Even before a new installment in Nintendo's fabled The Legend of Zelda series hits shelves, it has the uncanny ability to ignite heated, passionate discussion on its untested merits. At the same time, it often summons cool, breezy reflections on the overall series and its special qualities. And what happens afterward? More of the same thing really. But there was one significant outcome after the release GameCube's Wind Waker and the Nintendo 64's Majora's Mask—Twilight Princess.
After a two-game hiatus of aesthetic and structural experiments, public opinion has yielded a return to 1998's seminal The Ocarina of Time for the Nintendo 64. It features a mature-looking protagonist with more lifelike graphics, which fans pleaded for, but otherwise the song remains the same, which fans also pleaded for. It is a huge compliment toward the series' power and craftsmanship when what is old remains a highlight of an industry's entire creative year. But it also becomes the game's most glaring disappointment: the realization of too many stalwart expectations set by the audience, and the failure to exceed most of them.
The legend itself has become pigeonholed, its enemies and its precious Princess Zelda becoming overstated personas never emerging as more than bones in the skeletal frame of the plot. The game begins as a story of remorse and duality, telling of a Twilight Realm that threatens to overtake the land after years of segregation.
It eventually collapses into formula without the charm or sympathy of the previous games, including series oddity Majora's Mask. The main villain's motivation, so full of history, regret and deep-seated passion in previous games, has disappeared here. It is unreasonable for the player to fill such large gaps of logic and characterization by culling the previous games and stories, especially if the player isn't familiar with previous reiterations of the legend. The rich history and tales spun so laboriously in previous games is barely found here. It reaps little reward for longtime fans of the series, and causes only confusion and plotholes to newcomers.
None of these problems remove the game's ability to astound, bewilder and engage. Even when its dungeons border on routine, their designs are still effortlessly clever where in games like Sony's God of War, some designs lack purpose or a unifying vision. And coming from a series known for tight gameplay, Twilight Princess moves at the most brisk pace of them all, with little time for hang-ups. The game also reeks of nostalgia, and old time fans of the series will find that the game still pulls the right heartstrings, despite its vague acknowledgment of others in the series.
It would be unfair to saddle next-generation expectations for this game, because it was developed initially for the GameCube. Therefore it remains the perfect send-off for the last generation of gaming: Tight, classy and thoroughly enjoyable. But it would be criminal for me not to point out how the rest of the adventuring genre is advancing. Fumito Ueda's epics like Shadow of the Colossus mine new ways of motivating players through story, and even the childish God of War is able to grip hearts and imagination through its more cathartic action. By sticking with public opinion, Nintendo has developed a game that feels like it's eight years behind.
The Zelda audience also kept the game's controls under a microscope, and the upstart control scheme of Nintendo's new Wii console is weaved effortlessly into the play style. The Zelda series's 3-D control scheme has not been historically complicated, but it isn't as easy as Katamari Damacy requiring only two analog sticks. Yet the game eases the player into the controls, which include aiming with the remote and jiggling it for sword strikes. Although swordplay seems tacked on (jiggling a remote is not more functional than pressing a button), the controls never feel unnatural. This game is a good primer for developers and players alike to familiarize themselves with the controls.
But the new wolf mechanic fails to be anything more than yet another way of getting around. Expectation might have it closer to Link to the Past's spatial relationship with its Dark Realm, or the causalities that came with The Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask. Using the wolf's sense to see the Twilight Realm is a ghastly, beautiful effect to be sure, but contributes little to the player's sense of discovery, save for a few holes to dig or making a few jumps that would otherwise be impossible.
Any Zelda player will expect the first temple to be a forest-like temple, and that's when I started to get the nagging sense that the game's overall temple and item-hunting structure was going to creak like an antiquated boat. Never mind the silly logic in having god-like enemies and daunting temples being host to the only means of toppling both. Most of the game's famed items, some new and some old, are rarely used outside of the context of the respective temples they are found in. They are used occasionally in the vast overworld map, but only in cases where they are so obvious, so transparent, that spelunking a cave suddenly doesn't feel like exploring anything. Instead, the game mechanic of using items to unlock special treasures becomes transparent. It then becomes easy to see, for example, that using a hookshot to cross gaps isn't discovering treasure, it's merely using a glorified key.
The Legend of Zelda series will soon enter a new era, and there's little doubt Nintendo will introduce its next installment as the game to beat for the new generation. Twilight Princess isn't it, but for anyone to expect much more out of it would be unreasonable. It's what's been asked for, and for the time being, the best thing any of us can do is embrace it and celebrate it for all that it is. After all, it is the most traditional of Zelda games, housing some of the series's most magnificent flourishes of design. But in an industry this fickle, its audience can be so lovingly patient only for so long before legends turn into boring stories of glory days.
According to ESRB, this game contains: Animated Blood, Fantasy Violence
Parents may already be familiar with the Zelda series, and have found it to be relatively tame compared to most games. Even still, some of Link's attacks in this latest installment are designed to look a little more brutal. Although it says animated blood, there is no real crimson blood shed in the game. The game does have some dark imagery that may be scary, but no scarier than a Disney villain.
Zelda fans for the most part won't be disappointed. This is easily the largest Zelda adventure yet, with a decent amount of temples, several new items and a very engaging combat system. Fans who have been waiting for the return of a grown-up Link will find much cause to celebrate.
Deaf and Hard of Hearing gamers will have little trouble. All of the text is subtitled, as there is no voice acting in the game. There are several audio cues, but pretty much all of them are signaled at the same time as a very visible visual cue.