Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Twilight Princess, or How to Ruin a Legend

at 4:44 PM
I was listening to The Zelda 25th Anniversary Orchestral Symphonic Arrangement CD, the Legend of this morning on the car to work and it was pretty nice. If you don't have the edition of Skyward Sword that includes said disc, you should use Internet to find it. Following on random play, the next album was Mr. Bungle's Mr. Bungle. Something about the way Mike Patton unironically sing-talks "it's not funny, my ass is on fire" in his stupid nasally joke-voice made me think: Twilight Princess went a long way to hurt Zelda's reputation.

Hmm, if I had cited the part at the end of the same song where he whackily chants "RE-DUN-DANT" in a variety of whacky voices, that last paragraph may have actually made sense. Dodged a lazer there!

Game veterans ought to know the name Eiji Aonuma. He's the guy who's been Charles in Charge of the series since Majora's Mask (previously serving as co-director of Ocarina of Time). His declared focus has always been the introduction of new elements to the series to keep it relevant, from the ticking clock in Majora to the sky-y skies of Skyward Sword. Certain steps along this path have lent more to forgettable gimmickry (horse combat) than true innovation (horse combat), developing an eventual notion that every Zelda has the same core experience with some set dressing to make it "new". It's become an understanding that Zelda has like a main town and a half dozen dungeons and a trading side-quest, but, you know, what else is there? What draws attention is how that base has been presented; the icing on a cake that is slowly growing stale. It's a fallacious understanding (the cake and the icing are inverted!), but one with valid origin.
Not the comically dramatic image of "upside down cake" I was hoping for
A few years ago, the series was a beacon of inspired revolution. Wind Waker and Majora's Mask threw away everything you knew about a dungeon-crawl and rebuilt the adventure from scratch. The notion of dungeons/temples worked themselves back in (not surprising, as they've become action/adventure/RPG fundamentals), but from a basis of entirely new concepts. Majora at heart is Groundhog Day by way of Animal Crossing. Give everyone a happy day. Oh, right, also the world is ending, so probably make that not happen too. Interpersonal diplomacy precedes monster battling. You still get to solve some block puzzles and duke it out with a few bosses, but only as many as needed to progress the overarching story. The same way that The Dark Knight needs to have motorcycle fights to prove that you're still watching Batman, Zelda needs some epic boss conflicts to befit Link's legendary status. Wind Waker sets you out to find something to do at the ocean. Island-hopping. Sea monsters. Sunken treasure. Pirates. Then you get a dungeon or two. Again, these establish the story as a Legend of Zelda, but serve primarily as a reminder of how much the world (and the game) has changed. The temples are relics of a long-forgotten past, congruent to the well-worn gameplay they present.
A screenshot from Majora's Mask
Twilight Princess is indisputably the fuck-up in the lineage. It was the first Zelda that established a willingness to simply add junk without excision (or, that is, to "refine"), and is thus responsible for that misguided popular opinion mentioned above, that Zelda is a formula. The blame lies with the very same critics and fans that at the time were begging for what they now lament. Wind Waker's callbacks weren't enough - The Legend of Zelda, in the opinion of these folks, was synonymous with Ocarina of Time. We need an updated OoT! Think of what it could be with contemporary graphics and refined mechanics! A horrifically short-sighted demand at the time, the years have revealed that Aonuma's greatest misstep was caving to it. Remember, Eiji originally wanted to continue further in the direction of Wind Waker. To speculate on what could have resulted is pointless - Western insistence on a "proper", "mature" sequel to Ocarina ensured we got the Twilight Princess that we did. The folly of this otherwise completely idiotic move is that any revitalization of Ocarina was destined to become just as outdated, at which point it would lose its entire raison d'etre.

In 2013, now that Princess has suffered its destined downfall (particularly at the hands of poorly aging motion controls), "unnecessary" is the only word that comes to mind. Ocarina-devotees still return to the N64 game, and everyone else (me) remains satisfied with the still-unique Wind Waker and Majora. Let me bring it all back to cake. The "core" Zelda experience - the item-inventory and archery mini-games and musical instruments - that ought to be the icing. When we scrape it away, we should find a totally unique cake, one about oceanic discovery or a carnival apocalypse. Because the cake is what we're really there for (the cake is the meat of the game?); without it, the icing is just a sugary mess. Twilight Princess tries to use some fan service and a gimmick or two as icing - you see it and you say "wow! look at those graphics and that tone and it's gonna be just like OoT!" Then you take a bite and say - wait a second - it's a little too much like Ocarina! In fact, it's just stale leftover bits of the old cakes! Do you get it? A good sequel swaps the cake and reuses the icing. The core experience is new, while the bells and whistles are familiar. A trash sequel (though it may still be fun) reuses the cake and applies new icing. From a distance it looks fresh, but tuck in and you'll find that the same old treat isn't so exciting anymore.

Maybe that metaphor isn't gonna win the Figurative Super Bowl, but who likes football anyway.

P.S. There are handheld games that I've intentionally omitted from the discussion, as, regardless of whatever good intentions, the portable games are really just there to give you the same experience in bite-size. I think a complete assessment of gaming as a whole barely needs mention of handhelds - not that there aren't good games to be played (I recently noted that RE: Revelations is far better than recent console Residents Evil), but because it isn't really a forum for new ideas. And when it is, those ideas usually flourish better in console adaptations. But this discussion is for a lengthy sidebar that will probably never come to be. Suffice to say I do not give a shit about Phantom Hourglass and kin, except to say that I played them and they were fun and now I don't remember them.
Wind Waker HD is already causing a storm of controversy. It's just fun to bitch about Zelda.


  1. Didn't I sell you my copy of Wind Waker back in the day because I was tired of sailing around the ocean?

    1. I'm pretty sure. You at least let me borrow it at length. I loved the sailing that you hated so much. You bought Four Swords too, didn't you? You really got burned on Zeldas in the Gamecube era, huh? You got burned on GCN I think. Crystal Chronicles, SIGH.