Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 29, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess

How much of this ranking has to do with Midna? If you guessed "a lot," well, you aren't wrong.

I’m ranking the top 101 Nintendo developed/published games of all-time, and you can read about the thought process behind game eligibility and list construction here. You can keep up with the rankings so far through this link.

Twilight Princess is a divisive Zelda game. It had quite a bit working against it from the start which helped give it that designation, fairly or no. Twilight Princess was given the burden of being the “true” followup to N64 masterpiece Ocarina of Time, because a bunch of babies whined about the art direction of the previous GameCube Zelda, The Wind Waker.* The motion controls for the Wii version were a bit of a problem: when they worked, they worked, as was the case with the IR functions for aiming or using the Nunchuk to deploy Link’s shield, but the swordfighting parts were mostly waggle, and tiresome. And implementing motion controls meant they made a strong depiction of a left-handed hero in Link a [spits with distaste] righty to make Link’s visage match the more likely real-world controller arrangement, and to me, that’s nearly unforgivable.

*hmm I wonder which side of the beautiful and timeless cel-shaded Wind Waker debate Marc is on

More importantly and less personal grudge-y, Twilight Princess’ development ended up delayed as Nintendo prepared to shift it from system seller for the GameCube to system-selling launch title for the Wii, which ended up pitting it against Capcom’s own take on Zelda, Okami, in the eyes of fans and critics alike, in 2006.

Okami just so happened to feature a wolf as the protagonist in a very Zelda-like game design: Twilight Princess is the Zelda where Link spends half the game in the form of a wolf. A whole bunch of people with more free time than sense claimed Nintendo was ripping Capcom off by making Link be a wolf, even though the two games released in the same year, the wolf component is central to Twilight Princess’ entire gameplay structure and narrative, and this iteration of Zelda had already been in development. And even though Okami was very blatantly a Zelda game but with mechanics we hadn’t seen in Nintendo’s version of the series before! Who’s ripping off who now!?

The punctuation should let you know that’s a joke: don’t take any of it to be a criticism of Okami, a game I have purchased on three different platforms over 15 years. Games inspired by Zelda that try to follow a very similar path, but with their own world, backstories, environments, etc. should exist more often, not less. There used to be quite a few Zelda “clones” back in the late-80s and early-90s, as rival developers and console makers tried to match up with Nintendo’s early adventures in the genre, and a lot of those games are great for their own reasons, too. You won’t see me hating on the more modern version of this in Okami or Darksiders, both of which pulled from 3D Zelda in the same way that Neutopia or Golvellius or Crusader of Centy or plenty of other games used top-down, original Zelda as a foundation and built their own mechanics on top of it from there. (You can argue that Zelda actually borrowed back from games like Neutopia in time for Link to the Past, in the same way Neutopia so blatantly borrowed from the inaugural Zelda, because it made undeniable advances to the genre that Nintendo had helped to build in the first place!)

In the case of Vigil Games’ Darksiders, it was made by a development team that very openly loved Zelda, and wanted to put their own spin on it: they were successful enough in their goal that, when parent company THQ went bankrupt and its assets were sold off, premier action game developers PlatinumGames signaled interest in purchasing the rights to the franchise. (No offense to Nordic Games, which ended up getting Darksiders, but wouldn’t that have been something? One of the things you didn’t know you needed until the possibility is introduced to you.) In the case of Okami, it was made by a company, Capcom, that had just worked with Nintendo to make Zelda games: don’t you think they had a few other ideas they wanted to implement in a similar-feeling franchise of their own? What are the chances that there wasn’t a conversation between Capcom and Nintendo developers, during the creation of the Oracle and Minish Cap games, about how cool it would be if Link were a wolf, and then they both went and made that game at the same time at the first opportunity?

Spoiler: Link as a wolf is really cool, in much the same way a wolf as Link is really cool. The wolf component wasn’t just a great way to evolve the concept of two similar but different worlds within a Zelda game, but here, they also completely shifted the gameplay instead of just giving us a darker version, in every sense of the word, version of the environment you spent the beginning of a Zelda game familiarizing yourself with. Whereas in Link to the Past, Link transformed into a helpless bunny upon his arrival in the Dark World and quickly found a way to avoid doing that again, in Twilight Princess, the wolf never leaves you. Eventually you gain control over its use, so you can switch between human and wolf form at will whether you’re in the Twilight realm or not, but the wolf is there, always, and is vital to the game.

