to the series, but not through content (though it has that in spades) but through simply increasing the size of its world to force players to take their time. Outside of the dungeons, which are delightful in their structure and complexity, this is an unwelcome tedious bother that ends up dampening my spirits towards the title.

I remind people who are curious that my favorite entry to the series is Majora’s Mask, and with good reason. Regardless of how polarizing the entry was for some people, the reality of the situation was that it knew how to tell a story. It was tight, it was dark, and the side quests featured extremely advanced characters with different ambitions, hopes, and dreams. Plus, the different setting allowed Nintendo to really tweak with the traditional Zelda format.

With Twilight Princess, however, I don’t feel the series ever evolved. Sure, it looks pretty, but much of its design originated in Wind Walker. With Skyward Sword, I can see the series evolving, and I suppose that there is the underlying problem. Twilight Princess is an astonishing achievement for the Zelda series and a very enjoyable game. Its villains are memorable, incredibly so, and its supporting cast is well-used to bring the very empty world to life. However, you will notice that I have not yet mentioned the character of Zelda in this game, and with good reason. Zelda is in this game simply to be there, her role is filled by both Ilia and Midna. And in a lot of ways this game is simply here too. You enjoy it, but it is like a candy bar. You’re left wanting more.

So I stand by the assessment teenage me had. This game is wonderful. It is enjoyable, engaging, and a thrilling adventure from near-the-start-to-finish. But I still want more from Zelda. I expect more. And I await Skyward Sword to see if it delivers in this category.