Revisiting The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess – In High Definition & High Detail

Well this looks a bit weirdly-timed now, but I have been working on it for almost two months, so here we go. Strap yourself in.

It’s been a while, old friend.

Ten years ago, in 2006, I picked up The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess alongside my brand new Nintendo Wii console at the system’s launch. After years of hype and a string of exemplary prior Zelda games, I could barely contain my excitement. 80 hours of gameplay (and weeks of real-world time juggling Wii Sports) later, I had completed it very close to 100%. And what a rollercoaster it had been.

Twilight Princess promised a lot, as the Zelda series’ long-awaited return to the dark, “realistic” aesthetic made popular by Ocarina of Time following a controversial – at least at the time – stylistic sidestep with The Wind Waker. And in fairness, it delivered a lot – sensational dungeons, standout set pieces built on fan wish fulfilment, a breakout companion character and bosses on a truly grand scale, mainly.

Ooh baby.

Yet the game also came in for its fair share of criticism for its slow and inconsequential opening, largely empty world, bland colour palette, litany of rupee-related annoyances, relative lack of difficulty and slavish devotion to aping Ocarina at the expense of the freshness offered by predecessors Majora’s Mask and the aforementioned Wind Waker. Though I remember plenty of moments from Twilight Princess fondly, it came in at Number 7 on the Top 10 Zelda games list I wrote back in 2013.

And yet early last month, it received a new lease on life.

Link makes a triumphant return with a new HD sheen.

With help from little-known Australian studio Tantalus Media, Nintendo released The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD for Wii U here on March 5th. Based on the “waggle-free” Gamecube version of Twilight Princess, which I never touched, and boasting quite a few tweaks and supposed improvements, it marked the perfect opportunity for me to revisit the classic adventure with a critical eye, separated somewhat from the perhaps exaggerated criticisms the internet has whipped up over the last decade. Now that I have finally finished TP in its newest iteration, here is what I have to say about it.

Prepare yourself – this will be a long one. A very long one.

Be aware that this post contains a huge amount of spoilers – worth mentioning if you haven’t played the game before. All you need to know if you’re a Twilight Princess newcomer is that yes, I believe this HD version is definitively the best version of the classic title, and yes, you really should play it. If you really want to read on, continue at your own risk, but you should know that what follows is so exhaustive that you may not even feel like you need to play it by the end.
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THE CHANGES

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— Visuals —
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Here we go.

I was not expecting this screen to give me chills again, but it sure did.

From the first moments of the game disc spinning inside my console, it became obvious the Wii U hasn’t helped the former Gamecube/Wii title in its old age with quite the same pizzazz that it did The Wind Waker HD back in 2013. A side effect of going for that realistic look, perhaps. Almost every texture has been improved out of sight, especially on the game’s character models and respective faces, yet the lack of shadows and general detail around, say, where a tree meets the ground betrays its origins.

And some areas just can’t avoid looking decidedly… polygonal.

This presents somewhat of an unfortunate divide in the Wii U’s scant Zelda offerings. While the cel-shaded WW HD is simply one of the best-looking games on the system – remade or otherwise – Twilight Princess has to make do with just looking pretty good. At the very least, you can play Link’s lupine adventure on a big modern TV in full native 1080p without blurry and unsightly visuals distracting you from what really matters.

…The sweet bug collecting – erm, I mean the gameplay.

Speaking of which, as with all of Nintendo’s remasters/remakes thus far, Twilight Princess HD packs a number of gameplay changes. It sports nowhere near the level of playability overhauls as Nintendo’s last Zelda touch-up, 2015’s Majora’s Mask 3Dbut if you want to get into the nitty-gritty, that was technically a remake, whereas TP HD is a remaster. What has been done is minimal, and yet in places still significant enough to address some of my most enduring problems with the original TP release.

Some.

grrrrr.

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— Difficulty —
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Firstly and most importantly, it’s worth mentioning a sticking point for a lot of Twilight Princess’ critics – the game’s difficulty. In Zelda fan circles, hearing that a game in the series is too easy isn’t exactly rare. After all, Nintendo’s M.O. is pretty much all about accessibility to new audiences, and especially this century they have seemed petrified of making any first party game too difficult. Thus, after your first couple of Zelda games, any game you play in the series is going to feel easy – and to be clear we’re usually talking principally about combat ease here, as things like puzzle difficulty tend to be more subjective.

Whether lack of difficulty is a massive problem or not depends on what kind of player you are (personally I don’t really care, as much like the main series Pokemon games, there are many other ways a Zelda game can make up for it). And yet, even among Zelda games, Twilight Princess is often singled out as being particularly easy – as in, several intimidating-looking enemies only do a quarter of a heart’s damage and die in a few hits. Twilight Princess has a very simple – and yet luminously effective – way of addressing this issue, and it’s a twofold solution.

Can Twilight Princess really be reborn as a challenging game?

Firstly, right from the file select screen at the start of a new game, you have the ability to choose to play in “Hero Mode” – a function that was present in both Skyward Sword and Wind Waker HD. Much like in those games, this mode entails doubling all the damage Link receives and disabling all collectible heart drops/spawns in the game (with the exception of two moments when hearts are used for visual gags). Hero Mode ratchets up the difficulty rather nicely, although unlike in SS, you do not have to finish the game once to unlock it and unlike in WW HD, you cannot go back on your decision to play this way once you choose the option.

This is because in Twilight Princess HD, Hero Mode does one other notable thing – it flips the entire game so right is left and left is right. This means playing on Hero Mode basically has you exploring the Wii version of TP Hyrule, while playing normally means you’ll be exploring the reversed – and original – Gamecube version. Now this kinda sucks, because having only previously played on the Wii  I had been looking forward to the sense of freshness that might have come from playing the unfamiliar way. But alas, I decided that the increased challenge was more important.

This impossibly adorable scene is one of the only places you’ll see hearts in Hero Mode.

