NA Release Date: December 11, 2006 (GCN)
Initial Playthrough: c. January, 2007 (GCN)
Replay: c. November, 2022 – January, 2023 (WiiU)
More than any of the other games in the series I’d played before, I was so curious to see how Twilight Princess had aged in my own perception. As discussed in the introductory comments on The Wind Waker, I was among the segment of the fandom hungry for a darker, more realistic Zelda circa the mid-2000s. Given the graceful aging of WW’s art style, especially in comparison to TP, I think it’s too easy in hindsight to dismiss these calls as short-sighted.
Consider the timing: a massive cohort of young gamers cut their teeth on OOT/MM, which arguably had some of the darkest, most mature themes to date. Eight years later, virtually all of those kids are now teenagers, themselves becoming more mature, and hoping to see that in their favorite games. With that in mind, it’s not entirely surprising that the persistent demand for something grittier had not really subsided. Now, whether the good folks at Nintendo actually cared a lick, I can’t say with any certainty, but that’s my approximate recollection of the fanscape at the time. As a corollary, it seems the developers were particularly influenced by the then recently-released Lord of the Rings film series (released 2001 – 2003) and attempted to translate some of that design aesthetic to this incarnation of Zelda.
For myself, this game occupies an interesting part of my own personal timeline with the franchise. I began attending college in the fall of 2006, so I would have been starting this game up around the end of my first semester away at school. I have vivid memories of playing the GameCube version in my dorm on a little 19″ LCD, and much fuzzier recollections that I enjoyed it. Thus, for the duration of the replay project I was eager to return to TP, to see how it held up against my nostalgia for it and in comparison to my now-complete experience of mainline Zelda games.
The Legend of the Shadow of the Ocarina of Time
Nowhere in the series does the legacy of Ocarina of Time loom larger than in TP. Cynics will tell you the game is a thinly veiled rehash of all the hits of the N64 classic, with relatively little in original content to offer. It’s not an entirely baseless line of criticism, but it’s one that’s always struck me as a little hollow for a series like Zelda (where the conventions and repetition are part of the appeal). But even ceding that for a moment, what if it is ‘just’ a OOT retread? Strike a few points for creativity, fine- but the value proposition of “Ocarina of Time but bigger and grander and more detailed and on next-gen consoles” is still something I’m there for in an instant.
I’ve argued prior that OOT has always felt like the most archetypal Zelda entry. The argument boils down to what is essentially three main points: 1) it was the first 3D Zelda game, 2) the gimmick/hook was subtle, and 3) they *expletive*-ing nailed it. That Nintendo has not returned to this well more often, either in the handhelds or console entries, is a real tribute to the creative integrity and innovative spirit of EAD. Even here in TP, this isn’t simply a retread: the twilight realm duality and wolf transformation are layered on top of the ‘classic’ Hyrule and serve as front-and-center elements of the gameplay and story. Sure, it’s not as much of a deviation as MM or WW, but neither is it some thoughtless ‘greatest hits’ exercise.
All that considered, it still feels amazing to roam an even larger and expansive Hyrule and really allow yourself to be immersed in the fantasy of the land. Seeing Castle Town bustling with dozens of citizens, watching the sun set on the Bridge of Eldin, and even herding cattle through Ordon Village go a long way to making this feel like a real, lived-in place. To say nothing of wandering the treacherous windswept Gerudo Desert and exploring snow-capped mountains we’d never seen up close before in Hyrule. Revisiting the familiar regions feels like it deepens your connection to those places, and staking out across the new ones makes the world seem realer still in its enormity. In the interest of time, I was using the warp mechanic liberally, but on my next playthrough I would like to travel conventionally more often to better enjoy the landscape.
For me, the best use of a familiar location with the Sacred Grove and the adjacent Temple of Time. Wandering through the woods to find the Master Sword gave me strong LTTP vibes, and the terminus of the grove has a quiet beauty to it that gave me Zelda chills in the very best of ways.
The adjacent Temple of Time was also a real treat. Seeing it in total decay, nothing more than a ruin, drives home the point that the Era of Twilight is ages and ages after the Hero of Time was roaming the land. That a completely germane time travel mechanic allows Link to return to an age where the structure is whole was quite a clever twist; hiding some pocket dimension dungeon inside? Inspired.
This lands us squarely at the strongest connective tissue between TP and OOT: the Hero of Time himself. In the contemporary setting of the game he goes by the moniker of “Hero’s Spirit” and serves as an exceptionally grim coda to the story of arguably the most celebrated incarnation of Link. After being sent back to the Child Timeline, Link carried some resentment that his heroic deeds in the Adult Timeline (and subsequently Termina) would never be known. He spent the rest of his days as a knight of Hyrule, but dies filled with regret that he could not pass on the great battle skills he learned during his adventures.
