As suggested in Part II of this series, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess starts out slow. Really slow, actually: our saved game was at the 3-hour mark by the time that something major and exciting happened. Before going to the spoiler-filled discussion of the game, though, here are a few non-spoiler points on the overall Wii gaming experience, as felt through Zelda.
So it turns out that Nintendo’s built a little speaker – tinny and there for occasional sound effects, like the twinkle of a chest-opening discovery – into each Wii remote. And there are a bunch of buttons, not necessarily placed in locations or sizes that will make sense to long-time fans of Nintendo consoles. If you turn the remote on its side – not appropriate to controlling Zelda – there are right-mounted 1 and 2 buttons similar to the old NES’s B and A buttons. Mid-remote, there are tiny + and – buttons that are sort of like the old Start and Select buttons. In-between them, there’s an equally small Home button that pauses the game and offers to bring you back to the Wii’s main menu, and at the far left side, there’s a Power button that turns off the entire console from afar.
But for Zelda, as with the as-yet-unreleased new Mario game, the controls you’re really using are the big, clear A button, a digital joypad that alternates between selecting items (slingshot, fishing rod, lantern, health drinks) and a trigger-like “B” button hidden under the Remote’s bottom. You also have to keep the Nunchuk constantly connected via its cable, because Link is moved with that piece’s analog joystick, and there are two more buttons, “C” and “Z”, hidden under the Nunchuk’s bottom. To use Link’s sword, you physically shake the Nunchuk (360-degree swipe) or the Remote (horizontal, vertical, and button-enhanced slashes and stabs). Several hours into the game, most of the other buttons seem to have done something, but there is a feeling of nostalgia for Nintendo’s older, colored buttons, which were easy to use at a glance.
More on Zelda – including some potentially big spoilers – below.
Even though I’ve been playing games for literally decades now, it’s very hard for me to tell at this point whether Zelda is going to turn off some people simply by virtue of boredom during the first two hours of play. I went through a short range of not especially positive emotions as I played through what felt like the longest tutorial-slash-quest ever in the Zelda series: you begin with an armorless, shieldless, swordless Link, and stay that way for those two hours, doing tasks that really feel much less like Legend of Zelda than menial work. Twice, not once, you’ll have to corral goats at a farm. At some point, you’re handed a fishing rod and need to fish for food for a cat. And you’ll have to fetch a woman’s stolen baby cradle from a monkey. Along with this, there’s what feels like an awful lot of wandering and backtracking, trying to figure out what exactly you’re supposed to be doing next, and where.
So I’m not going to tell you that I was thrilled during those first two hours: in all honesty, I wasn’t. Here’s a Nintendo fan’s mixed metaphor to explain it: Zelda felt like it had become Starfox Adventures, only played by Samus in a Zero Mission suit, minus the gun. The graphics were pretty good – a small step over GameCube quality, with occasional glimmers of “hmmm, the Wii seems to be seamlessly handling some effects GameCube couldn’t have done as well,” such as rich, believable lighting during different times of day, and a pretty if simplistic rendition of (ugh) fishing. My real issue was that I didn’t need horse riding, fishing, and two hours of tutorial work to enjoy it all, and the kid-friendly dialogue wasn’t matching the more mature camera and art work quite so well.
Then everything changed. It wasn’t as abrupt or early as it might have been, partially because I spent a solid half hour or so trying to figure out what appeared to be an insanely difficult jumping puzzle in the middle of a forest, ultimately going nowhere and having my last moment of “this isn’t the sort of thing I’m supposed to be doing in a Zelda game” frustration. By this point, I had a wooden sword and had been wiggling the controllers to slash up plants and monsters alike, plus the aforementioned slingshot that really hadn’t done much yet, and a couple of experiences with controlling animals – Epona the horse, and also an eagle. Obviously animals are going to be a major part of the game, I figured, and once the sword was in hand, I wasn’t doubting that there would also be enough action at some point to keep me satisfied.
Around the third hour point, Nintendo completely flipped the game upside down. Through no obvious fault of your own, the Kingdom of Hyrule is plunged into chaos in a graphical twist that is nothing short of jaw-dropping: weird, angular black clouds appear, and entire portions of the world are sealed off in odd black boxes, while black box raindrops fall and blow in the wind. Slightly blocky edges of characters are replaced everywhere with smooth curves, and the lighting shifts dramatically, with dark backgrounds to contrast the soft, glowing people and animals. Music shifts into a freaky fugue, and Link is pulled into a shadow world – the world of Twilight.
And he also becomes a wolf. Initially, a chained wolf, soon guided and ridden upon by an alien-ish child, then out trying to find a way to rescue Hyrule and restore his humanity. You’re soon told that you won’t be human again any time soon, but it’s obvious that transformations back and forth between Link’s forms are in the cards, and then you’re off collecting a sword and shield – not coincidentally the ones you’ll use as human Link within another hour or so of play.
To take one step back, that whole part of the game was pretty mind-blowing on a visual and plot twist level – enough to have almost made me forgive the first couple of hours. You meet Zelda in Hyrule Castle during a cinematic scene that is truly awesome, the standoff between an invader who appears to be Ganon and the royal army. And a bunch of the wolf wandering takes place as you’re headed through the Castle to find Zelda, with fires and black box raindrops – or debris – surrounding you.
The only thing missing was Zelda gameplay. So I was relieved to find that what followed for the next several hours was far more traditional Zelda action, mixed with lots of animal references – light gods who happen to resemble a goat/ram and a lemur, Link wandering through a forest dungeon, aided by monkeys, plus lots of spiders and monster plants to kill. So at this point, the only thing really wrong with Twilight Princess was that it literally took four or so hours of play time to get to the point where classic 3-D Zelda action began.
But once it finally started, it was everything I’d hoped – discovery of updated versions of old weapons (see the Gale Boomerang here), interesting puzzle solving, and lots of hidden items to find. The big surprise on completion of the first dungeon’s boss was that it wasn’t really complete – the game encourages you to go and locate more of the monkeys trapped in the dungeon to receive some sort of additional prize. I’ll know soon whether this is just an optional time-waster quest or a necessary objective, but regardless, the exploration has become interesting, time-consuming, and, well, more like the Zelda series I loved back before Wind Waker. That’s enough to keep me playing, for sure.