So I guess it’s 2006 again.
Not too long ago, I picked up “Hyrule Historia.” A beautiful hard cover history of The Legend of Zelda video game series and it inspired me to finish playing Twilight Princess. I started it in fall of 2012 and stopped playing it shortly after, due to the fact that it was hard and UN-fun. This is an attempt to explain why.
This game was the installment of the series immediately after The Legend of Zelda The Wind Waker. Wind Waker caught a lot of flak for its art style, and was unfairly branded as a kids game when it very much wasn’t. Kid accessible for sure, but don’t tell me it was made for kids when the final move in the game’s climax is to drive the Master Sword into Gannon’s skull. It was a fantastic romp over the ocean that was a sand box of fun and exploration, that just so happened to break out of the conventional dungeon model most previous games had followed.
Whatever the case, Nintendo decided that Twilight Princess needed to be more grown up, whatever that means, and as such pushed for a darker game. It also fell into the unenviable time frame of the Wii launch and as a result was actually a game cube game that got ported to the Wii. I wish it never made it across.
The biggest problem with the game is simply the Wii’s motion controls. Hatred doesn’t really describe it. Jumping up and down on top of the motion controls until they die kinda comes close. In an unfathomable move, Nintendo made it impossible to use the game cube controller with the Wii version. Given the native support for Gamecube controllers in the Wii, this decision was clearly a push to make gamers “take advantage” of all the motion controllers had. Unfortunately, the results were terrible. Movement controls could best be described as loose and poor. Watching Link hold a sword at the ready is almost painful. He’s stiff and off balance and it just looks awful. Accidentally bumping your hand or twitching your thumb the wrong way can send Link back up a wall you just climbed down. And if something jumps out and scares you (remember the game’s darker tone), he will spaz out of control like he just ran face first into a spider web. Point and shoot items like the bow are ridiculously finicky and require a steady hand to hold properly. Pinpoint precision is also required to hit targets.
Level design in the game is downright sadistic. Puzzle mechanics are often tied into the use of motion controls and the sense of frustration in their use extends even to the dungeon’s themselves. Enemies are hard just to be hard and often come with special mechanics that require funky commands on the motion controls in order to defeat. Special sword moves available in this game are also overly complicated, often times difficult to execute, and hard to find. In most cases it’s easier just to wave your arms around wildly and hack and slash at something rather than use a special move to take it out. Item bloat is another major issue in the game with a small mountain of specialty single use items that serve one purpose and then just take up space in your inventory, never to be used again. But how was the plot, this time around?
After playing through the game, it’s not hard to see the game they were trying to make. Twilight Princess was supposed to be the story of Midna, the deposed leader of the Twilight Realm. Had the game focused on her and not Zelda at the beginning of the story, things would have made much more sense. Zelda, does not get very good treatment in this game by the way. The game opens with the evil Zant, the deposer of Midna and ruler of the Twilight Realm, launching his assault on the light world. An assault that included Hyrule Castle and nothing else, it would seem. As Hyrule Castle town and most of the lands surrounding it are noticeably unaffected by the assault. Zant orders Zelda to surrender or watch as he kills all of her people. So she does. Then she’s locked in a dungeon. Way to go, Zelda.
That by the way, is literally all of the context of the invasion that we’re given. The assault on Hyrule Castle is unspoken of by the townspeople in the town you start out in. It’s not even spoken of in Hyrule Castle Town, the city that sits just outside of the Castle. From the looks of things we get no context for what Zant was after, or what his ultimate motivations are. Aside from maybe ruling, but ruling what? All is shrouded in mystery.
As the game progresses, Link gets yanked out of his idyllic farm life (that drags on forever by the way) by a seemingly random attack that leads him into a section of his home that’s covered over in Twilight. He’s transformed into a Wolf in the Twilight version of his realm and is captured and taken to Hyrule Castle where Midna eventually frees him. Midna, then proceeds to tease, goad, and boss Link around, dragging him by the nose through the story. If you thought Navi was annoying, Midna should make you absolutely murderous. Except that we’re not supposed to hate Midna, and the writers do everything in their power to convey that.