It’s almost as if Tantalus and their Japanese overseers were aware of TP‘s notorious lack of combat challenge, however, and so they didn’t stop there. If you have a Ganondorf amiibo in your possession – incidentally a very nice figure if I do say so myself – you are able to tap it to the gamepad after a certain point in the game and turn your hearts purple, causing you to take double damage – and yes, it stacks.

The game even gives you warning that you’re about to feel a lot of pain.

Every single time you die after a session with this 4x damage multiplier, the game resets your hearts back to normal. It’s like it’s taunting you, whispering “you’re not good enough to play this way” in your ear. And every time you scan the Ganondorf amiibo again, the evil bastard laughs at you. You can hear it. It’s surprisingly motivating – as if every time you die you’re punished by having to scan again, say yes to the prompt that comes up, and then listen to that devious chortle.

I’ll show you, you smug ass.

And it’s shocking how such simple blanket changes like removing collectible hearts and quadrupling incoming damage can change the way you play the game. I took 45 hours to finish up my playthrough of Twilight Princess HD, even though I wasn’t going for 100%, because I died a LOT. As in, hundreds of times. At first, it’s frustrating playing with the new difficulty modifiers, especially as you spend a significant part of the first section of the game adjusting to playing as Wolf Link while fighting against birdlike abominations and skittish swimming things. But after a while that frustration turns into the kind of fear that breeds a careful play style.

Ugh, will you just stay still for one second!

Suddenly, even though the attack patterns of your enemies have not changed, you’re more protective of your health and, at least in my case, more conservative with spacing. I found myself leaning on one of the game’s most traditionally useless items, the Slingshot, in the game’s early stages just so I could pick off individual enemies from a distance and thin out a group, minimising what used to be only a minor annoyance and is now a major threat – the chance of an enemy hitting you from behind. What’s more, I found as I eased into the game that I was having to keep myself stocked up on red potions and such, as the three hearts the game bestows upon you once you respawn are just not enough to tackle some of the game’s more devious enemies. Overall, I’d say I found my playthrough of Twilight Princess HD much more rewarding in combat than I remember from the old days, and all thanks to a basic – though by no means perfect – option I’d like to see repeated in future Zelda games.

One hit from this guy…

…or these guys…

…and it’s all over.

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— Rupees —
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One of my single biggest complaints with Twilight Princess was always its straight-up awful rupee economy. Anyone who has ever heard me whinge about the game probably thinks I make way too much of a big deal out of the fact that it initially had far too many rupees and very few things to spend them on, but to me this issue heavily impacts the feeling of being justly rewarded for your explorative efforts. Rupees should mean something, especially if they’re just about the only thing you’ll be getting inside a hard-to-reach treasure chest that isn’t a Piece of Heart. If they don’t, the game’s economy fails and the world feels all the more lifeless for it.

Cheers, chest.

Add to that the fact that the original Twilight Princess had the nerve, the gall, to put rupees back into their home chest if you were unfortunate enough to have a maxed out wallet – leaving the chest icon marked unopened on your dungeon map, no less – and you have an even bigger problem. The low rupee ceilings presented from early on in the game did not help matters. And then on top of all that, every time you loaded a save file the game assumed you had forgotten what a rupee was and gave you a presentational animation the first time per session that you picked up a blue, yellow or red rupee in the field. Weird design choices all around.

Design choices that have almost completely been re-addressed. I believe there is no area in which Twilight Princess HD improves on the flaws of the original more than its economy, and that’s a gigantic plus in its column as far as I’m concerned. Not only have the pointless collection animations disappeared – only appearing once each at the start of the game – but you can now plunder chests to your hearts content without worrying about making sure you don’t have a full rupee wallet, just like you can in every other Zelda game. Crucially, the wallet upgrade sizes have also been raised. You now start the game with a maximum capacity of 500, with the first upgrade granting you 1000, the next 2000, and the final one – an entirely new upgrade called the Colossal Wallet – going all the way to 9999 (though it is difficult to obtain – more on that soon). Making sure your players are building towards a rupee total more often has the effect of making a large score more likely to feel meaningful.

Already twice as much as it held before and it isn’t even the biggest size.

An admission that your world is overflowing with fantastical cash is one thing, but Twilight Princess HD also goes a step beyond with its rupee issue. An entirely new form of collectible has been introduced in the form of stamps, while to the best of my knowledge, the number of treasure chests in the game has not increased. Thus the number of samey – and potentially useless – treasure chests in the game has been cut down significantly.

Link is clearly all about this stamp.

Sure, the stamps only have a use when posting and commenting on the Wii U’s integrated Miiverse platform, and you may not care all that much about that. But there are 50 stamps to collect throughout the game, and they have a prominent position on both your save file screen and your pause menu. This means they are a quantifiable collectable in a game screaming out for another form of quantifiable collectable, and that’s potentially a big deal for completionists. In the Top 10 Zelda Consumable Items list I wrote a few years ago, I tried to stress the importance of reward diversity in Zelda games, especially in lieu of rupees, because they’re very hard to track – one minute they’re there, the next they’ve been spent. But now every time you get to a hard-to-reach chest in this high definition version of TP, odds are that if it isn’t a Piece of Heart, you’re at least going to end up with something that’ll get you one step closer to completing something. And yes, that also means when you do find a 100 rupee chest – I’m starting to sound like a broken record here – it feels more rewarding.

How am I still missing 16 of these things?

Ever wanted to spell out obscenities in Hylian? Well now you can!

To cap this section off, what do you get when you combine a better in-game economy with more punishing combat? The neat side effect of making what once seemed like a throwaway, almost laughably inconsequential item into a genuinely useful ace up your sleeve. I am talking, of course, about the Magic Armor.

hmmm, you don’t say…

Before, I distinctly remember donning the Magic Armor just to reduce my rupee count and mess around a bit. Powered by something easily replaceable and geared towards protection against practically non-existent threats, it couldn’t escape coming off as a joke – at best a tool used to circumvent that aforementioned chest reset problem. Now, with that silly mechanic completely gone, higher available rupee thresholds, less rupees around in general, and that option of playing in Hero Mode with a Ganondorf amiibo, I found myself saving my rupees – especially in the late game stages when all the major money-sink sidequests were done and dusted – for when I really needed to bust out an item that could save me from myself. This usually came when I had only a heart or two left and was already a couple of hits into a boss, miniboss or lengthy enemy gauntlet. When needing to restart from the beginning would be really, really annoying. And lo and behold, the Magic Armor became something else entirely. It felt amazing to wear.

