The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess
Article by Johnny Driggs | November 6, 2007
Video games are a very anticipatory medium. One could spend a great deal of time in "chicken-or-egg" theorizing about whether the fault lies with the fans or with the industry; but there's no denying the industry has brought it upon itself to an extent...much to Denis Dyack's chagrin.
The reliance on established properties combined with games' long development times and the need to whet the audience's appetite with a constant stream of pre-release screenshots means that gamers often spend more time in active anticipation of a game than actually playing it -- especially top-tier franchises with large fan bases who have maybe a little too much free time. Videos are given surgical scrutiny, out of context or mistranslated remarks by creators are held as sacrosanct, playable demos of works-in-progress are judged by the harshest criteria -- all of which takes place before there's really even any game to discuss. And invariably, concerns and complaints dominate these discussions.
It all comes to a head at the release. Reviews are published, sometimes prompting threats against the reviewer's life should his score be unsatisfactory. The game is released. A flurry of discussion hits the message boards. And then...the game is abandoned, forsaken for the next must-have release. Aside from traditional end-of-year roundups there's not much major, focused media coverage -- EGM's excellent and occasionally insightful "Afterthoughts" feature being a rare and welcome exception -- and gaming has yet to develop awards with the cachet of an Oscar or a Pulitzer. In fact, games that are popular enough to be discussed at length after release are usually granted this favor only to have a new list of complaints levied against it, often entirely different from those that seemed so pressing before release.
And so we have all the ingredients for a barn-burner of an internet maelstrom in the form of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. Here we have an established, popular franchise -- this release marking its twentieth anniversary, in fact -- hobbled by a controversial design decision, in this case an eleventh-hour conversion from GameCube swan song to Wii launch blockbuster. Add to that a rabid fan base and the scene was set for a fervent pre-release brouhaha followed by a low rumble of complaints about how some trivial, ancillary aspect of the game didn't match so-and-so's expectations. And who are we to deny the Internet its purpose in life? Rather than discuss Twilight Princess directly, let us view it instead through the lens of the Internet's complaints.
1. Wii controls will be awkward and tacked-on!
This was part of a larger discussion that led into the release of the Wii as many gamers wondered whether or not motion controls would feel tacked-on to every single game released on the upcoming console. Even those who were enthusiastic about the console in general felt leery about Nintendo's plan to use one of gaming's respected franchises as a guinea pig for an untested player interface. Have fun swinging your remote like an idiot in a facsimile of tennis, but stay the hell away from the classics was the common sentiment. Concerns were exacerbated by reports from early demos in which testers claimed the game's motion controls were simultaneously underutilized and poorly implemented. Nintendo went back to the drawing board and mapped the sword to swinging the controller like everyone assumed they would do in the first place, fine-tuning the operation of secondary items in the process.
The result goes beyond satisfactory and actually becomes immersive. If nothing else, pointing controls for items like the arrow and Clawshot are more intuitive, accurate, and fun. Going back to analog aiming feels sincerely awkward. Swinging the controller for the sword is just as responsive as pressing a button, and you will get sucked into flailing a bit too hard when you're landing the final few blows on a boss. Swapping items to and from the D-pad to the B Button lets you use every item with one of the two primary buttons, and with four available slots it alleviates one of the bigger annoyances with Zelda games: constantly pausing to equip the optimal set of items for any given situation. In fact, the GameCube version only has two buttons allocated to secondary items instead of the until-then customary three.
Downsides? Certainly. The game wasn't exactly designed from the ground-up for the Wii controller, and it shows at times. Nobody enjoys pressing Buttons 1 or 2 for the maps, and the - and + Buttons aren't particularly ergonomic considering how often they're pressed. Shaking the nunchaku for spin attacks is responsive enough, but the forward thrust used for shield bumps require unreasonably deliberate motions. And while not a control issue per se, you'll need to turn down the volume on your Wiimote unless you want to be subjected to the most ear-grating rendition of the Zelda "secret" jingle you've ever heard. Other than that, it's good fun -- even when you're struggling hard not to break that promise you made not to leap out of your chair when finishing off the latest incarnation of Gohma.
