By the end of your second quest in The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD, wherein a missing cat is coaxed back to its grieving owner, you’ll have met every local in the serene woodland village of Ordon. You will have snooped through their cottage homes, listened politely as they chitchat about quiet life, and consequently decided on whom you like the most (the deeply unimpressed toddler is the clear frontrunner).
Nintendo first launched Twilight Princess in 2006, and the sharpened textures of this HD re-release can’t hide its wrinkles. The gameplay fundamentals are blind to the progress that action-RPGs have made in those ten intervening years. But, clumsy ladder climbing aside, overall there’s an ironic quality to its primitiveness. Because in that quest to catch a fish to lure that cat to appease its owner to buy a slingshot to impress that toddler, you will have covered every corner of Ordon. You’ll know the routes. How wonderfully quaint, in an era of follow-the-arrow adventure games, to map out a world in your memory.
Twilight Princess HD lacks the modern conveniences of its contemporaries. There’s no side-mission checklist a la Fallout 4, nor is there the horseback satnav that herded you through The Witcher 3. Here you must chart your map, survey your surroundings, discover the path. For long stretches between its dungeons, this dark and epic adventure leaves you to your own devices, hands unheld. It forces you to explore, investigate, inquire, play curious. How old this approach is. How new it seems.
At about the twentieth hour, in the interval between two major quests to find macguffins, Twilight Princess decides against spelling out where next. What a rare joy it is to be lost in Hyrule, searching across its fields and mountains and towns and rivers, in pursuit of an answer. I returned to Kakariko and caught up with the jumpy bombs salesman who pitched a new explosive that walks like a cockroach. Later I sojourned in the home of a man cursed for his greed and moulded into gold; he asked me to search for 20 ghosts dotted across the map to break the spell.
Then, when tiptoeing across the shallow perimeter of Lake Hylia, I happened upon the Lanayru Spring again, only because its cave entrance crossed my path. Surely this spot, used only once for an attractive cutscene some ten hours prior, would not offer anything new. It did, of course. Inside I found opportunities to use new tools acquired since my last visit–a grapple-hook spot here, a fractured boulder there–and in this tranquil oasis I was adventuring in a manner that games have largely lost since my first visit ten years ago. I was alone, off-grid, and consistently encouraged and rewarded for it.
Soon the clues point to the same direction and your main quest begins to make progress again, but there’s a serendipitous bliss to the detours you make beforehand. You’ll stumble into dark alleyways, secret catacombs, niche boutiques, a village straight out of a Spaghetti Western, and a magnificent stone bridge a quarter-mile across. Not since Ocarina of Time has a Zelda game offered with so much confidence a world of this scale and activity.
Let’s get the hard truth out of the way: In recent years the bloom has come off the rose for 3D Zeldas. Skyward Sword was a regrettable misstep, because endearing characters and absorbing locations have for years been the foundation stones of this treasured, highborn series, and 2011’s Wii adventure had a paucity of both. Twilight Princess is a link back to that old magic of searching across its plains, alone but prepared, discovering new societies and cultures and races and people who resonate.
Once again it’s the Gorons, a pugnacious tribe of pot-bellied rock eaters who live in the eye of Death Mountain, that rise to the occasion. They are notoriously prickly, especially about matters that undermine their physicality, but once plonked in their hot baths they melt into bliss and call you brother. Twilight Princess sees nearly every character as an opportunity to inject more personality and charisma into its world; the cannon operator is a downtrodden clown with bulbous, pitiful eyes. The yeti up in the wintery north sports an adorably gigantic bum and speaks in all-caps. The Hyrulian town beggar promises good fortune if you keep donating rupees (I’ve spent more than 700 clams so far. No results.) One standout moment in this 40-hour adventure is a ten-second interaction with a moody Persian cat, who offers Link a helping hand at his most desperate hour. When you see the little white puff hours later, it meows as if nothing happened. It’s such a charming touch, so unexpected.
Twilight Princess is a link back to the old magic of searching across its plains, alone but prepared, discovering new societies and cultures and races and people who resonate.
Then there’s Zant; the magnificent mad sidekick of Ganondorf, who plays chief antagonist for the majority of the story. He is a sorcerer, slender and wiry with a malnourished complexion, eyes burnt orange as though he was a cadaver possessed. He is cloaked within an oversized robe, sewn in the darkest of blue material, with tassels that hang from the sleeves as though they were alien fingers. His head is swallowed inside a remarkable ornate battle helmet, made of silver and possibly more than three feet in height, depicting a chameleon’s head with its tongue darting out. I couldn’t take my eyes off him.
Throughout your adventure, Zant’s demeanour descends from composed usurper king to a confused, overpowered adolescent. There’s definitely some Majora Skull Kid in him. His final duel with you is perhaps the best boss fight the series has produced, as this false idol capitulates in front of you, growing desperate. It’s fascinating and overbearing and weird and brilliantly imaginative.
