I wonder how many people recall the many delays before Ocarina of Time’s release. Several issues of Nintendo Power kept pushing the release window further and further back, monthly disappointment delivered right to your mailbox or local newstand.
I imagine that memory was instead overwritten by the joy of finally purchasing the game, plugging the cartridge into the N64, and basking in the glow of the title screen. Assuming, of course, that experience can accurately be recollected at all.
I have vague memories of sitting in my living room, my friend helping direct me throughout the environment, struggling to get used to Z-Targeting. I strafed through the maze to snag the Kokiri Sword, but not without getting knocked around by the rolling boulders patrolling each passage. I also remember the first dungeon feeling much longer and larger than it seems now, adjusting to exploring a fully three-dimensional environment. Even Gohma, the first boss of the game, proved troublesome.
These memories may be vague, but I have them. On the other hand, I can no longer remember the struggles I faced when playing a game like Star Fox or Mega Man X for the first time. I know I had struggles, but any recollection is now lost to me. I’ve replayed those titles so many times that my original memories and experiences have been replaced. I actually owned those games and thus had greater access to replay them. I never really owned Ocarina of Time until High School, and even then, I’ve only truly played through the game two-and-a-half times. I never finished the Water Temple in high school and gave up on the game until the Nintendo 3DS release.
I wonder, then, if Twilight Princess would be viewed more favorably these days if players had experienced Ocarina of Time more like I had. I suppose I’m jumping the gun a bit by confirming this as my favorite 3D Zelda title that I’ve completed (I’ve never played beyond the first dungeon in either Majora’s Mask or Skyward Sword). I feel like it captures the spirit of Ocarina of Time, and manages to improve upon it in many ways.
The real problem is how those improvements and changes compare to The Wind Waker, which introduced many of the adjustments to combat. I’ll be writing a more thorough comparison between The Wind Waker, but for now I will say that I agree with Matthewmatosis’ observation that, by making combat moves and abilities optional, Nintendo was locked into a limited variety of enemy design. What I find to be the greater flaw, however, is that those optional abilities do not often provide a shortcut to defeating more difficult foes towards the game’s end. Many of the advanced moves will be blocked, instead forcing the player to face off no differently than if they had never learned those advanced tricks in the first place.
So while the combat is still an improvement upon Ocarina of Time, it is a step down from The Wind Waker. In truth, that the combat abilities are optional should have no impact on the enemy designs. As stated, they should at least make for a shortcut. While you may want some foes tough enough that the first learned tricks are no good, some of the final blows learned should still prove valuable. As it is, there is little reward for learning every combat ability aside from simple completionism.
Regardless of the combat, the very nature of Hyrule and its dungeons are a refinement of what was first established in Ocarina of Time. Not a major evolution or departure, no, but a sequel does not need to be. Using the improved technology of the GameCube and new experience of the development team, Hyrule was not only made bigger, but it was also made much more varied. Ocarina of Time had a large, empty field populated with nothing but a farm in the middle and a few bombable boulders scattered about. Twilight Princess approaches the design of Hyrule more closely to A Link to the Past, including the simple detail that Hyrule Castle can only be accessed through the South and the West (if playing the HD or GameCube version; the Western entrance would become East on the Wii). The different sections and paths are more uniquely crafted with a variety of encounters and hidden rewards, more seamlessly connecting the different hubs of the game’s world.
Lake Hylia, Kakariko Village, Zora’s Domain, each of these all feel more like a part of the game world rather than segmented concepts stuck to a hub like LEGO bricks. The only environment that feels out of place is the desert, a location that Link can only reach by being fired out of a canon. Traveling this large world is also made easier by providing warp points, located near any key location the player may ever wish to revisit.
I will confess, however, that there is one thing Twilight Princess loses from Ocarina of Time. While the game is still peppered with characters–perhaps even more than ever before–few are as memorable as what few NPC’s scatter the land of Ocarina of Time. Malon and her father at Lon Lon Ranch, the man in the windmill, the young lady allergic to her very own Cuccoos, the Carpenter and his sons—there are just far fewer characters that stand out so well in Twilight Princess. The cast of the game is certainly larger and many of the characters get more screen-time, but their quirks are less flamboyant. Perhaps it is why Milo, the toddler shop owner that would rule a business empire, leaves such an impression.
