Twilight Princess is in another castle

Monday, 18 December 2006 — 8:01pm | Video games

I finished The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess almost two weeks ago. I logged a solid 57 hours without reference to any external source of information. Since then, I have added almost another 10 hours roaming Hyrule and discovering new things I’d completely bypassed, even though I’d thought myself quite thorough. I am now two pieces short of all twenty hearts, and not even close to finishing the two major collection quests.

I finished Zelda, but I did not complete it. I’ve only ever “completed” The Wind Waker – and by that, I mean not only the standard four bottles and twenty hearts, but every bonus chart, underwater treasure chest (including the bogus one from the auction that only yields one rupee), observation platform, secret cave, submarine and Nintendo Gallery figurine. The Gallery quest requires you to play through the game twice. I got the Hero’s Mask on my second run, prior to which I didn’t know it existed. So, yes: I completed it. (Okay, so I didn’t get the Tingle Statues, but I did plug in the GBA long enough to get a snapshot of Knuckle on Tingle Island. Surely that counts for something.)

I’ve been meaning to write a review, though it took me awhile to balance the desire to not spoil anything for the general readership, which I’d wholeheartedly recommend grab a Wii (once possible) and play the game, against the compulsion to give the game the thorough assessment it deserves. The latter would be directed towards audiences that have not only completed Twilight Princess, but have an extensive familiarity with the Zelda series as it currently stands.

Let’s make a stab at some postgame impressions, then, and see where they go.

To be honest, finishing the game was a deflating experience. For two weeks, it had a monopoly over everything that could be considered “free time” in my schedule, which obviously excludes watching televised coverage of party leadership races. I’d taken my time and kept a relatively steady pace for someone swallowing the game in eight-hour chunks – a bit of time in the fishing hole every now and then, perhaps. And then I rushed straight through the last three dungeons and the thrill of the superb, superb final battle.

That was it?

See, upon finishing a game of this scale after familiarizing yourself with every known nook and cranny (with a plethora of unknowns remaining), it’s easy to look back and say, well, wasn’t that a lot smaller and shorter than I expected. What a letdown. And then you notice the omissions. No Magic Meter? Octoroks? Moblins? Great Fairies? Gallery-esque monster of a side quest? Post-completion save file with hidden bonuses in the second playthrough? I was wrong about one of these, but what a letdown nonetheless.

What I’m saying is that it’s very easy to underrate this game. After exploring some more and finding out just how much I missed along my beeline to the final boss, and watching someone else play through the first half of the game (which really does feel like a lifetime ago), I have renewed an appreciation for Twilight Princess that almost – just almost – slid into disillusionment.

This is an incredible game. Compelling. Magnetic. I’m a very thorough player, and it’s telling that I rushed to the end, just dying to see the big finish.

Is it better than Ocarina of Time? Yes.

Is it the best of the Zelda series? In some respects, perhaps. (Notice how this was a separate question.)

Is it flawless? No.

For the sake of elaboration, we here enter the realm of Nintendo geekery. That means specifics, and moreover, spoilers. I’m not going to discuss the story – in my opinion, the hallmark of the Zelda series is that the way the player progresses through the game is the story – but I will name specific locales, elements and items. I wouldn’t have wanted to read this before I played the game: ergo, spoilers.

So, what matters in a Zelda game? Off the top of my head: dungeons, overworld exploration, items, optional quests, minigames, bosses, enemy design, the general environment of the game (people, places and things, if you will), and my personal speciality, the music.

Dungeons: What impressed me most about the dungeons was how functional they seemed. There was a certain logic to their design, in that most of the obstacles displayed an implicit reason for existing beyond just waiting to be solved by a swordsman in a green tunic. The Lakebed Temple’s slides, mills and gears are a suitable exemplar, as are the magnets in the Goron Mines and the entirety of the Snowpeak Ruins. This isn’t saying that I dislike abstract environments, but on the whole, I’m very satisfied that the dungeons are architecturally coherent, in addition to their typical property of being thematically coherent.

