If you’ve ever been friends with a gamer, particularly a Nintendo fan, you’ve probably heard of ‘The Legend of Zelda.’ Arguably the highest-caliber gaming franchise available, the series is beloved by all kinds of gamers. The newest entry, ‘The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess,’ has miraculously lifted the already sky-high standard for this giant, and is perhaps the single greatest game ever produced.
Before I begin, I should note that my impressions of the game are based predominantly on the GameCube build, although I will touch on the Wii’s controls.
The Zelda story has come a long way since the 8-bit NES days. In the latest incarnation, a new hero is called to defend Hyrule against Zant, the twilight lord. Link must travel between the Twilight Realm and his native Hyrule in order to drive away the encroaching twilight from the kingdom. Although the story sounds trite in brief, it is in symbolism and homage that the game gains intellectual weight. Furthermore, the developers have integrated the narrative into the progression of the gameplay masterfully, which lends it further strength.
‘Twilight Princess’ is Nintendo’s loud answer to all the fans disappointed with ‘Wind Waker,’ its predecessor on the GameCube. ‘Twilight Princess’ does not use the cel-shading graphical technique of ‘Wind Waker,’ which made the game visually resemble a cartoon. ‘Twilight Princess’ looks much more like a true sequel to the 1998 Nintendo 64 masterpiece, ‘Ocarina of Time.’ This more realistic style is what gamers have been clamoring for, and Nintendo delivered big-time with a palate of dark earth tones throughout.
Beyond the style, the graphics in general are impressive by all technical standards. The game has been criticized unfairly for lacking the HD crispness and detail of a game like ‘Gears of War’ for the Xbox 360, but most reviewers seem to forget that this game was developed for the GameCube and pushes that hardware further than any other game on the system. Some have taken issue with the textures, which are admittedly blurry in some areas; however, the game’s utter immensity of scope, the fluid motion-captured animations and realistic lighting, water and particle effects are uncommonly good and in such abundance throughout the game’s titanic world that they make up for its extremely minor shortcomings.
The world is immense, and not simply rehashed buildings and objects drawn at random as in a game like ‘Grand Theft Auto.’ This giant, masterfully crafted world is populated with characters, objects and graphical effects, each individually perfected and placed to create an unparalleled digitally rendered environmental and architectural aesthetic.
The visuals, dazzling as they are, have no bearing on the equally unparalleled gameplay. Nintendo’s first-class development team, ‘Nintendo EAD,’ has taken the trailblazing gameplay of ‘Zelda: Ocarina of Time,’ combined it with elements of every modern, successful 3D adventure and added myriad touches to create the most refined 3D adventure experience ever produced.
Controlling Link is more fun than ever. I won’t go into detail about the new items as discovering this for yourself is a large part of the enjoyment, but I will say that all the old favorites return and are enhanced. More than gimmicks, the enhancements often forward the gameplay. I’ll give one spoiler to prove my point: The boomerang returns in ‘Twilight Princess’ as the ‘Gale Boomerang,’ which allows the player to target several objects at once and blast them with a whirlwind. The item goes beyond its traditional role for combat and is used to power propellers, put out fires and discover secrets. The diversity of the items is staggering, and, as always, they are all enjoyable and practical. Furthermore, Link can now swordfight on horseback and learn seven new combat moves.
There is a new duality to the gameplay similar to the transformations possible in 2000’s ‘Zelda: Majora’s Mask.’ Link can morph, at first involuntarily, and later at will, into a wolf. Although it may initially seem like less fun, the wolf can run faster than Link, leap greater distances, pick up scents of other characters, dig up treasure, fit through narrow passages and even warp across the map. Tasks often require a combination of the wolf’s heightened sense and agility with Link’s opposable thumbs for manipulating objects and machinery. The wolf feels like a necessary addition to the story rather than a tacked-on gimmick.
‘Twilight Princess’ follows the familiar Zelda formula whereby the player must find a way to access a dungeon then navigate its labyrinthine innards to uncover a map, compass, treasure item and a key to the boss. The game innovates in its use of the items Link is given. Although in the past Link has often had to employ several items at once to complete a puzzle, there has never before been such a large scope of tasks to be done in one dungeon. Each dungeon is significantly bigger and more demanding than those of ‘Ocarina of Time.’ Generally, each puzzle requires a specific combination of items in addition to a lot of critical thinking. As the game progresses, the dungeons begin to feel like giant Rubik’s Cubes.
All this is simply enhanced in the Wii version, which adds the precision of the motion-sensing Wii remote to the gameplay, allowing for simulated sword slashes, quick shots from the bow and arrow and realistic fishing mechanics. Furthermore, the Wii title supports 16×9 widescreen for enhanced picture quality on larger displays. It should be noted, however, that I played the GameCube build on a 42-inch plasma TV and did not notice a significant loss in picture quality.
One quality Zelda games rarely get enough credit for is their intellectual weight. Shigeru Miyamoto, the series’ creator, is educated in the humanities rather than computer science or engineering, and draws from the Middle English and Arthurian Romances in crafting the Zelda story. Even the name of the series was drawn from the literary world; as a fan of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Miyamoto has said that Fitzgerald’s wife, Zelda, was his basis for the title of the original game in 1986.
Although it may seem as though ‘Twilight Princess’ is simply child’s play, there is a sophisticated narrative and a structure of symbolism that accurately parallels and adapts its source material for those who know how to find it. There is so much to do, so much gameplay that is miraculously new, fun and fresh from start to bittersweet end, that it is simply amazing. Never has a game packed this much playtime, creativity and exacting perfection into a single title.