Suffers from Nintendo's slavish devotion to outdated game design
I think that there are two crowds who will play The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. There are longtime Zelda and Nintendo fans who will gleefully greet another faithful entry to the series with full accolades. Then, there are players like me who are skipped most or all of the previous Zelda games and are eager to see what the fuss is about. As someone who fits firmly into the latter category, I decided I had to give this series a spin. It has many of the parts in place, but sometimes the package suffers from design problems that have been carried over directly from the 1990s. Twilight Princess showcases everything that is both great and not-so-great about Nintendo's recent offerings. It is a fun game and certainly worth playing for Wii owners who are fans of this genre. It would be a great game, were it not for Nintendo's slavish devotions to some outdated game design conventions.
Nowadays, a game that lasts 40 hours without excessive copy-and-paste or boring, repetitive gameplay is pretty rare. Twilight Princess is one of these unusual finds. It is for this reason that no matter what nagging flaws it has, it is still worth playing. Each dungeon is at least a little different from the last one. In one dungeon, you will find yourself walking on magnetic walls in a steamy, lava-filled mine. In another dungeon, you will find yourself on an underwater spelunking adventure. In another, platforming dangerously miles above ground. Throughout the game, you gradually accumulate a huge inventory of tools to help you navigate huge dungeons by solving environmental puzzles. You will find a bow, bombs, a boomerang, a grappling hook, heavy boots, and many other special items that you can equip and unequip with the flick of the D-pad or by pushing the B button. Each item remains relevant throughout the game. Solving later puzzles frequently involves looking through your inventory and brainstorming about how you can use your items to affect your environment.
Beyond the sheer variety of competent activities provided by the game, it is very difficult to describe what makes it enjoyable. Twilight Princess is a classic example of a game that is worth more than the sum of its parts. There aren't many elements in the game that stand out as good. Combat is functional, but repetitive. Most non-boss enemies can be dispatched in one or two hits simply by swiping the Wii-mote. The puzzle solving is okay, but occasionally, obtuse. The story is okay, but doesn't offer much besides the usual video game fare of the chosen one saving the world from a great evil. There are a lot of items to collect, but your wallet fills up quickly, leaving you with little incentive to look for them. The dungeons are interesting at times, but all of them share a few elements that adhere strongly to a formula. There are a few cities and towns in the world, but there isn't a lot to do in any of them. The manner in which all of these parts coalesce into an epic adventure is what gives the game its strength.
One aspect of the game that defies this trend is the boss battles. Twilight Princess has some truly unforgettable boss battles. Just about every one of them is against some kind of colossus that takes up most of the screen. They all look different from one another and each one is highly detailed and impressively animated. Defeating them usually requires figuring out the trick for each stage, and then using your skills to execute it. Usually, a little bit of experimenting is enough to find out that trick (which almost always involves a special item that you recently found). They generally aren't very hard once you figure out what you need to do, since there are usually enough health power ups to keep you alive after taking a lot of damage. The exception to this rule is the last couple of bosses that you fight at the end of the game. Both of them are quite challenging and satisfying to finally finish off.
This game was also released on the Gamecube, and it has translated well onto the Wii. It makes good use of the Wii's motion control when aiming an arrow or a grappling hook and it is refreshingly free of the Wii-waggling Quick Time events that plague lots of games shoehorned onto the Wii. The combat controls are solid and the way that you can manage your inventory with minimal button presses is slick. If there is any shortcoming with the lack of controls, it is the absence of a jump button. The game jumps for you when you run towards a ledge, occasionally killing you when it's not what you intended.
There aren't any Wii games that have truly great graphics, but Twilight Princess excels at squeezing the most out of the outdated technology with excellent art direction. This strength doesn't show up early in the game, when you are exploring rather mundane towns, fields, and caves. It starts to show up the first time that you enter the twilight realm, the game's bizarre alternate reality. The monsters, in particular, are frightening and impressive. One of the best enemies in the game is a black, lion-like beast with a black, tentacled head. The tentacles wave and float as if the beast is swimming through the air. It is one of the many beautiful details that you will notice as you play through the game. The level of detail on the bosses is astounding, at times.
Zelda: Twilight Princess does suffer occasionally from the outdated technology upon which it is built. One problem that comes across almost immediately is the small size of most areas, the frequency of the loading zones, and a lack of stuff to interact with in your environment, outside of a few puzzle-related items. Big outdoor areas tend to be sparse and dull to traverse across. Travelling from one room to another in a dungeon initiates a short cut scene that seems designed to disguise a quick loading time.
Technology isn't Zelda's primary problem, however. What brings it down is that it just feels like an old game in ways that aren't necessary. It almost seems as if Nintendo purposely designed a 20th Century game as fan service instead of because of a belief that it makes for a better game. No aspect of this game illustrates this problem more than the game's lousy, underachieving audio. Instead of voice-acted lines, the game's story is told in pop up dialog boxes and occasional noises like laughs, grunts, or some kind of gibberish. The absence of voice acting for the game's NPCs and enemies is inexcusable. A big-budget flagship game like Zelda should have voice-acted NPCs -- especially a story-driven game like Zelda, which doesn't overwhelm you with its dialog. In addition to the lack of voice acting, many of the sound effects in the game are very plain or low quality. The menu sounds would have been right at home in the 32-bit era. Nothing else from the sword swipes to the explosions is impressive. The music is average when compared to the presentations that have become standard for top-notch games nowadays.
Many other features in the game also suffer from an occasional time warp. The dialog boxes that still occasionally pop up towards the end of the game telling you that you have found some minor treasure like a yellow rupee are absurd. Obtuse switch hunting and key finding that may have been par for adventures ten years ago are annoying today. At least a few times, I got close to the end of a dungeon and got stuck for a long time, only to discover that I was stuck because I missed some switch or key a half hour ago. The dungeons, in general, are rife with backtracking. No matter how thorough you are playing this game, you can easily miss a side path that will have you wandering in circles for an hour looking for a solution when you get stuck. Enemies usually respawn in areas once you have left and many puzzles reset themselves, a factor that adds to the annoyance of frequent backtracking. The game's poor save system can also be an annoyance. If you quit the game in the middle of a long dungeon, the next time you start up you will be all the way back at the beginning of the dungeon. Sometimes, it takes 10 or 15 minutes just to get back to the point where you quit the game. The complete lack of checkpoints in a dungeon with which to restart a saved game is yet another convention that should never have found its way into this game. Minor issues abound. Issues that feel like remnants of 1990s game design masquerading as nostalgia.
Fortunately, none of these issues keep The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess from being a decent game. The game has so many places to see and so much to discover that it always compels you to come back for more. Simply sticking to the main quest requires 30 or more hours, and there are no prolonged weak spots in that time. It is a compelling adventure and it should probably be in your Wii game collection, regardless of whether you have played the previous games. I will be eagerly awaiting how the next game turns out, since the basic pieces for a masterpiece are in place.