Pretty much from the moment I lucked into a Nintendo Switch early last month (shoutout to the Fort Totten Walmart for releasing their unclaimed launch-weekend preorders!), I have been utterly and completely in the thrall of the latest entry in the Legend of Zelda series, Breath of the Wild. I honestly can’t think of another game that has gotten under my skin like this: The Witcher 3 made an honest effort, as did The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, but neither can hold a candle to Zelda for sheer absorption. When I’m not playing it, I’m thinking about it; and when I am playing it, I’m as rapt at 60-plus hours in as I was at 60 minutes.
But I’m not here to talk about Breath of the Wild–at least, not at first. I’m here to talk about the Zelda game I finally beat the day before I got my Switch: 2006’s Twilight Princess. Long disdained as the exemplar of the series’ fourth-generation bloat (until 2011’s Skyward Sword came along to claim the throne, anyway), Twilight Princess increasingly feels like the definitive pre-Breath of the Wild Zelda game–for better or worse. 1991’s A Link to the Past solidified the formula; 1998’s Ocarina of Time translated it to 3D; 2013’s A Link Between Worlds was the back-to-basics move that opened the door for Breath of the Wild’s more radical reinvention. But Twilight Princess was the one that took the old Link/Ocarina design to its limit: it was the series’ baroque moment, filling in the familiar contours with elaborate filigrees and aiming for sheer, meticulously-crafted hugeness.
And, yes, it ended up being a little too ponderous for its own good. One of the impressive things about Ocarina–the template upon which Twilight Princess was clearly based–is how it feels like a huge, epic game, when in practice it only takes about 25 hours to complete: a respectable length, certainly, but about average for an action RPG of its type. Twilight Princess, on the other hand, took me almost 30 hours, most of which I spent on the critical path. More importantly, it felt even longer, with sections of padding so transparent I’m convinced they caused me to put down the game for extended periods. Again, I’ve been devouring Breath of the Wild in my every spare moment for a month, and I still don’t want it to end; Twilight Princess took me almost exactly a year to finish–most of which it spent sitting on the shelf while I played other games–and I was ready to see the credits by about the 20-hour mark.
The main culprit is the pacing, which is so molasses-slow that it can feel like a deliberate affront to the player. The first hour of Twilight Princess is notorious, for all the wrong reasons: just our intrepid hero Link, running errands and herding goats in pastoral Ordon Village, until a raiding troop of Bokoblins blessedly invade and make off with the local children. At one point, in what I have come to see as the game’s definitive moment (see 17:31 of the video above), a pregnant villager asks Link to follow her back to her house, and proceeds to waddle so slowly that it actually made me laugh out loud.
“Slow,” of course, doesn’t always mean “bad”: at its best–the hushed, deliberate Snowpeak mansion dungeon, for example–Twilight Princess exudes an almost zenlike calm. But at its worst, it’s infuriating; and by the third forced inter-dungeon search for
game length-extending MacGuffins “Tears of Light,” my patience had pretty much worn thin. The pacing issues are only compounded by the technical limitations of the GameCube and Wii, which render the kingdom of Hyrule as an impressively large, but mostly uninhabited series of individual chambers, separated by load times.
And yet, for all its flaws, I still love Twilight Princess. When it’s not wasting my time with interminable backtracking and fetch quests, it offers some of the most memorable moments in the 30-year-old series: big, elaborate dungeons like the aforementioned Snowpeak and the foreboding Arbiter’s Grounds; dramatic action setpieces borrowing more than a little from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings; a scrappy sidekick/tutorial character, Midna, who actually had a characterization beyond “annoyingly intrusive.” I may not have the patience to play it again for a while, but my memories will remain fond.
There’s also a part of me–a perverse, contrarian part, I’ll admit–that misses the kind of Zelda game Twilight Princess represents. So much of the new Breath of the Wild feels like a reification of the last decade’s most critically-touted game design ideals: its gameplay and storytelling are emergent rather than cinematic, its structure freeform rather than linear, its tutorial elements subtle and implied rather than overbearing and explicit. There’s a sense of inevitability about both the game and its ecstatic critical reception: as if Nintendo EPD had finally cracked the Zelda code, the platonic ideal we somehow had in our minds all along. In some ways, maybe that’s true; Breath of the Wild certainly delivers on the open-ended, exploratory promise of the original Legend of Zelda more than any other game in the series (including, I’d argue, the original Legend of Zelda). But issues of “inevitability” in art still make me uncomfortable. Dull as it may sometimes be, there’s an awkward charm to Twilight Princess that I’m not ready to dismiss as outdated or obsolete.
Don’t get me wrong: Breath of the Wild is, to my mind, the objectively better game; I eagerly anticipate it serving as a template for future installments in the series, just like Link to the Past and Ocarina before it. But I still feel the loss of the old Zelda formula, hoary as it may be, is something to be mourned. The new game’s sense of freedom and discovery is exhilarating, but it lacks the big, intricate puzzle-box dungeons Twilight Princess honed to perfection; even the “Divine Beasts,” Breath of the Wild’s closest analogue to “classic” Zelda dungeons, feel too homogenous in their visual aesthetic and concepts. And while I appreciate the designers’ decision to give us a reduced, but flexible set of tools at the beginning of the game, I still miss the excitement that comes with finding a new item, like Zora’s Flippers or the Hookshot.
So, it feels strangely appropriate that in the end, a bit of Twilight Princess was written into Breath of the Wild’s code. Players who own the Wolf Link Amiibo from the Wii U Twilight Princess HD remaster can bring the character into the game as a companion for the new Link, accompanying him on the field and helping scavenge for food. I’m sure that, for Nintendo, this was a marketing decision, not a sentimental one; Twilight Princess HD was the last Zelda game released before Breath of the Wild, and this was an easy way to encourage sales for both. But there’s something poetic about Link’s wolf form, once derided as an example of the Zelda series’ overreliance on gimmicks, now coming back and feeling like an old friend. For all of Breath of the Wild’s game-changing innovations, Twilight Princess is still there: lurking beneath the surface, unseen but present, a bit like the “Twilight Realm” in the game itself. I look forward to seeing where the next Zelda game goes–whether it’s able to successfully marry the liberating “open-air” feel of Breath of the Wild with the more considered construction of Twilight Princess and its ilk. But in the meantime, we’ll always have Snowpeak.
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