It’s Fall 2006. After a long day of school, you turn on your fresh-from-the-factory Nintendo Wii and load up one of Nintendo’s day-one launch games — Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. A few button presses and you’re in the beautiful forest landscapes of Hyrule, watching the Hero of Time, Link, and a middle-aged man sit before a waterfall. But their conversation isn’t bright or playful like you might expect from a Zelda game. Instead, the man’s first words are, “Tell me… Do you ever feel a strange sadness as dusk falls?”
So sets the tone of Twilight Princess, a more darkly-styled iteration of Link’s never-ending cycle to save Hyrule. Throughout this first scene, Link and the man discuss the hour of Twilight and how worlds intersect. From there, you and Link go on to meet the usual suspects, like Zelda, Epona, and Ganon. However, this story also introduces a cast of new characters just as impressive and memorable, such as Zant, Agitha, Prince Ralis, Gor Coron, and most importantly, Midna, the Twilight Princess herself.
As a game, Twilight Princess makes a lot of bold, experimental decisions. For example, it’s one of the rare Zelda games, especially before 2010, where a completely new character takes center stage. The graphics are particularly distinguishable compared to previous games. Wolf Link adds new game mechanics and interactions. The story even takes a rare new direction with the Twilight Realm. Whether you loved or hated it, Twilight Princess is a memorable entry in the Legend of Zelda series that deserves more credit than it gets.
However, while there are many people who love Twilight Princess, the game also had its detractors. As many people gush about Midna and the game design, there is an equal amount who complain about the dark color palette or the edginess of the story. Some also have a serious hatred of spending half the game as Wolf Link. There’s a myriad of complaints from boring puzzles to simplistic combat to gameplay frustration… If you ask Reddit, the list of grievances can go on for quite a while.
There are also a handful of obstacles in Twilight Princess’ way that people don’t talk about. While Wii was still better than the eventual flop that was the Wii U, compared to the Gameboy, Nintendo DS, and the Switch, Wii was arguably one of Nintendo’s weakest platforms. Not in terms of sales exactly — Nintendo knows how to sell a console — but in the bet that motion controls and gameplay would be the “future of gaming” that they were advertised as. Being one of the console’s flagship titles, it makes sense that Twilight Princess didn’t have the smoothest or most comfortable gameplay. Both the console and game were innovative and experimental, but not everyone’s cup of tea.
Wii are the future
But the problems with the Wii are what works about this version of Legend of Zelda. Nintendo treated the Wii like an inventive fresh start and as it did with Twilight Princess. However, while the Wii’s success in that venture is debatable, Twilight Princess’ success isn’t. Yes, the game was experimental. The gameplay was simplified to attract a wide range of new players. The writers created memorable, compelling characters for the same purpose. This innovative Wii mindset made Twilight Princess a breeding ground for new ideas and directions with the Zelda franchise. When people complain about Twilight Princess as a notable departure from the Legend of Zelda’s original format, there’s a more nuanced perspective about the game and the franchise that they should explore. Evolution and iteration have kinda been Zelda’s whole shtick. From Link’s Awakening to Ocarina of Time, the franchise has made huge overhauls. Each generation of Zelda adapts to new styles and circumstances.
The Legend of Zelda evolution
For example, Link’s Awakening to Ocarina of Time noted the design change from a flat dungeon adventure world to a more fantastical 3D world. Twilight Princess marked a change in even more character-focused writing. Until Twilight Princess, Zelda games often fixated on the wonder and whimsy of the world of Hyrule. Meanwhile, the characters were decently flat, with maybe a handful of interesting developments (looking at you, Sheik). But Twilight Princess, and especially Midna, began the trend of creating more fleshed-out main characters.
Without Twilight Princess’ attention to detail with Midna’s story, we wouldn’t have Zelda’s expanded character in Skyward Sword or the many beloved champions in Breath of The Wild. Or, even, the inevitably beloved characters from the upcoming Tears of the Kingdom. Twilight Princess may have made risky choices that didn’t appeal to all Zelda fans, but it led to the Legend of Zelda renaissance we live in now.
This means it’s the perfect time to talk about the little Twili who led us here — Midna.
From a princess to a queen
Midna was such a breath of fresh air in the Legend of Zelda world because, unlike many other characters in previous stories, her character arc was anything but simple. Many of the Zelda side characters are simply heroes fighting evil. Their arcs are often about learning how to get over societal stereotypes or personal insecurities to become better heroes. But Midna starts off as a selfish little princess. She’s impetuous and teasing; cursed and guarded. As the story progresses, though, she not only learns how to fight for her own kingdom but also how to care about other kingdoms and their people.
She has a very Beauty and the Beast-like arc. At first, she’s a taunting imp using Link to get Zant off her throne and the Twilight realm back in order. She views Link as a tool to make her a princess again. But the longer they travel together, and she sees the kindness from other Hyrulians, Midna begrudgingly grows affectionate for this other world and the people in it. By the time she regains her royal form and has to head back to the Twilight Realm, not only does she have a greater understanding of empathy and self-sacrifice, but she also has to give up seeing people she cares for to return home and close the door between realms. It makes Midna’s farewell so impactful and bittersweet.
And that bittersweetness leads to the second thing that makes Midna a fantastic focal point of this story — proof of why her character journey has been a little more poignant for people than perhaps Link or Zelda’s have been — because, unlike Link, Zelda, or Ganon, after Twilight Princess ends, there’s no promise of ever seeing her again. In all likelihood, her realm won’t get involved in Ganon’s calamity, and if it does, she certainly won’t be reincarnated over and over like Link. For Link and us, it’s goodbye forever.
I think this game’s success with Midna is what makes it so effective for some people. She’s certainly a more compelling companion than Na’Vi, and until more recent games like Skyward Sword, she was given much more personality than even Zelda. Across the Legend of Zelda franchise, Link went on journeys and met friends, but almost always left them in their respective villages or castles to go out on his own. In Twilight Princess, Midna was with you every step of the way. And Midna even has her own power like you. You’re not just the Hero of Time with a follower, you’re a hero alongside another hero. And once she leaves, her absence is felt.
If Nintendo needs to make a game to draw in young new fans as consoles and generations evolve, there are few better ways to go about it than a fresh new story, simple controls, and a compelling new character like Midna.
Twilight Princess is not a perfect game, but it certainly deserves less flack for daring to be different. While some purists like to go back and complain about its deviations in style and design, it did its job of bringing in new fans. In this writer’s humble opinion, Midna’s creation and writing alone are worth every minute of this Legend of Zelda entry. Whether it’s for Midna or the game’s daring design choices, Twilight Princess deserves praise for embracing that strange sadness as dusk falls.