You remember when you first heard about the Wii? You remember all those promo videos that Nintendo released of people doing wildly exaggerated motions with the Wii Remote, and how those motions were perfectly recreated in the completely fake gameplay trailers? You remember how everybody’s imagination ran wild with the possible gameplay applications of the new controller, and how awesome you thought it was going to actually swing the Master Sword in Twilight Princess?
Now, five years later, it’s painfully obvious that the Wii never really delivered on those early, naive expectations. While it’s definitely been a huge sales success (even with it’s recent sales slump, it still has a substantially bigger installed base than either of it’s competitors,) and it’s managed to accrue a small handful of genuinely good games, the Wii has never really capitalized on the hype and potential from five years ago: most software for the system is embarrassing shovelware, developers making “core” games have more or less abandoned the system despite its massive installed base, and perhaps most depressingly of all, no one, not even Nintendo, has ever made a truly hardcore game that’s managed to deliver on all the grand promises and potential that the system and it’s unique controller once held.
That is, until now. It’s taken five years, but there’s finally a game that legitimizes motion controls and makes good on all those crazy, awesome ideas that filled gamers’ imaginations when they first heard about the Wii, and that game is The Legend of Zelda Skyward Sword. While the Wii and motion controls in general have become synonymous with casual games, Skyward Sword single handedly proves that not only do motion controls have the ability to work within the framework of a “hardcore” experience, but they can also make that experience significantly better, and can provide a level of immersion, depth and, well, just plain satisfying fun that a traditional controller never has and never will be able to create. Regardless of any fanboy prejudices you may harbor (however deserved,) for Nintendo, the Wii, or even motion controls in general, Skyward Sword will likely change your opinion of all three for the better.
Now, before I go further, I should state that I absolutely love The Legend of Zelda series. It and Phantasy Star are probably tied as my all time favorites, and I’ve bought every major entry in the series since Ocarina of Time on the day they’ve come out. Despite being a relatively low tier character in Smash Bros., I refuse to use anybody but Link, and I’ve spent more time than I’m willing to admit trying to track down an unopened box of vintage Zelda cereal. Despite my love of anything with a Triforce, I like to think that my love for the series isn’t unfounded; after all, the series probably has the highest Metacritic average of any franchise its age, and Ocarina of Time is still widely considered to be the best game ever made (it isn’t; more on that later), nor do I think that my adoration has blinded me to the series’ flaws: as much as I love Twilight Princess and Wind Waker, it’s no secret that the Gamecube entries in the series were more or less rehashes of Ocarina of Time’s formula, and I honestly didn’t really care for either of the DS entries in the series. Also, the less said about Link’s Crossbow Training, the better.
So while I love The Legend of Zelda, I have to admit that I went into Skyward Sword with a bit of skepticism; the Wii controls that were shoehorned into Twilight Princess really didn’t do much to enhance the experience, and the game had a very embarrassing public unveiling at E3 a few years back, where the Wii-Mote infamously spazzed out and failed to work while series creator Shigeru Miyamoto demoed the game to a crowd of hundreds. Early screens of the game looked overly washed out and had overly simple graphics. The rehashed feel of the series’ DS entries left many to wonder if Nintendo had ran out of ideas for the series, and basically everything that was revealed about Skyward Sword before it’s release failed to inspire confidence. I played the game at E3 and a brief demo was enough to allay my fears about the controls, but I still questioned the game’s art direction and whether or not Nintendo would be able to (or was even willing to) make the necessary changes to the series formula to make the once innovative franchise feel new again. My time with the game at E3 was enough to convince me that Skyward Sword would be a solid game, but I had my doubts as to whether or not it would live up to classics like Ocarina of Time or Wind Waker.
But Skyward Sword doesn’t just manage to match its predecessors, it completely blows them out of the water : It’s hands down the best Zelda game. It’s better than Link to the Past. Better than Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask, Wind Waker, and Twilight Princess. It succeeds because it takes the best ideas from those games, fixes all their flaws, and manages to add a healthy dose of new ideas to refresh the aging formula. It has the sense of exploration and innovation that characterized early entries in the series, it has Wind Waker’s charm and imagination, Majora’s Mask’s willingness to experiment, Twilight Princess’s polish, and on top of all that, it adds one of the best and most innovative control schemes ever.
