Twilight Princess marks a singular occurrence, a point where Nintendo gave fans exactly what they wanted: a realistic-looking The Legend of Zelda entry that drank from Ocarina of Time while greatly amplifying all aspects that made that adventure so remarkable
The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess marks a rather singular occurrence not just within the canon of the franchise, but also in the history of Nintendo. And that is because, through its release, the world got to witness one of those rare instances when fans got exactly what they wanted. The series of events that led to the game’s creation has lodged itself in the annals of the industry, and it can be traced back to the Space World event of the year 2000. During that Nintendo-exclusive fair, the company took advantage of the spotlight to give the audience a glimpse of the titles that would appear on their upcoming platform: the GameCube.
Among those efforts, and likely ranking as the trailer that received the loudest cheers from the crowd, was a twenty-second video that, thanks to the power of new hardware, showed a realistic-looking Link in an epic sword duel against a menacing version of Ganondorf. Viewers were ecstatic and thrilled with the visual possibilities the displayed graphical excellence could bring to The Legend of Zelda, and throughout the next year players and gaming journalists all around the planet nurtured within their brains the dream of experiencing a grand adventure in the mold of that into which they had been given a peek.
Nevertheless, both Nintendo and the universe had their own plans. And one year later, as excited attendees flocked to the conference with certainty they would get an extended look into the product, they were greeted – instead – with a cell-shaded take on Link and Hyrule. Within three hundred days, what had been a serious and down-to-earth The Legend of Zelda installment had turned into an unforeseen cartoon embedded with child-like artistic touches. People were deflated; publications expressed various degrees and tones of shock; and a load of criticism grounded solely on frustrated expectations was discharged.
As history would prove, the complaints fired in the heat of the moment would turn out to be void, and the quiet applause that followed the then-disappointing reveal would be remembered as an infamous example of how shattered hopes can cloud one’s view of what is lying right in front of them. The Wind Waker, as the initially coldly received game would be called, was met with universal acclaim and remains widely beloved even more than one decade after its launch. Yet, despite such success, in the back of the minds of fans, dreams of a realistic and somber The Legend of Zelda running on the GameCube’s hardware remained.
Such fantasies would not stay unfilled for long, as in 2004, slightly over one year after The Wind Waker came out, Nintendo would unveil they had listened in on their audience’s thoughts and were in the midst of producing that coveted realistic The Legend of Zelda. In a stark contrast to what had happened with The Wind Waker, the debut trailer of the game that would become Twilight Princess went down in history for the stadium-like cheers that erupted as it ended. Nintendo is not one to bow their heads to the wishes of those who follow them.
The company has, after all, made a name for itself by subverting expectations; consequently, the Japanese giant tends to give fans what they did not know they wanted – as The Wind Waker ended up showing – instead of following the easy path of delivering exactly what was asked. Contrarily, with Twilight Princess, the developers in their studio inverted their approach to game design, as they seem to have set out to construct a The Legend of Zelda effort that would check all the boxes of what is anticipated from an adventure starring Link.
That description could easily work towards painting Twilight Princess as somewhat mundane, because a game that sticks too closely to what is expected of it has a great chance of being devoid of surprises. But Nintendo, fully conscious of the existence of such a risk, finds a way to balance the fulfilling of desires with the need to bless the quest with a spirit of its own. Twilight Princess does not carry a personality as distinctive as that of its two immediate predecessors, for the disturbing darkness of Majora’s Mask and the expansive seafaring of The Wind Waker make them live in dimensions that are only theirs.
What it does, instead, is look to the game that came before those two entries: the historic Ocarina of Time. From it, Twilight Princess borrows its general structure; and, with that as a starting point, it uses its considerably more powerful platform to boost all of its imported aspects, sporting a world that is far bigger than any Hyrule that preceded it; featuring a stunningly flexible combat system that sets a new standard in the franchise; providing a thick and moving storyline; and carrying an eye-popping amount of content. And upon those pillars, whose scope overshadows what the saga had previously offered, Twilight Princess builds its character.
In the game, Link is a young man who works in a ranch. Located in a province that lies on the outskirts of Hyrule, the village where he lives is quiet and peaceful. Around the community, Link is seen as a generally dependable character who runs errands for locals and is admired by the place’s youth. That displayed responsibility is rewarded when he is tasked with taking a gift to the Royal Family of Hyrule. However, as he is preparing to do so, his very close friend, Ilia, notices that the boy’s horse – Epona – has an injury on her leg, a result of a hard and somewhat reckless day of work. She scolds the future hero and takes the animal to a sacred spring in order to have it healed for the long journey that is ahead.