Midna uses you to help beat back the sections of the Light World that Zant has convered over in Twilight, searching for the tears of the guardians/goddesses/protectors of the land. Once you find them all, you free powerful light spirits that beat back the twilight and open the way for you to get to the dungeons. In the dungeons your ultimate goal is not the Triforce, but 3 containers of ancient Twilight power that Midna wants to repossess.
As you progress through the story you learn that these 3 pieces were hidden away from the Twilight people on purpose as they had a corrupting influence. But Midna has you get them anyway. And when you have them all? Zant shows up, overpowers Midna, and steals them. After some minor plot points, you get the Master Sword and chase after pieces of a magic mirror to let you enter the Twilight Realm to fight Zant. Who as it turns out, was being controlled by Gannon the whole time. What???? What a compelling and unexpected plot twist! Especially considering how Gannon wasn’t even mentioned or hinted at in the game until more than half way through it.
Remember Zelda though? Yeah, me neither. That’s because aside from a midway plot point and a minor bit of exposition at the beginning, she plays no part in this story. At the end of the game she’s a boss you fight, and after you beat her, she’s an item you use on your horse. That’s it. Gannon is even less utilized. He gets a cut scene half way through the middle of the game and he’s a 4 part boss fight at the end. Aside from that, 2/3 of the primary Zelda formula have no other influence or impact on the game.
So what went wrong here? The real problem is that Twilight Princess was originally supposed to be about Midna and not Zelda. Somewhere along the way in development, somebody switched gears and said, “we can’t have our debut Zelda game for the Wii be about someone other than Zelda.” But if you cut Zelda and Gannon out of this game completely, you’re left with a de-powered dark god, vengeful and angry, who goes on a quest to recover the lost artifacts of her people. These lost artifacts were taken by presumptuous light beings who felt that they were too dangerous. Along the way, she recruits some easily duped hay-seed boy to do the grunt work, using his friends as collateral to keep him moving towards her goals. (Did I forget to mention his friends? Oh yeah, so did most of the game too.) When she first gets her powerful artifacts, they’re stolen by the putz who deposed her, but he’s such a putz he doesn’t know what he has or how to use them. So we upgrade the hay-seed with the sword of legend, (What, you think it’s ONLY good for taking out Gannon?) and off we go to get them back. Once she’s got them, she becomes all powerful and takes over both the light and dark worlds. Except for one thing. Hay-seed boy is going to try to stop her. Thus the ultimate conflict of the game is revealed.
That or something close to it was almost surely the original script of the game. Why create a monster form for Midna? If she wasn’t supposed to be the final boss, why bother with an asset you would only use in a cut-scene anyway? Why make her so haughty and cruel and god-awful if it wasn’t your ultimate job to take her down a peg in the end? Why bother with a line in the script about how the artifacts were so corrupting if not to have them corrupt her? Hell, there’s even promo art of Link fighting Midna in her monster form.
What happened to this game?
At some point in development and well into asset creation, the order had to have come in. The game had to include Zelda and Gannon. They get squeezed in with art styles that only barely sync up with the art style of the game (though to be fair, Link with his green tunic on, didn’t fit into the art style of the game either). The plot had to be re-written and much of the game’s reason for being gets removed and is forced to rely on the standard 3 characters trope, with huge swaths of the plot no longer making sense to accommodate the additional characters being worked in.
There weren’t even any plot hooks to tie in to the future or the past with Gannon threatening to return someday. Rushed and poorly constructed all the way through, this was not what I would call a valid successor to Wind Waker or even Majora’s Mask, the actual game it was supposed to succeed on the official timeline. It’s too bad too, because with some tweaking, this could have been a distinct and exciting addition to the Zelda mythos. As a character, Midna was interesting and fun. The idea of making Link work for the bad guy for the majority of the game was an interesting twist that deserved it’s day in the sun. But alas, it was not to be. Sadly, their next effort, The Legend of Zelda Skyward Sword was not a major improvement. But that will have to wait for another day.