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The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD

The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD

Written by Sean Colleli on 3/1/2016 for WiiU  
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The Legend of Zelda is 30 years old. While that is impressive enough on its own, Twilight Princess has existed for nearly a full third of that time. That really makes me stop and think. Come November of this year, my favorite Zelda game will be a decade old. A lot has happened in that 10 years—for Nintendo, for the game industry at large, and for me personally. Still, at times it’s hard to believe that it wasn’t just a month ago that I watched the credits roll on Twilight Princess for the first time.

Twilight Princess was originally developed for the GameCube and later ported (and delayed) to serve as a Wii launch title. It was a way for Nintendo to win back fans after the fairly divisive Wind Waker. And win those fans it did; Twilight Princess’s reveal trailer at E3 2004 was famously met with a standing ovation, with many Zelda fans in attendance openly weeping with joy. Shigeru Miyamoto himself walked out on stage wielding the Master Sword and brandishing a Hylian shield. He proclaimed, “I’m not Link, but I do know him.”

With respect, I feel I should echo that sentiment. Twilight Princess was the reason I believed in this bizarre new “Wii” console, the reason I lined up in the freezing cold to score a pre-order. After the dark days of the GameCube’s floundering sales and a series of bizarre experimental games, Twilight Princess was the only indication that Nintendo understood not only their fans but themselves. It was easy to imagine back then that Nintendo had no clue what it was doing. Twilight Princess made me believe again that both Zelda and Nintendo had a bright future.

So, to paraphrase Miyamoto-san, I guess I do know Link and I am Link, and that’s why I know him. It’s a sentiment I’m sure many Zelda fans share. Walking an adventure in the guy’s boots establishes a connection you don’t really feel anywhere else. Twilight Princess was special because, at least for me, it was the first Zelda game where I could really relate to Link.

This Link felt like a real human being. He had a tiny humble home, he lived in a peaceful farming village, he had a job as a shepherd, and even a girlfriend who scolded him when he pushed himself (and his horse) too far. He felt like the kind of guy you’d see in the local bar at the end of a long week, if you could take a vacation in Hyrule. When he embarked on that long, intimidating quest filled with unsettling new dangers and familiar enemies, I felt like I was going with him. Only a few other games can really hit that hero’s journey sweet spot—Half-Life 2 and Metal Gear Solid 3 being two of them.

Sitting down to review Twilight Princess was also pretty intimidating. It was one of the first big titles I reviewed for Gaming Nexus, and I remember having no idea where to start. Ten years on, it’s a little bit easier, but there are still many factors to consider. Like I said, a lot has changed in those 10 years, but Twilight Princess holds up remarkably well. The fact that the remake avoids many of the conventions adopted in the time since the original was released only helps the HD version’s impact.

Obviously the first thing you’ll notice upon booting up the game is that it’s running in 1080p and locked at a rock-solid 30 frames per second. That title screen where Link rides Epona through Hyrule field and then howls at the encroaching Twilight barrier never fails to send chills down my spine, and it’s positively gorgeous in HD. It wasn’t exactly a religious experience for me like it was back in 2006, but seeing that opening felt like coming home.

One thing I didn’t need reminding about was the game’s surprisingly sedate opening hour—mostly because whiny critics have never stopped complaining about it. The game introduces you to Link and his community in an almost dreamlike manner, as if you’re living out a handful of lazy summer afternoons. Critics have stated that this tutorial is “like a boring dungeon that the game won’t let you escape from,” but I think they’re missing the point, or they just don’t know much about cinematography or narrative structure.

Watching Link fishing with his mentor as the sun goes down, or herding goats at his job, or even having a small argument with his girlfriend, reinforces the general tranquility of these villagers’ lives. The biggest crisis early on is helping a pregnant lady retrieve her baby bassinet from some mischievous monkeys. But then the village children go missing, and, ultimately, Link and his friends are attacked and wounded by an invading force. Link is snatched into the Twilight and transforms into a wolf, waking up in a squalid prison. His only ally is the mischievous, caustically sarcastic, and enigmatic imp, Midna, a character so masterfully written and designed that, 10 years later, I’m still not going to spoil any of her plot twists.

Dealing with this mounting series of sequentially-more-troubling incidents establishes a sense of creeping dread that few other games have pulled off. Idyllic rural life literally falls apart over a series of days, so when Link is finally revealed to be chosen by the gods, garbed in his familiar Hero of Time tunic, and ready to set out across Hyrule field, you as a player really do feel prepared…until you step outside that village and see just how massive Hyrule is in Twilight Princess.

This is another thing I didn’t quite recall. The scale in this game was unprecedented at the time it was released. I remember first walking out onto Hyrule Field back in Ocarina of Time and my jaw dropped at how big it was, but Twilight Princess just blows that away. Again, various critics have complained that Twilight Princess is big and empty, and while I concede that to a degree, the attention to detail is what saves the game. The sidequests and secrets are tucked away in a manner that recalls the very first Zelda game on the NES. You aren’t given a quest arrow or led by the hand. But if you have a keen eye, you’ll recognize a stone wall that can be bombed, or a cave hidden off to the side.

