The greatest Zelda game ever made.
What a sad, strange trip it’s been for the Nintendo Wii. Initially pitched as a new way to experience games, the Wii rode in on tsunamis of hype, promising that motion controls are the future of gaming. And EVERYONE, even non-gamers, bought into it. Five years later, the Wii is locked in a tragically ironic state. While it is the generation’s best-selling console, it also receives the least amount of notable games due to its limited hardware, family friendly image, and those darn motion controls. This year has been an especially painful drought for Wii owners: There were NO retail games of note for the first 10 months of 2011. Absolutely, positively, NONE. That’s a long time for any console to go without any worthwhile titles, and it shows in Nintendo’s first annual earnings drop in years. Yet if there is one game that could absolve Nintendo of the mistakes it has made in the console’s last full year of life, it is The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword.
Motion controls have become the laughingstock of the games industry. Panned by critics and gamers alike as a “gimmick”, they have sadly become relegated to minigame collections and party games. While they can be fun in those contexts, they are for the most part very limited. Very few titles, even from Nintendo, actually made extensive use of the Wii’s signature innovation, and even if they did, they were generally ignored amongst critics. That is, until now.
When people first laid eyes on the Wii remote, Nintendo fans wanted one thing: to swing it like a sword in a new Zelda adventure. Well, it took them five years and an updating of the Wii remote, but Nintendo has finally fulfilled that promise with Skyward Sword.
Skyward Sword is meant as a prequel to the series, detailing the origins of several of the series’ more iconic elements, while pushing the series’ control and gameplay design template forward. But while this may be a prequel, it is actually the most advanced and complex game in the series to date. It also just may be the best.
This retelling of the Legend begins in Skyloft, an idyllic island floating far above the clouds. Skyloft was created to protect humans from a great war occurring on the world’s surface between a goddess and demons. Skyloft has been floating around for so long, that knowledge of what’s on the surface has been long forgotten amongst its inhabitants. Link is a young boy training to become a Knight of Skyloft at Skyloft’s academy. He is, of course, friends (and possibly in love) with Zelda, the headmaster’s daughter. While flying about on giant birds known as Loftwings, a mysterious storm sucks Zelda down to the surface below. Link, being the intrepid hero he has always been, sets out to rescue her.
There are a ridiculous amount of things to talk about with this game. I’m sure that the initial design document was the size of a novel, so vast is the amount of things to do and find in the game.
By far the best thing about the game is the controls. Utilizing Nintendo’s criminally underused Wii Motion Plus attachment, the controls provide an immersive and unique experience that you really can’t get anywhere else. In fact, so good are these controls, and the game as a whole, that it completely blows away whatever motion-control games are available on not just the Wii, but the HD consoles as well.
The sword control is BRILLIANT: By the time I had gotten to the first level, the motion controls became completely second nature to me. Rather than simply shaking the Wii remote to get the job done, you have to pay attention to where and when you are swinging at enemies to dispatch them. The sword controls have completely revitalized Zelda combat, making it more dynamic and free flowing, and giving the players even more options to take enemies down. For example, some players might like to shield bash enemies before slicing at them. Others might like to trick them by holding their sword one way and quickly slicing in another. I like to swing when enemies let their guard down to attack, or sneak up on them and give them a nice stab in the back. What’s great is that each enemy requires a different approach, forcing the player to pay attention to each individual enemy encounter moreso than in past games. You can’t always rely on just simply slashing away at enemies either. In fact, the bosses in the game frequently force you to use different strategies to defeat them. These are some of the best boss fights in any game, ever.
But it’s not just the combat that gets a boost from controls, for they also change the way you interact with Link’s items. They re-invent old favorites like bombs and the bow, while providing several fantastic new ones, such as the Beetle. This item is controlled by the player by twisting and turning the remote like a key to control its direction. You can use it to hit distant switches, scout the area, and later, drop bombs and carry items. It’s loads of fun to use. Even the menu choice system works with motion controls, allowing you to select options by simply angling your remote towards the item you want to select rather than pointing it at the screen. It’s intuitive and smooth, and you’ll wonder why so many Wii games didn’t make use of this little feature.
Aside from the controls, the rest of the game feels different from the rest of the Zelda series. For instance, Nintendo has now delivered a new “stamina” meter. This meter is a bright green circle that appears alongside Link when he is running or climbing, and counts down as he continues doing those activities. When it is depleted, the player has to wait for it to fully refill before Link can move at a normal pace again. The stamina meter provides a greater amount of tension to climbing moments. You have to climb quick enough so that Link doesn’t run out of stamina and lets go, but you also have to make sure to grab the Stamina Fruits along the way. Similarly, you also have to pace yourself when running. This can make gameplay moments where speed is required very intense, as you’re constantly pressing and releasing the run button to keep the meter in the green. This provides a more realistic form of movement and creates a new type of challenge for the Zelda series. It also creates the fastest Link yet, which is great for impatient players like myself.
The world layout is also unique. Rather than have a cohesive overworld as in past games, Skyward Sword is split up into four distinct, self-contained regions: forest, volcano, desert, and sky. The first three are found entirely on the surface world, with the sky connecting them. One thing to note is that the surface areas are not interconnected on the ground, so you will have to return to the sky to travel between them. Unlike past games, where once you’ve solved a region you’re pretty much done with it, in Skyward Sword, you have to return to each area multiple times. There’s even a part of the game where you return to the FIRST DUNGEON. While it might not seem exciting to have to retread the same ground again and again, Nintendo does more than enough to keep repeat visits fresh, offering more challenging enemies, new environmental hazards, new locations, new items to find, and new challenges to overcome each time.
