Wind Waker seemed to signal that Nintendo was going to get experimental with their mainline Zelda series, maybe felt the need to start really shaking up the formula to keep it fresh. I get the sense that at some point after that game, for some reason, control over the franchise's direction shifted from the hands of Miyamoto to the hands of the marketing department and focus groups. It seems like Twilight Princess was made specifically to cater to demands of Wind Waker's detractors - it's basically Ocarina of Time 2: Electric Bugaloo, with the same fundamental gameplay engine, and all the old ideas and locales and characters trotted out again. It plays it extremely safe, focusing on the series' core appeal - complex dungeons, showpeice boss fights and a big open Hyrule to explore for heart pieces and other little goodies.
If that's all that you're after, it's all well and good. As impressively executed as the game is in all phases, however, longtime Zelda players won't be able to help but notice a "not so fresh" feeling. Since the game basically scraps all the innovation that Wind Waker brought and goes straight back to the OoT core, there's no two ways around the fact that you're simply doing a lot of things over again.
Additionally, what minor "innovation" there is here feels not only tacked on, but outright pirated from other games. The biggest new gameplay "tweest", Link's ability to transform into a wolf, looks and feels strikingly like Okami. "But wait", say the GameFAQs date-checking Ace Attorneys, "Okami was only released six months before Twilight Princess! They were in development at the same time! It couldn't possibly be a stolen idea!" Well, see, not exactly. Twilight Princess was first shown to the public in mid-2004, with an initial planned release date of Nov. 2005. However, near the release date, Nintendo mysteriously announced it was going to be delayed by a year. Why do that? It's my thesis that the marketing overlords decided that the game wasn't "fresh" enough to bring in the numbers they wanted, so they had to tack on some "new content" and do it in a hurry.
See, the "wolf" thing wasn't revealed by Nintendo until mid-2005, actually only three months before they announced the game was being delayed by a year. Up until then all the gameplay footage had just featured Link in his normal human form sword-fighting with Orcs and some of the game's bosses and such. And yes, gumshoes, that's still nearly a year ahead of Okami's release ... but consider that Nintendo has an established working relationship with Capcom via Flagship, the former Capcom in-house subsidiary that handled the making of nearly all the handheld Zelda games, and it's very likely that Nintendo knew a lot about Okami as it was being developed.
The main reason why I suspect the wolf was pirated from Okami and tacked in at the end of the development cycle, aside from the similar look and feel, is that the portion where you are forced to play as the wolf is jammed entirely into the first ten hours of gameplay, then after that the wolf form is used in only a very cursory way, and mostly for little optional stuff. Unfortunately, the first ten hours is by far the weakest part of the game. This rather long stretch actually represents only the first two dungeons (out of nine total) - the game is a beast by Zelda standards, clocking in at some 50 hours total without doing all of the optional stuff. During the outset, Hyrule is covered in "twilight", a sort of "dark world" state in which Link is stuck as a wolf. The pattern is that before the first two dungeons, Link goes around in a twilight area and hunts concealed electric bugs as a wolf (I shit you not), which unleashes some kind of light spirit who dispels the twilight and allows human Link to access the area's dungeon. Just prior to the 3rd dungeon, you do one more "bug hunt" and then from there the "twilight" is gone from Hyrule entirely, you can shift from wolf to man at will, and you're free to explore most of the game world. Nearly everything about playing as the wolf is irritating - iffy control, the frustratingly pixel-huntish "bug hunts", and the game's seeming obsession with pits and ledges and having the wolf - who can't attack without jumping forward to some degree - fight constantly on these narrow and treacherous confines at the risk of either falling to doom or having to do a bunch of shit over again. This portion of the game is the most unpolished, and cobbled-together feeling, especially when you tack in a bunch of irritating mini-games that are also prevalent in this period, such as the extremely clunky horseback combat and a terrible Starfox-esque flight sequence on a giant bird.
Once the game settles down at about the third dungeon, gets all of the stupid gimmicky shit out of its system, and frees you up to roam around the world without being jerked into confining "twilight" segments, the enjoyability really picks up in a hurry. This, I think, is the point where you actually start playing the game that you were originally intended to play, after chewing through the hastily-conceived padding.
I'd summarize the game this way - excellent dungeons (maybe some of the best in the series), derivative but still fun overworld to explore, impressive but usually too gimmicky (and way too easy) bosses, and unfortunate periodic interruptions from poorly-conceived attempts to add "innovative twists" here and there, with the bulk of that being front-loaded into the first 1/5 or so of the game. The game is still meaty enough that Zelda fans will find it enjoyable on the whole in spite of some disappointments, and I actually think newcomers who haven't seen all the Zelda tropes already will probably enjoy it even more. What bugs me about it is that Zelda games used to be fantastic, a real event when they came out, and now Nintendo seems to be willing to settle for "very good." Zelda used to be the pinnacle of elegant console game design, and with this one it's really become clear Nintendo has fallen out of the lead and is trying to catch up by peeking over competitor's shoulders - aside from the Okami pilfering mentioned before, the game also blatantly swipes moments from Shadow of the Colossus, everything from outright copying bosses to similar cutscenes, environs and music. Still, a "very good" and derivative Zelda is better than a whole lot of the best that other companies have to offer. As long as you're up for a third iteration of OoT (fourth if you count the N64 disk drive remix of OoT's levels), you'll likely find it worth a run.
* Gameplay Video
* My response to criticism of the review