Here we are: Hyrule Castle, the last dungeon in Twilight Princess left to review, is so much of a mixed bag for me, you have no idea. And I don’t mean that like it’s got some good and some bad, so it just ends up being mediocre. Hyrule Castle has some really great aspects but also so many things missing, that while it’s good, I get a sense of disappointment when I go through it. But, before I discuss what’s missing, let’s look at what this dungeon did right.

Thematically, Hyrule Castle takes the cake. The outside areas in the courtyard are shockingly unusual and subtle. When it comes time to enter the final dungeon of the game, and you know it’s going to be the iconic Hyrule Castle that you can see from much of the overworld, you don’t really expect such an atmospheric, silent area for the beginning of the dungeon. But this courtyard area is both pretty and eerie, though neither feeling is overpowering. It’s just this quiet, mysterious courtyard, with mist and falling rain, casting a blurring and glowing effect on the castle proper; even the dungeon’s introduction portion continues to set up the mystery and anticipation of the dungeon itself, just as seeing Ganondorf’s barrier around it has done throughout the entire second half of the game. That’s kind of cool.

The interior areas help build atmosphere as well. An eerie rendition of the old Hyrule Castle theme from A Link to the Past plays as you explore the totally posh interior of the castle, creating an eerie regal atmosphere as you explore rooms that are very fitting for such a theme both in terms of visuals and function. Every puzzle — though they are few in number — feels like something you might see in a castle, and all of the rooms continue to look regal, but different in their own ways. I especially liked seeing things like the dark room where you’re supposed to light torches, because it looks fancy like all the other rooms while being totally claimed by darkness, making it a room that both continues and departs from the core theme of the dungeon. That’s an excellent thing to see in any area just for the sake of variety, and it’s well-executed here.

The dungeon’s atmosphere gets more intense as the brief bit of Ganon’s theme in the main song becomes more prominent, and you begin to climb the tower, which is a cool (though brief) obstacle course of enemy encounters and ruined stairways. In classic Ocarina of Time fashion, the theme gets louder and more noticeable as you climb, until the Hyrule Castle theme dies off entirely and it’s purely Ganon’s theme. An excellent moment. Even the secret graveyard area in the courtyard builds excellent atmosphere, extending the creepy ambiance of the courtyard areas while adding in creepier undead and mysterious allusions to the Hero of Time/Hero’s Shade, tying those elements into the main story in an awesome way. Getting a hidden key to open up a room filled with treasure and gear just before the final boss was also a nice touch; it feels like one part treasury and one part armory. It’s a really small addition, but it helps make the dungeon feel like an actual castle.

Beyond all that, the layout of the dungeon is solid, the puzzles, as I said, are nice (if simplistic), and the enemies are cool. They always come in large or otherwise challenging groups (two Darknuts at the same time!) as they should in an end-game dungeon. This also helps to give the dungeon a feeling of military occupation. Sadly the enemies are still pretty easy, but that can’t be helped given how easy the game is overall. King Bulblin also reappears for one final battle, actually willingly giving you the key needed to move on after you defeat him and speaking to you for the first and only time; a very cool scene that actually inspired me to write an entire backstory fanfiction about him. Hell, even the resistance group shows up to help you fight, and the final battle with Ganon is pretty epic. What could be disappointing about this dungeon?

Well it’s pretty dang small, you know?

I think the entire dungeon suffers from a sense of incompleteness. I mean, let’s face it, it’s nothing more than a short romp through a couple enemy groups and simplistic puzzles to the final boss. The Palace of Twilight felt like an incomplete filler area added to lengthen the game, but Hyrule Castle doesn’t even really manage that; it doesn’t feel like it was put in to lengthen the game at all, but simply to be there because it was supposed to be. It’s the polar opposite of the Palace of Twilight. That dungeon had good level design but minimal themes, whereas Hyrule Castle is all about thematic design but is so short its level design barely matters. This is just an area for atmosphere.