There aren’t any puzzles that I would call outright hard, but I don’t think I’ve ever been outright stumped by a Zelda game. I think the tasks that confront the player in a typical Zelda dungeon fall into four classes: problems of mechanics (speed, timing, aim), problems of observation (which items you should use, where you can use them, what you can interact with, and where you can go), problems of logic (blocks and switches), and problems of combat.

To be honest… none of them were really a challenge. Observation, maybe – I’m thinking of the City in the Sky ceiling switch – and it might actually be because of the lack of a free third-person camera in the Wii version, something I worried about going into the game. The absence of a free camera doesn’t outright impede anything, but it might be responsible. Combat was a piece of cake, but fun. I did wish that Hyrule Castle had more in the way of actual puzzles, and wasn’t so exclusively combat-heavy, but to each his own. As for logic, I can see how some people might have trouble with the ice block puzzles and the statues guarding the Master Sword, though I didn’t. They’re not overly hard, nor are they easy in a way that makes them less than fun. Like the Water Temple in Ocarina, they’re not difficult, just lengthy without being repetitive.

Complaints? Hyrule Castle was too combat-heavy. The Twilight Palace thinned out after retrieving the two Sols in the palace wings; it deserved at least a miniboss and a unique item, not two mini-minibosses and a temporary upgrade. City in the Sky was so spacious and dependent on Clawshot mechanics that at times, it felt devoid of enemies. The late dungeons are the weakest, but the boss battles were appropriate compensation.

Regardless of their ease, I think the Twilight Princess dungeons are almost all among the best of the 3D Zeldas. It’s their scope and their variety. There are a lot of moments that hearken back to other games’ dungeons and improve upon them – Poe-hunting in the Arbiter’s Grounds, controlling statues in the Temple of Time – but little repetition within this game itself, from one dungeon to the next.

Best dungeon? I’m going to have to go with the Snowpeak Ruins, which really captured the spirit of the entire game.

Overworld exploration: It’s the biggest one yet, though it feels small once you get to know it well, and big again once you realize you didn’t know it well at all. Because you are constrained to certain boundaries and tracts of land, there isn’t the same illusion of total exploratory freedom as that of The Wind Waker. That has been replaced by an illusion of density, that there’s something worth checking out at every turn: it’s a trade-off, but it works. At the same time, however, there’s ample space for so much more.

The secret caves are the best yet in variety and scope – easily equivalent to the Bottom of the Well in Ocarina or the Ghost Ship in Wind Waker – though too many of the rewards are monetary and therefore unnecessary, because there aren’t any extortionary fairy-man cartographers squeezing you for thousands in cash. Remarkably, I didn’t discover the Cave of Ordeals until after I finished the game, in spite of the fact that I repaired the Eldin Bridge, leaving the cave in plain sight. It’s an improvement over its predecessor, the Savage Labyrinth, though some of the rooms were made considerably easier by the fact that you could snipe away from the ledge before diving into the heat of battle.

Items: These are probably a clue as to the relative weakness of the last two or three dungeons. The Double Clawshots probably would have been more fun if I hadn’t expected to see them the entire game. The Spinner, Ball and Chain and Dominion Rod are interesting in that they made their respective dungeons worthwhile, but seem to be of little relevance afterwards. While this is true of the Dominion Rod, which could have benefited from there simply being more statues in the overworld left unmarked, it speaks to the thoroughness of the game’s design that while you’re rarely required to use the Spinner or the Ball and Chain, their effects were often taken into consideration. For instance, using the Spinner protects you from fall damage and lets you coast right over the collapsing blocks in the City in the Sky.

Bomb Arrows and Water Bombs were marvelous: I only wish there were more arrow combos aside from Bombs and the Hawkeye. Speaking of which, I think the Hawkeye didn’t quite make it through the GameCube-to-Wii transition. Maybe it’s for stability’s sake, but it doesn’t make much sense to pan with the stick and aim with the remote, only to put on the Hawkeye and suddenly aim entirely with the stick.

