Note: this is an opinion article. Thanks to Soma and Nantendo for assisting with edits.
A fair amount of your time in the Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess is spent running and riding through Hyrule Field, the plains surrounding the kingdom you work to save. It’s massive and imposing, with gorgeous natural landmarks and destroyed architecture of eons past. But getting around is often easy and satisfying, because unlike the game’s predecessor, Ocarina of Time – in which the same field is simply a homogenous landmass whose points of interest hug the edges – the field is broken up into smaller sections that form an orbit around the castle at the map’s center. All the major areas in the game, be they small towns or lost temples, radiate outward from Hyrule Castle at the center of the map like the spiral arms of a galaxy, often with secondary paths that allow you a bit more choice in how you traverse the environment.
I think this pattern, more than the focus on nature or the larger story, is what defines Twilight Princess. You can see it in how the game has multiple paths to the same location, forcing players to explore the world in bits before opening it up in broad strokes. You can see it in the dungeon design; dramatically unique temples and strongholds have loops or exploit your items to facilitate backtracking (almost all, like Lakebed Temple or Snowpeak Ruins, require that you keep coming back to a central point, often with new knowledge and a new tool). These smaller paths within the environment encourage keen players to seek out hidden secrets, and to take the long way to their destination instead of just teleporting there via warp points.
This is great game design from a mechanical standpoint, but I believe it’s also intrinsically tied to how the game works as a story, and the way it functions within the broader concept of the Legend of Zelda. It’s a game aware of and burdened by the history behind it, and it often calls back to previous titles to an extent that even most of its forebears do not. More than that, it tries to move from this focal point while still paying it due deference.
While the Zelda games do have a convoluted (and frankly, nonsensical) timeline that was revealed in 2011, the series has always been much more interested in the idea of each game as a unique retelling of a grand myth. Each story is like the light through a prism, using mechanics and tone to provide unique perspectives on the concept. And in this game, these refractions of the past keep coming back to define Hyrule, particularly from the 1997 Nintendo 64 game Ocarina of Time. A prequel that introduced players to both how the narrative began and a gameplay model that brought Zelda into 3D, it’s a landmark title that has defined the series since. Most of the major installments since have functioned as responses, but none have managed to capture that sheer iconography.
One of the major themes of Twilight Princess is that the sins and actions of the past continue to haunt us, even past death. The backstory involves one race having tried to wield the Triforce, Hyrule’s iconic symbol of the gods, and suffering divine punishment through exile to a realm of eternal twilight. This becomes the same fate of the series villain Ganondorf, both here (he’s first banished to the same Twilight Realm, only to exploit the race there and cause more trouble) and in Ocarina of Time, which ends with him trapped in the Sacred Realm and having finally become Hyrule’s recurring specter. Several bosses have names and appearances suggesting that they’re corrupted versions of classic series monsters, such as Diababa and Argorok. Even Link’s weapons are relics, from the “Hero’s Bow” to the Iron Boots to the Dominion Rod, a symbolic tool built by an ancient civilization. It’s not just a game that uses elements from old Zelda games, it’s a game about using elements from old Zelda games.
It’s not unique in this way; the previous major Zelda release the Wind Waker was also about Link and Zelda dealing with the ghosts of a lost Hyrule. But in that game the kingdom was dead and buried, and by the end the characters – excluding Ganondorf, in a series-best portrayal – had to give it up for something, anything new. By contrast, the Hyrule here is still very much alive, albeit in a state of grim decay, and Link, partner character Midna, and the rest of its denizens have to come to terms with that darker history.
At the crux of Ocarina of Time’s story, Link pulls out the iconic Master Sword in the Temple of Time. In 1991’s a Link to the Past, the sword is instead found in the depths of the Lost Woods. But in Twilight Princess, it’s sort of in both, as Link find the ruins of the Temple being consumed by a grove in the forest and lost to history. Never mind that in the official timeline, these games should not interact (Past, like all the games before Ocarina, is shunted off into a small timeline of its own); playing the games from earliest to latest shows how Hyrule changes over time. It suggests that the variety of art styles and the lack of strict geographical cohesion isn’t just about putting gameplay over continuity needs, but actually about serving those needs. The odd points and breakages between games adds to Zelda, giving it the air of genuine myth.
