Despite Epona’s reoccurring role, this deep relationship we should expect between Link and his horse isn’t there. In fact, compared to their competitors in the industry, Link and Epona hardly stand out at all.
Take Shadow of Colossus, for the PlayStation 2, for example. Here we see a swordsman on a quest to save a girl with a horse named Agro as his only companion; sound familiar? The game features a very simple environment with little to look at aside from the impressive Colossus. As the player takes on the role of the quiet protagonist, the player can become quite attached to the horse, and with good reason. First of all, the A.I. for the horse is incredible. Agro will follow his master wherever he goes. When his master calls he comes running. Sometimes the horse will even become very playful, by randomly sprinting around his master for no specific reason. These simple behaviors are so much like real horses. When the warrior enters into combat with the Colossus, Agro still follows. He tries his best to stick with his master, and cries out in fear whenever a Colossus threatens him.
Controls are very important in matching the realism of riding the horse. With Agro, taping X allows the horsemen to tap the sides of the horse which makes him gallop faster and faster. Epona on the other hand has a rather simple six strike limit. It does point out that horses have limits, but how does six quick taps burn out a horse? This behavior is more like a broken car low on gas, rather than a realistic horse.
Finally, the most important aspect of showing a realistic horse is the relationship it has with its master. With Agro, the swordsman’s voice shows concern for his horse’s safety as a close by Colossus threatens him. And when Agro falls off a cliff to his uncertain doom, the swordsman slowly faces the reality that his adventure has cost him everything. Epona has no such relationship with Link. Epona only responds to that specific song which she usually attributes to a girl, not necessarily Link. When Skull Kid steals Link’s horse, in Majora’s Mask, he seems more concerned about the Ocarina than his horse. When Link does find Epona once again, he doesn’t seem very relieved. It’s like Link consistently treats Epona more like another tool in his item bag, and less like a living being.
In Twilight Princess, Link is presented with the opportunity to talk to Epona, for the first time, as a wolf. This was a perfect time for Link to get to truly know his horse, and for them to bond together like no other horse and rider. Unfortunately, the only thing we get out of Epona was this:
“Even though you change shape, I still understand you. Link… hurry up and return to your true self…” -Epona (Twilight Princess)
This statement was nothing more than a disappointment.
The controls when riding need to be more believable. Six boosts of speed are nothing like a real horse, so let’s move on from that dated game mechanic. Playing a song makes sense when Epona is a long distance away, but when Epona is within sight, a quick little whistle seems more appropriate to gain Epona’s attention.
There are plenty of areas for improvement with Epona. Horseback riding has become more and more common in other games, and some games like Shadow of Colossus have done a better job. Rather than keep everything the same, Nintendo should rise to the challenge and improve their games to better compete with these titles. Hopefully the upcoming Wii title will take a major step forward with Epona.