The beginning of the myth, the tale, the legend.
January 7, 2012 –
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
The Legend of Zelda is one of the most revered franchises in gaming history, and for good reason. Through this series, Nintendo has showcased some of the most polished gameplay, innovating mechanics and clever puzzles, all within the framework of timeless and beautiful fairy-tale storytelling. With this latest entry, Nintendo tries and mostly succeeds to once more show why the Legend of Zelda is still one of gaming’s greatest series.
Of course the challenge has been thrown at the games before that they do not, in fact, innovate. There are some definite and good reason for that. Most of the games since Ocarina of Time have tried walking in those same footsteps to try and recapture the magic of that seminal title, and none have fully succeeded. While each have had their charms, from Wind Waker to Twilight Princess, there have been several constants that make them feel either dated or not quite up to par. Twilight Princess had a slow start, and Wind Waker had an endless expanse of bland ocean to traverse that took ages to explore with little to show for it. And every Zelda game, ever, seems to have the same progression, the same structure, the same weapons, the same enemies, the same controls.
Forgetting my love of those games for just one moment, it is true that they simply do not stand up to the same level of mastery that was Ocarina of Time, for all their unique charms. And it’s impossible to not compare these games to Ocarina. Ocarina set the standard for the Zelda franchise in 3d a long time ago, just as A Link to the Past did for the 2d games. So the bar for Skyward Sword is very high.
And that is when Skyward Sword decides it doesn’t want to compare itself to Ocarina and tries to set a new bar of its own. The same charges of lack of innovation that have been laid against every Zelda Game from the days of the Nintendo 64 on (save Majora’s Mask, with its own wildly different experience), simply cannot be laid against Skyward Sword. Do you play as Link? Yes. Do you still have bombs? Yes. Arrows? Check. Slingshot? Sure. Are there dungeons? Well, yes… but these similarities are fairly superficial. If every single thing were different then it wouldn’t be a Legend of Zelda game. It would be like criticizing a Mario game because he still jumps. While Skyward Sword never ceases to be a Zelda game, it also never ceases to bring new elements to the formula which are fresh and innovative.
The primary, inescapable innovation Skyward Sword brings is, of course, the controls. With Wii Motion Plus hardware, nearly every action in the game, every sword swing and every item, uses motion controls. This is both the games greatest triumph and its greatest fault. The controls work the way you want them to approximately 90% of the time. I say this without any sort of scientific backing, of course. The exact percentage could be more or it could be less, but the point is, every so often the controls will fight you instead of aid you, and it brings you out of the experience just as much as they bring you in when they work correctly.
When the controls are working, the game positively sings. Swordplay is fantastic, and while calling every fight a puzzle may be a tad generous, you cannot sleepwalk your way through any encounter. There are monsters that you can kill with no skill besides waggling, sure. Bats and generic green slimes are pretty much simple moving targets. But these monsters, in their generic state, mostly live on Skyloft and in Ferron Woods, the first area you visit. Pass that and you start meeting more vicious versions, and the electric slimes are a pure headache.
In the grandest fights, especially those against mini-bosses and their bigger, badder brethren, the precision needed, as well as the clever use of items elevates the combat beyond anything in the series to date. Pattern memorization is less useful, and quick reflexes and the ability to shift strategies on the fly become a much bigger part of the fighting.
Skyward Sword's Boss Fights are awesome.
Items in general are more interesting this time around, largely because of the motion control implementation. Bombs can be thrown or rolled, giving some variety to bomb puzzles and some interesting uses in combat situations. The bow, gust bag, and slingshot all work beautifully with the pointer, and the beetle is the single most useful addition to Link’s repertoire since the boomerang (which makes no appearance in this game, by the way).
The ability to upgrade these items is also a nice twist on the formula as well, though some upgrades are more useful than others, and I never felt like any of them were a must have, which is something of a shame.
Thankfully the ridiculous controller overlay can be removed eventually.
