With the recent release of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD, the game that helped launch the Wii is back in the minds of fans, and like 2013’s The Wind Waker HD, it offers the chance to revisit and re-evaluate one of the more divisive games in the long-running series.
Twilight Princess often gets passed off as something of a reimagined Ocarina of Time, and it’s not too difficult to see why; like most of the Zelda games we’ve seen since that much-loved 1998 instalment, Twilight Princess builds on the foundations laid down by Link’s first foray into 3D. Moreover, with a return to a more muted, ‘realistic’ presentation after Wind Waker‘s colourful cel-shaded look, it’s not a difficult conclusion to jump to.
But for my money, Twilight Princess is the ultimate evolution of that strain of the Zelda franchise, taking everything Ocarina did and making it grander, darker, and more mysterious, while focusing more on story and scene composition than any Zelda that came before. It takes what made Ocarina great, strengthens those building blocks, and adds in new experiences (like the ability to become a wolf and sniff out objectives), ultimately managing to earn its own distinct identity.
Nowhere is this more clear than in the game’s Hyrule Field theme. For those of us that played Ocarina of Time back in 1998, it’s unlikely that anything will beat that first moment of stepping onto the expansive Hyrule Field – seeing a game world open up like that just wasn’t something we were used to back in the late nineties. As a spectacle, it’s not something Twilight Princess could hope to replicate, and to my mind, it relies on its theme to distinguish itself from its legendary precursor.
Where Ocarina‘s Hyrule Field theme is playful and sunny, reflecting the theme of a young boy setting off into the world to meet his destiny, Twilight Princess‘ theme is altogether more rousing, suggestive of the themes of a brave young man thrust out into the wider world in an effort to rescue those he holds dear. It sounds determined.
There are, of course, moments that call back to Ocarina of Time, and one piece that plays on that familiarity comes during a moment where we adventure through the Sacred Grove, in an effort to hunt down the legendary Master Sword, the Blade of Evil’s Bane. Link needs the sword to undo a curse placed upon him, and so we find ourselves in a lost part of the world that seems strangely familiar – it’s as if the long-forgotten ruins of Ocarina‘s Temple of Time have been overrun by the Lost Woods, and this impression is built upon by the music, a mysterious take on Saria’s Song.
It creates a strange mood, taking a well-known melody from a past game and stretching it into something different. Its backing melody feels more like something we would have heard in Nobuo Uematsu’s Final Fantasy VIII soundtrack than something you’d hear in a Zelda game – immediately mysterious, tempering the known, the familiar, with the unknown, the enigmatic. As a whole, it seems to say, “this place may feel familiar, but it’s not the same.”
My favourite couple of pieces of Twilight Princess music though, are also the most idiosyncratic. They’re pure Twilight Princess, laden with mystery, the weight of ancient wisdom long forgotten, and a healthy dose of the melancholy. The first of these is ‘Light Spirits’.
Early in the game, Link must journey to three sacred springs and bring light back to the spirits that dwell there, undoing the dark curse placed upon them by Zant, the King of the Twilight. This theme is heard whenever Link converses with one of the spirits, and it imparts a feeling of their timelessness, suggesting that they have long watched over Hyrule, while also creating a mood that speaks to the unknown nature of these beings that show themselves only to a chosen few. The orchestral arrangement, used for the Zelda symphony concerts, is even better, sounding like something Danny Elfman might have conjured up for an early-nineties Tim Burton film.
My favourite piece by far though comes during an incredibly emotional scene with Midna. After being confronted by Zant at the Lanayru Spirit Spring, Midna is forcibly exposed to the spirit’s light, leaving her near death. Link, transformed back into a wolf by Zant’s magic, desperately rushes toward Castle Town, a dying Midna sprawled on his back, to look for help.
It’s the music that makes this scene so special, a beautifully emotive piano-led piece that plays as you tear across a moonlit Hyrule Field at night, in search of aid for the friend that has been with you since the start of your journey. And it’s not over-complicated – that the music is so understated as you desperately rush to save Midna makes it all the more effective.
The quality of the compositions is such that it’s a shame Nintendo decided to use sequenced music rather than record with a full orchestra, something they did with great success in their next title in the series, Skyward Sword. Happily, with the advent of video-game focused symphonic concerts, we’re able to experience the music as its creators no doubt intended it to be heard, and it’s all the more stirring for it.
Of course, The Legend of Zelda has always had strong, memorable music, and it makes me wish for a Zelda-themed music game akin to Square-Enix’s excellent Theatrhythm Final Fantasy. Like that other much-loved franchise, Zelda has over a quarter of a century of series history to draw from, and it’d be great to celebrate that in the form of a rhythm-action game. Until such a thing comes to pass, I’ll have to content myself with another run through the gloomy dusk of Twilight Princess.