Proves motion control is not just for casual games.
When the Wii system was first released late in 2006, one of its initial launch titles was an all-new Zelda fans had been waiting anxiously for since being unveiled at E3 2004. The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, initially meant as a swan song for the GameCube, was also released on Wii to take advantage of the Wii's capabilities. This move provided a perfect opportunity to please people who preferred a more traditional control scheme, as well as those interested in seeing how motion controls could work in a major installment in a household name in gaming.
The result didn't disappoint. The Wii version was every bit as playable, if not even more, than its GameCube counterpart. Pointing staple weapons of the series, such as the slingshot and bow, was much more intuitive when you had the ability to simply point at the targets on the screen.
After the initial novelty of motion control had died down somewhat, however, it became more and more apparent that the game had not reached the full potential of what motion controls could do to expand upon an established core experience. In the end, it was obvious the game was initially designed with the GameCube in mind. The motion controls worked fine, but were simply tacked on a ported GameCube game during the later stages of development. In other words: the game was not designed with motion control in mind.
That's were Skyward Sword comes in, a game designed fully around the Wii's motion controls. As such, you will have to be in possession of either the Wii Remote Plus, or the Motion Plus adapter for the old Wii Remote. The extra investment is worth it, though, as it provides an unprecedented sense of involvement with Link's quest. Now you arm movement is translated 1:1 on the screen. The control scheme is used in many innovative and engaging ways. Instead of having to simply perform a simple wrist movement to plow through legions of monsters, like in Twilight Princess, you have to watch your enemies closely and look for an opening in their defenses to knock them down. Whether you throw objects by making a flinging motion, use a bowling motion to roll a bomb in a small hole or lift your Remote in the air to charge your sword with a divine power, it all makes you feel like you are really doing everything that Link does, rather than making him do it for you. It may seem like a mostly cosmetic difference at first, but the heroic feeling you get after beating the first few monsters with your own movements is something I never felt in a game before and needs to be experienced to fully comprehend it. This is the much-needed innovation promised back in 2006. It's a shame it took until near the end of the Wii's lifespan to get it done right, but this is the game that proves motion controls can also work for core experiences like Zelda.
Story-wise, the game is a prequel to earlier games. While the chronology of the games might not always be consistent, Nintendo avoids confusion this time around by placing it at the very beginning of the series. The kingdom of Hyrule, so often seen in other installments in the series, has not yet been established, and is a dangerous world filled with evil creatures. After an ancient war over the possession of the series' supreme relic, the Triforce, the land's patron goddess, Hylia, sends her people into the sky. Together with the Triforce, the people live on a set of islands floating in the sky. After many centuries, the old surface world has become but a legend. Unreachable because of a barrier of clouds, many now believe it doesn't even exist.
Link, the protagonist, is a student at the Knight Academy in Skyloft, his hometown between the clouds. The titular Zelda is not a princess yet, but the daughter of headmaster Gaepora (whose name is another indication for fans that this is indeed a prequel). Other characters include Groose, a bully who is like a mixture between Biff Tannen from Back to the Future and Harry Potter's Draco Malfoy (complete with two goons) and the main villain Ghirahim, a creepy yet flamboyant character, hell-bent on reviving his demonic master. Link has to traverse various regions, above and below the clouds, to thwart his plans and find the missing Zelda. The story goes from an initial high school love triangle to an epic high fantasy quest that is a mixture of old and new that only Nintendo can balance out so delicately. This is a major improvement over Twilight Princess, which hearkened back to the Nintendo 64's iconic Ocarina of Time a little too much.
The quest leads Link to four areas. First is the Sky, which he can traverse by means of his Loftwing, a bird that acts as his steed. Then there are three surface areas: the Faron Woods, a lush green area full of life, the fiery Eldin Volcano and Lanayru Desert, where the remnants of an old civilization still exist. Each of these four areas is distinctly different. The Sky area acts as a hub from which the other three can be accessed. This is a sharp departure from previous Zelda titles, where the whole overworld was a more open-ended area. In this game the overworld doesn't feel like one piece, but more like its cut in pieces. You'll go back to each of these areas multiple times to do a quest or discover a new part previously unexplored. Each area is a bit more condensed than in older Zeldas, but there is much more to do. Puzzles are much less reserved for the dungeons and are also found outside.
Speaking of the dungeons, they are top-notch this time around. This is where the motion controls truly shine. Whether you swing from your whip across a chasm like Indiana Jones or have a sword duel with an armoured skeleton, the Wii Remote becomes any item you will need. I will not spoil everything, but the by far best Zelda item in many years is a remote controlled beetle that can fly. You can send it into tiny holes to grab items Link cannot reach. The MotionPlus technology gives very precise control over the direction in which the beetle is going and it is simply a joy to use it. Each of the items allow for a different way to use the Wii Remote in a way that simply wasn't possible before. This comes into play especially well in boss fights. Sometimes its a sword duel that requires you to study your opponents movements closely. Another battle has you pulling the limbs of a giant robot with a whip or cutting of the tentacles of a huge sea monster on a pirate ship. Each dungeon is unique and has a boss battle that utilizes the Wii Remote to its fullest. I will even go as far as to say that Skyward Sword has the best dungeons and certainly the best boss fights in the entire series.
