[Editor's Note: Everyday this week, one to two Community Blog's will be getting promoted to the front page. Necros is the first of many Community Bloggers who will be getting some front page loving with their features they write on the C-Blogs. Now sit back and enjoy Necros' opinion on why Twilight Princess was a really good game as part of his Rantoid feature -- CTZ.]
[Author's Note: This is a special extra installment of Friday Rantoid to coincide with the release of everyone's favorite wagglebox. Be advised that there are spoilers ahead, and Happy Wii-Day!]
Yes, Twilight Princess was similar to Ocarina, which was itself a 3D evolution of A Link to the Past. But the Zelda series had not seen a game similar to Ocarina for almost a decade. And don't misconstrue that statement as bitterness. I was among the mass of gamers who were outraged when they saw Wind Waker's whimsical art style, demanding a return to the style of the lifeless SpaceWorld 2000 tech demo. But if Nintendo listened to what gamers wanted (which they never do, much to the detriment of Mother fans), we would have missed out on the charming world of Wind Waker, which only in following years would the gaming public come to fully appreciate.
There was plenty of traditional content in Twilight Princess. Dungeons were still structured so you enter, get stuck, beat a miniboss, get a new item, and use it to defeat the boss. Your reward was a piece of whatever you're collecting and a heart piece. Though aiming was a genuine improvement in the Wii version, the battle system was nearly unchanged. Waggle was but a marginal improvement (or just an equitable change?) over pressing a button, and many did not like it. (For the record, I did, since it was fairly responsive.) And the Twilight Realm was little more than a new implementation of the Light World-Dark World mechanic Nintendo first used in Link to the Past. (And Metroid Prime 2: Echoes. And this year, Super Paper Mario. Nintendo really needs to come up with a new theme.) If you didn't like or grew tired of the framework of earlier Zelda games, I doubt that Twilight Princess would have been the game to change your mind.
However, I would not have taken time away from playing Super Mario Galaxy to write this if Twilight Princess was totally unoriginal. We received a game in 2006 that, while not as significant as Ocarina, was a more polished and refined game. There is a bitter taste in the mouth of most gamers who finish the game and I don't think that it's justified. Twilight Princess merits further reflection now that we've had enough time to step back and examine it in a more objective light, not as a weapon in a console launch war, but as a piece of evolutionary art.
Reinventing the Triforce
The elements that make up a Zelda game are primarily fueled by something that Twilight Princess has in spades: fanservice. Nintendo knew that the game was not just for those being introduced to gaming by the Wii, but for long-time fans as well. As a result, the game reused traditional elements that have been in practically every other Zelda game but presented them with a twist, expanding upon their use. For example, Link still used his boomerang to trigger or grab far-away objects. However, Link now had a Gale Boomerang that was able to attack multiple targets and utilize wind-based properties. Similarly, Link's clawshot still let him grab onto objects and hang from walls. When I saw that Link found another clawshot in the Sky City, I thought that Nintendo had just gotten lazy with level design. I was amazed to discover how much this changed the game; Link was now able to travel around the Sky City with ease, opening up what could be done with dungeon progression.
Even overdone bosses appeared in a new light. When Link sunk to the very bottom of the Lakebed Temple, he attacked the boss Morpheel by pulling an orb out of a water-like tentacle, bringing back fond memories of the Morpha battle in Ocarina's Water Temple. Just when it seemed like Link had bested the creature, an enormous eel burst from the sand, revealing that he had only fought a small tentacle on the creature. From there, the fight shifted into a David and Goliath scenario that would have been at home in Team ICO's Shadow of the Colossus.
Allow me to diverge for a moment to point out that Nintendo was clearly inspired by everyone's favorite games-as-art evidence, and Twilight Princess reflects the spirit of Shadow of the Colossus for the better. Morpheel was just one example in a game of creative bosses that went beyond the traditional Zelda tactics of "whack the big guy with the item you just found" in favor of epic battles, frequently involving Link climbing all over a boss to find its weakpoint. Bosses were not the only element influenced. What was a sterile, boxed-in overworld in Ocarina became a majestic vista, wide and sprawling, something truly deserving its place in Link's quest. Riding Epona, upgraded with a more engaging gallop, inspired awe as you passed ancient structures weathered by time. There is a sense of wonder in the environment that was completely lacking in prior Zelda games.
