The beginning of my least favourite Zelda game is better than I remembered. It’s an interesting time capsule that gives me a sense of where Nintendo’s great franchise was a decade ago while exhibiting mostly smart if occasionally flawed game design.
Before this weekend, I had last played The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess on the Wii when it launched in late 2006. On Sunday, I played it again on the Wii U, where it has received a high-definition remaster that goes on sale on March 5.
I remember being impressed by the game’s dungeons but disappointed in its overworld. It felt too vast and vacant, too invested in looking like a modernised Ocarina of Time, without including a core idea as compelling as Ocarina‘s time-travelling. I also remember it starting really slowly.
Perhaps because I returned to the game with low expectations, I now am impressed with the beginning of Twilight Princess, slow pace and all. Here’s what I have rediscovered:
First impression. The game is dark. They’re pushing the “twilight” idea, sure. But it also seems to me that they want to be sure you realise that Twilight Princess is not this:
The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, released for the GameCube back in 2002, was Nintendo’s previous big Zelda game. It may be beloved now, but Nintendo’s most hardcore fans, fretting that the Nintendo of that era was too kid-oriented, initially disliked the game’s cartoon art style and lost their minds when the darker, more realistic-looking Twilight Princess was first unveiled.
See? This game is dark. Mature. Serious. For adults!
There’s a lot of focus on your horse Epona early on. You’re asked to name her. You walk her across the bridge. You learn to pull a specific weed and blow into it to summon her.
This too seems like a callback to 1998’s beloved Ocarina of Time. You’ve got the horse back, people. Happy?
Then a problem arises. Twilight Princess‘ designers put you on the horse, but have you confined to a small section of the forest. They also put a tree in your way. While it isn’t hard to gallop around it, it feels like bad design. Horse-riding is a big open space kind of thing. What were they thinking? Maybe they wanted us to not love being on this horse?
You trot into Ordon Village. The Zelda designers love doing flyovers to give you a view of the terrain. It’s impossible to appreciate the first time, but everything you see has a gameplay purpose that will come to light over the next couple of hours. There is no wasted architecture. Spoiler: these designers do in fact know what they’re doing.
You get a goal. Fishing rod!
Your lot in life? You have to herd animals, which, weirdly, isn’t fun at all.
The sun sets and you start a second day. As if to emphasise that Link is more grown up than in Wind Waker, he’s surrounded by little kids frequently during this extended intro.
Back into town you go and you’re confronted with a man who’s got some problems. His cat is upset, which is upsetting his wife.
The seeds have been planted. Zelda games are about solving problems, and you’ve got a bunch of them. You need to get that fishing rod, buy the slingshot the kids were talking about and get this guy’s cat fed.
Oh, you also need to find this woman’s cradle:
To play a Zelda game well, you need to be curious and poke around. The town’s pumpkin patch urges you on. Those orange pumpkins stick out. You can pick them up and toss them. There’s no point to it, but it likely activates the part of your brain that wants to test things.
One of the cat-guy’s problems is the hive of bees over his house. If you walk near him, the game takes over and plays a short scene that ends with the bees chasing him into the water.
Obviously none of this is happening by accident, but it’s still impressively smooth once you realise what’s happening. The game is funnelling you through a microcosm of problem-solving loops. The logical thing to do coming out of the cutscene is to approach the man who is now floating in the water. They want you to do this so that you will walk within range of a man who is sitting atop a mossy pillar. That guy shouts down at you.
The ensuing conversation is a small tutorial. You’re being taught the game’s targeting controls and it just so happens that this sequence resembles how you were taught them in Ocarina of Time. What a coincidence! But there’s more to it. Those vines in front of you are also an invitation to climb. Up you go and you’ll spot a plant that by now you’ve been conditioned to pluck out of the ground. And, what do you know, it’s another weed you can blow into.
This one summons a bird.
The bird is used to attack or grab things. It’s tied to the game’s targeting system, which was meant to demonstrate the utility of the Wii’s then-novel pointer-based controls. Playing the game on the Wii U’s more traditional GamePad controller, the pointer thing is easily missed, but the novelty of commanding an animal remains. Notice there seem to be a lot of animal stuff in the game so far? The designers are establishing a theme.
You use the bird to knock down the beehive.
Knocking the beehive doesn’t just help that guy in the water. It clears the way for you to climb the tree to get money that’s nested on the branches (video game logic, people!).
You also need to use the bird to target a monkey who stole the cradle. You get the cradle, exchange it for the fishing rod, use the rod to catch a fish. The cat takes the fish. The lady who runs the shop no longer mopes about the cat and lets you use your money to buy the slingshot. See? It all comes together. Solving one problem leads you to solving another. A mountain of problems is washed a way by a cascade of solutions. It’s well designed and establishes an ideal Zelda flow.