On another note about the interface, the Fishing Rod desperately needed an in-game explanation at the beginning of the game, where it is required. The item selection screen tells you how bobber fishing works, but the manual only concerns lure fishing, which could be misleading. There’s no other mention of how to fish with the bobber anywhere else.

On yet another note about the interface, the item selection wheel was an excellent idea, though the concealment of the number of usable items remain would have worked even better if there were more (or, indeed, any) secret items to be found.

Optional quests: This is one area where the game seemed lacking. Aside from secret areas like the Cave of Ordeals, there just wasn’t much to do. Magic Armor was a nice reward for the game’s big money quest, which there’s a certain impulse to perform because the reward is in plain sight, though it’s not obvious how much you have to spend. The Golden Bug and Poe collection quests are a challenge, but also probably the biggest impediment to truly completing the game. I’m not sure what I prefer: being required to find all 60 Poes in the game world, which means you’re not allowed to skip any, or something along the lines of Joy Pendants in Wind Waker, which enemies drop from time to time (albeit too abundantly when it came to, say, King’s Crests). The absence of a trading quest similar to how you obtain the Biggoron Sword in Ocarina was felt. What else is there? Hot Springwater delivery? Is that it?

At the same time, I think many of these deficiencies are made up for by the variety in the main quest itself, whether it be collecting Tears of Light or my personal favourite, the thrilling carriage escort sequence. It isn’t the activities themselves that disappoint, but the game’s overall linearity.

Oh, and call me spoiled on Wind Waker, The Minish Cap and to a lesser extent, Navi’s presence in Ocarina, but I really wanted to see every enemy in the game named and shamed. If there’s a better way to do it than as a figurine gallery, fine, but do it.

Minigames: Absolutely fantastic. Fishing, flying up Zora’s River and sailing back down, snowboarding, the rupee sink that is Rollgoal – there’s so much to play, and it’s all worth playing. Occasionally frustrating, sure, but only because I kept going back for high scores. If Twilight Princess is the best of the series in any one aspect, this is it. That said, I was stunned at the absence of a sumo-wrestling game where you work your way up successively tougher opponents. It seemed like an obvious choice to me, but sumo wrestling completely disappears after the Goron Mines.

Bosses: In general, far too easy, but fun to play and fun to watch. Never mind that Stallord barely hurts you at all: coasting around on the Spinner is great. And they kept getting better: Argorok and Zant weren’t difficult, but they were dynamic, and in a very rewarding way. What also struck me was the outstanding quality of the minibosses guarding each dungeon’s special item. Maybe it was because these battles – like the Ball and Chain Soldier and the Darknut in the Temple of Time – were often more combat-oriented, and didn’t practically end as soon as you figure out the (often obvious) strategy. It’s probably also the variety of what you get to face, which is evident right from the beginning, when you fight the boomerang-throwing monkey in the Forest Temple.

That said, the bosses could have been more aggressive. Some of them, like Morpheel and to a lesser extent, Stallord, sit back and wait patiently for you to make a move. The battles do escalate as you get a few hits in, but often not in a way that deals more damage. Like the other 3D games, the hint system (here, Midna) is all too eager to hold your hand and show you what to do after very little time (which really isn’t necessary), and I do wish there was a way to turn it off. But I suppose there are kids playing this too.

As for the final battle (by which I mean each of its separate phases put together), I have never seen better in a Zelda game. A novel combination of the 3D battles that have come before it and exciting new material that plays to the strengths of what makes Twilight Princess unique, its greatest moments were every time you saw what you got to do next. I really don’t know how they’re going to top this.