To try and set this right, he manifests himself to the Hero of Twilight as a White Wolf, and implores him to learn the hidden skills he has to impart. When he’s passed on all seven skills, his spirit is finally at ease, knowing his descendant(!) has the requisite prowess to restore Hyrule to her former glory. Wow.
For a series which seems to take such care to avoid any sort of explicit meta-story, this is a surprisingly clear through-line right back to OOT. I’m a big fan, and absolutely love the pathos imparted by the rather sad way the Hero of Time spent his latter days. Buried in there is a happier thread though, that Link had a family of sorts and his line continued through the subsequent ages. The one thing I can’t stand here is the decisions behind the art design of the Hero’s Spirit, however.
The design itself is fine: a spooky skeleton dude, awesome. But if you’re not reading the dialog closely, there are zero visual clues that this is the Hero of Time. It makes sense that he doesn’t have the Master Sword, and I don’t need him to wear the green tunic (which I guess he’d have outgrown), but why on earth isn’t he wearing the livery of a Royal Knight? There’s no visual hint, sigil, etc., to suggest his connection to the royal family. The circular shield and tri-horn helm are far more in line with typical enemy design that make him look like an adversary. It’s a dubious aesthetic decision that really works against his stated role as a world-weary mentor to the protagonist, and it’s something that’s always bugged me in spite of this amazing contribution to the story.
Looking the Part
…which serves as a nice segue to the next discussion topic of the game’s art style. At the risk of sounding like an apologist, I see TP get a lot of flack for having a ‘muddy’ color pallet and ‘generic’ graphics. Given the story content, it’s not really surprising that this game artistically hews closer to the dim and shadowy, so of course up against the candy store brightness of WW or LTTP it looks more nondescript. As with any game, going for a more realistic graphic style will date a title for future players, but it should be noted the visuals of this game really stuck the landing in most contemporary evaluations. Plus, the HD remaster went a long way to helping this game not feel detrimentally rooted in GCN-era visual limitations.
Setting all that aside, I think TP ended up being responsible for the most lasting and influential character design of Link that the series has put forward. From his representation in the Super Smash Bros. franchise to how Link is rendered more generally in merchandise (at least, pre-BOTW) you’d be hard-pressed to find a design more prevalent than where he landed in TP. For me at least, this is simply the imagery that first comes to mind when I visualize Link:
Could be that I just really buy-in to the sweeping epic grandeur that was clearly the aim of the TP developers, but this has it all. Iconic designs of the Master Sword and Hylian Shield coupled to the classic green tunic and cap with leather and mail accents that make it look like something a knight-errant would actually wear. The details on the scabbard are also some of my favorites for this design.
The character designs rounding out the other ‘big three’ also don’t disappoint. Zelda has her armor-like shoulder pauldrons vis-à-vis the OOT design, but they now complement the rapier she is often depicted with in this art style. This is a corresponding visual indicator that Zelda has an increasingly larger amount of agency in the story compared with prior games- a trend that would continue on in ST and BOTW, and hopefully gets pushed even further in TOTK. I also particularly love the heraldry of the crest on her gown which echoes the Hylian Shield.
And Ganondorf might actually be the best of the three. Obviously he is a glow-up of the Hero of Time Era design, but his proportions are completely changed. He lacks the Drama Sleeves of the WW iteration, but he kept a lot of the bulk. OOT Ganondorf was kidnof a beanpole, while the TP design does such an excellent job conveying the sheer power of the character. Not to mention he wields the sword the sages skewered him with when they banished him to the twilight realm, a pretty imposing complement to the gaping magical wound in his chest.
Weirdly enough, I don’t really care for the other other human characters’ designs in this game. The hairstyles and facial features, down to a one, all feel exaggerated in a strange way I’m not really crazy about. It’s not quite uncanny valley, but it’s nearing it. This is all the more confusing considering the impeccable execution of the Link/Zelda/Ganondorf/Midna character models. Though I guess if we consider the eldritch horror that is the Oocca, those humans got off relatively well in the scheme of things.