There are, however, some weird interruptions to the flow. Three times, in the midst of this opening sequence of events, you have to wrestle charging goats. The goat-wrestling move will come up later in the game, but it’s not a big part of Twilight Princess as best I can recall. Its prominence in the prologue is peculiar.
By this point, Twilight Princess is mostly signalling that it is Ocarina redux. It is also signalling that it’s going to follow the classic Zelda formula of quickly arming our hero Link with a sword and shield and setting him out on his adventure. One of the houses in town has a shield. Surely, you’ll be grabbing that soon.
You don’t get the shield just then, but you’re promptly given a sword.
Epona. Sword. Shield. To series regulars, this is comfort food. It’s actually all excellent misdirection and makes me wish I’d gone into the game blind back in 2006.
You’re given a sword and a lantern, and sent out on a small mini adventure. You chase a monkey through the woods, learn that your lantern can be used to burn cobwebs out of the way, and practice some combat. For whatever reason, the game’s creators want you to keep thinking about Link as a ranch hand, as a small-town guy with chores to do. So after the day winds down, you don’t start the next one with an adventure ahead of you. Instead, you start it with another requirement to do the herding mini-game.
I’m not sure why Twilight Princess‘ creators forced the ranch stuff on their players. Later in the game, they do introduce mounted combat, and it’s possible that they considered this training for that. Otherwise, the ranching stuff feels strangely purposeless in terms of developing the player’s gameplay options. It’s more effective at establishing the tone of Link living a slow, tedious life in a pool pocket of a town far off from the main parts of Hyrule kingdom.
It’s not fun, though, and it is startling to see such displeasing gameplay in these foundational moments of a major Zelda game.
At least we get a funny phrase out of it, though. Goat in!
You trot Epona back in town and wind up chatting with Ilia and her dad, the mayor. Ilia notices Epona is hurt, probably from jumping a fence, and scolds you.
She takes Epona away. This adds unexpected tension. You’re supposed to be going to Hyrule Castle. The mayor has theorised that you might even see Princess Zelda. The game is putting obstacles in your way, with a hint that there’s something very different coming.
You go looking for Epona. Weirdly, you have to surrender your sword to the kids you were hanging out with. That’s another hint.
You soon catch up with Ilia and Epona. You’re being asked to move around a lot here for the purpose of storytelling. Given how gameplay-driven Zelda games are, this is weird, but the payoff is imminent.
Your horse is good to go and you should now be on your way, right?
Here, at last, is the twist. The game’s been misleading you. You’re not about to suit up and go fight the bad guys. You’re about to get clubbed in the head by some rampaging goblins. You get knocked out. Their leader blows a horn and the sky darkens. A strange but awesomely designed creature shows up.
And Link turns into a wolf.
That’s the ending of the first phase of the game’s intro. To newcomers, it gives players a sense of how a Zelda game works and promoted the type of problem-solving that’s core to the series. But then it takes all the familiar trappings of a Zelda game away. You’re now an animal, and while you’ve learned from the preceding hour or so that animals are useful, it’s unclear how Link’s wolf transformation is going to play into the Zelda formula.
The wolf section is all about great character design and great audio. Eventually it gets to some good gameplay, too, but that has to wait. Link himself looks great as a wolf. Even better is the impish new character Midna, who will be our companion for the bulk of the game. She looks unique and cool.
If Twilight Princess is still calling back to Ocarina, Midna is the new Navi, except she’s a partner character who is repeatedly useful and even occasionally funny. Midna likes this twilight realm you’re suddenly in and teaches you how to turn on a special vision mode that lets you see and listen to ghosts.
The gameplay here is so-so. You learn to dig through dirt patches in the ground and use Midna’s hair as a hook.
The environment is drab and is held back by the push toward realistic graphics. A sewer in Wind Waker couldn’t look this bland. Happily, you can get out of it after a simple water-lowering puzzle and a dash up a staircase.
As you work your way to the exit, you’re being taught that Midna will sometimes dismount and that you can lock onto her and jump toward her. You’re not just being taught this so that you can jump up staircases better.
Outside, the game confirms that you’re in Hyrule Castle. Something has gone wrong.
The best clue that something is amiss isn’t what you see. It’s what you hear. Despite how badly the game’s graphics have aged, it’s soundscape remains spectacular. Zelda, a franchise replete with great audio, now puts on a show of how dissonant tones and weird sound effects can make a place seem threatening and off-kilter. Listen to this:
Notice that you’re also now using the targeting system not to jump staircases but to pounce on birds. Oh, those Zelda designers! They’re always teaching you things when you don’t realise it.
You fight across rooftops, which is a grander setting than you normally have in a Zelda game, and then you scamper into one of the castle’s towers.
