Hands-on The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess
10 hours in, is this the best Zelda game ever made? Matt's impressions inside.
by Matt Casamassina
November 3, 2006 - IGN Wii's editor-in-chief, Matt Casamassina, recently journeyed to Nintendo of America's Seattle headquarters for an extensive hands-on play session with The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. After logging almost 10 hours with the game - what many consider to be the most ambitious project in Nintendo history - Casamassina offers his impressions below.
Bitter and Sweet
As a videogame reviewer and a journalist with a looming deadline, playing the near-final build of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess is a bittersweet experience. Sweet for all the obvious reasons. I could simply write that "it's Zelda" and veteran gamers would fully understand. But let me go into a little more detail for those still unfamiliar with this franchise - there might be one or two of you left, after all. Nintendo's action-adventure series has, since its conception decades ago, set the standard for the genre with incredibly deep gameplay mechanics and clever puzzles, not to mention beautiful graphics. In fact, Nintendo 64's Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is even to this day heralded as the greatest videogame ever made by too many gamers and critics to count.
Now, bearing that in mind, Twilight Princess is bigger, deeper, and prettier. Which is, of course, precisely the problem when time itself is a hot commodity for me, and this is where the bitter comes into the equation.
If Wii Sports is for the non-gamers, Twilight Princess is for the hardcore. After I spent 10 hours with the game, I barely managed to squeak by two temples, with the third so far off that I could scarcely imagine getting there, let alone approach the objective. (For the record, out of 30 or so journalists, nobody came close to the third temple.) I asked how long it took Nintendo's testers to complete the entire game the first time through. The answer is a whopping 70-plus hours. Adding insult to injury, diabolical Nintendo translator and localization manager Bill Trinen told me that he was working on his second play-through of the game. Knowing what to do and where to go, and skipping cut-scenes, Trinen said that he had logged about 27 hours to make it about two thirds of the way through the temples themselves - and that doesn't account for any of the side quests or time sinks like fishing, a single operation that could easily add hours upon hours to Zelda's depth. .
When publishers claim that their games are 50 hours long, seasoned players usually half that number for the truth. But with Twilight Princess, I think we can really look forward to a 50-plus-hour adventure, bare minimum. This quest will keep you busy through the holidays and beyond. So, I'm pondering this revelation a lot as I try to imagine how in the hell I'm going to find the time to beat Zelda and still review 30 other games for the Wii launch. Of course, that's more than a little terrifying, but at the same time I am absolutely thrilled by the prospect of spending some quality time with Link, Epona, and Zelda again. Oh yeah, and Midna, too.
There's no way to know for sure how it'll all turn out yet, as even with 10 hours under my belt I've only scratched the surface. However, if the game keeps up or gets better - as Nintendo's people promise that it does - there is simply no way that the adventure will remembered as anything but a masterful classic and quite possibly the best launch title in the history of the business.
Two Systems - One Game
Twilight Princess may have started as a GameCube title, but it finished a Wii one. There remains this faction of gamers that refuses to accept the possibility. You know who you are. You continue to argue that because the controls were originally designed for the GameCube pad there is no hope for the Wii build. You say that your arms will get tired using the Wii remote. You speak of mirrored worlds and right-handed Link. And you know what? It's all crap. If you buy Twilight Princess for GameCube and not Wii, you are a fool. And I state that without meaning to suggest that the GCN iteration is flawed - it isn't. It's an amazing swan song for Nintendo's older system. But neither is it as good as the Wii incarnation. In fact, were it up to me and not Nintendo (and in my dreams, it is), I'd have scrapped the GCN build altogether, forcing everyone to exclusively buy the Wii version. Honestly, Nintendo gave you five good years with GameCube; it doesn't owe you a damned thing.
