Two Sides of the Same Coin: A Twilight Princess Retrospective
“What hope there is in our kingdom is frail and dying…but there’s still a group trying to do what it can.”
A week into Tears of the Kingdom, thoughts still very much divided and mostly leaning towards the unfavorable but we all have our opinions and not everything is unenjoyable but I digress, I’d like to take my time to analyze why, despite it all, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess remains my favorite Zelda of all time.
Spoilers abound, naturally.
Storytelling in video games is a particular kind of art form. Since their conception, there’s always been a goal, a reason to win other than simply beat the game. The inclusion of baddies and obstacles merely fuel the need to continue and overcome all odds. Nowadays, games incorporate more and more narratives to fully draw in the audience into the world they create. We’ve seen with the recent adaptation of The Last of Us the importance of a well-developed basis for a story, even within a medium that demands audience participation and is often limited to the main character’s perspective.
Zelda games are no different. Each successive game carries its own story, its own stakes, and its own cast of unique characters, as well as the inclusion of companions who not only play specific roles within the story, but also makes the world feel a little less lonely. However, this can often work to its detriment. A common complaint against Skyward Sword is just how much the game holds your hand and railroads the narrative to get Link, and thus the player, to a specific time and place for a specific story beat. I believe the main problem lied in the pressure the creators placed on themselves to create the most epic story ever, the Zelda that predates all Zeldas within their timeline, and which tries to set the tone for future elements.
Twilight Princess, I know, is a ridiculously story-heavy game. However, it clicks in all the right places, has amazing storylines and manages to balance gameplay with emotional narratives, in my humble opinion, of course. And what makes it so memorable in my mind is the premise that Link is not only NOT the protagonist (that role falls entirely on Midna), but is also not a hero in his own right and must grow to become a hero in his own right.
Let me explain.
The story of Twilight Princess begins with a peaceful life in the humble village of Ordon, a province just outside of Hyrule where Link resides. In short tableaus that mechanically serve as the tutorial portion of the game, we’re shown the depth of Link’s relationship with the townsfolk of Ordon. A hard worker, friend to the children, and overall a trusted youth, he has no issues taking on several responsibilities that range from small favors such as retrieving a stolen cradle, to wandering into the woods in search of the children once they venture too far and become lost.
However, even at this point so early in the game, we can see that Link is already destined for greatness. When disaster strikes and the twilight has spread to the borders of Ordon, he is spared from becoming a spirit by the Triforce of Courage already in his possession. Unlike other iterations of the hero, Link simply inherits his powers and abilities, spared from undergoing missions that would prove his worth before the goddesses.
While many Zeldas play with this to an extent, I believe TP’s narrative makes a point of showing the contrast between being a chosen hero of destiny and being a simple citizen who wishes to live in peace. It’s important to note that despite his heritage, Link is NOT a Hylian, in the nature vs nurture sense. Though his pointy ears betray his Hylian bloodline, since no one from Ordon shares these features, he is often referred to as an Ordonian by characters such as Shad in Telma’s bar, or Coro, the salesman in Faron Woods who, funnily enough, also lacks pointy ears.
In Ocarina of Time, the story is riddled with the concept of destiny, and doesn’t go in depth into the shocking reveal of Link’s heritage. He was always meant to leave the Kokiri Forest, he was always meant to establish connections with different people in his childhood who would become the sages of Hyrule in his adulthood. Even Zelda is referred to as “the princess of destiny” and, alongside many other characters, she remarks that she has a role to play within the events of the story. Much like the critique against C.S. Lewis for not exploring the psychological impact the Pevensies would have experienced upon not just returning to their childhood forms after growing up in Narnia, but also the shock of returning to a radically altered Narnia due to time and invasion, Ocarina is not interested in how Link approaches these drastic changes to his life; he simply charges on, willing to save the land because he simply must.
Wind Waker also toys with this, being a direct consequence of the events following the Adult timeline from OoT. However, the King of Red Lions directly states that Link has no connection to the former hero and, at the end of the story, encourages both him and Tetra to look towards the future and find their own land to establish. So while this game’s narrative tries to break free from the constraints of Ocarina of Time, Twilight Princess remains deeply immersed in it, forcing Link to become and embodiment of the hero and leave behind his own desires.
We can imagine the weight of the expectations places on him from the get-go. The simple, Ordonian farmer he grew up to be is dismissed once he discards his farmer clothes and obtains the traditional green tunic after his first transformation from the twilight, when the Spirit Faron refers to this attire as his “awakened form,” stating that the hero’s powers “are yours. His is the true power that slept within you.”