Link goes after them, and as he and Ilia exchange touching words, an army of evil beings violently invade the village. As a result, a comatose Ilia is carried away by the creatures’ fearsome leader; likewise, four of the village’s kids are taken hostage by other members of the gang. Link, after lying unconscious in the water for a few minutes, awakens to find his friends are gone, their parents are worried to the point of despair, and help is nowhere to be seen.
Twilight Princess takes a little bit of time, about three hours of gameplay, to get to that point, which is when Link is finally sent towards the game’s true quest. And it is easy to perceive that beginning, which has him doing everything from herding cattle to saving kids that blindly ran into the forest, as slow. Nonetheless, when the dramatic events that mark the start of Twilight Princess unfold, the time spent in Ordon Village reveals itself to have been worth it, because other than – naturally – getting players accustomed to some of the title’s basic mechanics, these initial hours are simultaneously devoted to creating a strong connection between Link, the villagers, and the kids that wind up being the greatest victims of the attack.
Consequently, when the character is suddenly hurled in the direction of the daunting vastness of Hyrule with the goal of bringing Ilia and the children back home, players take on the challenge not just with motivation fully developed in their minds, as it is very easy to care deeply about the characters, but also with the sense they are in the shoes of a humble country boy that will have to clash with the dangers of the world away from his safe haven.
Of course, the rescuing of friends is just the tiny – albeit certainly very emotional – tip of the iceberg called Twilight Princess. Because as Link walks out of Ordon Village, he is met with an ominous dark wall blocking his path. When he approaches it, a huge menacing fist pops out of it and aggressively takes him into the darkness. As he soon discovers, the obstacle standing on his path is the result of the lack of balance between light and twilight.
For centuries, these two parallel realms had peacefully coexisted with one another, as most of those living in both were completely unaware of the opposite spectrum. However, recent events of foggy nature have unexpectedly caused large pieces of Hyrule to be swallowed whole by the emerging twilight, while the kingdom’s citizens – totally oblivious to that fact – keep on going about their business as mere shadows of their former selves, only realizing something is amiss when they come into touch with the threatening monsters that lurk under the crepuscular domain.
That story, which advances satisfyingly and gains various notable developments as Link progresses on his quest, gives birth to a general structure borrowed straight from the classic Ocarina of Time. In other words, the game is clearly divided into two halves that are separated from one another by a major occurrence.
During the first part, where the focus is stopping the twilight from engulfing Hyrule entirely, the character will visit three of the land’s provinces in order to first rid them of darkness and then find a way to enter the local dungeon and collect ancient relics belonging to the Twili, the tribe living under the Twilight Realm. Meanwhile, in the adventure’s second act, Link must visit locations that are – for the most part – wholly new to track down the pieces of the Mirror of Twilight, an artifact that creates a gateway between the light and the twilight worlds.
Thus, at its heart, Twilight Princess is not too different from what came before it. Getting to the dungeons entails a great deal of well-designed exploration, which is maximized due to how enormous Hyrule’s map is. And walking hand-in-hand with these adventurous exploits is a thick layer of excellent character development and wonderful world-building, for each of the many segments of Twilight Princess tends to contain a storyline of its own that is firmly connected to the overarching script while also standing generally well if set apart.
In the meantime, when it comes to the mazes themselves, Link will be met not only with spectacular architectural beauty, but also with complicated structures that occasionally demand backtracking as well as many brilliant puzzles that make use of his arsenal. With these traditional basics in place, the game separates itself from its preceding peers in two noteworthy ways: firstly, it does so simply by, in pretty much all of its fronts, being bigger and more ambitious than them; secondly, it takes advantage of the Twilight Realm to assemble a gameplay element over which it can claim total and exclusive property.
And that is, of course, Wolf Link. While those who live under light usually become shadows when in twilight, the hero – as a sign of his status as the chosen one – transforms into a divine beast. The first time he does so, as he is walking out of Ordon Village, he is captured by the monsters of the realm and imprisoned in Hyrule Castle, where he meets his traveling companion, the pleasantly snide Midna, an imp from the Twilight Realm.
When in wolf form, as Midna rides on his back, Link gains a bunch of unique powers. He is able to dig soft spots of dirt to create tunnels or uncover items. He employs his senses to follow trails of smell left behind by people or objects, listen to the shadows of the world of light that are stuck in twilight, and detect invisible enemies. He attacks by performing a couple of different bites. And, at last, with the help of Midna, he can use the context-sensitive A button to execute wild jumps that at first seem impossible.