Unfortunately, Skyward Sword doesn’t make a great first impression: Nintendo still has a thing or two to learn about modern cinematic presentation, and the game still opens with a exposition filled text crawl that sets up this game’s version of Hyrule: set sometime before Ocarina of Time, Skyward Sword serves as a prequel to the rest of the series, detailing the origins of the iconic Master Sword and many more of the series’ reoccurring tropes. The opening few hours of the game are heavy on dialogue and exposition, and while it never gets as mind-numbingly boring as Twilight Princess’s first few hours, the introductory and tutorial segments of Skyward Sword are definitely it’s weakest moments, and they fail to convey the awesomeness of the rest of the experience: the game does a poor job of explaining some of the elements of it’s control scheme (namely, how to control the giant bird that you use to navigate the game’s overworld,) and early enemies are so easy that can be defeated by simply wildly flailing the Wii remote around, which misrepresents the depth and skill that the combat in this game actually has. The first dungeon itself sticks very closely to the Zelda formula, and to be completely frank, the first boss is one of the worst in the series’ history. The first 4 hours (of the game’s lengthy, nearly 40 hour main quest,) simply manage to reinforce all the negative stereotypes about the Zelda series’ lack of originality and the Wii’s reliance on “waggle” controls.
But once you get past the first dungeon, things suddenly change. Enemies become more tenacious and smart, and actively block and counter your attacks, and this is where the beauty of Skyward Sword’s controls become apparent: if you try to waggle your way through most of the game’s battles, you’re going to get your ass handed to you pretty quickly. Skyward Sword requires you to watch your enemy, look for any openings in their defenses, and execute the proper attack. The controls are accurate enough for you to do feints and fake out your opponent, much like you would in a real sword fight, making your opponent think you’re going to swing from one angle but then switch-up and hit him somewhere else, and this is a required skill for getting through most of the game. The combat seems awkward at first, but again, after those first few uncharacteristically bland hours, everything clicks and suddenly, and encounters with even basic enemies become tense, exciting back-and-forth exchanges. Combat in games has generally required two skills: timing and the ability to judge the range of your attacks. Skyward Sword adds a layer of physical technique on top of that, and once you acclimate yourself to the game’s revolutionary control method, fights in games that only use a traditional controller will suddenly feel empty and shallow by comparison.
Of course, combat is merely just one facet of what makes Zelda so great, and Skyward Sword manages to deliver on the other aspects that are hallmarks of the series. Exploration has always been a key element of the series since the original NES game, and Skyward Sword manages to deliver the best rendition of Hyrule to explore since the series went 3D. While certainly fun to round around in, the 3D entries in the series have always emphasized epic scale and grandeur over actual things to do; Skyward Sword’s overworld, while seemingly not as large in terms of square footage as Twilight Princess’s Hyrule or Wind Waker’s ocean, compensates by filling every area to the brim with secrets, enemies, and interesting things to see and interact with. In many ways, it reminds me of Link to the Past’s dense overworld, which held a secret on every screen. For probably the first time in the series’ history, there’s as much to do outside as there is within the game’s dungeons. Skyward Sword’s world has something interesting every few yards, and I’d gladly take this game’s smaller, but richer and more lively settings over the vast, empty expanses of previous 3D Zelda’s any day.
The dungeons too have been thoughtfully reimagined; each dungeon adds a new twist to the traditional formula, and while the first 2 dungeons are basic takes on the usual elemental themed temples that every Zelda since Ocarina of Time has rehashed, the rest of the game’s locations are completely fresh, unique areas that are unlike any that I’ve seen in a game before. As much as I want to talk about some of these incredible settings, I’d hate to spoil it for people who haven’t played the game yet, but rest assured, even when Skyward Sword is using a traditional video game setting like say, a volcano or an underwater ruin, it adds it’s own unique twist and visual flair to these settings to make it unique.
In terms of actual layout, the level design is the best it’s ever been, with dungeons that are absolutely massive yet remain intuitively designed so you always have an idea of where to go next, even though the game never holds your hand or specifically spells out what you should be doing. The series’ trademark puzzles are as devious and clever as ever, but as always, creative use of the tools on hand and careful observation of the environment are all you need to solve even the most challenging of puzzles that the game tosses at you.
The set of tools that Link acquires in this game are also some of the most creative and fun to use weapons you’ve probably seen in a game as well; ranging from things as mundane as a bug net to as crazy as a remote controlled mechanical beetle. Even the trademark pieces of Link’s equipment that have appeared in every game, such as his bombs or his bow and arrow, are used in clever new ways, mostly thanks to the game’s motion controls. The bombs for instance, can now be rolled like a bowling ball in addition to being thrown, and the new controls give you an unprecedented amount of control in the angle and curve of your bomb tosses/rolls.
In addition to that, Skyward Sword adds the ability to craft new gear for Link: every piece of equipment that Link gets can be upgraded, and this new crafting system adds a new layer of depth to the series. Every enemy encounter brings the chance of a rare drop, and exploring the game’s environments is given new purpose when you’re on the hunt for some rare ore or other material needed to upgrade Link’s shield or slingshot. In addition to that, Link has a new item pouch that allows him to hotkey one-time use items like potions, but also gives players a degree of customization: slots on the item pouch can also hold items that increase Link’s chances of getting certain item drops, or they can be used to equip relics that reveal the location of secrets or increase his stamina. All these changes sound pretty minor on their own, but the addition of these light RPG elements go a long way into adding some much needed new depth to the series.