What’s the matter? Can’t hurt me?

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— Convenience —
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All the rest of the gameplay changes to the HD version of Twilight Princess belong in the so-called “quality of life” category – that critical buzzword for things that make playing the game an ever-so-slightly pleasant experience. There are quite a few of these, so I’ll try and push through them.

First and foremost, the now-standard second screen Nintendo treatment for Zelda re-releases. Like Wind Waker and the two 3DS remakes, the new version of Twilight Princess features on-the-fly inventory management, and it’s just as much of a welcome time saver as it was in those games. The item screen on the gamepad is clean and well-organised, and not having to pause to change up your assigned button shortcuts is great. Ditto being able to keep the mini-map off the main screen.

The fully kitted-out gamepad interface. Note the touch button in the top right-hand corner.

Just as good is the addition of a quick transformation shortcut in the form of a touch button on the gamepad, available as soon as you acquire the ability to shapeshift into wolf form at will. That’s right – no more calling Midna, waiting a second for her to come out, scrolling down to the transformation option, hitting A, and watching her shrink away as you transform. Now just touch the screen on the top right corner – you don’t even have to look down – and Link is immediately on all fours ready to run. The sheer amount of times you have to transform during the second half of the game makes the few seconds saved each time really add up.

The gamepad also offers motion-controlled aiming once again, only unlike in The Wind Waker HD , you cannot move around while in first person aiming view with a bow or similar item. This is probably because TP HD has to render Link aiming with both the Gamecube version’s first person camera and the Wii version’s third person one. It gives you the option of choosing either, for what it’s worth, as well as to turn off motion control entirely.

The world of aiming options is your oyster.

And gyroscope aiming is as satisfying as ever.

Link now climbs and swims noticeably faster than he did in the original game, which is a big help in the first and third dungeons respectively. His sword also no longer bounces off walls but rather passes straight through them, minimising frustration in tight spaces with lots of enemies, such as in the Cave of Ordeals. Link’s horse Epona also controls a bit better than in the original release, not so much in the basic way she handles as in her responsiveness under pressure. She now rears up at inopportune times far less often, it’s way easier to turn her around 180 degrees in a pinch and if you fall off her back while under attack, she will immediately launch into a gallop when you climb on again.

Which minimises stuff like this. You know, if you’re good.

Mercifully, each of the three early Wolf Link sections have had their collectable Tears of Light count reduced from 16 to 12, which shaves off a pretty substantial amount of time from the rather tedious passages of play when all is said and done, even if their general structure remains unchanged. Overworld maps note much more information than they did before, now illustrating the locations of sidequests and minigames as well as the next story progression location. It stops short of letting you set waypoints, though, which I feel would have set a lot of Zelda fans off.

aaaaaawwww yeeeaaahhh.

The icons do not disappear once you’ve completed their relevant sidequest, just FYI.

Each map also shows you how many Poes you still have to defeat to claim all the Poe Souls in the area, and speaking of Poe Souls, Twilight Princess HD actually has an entirely new Poe-related item – the Ghost Lantern. In theory this is a really cool addition, as Poes can be a real pain to find.

Handy, right?

However, it’s let down by a couple of weird design choices. Firstly, you’re given the lantern by the cursed rich man Jovani after you’ve already collected 20 Poe Souls, the amount also required to obtain what is in my opinion the only worthwhile reward from the quest, a bottle of Great Fairy’s Tears. Thus after that point you’ll only be using it to find Poes for the sake of finding Poes, because the ultimate prize for finding all 60 is still… rupees. And yes, I know I was just talking about completionism being its own reward for some folks, but it still baffles me why you wouldn’t just give players the Ghost Lantern when they first meet Jovani, while most of them still have strong motivation for hunting down the sadistic spectres. In addition, while the lantern does allow you to locate Poes during the day for the first time ever, it doesn’t let you defeat them until night-time, and unfortunately, Twilight Princess HD did not add a way to change day to night instantly. It’s still a waiting game, and that’s a real shame.

Well, handy in a way.

Worth a brief final mention are the extra amiibo functions offered by Twilight Princess HD. If you have a Shiek or Zelda amiibo you are able to refill Link’s hearts completely, but only once per day. The Link and Toon Link amiibos serve a similar function, except for arrows instead. And that’s about all I can tell you, because I only used each function once throughout my whole playthrough, just to see how the system worked. There’s also a Wolf Link amiibo that comes packaged with the Australian retail version of the game – alongside a nice soundtrack, it must be said – but I’ll leave talking about its main use until the end of this post.
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THE GAME

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— Story —
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Since that about wraps up the way the decade-old game has changed, how does the rest of it hold up? Well as always I have many thoughts, and a good place to start is with the game’s story – not just its plentiful cutscenes, mind you, but the way the narrative flow informs the pacing of the game.

A tale of a simple farm boy’s destined journey? Not quite that simple.

Though they are often inconsequential and always irrefutably secondary to gameplay, the narratives of Zelda games are more analysed, more criticised and more speculated over than those of any other major Nintendo franchise – save perhaps for Fire Emblem. Fans can’t seem to stay away from the topic of Zelda plots for too long – especially that of Twilight Princess – and so even though it isn’t that important to me personally, neither will I. How can I when Nintendo so obviously put such effort into making it as epic in scale as they could?

I’m not one for getting into the weeds of tiny story details, but I know where I stand on TP‘s overarching story – it wasn’t all that coherent ten years ago and it still ain’t. It feels like it was put together by two passive-aggressive writers who continually stopped short of actually discussing what they were working on – one of whom wanted to write a “love letter to Zelda fans” crammed with as much references and homages to Ocarina of Time as possible, the other one keen to pen a fresh story about a flawed ruler of a shadow-soaked realm trying to do right by her people by defeating the usurping scumbag who violently took it over. And if said ruler uses a naive hero or two for her own ends along the way, where’s the harm, right?