There was one type of item I never really used until the very end. It was, strangely enough, the shield. You get several kinds of shields throughout the game, but their usefulness was never apparent to me. Switching between the sword and shield always felt a little clumsy, and not fast enough to really react to the enemy attacks. This is partially due to the poor motion sensors in the nunchuck attachment. Furthermore, it always seemed like I received a shield right before going to an area where the type of shield I just received would be useless against the monsters there. The only time I used a shield readily was at the very end of the game, when I had finally acquired the Hylian shield and the remaining enemies were simply too tough to beat without a stronger defense than the ever useful jump.
Of course the best defense in the world is two fingers.
The way motion controls were implemented in other ways made the experience much better as well. Swimming in games has never been something I liked to do. The inverted control scheme always got in the way of being able to accurately handle the situation. Swimming in Skyward Sword, however, is much better. If a player were to imagine the controller in hand as if it were Link’s body, the front being the direction he’s swimming, then it becomes natural to move him about in the water. It’s nothing less than liberating from past control schemes.
The same can be said for flying through the skies around Skyloft. After a minute or two getting used to the sensitivity of the controller, I was able to fly around easily. It was, in fact, fun. This is not something I could readily say about most of the methods of travel in Zelda games, however much I loved Epona (don’t get me started on the boredom that was the train from Spirit Tracks). Flapping the loftwing’s wings felt natural and involving, and pulling off minor acrobatic tricks around the floating islands was entertaining. Leaping off of the bird and falling to an island for a landing never got old.
Simply put, the motion controls are a complete blast. In many ways they are superior for their individual tasks than regular controls, and in most others they are at least as capable. There were times I was more connected to my actions, however simple they may be – like thrusting a sword into the ground, than I have in any other before or since. In that respect, making a hardcore game with motion controls that not only work, but excel, the developers at Nintendo have succeeded.
But, and it is a big but, that is when the controls work. Very occasionally Link will do something that you simply did not intend. There are fights when you’ll try to swing your sword from the left, but instead Link will swing from the right, or vice-versa. Sometime you want to swing up when you actually swing down. This gets especially frustrating in boss fights when a miss-swing often results in an immediate and painful counter attack.
As frustrating as the occasional wrong swing may be, nothing is as frustrating as trying to stab into the screen. 70% of that 90% of failed motion controls I mentioned earlier could be set at the feet of this one motion. And it’s necessary against certain bosses. There is nothing more frustrating than knowing exactly what to do, and doing the motion, and instead Link flails wildly in every way except the simple stab.
On a side note, some reviewers I’ve read have said that they were frustrated about having to re-center the aim so often. Re-centering was never much of a bother to me, and seemed to be an elegant solution to the problem. Calibration was similarly painless, and only took a second before the game started up.
In general there is no denying that the controls work, and people will argue back and forth on the merits of motion vs non-montion controls, but I firmly come down in favor of them. They not only work better than regular controls in most instances, but they also do something much more important. They set Skyward Sword apart, and provide it with an identity all its own in the Zelda canon. Every dungeon, puzzle, and most encounters are built around the controls, and in doing so, the game charts a new way forward in the medium that simply hasn’t been done before. The controls aren’t gimmicks, and they aren’t broken. They work beautifully most of the time, and fail only occasionally. It’s the first true step forward for alternate forms of controls, and for that, any game afterward that implements this mastery owes homage to Skyward Sword.
But that’s just the nitty-gritty of the gameplay. There is much more to be said for the ways Skyward Sword innovates on the standard Zelda formula. The overworld has long been a staple of the Zelda franchise. It has been a place usually for travel and awe-inspiring vistas that give the player a sense of the scope of the world. In Skyward Sword, the overworld formula is severely overhauled, and for once in a positive fashion (Wind Waker’s ocean and Spirit Tracks’ railways were poor excuses for overworlds). Namely the “overworld” is split up into different mini-overworlds that all accomplish different tasks.
Flying around in the sky around Skyloft is Wind Waker’s ocean overworld done much better. It is easier to cross quickly, it provides a sense of space and distance, and as I mentioned before, most importantly, it is fun to fly. The sky is a little barren, there is no denying that. There could be more places to go, more things to do, but it’s nevertheless a step in the right direction.