To round us out though, there are a few (OK, a ton of) standout designs left I want to acknowledge. Everything twilit, with the sortof digital pixelated motif and bright neon green/pink accents on otherwise dark and shadowy figures was something I found really unique. It’s one of the few places (like SS’s robots) where Zelda touches some sci-fi conventions, and it really works. This carries through so much of the outstanding enemy design in this game. The Poes (at the Arbiter’s Grounds) were truly terrifying, and King Bulblin was quite menacing as your recurring rival. Bosses like Fyrus and Stallord were seamlessly integrated with their environments, and TP’s Darknut remains the most intimidating iteration of that storied enemy type.
Zant’s design was also a show-stopper. The crazy sleeves and bug-eyed helm really sell his look as a deranged sorcerer driven insane by the power Ganondorf wields through him. Anyone who has played the game will certainly recall that moment where the weird tongue-covering retracts and we see Zant’s many-cornered mouth. It’s just the right amount of nasty body horror to really set you on edge that something is terribly wrong with this guy.
Lastly (I promise… this is getting out of hand), I simply can’t finish a section on character designs without mentioning the sages. They’re such a bizarre, bold take on these characters that we’ve never really seen since. At first blush, you maybe believe they’re all ethereal because they’re spirits from some other plane, but in the flashback they appear just the same, suggesting that this is just how these dudes always were?
The disembodied hands and face (which still expresses emotion) and the weird halos have a sortof Neon Genesis Evangelion vibe to them. Their otherworldly appearance and countenance lends such an impression of power and mystery that I don’t feel like we’ve ever seen in the sages before. In OOT and WW these characters are beloved friends and allies, while in TP they come off as some sortof cult, meting out judgement and death at will.
In the end, their efforts go horribly awry, and Ganondorf kills one of them before they panic and toss him into the Twilight Realm. It’s certainly not very neighborly, and to their credit they apologize to Midna for their actions near the close of the game before leaving the material plane, apparently forever. For how little screentime these characters have, they make a hell of a visual impression in the short time we have with them.
Weaving a Story
The early game gets a (deservedly) bad wrap for being a little tutorial heavy. I made a note while playing though that this was a necessary investment of time to get the player to care about the supporting characters. TP, especially early on, leans really heavily into its narrative. Despite having one of the longer dungeon rosters of the mainline console games (nine, I think), the early game is quite filled with story beats between these (rescuing the children, rescuing the Zora prince, Colin finding his courage, Ilia’s memory, Telma’s crew, and so on). While I feel like the execution leaves a little to be desired, the purpose of drawing out the intro section is to help the player understand Link’s motivation in dropping everything and racing out into an adventure to save the children from his village and help his childhood friend.
Along the way, Midna is pretty well developed to the point that Link clearly has some affection for her and sympathy for her plight beyond his own interests in setting Hyrule back to order. There is tension here given the cautionary tales you hear from the light spirits about how the Twili were descended from evil sorcerers imprisoned in their own realm for the protection of the light world. The spirit Lanayru further cautions Link of the danger posed by the Fused Shadow, which presents the player with an interesting choice: heed the spirits advice (and stop playing the game)… or press on to aid Midna, knowing the outcome almost certainly won’t be quite as advertised.
These conflicting motivations really make the narrative of the early game quite interesting. Though the story beats are not so prevalent in the back half eventually we do at least close the loop and help Ilia recover her memory which is a nice touch. Still, the game functions a little like a film in the sense that it builds with increasing pace towards the conclusion. Here, it’s where the game basically devolves into a run-n-gun of the last few dungeons to complete the Mirror of Twilight.
…and it’s hard to complain too much about that. These last run of dungeons including the Arbiter’s Grounds, Snowpeak Ruins, and Temple of Time are of such high quality that you don’t really miss the extras and are content to move from one to the other as fast as you can. For me, unfortunately, the City in the Sky kindof kills the momentum of the story right in its tracks.
Apropos of nothing, you use a special canon to launch yourself up to the Oocca World Theme Park, of all things. This whole segment really ends up feeling shoehorned into the story, which is a shame. A race of ancient sky beings with advanced technology and powerful tools like the Dominion Rod who have cut ties with the surface world ages ago sounds really cool! But it turns out they are weird birds? …OK, but then you visit their capital in the heavens and they’re all just kinda… walking around? And not to diminish the whole ‘flying fortress’ bit, but besides that and the Dominion Rod, they don’t seem to have a whole lot else going on of note in their sky keep?
Even if you can get past that, it makes little sense to me how a shard of the Mirror of Twilight would have gotten up there, given that there’s been no sign of the Oocca in Hyrule for an implied hundreds/thousands of years, from the way Shad describes things. I guess Zant passed along the shard to the dragon thing, who set up camp there? Again, so much for the technological prowess of the Oocca given that they’ve put up what appears to be zero fight against this thing. Story-wise the whole ordeal feels like some weird detour compared with how tightly the other dungeons at this stage were integrated with Hyrule. You quickly forget it though, as the ending of the game sets up something really and truly special.