Yeah, you don’t want to mess with her.

To be clear, I think the story would have been far better served if the Twilight Princess herself, Midna, was squarely in focus throughout the whole thing. She is easily one of the Zelda series’ coolest and best-written characters, and let’s be honest, she’s pretty much the main character of the story anyway. So why does the game go in half-assed on the characterisation of Princess Zelda and Ganondorf? Because of that reverence for Ocarina of Time, of course. Better to throw them in late than keep them out entirely and disappoint the fans again, like they did with The Wind Waker, right? Right?

How else do you explain the fact that it’s a possessed Zelda who you fight in the first phase of the game’s final boss, and Zelda who fights with you on horseback against Ganondorf soon afterwards, even though beforehand you’ve seen her a grand total of twice, each for only a handful of dialogue lines? Why is Midna, the focus of the story for a long stretch of time and the only person Ganondorf directly addresses in his throne room at the end, quite literally tossed to the side for a final battle with someone who has been a third tier character at best throughout the game?

A throwaway pawn for both Ganondorf and the story.

I’m sure if Twilight Princess was your first Zelda game you would be thoroughly bewildered by the titular princess’ reappearance in such a high profile role just for the last half hour of gameplay. The foreshadowing is non-existent before then and the badass heroine Midna, who at that point in the game has just killed the usurper Zant in cold blood, gets shafted by the need to appease fans of the series. Several Zelda games have had satisfying conclusions without Zelda herself (see Link’s Awakening, Majora’s Mask) while many others have made Zelda feel like an indispensable part of the final battle (Ocarina of Time, Spirit Tracks etc) due to a whole heap of build-up and prior characterisation. Twilight Princess unfortunately pulls off neither of these things.

Just look at that malicious intent. She could have been such an awesome part of the finale.

And what of Zant, the imposing Twilight villain directly responsible for banishing the careless Midna from her own kingdom, who marches into Hyrule Castle unopposed and takes it over, then later tosses Link aside, steals the dark magic source he has been assembling for hours at that point and then easily brings Midna to within an inch of her life? Why does he have to devolve into a screaming, hopping maniac by the end of the plot? Again, because of that reverence for Ocarina of Time. Link has to fight Ganondorf in the end, not Zant, because otherwise the fans wouldn’t have got that “realistic” sword duel they wanted ever since the Gamecube was revealed, yeah?

From calm and scarily powerful antagonist…

…to flailing lunatic.

All so this can happen.

In fairness, Ganondorf does get to enjoy more foreshadowing than Zelda does in the story, the final battle with him is indeed cool, and it’s hardly the first time he has hidden behind a lesser villain in the Zelda series. But Zant’s strange decline still feels like a waste of a genuinely intimidating bad guy and, on the flipside, there have indeed been Zelda games that have ended in fine fashion without the any sign of the King of Evil – games with and without Princess Zelda in them.

But let’s rewind, because Twilight Princess’ inherently confused story shows its true nature far before the end. It takes a very long time to get from the opening titles until the point where you realise that TP is really all about Midna’s revenge/redemption tale, and it invests an awful lot of that time on characters that ultimately don’t mean a whole lot. The inhabitants of Link’s hometown, Ordon Village, are varying degrees of bland and of the half-dozen or so main ones, only two really get any sort of memorable developmental arc – the timid kid Colin who is inspired by older-brother type Link to stand up for himself/his friends, and the admittedly hilarious baby-faced-yet-cut-throat-businessman Malo.

The most memorable Ordon Village resident by a country mile.

Not even Ilia, the supposed childhood friend and love interest of our hero, feels like anything more than a mannequin. The three hints you get as to her potentially romantic role are she’s female, she’s the same age as Link, and she scolds him for mistreating Epona. That’s it. She spends most of the rest of the story with amnesia, serving as a plot device to urge you on towards curing her, but you have little to no narrative reason to care about her beyond her cursory connection to the remaining characters you talk to and the places they send you. Returning her memory isn’t even your main motivation, just kind of a side bonus along your quest to assist – you guessed it – Midna.

Oh don’t stress, the game isn’t worried about you at all.

Considering how unsatisfying the majority of the village’s characters are, it’s more than a little ridiculous how much time Twilight Princess makes you spend with them. Few players would deny that the game touts a truly tedious opening few hours – a weakness so often brought up that it almost deserves its own subheading – and had I not been ten years removed from my intial playthrough when I dived into TP HD, I might have lost patience with this opening. While not quite the wall-to-wall cycle of farm chores and slow cutscenes that some on the internet might have you believe, it’s certainly a stuttering passage of gameplay that consistently kills its own momentum.

Ugh… move… faster… please… I beg of you…

The game starts deliberately slowly, the idea being to sell the idea of farm boy Link living an idyllic lifestyle. But by the time you’ve herded the world’s most irritating goats, fiddled with the weird fishing rod controls and suffered through a series of dull weapon tutorials, the vibe has soured quite a bit. Then the pace picks up as you venture into the woods with your basic weaponry, fight off your first enemies and explore a more open area… before you’re lurched back to the village and forced to herd goats again – twice as many this time.

OK, so I had forgotten this part was in the game, and it’s actually pretty cool.

Things get exciting again when the villainous and brutish King Bulblin – one of the few henchmen in the entire Zelda series to get a decent character arc, by the way – sweeps in and carries off some of the villagers, forcing Link to follow him into the encroaching Twilight realm, unwillingly transform into a wolf, meet the caustic, derisive imp Midna for the first time, and bust out of prison with her help. The ensuing sewer escape is atmospheric but repetitive and occasionally disorienting, slowing the game down once more. Then you escape to the roof of Hyrule castle, which oozes glorious foreboding, and approach the tallest tower of the castle to find an entrenched Zelda fan’s dream.

A cloaked, badass-looking Princess Zelda.