A helpless bunny it is not, either, as wolf-form Link rips and tears and claws at his enemies, can snatch flying nightmares out of the air with his jaws and tear into them with his teeth. Link’s senses are heightened in wolf form, and his companion, Midna, rides his back in this form, doling out advice or criticism — usually the latter in the early going — and assisting in powerful attacks that Link could not perform on his own.

Being able to see the world through the eyes of Link in human and wolf forms, in addition to the Twilight-tinged version of Hyrule, gives Twilight Princess’ world a layer of depth and complexity beyond what Ocarina of Time managed when it introduced the world to 3D Zelda. The world is bigger, it’s more open, and it’s not filled with empty space. It’s also not full of tedium, in a way that some more modern open-world games can be. There’s plenty to do and discover here, and ways to discover it all, and all without the map or your possible discoveries being overwhelming.

Ocarina of Time is actually a significant game for reasons other than it being the first to feature an “adult” Link, which Twilight Princess inherited the followup to as previously mentioned. These two games are linked in their narratives, with one reinforcing the other. Ocarina of Time appeared to be the end of Ganon and his machinations to rule the world, but that ended up only being the truth in one timeline. Link’s constant maneuvering through time in OoT actually served to create distinct realities, and the basis/justification for the plots of the Zeldas to come, and those that already existed.

The timeline can be a bit disorienting or even unwelcome to some fans, but I love how it connects a series that otherwise would just be kind of rehashing the same basic story without any real connection otherwise. And while you don’t need to know much about the timeline or even that it exists for any Zelda to work — this isn’t an MCU-like thing where you need to know every detail from the past to get what’s happening in the present — knowing can enhance certain experiences, like that of Twilight Princess, which directly connects to a previous Zelda with a different protagonist in a way that Nintendo had never done before, or since.

Twilight Princess, narratively and thematically, sidelines Zelda and Link more than in any other mainline Zelda game. The Link of the present matters, but he shares the spotlight with the Hero of Time. While that Link is long dead and buried, his shade does not sleep. Instead, he haunts Hyrule as a warrior skeleton, as he himself is haunted by his failure to actually put a stop to Ganon. You don’t know from the start that this skeleton who seems to know so much about combat and how to wield swords of legend is actually the shade of the Hero of Time, but it’s slowly revealed to you that this is the case, and the reason he’s training the Link of the era of Twilight Princess is because of his own regret.

You see, the Hero of Time only put a stop to Ganon in one of the three timelines. At the end of Ocarina of Time, child Link goes to child Zelda in the courtyard, where you initially are introduced to Ganondorf by looking through a window and seeing him with the King of Hyrule, and explains to her that they shouldn’t go and do all of the things they just did when you played through Ocarina, because the consequences of it will destroy the world. Zelda is convinced, tells her father about Ganondorf, and he is then banished from Hyrule itself. So, the events of Ocarina of Time, in this timeline, never actually happen, because they preemptively put a stop to Ganondorf. Link is on his merry way to Clock Town and a moon that is falling from the sky, and Zelda doesn’t have to ever invoke her piece of the Triforce in battle.

Twilight Princess deals with those consequences by explaining that Ganondorf was banished, not executed: he instead bide his time and built up his power within the realm he was banished to, the Twilight realm, and then used the armies he amassed there to invade Hyrule from another dimension. This cloaked Hyrule in Twilight, which is part of what forces Link to change to wolf form as he travels around the countryside, and also keeps the Princess Zelda of this time a hostage of Ganondorf’s in Hyrule Castle. Had Link and Co. taken care of Ganondorf in a way besides just sending him to be some other dimension’s problem, then none of this would have happened: hence the shade’s regret.

Spoiler alert here, but “Twilight Princess” does not just refer to Zelda’s situation, stuck in Hyrule’s castle, surrounded by Twilight. The ruler of the Twilight Realm, which was full of a people as peaceful as Hyrule’s own, is the titular Twilight Princess. You know her as a childish, troublesome imp named Midna, but she eventually, slowly reveals who she is and what her own motivations are. She despises Hyrule for the ruin they brought to the land of Twilight with their shortsighted abdication of responsibility with Ganondorf, but she will save the land all the same if it means Twilight is also returned to normal.