But the innovation goes even beyond motion controls. Even familiar dungeon puzzles, like hitting a set of switches in a particular order or defeating a number of enemies to unlock a door, are somehow expanded upon to feel fresh. The coolest puzzles of all, however, are found in the Lanayru Desert in the form of Timeshift Stones. Hitting these stones, reverts the area within a small radius around them into an age centuries ago, when the desert was a still a lush, green, technologically advanced area. Broken robots come to life, flowers bloom and machines start functioning. This allows for very interesting and fun puzzles that are amongst the most clever in the entire series.
The whole main quest takes about twenty hours to complete, but then there are still hearts to collect, Goddess Cubes to destroy, unlocking treasure chests up in the sky, bugs to catch, weapons and armour to upgrade and quests to complete for Skyloft's residents. If you want to complete everything you can double the number of hours, giving you plenty of reason to dust off your aging Wii. And there's an unlockable hard mode as well.
Something that is very unique is the graphical style. It takes elements from the realistic style of Twilight Princess and Ocarina of Time and blends it with the cartoonish cell-shading of Wind Waker to create something that is both unique yet familiar, regardless of what Zelda titles you've already played. The most interesting thing about this style, however, is the impressionistic style, inspired by nineteenth-century masters such as Cezanne. When seen from afar, the environments blur into colourful dots like in pointillistic paintings. It's both beautiful and masks the limitations of the Wii system. Much like Cezanne, Van Gogh or Gauguin in their time, Nintendo overcomes artistic limitations by simply blurring them without everything becoming ugly. While it may not be as impressive as the detailed style of Twilight Princess or the interactive comic book that is Wind Waker, Nintendo still manages to come up with a style that suits the game and has its own kind of beauty that sets it apart from other Zeldas. I found the rich use of colours refreshing after the somewhat dark tones of Twilight Princess.
The whole presentation is complemented by an orchestral score. While the compositions themselves may not always be as good as in previous Zelda titles, the fact that we have them orchestrated is something that makes up for it. Each piece fits its area or scene perfectly and you recognize the love that went into it.
To stick with the topic of music, it's not as much of a part of the gameplay as we've come to expect from a Zelda game, which is sad. In Ocarina of Time or Majora's Mask you could control time itself and in Wind Waker you could change the direction of the wind. In Skyward Sword, it's only used in puzzles here and there or to find secret treasures, but not in a huge, game-changing way, which is kind of a disappointment.
Another missed opportunity was the lack of a truly open-ended world. This was one of the main attractions of previous Zelda games. In this game you are stuck with four separate regions not directly connected to each other. This is a shame as the sky and surface areas would have been a perfect opportunity to fly freely over forests and mountains on your bird. Instead, you get to parachute into holes in the clouds to the world below. It could have been even better than the joy or riding on horseback in previous titles, and would have made getting around much easier.
The number of boring 'fetch-quests' is incredibly annoying. As good as the dungeons are, much of the overworld is done through some kind of lame uninspired collection quest. Most notable is the Silent Realm, in which you try to collect little drops called Goddess Tears. At first the stealth-based gameplay is lots of fun, but after multiple times it gets old. The rest of the quests in between dungeons usually don't go any further than using your sword as a dowsing machine to collect five shards of a key or a searching for a missing object. In Twilight Princess or Wind Waker quests like these were some of the most hated parts of the game, so it is a mystery why there is even more of them than ever in this game. At first I liked how the game seemed to make each visit to a particular area different, but after a while the challenges presented became rather repetitious.
The thing that you will likely hate most, though, is Fi. Fi is like Navi the fairy was in Ocarina of Time, and provides you with useful advise. But, goodness, she can be so annoying, she makes even the infamous Navi seem like heaven. The character itself is not the biggest problem. The robotic speech is hilarious and Fi's design is downright gorgeous. The irritating part is that she is a little bit too helpful at times. You can ask her for extra hints, which is optional, but I doubt you will need it much, because she often spoils the fun for you by almost giving the solution away. Oftentimes you can figure a puzzle out without Fi's constant stating of the obvious. I even found myself figuring a puzzle out before Fi even started to direct me towards the likely solution.
While the motion controls usually work flawlessly, they do not always work well in a few situations. Particularly the rolling motion in which you roll bombs like a bowling ball is often not registered. On rare occasions you might need to calibrate the MotionPlus again, although this is done really quickly and is not a major nuisance at all.
The Bottom Line
Skyward Sword breaks new ground for motion-controlled gameplay that will be built upon by video game designers for years to come. Once again the Zelda series revolutionizes the same basic overworld-dungeon formula that has existed for over 25 years. The fact that it also does take a few steps backwards keeps it from transcending the quality of the other 3D Zelda titles. When all is said and done, however, it still stands proudly among the classics in Nintendo's iconic franchise.