At some point in time (admittedly, late in the long development cycle), the team making Twilight Princess decided to focus on the Wii version of the title over the GameCube one. The evidence of this truth is undeniable. Take, for example, the fact that Zelda arrives on Wii first, which is partly true because internal resources were moved from the GameCube build to the Wii one a good while ago. There are several important content-related exclusives that have come as a result of concentrating on the Wii game. The remote-enhanced control comes to mind. Using the pointer with Zelda felt unintuitive when Nintendo unveiled the mechanic last May, but it has come a long way since then. Now, slashing Link's sword with the remote feels very good and using the device to aim and target with weapons like the Hero's Bow and Gale Boomerang absolutely demolishes the traditional configuration. There really is no comparison - and there's no going back. Also, Zelda on Wii makes full use of the remote's internal speaker and this is, believe it or not, a very welcomed feature. I've always been skeptical of this speaker, mind you, because I simply don't think it outputs the best audio quality. But I have to admit that receiving audio cues and select sound effects through the controller is somehow more powerful. It actually does add another layer of immersion to the experience. And, of course, the Wii version of Twilight Princess runs in 16:9 widescreen mode while the GameCube incarnation doesn't. For many videophiles like myself, that in of itself is a very compelling reason to pick Zelda up on Nintendo's new generation console.
There is every reason to get Zelda on Wii, but if you're still not convinced that the controls work just fine, consider that I was just as skeptical as you are now before I put some serious play time into the game. So were the other 30 or so journalists who played alongside me. And when the gameplay session came to its too-early end, everybody in attendance agreed that the Wii remote and nunchuk combo performed beautifully. Nobody's arms were tired. Nobody felt that the continuity of the game universe had been sacrificed because the landscapes and items had been mirrored. And nobody complained that Link was a right-hander. In fact, we had a couple lefties who said playing with the game on Wii felt very natural.
The Ordona Province
It becomes clear from the moment Twilight Princess begins that the title is very much inspired by the classic Ocarina of Time before it. The title sequence follows Link as he rides Epona around a large, picturesque environment. He follows the corner of a chasm and Hyrule Castle looms in the distant horizon. This opening cinematic closes as the camera pans once more on Link, who has transformed into a wolf. The entire scenario is impressive both for its style and its scope. Even from the beginning, it's plain as day that the world in which Link's adventure takes place is absolutely enormous. In many ways this stylish sequence reminds me of titles like Ico, whose hero is similarly dwarfed by huge background structures. It's all beautiful and very ambient, setting the mood for the adventure to follow, but you needn't take my word for it because we have a direct-feed footage of the scene in our media section.
When Zelda begins, you're asked to name your hero and your horse. Link and Epona are the standard titles and I chose to stick with tradition. Afterward, the game opens to a scene in Ordon Village, which is adjacent to Ordon Ranch and a section of the Ordona Province. It's twilight and a real-time sequence focuses on a blacksmith named Rusl and his apparent apprentice, Link. At this point in the game, Link had yet to don his trademark green outfit. He's still dressed in simple farmer attire, but even without his warrior clothing he is already destined for a warrior's adventure. Rusl tells Link that he believes twilight is the only time of day that the real world intersects with the spirit world and then asks him to embark upon a journey to deliver a handmade Ordon Sword and Shield to the royal family of Hyrule.
The cinematic clings to the storytelling method of most Zelda games. Real-time graphics and text bubbles in favor of flashier full-motion sequences and voice samples. Interacting with characters in Twilight Princess will feel very familiar to anybody who has played a Zelda game before. I've always been a big critic of Nintendo's reluctance to put more time and effort into its story presentations and am therefore slightly discouraged to see that very little has changed. But in the grand scheme of the Zelda experience, this shortcoming holds very little weight and indeed is lessened more and more as the game rages on and more sweeping, dramatic cut-scenes are showcased.
The game picks up the next morning as Link awakens in his hut. You find your way down a path, into Ordon Village proper, and then up another dirt road to Ordon Ranch. You can go at your own pace, as in any and every Zelda game and so you could conceivably spend hours in Ordon Village interacting with the people and finishing off smaller, unimportant challenges, but to advance the story you'll need to do some goat herding and that takes place at the Ranch. This particular objective is not new - we've seen and played it at game shows in the past. But we've never seen exactly how it fits into the finished adventure. After entering the Ranch, you quickly learn how to call Epona by whistling with a piece of grass. After she comes running, you hop onto her back with the A button and can then control her smoothly around the environment with the analog stick on the nunchuck attachment. You can kick your spurs to make her run faster if you want, although she only need be speedier to jump fences. Herding the goats into the barn is an easy undertaking as all you need do is nudge them forward from behind using Epona. After the task is done, you're free to go back into Ordon Village, which is where the title really starts moving, as far as I'm concerned.
