I have a complicated relationship with The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess.
On the one hand, I definitely felt the burning wave of hype that rushed over the Nintendo fandom shortly after the game's historic E3 announcement in 2004, and that hype stayed strong all the way until its eventual 2006 release. At launch, I loved Twilight Princess for its bolder, bigger, refined take on the world and story of Ocarina of Time.
But when I finished the game, I couldn't help but feel a little bit let down, as if something wasn't quite right about the whole experience. Twilight Princess came out just as I reached adulthood, and for most of my adulthood it's floated near the bottom of my list of 3D Zelda favorites.
Now that the HD remake is here, almost 10 years later, I've gotten a chance to take another look at Twilight Princess, this time with fresh eyes and a much better sense for its qualities. I've been pleasantly surprised by what I've found.
Originally, I came away thinking the world of Twilight Princess was too large and empty for its own good. Revisiting Hyrule in Twilight Princess HD left a dramatically different impression.
It's not just that the world looks more vibrant in HD, thanks to much-needed texture work and a color palette that at least did a very good job of fooling me into thinking it has brightened up. My return trip to Twilight Princess taught me that this Hyrule is indeed richer than the Hyrule we saw in Ocarina of Time, filled with more to see, discover, and do. There's a definite sense of place everywhere you go in Hyrule Field—you'll find signs of civilization everywhere, from colossal bridges to ancient ruins to sealed-off villages and mining tunnels. That's not something you'd generally find in the hub worlds of the other 3D Zeldas.
The large open areas in Hyrule Field don't just exist for the sake of scale—they set the stage for battles on horseback, which simply wouldn't be possible without the extra space. In a franchise that depicts a kingdom under fire from demonic forces, the prospect of engaging in mounted combat against the hordes of evil adds a much-needed gravitas that other 3D Zeldas haven't matched. While these battles aren't exactly as plentiful in the final game as one might have imagined from the initial trailer, they still add a special flavor that makes even the mostly empty spaces feel justified.
To give players even more to discover in the vast Hyrule of Twilight Princess HD, Nintendo's added brand-new collectible Miiverse stamps to the game. Most of these stamps are added in place of superfluous Rupee chests from the original game. At first, it seems like this is a pretty lackluster way to add new content to an old game. For me, however, the stamps actually forced me to find secrets that I'd missed completely in the GameCube and Wii versions. I'm sure many other players—both newcomers and veterans—will find it tough to find them all, too.
One area where the original Twilight Princess definitely disappointed was the difficulty. Thankfully, the Wii U version includes some new features to make the game much more challenging.
That's not to say teams at Nintendo and Tantalus have done anything to adjust the game's relatively weak AI—the behavior of bread-and-butter enemies still boils down to "run directly at Link so he can hit you," and even the tougher enemies can be very reliably cheesed. But the addition of Hero Mode, which doubles the damage Link receives while disabling standard recovery hearts entirely, fixes the horribly imbalanced damage ratios from the original game. If you have a Ganondorf amiibo, you also can tap your figure at any time during a play session to add a double damage layer—it even can stack with Hero Mode, making enemies inflict four times as much damage!
With the new challenge options, it's definitely no longer accurate to point to Twilight Princess HD as one of the easier 3D Zelda games. Despite being pretty comfortable with my skills, I found myself carrying a potion or two everywhere I went, just in case—death by attrition is a real threat even for more experienced players.
If you opt to buy a physical copy of Twilight Princess HD, you'll also get a special Wolf Link Amiibo. Using this Amiibo unlocks the Cave of Shadows, a brand-new challenge level based on the gauntlet-style Cave of Ordeals template, but with a special twist: you can only tackle it as Wolf Link. While I'm personally not a huge fan of the Wolf Link user experience—and this is a complaint that hasn't abated with the remake—I found that adapting my Wolf Link combat skills to a palette of enemies I'd normally have taken on as a human to be surprisingly satisfying. It was also surprisingly challenging. I'd rate it as far and away the most difficult thing I've ever tackled in any 3D Zelda game to date.
