I’ve been bummed out lately, so I’m going to ramble about my favorite game of all time. This game opened my eyes to what games could be, and it helped me permanently fall in love with Nintendo, my first real game company. It’s The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess.
Twilight Princess was released for the GameCube and Wii in 2006. Basically, it was a reaction to American audiences who thought that The Wind Waker was too cutesy. Nintendo decided to go a different way, and combined elements of The Wind Waker with a robust story and high-fantasy design elements.
I remember playing this game when I was around ten years old, but I didn’t finish it until about six years later. It’s a well-loved video game, but I notice it always gets overshadowed by some of the games before it. So I’m going to talk about it in depth, and why I love it so much.
Mechanics and Quests
Mechanically, this game isn’t so much a Breath of the Wild overhaul, but more of an expansion of the 3D Zelda style introduced in Ocarina of Time. The geographical layout of Hyrule is pretty similar, actually. Twilight Princess throws in new mechanics like horseback combat, new maneuvers, and new items.
Dungeons in this game are built very consistently, A lot of them have a similar design that takes you through a specific order of rooms, each with their own challenges. They run the risk of feeling too similar, but usually they add just enough variety to avoid getting stale. They also have pretty neat mechanics, like pulling heavy chains or shifting stairs like in the Lakebed Temple. Sure, like I said, dungeons in this game are more about atmosphere — but they’re different enough that I never found myself bored. Mark Brown can explain it a bit better than I can, though.
The selection of items in this game is clever. Most of the dungeons are built around the items, but items like the Spinner and Dominion Rod, for example, are not only fun in their dungeons but also have puzzles in other parts of the overworld. Even the Double Clawshot from the City in the Sky near the end of the game is the only way to win the STAR game in Castle Town. I also think that firing projectiles like arrows felt better using the Wii pointer than using just about any other control scheme in the series.
Probably why Link’s Crossbow Training became a thing, am I right?
The major change is the introduction of playing as a wolf. I didn’t much like controlling Wolf Link with motion controls. Most of the time I felt forced to play as a wolf, since using his senses limited the field of vision enough to be completely situational. For what they were going for, though, there was a good continuum. I never felt like the game was pushing me to use my wolf form, and the parts where they used it were narratively very compelling. Plus, it would’ve made no sense to make playing as a wolf form more common, because regular Link has all the items.
The combat system is my favorite thing about playing Twilight Princess. It has a depth that no Zelda has achieved before or since. Throughout the game you can find these things called howling stones, and yeah, they’re awesome. They’re like mini rhythm games, where you have to howl and match a tune in wolf form. Most of these songs are references to the little songs from Ocarina of Time, the spiritual predecessor. Matching these tunes allow you to meet with the spirit of the Ancient Hero, who most fans say is the original Hero of Time. In each encounter you learn a new move, which help with everything from armored opponents to hordes of enemies. These moves create a fantastic sense of progression, and work pretty well with motion. Before I leave combat, I should also mention that sheathing your sword after beating a tougher enemy makes Link do a little flourish, which I absolutely love.
This game ain’t Majora’s Mask, but sometimes I found some really interesting quests, like the 50-floor Cave of Ordeals, paying for the upgrades of Malo Mart, delivering hot spring water to Gorons to break boulders, and bringing Agitha glowing bugs from both Twilight and Hyrule. The designers make the most of interesting characters to deliver fun quests. The exploration in Twilight Princess isn’t quite as broad as The Wind Waker, but it has plenty of nice eureka moments, and no two challenges are quite the same. Sometimes you have to wander through a long, dark cave, climb a tower, or float down to a small platform. Looking for treasures never got boring for me.
The World of Hyrule
In making Twilight Princess, Nintendo made the most serious-looking Zelda game yet. A lot of people criticized it as too dark, too much of a departure from the lighthearted look. The game is inspired by games like Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, a cold look that uses the balance of light and dark to evoke a dusky, frozen aesthetic. The desert feels warm, and endless in the night, cool and breezy at the height of the sandstone ruins. The woods are quiet, and bring to mind the sounds of trickling water and footsteps in the grass. The city in the sky feels otherworldly and oppressive, inspired by the mind-bending art of M.C. Escher. Everything blurs the line between reality and fantasy. While the game probably won’t age as well as more stylized games like The Wind Waker, its somber art style and use of soft, low light is still lovely to look at.
I never wandered through a Zelda game that felt so alive. All the characters are well-animated and well-designed. I particularly like characters like Iza, the rapid ride girl, Agitha the Bug Princess, and Falbi who runs the cucco-flight game. The only other Zelda game that comes close to having such interesting characters in my opinion is actually Skyward Sword. But it can’t match Twilight Princess and the peculiarity of its characters. Most NPCs in this game serve some kind of purpose, and I always find myself wondering about their backstory.
Playing in wolf form also lets you talk to animals in the overworld, which is really neat. I actually kind of wish the game used the idea of familiars a little more, since the idea of a complex web of interactions you could have only as a wolf would’ve made me explore as the wolf much more often.
