Alright, well here it is: The last leg of the journey. The final destination. The Minish Cap’s end dungeon! Now this is an interesting one. Hyrule Castle is visited surprisingly rarely in the series, and when it is it’s usually a hostile place under enemy control. And as was the case in Twilight Princess, Hyrule Castle is again the final dungeon. It’s kind of funny too, because at first it seemed like The Minish Cap broke this tradition: It’s one of the few games in the series in which the castle itself can be entered as a normal area. But it still becomes the abode of the game’s villain by the end, giving us our last challenge, and it’s probably the best incarnation of Hyrule Castle out of the entire the series.
Like with the Palace of Winds, this is one of the most aesthetically interesting dungeons of the game, and there’s a lot of attention to detail. There are multiple themes at work: This dungeon is just an occupied Hyrule Castle, it’s a dark and evil palace that belongs to the eye-crazy Vaati, and… classic Zelda games; the dungeon makes several nods back to its predecessors, just like it did before it was corrupted (the cave theme from A Link to the Past plays in the secret entrance passage under the castle). The jail in the basement looks almost exactly like the one in A Link to the Past, while rooms filled with multiple Ghini that emerge from pillars — with only one correct one, which must be defeated to destroy the rest — are a nod back to the way Ghini worked in the very first Zelda game. These nods are cool and also serve a sort as a sort of thematic connection between the two royalty-affiliated dungeons of the game; both the Royal Tomb and Dark Hyrule Castle contain references to older games. Odd, and yet fitting!
The theme of occupation is excellent as well, because many of the rooms are actually the same as the ones in the dungeon’s eyeless counterpart. The entrance-way is the same, the corridors leading to the throne room are the same, and even the throne room itself is there even if the throne is now a secret passage (hey maybe it always was!). There are certainly differences — not the least of which are the color scheme and the presence of like 1000 eye designs all over the place — but I love it that the layout is kept the same for some parts. It helps to make the dungeon feel a bit less like a magical transformation and more like just a straight-up military occupation, although really it’s both. And it doesn’t just resemble the few halls we saw of the castle before; it looks and feels like a castle in general. It’s got an obscure aspect that I nonetheless always praise in a dungeon: Its map alone conveys a pretty good idea of what the dungeon is supposed to be, and looks like the outline or floorplan of a real building. I loved this about Snowpeak Ruins and the Sandship as I’ve said in some of my other reviews, and I love it here. The entire dungeon — particularly its upper floors with visible and explorable turrets, open inner halls, etc. — feels believable as what it’s supposed to be: Hyrule freaking Castle.
The spooky atmosphere is very effective on top of that. Honestly the oppressive feel of the dungeon begins building much earlier in the game when Vaati attacks and impersonates the King of Hyrule, but when the player enters the Elemental Sanctuary with the final element, I don’t think they expect to come outside and wind up in an evil version of Hyrule Castle. And that feeling… of entering a dungeon right in its midst, surrounded by enemies and other dangers, instead of at the front door where you can leave at any time, is completely new, kind of alarming, and an awesome change of pace. That’s something The Minish Cap constantly excels at — throwing curveballs at the player with regards to how the dungeons must be approached — and I’m super happy it ended off throwing the biggest curveball yet. The eyes all over are creepy, as are the green flames and dark red/purple skies visible from the roof and walls, and it’s just a generally awesome-looking dungeon that sells the spooky stained-glass filled dark castle theme extremely well. Its music is the gourmet icing on the cake (or if you prefer, the ice cream served à la mode with pie). It’s an awesome rendition of the classic Hyrule Castle theme from A Link to the Past. The marching drum and deep “bumbumbum” sounds are excellent contributions to the organ and make the music sound eerie. It’s my favorite version of the classic theme and goes along with the corrupted, eye-filled castle quite nicely.
