After the release of Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask in 1998 and 2001 respectively, fans were clamouring for a new and improved Zelda game that was ‘darker’ and ‘more mature’. Thanks to the graphical overhaul of the mid 2000s’, Nintendo had the chance to make Zelda look more realistic than ever, and the fans knew this. They wanted a game that could rise above the earlier masterpieces and be hailed as the best Zelda game of them all. Their hopes were briefly raised when new footage was released at the SpaceWorld Demo 2001, but it was quickly dashed when footage from The Wind Waker came out. It was definitely not what people were expecting from the new Zelda; with its cartoon graphics and cel shaded effects. No, the fans wanted a darker, grittier Zelda that challenged the hardware capabilities of the GameCube and that gave them an adventure that would be darker and more mature than the kiddish reality they saw in Wind Waker.
Then, at the Nintendo Entertainment Expo 2004, Nintendo showed the first footage of what would later become The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. Fans were ecstatic at the prospect of such a realistic game with the new look, and they expected this game to rival Ocarina for the title of the ‘best Zelda game of all time’. When the game released in 2006, reception was overwhelmingly positive for the game, with it receiving nearly perfect scores from many publications and overall good reviews from almost all gamers who played it. The game was even launched on the Wii, making it the first Zelda to implement some form of motion control. This too, was met with positive results from magazines and fans.
With all this positivity regarding the game, it surprised me greatly to find that the game wasn’t one that the fans greatly enjoyed. Many people regarded it as ‘one of the weaker Zelda games’. Mind you, I hadn’t gotten my hands on the game (nor would I until 2014) but I was confused as to why so many people said that it was good, but still one of the weaker games, with the original two N64 classics and, in a surprising turn of events, Wind Waker, being hailed as much better overall. This perception only increased in the wake of games such as Skyward Sword, A Link Between Worlds, and most recently, Breath of the Wild.
When I finally played Twilight Princess in 2014, I enjoyed it, but I found myself convinced that the earlier games were indeed better. However, I dismissed this feeling, sure it was just the unfamiliarity of the game creeping up on me. However, I sit here now, a solid four years later, still with the same feeling. This article is going to examine Twilight Princess in depth and see just what might cause it to be rated as one of the weaker Zelda titles.
1. The Fans Wanted It Dark, Right?
Zelda was never really a franchise that toed the line when it came to how dark the material could be. The 2D games were fairly light hearted (albeit with some thought provoking cuteness every now and then) and Ocarina was, by and large, a positive game. Sure, it had its dark moments, but it wasn’t like that the entire game. Then Majora’s Mask came around, and threw all that down the drain. The entire game was such a sombre experience that I don’t think anyone would disagree with the fact that it is the darkest game in the franchise.
Twilight Princess was trying to go for something similar, with the integration of a parallel world in the Twilight Realm and some disturbing imagery, but Nintendo missed a trick here and implemented dull colours in an attempt to contribute to the dark atmosphere. This did make the game dark, but not thematically – it made the game dark literally. The lack of lighting in several areas in the game made it seem quite unappealing at times, and the sense of wonder and joy that Zelda games are so usually accustomed to just wasn’t there for large portions of the game. Zelda is a franchise that relies a lot on its own lore; the mysticism of a land ruled by the goddesses, the existence of magical creatures and forces way beyond human comprehension, and the art style used in previous games complemented that.
It didn’t quite work with Twilight Princess, however; in an effort to make the game seem more gritty and realistic, it looks like Nintendo sucked the life out of the game and made it dull to the point where it almost didn’t feel like a Zelda game. Majora’s Mask made sure that the vibrancy of Ocarina was still there while implementing darker themes, which worked brilliantly, and that’s why people regard it, and not Twilight Princess, as the darkest game in the franchise.
2. There Appear to be No Signs of Intelligent Life….Anywhere
One of the most important parts of any Zelda game is the overworld that Link travels over for a majority of the game. This became an especially integral component in 3D Zelda games as immersion was a huge factor. Ocarina’s Hyrule Field wasn’t too big and everything was a reasonable distance from any point – couple this with the uplifting music and the sheer exhilaration of riding across the field to reach your destination, and it was a magical experience.
Now imagine the same thing, except make everything a lot farther away. The novelty fades rather quickly, doesn’t it?
