The arrival of a new Zelda game is always an event, but doubly so when it accompanies the launch of a new Nintendo console. The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess has sparked the usual Pavlovian response from critics and consumers alike. Already the game has been buried in a pile of accolades: “Game of the year”; “Best launch title ever”; “Best Zelda game ever.” Something about seeing Link’s tights and pointy cap seems to fog up everyone’s glasses, causing them to overlook certain glaring flaws in the series that have yet to be addressed. Yes, Twilight Princess is good. At times it is great. But interspersed throughout the rousing high points are long stretches that are the video-game equivalent of doing chores.
GOOD AND SOMETIMES GREAT: Twilight Princess has more than its share of chores.
Although the series has been going strong for 20 years, the template has changed little. Link starts the game without weaponry but with three hearts representing his life energy, gradually acquiring more items and growing more powerful as he progresses through a massive landscape. Gameplay is split into two parts: a contiguous overworld, which mixes exploration and item collection with low-risk enemy encounters, and dungeons, which are more grueling and feature a mix of puzzles, enemies, and perilous environments. For many, the appeal of Zelda has always been in traipsing across the overworld and looking for secret caves and hidden power-ups. To a point, that’s fun, or at least rewarding. But when the dungeons so often feature ingenious level design and epic boss battles, why do they make up such a proportionally small part of the game? Between dungeons, Link has to perform such swashbuckling tasks as finding and destroying dozens of little bugs. (Was the Orkin Man busy?) Taking the time to complete the interstitial tasks feels like having to eat your vegetables before you can have dessert.
The big gameplay wrinkle this time around is that Link spends much of the game in the form of a wolf. This would have seemed more earth-shattering if a wolf-based action RPG hadn’t been released just three months ago (
Okami, for the PS2, which also happened to be the best game of the year). And Link’s lupine form has few unique powers. He can dig for treasure (shades of Okami), and he has a special sensory mode that allows him to see extra-dimensional characters. But his combat skills are almost identical no matter what form he assumes, and fighting is just about all that the wolf is capable of.
Much has been made of Twilight Princess’s journey from a GameCube exclusive to a Wii launch game. I am not convinced that the motion-sensitive Wii controller represents an improvement over the classic gamepad. Aiming projectile weapons like the boomerang and the bow is intuitive and useful, but the rest of the Wii remote’s functions are less sure. Swordfighting in particular is a disappointment. I had thought that Link’s sword would map exactly to the position and movement of the Wii remote, opening up infinite swordplay possibilities. Instead, you just wiggle it to trigger a slashing motion. There’s no functional difference between twitching the remote and hitting a button; you simply expend more energy to achieve the same result. That is not a user-friendly trade-off.
It’s a shame, too, because the game is fantastic when it starts clicking. Dungeons are less dependent on busy-work puzzles than they have been in Zeldas past. (You will, however, still be pushing around your share of giant blocks for no apparent reason.) In some ways, Twilight Princess is more fun to have played than it is to play. As a launch title for the Wii, it is a fine showing. As the last significant GameCube game, it’s practically essential. As one of the most eagerly awaited games of the year, it falls just short.