Meanwhile the overworlds on the surface, while smaller, and less spacious, are all densely compact, full of interesting traversal, some puzzles, and a variety of encounters with opponents and characters. I’ve seen it said that these sections of the overworld are really just the dungeon extended into the entire region. That goes a little far, I think. Dungeons are especially condensed and built around very specific puzzles and pacing. These mini-overworlds are, however, a lot like light versions of the dungeon, and in that respect, the actual gameplay is always at the forefront of the activity of the player. It was always possible to grow bored of the overworlds of the past, but the quick traversal of the skies and the challenge of the surface world make the “overworld” another place to highlight the gameplay mechanics and involve the player.
And you'll go see some really neat places.
Since the game limits itself to only four major areas, the forest, a volcano, the desert and the sky, it’s inevitable that there is some extensive backtracking. The difference between backtracking here and in other games, however is in how Skyward Sword manages to show each area from an entirely new angle every time you return. The areas simply feel different, and the mechanics of each area change as well, though saying how is Spoiler Talk territory.
Another reason to return to each area involves a place called the Spirit Realm, sort of a shadow version of the world, in which Link must collect tears of the goddess to advance his abilities. These areas are guarded by these spirit warriors that can end your time there with a single blow.
While some people will simply despise these sections as mere fetch quests, I found the atmosphere and challenge a welcome variation from the typical gameplay. The spirit versions of these different areas are always serene and beautiful, and yet the entire ordeal is tense and frightening. The threat of the time limit and the creepy guardians will have players on their toes the entire time, and the sections are brief enough that they don’t wear out their welcome.
Speaking of fetch quests, many of the missions in the middle of the game send Link after everything imaginable, this is also true of the side quests the player will do for the inhabitants of Skyloft. Most of these quests are actually quite interesting and involving, especially because of the characters who give you these tasks, but when I was first exposed to them I had the sinking feeling that many gamers will have. If, however, players manage to get past this initial distaste for the mere thought, they will find fetch quests that are actually enjoyable (especially if they have been keeping their eyes open and already know where the various items are).
You'll have Fun Fun
The presentation of the game is at times gorgeous, and at other times terribly dated. There is no question that the developers squeezed every last drop out of the Wii hardware to get this game done right. The painterly visuals can be breathtaking at times, and this coming from someone who really didn’t like them when the visuals were first revealed.
That doesn’t mean they’re perfect, however. At times they will simply be too blurry to have any impact, and some textures look terrible even at medium distance. The terrain and architecture are simply too blocky, and the jagged edges of some objects look ragged enough to hurt. The game, and pretty much every game on the Wii, especially the pretty ones, are just begging for the HD of truly modern systems. I can only imagine (and drool over) what the designers at Nintendo could have done with this game if they had that kind of horsepower and disc storage space.
As it is, it's a little bit like digging up a game from the past.
But as important as all these elements are to talk about, those of you who know how my reviews work know that I’m the kind of gamer who is in it for the story. In that respect, Skyward Sword may be the best in the series yet. Without going into spoilers, this game is where we truly see the legend begin. There have been hints of a master time line for the series in games past, but nothing concrete. And even if the new Zelda Encyclopedia, which was recently released in Japan, didn’t have the official time line in its pages, this game would settle it, without a doubt, that the series does in fact have a time line, and that they are interconnected.
But those are meta considerations. The specific story that Skyward Sword tells feels very much like the legend it is. It’s probably as close to living out a myth, and yet still feeling the reality of it at the same time, as anyone has achieved yet in the medium (perhaps in any medium). The characters are larger than life, more so than they’ve ever been, and yet they are simultaneously the most human too. I felt these characters in a way I haven’t since Ocarina of Time, and I’m not nearly as susceptible to emotional attachment to characters for little reason as I was then. The emotional connections I got with Link, Zelda, Ghirahim, Impa and even the minor ones like Groose were all very strong.