You meet a lady. You can safely guess who she is.
She tells a story through a fairly quiet and ominous cutscene. It’s the story of bad guys who show up to kill Hyrule castle’s guards and take Zelda’s throne. This is the game pushing darker themes again. We’ve seen Zelda dethroned or kidnapped before, but never quite with this degree of menace. It feels like Nintendo trying to be grittier and while it sort of works, it also feels like it’s competing against the series’ trademark charm.
The story ends. We get the expected reveal.
Midna lightens the mood.
But Zelda makes it clear: This is not a game for jokes.
That’s where I stopped playing on Sunday, but I played a little more this morning to refresh my memory about how the wolf stuff plays out. I’m glad I did, because you wind up going back to town for reasons that further improve my impression of the game but also remind me of some of its flaws.
The game warps you back home, but it also points out that you’re stuck as a wolf.
Midna hangs back for a bit and you’re left to see what it’s like to just play as a wolf. You’re back in the forest where you first rode Epona and — what do you know? — it’s far easier to run through it on your own four legs.
The game also introduces a clever social inversion: People are going to be afraid of you when you’re a wolf, but you can now talk to animals.
By the time you get back in town, you’ll be having conversations with that hungry cat, a dog, some chickens and a frog. They all have things to say.
Remember that guy you helped before? He hates the new you. He thinks you’re a monster.
So he picks up that weed you blew in, and he summons the hawk to attack you!
The designers have some good intentions here. The role reversal is clever. Having the townspeople turn on you is smart, because it introduces a new conflict while also immediately discarding the idea that combat would solve the problem. Zelda enemies are usually dealt with by killing them, but you’re surely not going to resolve this problem by killing the people in town. The solution is to scare people off, and to do so by sneaking up in them.
Previous Zelda games included stealth sections, but they were usually slow-paced and involved things like hiding behind bushes while waiting for guard patrols to pass. This game dabbles with something different. The previous section in Hyrule castle introduced the idea of the wolf and Midna teaming up to rapidly leap to higher perches, often one after the other. The town turns out to be set up for some similar moves. The only problem is that this movement system relies on trigger points, which don’t mesh well with realistic graphics. You need to be standing on that grey rock, not anywhere else, for Midna to prompt you to jump to the roof.
A little later, you get a shield and grab the sword. It’s kind of a joke, of course, because you can’t use this stuff as a wolf. Midna has no time for them, either.
The game sends you back into the same forest you’ve been to a few times, though it’s filled with meaner enemies now. You’re discouraged from fighting on your own, because it just doesn’t work that well. If you leave any of these guys alive, he’ll revive his buddies.
Midna has the answer and introduces a distinct new approach to Zelda combat that is based on clustering enemies together. It’d be nice to think this is what all that ranch stuff was training you for, but not really. Midna can extend an energy field around you. If you can catch all of the enemies in it, you’ll be able to trigger a rapid attack where you’ll take out all of the enemies pretty much at once. This is what playing as the wolf is about: rapid, often vicious manoeuvres.
The game introduces a new thing to collect: Tears of Light. The idea is that that there are little bugs that you can only see with your special wolf vision turns on. Killing the bugs releases drops of light that in turn let you access a key area.
Like gold coins in a Mario title, the bugs/tears are a motivation to get you to move through part of the game. Since we’re still in the same forest we’ve been in for most of the last two hours, though, the game is testing your patience. You’re treading over familiar territory. Thankfully, the rapid wolf combat is fun and the designers set up several rapid-jumping sequences that are a pleasure to go through, so long as you can find the trigger point. Again, that’s a weird deficiency. Here, for example, the trigger point is not the edge of the dock:
It’s this spot in the corner:
Once you get it, the action is good and playing as the wolf feels empowering. And just as the designers have proved that this wolf thing was a good idea, they finally bring you to the moment you probably expected from the start. You’re transformed back into a person, chat with a spirit who says you’re the chosen one and then you finally get geared up:
Back into the forest you go. (Three times is a bit much, Zelda designers!) Twilight Princess is finally in gear. The build to that moment is slow and you’re not even properly in the open world yet or reunited with Epona, but you have been taught an impressive amount of gameplay concepts, been introduced to a slew of characters and had Zelda‘s fundamentals reinforced while also getting indoctrinated into a new style of wolf-based gameplay.
Unlike Wind Waker, the graphics don’t seem to help the game and may even work against it at times, but Twilight Princess‘ designers otherwise set themselves up for what should be a very strong game. Does the rest hold up as well? Is the game better than I remember? A week ago, I wasn’t even interested in answering that question. Thanks to starting the game all over, I am now eager to find out.
Maybe this game is better than I remembered.