A wolf in hero’s clothing
Available on: GameCube, Wii, WiiU (HD remake)
In the Zelda series, Ocarina of Time (or OoT) stands tall as a monument of greatness. It’s the most famous and the best-loved opus, and for those who have played it before Twilight Princess, it almost invariably wins by comparison. Well, not for me.
Of course, I recognise the older game’s merits and fully agree that it has earned its status. I’m aware of how heavily it has influenced the series, Twilight Princess included. In fact, you’ll find many elements from OoT peppering the game: from Epona the horse, to the Gorons and Zoras, to the Temple of Time. Link also gets a female sidekick, although she’s a distinct step up from Navi. Even the controls are largely similar, involving quick-button mapping, lock-on targeting and so on. There’s also a musical element involved, although it’s less prominent than in OoT (or in Majora’s Mask, or in The Wind Waker, for that matter). Still, even with all the borrowing going on, I enjoyed Twilight Princess more than I did OoT.
The first reason, shallow as it may sound, would be the graphics. I’m sure that even the most diehard OoT fans will agree that N64 graphics weren’t exactly of the highest quality, and that they made numerous NPCs look really ugly. I mean nightmare-fuel ugly. Not so here: Twilight Princess is, first and foremost, lovely to look at. It couldn’t hold a candle to some of its contemporaries on beefier consoles, and even though the recent HD remake gives it a much-needed brush-up, it’s still aeons behind what, say, a PS4 can do. That’s not really the point, though. To me, the Zelda series has always had a fairytale-like quality, and this game does it ample justice. Whether it be the quaint Ordon village, where Link resides, the lush forest which surrounds it, the green fields of Hyrule, the sweeping expanse of Lake Hylia or the grandiose architecture of Hyrule Castle, every environment is bright, warm (well, except Snowpeak) and alive, striking what I find to be exactly the right note for this kind of game. All these locales are populated with quirky, colourful characters who (mostly) no longer look like they’re auditioning for the latest Tim Burton film. Most importantly, the graphics greatly help in the expressiveness department, which is vital in making a silent protagonist relatable, and Link’s baby blues and sharp features have never looked so good. Especially since he spends the entire game as a teen, rather than switching between being 7 and 17, as he did in OoT.
The second reason is the gameplay. While the basics are essentially a direct copy of OoT, there is one major innovation. According to the storyline, the Twilight Realm, a dimension that usually exists in parallel to the ‘normal’ world, suddenly begins to manifest directly into it, shadowy black monsters included. It appears as a golden glow with dark particles rising up from the ground and transforms Hyrule’s inhabitants into spirits. However, Link, who holds the Triforce of Courage, as he usually does in the series, reacts to it in quite a different way: he transforms into a large wolf. And while this feature unfortunately dwindles in importance as the game progresses, it nevertheless lends a welcome change of pace to several of the game’s sequences. Wolf Link may not be a genius swordsman or a master bowyer, but he’s fun and original to play as, no matter what the naysayers maintain. Adding to the charm are his idle animations, which are essentially those of a big dog (scratching his ear, rolling around on his back). Paradoxically enough, Wolf Link is also instrumental in learning sword techniques: peppered around the world are stones with holes in them, which look like Gossip Stones from OoT and produce a melody when the wind blows through them. By howling along with the melody (there’s your musical element), Wolf Link can trigger sword fighting sequences against a skeleton (…) which allow vanilla Link to perfect his swordplay. Some of these techniques are particularly handy, by the way, lending an extra layer of sophistication to combat.
One of the main features of any Zelda game are the various gadgets Link picks up during his travels, such as a boomerang or bombs. While the selection available in this game is fairly run-of-the-mill, it does feature three highlights. Bomb arrows – which, as their name implies, can be created by attaching a bomb to an arrow – allow for long-range destruction without the iffy aim of simply throwing a bomb (they can still detonate in Link’s face if not fired promptly, however). The double clawshot turns Link into a Spiderman-wannabe and allows him to perform aerial stunts. It is acquired and abundantly used in the infamous City in the Sky dungeon, which I must praise for its originality (especially the boss battle), but also curse for its setting, as I’m afraid of heights and was not a happy camper when exploring it. Finally, the spinner, which is best described as a clockwork hoverboard. It can attach itself to grooves in walls, propelling Link along at high speeds, which makes the boss battle in the Arbiter’s Grounds a lot of fun.
