Twilight Princess revisited: The first twenty hours
“Tell me… Do you ever feel a strange sadness as dusk falls?”
And so begins Twilight Princess, the swansong of the GameCube and in many ways one of the more intriguing entries in the Zelda series. To those critical of Wind Waker’s cartoonish charm, Twilight Princess was a return to form, shedding the childlike cuffs of its predecessor and delivering to fans the classic, larger-than-life Zelda sequel they’d been yearning for ever since Ocarina of Time. I quite liked Wind Waker, but that didn’t stop me from getting all teary-eyed when Twilight Princess was first revealed at E3 in 2004. I think the response of the crowd in the below video says it all. In terms of fan reaction, if Wind Waker was like a Miyazaki film, then Twilight Princess may as well have been a new Lord of the Rings.
I’ve been replaying Twilight Princess this past week, and it’s immediately apparent that a lot has changed since it hit store shelves in 2006, both for me personally and for the series as a whole. For one, when I first played this game I was sixteen years old. So as much as I recall it being a phenomenal experience, I was essentially just a kid. To be fair, I was a kid with years of faithful Zelda-ing and gaming in general under my belt, and my ability to emotionally digest such a substantial piece of gaming pie as TP was reasonably well developed. Now fast-forward to the present: years of play can erode a gamer’s patience, and though I wouldn’t quite place myself in curmudgeon territory, I’m definitely more critical than I once was, and am easily agitated by outdated game mechanics, wonky cameras, or silly design choices. Lastly, and perhaps most significantly, Skyward Sword has since been released for the Wii, and has effectively achieved what was once the unthinkable: compelling, one-to-one, motion-controlled swordplay in a videogame. Does Twilight Princess pull its weight in 2013? Read on to find out.
I noted earlier that Twilight Princess is one of the more intriguing Zelda games, and there’s a reason for that. With most entries in the series, Link is a near-blank slate; a humble mute who acts bravely, accepts his fate, and does what’s necessary, never complaining, losing hope, or asking for anything in return for his heroic deeds. This is, of course, by design; it allows the player to fill Link’s shoes and actually become him. The Kuleshov Effect is deployed in full force as our brains simply fill in what we feel Link is thinking or conveying, making him instantly likable and relatable. Though this is all still true in Twilight Princess, here Link has a certain edge to him that is hard to pinpoint. He’s still humble, kind, and generally pleasant in personality, but there is a certain part of this Link that revels, just the slightest bit, in the impressiveness of his abilities. You don’t have to look far for examples either – where else in series history does Link smugly bandy about his weapon like a drum-major’s baton before sheathing it after a particularly difficult boss encounter? Calling him cocky would be an overstatement, but the Link found here definitely has a wild side - a hot, untamed edge to him that, though alleviated by a liberal dose of his more traditional character traits, is definitely present and definitely felt by the player. And it feels really good.
This, of course, ties in wonderfully with TP’s main differentiating gameplay mechanic: the ability to transform into a wolf. It doesn’t start out as an ability, of course – Link is forced into this form upon entering the Twilight Realm, a dimension of darkness where people of the light are either turned to shadow creatures or doomed to live as simple spirits, oblivious to the dark arrangement their world has taken on. It makes sense, then, that the true manifestation of a Link such as this one would take the shape and appearance of a beast; it’s his aforementioned wild side, his blistering inner core in its snarling, raw, and most pure form, with all else stripped away. This is a form that cannot exist in the normal realm, but under the shade of Twilight it thrives.
Despite its implications, Link’s wolf form is, at its base, a gameplay mechanic, and from what I’ve replayed thus far (the first three temples and the beginning of the Sacred Grove), the wolf segments have been far and away the most exciting, and seem to have aged the most gracefully. One particular segment after the first temple required breaking and entering into homes in Kakariko Village, which had been completely blanketed in Twilight. Everything about this sequence works – the general aesthetic of the Twilight Realm is wonderfully unsettling, with particle effects abound and warped versions of traditional monsters looking to hinder your progress. Using Link’s “senses” to uncover secrets, hidden entryways, or even just your typical hearts and rupees still feels fresh, and its effectiveness at offering something interesting to do between dungeons is the greatest of any 3D Zelda game. The best is when something non story related genuinely surprises you – after entering a handful of buildings in Kakariko via digging under their foundation or locating an open passageway, a particular one had me stumped on how to get in. Out of frustration I used Link’s lunging bite attack, sending his animal self hurtling towards a glass window. To my dismay, the window shattered, and I landed in a heap on the floor inside! Ok, there was actually a loading screen first, but the point is, “aha” moments like this aren’t always specifically planned for by the developers. They just happen - usually as a result of top notch design - and the best games have lots of them.
Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about all of the human portions, and this is partially a symptom of the game showing its age. After playing Skyward Sword, I had a seriously difficult time going back to the waggle style of Wii combat. Unlike SS’s one-to-one movement, waving the Wii remote essentially takes the place of pushing a button here – and we all know which of those two is faster. It’s not that this system is broken per se, it’s just that it has been so thoroughly improved upon that it’s hard for it not to feel antiquated. I’m unsure whether playing the GameCube version would feel any better – at the very least it might be easier to separate old and new simply because I wouldn’t be using a Wii Remote. Either way, I should get a general answer to that question when Wind Waker’s Wii U remake is released this Fall and I can try the old way with a fresh coat of paint.
Time spent in human mode isn’t all doom and gloom, though - there are some positives (or pseudo-positives) to the old combat system. As much as I was at first frustrated when thrusting the nunchuk forward didn’t pull out my shield or use it to offset an incoming blow, I soon realized that I actually kind of missed being able to shield via simply holding a button. Maybe it’s just laziness, but the shield offering surefire protection has a nice comfort to it, instead of having to manage it just as much as my sword if I want it to work properly. All in all Skyward Sword’s implementation is probably better, and I hope it continues in future games. That said, going back to the old-school way was an adjustment I didn’t really mind making, and it’s more of a personal preference thing, whereas with swordplay there’s no question which system is superior.
Thus far in my re-play I’ve completed three dungeons: The Forest Temple, Goron Mines, and the Lakebed Temple. All three are solid, classic Zelda dungeon crawling, and I remember back in 2006 feeling that these were some of the best dungeons the series had ever put out. Seven years later, the results are a bit different. The Forest Temple is probably the weakest of the three; though it doesn’t do anything specifically wrong, it largely serves as an intro for what to expect going forward - essentially Zelda dungeon-crawling 101. They try hard to spice it up with humor, which I appreciate – a monkey mini boss who slaps his swollen red butt, and his monkey minions congregating on a cluster of platforms and all hopping and chanting in unison are just a few examples – but to any seasoned Zelda vet this temple feels like a tutorial. This was true then, and still is now, no doubt about it. The game has nine dungeons, so one being slightly easy isn’t the end of the world, but it’s clearer to me now why people complained about a grossly long tutorial back in the day: maybe they considered the Forest Temple to be part of it.
The Goron Mines ramps things up a bit, which is nice, and certainly raises the stakes when it comes to considering Link’s mortality. One jump into the lava pit, and the resulting (and surprisingly disturbing) scream from Link as he burns to death serves as a quick reminder that death by fire is an entirely possible outcome with your current strength and low heart-count. Some of the puzzles here are quite clever, most of them revolving around using the iron boots to press down switches, stop streams of fire that block your path, and generally avoid meeting your fiery demise (no pun intended. Seriously, I don’t see a capital ‘D,’ do you?) in whatever way possible. Though the puzzles lack any sort of exceptionally cunning, overarching gameplay implementation ala some of the dungeons in Skyward Sword (the ball-rolling mechanic from the Earth Temple comes to mind), they all require constant attention and brainpower, and nothing ever felt cheap.
One thing I really liked about Goron Mines in TP that I haven’t necessarily seen in newer Zeldas is the idea that a dungeon doesn’t have to be a dark, lonely place where nobody but Link has resided for half a bajillion years since the last Link was there and decided to leave his bow in a fancy chest for you. As you progress through the mines, you come across small, office-like rooms where the Goron elders reside. The music changes, and suddenly you’ve entered someone’s home - an oasis amidst a fiery desert. Usually these guys offer guidance or a new item, but the pit stops serve as nice little breaks to digest what you’ve just been through, and from an immersion standpoint one can easily imagine Link relishing the chance to converse with somebody and huddle around the hearth for a bit before heading back out into the unknown. And before anyone calls me out on it, I’m aware that some of the temples in Skyward Sword contain Mogmas whom you can talk to. Gosh.