Straddling the line between bold ideas and fan-service, Twilight Princess swaps out Zant for series’ longstanding antagonist Ganondorf as the final boss key turns. It’s an understandable compromise, and the showdown with Link’s eldest nemesis is as symbolic and epic as you could hope. It also makes sense because Ganondorf, a Gerudo-born conqueror with a lust for power, isn’t an ideal fit for where the narrative wants to tread. Which, as it happens, is arguably the darkest avenue for the series yet. It’s difficult to recall another Zelda game that even references the word death, (Zant to the Princess: “It’s time for you to choose. Surrender or die”) but here the story indulges in several sinister themes. Certainly this is the first time Nintendo’s flagship adventure has depicted a failed execution scene, as well as a battle closing with an audible snap of neck vertebrae. At times it even dwells in psychosis, with Zant conjuring vivid hallucinations of your failure.
Darkness spreads over our hero too. As Link ventures out from Ordon Village for the first time, he is pulled–stage umbrella style–into an alternate version of Hyrule that is engulfed in shadow. Similarities can be made with the Dark World in A Link to the Past, although Twilight Princess’s parallel universe isn’t quite as ambitious, insofar as it doesn’t spread across the entirety of Hyrule, nor does it offer any puzzles that require switching between each realm to solve. Instead it offers dimly lit domes dotted across the map (arenas, essentially) that are inescapable until some challenge is completed. They are wonderfully bleak; the lighting is the mucky yellow of a cigarette stain, while squares of ash whizz through the air as though Nintendo had made a snow globe from an ashtray. In this realm, Hyrule’s townies and village folk become spectres from another world. Get close and you can hear their intimate thoughts and fears.
Nintendo enjoys sticking to the formula with its Zelda games, typically applying one major twist that distinguishes each version. Here, as Link enters this Twilight realm for the first time, he transforms into Wolf Link. Later he can freely switch between beast and human form, and this is clearly Twilight Princess’s big angle. It’s no disaster, but doesn’t quite work as well as it needs to. Wolf Link’s main attack is a straightforward lunge, or alternatively a charged spin, which gives battles a pedestrian pace and narrow scope for strategy. Okami this is not.
Twilight Princess’s original nine dungeons are simply outstanding. These multi-level, gargantuan puzzle-boxes are, when at their best, self-contained masterpieces.
Wolf Link possesses heightened senses too, and at the press of a button can perceive ghosts, which is to say it’s a convoluted replacement for the Eye of Truth. The inclusion of Midna–a new impish character who sits on the back of Wolf Link and directs traffic–certainly adds charisma and intrigue to the proceedings (eventually she also joins Link as the stand-in for Navi.) There’s a curious relationship between her and Link, especially at the outset where a pronounced distrust exists between both. But Midna can only carry your interest so far. Playing as beast is a novelty that wears thin. In open-world segments where Wolf Link bounds across Hyrule, the monotony of battles makes it too tempting to avoid the foes you encounter. Curious then that the only new content on offer in this re-release comes via a Wolf Link Amiibo (sold separately), which unlocks a new dungeon that focuses entirely on fights in wolf form. Unless you’re desperate for that plastic figurine, it’s hard to recommend.
By contrast, Twilight Princess’s original nine dungeons are simply outstanding. These multi-level, gargantuan puzzle-boxes are, when at their best, self-contained masterpieces. The miracle of each is how even the most elaborate challenges–the kind that test your memory and reflexes and lateral thinking and tool manipulation–are often built around a simple question. How do I spin that fan? How do I smash that ice? How do I reach that platform? In search of the answer you will flood rooms with water, walk upside-down across cave ceilings lined with quartz, fashion a giant swing from a sextet of placated baboons, and carry a cannonball across the icy halls of a mountain-peak mansion. It is quintessential Nintendo; intricate answers beautifully folded into a straightforward question.
The final challenge of each dungeon is also its biggest reward; a thrilling battle with the monster that dwells at its heart. Twilight Princess’s boss fights are some of the most cinematic and inventive yet; The Stallord encounter, for example, begins as an improvised game of pinball and evolves into a blistering race that will even thrill F-Zero fans. Often, however, these awe-inspiring monsters prove too easy to overcome. Your mistakes aren’t punished enough, nor is there enough demand on your concentration. You can conquer these humungous beasts while on the phone.
That can be said of Twilight Princess as a whole. It’s simply far too easy. Typically the penalty for key failures such as slipping into an endless pit is half a heart piece. Not dying once in 30 hours shouldn’t be considered an extraordinary feat, and certainly this dulls the drama. New to the HD re-release is an optional Hero Mode, which doubles enemy damage. Death smiles on you in this mode, especially at the outset where Link carries only three hearts, but the impression overall is a rather artless difficulty curve. It’s not as though the AI will begin to outfox you in this mode.
Another issue that remains unaddressed is the audio. This is the final 3D Zelda to come with a synthesised soundtrack; something that was criticised even ten years ago for being a little antiquated. It’s salvaged, to an extent, solely because the score is fantastic throughout; Epic and dynamically shifting with your actions, paying homage to some of the series’ most recognisable melodies, but with enough of a spin to sound distinct.
Twilight Princess HD is unmistakably a product of its time; one that was cursed from birth with a warped identity. Crafted during anxious times for Nintendo, developed for two consoles simultaneously, this was the GameCube’s last hurrah, a Wii launch title, and a defining test for motion controls (which have been stripped out). Perhaps now, ten years later, it can finally be remembered how it ought to be; the dark and violent showpiece of a treasured series.