The Thrilling Conclusion
Twilight Princess is not a perfect game, but there’s an argument to be made that it does have a near-perfect ending. From the moment you complete the Mirror of Twilight and cross over back to Midna’s home turf everything in the game propels you forward to the finale of this adventure. The eerie sojourn to the Realm of Twilight allows Link to impart the Master Sword with the light of that world’s Sols and liberate the Twili (who are actually pretty cute looking after all).
Leading up to this, you’ve gotten to do battle with Zant’s Hologram (again leaning into the motif of the Twilight as pseudo-digital), but with the power of the Sols we can finally navigate to the throne room and take him on once and for all. Here at last Zant’s psychosis is on full display, and your battle with him frantically flickers between past arenas of prior twilit foes as the pace becomes more hectic. In besting him at last, Midna reclaims the Fused Shadows and the full height of her power.
Returning to Hyrule Castle, Midna goes full-on kaiju and obliterates the barrier that’s been suffocating the castle grounds for the latter half of the game. It’s a stunning display which validates what the Light Spirits warned regarding the dark power of the Fused Shadows. Still, Link’s faith in his companion is rewarded with that power being harnessed to contest the forces of evil in a bid to save both the Light and Twilight realms.
While it’s a bit of a trope to seal off an area from early in the game, only to have the player return at the climax of the story, that doesn’t make it any less satisfying here. Especially since we’ve only ever visited Hyrule Castle by way of wolf stealth runs across the rooftops. Coming in the front door is a totally different experience, and it’s a breathtaking one at that. BOTW is the only other 3D game which gives us such unfettered access to the seat of power in Hyrule. The difference is the castle in TP is relatively unspoiled, and so the player really gets an impression of the grandeur and majesty of the palace. No other structure encountered in TP even comes close to the sheer scope we see here, and it makes for an amazing setting for the final dungeon of the game.
As you wander the grounds, only the steady patter of rain soundtracks your efforts to clear out the dark minions who have taken up residence. I found this to be a little too easy, but I don’t wonder if the point is that Link has grown so much as a hero that none but the strongest enemies pose any real threat now. Working your way inside the castle itself, a sedate, sparse rendition of the iconic Hyrule Castle Theme drifts through the air. Link’s footsteps echo loudly, underscoring both the enormity of the space and how empty it is.
The few combatants which remain are formidable- at one point you get to face down two Darknuts which is a really great chance to have some fun putting your combat skills to the test. By the end of the game these were my favorite enemies. As you start to ascend to the more central chambers of the castle, your progress is briefly blocked by a well-positioned horde of creatures- but your pals from the Castle Town resistance drop by in the nick of time to clear the way for you. The gesture is somewhat in vain, as those enemies would have been trivial to deal with, but it made me smile to see the featured characters from the later half of the game making their contribution to the finale.
As you climb higher in the castle, the music becomes interlaced with the familiar theme we’ve come to associate with Ganondorf, until it fully dominates the composition as you come to throne room and face your true adversary at last. Ganondorf’s opening move is to possess Zelda with his twilight powers, checking off the near-obligatory dead man’s volley phase of the boss fight. It’s a fun twist though that now you’re fighting Zelda, an idea that shows up again in ST some time later as well.
Finally besting Ganon’s Puppet, you weaken him enough that Midna’s Fused Shadow form is able to purge the twilight from Zelda’s body and seemingly restore her to some semblance of health. Ganon’s life force takes shape as as a Dark Beast, and another boss phase begins requiring the use of Link’s wolf form to properly dispatch. At this point Midna teleports Link and Zelda to the safety of the outskirts of Lanayru Province and attempts to deliver the killing blow to Ganondorf’s Andros Head form.
This proves to be harder than she imagines though, and suddenly Ganondorf (now human again) is on horseback with a cadre of phantoms at his side to finish of Link and Zelda. In a final desperate act, Zelda prays to the Light Spirits, a nice callback to some of the first steps on our journey, and they grant her the light arrows to counter Ganondorf’s dark magic. The real miracle here though is that somehow the horse combat mechanic is not nearly so clunky and terrible as it was earlier in the game. Maybe I got better at it? Or it was made a little more forgiving to not put a damper on the end of the story? Not sure, but against all odds I actually quite enjoyed avoiding the phantoms and angling to give Zelda the shot to snipe Ganondorf.