That leaves the Lakebed Temple. This is, of course, located in the same place as the infamous (or renowned, depending on how much it kicked your butt) Water Temple from Ocarina of Time, and though it’s not as unforgivingly difficult, it definitely asserts itself as a worthy successor. The Lakebed Temple is by far the hardest of the first three dungeons, and its smart use of puzzles revolving around the manipulation of flowing water make for some serious mind benders. This is especially true as you delve deeper and deeper, and need to remember which flows will open which areas, and activate which moving platforms, and allow access to which particular Clawshot targets – the list goes on. As mentioned, you do obtain the Clawshot here, but beyond allowing the familiar zip-lining and smashing-enemies-in-the-face-with-an-extending-metal-arm abilities, there’s nothing terribly new about it. I don’t believe you could hang from a “clawed” target and adjust the extent to which the retractable chain is deployed in Wind Waker, so I suppose that was a nice development. At any rate, The Lakebed Temple offered me a serious challenge, and I don’t recall ever feeling more accomplished or relieved to reach the Big Key as when I dramatically lowered myself down a manhole-like opening and planted my feet down next to the chest that contained it. It’s a really cool way to end a dungeon, and in some respects it foreshadows some of the more creative moments of dungeons like The Ancient Cistern in Skyward Sword.
What else can one discuss? Getting back to the man and beast dynamic cited earlier, Link can only be developed so far without the stellar supporting cast Zelda games are known for. And up to the point I’ve reached, replaying Twilight Princess is confirming that it contains my favorite supporting Zelda character of all time: Midna.
Resembling a boy-like, impish creature of odd proportions, Midna is fascinating from the moment she appears onscreen. Embodying the Japanese “tsundere” character archetype, one that Zelda’s creators have expressed a liking for, Midna’s treatment of Link early in the game is condescending and downright unkind in many instances. More important than that, though, is the general mystery surrounding her. She appears soon after Link is captured and transformed into his wolf form, and despite it being the embodiment of his inner beast, she takes no issue in toying with him. Midna knows well that Link is a human in an altered state, but treats him like a pet, calling him “good doggie” and giggling contentedly at his confusion.
Though Midna eventually settles into her role as the game’s Navi equivalent, the brilliant thing about TP’s opening Twilight scenes is that you truly don’t know what she is meant to be. Her presence is, initially, an utter perplexity. She appears the first time Link endures the effects of the Twilight Realm, and the combined impact of the unsettling, sepia-toned, twilit skew of Hyrule and Midna’s alarming ability to get in Link’s head and bend him to her will makes for one of the eeriest, most ominous and uncertain sequences in Zelda ever, and arguably in videogames. I must emphasize; the overwhelming feelings of uncertainty and surrealism upon meeting Midna and traversing the sewers beneath Hyrule under her instruction is unlike anything I’ve experienced in a game. The dreamlike sequence that the developers have created here is something that you really need to experience yourself in order to fully understand. If you’ve played the game, then you already do. It’s unnerving, intoxicating, and truly unique.
There’s a lot more to say about Midna, like how she slowly softens over time and even begins to develop a liking and respect for Link that is cemented when he aids in saving her life, but I think I can save that for my analysis of the next portion of the game. Thus far, my overall impression is this: though Twilight Princess shows its age in a handful of gameplay departments that have been undoubtedly surpassed by the likes of Skyward Sword, and though it doesn't always reach the soaring emotional heights of that game, it to this day still offers rock solid dungeon-crawling, legitimately innovative wolf gameplay sequences that were ahead of their time, and an aesthetic via the Twilight Realm and characters like Midna that is truly something singular in the Zelda series. I haven’t talked about the implications of the villain Zant yet either, or the irony of Link’s beast form being the one that is initially rendered the most powerless, but I think that stuff can wait.
Bring on the next twenty hours.