In contrast to The Wind Waker, which shook things up considerably in terms of both aesthetic and game structure, you’d be forgiven for thinking Twilight Princess was “just another Zelda game”.
It marks a return to the semi-realistic visuals of Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask, and is set firmly on dry land in the familiar land of Hyrule — albeit another, differently laid-out Hyrule to its predecessors on the grounds that it’s yet another era in the extremely convoluted Zelda timelines.
But get into the game a bit and you’ll discover something a little different to what we typically expect from a Zelda game: childish optimism replaced with melancholy; the usual feeling of light inevitably triumphing over darkness replaced by questions over whether everything really will turn out all right this time; and an air of slight cynicism that largely emanates from Link’s perpetual companion Midna, one of the most memorable characters the series has ever seen.
Structurally, Twilight Princess is pretty similar to the old Zelda games: go to place, do dungeon, beat boss, move on, optionally complete sidequests and explore for Pieces of Heart. There’s a slight addition to the usual recipe in the form of the titular “Twilight” that shrouds areas of the world map when you first encounter them: transformed into a wolf when entering these, Link must collect a number of “Tears of Light” in order to bring the area back to normal before tackling the main issue in the region. Other than this, though, the way you progress through Twilight Princess is comfortably familiar.
Where Twilight Princess shines is in how it depicts its world and the people in it. The Hyrule of Twilight Princess’ era is a place where people seem to be fairly comfortable in their lives, but there’s a constant, subtle feeling of dissatisfaction and melancholy in the air. People go about their business, but no-one seems excited about what they’re doing; it’s just the daily grind. Capitalism has reared its ugly head, too, as exemplified by the character you find who was turned into gold as a result of his greed, and even one of Link’s childhood friends, who makes full use of his unforgiving, ruthless nature to become a successful businessman despite his tender years.
It’s a really interesting change of tone for Zelda as a whole, and it works. Right from the start, you get the impression that things are a bit different with the aforementioned childhood friends, none of whom are particularly wholesome in their attitudes. People keep secrets from one another, some people distrust one another and gossip behind each other’s backs, and no-one seems truly happy. It’s interesting to revisit some of these areas once you get the ability to change into Wolf Link at will later in the game, because as an animal you can not only eavesdrop on conversations that wouldn’t take place if Link was standing there, you can also converse with the other animals in the area, who all have their own thoughts on things.
Part of the game’s overwhelming atmosphere of melancholy and mystery comes from the presence of Midna, who joins Link early in the game and remains with him throughout. Midna is a bit of an enigma right from the moment you meet her; although she appears to have a connection of some sort with Princess Zelda and thus, by series conventions, should be trustworthy, you’re even led to question this, since the Zelda we meet here is cold and distant due to her guilt over the part she played in bringing the world to its current state.
Once Link’s adventure proper begins, Midna’s motivations remain unclear for quite some time, and we’re led to believe that she might simply be using Link for her own selfish purposes. Later, of course, it is revealed to be much more complicated than that; there’s a degree of selfishness in her actions, for sure, but she also has her own, perfectly understandable motivations for aligning herself with someone like Link, who quickly establishes himself as a force to be reckoned with even in the early stages of his journey.
And what a journey it is. Clocking in at over 40 hours, Twilight Princess is one of the longest Zelda games out there, despite it not having significantly more in the way of dungeons than many of its predecessors. Rather, a significant proportion of this time is taken up with optional exploration of the world and resolution of sidequests; the reward for these is, as usual for the series, typically Pieces of Heart to extend Link’s life gauge, but also the fact that the side stories are composed in an effective, compelling manner helps provide further incentive to explore them.
It’s an interesting world to explore, too. Although the actual polygonal geometry of the world map is fairly primitive by modern standards thanks to its origins as a Gamecube (and early Wii) title, each region is filled with secrets to discover, many of which only become apparent once you make progress in the game and obtain access to different items. Of particular note is the Dominion Rod, a new item for this installment that allows Link to take control of certain statues, which move as he moves.
This makes for some interesting puzzles in dungeons — somewhat akin to Super Mario 3D World and Captain Toad Treasure Tracker’s use of the Double Cherry at times — but also some satisfying environmental tricks out in the open world. At one point, for example, you’ll notice a ladder in a tower on one side of a big bridge; it’s completely unreachable because there’s a gap far too wide for Link to leap across. It’s not until much, much later in the game when you have the Dominion Rod that you’ll be able to find a statue — hidden on the opposite side of this massive bridge — to plug that gap and be able to hop across.
Twilight Princess is particularly good at this aspect of design, teasing the player with treasure chests and other intriguing things that are initially completely out of reach when you first encounter them. Exploring the game fully will require you to remember where these things were so you can return later and make creative use of your items to retrieve them. And it’s very satisfying to do so.
Given its length, it would have been easy for Twilight Princess to feel like it was dragging by the end or that it was padded out, but this has been avoided by Link’s adventure being enormously varied over its entire course. Each dungeon is markedly different from the last, and despite some falling into established tropes for the series — the “fire dungeon” and suchlike — there are plenty of interesting mechanics and design features. Of particular note is the mansion-like dungeon later in the game where a yeti and his wife live; structurally, this is quite unlike any other dungeon in the rest of the Zelda series and is immensely memorable as a result.
Twilight Princess as a whole is a great addition to the Zelda canon. Comfortably familiar enough for series veterans to jump into without having to make too many adjustments, but absolutely oozing a unique atmosphere throughout its entire duration, it’s an uncharacteristically melancholy, “grown up” addition to Nintendo’s lineup, and its Wii U port, featuring high resolution texture maps and a control scheme that doesn’t require you to wave your arm around like a madman, is one of the best ways to experience it.
Wii U Essentials is a series of articles that each focus on a single retail game from the Wii U’s library. These articles aim to build a comprehensive record of this turbulent period in Nintendo’s history: a time when the company released some of its very finest games, yet it struggled to recapture popular attention and commercial success in the same way as the original Wii did.
If you enjoyed this article and want to see more like it, please consider showing your social support with likes, shares and comments, or financial support via my Patreon. Thank you!