At last we’re in the endgame now. I love that TP finishes the rather lengthy boss sequence with a simple hand-to-hand combat against Ganondorf. While I follow the logic of starting with the human battle and him evolving to some larger/nastier creature as the fight goes on, this felt so much more dramatic- a lesson well-learned from the ultimate battle in WW.
The fight with Ganondorf isn’t hard- you just swipe at him a bit and avoid his attacks until you get a prompt for a quick time event to button-mash your way to his damage phase. Rinse and repeat your way to victory. It’s not really tough at all, and honestly I’m fine with that. It briefly takes the game much further to the Hideo Kojima end of the movie-game continuum, but for the crescendo of our journey makes a lot of sense. As discussed above, TP is so focused on telling a compelling story, I think it’s perfectly fair to not let the fact that this is a video game get in the way of the climax of the narrative.
TP also gives us a little more extended closure with our characters than we typically get with a Zelda game. Midna bids Link and Zelda a weighty, tearful goodbye in the epilogue, and we see a peaceful return to normal life for all of the friends we made along the way in our adventure with the credits roll.
Winner: King Bulblin. This guy serves as a recurring mid-level antagonist, who actually sets off the action by kidnapping the kids from Ordon near the start of the game. It’s pretty cool that he serves as a kind of rival for Link, cropping up to stop his progress at key moments. Best of all, with a single line of dialog in the final encounter just before he walks off, he is all at once humanized and given more dimension that hardly any other similar creature Link battles in the entire franchise:
I follow the strongest side!King Bulblin
…That is all I have ever known.
Loser: Epona. Our girl is looking fine in this game (see far above in the design discussion) BUT: I really disliked the controls for riding. They felt so sluggish, and I was constantly over-correcting and ramming into walls and getting stuck on small obstacles. Such a literal drag. The early set-pieces where you have to battle mounted Bulblins and protect the wagon and joust on the bridge all went terribly for me, and really ruined the vibe by halting the action. As mentioned, this didn’t feel nearly as painful at the end, so maybe my skill improved some, but I maintain the game would be more fun if this was simply easier.
Winner: Magic Armor. This stuff is pretty impractical to use, honestly. Even with a maxed out wallet, the invincibility effect can only maintained for ~2.75 minutes, so you by definition can’t get much mileage out of it. Plus, there’s hardly a need for it in this game, with combat mechanics generally being quite forgiving. HOWEVER: it has got to be the slickest looking armor Link ever (canonically) wears in a game. Just wish we got to enjoy it more.
Loser: Oocca. I really don’t know what to say here. It’s hard to dunk too hard on these guys, since Ooccoo is such a good little helper if you need to pause on a dungeon, and they seem nice enough, but I just can’t see past the character designs here. I guess they’re inspired by a statue Escher used in some of his work which is cool, but… I can’t even bring myself to embed the image I find them so unsettling. You can look if you want to, though.
Winner: Light Spirits. We touched on these guys earlier, but their role in both the very-early and very-late game makes them really feel integrated into the story and the land of Hyrule, despite being new additions to the lore for TP. They make a fun visual counterpoint to the twilit elements, and like many other parts of the game, I had a very positive impression of their design.
Loser: Goddess Statues in the Throne Room.
No wonder Ganondorf trashed them.
Bonus Winner: Midna. It’s certainly a compositional failure that we got this deep into the write-up without spending a minute to focus on Midna, so we’ll do it here. She’s probably the best companion character of the series. With a more active and present role in the story than the King of Red Lions, but still with a lighter touch than Navi or Fi, she really hits the sweet spot like no other characters in this role have. You show up for her ability to warp and lift impossibly heavy debris, and stay for her sparkling personality. By the end of the game, after the surprising reveal of her elegant true form, you get a window into just how close she and Link have become. It makes the parting all the more poignant, and really tugs on the heartstrings to put a nice bow on their story.
Wow I spent a lot of time waxing poetic on this one, so I guess we’ll keep it short here. I didn’t expect to end up such a staunch defender for this game, but I guess it turns out I really like it? Particularly the conclusion, which has so much packed into it, with each chunk building successively to the pinnacle that TP makes a play for almost full-blown cinema by the end. I love this, completely. I’m reminded strongly of a quote from (what else) one of my favorite movies:
I’ll tell you a secret. The last act makes a film. Wow them in the end, and you got a hit. You can have flaws, problems, but wow them in the end, and you’ve got a hit.Robert McKee, Adaptation
Twilight Princess wows me in the end, and so I find myself completely willing to look past all the blemishes and (legit) critiques of it, coming to the conclusion that this game can hold its own with some of the franchise’s very best.
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