The third reason is the supporting cast. I’m sure Navi was created with the best intentions in mind, but “hey listen!” got infuriating after a while. Tatl, her successor in Majora’s Mask, did little to improve the score with her rudeness. This time around, Link is (literally) saddled with Midna, a mischievous, imp-like inhabitant of the Twilight Realm who has a bone to pick with the game’s main antagonist, Zant. She finds Link in his wolf form and proffers help by riding on his back and using the decidedly strange properties of her hair (which can turn into a large hand…) to help him execute certain manoeuvres. When he is in human form, she hides in his shadow and continues to supply guidance. Sounds like just another variation on the annoying-yet-lovable sidekick, but Midna trumps her predecessors by dint of being a fully-fledged, sympathetic character and one of the main protagonists of the game, second only to Link himself. Sure, Princess Zelda’s in there too, and she has her role to play, as usual, but she takes a backseat to the driving duo, whose dynamics are one of the game’s main qualities. There’s also a handful of resistants to Zant’s rule who try their best to help Link, even though it doesn’t amount to much. I must also put a word in for the pair of yetis he runs into during his travels: the female one, aptly named Yeta, is all kinds of adorable. Even though she’s a crack snowboarder (or should that be ‘belly-boarder’?) and may give you trouble in the minigame that involves challenging her and her mate Yeto for a piece of heart (the typical health unit in a Zelda game).
One of the things that Twilight Princess received complaints about was unnecessary bloat, with Link being forced to do random mundane tasks during the introduction in Ordon Village before the action proper kicks in. However, I thought that the point of those sections was to round out Link’s character and make him more relatable than his usual faceless hero persona. It gave him a life besides his heroics and people to care about. When you think about it, OoT had something similar (even though it was far shorter and felt more perfunctory). So did Wind Waker, which, after the initial backlash against its graphics, has been praised for giving Link a distinct individuality, a lot of which was due to the characters that surrounded him.
With all this in mind, the game does have its flaws, or, at least, points of contention. For one thing, the Wii and GameCube versions are mirror images of each other: as Link is traditionally left-handed, but the Wiimote isn’t, the developers solved the problem by flipping the entire game over (so what’s east on the GameCube is west on the Wii). I’d classify it as a nitpick, but Link purists may disagree. Moving along, strange creatures called Oocca have been introduced, their main gameplay purpose being to serve as quicksave points within dungeons, allowing Link to exit and come back in where he left off. I suppose this could be handy, if you found you needed to leave a dungeon for whatever reason, but I don’t think I’ve ever used them, so I find it a supremely superfluous feature. Not to mention that they look profoundly disturbing.
There are still minigames, as mentioned above, usually for winning heart pieces, but if you were looking for a challenge, you may be disappointed. None of them reach the punishing heights of the archery challenges in OoT or Majora’s Mask. I actually thought that was a good thing, but your mileage may vary. However, if you were getting tired of the formulaic nature of the Zelda series, this won’t be the game to change your opinion, as it is not only the spiritual successor to OoT, but retains many traditional elements of the series as well. This notably applies to the villain department. While Zant is a successfully nefarious presence for the greater part of the game, his charisma takes a nosedive towards the end, and Ganondorf gets shoehorned in at the last moment as the real big bad. That being said, you do get the satisfaction of a bona fide, one-on-one swordfight between him and Link.
All things considered, the game’s drawbacks are still outweighed by what it does right in my eyes. And, in fact, you could put the similarities to OoT and other games in a different perspective. Twilight Princess could be perceived as the culminating point of the OoT formula in the series. That’s certainly what it felt like to me.