I imagine this is the result of the backlash Wind Waker faced. An expressive, cel-shaded Link and his seemingly light-hearted world generated such an aggressive backlash from fans and press at the time that it is only natural Nintendo would pull back. Not only would they return to the safe success of Ocarina of Time’s aesthetic, they’d make it darker as well. “More mature”, as many would say. In a mature setting, you don’t often get to be as colorful or light-hearted or silly. Most of the colorful characters within Ocarina of Time are, after all, introduced in Link’s childhood. A childhood that lasts a large portion of the game and is often returned to. Contrast this with the amount of time Link spends in his village in Faron Woods. It may seem long compared to the time spent in Kokiri Forest, but Link rarely ever needs to return to his village once he leaves. The majority of time is spent away, leaving that simple, peaceful life behind to become a hero of a land torn apart by war. Characters are cursed and some must mourn the loss of a loved one.
There is a benefit, however, to this shift. That benefit is Midna, perhaps the best “companion” character within the 3D Zelda games altogether. Of course, to call her a “companion” is truly selling her role in the story short. In truth, Twilight Princess is about Midna. She is a character with agency. She does not “team up” with Link, and she does not exist to help him. She recruits him to her own cause, one that temporarily coincides with his own goals until she herself changes and grows. Link is her blade, cutting through Zant’s cursed forces in order to reclaim her realm.
It is Midna’s story that makes Twilight Princess so much more interesting than Ocarina of Time. The previous game is a much more simple retelling of the Hero of Legend, one whose twist relies upon Link and Zelda’s plan enabling Ganon to rule over Hyrule. While the game’s conclusion ultimately left enough room for what would become the three-pronged timeline of the franchise, it does not present a growth of the characters in the same way that Midna grows and struggles. She is not a chosen hero. She does not carry a piece of the Triforce. Yet she is thrust into this repeating Legend, and it is only through her actions that it can be fulfilled.
It is that story that elevates Twilight Princess beyond Ocarina of Time for me. Ocarina laid the groundwork so that Twilight could exist, but Twilight did not merely seek to tell the same story. Nintendo may have lost some of the franchise’s jovial spirit by turning the setting gritty, but in doing so they managed to tell the story of one of the franchise’s most interesting characters.
Everything else, meanwhile, is just gravy. I like a lot of the adjustments made to Link’s tools and gear. Item redundancy and lack of use was a problem as far back as A Link to the Past, where gaining the hookshot meant the player had no real reason to use the boomerang any longer. Twilight Princess instead gives the boomerang new functionality, changing why you’d use it would still have purpose. What is curious is, for all of the additional overworld content that Nintendo clearly put into the game to justify its size, they did not bother to place a greater variety of tricks, traps and obstacles relying on these different tools. Yet they are, in some fashion, used throughout the game, even if some are used more than others. The many dungeons feel different from one another, following logical progressions and making creative use of tools new and old to craft new experiences. Applying magnetic force to the iron boots and preventing them from slipping along ice makes them particularly useful in two separate dungeons outside of the water temple.
Perhaps what I enjoy most, however, are the boss fights. Each of them has a standard set of three phases, but that’s merely half of the fight. Each fight then transforms, demanding the player to update their tactics and rethink the situation in some way.
Which, to me, communicates a clear intent on Nintendo’s part. Twilight Princess is, specifically, a game for those that once played Ocarina of Time. It is technically not an introduction to Zelda, though they certainly developed it with a first-time player’s experience in mind. Its primary audience is for those that played Ocarina of Time and want more.
To that end, I feel like Nintendo has achieved their goal. It provides a classic Zelda experience with refinements and improvements over the predecessors, making it the best of its type. Which also means how you respond to it is bound to be subjective. Perhaps nostalgia clouds one’s memory too much to appreciate what it is Twilight Princess brings to the table. Perhaps that feeling of experiencing something new keeps Twilight Princess feeling stale or safe (which it is, in many respects). Or perhaps Wind Waker made you realize that you want something different from the franchise altogether.
Either way, I anticipate Twilight Princess being the 3D Zelda game that I replay most often, as it captures everything I want out of the franchise in this style.