And you HATE him at first. HATEHATEHATE.
Zelda has always been distant in past Zelda games. Not so in Skyward Sword. She’s your best friend from childhood. She feels real and grounded, making later revelations all the more crazy and amazing. Link has obvious motivations and feelings, as does the villain, as does Impa. I can’t believe how much growth comes from some of these characters, and from those you least expect it.
The characterization in this game is the highlight of the storytelling. These are some of the most interesting characters in a Zelda game in ages. Every shop owner has character. Each one is identifiable at a glance and is instantly memorable. And I’m not just talking about Beetle, whom we’ve seen before. I’m talking about the upgrade shop guy, and the potions family, and the item check girl and the weapons dealer. Their animations, the emotions on their faces, and the excellent sound effects and minor voice acting all add up to a magical collections of denizens for the Skyward Sword world. Even the enemies have brilliant sound effects. The cries of surprise and woe that come from knocking an enemy bokoblin off of a tower or balancing rope are priceless.
The plot itself is also different from past Zelda titles in that Zelda and Impa are, in their own way, having a completely different adventure from the player. Zelda isn’t held captive somewhere. She is an active participant in the events of the story. Quite frankly, during the first half of the game, Link’s quest to find her is the background to the real story, which is Zelda’s quest. Link sees all this unfold mere minutes after it has happened. He is a step or two behind the main action, as is Ghirahim, the bad guy for the majority of the game, and everything rides on who will catch up first.
Even though the pacing of the plot is really well done for the most part, it is also easy to see the seams. Some of the fetch quests seem shoe-horned in. There is one late-game quest in particular that, while I enjoyed it for what it was, had me utter a verbal “Oh, come on!” when it was introduced. These late bits slow the story’s pacing down pretty significantly, though it is otherwise well done.
The ending is climactic and epic in all the right ways. The final battle feels ominous, and is ridiculously difficult if you don’t have the right tools. The closure and little touches and surprises are perfect and fitting.
The music in this game mostly lives up to the quality expected of the Zelda franchise, which has long had some of the best music in gaming. I say mostly because there are times and places where the music just doesn’t seem as great, and there aren’t as many memorable tracks as there are in Ocarina of Time. The title track however, the Ballad of the Goddess, is musical manna from heaven. Somehow this track, a brilliant backward and reworked version of Zelda’s Lullaby from Ocarina of Time, has launched itself to become one of my all-time favorite Zelda tunes, period.
In many ways that final sentiment, that a reworked and backwards rendition of an Ocarina track could ascend to such great heights, is a great metaphor for this game as a whole. In may ways Skyward Sword shares the same backbone as Ocarina of Time. It has Link, Zelda, the Triforce, a classic good vs. evil epic quest and many of the same items and tropes, and yet in many ways it’s backwards, and tweaked and reworked until something so familiar is simultaneously vastly different, and in its own way, exuberant and exalting. While it has some hang-ups in comparison to contemporary games, and minor flaws that refuse to be ignored, there is no question that The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is one of the best games of the year, and quite possibly the best Legend of Zelda game of all time.
STAR RATING: (4 1/2)
Four and one-half Stars
For those of you who stuck around after the rating, I’ve got a extra segment for you called Spoiler Talk. It’s a segment in which I discuss what I thought of certain elements of the story or themes that are too spoilerish or high-concept for the main review. What I say here doesn’t ever trump my review, instead it might give insight into what exactly made me give something the score I did. So let’s get started.
There are so many things I could talk about here, but when I think spoilers, the very first thing I think about is endings. Boy what an ending. The lead in, everything from the final dungeon, which was brilliant, to Ghirahim stealing Zelda and Link’s desperate fight against the bokoblin hordes to get to her, to the revelation of demise, is so well paced. The final confrontation with Ghirahim is a visual stunner, as is the revelation of Ghirahim’s true nature as Demise’s sword (nicely paralleling Fi and Link’s relationship). But Ghirahim is still ultimately a pushover, so it’s great when Demise shows up and takes charge.
