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Going back to Hyrule can be a fun or harrowing experience. It typically ends up being a flip of that coin, one that leads you to the Hyrule full of life and color (A Link to the Past), or the one that eclipses your feelings with rage (Zelda 1/Zelda 2). But there is one standout in the Zelda lineage that doesn’t really meet either of these. It doesn’t fill the frustrating chasm of exploration and unknown, and also doesn’t pop with original color and concepts. It’s just kind of… empty.
The Legend of Zelda Twilight Princess is a game with as many triumphs as it has faults. One of those faults is its vast world filled with almost nothing. Not even just blank of many things to do, empty of personality, feeling, and evocative thought. It’s a world that epitomizes “missed potential”.
It feels like Twilight Princess aimed to be what Breath of the Wild will be in 2017: open world, vast, and full of unforgettable stumbles of exploration. The reality? Something far more barren. It’s only underscored by the blurry textures of land and “flat” that span almost every aesthetic as far as the eye can see. You can’t really fault its ambition, but the end result is truly something too big. You can run all across the southern Hyrule field, but you won’t find anything more to do. There’s nothing else there to accomplish. It’s just vast, with no density, no depth.
It’s hollow. A ghost town.
The Legend of Zelda Twilight Princess faced a formidable challenge: follow up one of the greatest games of all time, Ocarina of Time. Now, I say Ocarina over Wind Waker, because Wind Waker defiantly tread new water (forgive the pun) as something different. Wind Waker was ballsy, and regardless of its pre-release criticisms, still stands as a triumph for the series, as a huge departure to a clear formula that Ocarina merely adapted into 3D. From sailing, to exploration, to an open-ended feeling, even if the actual events of the game were a bit scripted, structurally, Wind Waker serves as a standalone in the series, much like Majora’s Mask. It’s not without it’s faults, but it serves as more a reaction to Ocarina of Time, not a follow up.
Twilight Princess, however, is trying to comp exactly what Wind Waker wasn’t. Twilight Princess is almost on the opposite side of the spectrum: it features an all-adult hero, unlike Wind Waker, and serves as the only T-rated game in the franchise, in stark contrast to Wind Waker’s youthful charm. Even by the standards of Wind Waker, Ocarina, and Majora’s Mask, there was a renewed focus on exploration. Above all else, Twilight Princess wanted to make Hyrule a world. A place that was vast, had nooks and crannies, multiple towns, and felt like more than one open field, a castle and a couple of villages. It wanted to surpass the standard: Ocarina of Time. Unfortunately, it failed. In almost every regard, Twilight Princess does not establish a world that is by any means alive.
A big factor in this feeling was time of release; in 2006, the defining factor of “open world” was surface area, not density. Nintendo clearly learned this since Twilight Princess, as indicated by their upcoming Zelda title.
Breath of the Wild is now a follow up to Twilight Princess, not Skyward Sword, much like Wind Waker broke its direct lineage. A world is full, and populated. It glows, not with items to collect or dungeons to find, but with personality, animal life, wildlife, green forests and massive lakes. Twilight Princess seemed to have half of this; it got the shear area down, but nothing occupies that real estate. It’s like a massive canvas that shows you a world with no color. Again: no depth.
It’s a double-edged sword too, because Twilight Princess created a huge world, the biggest world we had ever seen in a Zelda game, and in a lot of ways that is its undoing. Instead of a world filled with things to see and collect, it’s a world that is a hassle to traverse. It’s a nuisance to be shown this vast landscape, because you’re not looking at Hyrule, you’re looking at a blurry mapped texture over a flat canyon. You’re looking at an empty space that not only feels barren, but is as far from the fantasy world you’d want to live in like any Zelda before it.
Let’s look at a section of that world; take Hyrule Fields Upper Eldin, or the Eastern Hyrule Fields (Western, if you play on the mirrored Wii version). It’s this vast area, with a massive chasm, hills, a canyon that leads up to Hyrule Castle Town, and all of it is just… empty. Even the amount of trees, the foliage, the animals, the monsters; in a way, they just feel completely out of place. Weird bokoblin enemies and pterodactyl like birds flying at you from all sides feels more, “um, where are you coming from,” than anything else.
Jump ahead in the game to something like Kakariko Village, which sets the scene with the majority of the remaining members of town hiding in one house together, terrified of the monsters outside. This feels abandoned, in an old western sorta way, and it’s completely intentional. This town feels like it could have been populated and alive, but people left. The reasoning for that comes tied into the world, the reason you’re there, and the people you find there. Townsfolk may have left to the castle to get away, to find sanctuary, and it helps build out the world and it’s people as organic and dynamic, instead of forced and static.
Flash forward even further to Hyrule Castle Town and you see maybe the best constructed population center in any 3D Zelda game. There’s movement, there are people going through their motions, living their daily routines, and you can’t necessarily speak with all of them because hey, they’ve got things to do. That’s lively, that’s loud, and most of all, that is unlike almost anything outside these population centers in Twilight Princess.
Maybe my frustration with Twilight Princess is twofold: not only is it incredibly ambitious and only all the worse for it, but it does nail this other integral half of creating a world so well.
It’s almost as if the populated towns and city of Twilight Princess are filled with metaphorical (and sometimes literal) ghosts, that couldn’t possibly populate such a barren world. They just kind of drift and exist as vacant reflections of a grander scope and a reality that no longer, or maybe never existed.
From bug hunting to heart-piece chasing, the massive world has things to do within it that feel micro in a way that its very much macro world can’t nearly compensate for. It’s concerning, seeing Breath of the Wild take on a map 12 times the size of Twilight Princess merely because Nintendo’s shining example of filling a world so massive is a hollow shell of a Hyrule. But density, and the ideas that come with that, change and evolve over time. In 2006, Twilight Princess’s world was massive and expansive, and a really cool “feature” for the back of the box to mention during the period. Ten years later games along the scope of The Witcher 3 make it seem almost disconcerting that we considered Twilight Princess’s world massive at any point in time. But hey, hindsight is 20/20.
The Legend of Zelda Twilight Princess was a fundamental stepping stone that lead us to where we are now. Much like Ocarina of Time needed to happen for it’s refined follow up in Twilight Princess, the latter needed to happen in order to reinstate the difficulty and importance of world density in a “sprawling Legend of Zelda title”. That applies directly to The Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild, and reflecting on Twilight Princess’s ghostly population as an obvious fault of the past really does instill confidence in Breath of the Wild for me. Nintendo is never one to reinstitute an issue, and they’ve learned from mistakes in the past. Let’s hope for an upward trend moving forward as well.