So, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess.
You may have played it. I imagine you've certainly heard of it. And if you're among those two point four people who haven't, well by the end of this feature you'll be a bit more intimate with Nintendo's hugely important adventure title. Although this isn’t to say there are any spoilers revealed here. I'll be honest; there's a couple activities referred to that are experienced within the first 20-30 minutes of the game, but nothing that will ruin your travel within the magical world of Hyrule and its secrets. I'm not going to discuss the game's elements or story in any great detail, so it won't wreck the surprise that Midna is really Courtney Love or something (it must be true, I heard it on the internets).
What I AM going to talk about is the problem Twilight Princess poses as a game that offers a lot to the medium while simultaneously struggling to do something unfeasible: trying please everyone. The Zelda series has a prestige behind it few franchises can ever hope to possess, spanning nearly 20 years strong with almost consistent critical acclaim (for those wondering, the CD-i iteration only counts in the fiery pits of HELL). Expectation of a new Zelda game is tantamount to a dedicated fan watching two world beating sporting teams enter a final to battle it out; if the result is anything less than mind blowing, there's something clearly wrong with the universe.
Which is why there was such a predictably vocal outcry against some of the review ratings Twilight Princess gathered. These came from both sets of fanboy: those who must defend Zelda's honour against all, and those who didn’t see what all the fuss was about compared to their chosen game of the year. Only making things worse was the argument over whether TP was indeed truly a Wii game or just a GameCube title with added motion remote functionality. The result of all this left the newest in the elf-heavy franchise languishing a strange place not before entered, as mixed messages over its conversion suitability and launch viability dominated more discussions than the actual quality of the game.
Which seems a little spurious.
Arguments over which version -Wii or GameCube- is 'better' are apples and oranges comparisons with very little beyond personal preference separating the two. Despite what you may have heard, Wii's power IS used to create a more consistent frame-rate and slightly more enemies in certain sections of the game, but by and large it's a case of whether you prefer Z-camera or free camera, waggle attacks or regular, remote aiming or stick aiming, and other such factors. None of which should push away from the title's exceptional worth. Where many reviews will falter is in the desire to mark TP within an imaginary boundary of circumstance where these issues prevail. Is it truly a launch title for Wii? Is it 'merely' GameCube's swansong? Is it just GC software masquerading as a new gen launch game? All these points seemed to have played a large factor in some reviews, creating a duality Zelda has never faced before and forcing open a danger of missing the point. Twilight Princess is indeed a terribly awkward title to sum up, critically. It represents an ending and beginning in its respective machine cycles, philosophies and franchise, and while those shouldn’t become defining aspects it will be analysed as such, almost surpassing frivolous givens such as 'gameplay' and 'longevity', thus creating a mark which either way will seem too heavy or too light.
Allow me to declare something that's obvious, yet so few people are willing to admit in their pursuit of an argument: no one is objective. Not a single person on the planet is above bias. We're all products of our environment which works in tandem with our desires and opinions. We can argue the technical aspects of something, but ultimately, enjoyment is a personal preference and that is something that will exceed everything else in critical discussion. And every single journalist, reviewer, writer (and indeed, person) has a preference. Objectivity is, and always will be, something that we can only pretend to have and when we write under its pretence, it is only that: a pretence. We can distance ourselves from personal bias to a limited degree, but ultimately it flavours and taints everything from the side you roll out of bed to the colours you choose to wear. To the way you hold your controller, to how you play a certain game. TP is such a deathtrap of bias because everything that encapsulates it works for and against it; its pedigree, its prominence, its status as a launch/final game and so on. It has to fulfil certain criteria within all those boundaries. In fact, there are more of those boundaries than many games ever have to deal with. It needs to true to the series yet fresh. It has to justify itself as a launch title without straying too far away from its roots as a swansong (which in turn means it has to suit both formats in limited development time). It has to be accessible to new players -especially to be associated with a new machine- but not appear tired to old gamers. At the same time, contain elements to appease those veterans of the franchise without being too self-referential to alienate the newbies. It must offer evolution with a facade of revolution, but never go beyond either for sake of cost, dev time and practicality. And so on. The list of what Zelda 'has' to do before it's even released is colossal.
In short; it needs to be everything to everyone. And nothing created by human hands can be that.
Personally, I think it's a fantastic title, regardless of whether it's deemed a GC or Wii game. Heck, does it really even matter? If anything, Twilight Princess' split personality highlights the creative process that is necessary to allow a number of launch games to exist. You'd be fooling yourself to think this is the first time an 'older generation' title has been used to sell newer hardware. Perfect Dark Zero, a game in development since the GameCube's conception, is a strong example of that ethic, having jumped from the Nintendo format to Xbox (after developer Rare got sold to Microsoft) and then later Xbox 360. Many launch games go through such a process, albeit far less publicised and thus under less scrutiny. The point of much software that comes out with a new console is to be a showpiece for that machine, whether via its presentation or control method, but the bottom line is to sell units. And when it’s a powerful and influential franchise, business sense always declares you use a respected, well developed sure-fire seller to kick start your newest priority rather than let it die a slow and relatively quiet death on your older format. It's romantic to think publishers will offer such highly valued killer apps as a 'loyalty gift' to the owners of older machines, but such software tends to get lost in a transitional generation shuffle where every unit counts. Perfect Dark, Jet Force Gemini et al may have made N64 owners happy, but such examples would have much more of an impact to GameCube's line-up had they been held over instead.
