This review originally appeared in E170, Christmas 2007.
A persistent theme in fairytales is that wish fulfilment can be a curse rather than a blessing. The same holds true for gaming, where early perfection so often leads to diminishing returns for a series, as developers are left with little more to do than quietly repeat a proven formula, shuffling that same handful of magic cards and laying them down in a slightly different order.
But for Zelda, a true gaming fairytale if ever there was one, repetition is not a danger, but a prerequisite. The joy of each new title comes in spotting the imaginative reconfiguring of old ideas, and familiarity breeds not contempt, but a sense of history and ritual most games would kill to possess. Just as Link is caught in a Mobius strip of events, always accepting his destiny and then gradually learning to fulfil it, the dungeons, items, characters and locations are endlessly reworked, retuned and then redeployed. Recent entries in the series have shown signs of more ambitious experimentation, first structurally with Majora's Mask, and then aesthetically with The Wind Waker. Twilight Princess makes it immediately clear that this period of tinkering is over with for the time being, and what emerges is the most traditional Zelda game so far; one that seeks to celebrate the series rather than take it anywhere new.
Judged purely as a release title for the Wii, it's a mixed success – but not for the reasons you might be expecting. Put aside all your fears of aching limbs and repetitive strain injury – Twilight Princess is convincing proof that Nintendo's new controllers are just as capable of delivering elaborate three-course feasts of adventuring as they are of knocking up the fast food of minigames and novelty racers. With movement controlled by the analogue stick, the Remote is used mainly for targeting ranged weapons and – given a brisk shake – sword fighting. Most of the time, the Remote doesn't even have to be pointed at the screen, and within minutes you're no longer aware that you're doing anything new or different.
Yet in terms of launching the Wii, that's the crux of the problem: the sheer power of the Zelda series to draw you in and command your attention means that, while combat has a definite physical thrill, it's hard to pay that much attention to any new experiences the controller might be delivering. The skill with which the control scheme has been implemented renders the Wii's innovations almost invisible.
Graphically, Twilight Princess is an equally unsuccessful means for gauging the new console's potential: this remains a GameCube title, both at heart and on screen. While the rose-coloured evening light of Hyrule Field offers prolonged moments of fierce prettiness, there are also muddy, confused textures and blocky scenery. This return to a more traditional graphical style actually makes the game look like it predates The Wind Waker, lacking the uniting clarity and colour of the older title.
But if Zelda has already tamed the Wii both in terms of controls and visuals, it also provides it with a simply spellbinding game. Following on from an audaciously low-key opening, what unfolds is a quest as massive and generous as it is thoughtful and carefully constructed. The story is told largely in the minor key, with beautifully suggestive cut-scenes moving from regret, self-reproach and delusion through to cautious optimism as Link battles to save Hyrule from the invading Twilight Realm.
A jarring electro-futuristic world that creates the game's most vivid imagery, Twilight Hyrule is a place of scorched golds and blacks, a shivering, pixellated wasteland where humans have become ghosts, Link has transformed into a wolf, and the horizon is filled with horrible, distorted monsters who chatter in low electronica and scream in bursts of feedback. While travelling between the Twilight Realm and Hyrule itself, both as a human and as a wolf, may suggest a return to the heady, mind-burning puzzles of A Link To The Past or Ocarina Of Time, in truth the implied complexity never really emerges. As a wolf, Link can use his animal senses to follow scent trails and see ghosts that would otherwise be invisible, yet the use of the device is reined in, providing a handful of genuinely extraordinary moments but nothing to rival the interlocked worlds of the previous titles. A Link To The Past remains the only game that truly asks its players to think hyperspacially, and Ocarina is still the series highlight in terms of utilising the mechanics of cause and effect. Instead, Twilight Princess emerges as a much more controlled experience than previous Zeldas. There's still the usual generous tangle of side quests and distractions, of course, but the structure imposed on the main storyline is absolute and unshakeable.
In a sense, it's those earlier games in the series rather than the Twilight Realm that provides the real parallel worlds for this latest outing. Set in a Hyrule that is geographically very similar to both Ocarina Of Time and A Link To The Past, part of Twilight Princess's depth comes from revisiting old locations, and seeing exactly how they have changed this time around. Ocarina may have hinged on the idea, but it's this game that truly feels like joyous time-travel as you return to Kakariko Village to find it transformed into a wild frontier town, or swim through Lake Hylia after the best part of a decade's absence to discover it frothing with new life. Few games have the ability or inclination to take you back to the very same locations as past adventures and summon up such an immediate sense of recognition and poignancy: it requires a delicate balance in terms of cherishing past mythology while feeling free to tweak it as necessary. What's truly astounding is that it's not overtly played upon here, it's left to work purely within the player's own mind.
And there really is a lot here to dislodge old memories, as Twilight Princess clearly sees omission as a greater sin than repetition. Almost every gameplay element present will be familiar to Zelda veterans, and this title goes further than most in revisiting, remixing, and often simply replaying past glories. Giving no spoilers away, Twilight Princess features the return of many old pleasures, and its dungeons recreate at least one former nightmare in some detail.
Not many titles could bear up under this level of recycling, and on occasion Twilight Princess can seem overly familiar and vaguely incestuous – even by Zelda's standards. If the game has faults, it's that its aggressively generous stance on providing content has led to some familiar padding, and that the developers have listened perhaps too closely to the desires of the fans, giving them exactly what they've always wanted – which is inevitably more of the same as they've had before.
These are far less worrying faults than audiences often have to put up with, though, and Twilight Princess still plays like a rich and fantastical dream. With the main quest clocking in at around 40 hours, this is also the largest Zelda yet, and it has memorable moments of its own to be cannibalised in future instalments. Standout sequences include a vertiginous scramble across the rooftops of Hyrule Castle, a manic wagon train escort mission and a charming visit to a mysterious frozen mansion. Special items and boss battles are a particular strength, and its character design is a huge improvement for the series. The faces of villagers, frequently bland in the previous titles, are memorable, telling and often sad; children are particularly well captured: over-awed, embarrassed and bolshy. But it's Midna, Link's companion and guide, who really stands out. Vaguely malevolent and gently untrustworthy, she's a snarling, conflicted addition to the Zelda family, and feels like an instant classic.
There are changes present alongside the improvements, too, albeit in the addition of new features rather than anything deeply structural. Horseback combat is as thrilling and haphazard as it should be, and while the introduction of more intense elements, such as finishing moves, will never truly feel at one with the other games in the series, Twilight Princess is at pains to establish itself as an older, darker brand of whimsy.
What's lacking is a clear sense of purpose. Ocarina Of Time was tasked with bringing the series into 3D, and in doing so laid out a mechanic that future games would be foolish to ignore. Controller aside, with nothing pertinent in need of innovation, Twilight Princess has instead set out to become the definitive title in the series, a one-game encyclopedia of everything that makes Zelda unique. With a fervour that borders on the taxonomical, it gathers all of the series' characters and locations together in a structure that not only reconfirms but celebrates its elaborate conventions. In succeeding, it's entirely understandable that the results not only display most of the strengths of previous games, but also provide pitch-perfect case studies of their occasional flaws. With the focus on elaboration rather than evolution, Twilight Princess triggers more memories than it creates, yet it's still an effortless classic that towers over the gaming landscape. Ignore it at your own cost.