The dungeons are and always were top-rate, a definite maturation of the formula established in Ocarina of Time. Much of this comes down to the more fleshed out environments and more engaging gameplay concepts and puzzles rather than flat-out superior dungeon planning, layouts, and design. Nonetheless, it's hard to argue that the dungeons in Twilight Princess represent anything but an improvement on the standards Nintendo has set for 3D Zelda games.
The soundtrack is generally stellar, even for the Zelda series. There's a solid selection of catchy, iconic, adventuresome tracks such as the brand-new Hyrule Field Theme. Tossed into the mix are a series of more somber, moody tunes—like pretty much any of the pieces related to Midna. And, of course, you'll also hear songs borrowed from across the franchise's legacy, with a particular focus on Ocarina of Time. On the other hand, the dungeon themes are pretty evenly unremarkable—a terrible disservice to the otherwise fantastic levels.
As far as bosses go, Twilight Princess is generally just okay. Most bosses are very puzzle-focused and repetitive to the point of tedium. To be totally honest, though, this is also largely true for most of the games since Ocarina of Time—they're usually based on item gimmicks and can be beaten easily once you figure out the trick. A few of the bosses in Twilight Princess, however, play more like straight sword fights, and these are among the finest battles you'll weather in any Zelda game. One of these fights even shaves off a terrifying number of hearts if you're playing in Hero Mode—you have been warned.
The story is stellar by Zelda standards, and the characters—and Midna in particular—do great service to the narrative being told. Few of the faces you'll meet are quite as memorable as the ones you might remember from Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask, but that's more a testament to the groundwork Ocarina laid for the Zelda universe than a commentary on the quality of the characters in Twilight Princess.
The control scheme mostly matches the GameCube controls, with some major user experience tweaks courtesy of the Wii U GamePad. For the most part, you'll find the controls familiar if you've played The Wind Waker HD—you can aim your projectiles using the gyroscope, manage your items using the touch screen, and access a detailed map at your fingertips. There are a couple tweaks that are missing from Twilight Princess HD, though—you can no longer move Link while aiming in first-person perspective (a huge bummer!), and a neat feature that lets you swipe items on the touch screen while seeing your inventory icons overlaid on the TV is also absent. It's definitely the most comfortable way to play Twilight Princess, but sadly these missing features mean it's not quite the definitive control scheme for a modern Zelda game.
So far, this all probably sounds like it's adding up to be the best Zelda game ever. And, truthfully, if I were to evaluate the Zelda games simply by their overworlds, challenge levels, dungeons, soundtrack, and story, I'd probably have to give the proverbial crown to Twilight Princess HD. Unfortunately, there are a few major flaws that throw a wrench in an otherwise well-crafted experience.
Most notably, Twilight Princess's main quest is stacked with unnecessary bloat from start to finish. Many have complained about the slow start, protracted by a series of mandatory tutorials covering tasks like herding goats, fishing, and calling a hawk to your aid. The opening segment has barely changed in the HD remake, so you're still stuck slogging through an hour or two of front matter before you get your sword and shield and the adventure truly begins.
If the painfully noticeable barriers to progress only existed in the very beginning of the game, I might be a little more forgiving. That's not the case, however. You'll continue having to complete tedious chores for NPCs before you can get to the traditional Zelda stuff for the entire first half of the game. The unnecessary hurdles are obnoxious enough that I could say the "first half of the game" actually spans only the first three dungeons out in a nine-dungeon game while keeping a totally straight face. It's a far cry from the series' successful template, which has traditionally given players a lot of freedom to progress through the story at their own pace, simply by pursuing their own curiosity.
The tasks you're required to perform aren't bad per se. Most of the quests are worthwhile on their own and definitely earn a place in the game. But most of them also would have been much better suited as optional side content, and using such content to take away the player's freedom to unravel and explore the world at their leisure makes Twilight Princess a much worse Zelda game than it'd otherwise be.
There's a fantastic world amidst all that tedium, and all the other pieces are executed nicely. However, without that layer of freedom, progressing through the game feels disjointed and convoluted—and decidedly un-Zelda. Judging by series producer Eiji Aonuma's stated direction for the upcoming brand-new Zelda game for Wii U, which will embrace an open, non-linear world more akin to that of the original NES game, Nintendo seems to have recognized that this is one of the big flaws of Twilight Princess, too.