When I first saw such a decidedly mature version of Zelda turn around in this iconic cutscene, blissfully unaware that this would be her longest section of autonomous screen time in the entire game, my fanboy mind was overloaded with furious speculation. What did the Sheikah icon on her cloak mean? What amazing powers would this Zelda showcase in the story? Could she possibly be an even cooler character than her proactive Ocarina of Time counterpart? Well we all know the answers to those questions, but even so, and even acknowledging that the scene was aimed squarely at OoT fans, I still can’t discount just how well-executed it is. Especially when you add a HD facelift and the delicious returning-player bonus of Midna leaning forward and, dripping with contemptuous sarcasm, addressing Zelda as the “Twilight Princess”.

As soon as it’s over, you’re treated to an entertaining stealth section as you return to your hometown as a wolf and pull the wool over the people’s eyes, stealing a sword and shield from right under their noses. But then, because you’re still in TP‘s opening hours and it’s been too long since your fun has been dampened, the game introduces you to its first Tears of Light collect-a-thon. And despite the welcome aforementioned reduction in the amount you have to collect, it still amounts to a whole lot of busywork. When it’s done, you awaken in your poorly-explained traditional green tunic, and spend a while following a monkey through a poisoned swamp you have already traversed twice at this point to arrive, finally, at the entrance to Twilight Princess‘ first dungeon. At this point in my HD playthrough, I had already burned through three hours of game time, and yes, I had died a lot due to my choice of difficulty, but I had also played it all before. Three hours, I tell you. Again, it wasn’t all boring stuff, but it was linear and it was inconsistent, and so alas, the ignominious legend of Twilight Princess’ poorly-paced beginning lives on into another decade.

There are other pacing problems later, such as having to deal with these guys twice.

I could move on to the game’s second half and the story’s limp, desperate attempts at padding out the time between its latter dungeons, but there really isn’t all that much to be said there. Instead I’m going to stop short of a full story breakdown and just take the time to point out that Twilight Princess can still boast some of the Zelda series’ greatest individual moments. Like these:

The Lord of the Rings-esque horseback battle against dozens of boar-mounted Bulblins.

The sunset joust duel with King Bulblin on the iconic Bridge of Eldin that follows.

The sumo wresting matches, that evolve from goat to man to Goron…

…and click into place in this one triumphant sumo stance against Beast Ganon.

Ascending the canyon towards Zora’s Domain atop a captured Twilight beast.

This striking snapshot as you realise just what has happened to the Zora race.

The return to the Temple of Time, classic music and all.

This reveal of Midna’s true identity.

The Wild West-style shootout in the Hidden Village. OK, this one’s optional, but come on.

The final fight with King Bulblin, after which he speaks some unexpectedly telling words.

And the greatest one, the urgent race to save an ailing Midna to that beautiful piano score.

And that’s quite enough about the story. A story isn’t much good in a Zelda game without a world in which to set it, which brings me to…

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— Hyrule —
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The Twilight Princess incarnation of Hyrule is the subject of much debate in Zelda circles. Common accusations are that it’s an over-ambitious, flat, relatively empty game world devoid of colour and life. Again, these are exaggerations, as I found with almost all the arguments against the game upon my recent return to it – but they are steeped in some pretty compelling points that almost always involve comparisons to other games in the illustrious series.

Empty?

What makes the setting of a Zelda game feel like it’s worth exploring? What makes you come back for another play session time and time again? What makes you happy to return to a Zelda overworld after a dungeon is complete, rather than simply rushing headlong into the next one? These questions have highly subjective answers, but over many years of discussion with Zelda fans of all kinds, you start to hear a lot of the same topics come up. Eye-catching visuals. Enemies worth fighting. Rewarding exploration. Memorable characters. Plenty of sidequests. Fun minigames. A sense of scale. And for the most part, I’d agree with these. They’re all important to a compelling overworld.

Flat?

Now just which of these elements are most important to you usually determines which Zelda games you prefer over others, since the overworld is usually the place you’ll be spending most of your playtime in any given game. If you take stock of the presence of the above categories in Twilight Princess, you might reasonably conclude that if you’re the type of player that really leans into scale as an important factor, you’re more likely to look kindly on TP ‘s overworld and, by extension, TP as a whole. The game’s multitude of areas are unequivocally massive, dwarfing Link and demanding to be traversed on the back of his trusted steed (or as a wolf later on). Hyrule Field – amazing music and all – comes to mind first in this regard, but this is also the Zelda game with the biggest Lake Hylia in the series, a colossal impression of Gerudo Desert and an imposing blizzard-streaked area in the form of Snowpeak. It’s easily the largest landmass in all of Zelda, and if that appeals to you as a giant plus in the game’s column all on its own, more power to you.

Big for the sake of being big?

Personally, I don’t feel that way, although I might be generous and say that Twilight Princess delivers reasonably well on the enemy front as well as the size one. The game’s plentiful orc-like Bulblins are genuinely some of my favourite foes in the series, whether they’re setting you on fire from a distance, attacking in packs on the ground or riding aggressively into battle atop a boar. Ditto the gangs of warped Twili enemies with the tendrils – having to choose the best time to attack so that no single one is left alive alone is cathartic and luckily doesn’t feel overused by the end.

Sniping Bulblins with the Hawkeye – just the best.

As for the rest of these categories, I feel that Twilight Princess comes up disappointingly short in a couple of big ones. In the Rupees section above I’ve already gone into some of the ways the HD version’s economic changes improve the feeling of exploration throughout Twilight Princess, but most other Zelda games still run rings around it in this area. No doubt as a direct result of the ambitious scope of its world and the limited power of its host console(s), TP‘s large areas are at best sparsely sprinkled with secrets and collectables. In between each cave, golden bug and chest on a hard-to-reach ledge, huge stretches of land/snow/water go by without incident. So even though there isn’t all that much difference between TP and its fellow Zelda games when it comes to sheer volume of explorable nooks and crannies, it feels like TP is lacking due to its large world feeling considerably less full. Skyward Sword and Majora’s Mask feel positively packed with goodies because their worlds are so small and dense, while The Wind Waker makes full use of every tiny discoverable island on its gigantic open sea.

