GAMES ON TRIAL: The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess

You know those games that are completely divisive? Let’s debate them and see whether they’re actually that bad or not. In this monthly series, games editor Eve and her friend Mark debate the merits and flaws of different games. Who wins is up to you. This month it’s the turn of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, with Eve on the defence and Mark providing the prosecution. Court is in session.

Eve: I feel like the prosecution should get the first say, if this is a proper trial!

Mark: Back in the day, when Wind Waker was unveiled to an expectant E3 audience, the warped graphic style and relentless cheeriness of the thing got a lot of people very worried.

Eve: But that was rather unfounded, as Wind Waker is one of the most expansive and “adventurous” of the Zelda games. How exactly does this relate to Twilight Princess?

Mark: It was cutesy, they cried, it was more colourful than a clown who’d gotten dressed whilst off his shoes on acid and it just looked wrong after the operatic Ocarina of Time and murky Majora’s Mask. It was great, of course, but the fact remains that Ninty were scared and unsure of themselves and Twilight Princess was a direct, kneejerk reaction to Wind Waker’s reception. Like all kneejerk reactions, I’d argue it actually set the series back more than a little.

Eve: Nintendo have always had a problem with progression, admittedly, and the apparent regression to a more photo-realistic style as opposed to cell shading in Twilight Princess undoubtedly shows that. However, on a gameplay and conceptual level, it’s arguably much deeper than Wind Waker, which takes its “cutesy” graphic style to heart in the narrative.

Mark: I’d agree that it attempts to be deeper, but in doing so actually becomes more shallow. Link is back to being a blank cipher, which, after being enough of a character to care about in Wind Waker is hugely jarring. I’ve played Twilight Princess several times and the main quest seems more born out of weary resignation than any other Zelda game. Thank God they put some of the heart back into Skyward Sword. I admire them for keeping Wind Waker’s improved combat but I struggle to think of anywhere else where gameplay was improved for Twilight Princess. Conceptually and narratively it’s also a nightmare. It’s a mess.

Eve: Link is a blank canvas in all Zelda games, including Skyward Sword, and yes, Wind Waker is the only one where he is given his own agency and personality not entirely controlled by the player. However, I don’t agree with the resignation element. Perhaps you’d care to explain how you believe the narrative is shallower while attempting to be deeper? Because to me, the shallowest narrative comes from Wind Waker, which is barely more fleshed out than Quest 64 (indeed, it’s almost identical to Quest 64 if you replace Brian’s father with Link’s sister Aryll).

Mark: Skyward Sword gives the people around him more personality though, providing more of a reason for the events to unfold and have significance outside of “there’s an evil warlock on the loose.” It’s shallower for losing the strong supporting elements of Wind Waker. I seriously struggle to think of anyone outside of Zant, Zelda and Ganondorf and even they didn’t have a great deal to do. Midna is the exception, she was a great companion character. I don’t accept that Wind Waker’s narrative is shallow though. It wasn’t complex but it was staggered through enough different story arcs to keep it compelling at all times and that’s what gives it depth for me. On the story side of Twilight Princess, I find it tries to reproduce elements of Ocarina of Time but without the grandeur. Sure, it looked great at the time, but the fact is that the threat and the concept are ill-conceived. Zant does bugger all except cluck like the magic evil chicken he is, Ganondorf shows up for about ten minutes at the end and the Twilight realm proves to be more of a hindrance than a compelling gameplay element.

Eve: Okay, I can understand some peoples’ frustration with the Twilight realm. I’ll get on to that in a minute. I think, for me, there’s a distinctive reason why the characters in Twilight Princess don’t appear to be as “rounded” or filled with “personality” as in Wind Waker. It’s because they aren’t allowed to live a normal, daily life. There is a clear and present threat to all humanity in Twilight Princess, while in Wind Waker this threat only presents itself to Link and the pirates. Everyone in the world of Twilight Princess is directly or indirectly affected by the shadow, or Twilight, realm; that’s demonstrated in the cut scene in Eldin Village when Link first catches up to Ordon’s children in his wolf form. This kind of intrusion makes it impossible for them to live normal, everyday lives. This lack of mundanity means there’s a constant sense of dread surrounding all the characters, major and minor, in a similar fashion to Majora’s Mask. In Wind Waker, it didn’t feel like there was anything at stake – Ganon never presented a clear and present danger to the people of the Great Sea; he never affects their lives, only that of Link, Tetra and Aryll. Zant does affect ordinary people – even from afar, he terrorises the people of Hyrule with the Twilight realm. In Twilight Princess, it feels as if there’s a clear and present danger at all times. Under these circumstances, how can anyone present with a jolly personality?

wolf link

Mark: I’ll give you that as an interpretation, although I suspect personally that the game designers were trying to be more stoical than in Wind Waker and ended up being po-faced. To me, even the “grand” parts of Twilight Princess feel like it has a magic rod up its arse, with a sea of blank faces where there should be fear and horror. I like the fact that Wind Waker inhabitants don’t know a lot; it’s like in Majora’s Mask where saving the world has its own reward and nobody really knows you’ve done it. You just get to retire to your island cabin and live in peace.