Enemy design: (Here, I mean both function and aesthetics.) Hit and miss, I’d say. Hits: Gorons, Beamos, axe-wielding Armos, variously-armoured Lizalfos, the Snowpeak ice knights, Freezards, two-phase Darknuts. (Notice how so many of these are mechanical, metallic or otherwise solid.) I was impressed by how many elements from the 2D games finally made it: aside from the close-quarters miniboss battle with the Ball and Chain Soldier, we finally have enemy archers, and the desert is full of sandworms leaping all over the place (which we’d previously only seen in the Molgera battle in Wind Waker). Also, the Twilight Palace provides the most inventive use of Wallmaster-like disembodied hands I’ve seen to date: they serve a purpose and pose a threat.

Misses: I primarily miss the life and expressiveness that Wind Waker‘s cartoon stylings brought to the classic Zelda enemies. Stalfos are back to being generic skeleton warriors. The ChuChus, if that’s what those slugs full of Chu Jelly were supposed to be, were inert little blobs, quite unlike the ones that sprung to life in the previous game. I don’t think it’s a graphical problem, just an stylistic one: the Bokoblins, for instance, are no less dynamic than the ones in Wind Waker as far as interesting foot soldiers go. But I do get the impression that there’s very little way to make creatures like the last game’s pop-up ChuChus and drooling Moblins work in a grittier, more “realistic” aesthetic like what Twilight Princess offers. Because of that, I hope the Zelda series moves towards a stylistic compromise similar to what you see with the Twilight Beasts, which are reminiscent of the cel-shading technique (mostly because their textural uniformity reacts the same way to the lighting model). Or, for that matter, the battle with Zant.

Obvious omissions include Octoroks, Moblins and Wizzrobes. I miss them slightly less if only because Lizalfos and Zant Heads are functional replacements, if not as lively.

I suppose this is my way of saying that Wind Waker is the better-looking game, but that’s not to discredit Twilight Princess for a vast rogues’ gallery that keeps the combat fresh. If anything, the Cave of Ordeals is a reminder of these strengths.

Environment: I appreciate how the NPCs preserve a lot of the genuine quirkiness of the Zelda series, and that the more “realistic” look of Twilight Princess does not preclude a few indulgences in caricature. As with the enemies, this works for some characters (Midna, Rusl, Barnes) more than others (Telma, Agitha, the Lake Hylia cannon guy). The landscaping and architecture are exquisite throughout, though as a world in decay, Hyrule Field naturally feels a bit dull and dry. Since you spend most of your time there, it’s tempting to say that the game lacks colour, though Snowpeak, the Faron Woods, and the Twilight Realm prove otherwise.

The most beautiful part of the game is the Sacred Grove, which I think demonstrates what I mean by an ideal stylistic compromise for the Zelda series: the trees and crumbling structures are intricate, the lighting makes the whole place downright painterly, but cartoonish enemies (Skull Kid and his puppets) don’t feel out of place at all. It’s full of life and colour without being overly abstract, and it’s built to last.

Music: Ha! That’s a whole other post.

Verdict: We now return to the question of whether this is the best Zelda to date. My answer would be, not at the exclusion of the other ones. It doesn’t make any game obsolete, though it goes a long way towards doing almost everything Ocarina of Time did, but better. Not the whole way, but a long way. I still think the 3D Zeldas have yet to live up to A Link to the Past in terms of puzzles, secret items and other elements, but Twilight Princess is a step forward. The dungeons don’t supercede everything that has already been done; Wind Waker still has its cooperative dungeons to recommend it, even if Twilight Princess incorporated most of its innovations, like controlling statues and working against the wind. I can’t say how it compares to Majora’s Mask, which I haven’t played, and I’m not going to bother drawing comparisons to the other 2D Zeldas.

This was a really long post. I suspect it was time better spent fishing and playing Rollgoal. And telling people to see The Fountain, which I’m tempted to call the best film of 2006, though I’m reluctant to jump the gun on such a judgment until I see it again, a careful reluctance that also applies to the more publicly acclaimed Babel.

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