Snowpeak is big vertically and horizontally, but features next to nothing to do.

The relative lack of variation in the types of collectables you can find in Twilight Princess – even with the welcome addition of stamps – doesn’t help. The game doesn’t have the luxury of offering treasure charts, masks, force gems, unique spoils/treasures, or even magic jars to keep players guessing when they reach a hidden area. When I heard Twilight Princess had so many Pieces of Heart on offer that you’d need five of them just to make up one extra heart on your health bar, I was salivating. But for some reason, there are two of them in each of the game’s dungeons (not counting the final one)! What’s the point?

Why do you dilute your overworld so much, Twilight Princess?

Even taking into account its diluted landmass-to-reward ratios, there is another Zelda staple that Twilight Princess fails to deliver on the same level of almost any of its Zelda contemporaries, and because this staple means more to me personally than just about any other, it severely hurts the game in my eyes. I’m talking about sidequests, the distractions from the main storyline that offer their own micro-stories and usually deliver quirky and memorable moments almost as rewarding as, well, their rewards. They tend to enrich their respective game worlds immensely, differentiating the series from most any other grand adventure game franchise, and Twilight Princess has hardly any of them. Name a non-multiplayer Zelda game made in the last 25 years – it probably packs more sidequests than TP does. The game even taunts you with a version of Hyrule Castle Town positively bursting with people – most of whom you cannot talk to – that offers up a paltry one-and-a-half sidequests.

So many people, so few decent conversations. Like real life.

As I revisited Twilight Princess I met with a constant stream of realisations that I had forgotten quite a decent chunk of the game’s less significant pieces of content, so I was hoping that I might rediscover some out-of-the-way sidequests. But they just weren’t there. Almost every single dialogue-spouting character in the game is there for story purposes only, and the side tale of Malo Mart’s redevelopment and expansion remains the only real optional piece of story content worth writing home about.

At a stretch, you can add the cat scavenger hunt in the Hidden Village. If you really like cats.

Twilight Princess also has less minigame attractions than most other Zelda games, but not by much, and the ones that do make it in are luckily some of the very best in the Zelda series. Whoever was in charge of these goofy changes of pace during the game’s development deserves an award of some sort, as he or she gave us the likes of:

A snowboarding course, complete with shortcuts and time chasing.

The ultimate logical extension of Cuccoo flight mechanics.

I know some people don’t like this one but I adore it. Challenging and works up a hunger.

OK this one isn’t all that great but it’s hardly terrible and it looks fantastic.

The deepest, most complex, best-looking rendition of fishing in any Zelda game.

This pretty cool excuse to go full Spider-Man all over the place.

And the single greatest minigame in the history of The Legend of Zelda, Rollgoal.

And so we’ve checked off every crucial Zelda world element except one – visual style. Another well-worn argument used against Twilight Princess is that its art style is dull, afraid of colour, pandering to fans of the gritty movies and games that dominated entertainment media at the time of release, and so on and so forth. Once upon a time I agreed that this criticism was a black mark against the game, but nowadays I’m not so sure. Because each one of the five Zelda games released since TP – not to mention the imminent sixth – has paraded a much brighter and more colourful art style than it did, the darker, grittier visual trait we once feared would take over the series has ironically become one of the most unique things about Twilight Princess. And it isn’t as if the art style was super generic in the first place, either. Yes, at times it does look bland, but particularly where the Twilight is involved, there’s some rather cool stylistic stuff going on.

Sure, at times it does look a bit Shadow of the Colossus (screw this puzzle by the way)…

But the distinct “pixellation effect” of the game’s Twilight magic holds up very well.

And such a uniquely striking visual moment as this would not work in another Zelda game.

.
— Dungeons —
.

Ah, the magnificent dungeons of Twilight Princess. For some, the saving grace of a game that fails to stand up in other areas; for others, the cherry on top of a wonderful experience. You’ll have to look hard for a Zelda fan that has any strong arguments against TP‘s bountiful suite of dungeons – They are almost universally praised as some of Zelda’s best. While my HD playthrough made me appreciate some of these better than I had previously and others a tad less than I had the first time through, overall I can’t really argue with this general sentiment. The dungeons in Twilight Princess are amazing. We’re talking about a game that doesn’t fall back onto the tried-and-true “defeat all enemies in the room to do something” trigger until its fourth dungeon. Not only do the dungeons provide a heap of gameplay highlights, but generally speaking they are also the places where the new HD facelift shines the brightest.

Yes indeedy.

I never really had fond memories of the opening dungeon, the Forest Temple. Come to think of it, I had barely any memories of it, so it felt like a reasonably fresh experience. Though its unspectacular greenish-brown art design, straightforward puzzles and underwhelming Gale Boomerang item prevent it from sticking in the mind like some of the later dungeons, I tried to look past those things this time around and found myself appreciating the dungeon’s structural use of multiple monkey rescues to mark crystal-clear backtracking paths. Even though I was a bit eager to reach the boss and forgot to go back for some collectables before all the monkeys left.

So I had to return later with the clawshot to grab a few chests… Just like I did 10 years ago.

At first glance Twilight Princess’ second dungeon, the Goron Mines, seems to be following the same old forest-fire-water thematic path that Ocarina of Time did – and it is – but it’s also so much more than that. In fact it represents the antithesis of the Forest Temple: Artistically it’s colourful and varied, with seething lava contrasting against sparkling teal gemstone walls, it introduces multiple new puzzle mechanics in rapid succession, and it also does that thing not enough Zelda dungeons do – Sell the idea that it isn’t just some generic “temple”, but rather a place that you can see serving a realistic function. Not only does this dungeon feature plenty of moving machinery, but you visit several Goron living quarters throughout to assemble the Big Key, which adds an unusual and effective sense of place to proceedings. I immediately give bonus points to any dungeon that pulls this off, so I really like the Goron Mines.

The most versatile pair of Iron Boots in the Zelda series really shines in the Mines.

What a miniboss, too!

