It is important to recognize that embracing the past is not the same as living in the past. Although Twilight Princess’ Ocarina of Time influences are in large part due to Nintendo’s desire to give fans as traditional a Legend of Zelda experience as possible, to say that’s all Twilight Princess is would be reductive. In many ways, Twilight Princess is The Wind Waker’s antithesis. Where the latter’s narrative ultimately focused on washing away Hyrule’s influence on the world, the former sees Link spending much of his adventure restoring Hyrule not to its former glory, but rather new glory. Twilight Princess embraces the past in order to strengthen the foundation Ocarina of Time left behind.
As a result, it isn’t difficult to interpret Twilight Princess as Nintendo’s attempt at Ocarina of Time II. Both games begin with Link living in a forest village where he’s informed that he is a prophesied hero of legend; transition into him collecting three artifacts from forest, fire, and water themed dungeons so that he may wield the Master Sword; see Link collecting new artifacts in the second act after his initial plan conceived by the co-protagonist fails; and ultimately end in Link storming a Ganondorf occupied Hyrule Castle in order to save Hyrule. On a structural level, Twilight Princess is blatantly trying to invoke Ocarina of Time.
While it would certainly be easy, to stop here and point at Twilight Princess’ structure as a sign of unoriginality in its design would be a disingenuous reading. There is a clear deliberation to Twilight Princess’ Ocarina of Time parallels, both narratively and in regards to game design. While it may not result in a stronger game than its predecessor, Twilight Princess is able to excel all the more in certain areas when compared to previous entries in the series in large part due to its use of Ocarina of Time as a jumping off point.
Even though Majora’s Mask and The Wind Waker arguably have superior core stories than Ocarina of Time, Ocarina’s narrative structure is far stronger than either game owing to how it approaches a three act structure. The first act sees Link gathering the three spiritual stones as a child; the second has him collecting medallions in the future as an adult, and the last act concludes with Link scaling Ganon’s Tower to save Hyrule. The third act is noticeably shorter than the first two, but it works for the pacing of the overall story and each act naturally transitions into one another in a clear, cohesive manner.
In Majora’s Mask, the first act is dedicated to the game’s first three day cycle; the second sees Link visiting the four regions of Termina, and the last act centers itself around the Moon. Majora’s structure works for the type of story Majora’s Mask is trying to tell, but a massive second act sandwiched between two rather short first and third acts makes for a plot that, while novel and poignant, comes off narratively disjointed with no meaningful flow of progression. Where Majora’s Mask’s structure ultimately does work for its plot, however, The Wind Waker finds itself suffering in places thanks to its structure.
The Wind Waker’s first act takes a similar approach to Ocarina of Time’s with Link needing to collect three Goddess Pearls before being welcomed into the Tower of Gods. On a conceptual level, this is perfectly sound and exactly what a first act in a Zelda game should be. The issue is that The Wind Waker is missing content so the first act, rather than ending on a climactic third dungeon, sees Link rather anticlimactically being given the third Pearl.
Act two of The Wind Waker is easily the strongest of the title, both narratively and gameplay wise, as it sees Link getting the Master Sword from the Tower of Gods and then restoring its power in both the Temple of Earth and Wind respectively, but the plot comes to a screeching halt with the start of the third act: the Triforce hunt. While the story does pull itself around for the final dungeon, resulting in the most powerful finale the series has ever seen, the third act lacks the appropriate buildup it needs on a narrative level due to how the comparatively leisure Triforce hunt clashes with the immediacy of the plot.
In emulating Ocarina of Time, Twilight Princess finds itself with the strongest of the 3D Zelda act structures allowing it to craft what may not be the best story in the series but is certainly the most cohesive with arcs and themes progressing naturally from act to act. Rather than following Ocarina beat by beat, Twilight Princess uses this opportunity to expand on The Legend of Zelda’s three act structure. Although the second act remains the longest, both the first and third acts have been given added weight.