2. Flipping the game to accommodate the new control scheme tampers with the original intent of the game
You're kidding, right? The decision was made during the course of the game's development, not as part of some second-guessing by an idiot publisher. The game's creators felt it necessary. If we're going to accuse game makers of messing with the original vision of a game while they're still developing it, we're going to have to regard Lara Croft as an interloper stealing the lime-light from whatever-the-hell the name of the guy was who was originally going to star in Tomb Raider?. Larry Croft, I dunno. And don't give me any of that "It'll mess with the geography of Hyrule" crap -- remember how hard you had to squint after rotating Ocarina of Time's map to get it to match up with A Link to the Past's? Oh, and speaking of A Link to the Past, Link was left-handed only three-fourths of the time in that one.
Besides, if you're the kind of person who bemoans how putting a game in front of a mirror destroys its artistic vision, there's always the GameCube version for you to buy and act smug about.
3. Lush, imaginative cartoon visuals were replaced with generic fantasy stylings
This may not have been much of a concern with those who still refer to The Wind Waker? as "Celda" and felt their manhood was impugned by a game that featured a main character not too far removed from those little Playskool minifigs they played with as kids, but there were many who appreciated Zelda's artistic direction on GameCube. If Twilight Princess wasn't a direct continuation of The Wind Waker's vein, they reasoned, then at least they could have tried utilizing cel-shading technology to create a new style -- not unlike the way Majora's Mask injected a dark undercurrent into Ocarina of Time's visuals.
While The Wind Waker may remain a high point in the series for visual design, Twilight Princess is no slouch. It had the good fortune to have been developed in Japan, where even the most generic of medieval European fantasy design fails to look like it belongs airbrushed on the side of a van. In addition, the whole game is purveyed with a sort of floral, Art Nouveau motif that prevents it from being drab and clunky. Character design can sometimes be a bit...let's say disconcerting -- see Telma, clowns Fryer and Falbi, the forehead dude -- but has some very appealing entries as well, such as Zant, Midna, and Hena.
The Twilight Realm is where the game really shines, though. The drab black and white glimpsed early in the game's development was replaced with a beautiful atmosphere that actually does the over-saturation thing tastefully. The murky tone is somehow still vibrant and the color scheme captures the idea of twilight wonderfully. Enemies are truly otherworldly and threatening without falling prey to the "more teeth and claws = scary" school of enemy design. Also, the Twili's forbidden magic is hinted at being technology without hitting you over the head with it. Zant's projections of himself look an awful lot like a hologram, Twili magic looks like a swarm of pixels, and the Twilight Castle has a subtle mechanical flavor to it.
4. The Wind Waker's combat won't work with new visuals
While the Nintendo 64 Zelda titles grappled with creating decent combat in three dimensions -- which they achieved admirably! -- The Wind Waker made fighting truly fun and varied. Fighting Moblins and Darknuts was wild and frenetic, ensuring that players never avoided battle when they could have so much fun by taking down enemies. Much of combat's fluidity came down to the cartoon visuals, which allowed Link to perform acrobatic moves that might seem unnatural in a more realistic visual style.
To some extent, this fact is simply ignored; Link still flips in the air, slashing at enemies' heads. However, fighting is much more deliberate than its predecessor. While The Wind Waker's combat was about variety, Twilight Princess's is about mastering the sword mechanics. In The Wind Waker you were free to attack any way you saw fit; boomerangs, arrows, bombs, hammers, and Hookshots all worked to some degree. Enemies weren't so much adversaries as playthings to try out death traps on.
Twilight Princess's enemies aren't so gullible. Try and use arrows or boomerangs on Darknuts and they'll casually block them. You actually have to duel them, waiting for openings and using the full repertoire of moves at your disposal. Doing your best impression of Animal isn't going to get you anywhere; you actually have to tackle encounters with sword-wielding enemies with tactics. It's certainly a different approach, but after taking on three Darknuts at once, managing space and exploiting openings in their defense, it can feel very rewarding.
5. Midna looks like she was pulled from Tim Burton's sketch pile; will be big hit with kids who exclusively wear Nightmare Before Christmas licensed apparel
Don't worry, because of Nintendo's licensing practices, Midna hoodies won't be available at Hot Topic for another fifteen years...just when it's nice and retro. Which is actually a shame; a Midna T-shirt would be awesome, and if you think I put this concern in here just because I wanted to talk about her, you're absolutely right.
