Twilight Princess gets a bad rap.
Sure, there are some people who will tirelessly defend it, hailing it as one of the best Legend of Zelda titles in existence… but I think those people have been in the minority lately. Nowadays, it seems like most people look at Twilight Princess and see it as the series’ first grand misstep down the path to stagnation. And maybe they’re right. Once the fervor surrounding its release died down, you started to see people who thought Zelda games needed to change. They felt that Twilight Princess was too similar to the rest of the series, and that the formula was getting old.
It wasn’t long before that opinion became popular belief. Twilight Princess was boring, and all the praise it got when it came out was unjustified. Everyone was so blinded by their excitement for a new Zelda game that they couldn’t see reality. Twilight Princess was bad.
I bought into this perspective eventually, too. Part of it was born of a newfound respect for Wind Waker; that game, while not without its issues, is easily one of the best games in the series, and people were so down on it when it came out. This made the narrative that the internet was mistaken about its love for Twilight Princess much easier to believe. They got it backwards. Wind Waker was the good one and Twilight Princess was the bad one.
The thing is, Twilight Princess is actually pretty good. It’s certainly not the strongest entry in the franchise, but by no means is it bad. By no means is it boring. I realized this when playing through the HD rerelease that came out a few months ago. Whatever the opposite of rose-tinted glasses are? I had those on when looking back at Twilight Princess. The game is actually still a ton of fun to play, and manages to have a few really fantastic story moments in spite of its strong-arm attempt to be “dark”. And the music in it can easily stand alongside the rest of the excellent music that the series is known for.
I might even go as far as to say the music in this game is some of the best that The Legend of Zelda has to offer. On top of just generally being excellent, it also has a very distinct sound when compared to other titles in the series. The music of The Legend of Zelda is unique among video games, and the music of Twilight Princess is unique among Zelda games.
If you don’t believe me, listen to Midna’s Lament, a fan-favorite and perhaps the signature song of Twilight Princess.
Yeah. It’s preeeeetty good. This song is fantastic. And I’m here to talk about this song being fantastic.
I actually want to talk about how it’s used in-game. About a third of the way into the Twilight Princess, Link and Midna (essentially the game’s Navi replacement, for those unfamiliar) find themselves face-to-face with the game’s primary antagonist, Zant. Up to this point, Link has been gathering pieces of a powerful artifact for Midna in order to grant her the power to take him on. Having finally gathered all of the pieces together, Midna thinks herself armed and ready to take him on. Unfortunately, Midna underestimates him, and Zant quickly dashes any hopes of a victory, effortlessly taking the pieces from her and discarding them. He aggressively holds Midna close to him, as he uncomfortably whispers in her ear, telling her that he needs her. It’s actually an incredibly creepy scene, and one of the few times that the game’s attempts at being “dark” pay off.
Zant attacks Link and Midna both, injuring them. The two are whisked away by a being of light before Zant can finish them off, but this process damages Midna so severely that her physical appearance changes. It’s clear that she doesn’t have long left to live. In her state of near-death, Midna asks to see Princess Zelda. Link ends up carrying her in the direction of Hyrule Castle.
This is when Midna’s Lament starts playing. Link desperately makes his way to the castle, carrying a dying Midna on his back. The player is given control at this point, and there is a powerful sense of urgency. Enemies start to gather, hoping to take advantage of Link in his panicked state. They dot the route to the castle, and must either be dealt with or avoided in order to progress. Link tries to stay away from them, but an aggressive Bulblin notices, and starts closing the distance between them.
What would otherwise be one of the best sequences of the entire series all falls apart in a single moment.
And then the moment is dead. Midna’s Lament is overridden by the ambient “an enemy is nearby” music. As if it were any other moment in time; as if the usual Hyrule Field music had been playing; the enemy’s approach causes another song to start up. And it’s the worst. What would otherwise be one of the best sequences of the entire series falls apart in a single moment. This section of gameplay could have been a great example of how to use player control to enhance a game’s story; by giving the player control of Link in his desperate rush to save Midna, they are made to feel panicked and desperate themselves. Then the rest of game mechanics show up and ruin the whole thing.
I think this could have been easily avoided. I personally would have found the entire scene more effective were it utterly devoid of enemies. Forcing me to stop and handle them destroys the pacing for me, even without the abrupt tonal dissonance that the musical shift brings. It could be argued that the enemies add urgency for some players, making them feel desperate to be rid of them, since they’re slowing them down. In that case, there’s still no good reason for the musical change they bring. The slow warning notes of the enemy encounter music kill what little momentum might have remained after being slowed to a halt in order to deal with them in the first place.
This is such a frustrating thing for me. I want to be able to bring up this entire sequence when talking about great moments in video games, but I find it hard to do. In three playthroughs, I’ve never gotten the full impact of the scene due to this one grating design decision (or oversight.) The use of Midna’s Lament in Twilight Princess is a brilliant example of music, writing, and gameplay all coming together to create a powerful emotional moment. It’s just unfortunate that it’s also an example of all those factors fighting against each other, given how easily and nonchalantly the game mechanics interrupt the momentum of the song. It’s a moment that could have been better; should have been better; and might have helped Twilight Princess stand the test of time were it executed better.
[Cross-posted, as usual with video-game-related pieces, to my blog at giantbomb.com]