Later this year, Nintendo is expected to launch The Legend of Zelda for the Wii U. A lot of great things are being planned for that game, but the one that fans are wishing for the most is, in an almost ironic echo of the Donald Trump campaign slogan, is for it to make Zelda great again.
‘Make Zelda great again.’ When did Zelda stop being great, and instead became something that aspired to the greatness it once so frequently used to achieve? Where a new game in the series was hyped not because fans were looking forward, but backwards, back at when the series ruled the roost? Ask Zelda fans this question, and you’ll get a lot of answers. But the one that will likely recur most often will be November 2006, when, after more than two years of hype, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess finally launched for the Wii and Gamecube.
That hype was Twilight Princess’s biggest enemy- it was legitimately impossible for anything to have ever lived up to that kind of expectation. And so, yes, Twilight Princess disappointed multitudes of fans upon release. But the irony of it was, Twilight Princess was never a bad game. It was an incredible game, back then- probably one of the best on the market at the time. It just felt bad to many compared to what they had wanted it to be, the near mythical successor to Ocarina of Time that they had built up in their heads.
Today, almost ten years since it first released, Twilight Princess is available, yet again. It has been released on the third Nintendo console running. This HD remaster of the game appears to be relatively modest, at first glance- some very minor, and in many cases, imperceptible cleaning up of the graphics, some bonus content thrown in for token Amiibo functionality, and the GamePad features. The question is- why buy Twilight Princess HD? Why spend $50 on a game that was disappointing at its release, and hasn’t even been changed much for this re-release?
The answer? Twilight Princess wasn’t changed much because there was nothing much to change to begin with. Blinded by our own hype ten years ago, most of us ignored just how close to perfection Twilight Princess ended up landing on the first go around.
"There is true darkness hinted at by Twilight Princess’s story, with a truly terrifying villain and stakes that feel far higher than any the series has set up yet."
Like each entry, Twilight Princess follows Link’s quest to save Hyrule from impending doom. Unlike each Zelda entry, however, this one is fairly dark and grim- the visual palette most aligned to major AAA western games, the story a grim and dark tale with very few of those moments of childish innocence that so characterized The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, the pace slow as it gradually builds up to an epic crescendo. There is true darkness hinted at by Twilight Princess’s story, with a truly terrifying villain and stakes that feel far higher than any the series has set up yet. Yes, there are the standard Zelda cliches- there is Hyrule, there is the Triforce, the Master Sword, and the fact that, in spite of all of its various twists and turns, Twilight Princess’s story ultimately comes down to three characters.
It’s a familiar story, but in a good way. Like with any good legend, it is one that has grown in the retelling, and the familiarity here provides the story to give itself the room for some truly compelling moments. It’s told with panache, though it is here, perhaps, that Twilight Princess’s age rankles the most- the lack of voice acting in a game trying to be realistic and cinematic was barely excusable ten years ago. It can be immersion breaking today, at least for the first few hours. The MIDI music, and the graphics, which, while polished, are ultimately still a product of their time and the console they were first designed for, compound the problem.
They’ve been cleaned up, sure, and Twilight Princess HD looks far cleaner than the original releases, which looked muddy upon release. However, simple geometry or character models, or the quality of textures, all give away that this is ultimately a Gamecube game in wolf’s clothing. It’s still a good looking game – the strength of the underlying art ensures that – but it’s aged far worse than, for instance, The Wind Waker did in that regard.
Another area where The Wind Waker beats it out is the music. Where The Wind Waker has what is probably the best soundtrack in a series known for excellent music, Twilight Princess’s music is bland and uninspiring. This goes beyond just the game’s usage of MIDI music- the actual compositions are pretty unremarkable, and rarely stick with you, with few exceptions.
"Twilight Princess is probably the most perfect realization of the age old Zelda formula into 3D."
But where Twilight Princess takes a beating when it comes to the presentation aspects, it shines in the areas that actually matter for a Zelda game. From a gameplay perspective, Twilight Princess is probably the most perfect realization of the age old Zelda formula into 3D- gone are the experimentations and the gimmickry of Majora’s Mask, The Wind Waker, and Skyward Sword– instead, Twilight Princess takes on Ocarina’s formula, and evolves it to its natural conclusion. Here, we have a vast open world, with very little direction given to us, that we are free to get lost in. Exploration has been improved a bit from the original release, but on the whole, this is still a game from 2006, not 2016- and in this case, that’s a good thing. You don’t have a minimap, or quest markers, or a quest diary, or a GPS trail, telling you whereto go next. Once you are well and truly into the game, nothing tells you where to go next, except for your own imagination and curiosity.
This is Zelda at its finest, dropping its players into a wide, vast open world, and leaving them to their own devices. You can try to find the next dungeon, or the quest that leads to it, or you can take a detour to Kakariko Village, and take on one of the many sidequests the villagers there give you. You can take part in one of the game’s numerous minigames, or just ride through Hyrule Field on Epona, without constant reminders or irritants getting in the way of what you want to do.
It is honestly refreshing to play an open world game where the world really is a world that the player can get lost in, and not just a dressed up corridor that the player ignores as they focus on the minimap or quest markers. After all, this joy of exploration is what Zelda was originally supposed to be about.
But it’s not just this open world that makes Twilight Princess great- multiple other things add to its impeccable mastery over how it plays. Take the dungeon design that is, quite simply, uncontested in the series (meaning Twilight Princess has some of the best levels in the history of video games). Take the combat, which has evolved from the standard Zelda formula into something truly spectacular, hinting at some nuance and depth, though the game’s easy difficulty lets it down a fair bit (the HD remaster does alleviate this problem somewhat with the harder Hero Mode, but it’s a bandaid solution at best, to be honest). Take the game’s sprawling other dimension, the Twilight Realm, a wonderfully bleak netherworld that is the source of the darkness now engulfing Hyrule.
"This is Zelda at its finest, dropping its players into a wide, vast open world, and leaving them to their own devices."
Twilight Princess is just a game which has complete mastery over its craft. Yes, it is a title that can often descend into the banal – to be frank, the frequent fetchquests before the game’s dungeons are just busywork, and while Wolf Link looks cool, playing as him can be a bit of a slog – but the parts that actually matter, the parts that you will spend most of your time on, it is arguably uncontested in. It is a game that demands that you take it all in, let it all sink in, a game that you understand fully. The legions that will complain about its so called pacing issues will miss the point, as Twilight Princess is meant to be a game played slowly.
Only then do you appreciate the beauty in its bleak interpretation of the classic Zelda tale. Only then do you marvel at its simple but stark visual look. Only then do you pause in awe at its incredible level design. Only then do you get to relax a true, unfettered open world. Only then do you understand, there is no need to make Zelda great again, because Zelda never stopped being great, not with Twilight Princess anyway. There was always a great game here, hidden under the mountains of hype that no title would have ever been able to live up to. Ten years later, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess finally sheds all of that baggage and finally is realized as the great game it always was.
This game was reviewed on the Wii U.
Incredible, impeccable game design; expertly crafted dungeons; vast open world that the player is left free to explore; a darkly bleak and compelling story; the best combat in a 3D Zelda game yet; stark visual look due to some great art
The graphics are ultimately simple; the music is shockingly unremarkable; the storytelling suffers as a result of the game's dated audiovisual aspects; multiple fetch quests; the game can feel too easy; Wolf Link looks cool, but adds nothing
Ten years later, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess finally sheds all of its baggage and finally is realized as the great game it always was.