Exploring as a human is still pretty great. This game definitely feels less empty to me than Ocarina of Time or Skyward Sword. Maybe riding on a horse isn’t as interesting as sailing, but you can just ride around and find stuff in Twilight Princess, which is really rad. It also intentionally has many more Heart Pieces to collect, so that there are more goodies to find, both in dungeons and the overworld.
The game was also released in an HD version, and looking back, I kind of wish it included an upgrade system kind of like Skyward Sword or A Link Between Worlds. The reason I say this is, the player is rewarded with rupees a lot. I can’t tell you how many times I had to put rupees back in chests because I had a full wallet. Upgrades would’ve been nice for harder playthroughs, and they would’ve given more purpose to all that cash.
The Twilight Princess soundtrack is etched into my mind. An executive decision was made not to go with an orchestral soundtrack because it would be less interactive. I love orchestral soundtracks. I never thought I’d say that synthesized was a better choice. But for Twilight Princess, it just might have been. Low, drifting horns and woodwind instruments, and soft strings contrast with the harsh digital soundscapes of the twilight realm. Each of the game’s many worlds have music that fits like a glove. In the same way Breath of the Wild uses a minimalist soundtrack to embody ruin, Twilight Princess‘s soundtrack embodies a world divided, a struggle between reality and shadow.
Twilight Princess has the best story in any Zelda game to date in my view. Only Majora’s Mask can touch it, but none of the other games make me feel nearly as invested in the world through its narrative the way this game does. From beginning to end, there are so many great character moments that actually make this world feel full, and worth fighting for.
Let’s run down the list.
The kids of Ordon Village are not only lovable, but create a great emotional thread for Link, and for the player. The inciting quest for Link is to save Ilia and Colin. Ilia is a sort of love interest for Link, a kind and humble spirit, while Colin wants to be an adventurer just like Link when he grows up (I’ll talk about this later). Colin gets kidnapped voluntarily to save one of the other kids, and the moment where you save Colin is incredibly moving, as he tells Link that the only reason he did it was to be like him.
Ilia also has a moving story, because she’s lost her memories by the time you find her. After doing some quests (which give you tangible rewards, I might add), she finally remembers you. What’s so satisfying about helping both of these two is that you’re with them from the beginning, and when you find them again, you realize how different things are. You’ve changed a lot, as a character, and as a player. The game always reminds you of where you started, and why your friends are worth saving.
I also adore the other people you meet along the way. Prince Ralis, a Zora Prince found by Ilia who has lost his royal parents, has a heartbreaking moment with the ghost of his mother. In Castle Town you find Telma, owner of Telma’s Bar, and a small resistance of kids trying to aid you in your quest. Later on, there are hints of a romantic plot between Telma and Renado, the shaman who cares for the kids of Ordon.
Maybe none of these characters sound compelling out of context, but the point is that none of them are throwaways. All the characters are developed, and the connections they form with Link are so sincere that the player feels them too.
Now let’s talk about the major characters, shall we?
Midna is hands-down the best companion character in the entire series. She has attitude, she warps you through the world, helps you fight in wolf form, and most importantly, she doesn’t try to bug you. And she’s your shadow in human form, which I always found cool. Her impish design and flaming hair reflect her personality perfectly, and everybody I’ve heard from formed a genuine attachment to her as they played the game. She’s also a central character to the story, so the fact that she’s also likeable and mechanically important just make her that much better.
The villains are the most lacking in the character department. I found Usurper King Zant to be a haunting, twisted villain at first, especially cool because of his connection to Midna. But at the end he turns out to be kind of goofy, and a mere puppet for Ganondorf, the staple villain. There’s a lot of wasted buildup for Zant, and not enough buildup for Ganondorf, which is kind of disappointing. In the game’s defense, though, Ganondorf has never been so terrifying, and this game ends with the best Ganon fight in the series.
In the End…
It’s hard for me to express just why I love this game so much. It has flaws. All games do. But the way we review games is subjective. You can’t boil down the reasons you like a game with mechanical, 7.3/10 kind of reviews, it’s about how you feel. That’s why some of us love games that are mediocre or worse, why we forgive the things that meant a lot to us. That said, Twilight Princess is not mediocre by any means. I never finished it until years later, and it’s aged quite well. It’s objectively wonderful, the way a lot of Nintendo games are. The difference is that all of the atmosphere and unique qualities of Twilight Princess hit 10-year-old me ten times harder.
There’s this moment in the credits, when you see what became of the game’s colorful cast of characters. After the dust has settled, you see a shot of young Colin from Ordon Village, with a little sword and shield strapped to his back. It’s simple, and cute, but it sums up why Twilight Princess stuck with me. It made me feel the way no other game had, and it still does. The way Link was an inspiration for Colin, this whole game was an inspiration to me. It was a gift. I suppose that kind of inspiration and wonder is something I want to pass on to my own nephew. I want to be the Link to his Colin, as silly as it sounds. I hope someday I can give him some kind of experience that is as unforgettable for him as Twilight Princess was for me. I guess that’s all I can really say about this game…it’s an unforgettable classic.