Twilight Princess’ first act is often criticized for its slow pacing, but a slow pace is not inherently bad. It flies in the idea of instant satisfaction that seems to temper most video game discourse, but TP’s slow pace is exactly what allows for its story to fully realize itself by the end of Link’s journey. The first act, as expected, sees Link hunting for three mystical artifacts, this time pieces of Midna’s Fused Shadow, but each segment is far more fleshed out than in previous entry.
Each dungeon is accompanied with a mini-arc of sorts that serves to contextualize Link’s adventure both in a narrative and gameplay sense. The lead up to the Forest Temple introduces all the key players save for Ganondorf, solidifies Link as a prophesied hero, and establishes the game’s core mechanics; the lead up to the Goron Mines introduces horseback swordplay, and establishes a firm link between the events of Ocarina of Time and Twilight Princess by referencing the Hero of Time both textually and visually; and the lead up to the Lakebed Temple ups the stakes of Link’s journey by revealing Ilia’s amnesia and foreshadows Ganondorf’s inclusion in the plot via the similarities in the Zora tribe’s predicament between OoT and TP while further connecting the Hero of Time to Twilight Princess’ Link.
Although the build-up to each dungeon is in itself a story, that isn’t exactly where Twilight Princess thrives most from using Ocarina of Time’s structure. Instead, it’s the end of act one where TP solidifies the good in using OoT as a base. Following the Lakebed Temple, Link and Midna suffer a massive loss at the behest of the game’s antagonist, Zant. In his first appearance, Zant nearly kills Midna, locks Link into his wolf form, and steals the Fused Shadow. The player then has to control Link all the way to Hyrule Castle where Zelda seemingly sacrifices her life to save Midna.
Both A Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time see Link suffering a loss at the end of the first act, but only Twilight Princess gives its first act loss the adequate weight it needs. In giving players complete control over the hero’s loss, Twilight Princess elevates Ocarina of Time’s structure to its next natural level. The weight of the loss is explicitly seen in the overworld’s musical change, Midna’s lifeless body on Link’s back, and Link’s inability to change back into a man. It’s ultimately this philosophy that embodies Twilight Princess: embracing Ocarina of Time’s past in order to elevate its concepts.
Of course, not every attempt at “bettering” Ocarina of Time works in Twilight Princess’ favor, with the second act allowing the story to take a back seat more than Ocarina of Time ever did, but the pros do ultimately outweigh the cons. For instance, while act two is Twilight Princess’ narrative weak point, the gameplay found in this act ends up being the peak of the game, if not the series when considering dungeon design. By following Ocarina’s second act structure so rigidly, along with escalating the progression of dungeons, Arbiter’s Grounds, Snowpeak Ruins, the Temple of Time, and the City in the Sky all stand out as genuine contenders for The Legend of Zelda’s best dungeon.
Arbiter’s Grounds has Link needing to switch between his human and wolf form as he enters a sacred, haunted tomb; Snowpeak Ruins sees Link exploring a live-in manor while helping a Yeti make stew; the Temple of Time is a linear gauntlet filled with constant puzzles and enemies; and the City in the Sky revolves around the concept of Link scaling a stories high floating city that also ends up testing most of the players’ abilities up to this point.
It’s worth noting that act two is the moment when Twilight Princess begins to further differentiate itself from Ocarina of Time in terms of gameplay. The dungeons featured in the second act feature no parallels to Ocarina’s like they did in act one, Link’s swordplay will have been expanded via training with the Hero’s Shade, and the only major allusions to Ocarina of Time are visual as is the case with the Temple of Time. It’s in this act where Twilight Princess begins to solidify an identity for itself independent of Ocarina of Time; at least gameplay wise.
It’s in the third act, starting with the Palace of Twilight and ending with Hyrule Castle, where it becomes most clear why Twilight Princess emulating Ocarina of Time was fundamentally for the best. With the exclusion of The Wind Waker which kicked off its finale with the Triforce hunt, last acts in Zelda games traditionally only involve Link tackling the final dungeon before capping off the plot. Recognizing this formula, Twilight Princess adds in one more dungeon before the finale without compromising a feeling of finality.