Eve: Well, in Majora’s Mask people didn’t know you saved the world because, in fact, you didn’t. But that’s a story for another day… As for the frustrating elements of the Twilight realm, I’m assuming you’re referring to a gameplay factor here…

Mark: Yes, the Twilight gameplay… I’ll get on to that in a second but one of the things that really grates on me to this day is the world’s introduction. Starting out as a normal teenager is all well and good in the Zelda universe so long as you get two big moments: when you get your shield and sword, and when you get your iconic tunic and set off to do battle with the misshapen hordes of evil. After far too long faffing around with Epona, Twilight Princess gives you what you’ve been waiting for: the clothes, the weapons, the sense of righteous adventure. And then it swiftly takes it from you and dumps you into the Twilight realm as a wolf for what seems like a bloody age. It ruins the momentum of that crucial early stage. The wolf never really worked for me either. Poor attack structure and a super sense of smell do not make great gameplay. That’s why there’s never been a game based on Patrick Suskind’s Perfume.

Eve: A game on Perfume would be an interesting concept, though I digress… This is the kind of attitude that gives Nintendo fans a bad reputation. You say that the wolf slows down gameplay, but it doesn’t, it enhances it and adds an extra, unique dimension to this Zelda instalment that had never been attempted by any other in the series. Yes, the wolf had its problems in places (mostly in the control department) but you can’t deny that this is a truly unique feature. I can understand that change is bad – just look at Sonic Boom. But by keeping the elements that make Zelda such a good series and taking what was a risk at the time with the wolf form, Nintendo were attempting to keep things fresh and bring the series forward. In my opinion, Skyward Sword sent it back because it was basically Ocarina of Time in the sky with an even more annoying sidekick and no time travel feature. Twilight Princess, by giving you constant access to the wolf form at all times after a certain point in the narrative, gives you a greater freedom on how to play the game. It gives you greater manoeuvrability in terms of puzzle and level design, as well as exploration, something that Link as a human alone can’t do. Rejecting the wolf form is a rejection of progression for the series – simply saying that “interrupts” Link’s transformation into the hero proves that, as it shows you’d rather have a typical narrative progression than anything different.

Mark: Being unique doesn’t equate to being good. The werewolf form in Sonic Unleashed was a departure for the series but that doesn’t make it inherently good and the same stands for Twilight Princess. How would you say it enhances it? It’s just a breakaway mode that spoils the slow of the game. Don’t get me wrong, I totally agree that Nintendo sticks to concepts too preciously at times but I don’t think they should be afraid to try. Wind Waker was them taking a risk that worked, as was Skyward Sword’s zones and Majora’s Mask’s timeframes, but the wolf in the Twilight zone adds nothing worthwhile and so doesn’t work on the same terms. I can’t be accused of rejecting progression when I’ve argued that Twilight Princess is a regression. It just doesn’t feel organic or like anything that furthers the series on a whole or the notions of what it’s capable of. I’m sure you’ll disagree but it feels like a gimmick, a concept to hang the boxart on.

Eve: But there are a lot of gimmicks in the Zelda franchise. Let’s list some of them: reversing time in Majora’s Mask, going between young and old in Ocarina of Time, flying in Skyward Sword, changing the seasons in Oracle of Seasons, the train in Spirit Tracks, going 2D in A Link Between Worlds…. I could go on. But, there’s a common factor between the best ones of these “gimmicks”: they all progress the story. Being a wolf progresses the narrative in Twilight Princess as much as it adds an additional gameplay element. Essentially, Link is a shadow creature in Twilight Princess. If wolf form – or shall we call it Twilight form – didn’t exist, then Link couldn’t be the protagonist as he’d be breaking the game’s own lore if he could enter the Twilight zone as a human. It would make the story incomprehensible and unbelievable, requiring a deus ex machina to solve. Now yes, wolf Link doesn’t have many abilities at his disposal but would you expect a wolf to? Yes, Amaterasu in Okami did, but she was a god. Link is just a sentient being in the shadow world, nothing special. Hypothetically, if wolf Link didn’t exist then the narrative of Twilight Princess would completely fall apart. I admit it has some flaws, but package bait? I’m not convinced by that argument.

Mark: Just because it’s an essential part of the narrative doesn’t mean it works on a gameplay level though. All those other gimmicks and single-use items felt like they were worthwhile; having to use wolf Link became burdensome. It was a slog that made chunks of the game less fun and exciting through their nature, and that’s a gameplay complaint, not a narrative one.

Eve: And wasn’t the train burdensome? The rod of seasons wasn’t? Having to go all the way back to the Temple of Time to transform wasn’t? Losing all your progress with the Song of Time wasn’t? Absolutely killing your arm trying to get that damn bird to fly higher wasn’t? I’m not convinced it’s any worse than these….