Symbols of the past keep returning throughout the game, in a variety of ways. Late in the story you ride from Kakariko Village to a destroyed “Hidden Village,” implied to be the original Kakariko from Ocarina but long abandoned (it also has similarities with the Hidden Town of Kasuto from Zelda II). Link’s iconic outfit is the same one used by a previous “legendary hero,” making Link literally a symbol of the past. The same is true of other characters; Midna adopts Zelda’s life force along with her role, while shifty villain Zant tries and fails to copy Ganondorf’s authoritarian power. These can even be minute things, like how Lakebed Temple is in the same location and serves the same function as the Water Temple from Ocarina; both even contain similar items. But they all come together to create the sense that no matter how far Zelda or Hyrule tries to move forward or outward, the past is always going to snap it right back into its comfort zone.
This element is even furthered with content unrelated to previous installments. The magic of the Twili remains a threat to Hyrule long after its people are banished, Link gets sword fighting training from the ghost of a past warrior, and random architecture creates the image of a culture in its death throes. It even takes a great deal of inspiration from American westerns, a genre that for much of its history has been explicitly about analyzing the past to comment on the present. Like Star Wars: the Force Awakens or Casino Royale, it uses the inherent burdens of franchise history as the bedrock of its themes and ideas. Even that aforementioned geographical design emphasizes this; note how Hyrule Castle, the symbol of the land and series and where the game most strictly follows tradition, is the focal point pulling everything together.
Some critics of Twilight Princess have argued that the game suffers an identity crisis, a bloated Zelda mashup borrowing wholesale from a franchise which already trades heavily on nostalgia. And while that latter point is weaker when comparing individual games, it’s not wrong when looking at the series broadly. Nor is it inherently as negative as that might suggest; the series’ greatest strength is less as a sprawling saga than in how it molds the principal idea of a heroic legend into something individual. What does “saving the kingdom” mean when the kingdom itself is partially the cause of its own anguish, or if its hero becomes trapped in a time loop right before its demise, or any other number of situations?
At the same time, Twilight Princess often projects an ultimately unfulfilled desire to break further from the past, only to keep falling into tradition. Almost every classic item is expanded in utility and multiple ones can be combined, while its new tools are purposefully bizarre. The more involved story and dramatic set pieces allow it to trip up longtime players and give the formula new wrinkles; at times the game even feels like something of a “Hail Mary,” even though the series didn’t need one. And it works overtime to make its cast feel like they really inhabit the world, instead of just existing to facilitate the plot (sadly, its secondary players get only a fraction of that treatment). But in the end, the game can’t escape its destiny any more than Link, whose humble village clothes become inaccessible after taking on his role and who ends the story in yet another duel with Ganondorf.
It’s noticeable that the games since – Phantom Hourglass, Spirit Tracks, a Link Between Worlds, Tri Force Heroes, and Skyward Sword (which at times feels like a Twilight Princess sequel) – have taken actively new approaches to Zelda, from gameplay based around unique conceits to excising central tenants entirely. They’re all imaginative, but only Worlds, which let players rent items and choose the order they tackled dungeons, felt particularly confident. The series has an incredible formula, but there’s an itch among both fans and Nintendo to shake things up. Judging by what little’s been said or shown, the untitled entry for the Wii U could be the most aggressive attempt yet. Perhaps this interest spawned from the 2006 game, which would make its new HD remake rather serendipitous…or deliberate.
I’m not sure I’d say that Twilight Princess is the best Zelda in any regard (except for its dungeons and Midna, both of which are among the series’ greatest highs); in the end it’s unable to escape Ocarina of Time’s shadow, and beyond that has some serious pacing issues. But it is far from generic – even its visual direction is subtly strong, mixing a number of diverse art styles – and more than that, it uses the history behind it to genuinely fascinating ends. Far from being just the “grim ‘n’ gritty” installment, it expresses intriguing and important ideas about what Zelda is, and what it may need to become. And that attitude courses through its design in a genuinely powerful syngery of gameplay and narrative.