The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess
Longtime readers of this blog will recall that although I rarely read fiction, I enjoy long narrative console games. The gold standard of this genre, of course, is The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time (N64), which has been called the Citizen Kane of gaming. Ocarina's combination of strong narrative, puzzle solving, and combat earned it a perfect 10 in reviews, and it was so popular that it was rereleased on the GameCube with new puzzles. Even with comparatively low-res graphics, it's still a compelling and challenging game.
Ocarina is part of a long series of Zelda games, starting in 1987. In every game, Link has to acquire skills and a series of tools by visiting different dungeons and beating different bosses, finally saving the Princess Zelda and the land of Hyrule from the villain Ganondorf. Each time, by the way, the principals are the same but the details are different, and this fact is addressed in the later games by referring to past legends of the hero Link and etc. This mythos was brought out most strongly in The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, the GameCube offering that came out a few years ago. (See my review.) Wind Waker was enjoyed by many and reviled by many others, due to its use of cel shading and its cartoonish look. Personally, I liked the look a lot, but I didn't like the tedious nature of travel or some of the unavoidable side quests. I really liked the continuity, though.
Wind Waker's follow-up is last year's Twilight Princess, released simultaneously for the GameCube and the Wii. The advance buzz was very strong, with some critics claiming that it was even better than Ocarina. We got it as soon as we got the Wii, and I went to work. TP has gone for a much more realistic look than any other Zelda game, and it pays off, producing a game that feels more serious and adult than Wind Waker. Is it better than Ocarina? I don't think so -- but I think it comes very close.
The story is very strong, as with most of the other Zelda series (except the execrable Majora's Mask, the only game that made me actively hate all NPCs). Like Ocarina and Wind Waker, TP starts Link off in his own village, meeting the villagers via low-stakes puzzle solving. The gameplay ratchets up fairly quickly once the basic skills are learned, though, and anyone who has played the other Zelda games won't have too much trouble learning them. (The Wii controls do present some challenges, though, which I'll get to in a moment.) After a short time, Link is off to Hyrule Field with his beloved horse Epona -- a name you'll recognize from Ocarina. In fact, you'll recognize a lot from Ocarina: TP is most emphatically a sequel to that game, a direct sequel, so the tools, locales, and even dungeons are essentially the same, though eons later. That Link's adventures are all but forgotten, but you acquire his garb, gallop through his lands, and eventually fight his nemesis.
Let's take a moment to discuss this, because it really has an effect on how you view the game. Two points really jumped out at me as making these direct connections. One is when you visit the fishing shop, and the proprietor casually mentions that one of the pictures on the wall is of a supposed ancestor, the championship fisherman of his day. It's a screen grab of the proprietor of Ocarina's fishing shop -- a little detail that puts you on notice that this isn't just a retelling. The other is when you pick through the ancient ruins of a building in a sacred grove, find out how to open the ruined doors in a clearing, and on the other side, you see what building once stood there: Ocarina's Temple of Time. It's hard to describe how viscerally this hits someone who has played the previous games, each of which creates a specific mood and fosters a deep emotional connection with the land and the mythos.
But although this is the same Hyrule of Ocarina, it's a very different experience. In Ocarina, the scale was so small: mountains seemed like hills, rivers seemed like streams, and Lake Hyrule seemed like hardly more than a pond. In TP, though, the effect is the opposite: Hyrule Field seems like an entire country, Lake Hyrule seems enormous and incredibly deep, and even the dungeons seem cavernous. The twilight that threatens to take over Hyrule is just creepy in a Japanese anime sense, and adds quite a bit to the effect.
Puzzle solving and tools are not terribly different from the other games. One surprising and disappointing thing, though, was that the dungeon bosses were not hard to beat -- in fact, the sub-bosses were consistently harder. This is true pretty much up to the point that you face Ganondorf himself, at which point the difficulty ratchets up considerably.
Unlike Ocarina, there is no magic system to speak of. However, you do spend a lot of time as a wolf, and later in the game you have to switch back and forth between human and wolf in order to make any headway. You do also visit several places that weren't in Ocarina.
Some have complained that the game, which was developed for the GameCube and ported to the Wii for its release, doesn't make good use of the Wii's graphics capabilities. Maybe. But my chief gripe was the controls. To swing the sword, you swing the Wiimote, which seems like a great idea but does not work as well in practice. To perform a spin attack, you shake the Wii's Nunchuck attachment lightly, something that worked inconsistently for me. I also found that I had a tendency to turn the Nunchuck inwards without realizing it, so I would sometimes think I was pushing the control stick forward when I was really pushing it sideways. Most distressingly, while swinging the sword, I found that the Nunchuck would sometimes detach for a split second and reattach while I was pressing the control stick -- and suddenly the Wii would think that center position = back and forward = neutral. That made it difficult to fight, and I got used to temporarily pausing so I could reset the stick orientation.
Nevertheless, the game is really quite good, and I am impressed at how well told and moving the story turns out to be. Defeating Ganondorf was satisfying (although I started to feel sorry for him, since the game allows you to retry if you've been defeated, and I took advantage of that four or five times during the final battle). The great thing is that, now that I've won the game, I can wander around Hyrule exploring all the parts I didn't get to. That's what I'll probably be doing in my spare time next week.