In both the Palace of Twilight and Hyrule Castle, it’s clear that Link’s journey is coming to a close. The former dungeon sees him saving the Twilight Realm while the latter has him explicitly saving Hyrule from Ganondorf’s grasp. Both dungeons play off one another thematically with each one serving to conclude the two leads’ character arc. The former sees Midna’s effectively reaching its natural conclusion whereas the latter has Link finally coming face to face with his destiny, allowing him to establish himself as a true hero.
The idea of a character arc for Link can seem almost that he’s a silent protagonist, but Twilight Princess actively challenges this notion by featuring a more expressive Link ala The Wind Waker. The notion of an arc is pushed even further through Link’s interactions with the Hero’s Shade. Over the course of Twilight Princess, players will be able to interact with Golden Wolves who then transition Link to an astral plane where a ghostly knight only know as the Hero’s Shade teaches Link new techniques for his sword.
Both The Wind Waker and The Minish Cap played with the idea of giving Link a master who could teach him new abilities, but Twilight Princess gives added context to Link’s training by making his master a character who gradually develops over the course of the game, effectively turning the swordplay upgrading process into an adventure long training arc. While seemingly unrelated to Ocarina of Time, given it was The Wind Waker that introduced the non-static progression of swordplay, Link’s interactions with the Hero’s Shade nonetheless stand out as one of the biggest pieces of content influenced by Ocarina of Time.
Not only is it hinted at rather heavily that the Hero’s Shade is the Hero of Time, dialogue both pertaining and attributed to the Hero’s Shade can be used to connect the Hero of Time and Link as blood relatives. Early on in the game, it’s explicitly mentioned that Link is descended from the legendary hero. A recurring theme of Twilight Princess is how the Hero of Time’s adventure was all but forgotten with only the Goron and Zora showing some passive semblance of remembrance towards Ocarina’s Link.
The Hero’s Shade’s arc is primarily about passing on his techniques to Link so that his soul may rest without regret. Specifically, he laments his inability to pass on his teachings and how the world forgot. In their final training session on the steps of Hyrule Castle, he likewise refers to himself not as “a hero,” but “the hero” along with referring to Link as “my child.” Of course, it’s worth noting the Hyrule Historia did eventually confirm the Hero’s Shade as the Hero of Time’s lingering spirit, but there is enough in-game evidence to connect the two characters
Although every game in the franchise has expanded the lore in their own way, forming such an extreme connection between two games in the franchise that don’t directly play off each other by featuring the same Link in the lead role is an enormous shift for The Legend of Zelda, one that solidifies a deeper connection between games in the series. Twilight Princess isn’t just working on Ocarina of Time’s influence, it’s actively expanding its world and cast, even offering a conclusion to the Hero of Time’s character arc.
Twilight Princess is a game that’s blatantly proud about the fact that it’s in the same series as Ocarina of Time. In a franchise where just about every single entry experiments with what it means to be The Legend of Zelda, a game that plays the formula so straight can be off-putting. Yet that in itself is an experiment. Twilight Princess is the closest the franchise has ever come to a direct sequel with little to no frills to distinguish it from its predecessor. On paper, the desire to dismiss it for a lack of originality is easy, but its execution makes it clear that embracing the past is exactly what makes Twilight Princess feel so grand in a franchise full of exemplary video games.
It isn’t as if Nintendo was thoughtless in adhering so closely to Ocarina of Time, either. It’s clear in how cutscenes are presented in Twilight Princess that the developers understood what made Ocarina such a great experience for audiences. Scenes are framed like they once were in OoT with dynamic angles rather than Majora’s Mask’s and The Wind Waker’s more static approaches. Twilight Princess, as a video game, is Nintendo taking an opportunity to go back to a completed concept in order to evaluate, expand, and embrace it.
When it comes down to it, Twilight Princess may not necessarily be a better game than Ocarina of Time, but it is a better game because of Ocarina of Time. It fleshes out the world of Hyrule, explicitly connecting events between games; it uses a tried and true structure to tell a story that feels definitively complete, and everything it inherits from Ocarina of Time on a gameplay level is used to craft one of the best campaigns in the franchise. Twilight Princess is a video game that is beyond proud to be a part of The Legend of Zelda, and while that may not make for the most meaningful entry in the franchise, it does make for one of the most memorable.