In addition, the shop system has been conveniently overhauled. It’s all contained in one area in Skyloft. Two of the shops offer yet another new element to the Zelda formula: upgrades. On the surface, you can catch bugs and collect various treasures which you can use to upgrade both your items and potions that you buy. While I have personally made very little use of this system, it does give all of the collecting a purpose and gives you a reason to spend Rupees. Of course, the main things to buy at the shop are the potions and shields. By the time I reached the final boss, I was nearly dead broke.
The main star of the game is, as always, the dungeons. Skyward Sword showcases what will surely be remembered as some of the series’ best-ever level designs. Each dungeon is unique and offer their own puzzles and challenges. While you get the usual temples and palaces to visit, there are a few offbeat dungeons in the game that are sure to surprise longtime Zelda fans. Each dungeon offers clever gameplay mechanics, some of which could potentially support their own games entirely.
Skyward Sword has received a lot of criticism for its graphics. Yes, they are behind the curve. Yes, they are full of jagged edges and blurry textures. Yes, the draw distance is somewhat small. They’re not even the best graphics on the Wii. But what the visuals lack in power, they make up for with originality and creativity. No other game has a look quite like Skyward Sword. Inspired by French impressionism, the environments are brightly pastel colored and the textures look as though they have been painted with brush strokes, making their blurriness contribute to the paint-like effect, and thus turning a liability into an asset. The characters themselves are cel-shaded, but also fully textured, creating a more mature, yet still artful look. There’s even a weird shimmering effect that you can see as you walk alongside textures up close, which evokes the feeling of moving through a living painting. It’s an impression of what the game would look like on more powerful hardware, which fits the Impressionistic theme very well. The style can produce some very beautiful scenes. Standing on top of the big tree in Faron Woods is especially striking, as you can clearly see brush strokes in the distance where Lake Floria lies. The water effects are some of the prettiest on the console, offering a dazzling blue color and attractive ripple and reflection effects. Skyloft looks like a village straight out of a Disney movie, with extremely colorful textures that simply pop off the screen. Speaking of movies, the cutscenes are outstandingly scripted and directed, and even without full voice, manage to put across the feelings and emotions of the characters very well. The Zelda series is like no other in that it can completely change its look yet still hold on to the classic values of fun and innovation the series is known for.
Outside of voice acting (or rather, a lack of), Zelda has also become known for it’s great audio, and more specifically, it’s music. Zelda is probably the most musical game you’ll ever find that’s not a rhythm game. Every hit on an enemy creates blasts of strings on the soundtrack, and the menu selection sounds are very melodic and ear pleasing. There’s even a harp that you can play, though control is limited and all it really does is serve as an item for unlocking new areas. The game pulls off some great tricks with dynamic soundtracks. For instance, walking around different shops in the Bazaar will change the way the music sounds. If you play the harp while walking around, the notes that are played match the chord progression of the background music. The soundtrack itself is amazing. As with Super Mario Galaxy, Nintendo hired a symphony orchestra to play some of the music. That seemingly small difference makes Zelda’s music come alive in ways it hasn’t before, invoking a more cinematic feel, and really bringing Disney comparisons home. This game’s soundtrack is one of the series’ best. Rather than sticking to simple, repetitive and catchy themes as in the past, Skyward’s compositions are fuller and more complex. It’s just another reason why this game is so different from the others, yet it’s still Zelda.
No game is perfect, and Skyward Sword cannot help take a few minor dents in its armor. To begin with the game has a very slow start, and the player won’t even get to try out the sword controls until maybe about 30 minutes to 1 hour in to the game, which is when the game really begins to pick up. Shop characters strike up long, unskippable conversations every time you try to buy something. While Nintendo has done a good job with Motion Plus calibration, there are a few random moments where you might have to fight against the controls to get them do to what you want, especially during swimming and menu selection. Finally, while I didn’t mind this at all, some may feel that the game offers less freedom than past Zelda titles. For instance, it is possible to switch to nighttime, but this is useless outside of a few sidequests located in Skyloft. You are not allowed to travel down to the surface at night, because the Skyloftians lock up your Loftwing at night to prevent you from flying away. I would have liked to have seen the surface at night, but no such luck. The sky itself isn’t terribly explorable outside of a few random islands. It’s still loads of fun to jump off from an island and hitch a ride on your Loftwing, however, and I personally enjoy the flying sections of the game almost as much as the ground-based ones. In addition, enemy variety isn’t particularly high. Later enemies are simply harder, reskinned versions of the earlier ones. The variety of options you have for dispatching them easily makes up for this, however.
Those flaws are brushed away as easily as Link cuts down hundreds of Bokoblins with his sword. You’ll be more than happy to live with them because the good parts are indeed excellent.
The Bottom Line
I could talk for pages and pages about this game. I could tell you that it takes a long time to complete the main quest, and you’ll be riveted the entire time. I could talk about the various little minigames and side attractions that pop up along the way. I could talk about the epic nature of the story. What it all comes down to is The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is the best game on the Wii, which automatically makes it one of the best games ever made. When motion controls start to become a viable alternative for gamers, this is the title that everyone will look back on as a true industry trailblazer. It is a title that any gamer should experience.