It is a clever array of abilities, and Twilight Princess employs them well. During the game’s first act, when Link restores pieces of Hyrule to their former beauty by clearing them of twilight, he will use his wolf form to, in each of those areas, track down twelve bugs, whose locations will be neatly marked on the map, that hold the light of the region. And after doing that he will be able to go into those healed provinces as his human self in order to find his way to the local dungeon.
Meanwhile, after the adventure’s midway point, Midna will be able to use her magic to let Link change between his two forms at will. As such, throughout the second half of Twilight Princess, players are forced into situations, whether inside or outside mazes, where they must occasionally resort to their skills as a beast to overcome puzzles and other obstacles, therefore making a balanced use of the two facets of Link.
Truth be told, the Wolf Link parts of the game’s first half can sometimes pose the problem of being a bit too long; given the regions are usually big and the bugs are at times very good at hiding, one can easily spend more than half an hour sniffing and digging around for the insects. And since playing as the hero’s wolf form is certainly not as fun as controlling his far more flexible human counterpart, these portions do come off as lesser segments. Nintendo, however, does a pretty great job in terms of giving those pieces of Twilight Princess enough redeeming qualities to make them worthy.
First of all, it uses the varied setup of the locations to structure those parts in ways that are slightly different from one another. Furthermore, it always pairs them up with interesting plot-related developments. Those two valuable steps, however, pale in comparison to the ultimate memorable feature of the Twilight Realm: its overwhelmingly sinister atmosphere.
Twilight Princess is a dark game, even if not to the apocalyptic level of Majora’s Mask. Its more realistic graphics give it a mature edge that was not present in any The Legend of Zelda installments before it. And the dangers its central group of characters have to face feel more imminent and vivid than ever, perhaps because of how the adventure explores its impressive cinematic value to give life to all sorts of violent happenings and scenarios of apparent hopelessness. Nowhere is that foreboding nature more blatant than in the bits when Link steps into the twilight.
In that realm, sound effects echo as if they were produced inside a large cave; a reddish hue and beautiful menacing clouds dominate the sky; foes emit disturbing cries; dusk permeates the land; and the fact the activation of Wolf Link’s senses reveals hidden enemies as well as the frightened ghosts of those living in the world of light adds a thin layer of horror to the whole package. Due to that, these segments gain a notable artistic and immersive personality that causes them to delightfully stand out in spite of how their gameplay pales in comparison to moments when Link is back to being his human self.
Outside those junctures when Wolf Link comes out to play, Twilight Princess grows past its predecessors by expanding on what was already put in place. Case in point, its combat system is, like the ones from the entries starting from Ocarina of Time, centered around locking onto enemies so that it becomes possible to move around while never losing sight of them. The game, however, moves onto new grounds by introducing a large assortment of moves. And these play a considerable role in both disposing of the trickiest beasts Link will have to face and making battles more exciting than ever.
These hidden skills are acquired by finding special howling stones scattered around the world, and then learning and reproducing, with Wolf Link, the tune they emit. Doing so will cause a golden shiny wolf, the spirit of an old hero, to appear somewhere on the map, and by heading to that location players will learn one of these seven optional abilities. Besides usually looking rather cool, those tricks are easy to perform and hold a pleasant variety, including stunning bad guys by hitting them with the shield, performing a killing blow on foes that are temporarily unconscious on the ground, and circling around armored creatures in order to reach the weak spot on their backs.
On a similar note, Twilight Princess also uses its epic proportions to include multiple action segments embedded into the exploration of the overworld and the development of its plot. Given its sheer size, it is natural that Epona, Link’s trusty horse, is of vital importance to get the hero from one place to another, and the game explores that trait by putting together a solid number of horseback battles. While on Epona’s back, Link can not only use his sword but also lock onto foes to unleash arrows, launch his boomerang, or employ other weapons of choice.
Those mechanics allow Twilight Princess to feature utterly breathtaking and movie-like skirmishes: there are duels on bridges that hang far above the ground; encounters on open fields with evil gangs mounted on devilish hogs; and escort missions that go through dangerous territory. And moments such as those are key in adding a layer of grandeur and drama to the hero’s journey, showing that Nintendo – when going into the making of Twilight Princess – was bent on producing a game that achieved a scale that was previously unknown to the company and to the franchise alike.