If there was one aspect of the Zelda formula that didn’t need a revamp, it was the bosses: always epic in scale and always satisfying to fight, Zelda’s boss fights comprise some of the most memorable moments in videogame history, and Skyward Sword is no different, and even though Zelda’s boss formula wasn’t broken to begin with, Skyward Sword manages to improve upon it anyway: outside of the before mentioned terrible first boss fight, this game simply has some of the best boss battles in a series that’s famous for great boss battles, and they manage to deviate from the usual “use the item you got in the dungeon to expose the bosses’ weak point” trope a bit, with boss battles that require as much puzzle-solving ability as they do reflexes. Of course, you’ll still have to use your newest tool to defeat each boss, but the new bosses do a good job of mixing things up so there’s usually an extra layer of strategy beyond hitting the boss’s glowing weak spot. Again, I can’t go into details because I’d hate to spoil it, but let me just say this: the Cistern boss is one of the coolest fights I’ve seen in any form of media, ever.
Just as the gameplay clicked and made me fall in love with it eventually, so too did the game’s presentation: while the game’s colorful, Impressionist painting inspired art style initially seemed overly simple to me, it’s subtle beauty eventually won me over. The game really does manage to look like a moving, 3D painting: objects in the background look as though they’re made with broad, quick dabs of paint, but as you get closer, the brush strokes become more defined and objects become more detailed. Wind Waker’s cartoon like art style was derided upon it’s release, but it’s since aged so well that many people consider it the best looking game in the series; I feel that Skyward Sword’s visuals will earn much of the same respect, since like Wind Waker, this game looks exactly how it’s supposed to look, and it’s a testament to how creative, thoughtful art direction can overcome technical limitations. Now, obviously, since it’s a Wii game, there’s nothing here there’s pushing technical limits and there’s still the occasional blocky background element, so nobody is going to mistake this for a 360 or a PS3 game, but with that said, it still manages to be downright picturesque at times, regardless of the Wii’s antiquated hardware.
The game sounds as good as it looks too, and for the first time in the series’s 25 year history, the game’s soundtrack is fully orchestrated, and the new, fuller soundtrack goes a long way in making the game feel even more epic than it already is. Despite the full orchestra, the game’s music thankfully manages to maintain the catchy melodies and memorable overtures that have characterized the series since it’s inception, and manages to avoid the forgettable, overly bombastic and movie-like background music that most modern games employ.
There is a lot about Skyward Sword that surprised me, from how it changes and streamlines the Zelda formula, to how well the motion controls worked, but perhaps the thing that surprised me most was the game’s story. Zelda games have always had a somewhat utilitarian story that, while memorable, as more or less served as a simple excuse to get you into a dungeon. Zelda gets kidnapped, Ganon tries to seize power, and Link has to journey across Hyrule — Zelda’s story tropes are as tried and true as Mario having to rescue the Princess, or Sonic fighting Dr. Robotnik, and while each game has introduced it’s own new twists and wrinkles to the formula, the story in these games has always been pretty shallow. Not so with Skyward Sword: while the exposition filled intro is kind of boring, the game’s narrative eventually blossomed into a genuinely enthralling story, and for probably the first time ever, Link and Zelda felt like real characters; Zelda displayed a personality that made her more than just the person I had to rescue, and Link, despite still being a silent protagonist, displayed enough personality in his actions during cut scenes that he felt like he was more than just a player avatar. The game’s story is surprisingly well written and heartfelt, and has some genuinely surprising, emotional, and bad-ass moments. For the first time in my long history with the series, I kept playing not just because the game was fun, but because I wanted to see what happened next in the story.
I know this review is filled with statements that sound like hyperbole, but despite all my praise, I honestly think I’m still selling The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword short. Any flaws or problems that I thought the game had within its first few hours were immediately remedied and more than amply compensated for by the rest of the game’s length adventure. I really don’t have the words to properly convey how incredibly well made this game is. The Zelda series has been home to a lot of innovations; whether it was the original NES game that introduced the ability to save your game on consoles, to Ocarina of Time’s Z-Targeting that allowed for arguably the first non-awkward combat in a 3D game, the series has inspired some revolutionary changes in game design, and I think Skyward Sword’s use of motion controls will one day be regarded as one of those revolutionary shifts that effects the entire game industry. But on top of all it’s innovations and clever streamlining, Skyward Sword is first and foremost simply a great game, and it’s one that you shouldn’t miss, regardless of how you’ve felt about the Zelda series, the Wii, or motion controls. The Legend of Zelda Skyward Sword is simply the best Zelda game ever made, and one could easily make a case for it being the best game of all time, period.
Final Score: 10/10