That final fight with Demise is epic. The lightning strikes overhead, the mirrored surface of the otherworldly plane, the way the fight goes from relatively easy to outlandishly hard as soon as he lights up his sword with that first lightning strike – it all makes it feel like you’re fighting some sort of god.
And he does share some visual similarities with Ares from the God of War games. I love how he was designed visually. He looks every bit the dark god, and the force of evil he should be. Imposing, freakish yet grand, powerful yet deliberate. Freaking perfect.
The one problem I have with the fight is how easy it is to break if you have the right tools. The Hylian shield makes you pretty much invulnerable if you use it correctly, and if you have the Guard + potion (which isn’t hard to obtain) you’re pretty much unstoppable. Combine this with the Potions Medal and you’re basically fighting him on training wheels. I was able to appreciate the fight for what it was, especially when I went into the fight the first time without the potion and was trounced. However, I could see how that invincible strategy might ruin it for some people.
The whole cinematic you watch once you beat him is excellent as well. The curse he speaks, which ties Link, Zelda and Demise into an eternal conflict, sets up the rest of the series beautifully. Here is the origin of everything. This is the beginning of the cycle that ties together the spirit of the hero (Link), the soul of the goddess (Zelda) and the hatred of Demise (every bad guy, especially Ganon/dorf) in every game from here on out. The mythical synergy of that moment, tying up threads that have been a part of my gamer life for years into this one point in time, was perfect.
How wildly fantastical was it when Zelda is revealed to be the mortal reincarnation of the Goddess Hylia? It’s so much more impacting because of how human she is at the same time. She is Link’s best friend, and they act like it. It feals real. As does the unspoken, under the surface love that is so obviously there (and come on, Nintendo! One kiss! That’s all I ask!) That relationship between Zelda and Link has, right beside the relationship of Demise and his successors to the heroes, been one of the key stones of the series, and Skyward Sword nailed it.
Other elements of the final cinematic that I loved were the revelation of the identity of the old woman as that of Impa. I guessed this much earlier in the game, but I felt the way the revelation played out was spot on.
The way Groose’s character changed over time was also excellent. I never really liked his character design (that… that hair…) and he was as annoying as he could possibly be at the start of the game, but by the end he’s really managed to change into a character that I liked. Not loved, by no means, but liked.
Fi’s last scene was very touching. I didn’t realize how attached I’d gotten to her, despite her little annoyances that are inherent in any helping voice like that. The humorous percentages, the robotic sensibilities and the inability to understand human emotions were all wrapped up in this strange but likeable figure (and the crush the one robot has on her is cute and funny). To see her then go to an endless sleep as the seal on Demise’s consciousness in the Master Sword, it wasn’t teary or misty-eyed, but it was sad all the same.
The cinematics that played during the credits that outlined some of the important moments of Zelda’s off-screen quest were wonderful and really drove the point home that there were two adventures happening this whole time. The scene after the cinematics was also great and full of happiness and joy, with the perfect send-off that implied Link and Zelda actually got together (though what I would have given for an actual kiss or something, my word).
All the side characters were great. The Mogmas were a cool additional race, along with their gloves which was a cool addition to the gameplay. I loved the Goron archeologist. I can’t get over how great the shop-keepers were. I loved the dragons and great spirits, each one had great personality (though when Faron sent me on that last fetch quest… I thought I was going to smack something.)
And speaking of that fetch quest, I know most people are going to hate it with an undying passion, but I actually enjoyed it. Of course I took it from a relaxing, zen-like approach and just had fun floating through the water after the bouncing musical note things. It was very peaceful.
How many more things could I talk about? There is simply so much stuff! How genius were the puzzle and dungeon designs? How adorable where those robots? Could Timeshift stones, a desert and a boat be any more genius? There’s too much to cover in one review.
So how many of you have finished the game? Sound off in the comments! Did you like it as much as I did? I didn’t mention a lot here in Spoiler Talk, and that’s partially because I want you to drive the conversation. What did you think of the game? Just please mark your comment with a **SPOILERS** tag so other people can be aware.