Midna is simply the best character Nintendo has ever created. She's not going to have the staying power of Nintendo's mascots, and the ending puts doubt on whether we'll ever see her again at all, but she's simply the most entertaining, sympathetic, and engaging personality ever seen in a Nintendo game. A lot of this is the fact that her character demonstrates an actual arc of progression over the course of the game. At the beginning she's sardonic, cryptic, and frankly just mean. It goes beyond her constant barrage of insults of how useless you are; she actually taunts you in the form of the village girl Link has a thing for just after she has been taken captive. She's vicious. By the end of the game -- and through a natural, gradual progression, it should be noted -- she's ready to sacrifice herself for Link and Hyrule. And all the time she delivers the game's best lines, complimented by animation that is completely suffused with personality.
6. Wolf Link will usher in an unheralded era of furry Zelda fan art
Link's turned into a bunny in the early '90s. A pink bunny. I'll think we'll be fine.
Post release complaints
1. It wasn't really seventy hours long!
Well, this depends on how you approach the game. Rush through the game, and you can make the cut at forty hours, easy. Take it easy and it'll eat up plenty of your time.
More important than length, though, is the game's pacing. It starts out at a very casual, gradual pace; you don't even reach your first dungeon for a couple of hours. Twilight Princess fills time between the first couple of dungeons with side quests and missions, most of which are just as entertaining as any other part of the game -- sumo wresting and escorting a horse-drawn carriage are fun and add some novel gameplay elements to the Zelda template. As the game progresses, such diversions become less frequent until you're hopping from one dungeon to the next, building up to the final confrontation. You might think the game's moving too fast, but really it's just giving you the option of doing all of the optional quests Hyrule has to offer without making you perform any mandatory non-dungeon excursions. Add to this the fact that the dungeons get progressively better, and you have a effectively-paced game.
2. I do not need to know when I have picked up five rupees
What, you don't spend four seconds staring at the quarter you found in the couch as it hovers over your outstretched palms? No? Just me?
3. Story didn't reveal anything new/relegated Zelda and Ganondorf to bit parts
You know, Nintendo might have made a mistake when they got into the backstory of the series during Ocarina of Time and The Wind Waker. Or maybe the fans should be blamed for expecting each installment to tie up every loose end and unify everything in a simple, tidy narrative. Twilight Princess does no such thing. In fact, it's really a fairly self-contained game. If you're disappointed, you'll have to wait until they release an official timeline (which you're guaranteed to hate) or debate your own theories for the time being.
As for Zelda and Ganondorf, you're right, they weren't utilized all that much. Zelda's absent most of the time, and Ganondorf shows up just long enough to say "I am a bad guy and will kill you." But they already had their chance to shine; Zelda in Ocarina of Time (initiating the whole quest and acting behind the scenes as Sheik) and Ganondorf in The Wind Waker (the whole freaking game is about him). A more layered depiction of either would have been dandy, but the focus was on Midna this time, who is awesome. As we have already discussed.
4. Cannon/bridge glitch: death knell of Nintendo
Uh, this complaint actually has some substance. If you were going to make a case that Nintendo shouldn't have switched over to Wii at the last second, bugs like this one would be where you'd make your best case. This game-breaking glitch is probably the single worst defect to affect a Nintendo software since every single NES cartridge ever produced. However, with all the discussion and YouTube videos and what have you, most should know where not to save. Plus, if you're too late you could always get a new disc or download a game save from GameFAQs. Hopefully, Link won't have one of those ridiculous speed-run names.
There were other gripes of course. Twilight Princess was ,in a sense, Super Ocarina of Time Turbo. The Wii's biggest title became emblematic of the graphical disparity between consoles when compared against contemporary releases. That goddamn ice mansion. But if we were to catalog every complaint lodged against games on the internet, we'd just be a link to NeoGAF.
And all of these complaints are directed at what is, quite simply, a highly regarded game. It maintains a Metacritic score of 95, trailing only BioShock among current generation software. It's the irony of games that the best titles are the ones that are targeted for some of the most direct criticism from fans; I guess it's hard to get enough people to come together and get worked up about The Red Star?.
So maybe there's no need to defend Twilight Princess; the groundswell of criticism against its supposed flaws are simply a testament to the fact it's worth talking about.
Except for that mirror-Hyrule complaint. That one's just stupid.
Images courtesy of GameSpot