As someone who has played and loved the Zelda franchise since its inception, I always look forward to the inevitable 'real beginning' of each new game, which is usually when Link is free to roam through the initial village, puzzles are strewn about, and something you do will eventually set the story in motion. Twilight Princess is no different and Ordon Village is the real beginning. Small huts and pimply hills surround this grassy locale, and everything is connected by way of a stream that flows down the center of town into a pond just beyond. Naturally, there are fish in this pond, and reeling them in is just one of the objectives, although it is hardly pressing. To find his way, Link will also have to use blade grass to call a hawk and solve a quick puzzle, feed a cat, buy a slingshot, and eventually meet up with some adoring kids. These villagers remain completely oblivious to the evils that are even now overtaking Hyrule and so there is a light, cheery atmosphere at the start. That will soon change, but not yet.
You Have Options
Link, the quiet, stoic hero, never says a word and begins his new adventure without a sword. Within an hour, practiced gamers will likely come by the fishing rod, the slingshot and a staff, and a while after that they'll gain access to the Ordon Shield and Sword, too, at which point some new combat possibilities become available. But before I get to any of that, let me go into some of the interface specifics.
If you hit the + button on the Wii remote, you'll bring up the collections menu, which is an interface that shows either a model of link or his wolf form on the left side and then lists the various items available to the character on the right. For instance, if Link were in possession of the Ordon Sword, an icon would display it, and if you pointed at the icon with the Wii remote you'd see the text: "Rusl crafted this fine sword. It is inlaid with Ordon goat horns." Other items on my collections screen at any given time included a Wallet, which carries up to 300 Rupees; a Quiver to hold 30 arrows; a Fish Journal, useful for documenting big catches; a list of Hidden Skills such as the Ending Blow, which is that special attack - performed by locking onto a fallen enemy and then pressing the A button - that causes Link to jump into the air and thrust his sword downward; some Letters from various people; and the Scent of Ilia, which is a sensory ability for Link in wolf form.
Just as important, though, is the options sub-menu, which enables you access to several customizable control and functionality details. You can change your lock-on type to hold or switch depending on your preference. You can set normal or inverted camera control. You can choose to turn the pointer functionality off so that all of your aiming is done with the analog stick. Why anybody would ever want to do that is beyond me, but the option is in place. And you can toggle Icon Shortcuts on or off. Normally, you tap the - button to bring up your inventory screen, which displays all of your usable items in a circular menu. You simply point to the item you want to use with the Wii remote, hit D-Pad left, right or down, and the item is assigned to the position on the D-Pad. It's all very simple and easy. As a side note, the circular menu expands so there is no way to know how many items you'll end up with. Some of the items Link gains access to include the Fishing Rod, Bombs, Hero's Bow, Iron Boots, Slingshot, Lantern Oil, Gale Boomerang and Empty Bottle. Now, if you don't like the idea of hitting the - button to access your items, you can toggle on the Shortcuts, at which point you hold the Z button and point to the right-hand corner of the screen during gameplay to access your various weapons and other usables. Honestly, I doubt you'll ever use it, but again, it's there if you happen to be that one guy.
And finally, you can fully modify your Wii remote's settings. For instance, you can turn the device's internal speaker volume up or down. An on-screen circle shows where your remote is pointed and if the angle of your hand doesn't seem to quite match with it, you can modify the settings using D-Pad Up or Down until it does. Meanwhile, you're directed to widen or shorten a a separate on-screen field so that it directly matches the placement and size of your sensor bar. And finally, you're asked to push forward or backward with the Wii remote - which either increases or decreases the size of an on-screen circle so that it exactly matches another - and when the two are perfectly aligned you know you are playing from your optimal distance. It's clear that a lot of thought has gone into making sure that the pointer's accuracy is more than merely satisfactory.
Warrior and Wolf
Want to know about controlling Link and the wolf? Impressions on the configurations for both, plus my experience with the first dungeon, are coming later tonight...