More than New Tights
Some fanservice is good, but an entire game of fanservice could lose relevance quicker than Sonic the Hedgehog. Thankfully, Twilight Princess invented new ideas never implemented in past Zelda games. By this point in the series, Link's weaponry had been well established, but items like the spinner had no equivalent in any past Zelda game. While I question the decision by the architects of Hyrule to make certain old machines work by spinning in a hole, the sections where Link glides along the walls at high speed, jumping back and forth between tracks, were some of my favorite parts of the later dungeons.
Dungeon design took a step forward as well. Once you get past the "throwback" dungeons, like the Forest Temple and Lakebed Temple, the game had some creative ideas I was not expecting. I don't remember traveling to a snowy mountain in Ocarina, and I certainly never knew there was a friendly yeti inhabiting an abandoned mansion in the area. The dungeon structure of Snowpeak Ruins was a welcome change. Instead of traveling further and further into the depths of a temple, a yeti sent Link to different locations around his house to look for food, having him return to a central area. Similarly, the new Temple of Time was more than just a fanservice footnote for me to get giddy about. Unlike the traditional sprawling dungeon with a few floors, the interior of the Temple of Time was a large tower of smaller floors that Link had to scale to challenge a fierce knight for control of the dominion rod. And once he won the rod, a new challenge appeared: Link had to lead a statue all the way back down to the bottom floor, similar to dragging dead bosses out of dungeons in Hideo Kojima's Boktai.
Epona was changed from being a map shortcut to a gameplay mechanic. No longer was Epona just for getting around, as she now fulfilled her original promise of being Link's loyal steed, ready to charge into combat with Link's newfound ability to fight while riding. The battles on horseback are some of the most memorable moments in the game, especially the duel with King Bulbin atop Eldin Bridge. The little elf had finally become a heroic knight.
Most significantly, the final stand against Ganondorf was an epic four-part battle, starting out with a familiar fight against Puppet Zelda, who must be fought in the same way Ganondorf was fought in Ocarina. Ganondorf then entered the fray himself as a giant pig monster, more feral than previous versions to mirror Link's wolf form. After the castle is destroyed, the fight moved to horseback, building on the horseback mechanics developed earlier in the game. Ganondorf finally challenges Link to a one-on-one duel to the death. Ganondorf is portrayed less as a simple villain and more as Link's worthy adversary, entwined with his destiny. If that is not one of the best final bosses in Zelda history, then I'm not sure what could possibly satisfy you.
The Legend Evolves
Every Zelda fan knows how important the primary supporting characters can be. Sure, Navi helped you, but there were many times you wanted to stick a hook in her and use her as fish bait. This is probably why I was overjoyed to finally have a character like Midna as a sidekick. Instead of some goofy fairy or a talking boat, Midna was a sidekick who made you her sidekick, subverting Zelda tradition. As she ordered Link around, you were not sure whether she was really an ally or not. Even if she was an ally, it was obvious she could care less what happened to Link; all that mattered was that she could use him for her own ends. Her animated expressions, arrogant attitude, and devilish giggle quickly made Midna one of my favorite characters in the entire series.
With Midna came a far-reaching, epic story. I realize I'm using the term "epic" repeatedly in this article, but there's just no better way to put it: the game is epic. Sure, Link still has to save the princess and the world; that's always part of the Zelda experience. What is new is how it is expanded upon. The Dark World in Link to the Past was a static realm, a black to the Light World's white. The Twilight Realm, on the other hand, is not set in stone. It is an encroaching evil, blanketing Hyrule in eternal twilight, spilling over from a dimension forged by banished, errant magicians, a dimension both hellish and beautiful at the same time. A strange foe named Zant leads the unanticipated attack, resented by your half-ally Midna for unknown reasons. Unanswered questions abound: What is Zant's plan? Who is Midna? What is the legacy of the sky people? How does Ganondorf's banishment fit into the puzzle?