And that’s unfortunate because it’s not far off from being a top-notch dungeon. One of the best, even. Imagine if Hyrule Castle had the size and length of dungeons like Ganon’s Tower in A Link to the Past, with tons of interior rooms throughout the castle to fight and solve puzzles in? Why is it that the dungeon is built up through its iconic status as well as two prior visits, yet when it comes time to explore it for real, you never see the areas from earlier in the game? Nintendo missed a huge opportunity to craft one of the coolest experiences in any Zelda game; visiting Hyrule Castle early on in segments, but then finally exploring it in its entirety. You’re not exploring it in its entirety when you visit it at the end of the game, because there are no logical means of getting to the areas you visited before. Not even the illusion of a way to get to them. It would have been epic if the dungeon, sewer, castle wall, and tower areas were implemented into the dungeon itself and were explored as part of a massive area, giving the dungeon a sense of completeness and epicness. The courtyard areas could and should have remained unchanged, but there should have been more.

I also can’t help but find it lame how the resistance group shows up for one — admittedly cool — scene, then disappears for the rest of the game. This was an awesome moment that needed to happen, but why did it have to get cut so short? Couldn’t the group have shown up within the main castle and each one help you through a puzzle? I also love the idea of switching out the normal battle themes with a special one for this dungeon, a more action-packed, military-sounding version of the Hyrule Castle theme. Adding touches like these would have polished the dungeon and make it feel not only complete, but awesome enough for the player to feel very content to end the game off on.

At least the finale is awesome, though. The dungeon might be disappointing in form if not style, and even Ganondorf’s buildup throughout the game seems forced and yet too little, but when it comes time to actually face him, you’re greeted with not only an epic collection of cutscenes, but a ridiculous four battles against the villain. This is something not seen in any prior Zelda game.

Ganondorf is first faced while he’s possessing Zelda’s body, getting the obligatory tennis match out of the way early while actually providing an interested take on it with an awesome corrupted version of Zelda’s Lullaby for the fight and just the concept in general. Then, after freeing Zelda from him, he turns into his beast form for this game: An fearsome boar monster. Beast Ganon is a worthy battle that’s cool, and it’s neat how it transitions into a beast on beast battle. It’s not really overly creative, but it’s nice to see it combine some arrow combat with how it reincorporates the charge stopping/sumo wrestling mechanics for one final moment; I love it when games sort of end off on something you started the game with like this… a return to the beginning, if you will. Once again this battle boasts an awesome theme, and the music for these fights alongside the throne room arena that they both share, gives them some epic presentation.

Then Ganondorf is fought on horseback in what is either the single easiest or single hardest fight of the game. I swear I had no trouble the first time I did it, but ever since, it’s been annoying and hard, so I don’t know what to say about it. I think the way it works as you mount the horse is really irritating, and having it so Ganondorf can actually knock you off the horse — sometimes before you can even start riding again properly — is bad design. It should have been made so he can hurt you — and do more damage, because come on, the final boss should hurt more than this — but not knock you off, making the battle less about repeatedly trying to mount your horse and more about… you know, actually fighting him on horseback. The music here is cool, too, although it made much less impact on me because it’s pretty generic.

The final sword battle with Ganondorf, however, is epic beyond belief and aside from upping how much damage he does, I wouldn’t change a thing about it. Possibly the best moment of Twilight Princess, and with a great theme that’s both familiar and yet totally new.

So overall, Hyrule Castle actually has awesome execution for what it is. It’s just that it isn’t very much. You’ve got awesome buildup, great atmosphere, neat-looking areas, decent puzzles and enemies that integrate well into a cohesive theme of a mysterious regal place occupied by monsters, and great cinematic moments that just feel epic. At the same time, however, this is an area you’ve visited twice before, but the previous areas were never integrated into the dungeon when you visit it as a whole, and dropping these as well as just not making the dungeon lengthy in general make it feel… well, frankly half-baked. It’s clear that, whether it’s because of time and budget constraints or just because of poor decision-making, they didn’t make Hyrule Castle into a fully fleshed out area, and instead just added it in at the end of the game because they had to; something had to be there to lead up to the fight with Ganondorf. The dungeon is totally insufficient, which is unfortunate mostly because of how well it’s actually executed. This truly could have been one of the greatest dungeons ever. As it stands, however, it is actually still pretty good, and it’s an enjoyable visit. It’s just too brief.

So how about you? What did you think about visiting Hyrule Castle one final time in Twilight Princess? Did you feel it was designed well thematically? How about its gameplay? Do you feel it was too short and underwhelming, or was its length just right for you? And how about that final battle against Ganondorf? Tell me your thoughts on this dungeon in the comments!