Twilight Princess, therefore, excels at a lot of areas. Its visuals, although having aged far more than those of The Wind Waker due to their realism, remain highly respectable. They represent the peak of the Gamecube’s power, and feature great character models and large beautiful slices of land that are thoroughly connected to one another, with loading times being either non-existent or appearing as brief pauses when players go into specific places that are more demanding of the system’s hardware.
Hyrule possesses incredibly varied provinces, and each one of the environments they portray is absolutely nailed both on the artistic front and in their technical aspects. Likewise, the game’s soundtrack, mixes and matches classic tracks of the franchise with remarkable original songs that reach a classic status as soon as they start playing, conjuring all of the different emotions Twilight Princess tackles during its very lengthy quest, including despair, darkness, joy, sadness, danger, and adventure.
Amidst so many highlights, there is one area in which Twilight Princess excels in a specially notable fashion: its dungeon design. True to its status as the biggest The Legend of Zelda game up until its release, the title carries a whopping nine mazes, with two of them challenging the notion of where exactly dungeons can take place, and there is not a single one of them that fails to impress and carve out an identity for itself. A lot of that has to do with the items around which Nintendo builds the dungeons, their engaging puzzles, their entertaining mini-bosses, and their spectacular (albeit generally a bit easy) bosses. These pieces of equipment alternate between being entirely original to offering refreshing takes on classic items.
The boomerang, the hookshot, and the iron boots, for example, all return, but while the first two are slightly altered, with the boomerang being able to summon gales and the hookshot giving Link abilities that nod to those of Spider-Man, the last one is employed in a brand new and smart way, as the character can use the boots’ magnetic properties to either walk on walls or move around while hanging upside down from the ceiling. Meanwhile, the new tools include a mighty ball and chain that destroys obstacles mercilessly, a rod that lets Link control statues, and a spinner that – attached to roller-coaster-like tracks – turns the hero into the rider of a particularly awesome skateboard.
With so many dungeons to tackle, characters to meet, and large distances to cover, the clearing of Twilight Princess can easily demand over thirty hours, and going for full completion can add at least another dozen of those to gamers’ total. And that is because Nintendo does a pretty excellent job in covering the immensity of the game’s version of Hyrule with extra collectibles and challenges to keep gamers hooked and reward their exploration.
Twilight Princess holds forty-five heart pieces, and these can be acquired by engaging in fun mini-games, taking on solid sidequests, or simply exploring the overworld looking for secret caves that house puzzles and combats. As a nice touch, the game includes – in Castle Town – a fortune teller that, when given a small amount of rupees, showcases the general location where those coveted assets can be found, lending players a helping hand without doing away with the joy of discovery. Furthermore, as a path towards other prizes and upgrades to Link’s arsenal, there are twenty-four golden bugs to collect; sixty Poes that need to be killed and have their souls gathered; and a brutally challenging Cave of Ordeals, where the hero needs to muscle his way through fifty floors filled with enemies.
Twilight Princess, therefore, is not just well-designed, but also undeniably full of substance. And that meaty nature overflows from its gameplay component, and leaks into its story and character development. The result is an adventure that, besides being noticeably big, is also brimming with a powerful and pounding soul that is exposed in the shape of its unforgettable cast of characters. Among all of those touching souls, the one that is certainly the most remarkable is Midna herself, Link’s traveling companion and likely the best partner the franchise’s protagonist has ever had.
Her distinctive personality, which broadcasts sweetness below a whole lot of harmless teasing, and her growth from a selfish imp to an altruistic being are the emotional core of Twilight Princess and a huge testament to how the game applied the same level of care, cleverness, and complexity found in its overall design on its writing, making this entry a especially elevated peak on a series that is itself filled with tall mountains that have exerted influence over the industry as a whole.
Boosted by so many achievements in so many different areas, it is no surprise – then – that The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess ranks among the best games Nintendo has ever produced. Although one may rightfully say the longer segments where players take control of Wolf Link are, albeit good, not as compelling as those starring the human hero himself, they end up working as appealing personal touches on a title that, everywhere else, delivers exactly what fans had been expecting of the franchise since the release of the GameCube.
It is an effort that blatantly drinks from the classic Ocarina of Time while, thanks to new hardware, greatly amplifying all aspects that made that episode so remarkable, offering a world, a cast of characters, a story, a combat system, and a pile of content whose depth was – up to that point – completely unparalleled. And under all those layers, it boasts a beating heart that anchors its massive scope on true and moving emotions.