Even if it's not up to par with the products of more experienced mediums, the plot was easily the best one to emerge from the series yet, both in concept and in execution. Unlike past Zelda games, where Link was the only character noticing problems, the people of Hyrule had finally realized that shit was going down and actively worked with Link to try and fix the problem. (Before I give them too much credit, I guess once you have been trapped in another dimension and had your ruler's castle encased in a golden diamond, it's kind of hard to be oblivious to the imminent ruination of your land.) This makes the situation much more believable than in Ocarina, in which an openly evil warlord hoped to establish friendly relations with the king and no one saw anything wrong with him hanging around. The alliance in Telma's tavern finally feels like you have someone intelligent to talk with.
And then there are all the little things that make the game great. Scaring the townsfolk as Wolf Link. The dry humor of Malo, the baby/merchant. The Western shoot-out in Impa's village. Relaxing at the fishing hole, surrounded by cherry blossoms. Talking to Epona as a wolf. Hunting down every goddamn poe. Mastering the inconspicuous Rollgoal game. Completing your golden bug collection. Getting to the end of the Cave of Ordeals. Finding the creepy mailman in weird places. None of these things are essential to the game itself, yet Twilight Princess would not have as much charming character as it does if not for all these little touches. They are part of that indefinable quality that makes the difference between a good game and a memorable game.
Dodongo Dislikes Ocarina
Okay. Stop. Yes, Ocarina made huge leaps in the series, is one of the few highlights of the N64, and is one of the greatest games ever made. I know. We all know. Numerous "Best Game EVAR" lists have drilled it into our heads. But that does not mean it was a perfect game. Despite the high caliber of the classic, it had some undeniable flaws. To point out the obvious, Hyrule Field had nothing going for it. Part of the problem is the age-old issue with moving from 2D to 3D; that is, it takes more time to travel in a 3D game than in a 2D game, and developers have to keep this in mind during development. The reason why this problem was amplified is that in going for a vast 3D world, Nintendo didn't provide enough distractions. A wide-open space meant to be an overworld, it failed to have almost anything interesting going on. The hidden caves dotted throughout Hyrule in previous games were actual caves, found in somewhat logical places, but in Ocarina, they were random black holes in the ground. It felt weak, as though you were just accessing some bonus room put in as an easter egg, rather than actual hidden caves. In addition, the amount of enemies you could fight in the field was anemic at best.
For that matter, the entire game suffered from a lack of enemies. While Link to the Past had plenty of enemies, the dungeons in Ocarina rarely had me afraid to enter a room with low health, because there probably would not be any enemies in it, or at most, there would be only one or two. In a fantasy adventure game, this is a legitimate concern, as fighting scary monsters should be a main part of the appeal. The dungeons were well laid-out (except for the annoying Water Temple), and the puzzles were creative, but the dungeons felt empty without the proper amount of enemies.
In addition, the game just lacked style. Ocarina was epic back in 1997, but even a quick glance at its dull polygons, drab colors, and barren landscapes reveals the cracks in the paint. Don't tell me these graphical deficiencies are the fault of the hardware, as Super Mario 64, as simple as it was, created a style of its own that played to the strength of the hardware. (I'll ignore the fact that it was blurrier than watching a TV smothered with Vaseline, since that was the fault of the N64, not the game.) Ocarina attempted be realistic with everything but its hideous townfolk, and as a result, the graphics are obviously lacking today. Compare it to Wind Waker, which will still be highly stylized and beautiful 10 years from now.
And one can't overlook the complete lack of the traditional Zelda overworld theme. It's conspicuously absent in a game with both an amazing score for the time and a focus on a magical, musical instrument. Shoddy.
Twilight Princess fixed all these problems. Hyrule Field was bigger, yet there were abundant enemies, numerous hidden caves (not black holes), pretty scenery, and even the occasional midday rain. There were many more enemies in the dungeons, bringing it back up to Link to the Past levels. Trying to compete with fancy HD graphics, Twilight Princess utilized stylized realism combined with trippy, hazy special effects. Its visuals will not last as long as those in Wind Waker, but at least it has enough artistic merit to warrant a look 10 years down the road. And while Nintendo is slow to implement symphonic recordings, the dynamically changing score was barely noticeable as MIDI recordings. Ocarina may have been more important in the development of the adventure genre, but Twilight Princess was more polished.