I was dreading returning to the Lakebed Temple. I’m just as fond of water-themed dungeons in general as the average vocal internet commentator – which is to say, not very fond at all. Yet in the last decade I’ve met plenty of fans of its design, and indeed this time around I was actually rather impressed by its relative non-linearity and very clever central water flow redirection mechanic. The dungeon is massive and one of the lengthiest in the whole series, but the way it’s laid out provides natural checkpoints as you repeatedly cross through the main shifting staircase chamber. The new faster swimming mechanics and quick gamepad item-switching I discussed earlier also help improve the experience in my eyes. That underwater maze of a final room can still go die, though.

These things are so irritating when you’re taking 4x damage.

Still the easiest boss in the game, but such a tremendous sense of scale accompanies it.

That brings us to the Arbiter’s Grounds, perhaps the dungeon that has improved the most in my head since I first played it. The dungeon itself hasn’t really changed, but my appreciation of it certainly has. I don’t know if it was just because of the mood I was in this time around, but I found myself repeatedly floored by the creative puzzles scattered throughout its sandy, spooky rooms. Real spacial awareness is required to get past some of them, and I just love the way the Wolf Link transformations (which are, once again, easier than ever in this version of the game) accelerate the flow of the dungeon’s first half. Once the early ghost-hunting is done and that giant door opens, the Arbiter’s Grounds somehow get even better, because you get to play around with the Spinner, zipping between wall tracks and rotating rooms until that sensational boss fight against Stallord.

These things suck.

This thing certainly doesn’t.

Ooooooh.

After that, of course, it just gets better. If the Goron Mines sells itself as an unusual dungeon location, the Snowpeak Ruins take the idea a step further, interspersing rarely-seen 3D ice dungeon tropes with warm, homely rooms and chambers. It genuinely feels like you are exploring a mansion in which someone actually lives – albeit a mansion that isn’t very well looked after. If the Lakebed Temple excels at checkpointing, Snowpeak Ruins dominates the concept, sending you back to the living room of the mansion’s adorable yeti couple with unusual progress items in the form of soup ingredients. Not only does this divide the dungeon into digestible chunks, but it gives you an increasingly potent method of recovering hearts – particularly handy during my abnormally punishing playthrough. Even the boss chamber is set up as a lavish master bedroom, where one of the creepiest scenes in the game takes place.

Even more delicious when you haven’t seen a single collectible heart the whole game.

Some of the most devious puzzles in the game hide within the Ruins.

Yeah, no thanks.

The Temple of Time remains a real winner, and not just for its direct and unavoidable references to Ocarina of Time‘s most famous room. One of the shorter dungeons in the game, the Temple is designed to work just as well back-to-front as it does front-to-back – a cerebral struggle on the way up to the Dominion Rod room and a comparatively cathartic breeze as you careen back down to the beginning, gigantic death statue in tow. Ingenious weight puzzles and well-hidden secrets pervade the clever labyrinth, which has a beautifully concise rhythm to it as smooth as the first time I played it.

Controlling the statue is just so much fun.

This puzzle at the end legitimately stumped me.

Oh look, the Spinner has another use!

I once listed the City in the Sky as my favourite dungeon in the entire Zelda series. When I sat down to explore it on my HD playthrough, I hadn’t had the best of days, and I was distracted enough to miss several side objectives. This made me realise just how painful it is to backtrack through the dungeon, which is inherently stretched out in (beautifully) haphazard pieces every which way. The City in the Sky is also the dungeon that high definition has benefitted the least, as though the cavernous interiors look great, the significant time you spend outdoors reveals how basic the floating building models can appear. And yet no dungeon can top the airborne city for its sheer atmosphere. The music is sensational, the sense of scale unmatched, the feeling of jumping around from wall to wall without any floors exhilarating. The boss battle against Argorok is about as epic as they come. It’s a great dungeon.

Looks so-so, feels amazing.

Exploring the City in the Sky is a wondrous experience.

One of the great item surprises in all of Zelda.

And they let you do this!

Twilight Princess’ run home brings a pair of simpler dungeon designs, but they are no less atmospheric and effective for it. The Palace of Twilight is probably the game’s artistic peak in a visual sense, as it takes the game’s art style to its logical end point, awash with shadowy contrast that makes you wonder why more of the game isn’t set in the Twilight Realm. The Palace’s recurring gameplay hook requires that Link locate glowing Sol orbs one-by-one and then flee from a slowly-encroaching ethereal Wallmaster with one goal – to retrieve the orb. The tension in these sequences is razor-sharp, and the reward for completing them is wonderfully cathartic. Effortlessly cutting through the fog you just spent the better part of an hour avoiding is one of those quintessential Zelda progression moments that continues to make the series so special.

Angular geometry, unsettling pink/teal lighting, creepy black fog – Visually striking indeed.

There it is, it’s too close, aaaaghh!

The final dungeon, Hyrule Castle, has its haters, and given that its generic, fan-pandering visual design is inextricably tied to Twilight Princess’ latter story shortcomings, I can see why. But I still love it, mostly because of the way it’s laid out. The way you are encouraged to explore both sides of the surrounding, rain-swept courtyard before entering the main building – in doing so clashing with the Bulblin King for a memorable, concise final encounter – is unique among 3D Zelda games. The semi-secret graveyard area, which presents a pair of riddles to decipher that will eventually grant you access to a ludicrously bountiful side room at the top of the castle, is the ribbon on top.

You can just hear the Link to the Past castle tune in your head, can’t you?

The graveyard puzzles feel great to unravel…

…and lead to some overwhelming rewards later on.

Whether Twilight Princess has the definitive best string of Zelda dungeons in the series is ultimately up to you, but I’m pleased to report they still hold up magnificently after all these years, doing their reputation no harm.

Before I finish up on the subject of dungeons, I would be remiss not to address the common complaint about Twilight Princess‘ dungeon items, specifically their general uselessness outside of their initial locations. The Spinner is often cited as the flagship example of this – so much fun to use inside the Arbiter’s Grounds, relegated to souvenir status afterwards. Yet I was surprised to find more Spinner tracks – both in the overworld and within later dungeons – than I expected to. To be fair, my expectations weren’t high, and given how big the overworld is it still feels like there aren’t enough, but nonetheless I think the Spinner’s scapegoat status for this problem might have more to do with how much fun it is to use than any objective shortages of opportunities to use it.