The central themes and narratives of Twilight Princess revolve around Midna’s journey with Link, and the redemption of the Hero of Time through Link. The Link of the present is vital to all of this, as said, but his story is their story: it is told through his actions, they are both brought to peace through him, their goals achieved thanks to him. It’s really all wonderful, and a deeper story than Zelda games tend to tell. Often, the stories of Zelda are more subtle or thematic in nature, but Twilight Princess gives some bigger picture storytelling a go, and it’s a rousing success.

Midna is the best companion in any Zelda game. Whereas Navi was mostly a flying tutorial and reminder of what you could do in a given Ocarina of Time situation, and Skyward Sword’s Fi takes a long time to say nothing of substance or use constantly before the game tries to shove an emotional attachment that does not exist between player and companion onto you by game’s end, Midna just rules. She’s her own character, one with depth and humor and insight, and you find yourself appreciating that she’s around in the same way that she begins to warm to Link’s presence and character. She’s wonderful, and you find yourself wanting to help her out for more reasons than just because the collection of polygons you’re playing needs you to do so in order to progress the game. Not an easy task, that, as the existence of Fi reminds: the genuinely emotional parting of Midna and Link at game’s end is exactly why Nintendo tried to do it again with Fi in Skyward Sword, but, unlike with Midna, it was forced and hollow, even more so if you played Twilight Princess and know Midna’s whole deal.

The Wii U version of Twilight Princess is the definitive one, but you can’t go wrong with any of the three, really. The Wii one is the worst from a controls point of view, but the rest of the game is worth the annoyance. That being said, my appreciation for Twilight Princess grew significantly when the Wii U edition released, as it combined the standard controls of the GameCube release with control enhancements for aiming from the Wii edition thanks to the gyroscopic sensors of the Wii U Game Pad, and put it all in HD. Now, Twilight Princess and its push for a more “realistic” style do harm its transition to HD in a way Wind Waker’s highly stylized was not impacted, but it’s still the best looking and playing version of TP going.

There are little complaints to be made about Twilight Princess: the game should have changed its musical style by this point, introducing orchestral arrangements instead of what were very obviously Video Game Sounding Songs, but like I said, that’s little. The music itself is still wonderful, and some of the tracks here are some of the best of the entire franchise — one known and applauded for its musical quality. The orchestral arrangements we did get from the official symphony are absolutely stellar…

…but even in their original form, this game is just full of some kick ass themes. Like this, the most Final Fantasy-sounding Zelda theme going, heard while fighting the Twilit Fossil Stallord.

Don’t sleep on the orchestral arrangement of this theme, either.

Epona is used in much more effective ways in Twilight Princess than in Ocarina of Time, as you can now swordfight while horseback, which leads to some wonderful chase segments in the game where you need to do more than just fire arrows, like on the N64 Zelda games. You also get to play some games of chicken on a bridge while on horseback, and the sense of speed urging Epona on around the countryside gives you is lovely. It all handles very well, again, at its best on the Wii U edition.

The dungeons are also exceptional, and in some cases truly challenging. They aren’t unfair or infuriating in their challenge, they’re just elaborate, and you can see the building blocks for what Nintendo would manage with Skyward Sword’s fantastic dungeons here — unlike with Skyward Sword, though, the rest of Twilight Princess is wonderful. The dungeons are but one highlight in a sea of them.

The only reason Twilight Princess isn’t ranked even higher is because other Zelda games exist. For as fantastic as Twilight Princess is, for as much as I adore the entire Midna narrative and the wolf gameplay, there are other Zeldas, and some of them are better. Not many of them, though: Twilight Princess exceeds its own fair share of them (this is the sixth Zelda I’ve written about on this list!) and sits comfortably in the very strong second tier of Zelda games. There’s no shame in “just” being one of the better Zeldas, when most of the ones better than this are in best-of discussions much larger than just their standing against other Nintendo games.

You can play Twilight Princess in HD on the Wii U, though, I imagine if you wait long enough, you’ll find Nintendo will release a port of that version onto the Switch to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the franchise. We’ll see on that, but it’s certainly possible now that this corporate entity with stockholders is in its next financial quarter. If you don’t want to wait and don’t have a Wii U, the Wii and GameCube versions exist, though, I can’t recommend buying the GameCube version secondhand, unless you like paying as much for a game’s box as you do a new game. It might be cheaper to just get the Wii U, and then get everything else I’ve told you about on this list that is currently easily available on that system. Or you can bet on that Switch port’s existence: regardless of which path you take, the game is worth it. It’s divisive, sure, but we’ve been over that part and why it shouldn’t stop you.

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