I Am Error
This lengthy defense may cause you to assume that I have no issues with Twilight Princess, but this would be far from the case. Just as Ocarina wasn't a perfect game, neither is Twilight Princess. In my opinion, the biggest turn-off in this game was the opening. It was necessary for the plot, but when you start a game, you want to get into the action as fast as possible, and the combination prologue-tutorial lasted far too long with its boring goals. Compare the tutorial to the opening of God of War, which has you fighting the monstrous Hydra in the first level. Similarly, while I was willing to overlook the drawn-out opening of Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door because of the witty dialogue, Twilight Princess's opening just screamed "generic fantasy opening," which probably dissuaded some gamers from continuing past the first dungeon.
Not only does the opening falter, but the gameplay during the endgame seems rather pointless outside of the main plot. The rewards in Ocarina near the end of the game were all worthwhile objectives, like heart pieces or the Biggoron's Sword. The rewards for deviating from the plot of Twilight Princess basically told me that I wasted my time finding a hidden cave or solving a clever puzzle, because all the chests contain are rupees. My wallet was overflowing by the end of the game, and even when utilizing the under-used magic armor, which consumed rupees in exchange for invincibility, I never had to scour the countryside for more rupees. It seems as though the development was taking a toll on the game designer and he just could not come up with anything interesting for you to strive for in the final hour.
And on that note, I would be missing a noticeable issue if I did not touch upon Hyrule Field. Yes, the overworld is much improved over Ocarina, but while they finally captured the majesty of Hyrule Field, that still did not change the fact that it took far too long to get where you needed to go. Even Nintendo realized this, which is why a warp system was implemented mid-game. However, it seems to me that it would have been better to try to address the problem in some way instead of just letting gamers skip over it. Once I could warp, I never rode through the Hyrule Field unless I had an objective in the area or specifically wanted to waste time looking at the scenery.
Finally, I have to mention a personal gripe I have with Nintendo's style of making games: the almost complete lack of voice acting. I understand that, due to technical limitations, it was mostly absent in Ocarina and Wind Waker. But Twilight Princess was released on a DVD in 2006, a year by which this issue should have been irrelevant due to disc space. Nintendo claims that the real issue is that everyone has their own idea of how the characters should sound, and that Link intentionally doesn't speak, since he is a representation of the player (hence the name "link"). To me, this is total bullshit. By having characters say an opening phrase like "Hey!" before the text fully appears, they had already determined what the character sounds like. (For that matter, we even know what Link sounds like, based on his grunts and shouts.) And even if the game was fully voice-acted, it was possible to retain Link's silence. As it is, the way conversations were structured either left out the need for Link to speak or had the player mentally fill in what the answer to a question should be, keeping with Link's role as a conduit for the player. For Nintendo to ignore voice acting that would greatly benefit the immersion of the game was incredibly lazy. Voice acting allows what would normally be two-dimensional characters to attempt a deeper connection with the player in ways that obtrusive text cannot duplicate. I guess I should be thankful for the voiced-gibberish Midna spoke, as even though they were nonsensical phrases, they gave her lines a playful tone that would have been lost in a purely text-based delivery.
It's Dangerous to Not Play, Take This
Still, these issues are easily out-weighed by all the things that Twilight Princess does right. It is the finest Zelda game I've played in a long time and an expertly crafted love letter to 20 years of questing with Link. Those of you who still hunger for the Zelda formula should have had no problems with the game. No disrespect to 2006's Okami, but there is a reason why Zelda is considered one of the best series in gaming and has persisted till today. If you hate the excellent game design and still can't stand this installment, or if you think the series may become the next Tony Hawk, then take heart, as Miyamoto and Aonuma have confirmed that this is the last traditional Zelda game for a long time. If that is indeed true, then Twilight Princess is a fitting send-off of the classic formula.