Mark: I never said the train wasn’t burdensome, it was utter shit but that’s another matter entirely. I never found travelling back to the Temple of Time too bad. The bird just required a bit of knack… But anyway, moving on, Twilight Princess has the worst weapon of the series. The Spinner, a device which has the sole purpose of making travelling up long stairwells even more laborious. Surely not even the defence can defend and S&M dreidel.

Eve: Okay, I’m game. What’s your exact problem with the Spinner? Please don’t just say “it’s rubbish!”

Mark: Well, it is rubbish! It’s horridly ungainly to control, worse than the bird in Skyward Sword, it has no real offensive capabilities, and only seems to exist to justify another dungeon (which is rich considering that Twilight Princess gives you access to not one but two hookshots). There are no areas that it opens up that couldn’t have been made available with the dual hookshots instead. It’s just intensely underwhelming and opening the chest to receive it would have been better served by soundtracking it with a comedy trombone rather than the traditional fanfare. It’s a shrug of an item that, as I’ve said, only serves to let the game designers make the corridors and stairways in Hyrule Castle even longer and more painful.


Eve: Don’t imply that the dual hookshots was a bad idea, that was a cool mechanic! But I digress, again… The Spinner has additional uses outside of the Arbiter’s Grounds and Hyrule Castle you know…

Mark: The fact that it operates switches? Doesn’t make it any better.

Eve: That not what I meant, although that’s an extra mechanic in itself. You can use it to get around if you know how to use it properly and there are a bunch of great items you can only get in the field if you use it. I would also like to point out that it really helped me in the horrible, deep, dark dungeon of death when I was killing hordes of Darknuts – its bounce physics made it a doddle.

Mark: Shame the in-game camera didn’t love the bounce physics as much as you did.

Eve: Ooh, low blow. A lesser person may claim that you just didn’t know how to control the camera effectively, but I never found it a problem in any of my multiple playthroughs. Yes, the Spinner has limited uses in the course of general, linear play but a creative player can make it worthwhile and make some enemies really easy. Let’s put it this way: how practical were the Giant’s Bracelets in Wind Waker? The hover boots in Ocarina of Time? The worst offender is the Giant’s mask in Majora’s Mask, which can only be used in a single room in the entire game. The Spinner is better than that.

Mark: Now now, let’s not get personal! Yes, the Giant’s mask was pretty pointless but it was easier to use when you had to. Never had a problem with the bracelets as they actually unlocked loads of new areas in a user-friendly way, giving a sense of achievement. The hover boots were useless though, using them was like trying to rollerblade on butter.

Eve: The hover boots are worse than the Spinner, at least we agree there! Here’s a thought though: the Giant’s Bracelets are very arbitrary aren’t they? There are only a very limited amount of uses for them in the game and 90% of those are story related. There’s no other use for them outside of lifting some stones in your way and once they’re gone, they’re gone. If you could even lift up small enemies and throw them into pits or lava, that’d give them an extra dimension and use, allowing the player some extra agency and ways to play the game. With the Spinner, you can use it to cross rails, flick switches, defeat the boss, and there are outside applications that the player can use if they want. With the Spinner, the player has agency and the chance to make their own way and play with it however they like (or indeed, they can choose not to use it too). That agency is stripped away with items like the Giant’s Bracelets as it’s the game that dictates how the player controls Link’s abilities. This means, for all its faults, the Spinner is a better item as it gives more freedom to the player.

Mark: I see your point but I’d rather have a more linear mechanic that works well and makes sense rather than a scattershot item like the Spinner, especially since there are so few places where it’s essential. Zelda is all about unlocking items to move the plot on, not having items that are optional in their use. Every part of the game where the Spinner was mandatory seemed concessionary to its inclusion in the first place, which is why it’s still the worst overall for me. Shall we move on to some closing remarks?

Eve: So we shall! In conclusion, the defence asserts that Twilight Princess was a step into darker narrative territory, including risk-taking gameplay elements. It introduced items that had multiple applications and lended more agency to the creative player. It was a small but significant departure away from completely linear gameplay that helped to enhance the experience. Coupled with a memorable villain and beautiful art style, it has been wrongfully maligned.

Mark: As is fitting for a game with two worlds, I see things in a rather different way. Twilight Princess is a serviceable adventure game but it lacks the magic that the Legend of Zelda is known and beloved for. In trying to recapture the majesty of Ocarina of Time, Nintendo dialled back the innovation and emotional intelligence to such a point that Twilight Princess becomes too much of a bland and familiar experience in the Hyrule segments and a downright frustrating one in the Twilight realm. It’s po-faced, unforgivably sluggish in places, especially in those lupine levels, and in attempting to be grand it becomes muddled. It has its moments – the final climactic fight is worthy of what a battle between Link and Ganondorf should be – but ultimately they aren’t consistent enough to make it a classic. In the end, Twilight Princess is just a shadow of what the series can be at its best.

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