With so much pressure and an identity crisis via trying to keep GameCube and Wii fans happy (I could never understand the gripes of "why must there be two versions" - surely more choice is better than none?), I'm surprised Twilight Princess managed to come out as well as it did. It is indeed something special. Far from perfect, true, but certainly a defining example of how good videogaming can be. Some criticism is justified of it, although much can be dismissed through the aforementioned issues of having to do/be everything to everyone. What I find slightly more curious are the complains over its rather leisurely opening, where some have derided a slowness of the first hour or so -effectively the build-up to the first dungeon's completion. But if anything, these caveats are symptomatic of our inconsistent desire to get the best of everything now without any preamble. We want epic without the necessary steps to create such a definition. It's Lord of the Rings without getting to know Frodo and his community that gives a backbone to the whole tale.
Twilight Princess goes through some lengths to integrate the player within its universe and storyline, perhaps more than any of its previous examples, making sure you're more immersed within its characters' world and gameplay dynamics to allow for a grander feel. This isn’t to say prior games in the franchise don’t do this, but none have to the extent TP attempts. By your first hour you know the initial members of the cast well enough to care about what happens to them, lending more gravitas to the events that follow. Moreover, by then you're attuned to many the skills required for the following two hours, taken in by a rather laid back osmosis of tasks that range from goat rasslin' and hawk training to horse riding and basic environment traversing. Everything is done for a reason, no matter how frivolous is may seem at first, to allow for an intelligent and working introduction to something that pays off later. Even the seemingly random introduction of monkeys to the game is done to allow a seamless integration of characters that are important later on. It may all appear a tad lax, but without those 'slow' opening sections, what ensues wouldn’t feel anywhere near as important and defined. The establishment of the mundane only serves to make the spectacular far more pronounced and incredible without dropping you in the deep end. It's a requirement to make you truly appreciate its inevitable wonders.
As an issue it's funny because if you take a random selection of people who've played Twilight Princess and you're likely to get a small section who declare how difficult the first fishing task is. Part of that is from the rather apathetic nature of the fish towards your bait anyway, but that's the nature of the sub-game. The other part of frustration comes from the apparent lack of on-screen instruction as to what to do to get a little poisson. You just casually cast your rod into the waters and hope for the best. It's a momentary lapse of the typically over-friendly game design Nintendo lavishes on its titles, especially one as big as this. But lo! What's this? A cursory glance of the instruction manual or the item wheel tells you all you need to know. It doesn’t turn you into a master fisher or solve the matter of fish hating you, but it certainly gives you the bare bones of how to fish, which is part of the supposed problem. A problem that highlights my argument about immediacy. With no clear pointers and lead-in how to do something, a gamer is dangerously left floundering like, well, a landed fish. Imagine TP without the first 30 minutes to establish tone, character, mechanics and your presence in the game world. I'm sure any sense of bewilderment would be far greater than those experienced from being unable to catch a damn lil' fishy.
We want too much too soon, to unwrap, play and experience all the game's secrets without taking the time to savour the intricacies that a large dev team has spent years creating. Impatience can pretty much kill anything. It was something readily witnessed earlier in the year (or indeed, any year) where a usual smattering of forum-ites complained about how it appeared people playing show floor versions (E3 for example) of Twilight Princess were struggling and thus shows flaws in the control, not regarding the obvious point that there was no preface or structure for those levels on show; they're literally just given the pad, some on-screen instructions (and verbal ones from the Nintendo helpers on hand) and that's it. No way to forge your skills in basic tasks to hone them into competency, let alone near perfection. Show-goers may play a lot of games, but they're as human as everyone else and require some practice to get into things. So imagine, if you will, how tricky it would be to play like that without the intentionally relaxed pacing TP gives you to justly enjoy such skills. 'Everything for a reason and a reason for everything'. Such sayings never ring more true within gaming than they do for Twilight Princess.
And for most of the part, it only gets better the more you play it. As lovingly close to Ocarina of Time it may be, this instalment manages shake free its 'shackles' of reference to become something inventive and breathtaking the deeper you progress, capturing a genuine sense of change (after all, isn’t that what magic ever is? Change?) throughout and showing a far greater scale of design and variation than the generally excellent Wind Waker. Just when you think it's settled into a pattern of predictable obviousness, a boss challenges you to think outside the dynamics of what is usually offered within the genre. Or a new item thrusts you into an exhilarating quest of discovery. Or you try something utterly off the cuff, only to find that it not only works, but you're being rewarded for pushing the limits of its interaction. These are not elements to be taken for granted, yet we do all the time, because we may be disappointed with its visuals (they're fine and at times brilliant) or upset that there's few orchestrated tracks (the compositions are, on a whole, superb) or there's little in the way of voice acting or some other such fault of expectation. Strange and sad that we can cast aside gameplay freshness that is uncovered with more prolonged play here in favour of presentational apathy, where other acclaimed titles pride themselves on being shallow if pretty examples with very little gameplay advancement. But there's that pesky personal preference, again. And at the same time, numbers are objective in a world of non-objectivity. Maybe that's why we'll never be more satisfied with reviews until the little offending subject placed at the end of all that writing is gone. Or maybe we just value other's opinions far too much when ultimately -when it comes to entertainment- the most important opinion will always be our own.
It's inevitable that Twilight Princess' sheen will be weathered with age. It's certainly not as visually timeless as say, A Link to the Past or Super Mario World, but it represents that same evolution of gameplay principles that makes it so vital to the medium. A refinement of experience through years, which makes it an essential example of not only a Zelda game, but also of gaming full stop. Yet for all that, it represents a pinnacle of rock/hard place duality, likely to be forever remembered for being trapped between two worlds, never truly belonging to either but somehow managing to maintain a sense of achievement despite its limitations. Somewhat appropriate, given the characters of the story.
It may well be impossible to 'review' fairly, but if you're having a great time playing The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, then surely that should be the only thing that matters regardless of whatever little number exists at the foot of any appraisal.
Happy holidays to you all.
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