Okay, so Dark Hyrule Castle is thematically awesome. So how’s its gameplay? The dungeon’s not big on puzzles — there’s a few, but none of them are that impressive — nor does it contain all that much in the way of new ideas, or even contain uses for every old item. Dark Hyrule Castle kind of just did what it wanted, and I think that’s passable in this case. The level design in this dungeon serves the same purpose its themes did; it’s all flavor to make the dungeon feel like what its supposed to: A castle that has been occupied by the enemy. The Palace of Winds has the game covered as far as having an end-game dungeon that uses everything you’ve learned and acquired so far goes, so Dark Hyrule Castle was more free to do something like this. From the traps found throughout — rotating flames, fake doors, hidden enemies, etc. — to the cannonball-spitting statues which serve as the dungeon’s only especially new feature… it feels like a guarded fortress. The abundance of foes fits its theme of occupation, with a special abundance of Darknuts to fill Dark Hyrule Castle’s mandatory quota of knights.
It’s primarily a heart-drainer like the Cave of Flames was; traps and enemies will hurt you a lot along the way and test your endurance and reflexes while draining your resources. The dungeon’s impressive length and huge abundance of foes makes it all the more challenging. In a way maybe this marks a third thing that ties it to the classic games; like the dungeons in the original Legend of Zelda, Dark Hyrule Castle is largely about fighting. When it does pull out puzzles, they are usually very simple and focused around the Four Sword. It’s unfortunate that none of these puzzles were as clever as some of the clone puzzles seen earlier in the game — particularly in the Temple of Droplets — as they had an opportunity to do some really clever four-clone puzzles. I would also have loved to see some continued use of the sword’s purifying power, at least for flavor. Ultimately the dungeon is forgivable for its familiarity because the dungeon has a great flavor or feel to it and it’s pretty challenging, but if they’d put more work into its more unique aspects it could have been truly great. The puzzles are certainly entertaining as-is, but they’re all simple ones and the fun is shallow, devoid of cleverness; they aren’t thought-provoking and lack the crucial “ah-ha!” moment. They’re brief gameplay moments for a change of pace, and nothing more.
The final battle against Vaati is nothing short of epic. Its music alone is amazing — three different tracks, each of which with their own epic buildup and even bigger buildup when you put them together in how they lead up to the final theme. A deadly and dire battle theme for the first form, a more horror-oriented, hopeless-sounding theme for the second to give a sense of Vaati’s bestial side and twisted magic, and finally an epic heroic showdown theme for the final form. The fights themselves are great too. Each would be a worthy boss to a dungeon in the game on its own, and with all of them put together it’s the most impressive and challenging fight of the game. Moreover, these fights make great use of most of the items throughout the game, unlike the dungeon itself, making it all the more perfect as a final boss. Even still more perfect is that his final form is defeated primarily by using the two main powers of the game: Shrinking down to the size of a Minish, and the splitting power of the Four Sword; it’s a little touch, but it’s honestly pretty important and very effective. It’s a final boss gauntlet worthy of a Final Fantasy game, so it’s pretty amazing to see in The Minish Cap. I would say Vaati and his many forms make a perfect final boss. Bravo! Five stars!
All in all, Dark Hyrule Castle has its shortcomings. Interestingly, a lot of the problems it has are the same as the ones Deepwood Shrine had way back at the beginning of the game. Dark Hyrule Castle is in a lot of ways a fairly typical experience with minimal and unimpressive puzzles. It is still very challenging on the combat side of things, however, and every element in the dungeon works to serve the look and feel of the dungeon and carry its not unimpressive themes, so if nothing else the dungeon excels at being an incredible thematic experience. It feels in-character and interesting, and that’s impressive. Moreover, the final boss is incredible as well. I might feel Dark Hyrule Castle is outclassed by the Temple of Droplets and Palace of Winds, but its still one of the top three dungeons of the game and is nonetheless a very worthy final dungeon, as well as my favorite Hyrule Castle and one of my favorite final dungeons of the series!
How about you? Do you love this dungeon like I do, or do you think it’s not so impressive or fitting? Or do you like it even more than I do and disagree with my complaints? How does Vaati perform as the final boss? Tell me in the comments!