The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD for Wii U
The 2004 Nintendo E3 press conference is something I’ll never forget. I’m aware of just how geeky that sounds. I miss the drama and bombast of those old conferences and it was a particularly strong one for Nintendo, with the unveiling of the original Nintendo DS. The moment when Nintendo closed off the conference by announcing that they had one more game, showing footage of the Zelda game that became Twilight Princess, was genuinely magical. Twilight Princess was launched with a huge amount of excitement already invested in it and although the reaction was immediately positive (remember the ridiculous backlash when GameSpot gave it an 8.8/10?), Twilight Princess’ ultimate legacy hasn’t been particularly positive. Replaying it on Wii U has essentially confirmed what I expected; it is a very good game but not a great one, which suffers too much from living in the shadow of the past rather than building its own future.
Twilight Princess opens in the serene Ordon Village, where Link works as a goat rancher. Link stumbles into a wider conflict where he is pulled into an encroaching shadow and turned into a wolf. He is paired with Midna, a strange imp who seeks to drive back the ‘Twilight’. After a group of children (and Epona, Link’s horse) are kidnapped, Link sets out into Hyrule to rescue them and drive back the dark forces assaulting the land.
Some elements of Twilight Princess’ plot are successful, most notably Midna, who is comfortably the best companion character in the series. She’s sassy, funny and sad and goes on a genuine character arc, something the Zelda series usually misses. There are some great supporting characters, with my favourite being the weird, angry baby Malo. All said though, Twilight Princess lacks the same wide cast of bizarre weirdos that makes games like Majora’s Mask or Wind Waker so great. The biggest weakness is the lack of any sense of looming threat. Zant, the usurper to the throne of Twilight is a memorable and strange villain, but is undermined by the predictable reveal that Ganondorf is behind everything. After playing pretty much no role in the plot, the final confrontation with him feels deeply anti-climactic. Compare this to the unforgettable encounter we have with Ganondorf as Young Link in Ocarina of Time, which builds him as a true threat to give the final encounter as Adult Link greater stakes. A lack of stakes is an issue overall. I don’t think Ocarina of Time gets enough credit for it’s environmental storytelling. The transformation of the vibrant, joyful Hyrule Castle Town of the child era into the nightmarish, Re-Dead populated hell hole of the adult era is striking and upsetting and creates a real sense of stakes and tension. Twilight Princess doesn’t have anything like this.
Twilight Princess can essentially be summed up as great dungeons, with a poor overworld. This game contains some of the most inventive, satisfying and clever dungeons in the 3D series, but the world created here in the least alluring and exciting of any of the series. I liked some of the new items, particularly the bizarre spinner, which we haven’t seen again since. They’re not really used enough, but they’re fun while they last. From a core mechanic point of view, Twilight Princess is very strong, with easily the best combat of the series with a greater range of moves and techniques at play. The puzzles are good and the boss fights fun. It’s pretty easy, but I don’t really mind. I’m not playing Zelda for the challenge. The moments between dungeons are just as important as the dungeons to me and it is here that Twilight Princess suffers most. Majora’s Mask was the best for this, but I think Ocarina of Time did well too. Wind Waker gets a lot of flack for its Triforce hunt, but at least the world of Wind Waker is gorgeous. Sailing around the Great Sea for a few more hours didn’t feel like nearly as much of a chore as galloping through the dull, muted world of Hyrule we have in Twilight Princess. The wolf stuff is fine, but ultimately inessential. The transformations in Majora’s Mask were more interesting from a gameplay perspective. It isn’t bad, it all works, but I couldn’t really work out what the point was. I still pretty much always wanted to just be plain ol’ Hylian Link.
The visuals have been tarted up for the HD release, but there’s only so much that can be done. Parts of Twilight Princess can be beautiful and striking, such as the snowy and desert regions, but the core sections in Hyrule are bland and lack character. Even Hyrule Castle Town, now with additional NPCs rushing everywhere, can’t rival the simple charms of the town in Ocarina of Time. The music isn’t particularly good; the Twilight Princess theme is my least favourite of any in the 3D series, being mostly bombast and lacking the subtle beauty and character found in the others. There are some great character designs though. Twilight Princess was never going to age as well as Wind Waker, but it’s striking how antiquated elements of its design and style are.
This sounds very negative, but I want to make clear that I still like this game a lot. Does it live up to the promise of that 2004 E3? No, not really, but what could? In Twilight Princess Nintendo gave the fans what they want, but it turns out that giving fans something weird and polarising is better. The bizarre and oppressive world of Majora’s Mask and the beautiful, vibrant world of Wind Waker are now pretty much revered and Twilight Princess’ murky, soulless Hyrule simply cannot compete. The core of the experience is still great though, with outstanding dungeons, great combat and a wonderful character in Midna.