It’s interesting to note that, as Faron reveals this grandiose information, the camera begins tilting into a Dutch angle as it zooms in on Link, followed then by three sharp cuts juxtaposed with three loud beats. Though the main Zelda theme plays afterwards triumphantly, this uncharacteristic camera movement implies that the information received is not a happy one. At the end of this cut scene, Link is left staring at his Triforce-wielding hand (left in the GameCube version, right in the mirrored Wii version). Though stand-in characters don’t often have very developed personalities other than a few established traits, it doesn’t seem as though Link feels anything but resigned with this information.
Funnily enough, Link now finds himself carrying the burden of the hero no matter his own choices, similar to impotence expressed by the Hero’s Spirit (a being confirmed to be the remnants of the Hero of Time following the events of Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask). According to Hyrule Historia, his goal is to transmit his knowledge of combat onto this Link on order to ease his regrets at not being remembered as a hero. However, the world of Twilight Princess all but screams for the Hero of the past.
Elements such as the symbols of the sages, as well as the symbols within the Forest Temple that seems to be an evolution of the Kokiri Forest, the presence of both the green tunic as well as the Zora armor designed specifically for the hero, some musical cues from the howling stones with the Song of Healing as the very first melody to call the White Wolf, and even Ganondorf being present in the game as a direct consequence of the Child timeline. All of these references that are built into the world-building and narrative point to another hero who deserves and earns the gratitude of Hyrule, thus leaving behind little, Ordonian Link.
Being dragged from one corner of Hyrule to another, both by Midna who requires Link to fulfill her own desires, and the Spirits of Light who charge him with ridding the land of twilight and fighting Zant because that is his “destiny”, there’s very little room for Link to focus on the one thing he’s shown to want: save the children of Ordon and his childhood friend, Ilia, perhaps one of the few female characters other than Zelda to serve as a romantic interest.
So how is Link able to both save Hyrule, as his destiny instructs, and protect the people he loves and comes across who, in the grand scheme of things, could be considered unimportant?
Twilight Princess has been said to be partly inspired by the Lord of the Rings trilogy, with supervisor Takashi Tezuka quoted as being fond of Tolkien’s work.
One of the most important aspects in Lord of the Rings is that, should Sauron’s influence spread, no corner of Middle-Earth will go untouched. This is the very reason why the council is summoned in Rivendell, why the Fellowship is COMPRISED of members from every race (hobbits, men, elves, dwarves, and the wizard race Istari through Gandalf.)
“Middle-Earth stands upon the brink of destruction. None can escape it. You will unite…or you will fall.”
With a similar love to Lord of the Rings as to Twilight Princess, I believe that same sense of community permeates the latter. The races must interact and come together to ward off evil throughout each of the regions, and often this network is spearheaded by Link himself. Even Midna, a Twili who at first has no concern for the world of Light, finds that she must also contribute for the safety of Hyrule if she’s meant to help her own people in the Twilight Realm. There’s not a single person, no one race, that goes unaffected by the events in the game, and while dealing with corrupted monsters and power-hungry tyrants is Link’s job as the hero of destiny, the rest of the cast is anything but idle.
The world of Twilight Princess has been divided into provinces, all within the kingdom of Hyrule, and throughout the different missions embedded into the story, these provinces come together and present different sets of characters who choose to fight or simply improve the current conditions of the land through their own means.
Take the somewhat ridiculous side quest of funding Malo Mart. An optional mission that grants Link equipment, and few heart pieces, the creation and expansion of Malo Mart functions within the narrative as a way to bolster the economy of a town that only has three inhabitants. Malo, alongside the rest of the children of Ordon, find ways to better the conditions of Kakariko as their temporary home and refuge from the dangers of the world outside their small village.
Similarly we have the Resistance in the second part of the game. Each member comes from and specializes in the knowledge of different locations throughout the land: Ashei with Snowpeak, Shad with the Oocca and the city in the sky, Auru with the desert region, and Rusl with his knowledge of the Faron Woods and the Sacred Grove beyond them. Alongside Telma who provides them a safe haven within the Hyrule Castle Market, they judge Link at first glance, believing him to be all talk but not action. However, after helping Telma reach Kakariko, they apologize and offer their assistance in different ways, from offering information to essentially saving Link’s life in return during the storming of Hyrule Castle.
While interactions with NPCs (non-playable characters) is often an in-universe way of pushing the player along and an immersive way to earn upgrades and gear, the affinity established between them and the playable characters forms an emotional bond, leading to a deep sense of comradery.
Twilight Princess isn’t the only Zelda to incorporate a sense of community within its narrative, but I would argue the expanse of the world (by its time) and the interconnectedness of the races both as a mechanic and within the narrative are treated with more nuance this time around. And since then, Zeldas have continued to push the bounds of storytelling by incorporating different societies and communities within the story, reminding us that the kingdom of Hyrule is, at its core, a relationship between people.