As a counterpoint, I always thought Wind Waker was painfully big and empty. Critical perspectives on Wind Waker seem to have softened considerably in the years since, while Twilight Princess gets a much rawer deal. I really don’t understand why. Wind Waker’s gigantic ocean—dotted with sparsely populated islands and sidequests that more often than not were a huge pain in the butt—just did not resonate with me.

Completing a sidequest or finding a secret in Wind Waker always felt unreasonably obstinate and ultimately of no consequence to me. Maybe it was just because Link was this goofy little kid again and I didn’t much care what was going on in his life. But more often than not, Wind Waker came off as a chore to get through. The HD version alleviated much of that, but its monotonous aquatic world just didn’t feel like a real place to me the way Twilight Princess’s Hyrule did. There’s a grit and texture to that world; you can feel the dust under your boots.

That massive scope factors into everything you do. Collecting golden bugs for the slightly unnerving Princess Agitha turns into a part-time obsession with entomology. I wanted to finally hunt down every last Poe ghost soul to free Jovani, not because he rewards me with bottomless rupees, but because I genuinely feel bad for the poor guy. As with Wind Waker HD, Nintendo has added some new features to make the process less frustrating. In the case of Jovani, he will give you a special ghost lantern that lights up when a Poe is in the area. This makes finding all the blasted ghosts a lot less trial-and-error.

Nintendo has also included another tried-and-true collectible to make Hyrule feel a little less sparse: stamps! Yes, stamps, Nintendo’s continual flirtation with an achievement system, but in a roundabout way and only in first-party games. You can still compose messages with them to send over Miiverse, but Twilight Princess HD includes stamps for the entire Hylian alphabet. This made my little Zelda fan heart sing with fanboy glee. Naturally, it’s just a base transcription of the Roman alphabet and not the true Hylian language that some talented fans decoded a few years ago (that one is, of course, based on Japanese katakana), but it’s still a really cool feature. Now I actually wanted to hunt down and open every last treasure chest.

Of course there have been other improvements, the Wii U GamePad controls being the most notable. Much like in Wind Waker HD, you can manage your map and inventory on the touch screen, which is a lot faster than cycling through menus. Things like warping back and forth and transforming into a wolf can be done with a single tap, eliminating numerous button presses and dialog boxes. That said, I mostly stuck with the Pro Controller, whereas in Wind Waker, I used the GamePad extensively. Maybe it’s because Twilight Princess’s map isn’t as integral (or cumbersome) as Wind Waker’s sea chart, but I was just more comfortable playing on a traditional controller.

It’s important to note that the Wii’s motion controls aren’t included in the HD version. This was a little disappointing to me, as I played through the game for the very first time on Wii. It also means that a few features—notably the bow aiming and various minigames—don’t work as well without the Wii remote’s pointer controls. It isn’t a deal breaker by any stretch, and I know I’m in the minority preferring the Wii controls, but it is something to consider. Thankfully, the GamePad and Pro Controller’s setup is very close to the GameCube’s original layout for the game. On that note, I’m curious to try Twilight Princess HD on Hyperkin’s ProCube controller…if it’s any good.

It is curious that Nintendo did include the Wii version’s mirrored graphics. But in this case, that feature is reserved for Hero mode. One of the legitimate complaints about Twilight Princess over the years is that it’s almost comically easy, and I’d have to agree; I was recently playing Link’s Awakening DX on my 3DS and was surprised just how unforgiving it was compared to Twilight Princess. Once you get more than four heart containers, you really have to try to see that game-over screen, and, to make matters worse, most bosses fall like chumps after you land a few solid hits. As in other recent Zelda games, Hero Mode doubles all the damage enemies mete out and completely removes heart drops, so you’ll be relying on those bottled health potions and fairies a lot more.

Another difficulty spike can come with one of the game’s more controversial features: Amiibo support. You can tap any Zelda-themed Amiibo on the GamePad NFC sensor to activate a number of effects. The Ganondorf Amiibo doubles damage in the normal game until you quit that play session or die. Conversely, the Zelda and Sheik Amiibo will restore health, and Link and Toon Link will refill your arrow supply. Like in Hyrule Warriors, you can only use each of these buffs once a day, which keeps the game from getting ridiculously easy. The most contentious Amiibo, however, is Wolf Link. This special statue of Link in his wolf form with Midna atop his back only comes with the limited edition bundle of the game. It also unlocks a special challenge dungeon, the Cave of Shadows. It’s similar to the Cave of Ordeals in the game’s Gerudo Desert, except it can only be played as Wolf Link and there are no heart drops. Completing the Cave of Shadows rewards Link with an enormous wallet capable of carrying 9,999 rupees.