Those tracks are there to be found for sure.

More deserving of the moniker is the poor Ball & Chain, which is hardly ever needed for either main story or side exploration objectives at all, and is just far too slow to be useful in combat situations. The Gale Boomerang is essentially replaced utility-wise by the Clawshot until very late in the game. The Dominion Rod can move the overworld owl statues required for the story to move ahead during its needlessly padded second half, and aside from that, does absolutely nothing. Even outside of dungeon-specific items, there are quite a few use-by-dates hovering around TP Link’s arsenal. The Slingshot is obsolete ridiculously early even if you take into account the things I said earlier about its newfound usefulness in Hero Mode, the Bomblings are even less usable than Bombchus were in the N64 Zelda games, and I really don’t know why the Fishing Rod needs its own item slot. I will say, however, that the Lantern remains surprisingly handy throughout the entire game, so there’s that.

.
— Legacy —
.

We’re almost at the end, folks.

The NX-related Zelda news earlier this week means Twilight Princess‘ legacy as the only Zelda game to release simultaneously on two different platforms is now just about finished. But that isn’t the only thing linking the two games together. Based on the very limited (and now pretty old) footage we’ve seen of the upcoming Zelda game, it shares an approach to overworld design with Twilight Princess. Thus that footage raises similar concerns in my mind, especially given how relatively empty the world of the new game looked back in December of 2014. Of course, it has been in development for over a year since then and there is still almost another year to go yet, so my concerns are probably unfounded.

Like so.

According to Nintendo, the next Zelda game has a much more tangible link to Twilight Princess than just its overworld design. The Cave of Shadows, a Wolf Link-only combat gauntlet unlocked by tapping the Wolf Link amiibo included with all retail copies of Twilight Princess HD, is supposedly directly connected to the upcoming Wii U/NX juggernaut. The amiibo saves your best heart score at the end of a run, which supposedly unlocks something when you tap it during gameplay of the new Zelda title.

Nothing says “You’ll be stuck as a wolf inside here” like this archway.

The gauntlet itself is pretty cool design-wise. It is very clearly based off the Cave of Ordeals, a 50-floor challenge that is already in the main game, but Tantalus did a pretty good job of mixing up the visual style of this new version to make it feel different enough. You’ll go through lava, sand and ice-themed floors in addition to the standard grimy dirt-covered ones, and there are wolf motifs all over the walls to remind you where you are. Gameplay-wise it might seem like it’d be easier to defeat groups of enemies as Wolf Link because of his Midna-assisted area of effect move, but as soon as you factor in small, fast-moving and/or projectile-spewing enemies in big groups, then sprinkle in some environmental hazards like pillars of fire or terrible traction, you’ll start to wish you were regular Link. And don’t even get me started on Armos statues. It’s so difficult to get to their weak spots as a wolf without taking damage! So yes, the Cave of Shadows is a bit of a challenge.

Wolf vs Spider, I wonder who will win…

The thing is, it’s more than a little confusing what the record/tap/unlock process is going to do in the next Zelda, and more specifically, how much your heart score/progress matters to said unlock. No matter how far into the game you are, you cannot do the Cave of Shadows in one sitting – at the first checkpoint 6 floors in you are forced to save your heart score to the amiibo and leave, ready to do it all again if you want to go further into the cave next time. And so on and so forth. Each time you save your heart score (allowing you to tap the Wolf Link amiibo next time to recover that exact amount of hearts within the cave), your completion time is also recorded, as well as whether or not you used the Ganondorf amiibo to make things harder and/or the amount of times you used the Zelda amiibo to heal yourself.

The really strange part of this system is that if you get further into the dungeon than you did before – ostensibly doing better – but have less hearts remaining, the game won’t even let you save your score at all. Which begs the rather odd question: Does the other stuff even matter to this mysterious future unlock? Is it your hearts that matter? Or is the mere fact that you saved any data at all the sole criteria? After a few tries I assumed the latter, swallowed my pride and gave up, missing out on the Colossal Wallet upgrade (which lets you hold 9999 rupees, just for fun). I really hope I’m not wrong.

Plenty of stats are saved to the amiibo, but do any of them really mean anything?

So when all is said, done, screenshotted and written, how has my opinion of Twilight Princess changed? What reputation will it carry onward into the sunset for those who experience this newer version? Well, if you have problems with the game’s opening, overworld and story structure, I’m sorry to say you will probably still have those. Neither the HD facelift nor the decade of perspective and gaming experience has changed my feelings about them.

Mm-hmm.

And yet…

The visuals – despite being somewhat dated – are still strikingly unique among the Zelda series, Midna is still a fantastic character with a real developmental arc, several awesome individual moments throughout the game continue to stand out in the memory, the game’s difficulty balance and economy have improved significantly and the dungeons are still absolutely top-class. And a final mention must go to Link himself. Credit where credit is due, because TP Link feels better to control than just about any incarnation of the green-clad hero in Zelda history, especially with the new sword-passes-through-walls mechanic. His arsenal of moves is formidable, he’s one of the few Links who can swing his sword while running, and he’s the only Link who isn’t idiotic enough to slash thin air before charging a spin attack. He’s cocky too – How good is the way he flips his sword before sheathing it sometimes? It’s great fun to play as him, and I have to say, it was great fun to play a full 3D Zelda game again.

Time to wrap this up.

Despite its flaws, Twilight Princess is still head and shoulders above many other 3D action/adventure games out there, at least if you ask me. As for whether my fresh revisitation of the game would have me lift it a few spots on that list of mine… Well, I’d have to see. I still adore Spirit Tracks and Link’s Awakening. But who knows, next year after the new one comes out I may go back to the list and I’ll be forced to have a good hard think about it.

If you got to the end of this 10,000 word monster, thank you. I hope you found some value in my conflicted, drawn-out thoughts. Long live Zelda.

You’re alright, Twilight Princess. Thanks for the memories (again).

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