It’s perhaps why one of the most memorable side quests in Breath of the Wild is “From the Ground Up”, the establishing of Tarrey Town in the Akkala region. In this quest, Link is sent out to find similarly-named people who feel as though they have no purpose within their own community and persuaded to use their talents to establish a new town in a a region that seems to have been completely devastated by the calamity. Akkala is void of civilization except for Robbie’s laboratory and two stables that are merely pit-stops for travelers.
Tarrey Town brings different races together and shows that the world can thrive and prosper even after devastation.
One of my absolutely favorite moments in Twilight Princess, the one instance I look forward to with every replay, is the escort mission from Castle Town to Kakariko.
Before reaching the Lakebed Temple for the final Fused Shadow in the first half of the game, Link discovers Ilia in Hyrule Castle Town under the care of the bartender, Telma, who informs him that Ilia has lost her memory. Despite this, she finds and cares for a Zora youth, Prince Ralis, sent to Hyrule Castle by his mother, Rutela, to inform Zelda of their fate once dark beings invaded and froze over Zora’s Domain. Telma asks Link to lend his strength and take them to Kakariko Village in order to save Ralis’ life. Already we can see how many players take part in this mission, uniting people from different provinces and races.
Soon after leaving Prince Ralis to Renado’s care, though Ilia remains without her memory and the evil in the land remains mostly unperturbed, we are granted a moment of respite, a brief scene of tranquility where “happy results repay our efforts.” There’s still so much work to be done, we have yet to uncover the mystery surrounding Midna and the Fused Shadows, let alone coming face to face with Zant, but the story gives way for a moment of calm.
Words cannot describe what this moment means to me, pivotal in the narrative arc within Twilight Princess, and it concludes to the fitting tune of a track called “Calm and Hope.” Not success, certainly not peace, but the contented outcome of a risky endeavor that established Link’s name as a trustworthy and courageous individual.
What’s notable about this side quest is that not only does it bring several communities together, but it does so with no reference to the hero of the past nor with any interference from the Spirits of Light, or even from Midna. This request is carried out through the simple ways. And it’s common within Twilight Princess to have unskipabble side quests that don’t have a bearing on the main plot or the final outcome of good versus evil, but rather they serve the overall theme of connectedness and community.
It’s perhaps why Link’s greatest foil is not the evil caused by the Fused Shadows or the shards of the Mirror of Twilight, it’s not Zant or Ganondorf directly, but rather King Bulblin. Unlike other bosses who are struck down once, never to reemerge, encounters with King Bulblin are recurrent, in a sort of downtime in-between dungeons, and seem to always have negative effects for those closest to Link. Although he follows mere orders, he is the first disruption in Link’s peaceful life and kidnaps the children of Ordon, prompting our hero to set off in search of them no matter the consequences.
Interestingly enough, once the final battle against him ends, King Bulblin states that he “only follows the strongest side. That is all [he] has ever known,” catching one last glimpse of him during the end credits, riding around Hyrule Field. Perhaps he was always a pawn in a greater evil’s game, just as Link carries out his duties as an instrument for a greater good’s purpose.
It’s moments like these, with small yet significant triumphs, that Link becomes a hero in his own right, not through the design of the Goddesses nor the beliefs from Midna’s people, but simply through his own means as a young man from a farming village who wants to protect the people he considers family.
In a video about the best side quest in Zelda history, the story of Anju and Kafei in Majora’s Mask, MrDrBoi mentions that “oftentimes, when you are playing a Legend of Zelda game, it can be hard to relate to the characters because no one in real life is bound to the divine destiny of a hero. But the cast in the Anju and Kafei quest buck that trend by being grounded in reality […] What’s remarkable about this quest is that every individual in it, big or small, has small moments that endear you to them.”
Twilight Princess evokes a similar feeling throughout the entire game. We have a large cast of characters divided into different regions or provinces that, at different points in the story, connect with each other and with Link for the betterment of Hyrule. There’s no black and white roles categorized solely within the hero/victim binary; oftentimes the characters take turns rescuing each other, helping each other, and at the center of it all is Link, a youth thrust into grandeur whose strength of mind and courage enables him to fulfill the heaviest of destinies in order to save his loved ones.
And perhaps this may be a long and winded way of saying it, but Twilight Princess has lived rent-free in my head and heart since the moment I first picked up my GameCube controller in 2006. Whatever many may think of the slightly long tutorial section, the intensity of the lore and the story, the at times bothersome way the game drags both Link and player to specific places, it has always hit the mark in every aspect and I will always consider it my favorite Zelda of all time.
Mika is a Mexican writer and translator, pretender, pet-lover, and a mess at 1 in the morning.