The Cave of Shadows isn’t required in any fashion to complete the game, so I think the controversy is a bit overblown. I only think this will be a major issue if they don’t release the Wolf Link Amiibo separately later on, or if the limited edition becomes really difficult to find. Saying that Nintendo’s track record with Amiibo supply and demand is checkered would be overly generous. Considering this special Wolf Link Amiibo will be fully compatible with the new Zelda game for Wii U coming later this year, I expect it will get a standalone release eventually.

Of course the most recognizable improvement is the near-total upscale the game has gone through. One of Twilight Princess’s only major flaws at the time of its release was the fairly muddy resolution of its textures, and this has been addressed—to a degree. Nearly every texture in the game has been redrawn in high-res so that it stands up to scrutiny in 1080p. This makes the game much easier on the eyes and also deceptively simpler to view through the old rose-tinted glasses. But in my humble opinion, it doesn’t go far enough. When viewed up close, many of the textures are still a bit smeary, and no new effects like enhanced bloom, HDR, or shaders have been added.

To its credit, Twilight Princess was one of the first Nintendo games to include pixel shader effects for certain surfaces, characters, and bosses, which was revolutionary in 2006 (and, sadly, an all-too-rare occurrence on Wii during its lifespan). Twilight Princess is still aesthetically pleasing, and indeed a few of its set pieces and vistas are truly breathtaking. But a deeper level of graphical polish would have kept it from looking as dated. Many of the character meshes are noticeably low-poly, and the entire game has a general "old" look to it from a technical basis. That said, it’s the fantastic art direction that shines through. While many critics are quick to dismiss Twilight Princess as the "dark" or "gritty" Zelda game that panders to Western tastes, I appreciate the strong manga style of the character design, and how the environments have a subtly gnarled, twisted appearance influenced by Tolkien, Brian Froud, and the '80s Henson movies he worked on.

If one thing disappoints me about Twilight Princess HD, it’s the music. That’s not a knock against Koji Kondo’s masterful original score, but, like Wind Waker HD and the 3DS remakes of Ocarina and Majora, they didn’t do a thing to update that score. It’s the same (admittedly great) synth and midi tracks from the original game. Considering Nintendo is touring a concert of orchestral Zelda music that prominently includes Twilight Princess medleys, not bothering to re-record the game’s soundtrack with a symphony really puzzles me. It definitely works with an orchestra—some incredibly dedicated fans over at Zelda Re-Orchestrated have composed a three-and-a-half-hour Twilight Princess symphony that brought me to tears. Seriously, check that thing out.

Soundtrack quibbles aside, this is the definitive version of Twilight Princess. I went into it expecting to be disappointed; I’m 10 years older, more jaded, and I don’t have much use for nostalgia. What surprised me is that Twilight Princess sucked me in all over again and I still can’t put it down. Tearing myself away after 20 hours to write this review was difficult. Yes, there are some throwaway items. The game can be too easy without that Ganondorf Amiibo. There are certain minigames and gameplay aspects that need tightening or expansion. That doesn’t change the fact that Twilight Princess is a colossal game with dozens of things to do, which will keep you hooked for over 60 hours. It’s the Zelda game that rivals most major RPGs in length and content.

I think that’s because it’s still the Zelda game that feels the most real, at least to me. Hyrule is an actual place I can get lost in and wander through. Its story has the best cast of characters, without even including the outstanding Midna, and the surreal twists and turns get just abstract enough without pulling you out of the narrative. I think it’s because they all feel like real people with quirks and personality.

Back in my 2006 review, I wrote that Shigeru Miyamoto had possibly painted himself into a corner with Twilight Princess, and the next big Zelda game would have to break the mold considerably. It did—Skyward Sword was dramatically different and tried a lot of new ideas, some which worked, others not so much. I’m hoping Zelda Wii U takes even farther creative strides later this year. In that orthodox respect, though, Twilight Princess is still the most complete and, I think, most compelling traditional Zelda game. It remains a masterpiece by any definition, and it most definitely is still worth your time.

Ten years later, Twilight Princess is still a tale masterfully told and designed. The gameplay and story hold up remarkably well, and the HD visuals, updated textures, and a handful of improved mechanics make the HD version the definitive edition of the game. In a word, it is a masterpiece, then and now.

Rating: 9.5 Exquisite

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

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About Author

I've been gaming off and on since I was about three, starting with Star Raiders on the Atari 800 computer. As a kid I played mostly on PC--Doom, Duke Nukem, Dark Forces--but enjoyed the 16-bit console wars vicariously during sleepovers and hangouts with my school friends. In 1997 GoldenEye 007 and the N64 brought me back into the console scene and I've played and owned a wide variety of platforms since, although I still have an affection for Nintendo and Sega.

I started writing for Gaming Nexus back in mid-2005, right before the 7th console generation hit. Since then I've focused mostly on the PC and Nintendo scenes but I also play regularly on Sony and Microsoft consoles. My favorite series include Metroid, Deus Ex, Zelda, Metal Gear and Far Cry. I'm also something of an amateur retro collector. I currently live in Westerville, Ohio with my wife and our cat, who sits so close to the TV I'd swear she loves Zelda more than we do. We are expecting our first child, who will receive a thorough education in the classics.

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