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Zelda 35th Anniversary Part 4: Ups and Downs with Twilight Princess

Nintendo may be largely ignoring the 35th anniversary of my favorite series, but I'm not. I'm playing Zelda games I've either never played or potentially underrated until I get burned out.

Hoo Boy. This turned out to be a long one.

The end credits to "Twilight Princess" are rolling as I begin typing this. I finished it once before, back when it came out, and attempted to replay it at the 25th anniversary, which was the last time I went H.A.M. on Zeldas. At that time I had just finished Ocarina of Time, Majora's Mask, and Wind Waker, and a short time into Twilight Princess I put the game down and didn't return to it. I've wondered for years if the game was really that weak, or if I was simply burned out. I decided to make it my first 3D Zelda this time through to give it more of a fair shake. The answer is a little column A a little Column B

First, much as I said in my Link Between Worlds review, some of my problems are likely the version/hardware I'm playing on. I don't have a Wii U, and thus can't play the HD re-release. Curses on Nintendo for not letting me play this on my switch, in my bed, with a re-re-release this year. I played on my Wii, and I wish I had the foresight to purchase the GameCube version in 06. I don't know if the motion controls were always like this, or if my system is just old and tired, but I found them sluggish and imprecise. Aiming was largely fine, and I wouldn't say it ruined the experience overall. However, my nunchuck was constantly causing me to spin attack when I wanted to shield bash and vice-versa. It was very difficult to get Link to swing his sword only once, and the timing often felt off. The lack of a free camera made certain sections, particularly those in tighter spaces very annoying. All in all, if you're new to this game, I'd recommend playing with traditional controls.

The game itself has a lot of issues for me. I found the general presentation of the game lacking. The music rarely grabbed me. Visually, I'd say it's aged as poorly as Wind Waker has aged well. Again, some of this is likely the lack of HD and my big, cheap TV, but I found the visuals muddy and difficult to acclimate to. The browns and greens just don't have the pop of it's predecessor or successors, and the attempts at realism make it that much more awkward once you "see the seams" in the world. Both Link and Epona's default running animations look stilted, as do many of the combat moves, especially compared to the buttery smooth motion in Wind Waker. Also the faces on the character models…are fucked up. The kids look awful, and I laughed out loud when I saw the Great Fairy for the first time.

The most common criticism of this game is that it takes forever to get going, and boy is that accurate. You spend a ton of time in Link's hometown, yet I never felt the sense of place and charm you get from earlier games. Even after the proper action begins, I found the Wolf sections much more tedious than I remembered. Again, the twilight visuals are dark and difficult to see in, and the wolf sense overlay even moreso. The tears of light sections feel more like an Ubisoft "map game" than Zelda–look at map, see dot, go to location, beat thing, repeat. The result is what feels like a much more gated world.

The early going also suffers from being practically a straight remake of Ocarina of Time. Here's the forest temple, here's the fire temple, here's the water temple. Yknow what? We'll just give you the hookshot in the water temple and have you fight Morpha again too. Coupled with the standard fantasy world visuals, it feels like the game never quite comes into it's own. The other 3D games cultivate a distinct vibe with each game, from the cartoony, charming world of Wind Waker to the vibrant natural settings of Breath of the Wild. Hell, Majora's Mask manages to feel extremely distinct from it's predecessor despite utilizing nearly all of the same assets. Twilight Princess never quite shakes the feeling that it's just Ocarina of Time, again.

There are some other minor annoyances as well. Skyward Sword rightly gets flak for telling you what every item is over and over, but that tendency appears here first with the inexplicable choice to remind you what a rupee is every time you boot up the game. The fact that the game returns rupees to their chests if your wallet is full seems nice. Unfortunately, the fact that rupees can reside in both large and small chests makes for some very annoying moments in dungeons when you're not sure which chests you've already checked for more important items. Wind Waker gets flack for padding the triforce quest, but this game has it's own version with the owl statue quest. Finally, I recall horseback combat being a major selling point at release, but I found it to be pretty annoying.

I would describe the story as hit and miss. Midna is certainly the most fleshed out of the companions, with interesting motivations and a genuine arc. There are some spooky moments, and for a fan of the series the expansion of the lore is pretty interesting. However I don't see the depth of OoT, MM, or WW here. A story doesn't need a lot of interesting subtext to be good, but the deeper themes in the previous games make them a richer experience, giving you more to chew on with every playthrough. I think Twilight Princess' story is good, but it also falls into the "Dark but not necessarily Mature" trap of many video games.

Given all that, you may be surprised to hear I spent nearly 60 hours with the game. I finished the Cave of Ordeals, found 58/60 poes and all of the golden bugs. For the first time ever, in what must be dozens of playthroughs of various Zeldas, I found every piece of heart, all but 2 without consulting the fortune teller. I'm probably going to glance at a guide and find those last two poes.

The thing is, even though it takes forever to open up, I eventually did fall in love with this version of Hyrule. It may not be as pretty as the other games, but it's a dense map and I enjoyed poking around, looking for holes to dive into or figuring out how to get that heart piece down from that high place. I remember being somewhat annoyed by the caves the first time through, but this time I found myself wishing there were more. They feel almost like precursors to the shrines in BOTW, and managing your lamp oil is a little proto-survival game feeling. I enjoyed the canoe, star game, and snowboarding mini games immensely. The motion controls shine in the fishing hole, which is as relaxing a location as has ever existed in a game. There are lots of fun "set pieces" outside dungeons like the assault on the desert encampment and the shooting gallery in the hidden village. Once you can finally access everything, it feels like there is a secret around every corner.

While the early dungeons felt fairly weak to me, with the exception of the clever use of the iron boots in the unfortunately ugly goron mines, the later dungeons really shine. The Arbiter's Grounds and Snowpeak temple are unique and spooky, giving off some of the most interesting vibes in the series. I loved the structure of the Temple of Time, forcing you to navigate it twice in different ways. The items in each of these temples are unique and fun to use as well. Like most, my only regret with the spinner is that you don't use it more. The StalLord and Blizzeta fights are some of the best boss battles in the series, and almost all of the bosses are memorable and fun. (While I said the music rarely grabbed me, I did love the change to a more triumphant version of the boss battle once you figure out their weak spot.)

For years I've been thinking of Twilight Princess as one of the weaker 3D Zelda games, and ultimately I think it would still rank near the bottom of my list. However, I think I've been underrating it for some time. While I have a host of issues with it, it's also got some great moments in it's second half. It's a Zelda game through and through, so much so that this seems to be the game that led to the breaking of the mold. OoT-TP all share nearly all the same basic mechanics, with new dungeons, new visuals, and a "twist" (3 Day Cycle, Sailing, Wolf) in each game. (You could even go so far as to say this goes back to A Link to the Past, but I think the shift to 3D is too fundamental to just be called a twist.) Whatever you think of Twilight Princess, Nintendo began experimenting with the formula in much more drastic ways after this in Skyward Sword, A Link Between Worlds, and finally Breath of the Wild.

In the end I think Twilight Princess suffers the same fate as it's GameCube companion Mario Sunshine. Zelda and Mario are foundational video games, inspiring legions of imitators and introducing mechanics still used across the medium today. Both series have multiple entries for which you could make a "greatest game of all time" case. I've perhaps been unfair to Twilight Princess which stands as a "merely" great entry in the series.

Thanks for reading! I started this series with Oracle of Seasons, and I'm hoping to end it with Oracle of Ages before the new year. If you're interested here are the other parts:

Link to Part 1

Link to Part 2

Link to Part 3

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