Don’t get me wrong; Twilight Princess’ version of Hyrule Field has a unique, slightly downtrodden feel to it because of the looming presence of the Twilight Relam right from the moment you set foot in it, and the notion of a vast overworld is great (cc. Breath of the Wild) but the entire place is devoid of….well, anything. There a few scattered enemies here and there, but other than that, there does not seem to be anything within the vast space, making it boring and lifeless. The music is, as usual, spectacular, and you do feel a thrill the first time you ride across the expansive land on Epona, but it only lasts for a brief period of time before it fades away in the face of an endless stream of grass. Perhaps it wasn’t the smartest decision to make Hyrule Field massively oversized as compared to Ocarina, but it could have worked out so much better provided that the players had a little more to do while riding from one area to the other.
3. The Story was Great…Until *He* Showed Up. Again.
One thing I do have to give Twilight Princess a lot of credit for: its story. Well, half of the story, to be accurate. While it did start out rather slow, it eventually picked up before long and introduced new and exciting characters for Link to interact with throughout this journey. Midna was a great companion, one of the best in Zelda thus far, and the idea that a strange force was overtaking the light of Hyrule was an interesting premise that they spent quite a bit of time developing. The strongest point of the game though, without a doubt, was Zant.
As a villain, he was extremely intimidating – both his on screen appearance and overall demeanour created an instant association with evil in the mind of the player, and you felt his presence throughout the game because of the constant spread of Twilight. The scene where he ambushes Link and Midna after the player completes the Lakebed Temple was downright agonising, because not only was all the hard work done up to that point rendered absolutely useless, but also, I was in awe of how cold and calculating Zant was. Then you get the Master Sword and trudge through the Arbiter’s Grounds in search of the Mirror of Twilight, you get to the end of the dungeon and who’s the real villain?
Now look, I get that as far as the Zelda series goes, Ganondorf is an iconic villain that is intertwined with the eternal struggle between the chosen wielders of the Triforce and all that, and as such, I’m not objecting to Ganondorf being in the game. What I am complaining about, however, is the manner in which he was introduced. Having him introduced as the one pulling the strings on Zant felt cheap and tacked on. I understand that the game wanted to be the spiritual successor to Ocarina, but if it was to truly carry such a mantle, then didn’t the story need to be a little bit more unique and different?
What made Ocarina‘s story so good was the fact that it hadn’t been seen in any Zelda game up to that point – it was complex, twisting and turning and presenting the player with new challenges at every point. After the fourth dungeon in Twilight Princess, however, the story kind of fell apart because it became the same routine as other Zelda games. Ordinarily, this would be all right – Skyward Sword did something similar with its quest, but the story was different and unique as compared to Twilight Princess‘, which felt a little too similar to Ocarina‘s. Now, the story didn’t dissolve into complete madness; Ganondorf was a decent boss and Zant was also fun to play against, but there was so much potential that Nintendo didn’t really capitalise on, and it hurt the overall game experience for me.
4. Wolf Link Segments: Enjoyable At First, But…..
When I first heard that Link could transform into a wolf, I thought it was going to be fun to use a different set of attacks to kill enemies with, and I thought the idea of transforming into an animal to do specific things in the game was a very creative idea. Nintendo had, up to that point, only used direct transformation in A Link to the Past (Bunny Link) and the transformation masks in Majora’s Mask, but this was going to be a constant theme of the game, so it naturally was going to be much more fleshed out. You don’t have to wait long to transform, as it happens fairly early on in the game. You’d best get used to it, however, as you’re stuck in that form for quite a while after you transform.
The segments with Wolf Link are fun to play, no doubt, but they tend to drag on for far too long. The most guilty of these segments are the ones where Link has to collect ‘Tears of Light’ scattered in and around a new area in order to purge the Twilight located there. It gets extremely boring given that there is no time limit within which you have to collect them, meaning that the level designers took the liberty of hiding them in mind numbingly frustrating places. Skyward Sword took this mechanic and improved on it considerably, giving the player a time limit and ensuring that there would be tangible consequences for the task’s non-completion.
Furthermore, it made the exploration aspect of the area in particular a little dull as each area has already been combed through to an extent. Adding this to the already less than colourful environment and dull overworld, then you’ve got a game where you mindlessly progress from one point to the next, doing whatever the plot demands you do before moving on to the next part. Quite frankly, that’s not how an adventure game should be, and it is DEFINITELY not how a Zelda game should be by any means.
Is there good to be found in Twilight Princess? Yes, of course! The dungeon designs are some of the very best in the series, with particular standouts being Arbiter’s Grounds, City in the Sky and Snowpeak Ruins, and some parts of the game are fantastic, such as the climb up to Ganondorf through Hyrule Castle. The music is great and the visuals are extremely detailed. However, it is aspects like the four mentioned above that prevent it from being the holistic and memorable Zelda experience that the other 3D games were. Does it deserve the spot as ‘weakest of the 3D era’? That’s for you to decide, honestly. For me, it does.