The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

Skyloft beckons, but are the motion controls worth the soaring adventure?

My gaming history with The Legend of Zelda has always been a strange one. Many of my peers, at one time or another, were “N64 Kids” and sing the nostalgic praises of Ocarina of Time (1998) or Majora’s Mask (2000) to this day. Meanwhile, my first experience with the franchise was Oracle of Ages (2001), a Game Boy Color game developed with the help of Capcom. Even when I got a Gamecube in 2003, I hadn’t even considered The Wind Waker (2002), which is ultimately my favorite game in the series today. When I played Ocarina for the first time, on a PC emulator no less, I truly understood why the series was so special. The story of a boy’s journey to save the world, on a grand adventure filled with tricky puzzles, dangerous locales, and intriguing characters, all while seeming to bring some new perspective to the video game industry – THIS is what The Legend of Zelda is all about. Whether it’s fully realized 3D worlds, time-centric story telling, the importance of gameplay over deceptively charming graphics, or even something as simple as being able to save your game, it’s astounding what Zelda has done for this medium.

So here we are, on the onset of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (2011), a game that is five years in the making for Nintendo Wii. Even with this title, my history and anticipation took a turn for the bizarre. I never expected to be sitting in the Nokia Theatre in June 2010 at Nintendo’s E3 press conference. I never expected to be sitting in the fifth row, as Shigeru Miyamoto burst onto the stage with sword and shield in hand to reveal the newest Zelda game. But with all the anticipation rising in my chest, I never expected all the technology there in the room to cause one of the worst stage demonstrations in recent memory. Skyward Sword was a very intriguing take on the franchise, as the reveal trailer certainly indicated, as we would be using Wii MotionPlus to become the hero of legend. But after a public showing like that, did we want to? As most people know, the show floor booths were a completely different story. While I waited in line for 90 minutes to get my hands on the game, I saw player after player be slayed by a large scorpion creature. However, once I got to try the same section for myself, I knew the controls worked as advertised, as the faults I saw before were that of the player not knowing how to play a 3D Zelda game to its fullest extent, rather than the controls plaguing the user. After some side and back dodges, plus learning how to actually be mindful of one’s remote swings, I scored a free t-shirt and walked away from my Skyward Sword experience quite pleased.

For months, we heard nothing aside from another E3 showing, but the last month has been a blitzkrieg of promotional material from Nintendo. Now, forty-one hours and a stressful week later, I have conquered the game. However, before I go pick up my own special edition pre-order, I figured I would share my thoughts on the game as I intend to keep spoilers at a minimum. While it don’t intend it to be a traditional review, I thought I would look at what other reviewers have said and compare it to my experiences with the game.

GRAPHICS

It may be the most shallow aspect of a game to judge, yet most naive and juvenile game players consider graphics to be one of the more important facets of a game. So it is not surprising to see some of these individuals on the internet say that the graphics are, for lack of a better word, poor, especially when compared to their glorious Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 consoles. Yet, these are same people that say write Metacritic user reviews for Skyward Sword that say, and I kid you not, “This might just be the worst game of all time. Miyamoto must be going senile because he just keeps rehashing the same game over and over. I guess if you are a child this may be fun, so get it for your 5 year old nephew, but for mature gamers such as myself it is lacking. There are no guns, no blood, no swearing and no sexuality. I’ll stick with a proper game like Modern Warfare 3, thanks.” The fact of the matter is that it is pretty apparent that the Wii is outdated technology. Nintendo made the decision back in 2006 that high-definition was not as pervasive in home televisions, so to save costs and reach a wider audience, they decided that the Wii would be a standard-definition video game console.

With the Wii U set to upgrade that in 2012, as HDTVs appear to be the standard now, we are clearly reaching the end of the Wii’s life cycle. However, that does not mean that Skyward Sword’s graphics are flawed at all. I consider Skyward Sword to be Wind Waker’s spiritual successor, much like Twilight Princess (2006) was to Ocarina of Time, and this is one of several reasons why. Upon initial glance, the graphic design is all a matter of taste. Some see beauty in it, while others remain skeptical. However, after some play time, you become engrossed in the world, appreciating the design as a whole, as opposed to nitpicking at minor quibbles such as a rough textures here and there. I had moments of pause where Link sometimes had strangely-defined lips (I know, of all things), but these were rare and the enveloping nature of Skyward Sword’s artistry brought me right back in. What Nintendo has managed to do, by packing in such a dense world and managing the hardware’s technical shortcomings on one single-layer DVD is rather remarkable. It also makes Zelda fans very excited for the potential that lies in Wii U.

CINEMATICS

When Twilight Princess was released, most people noted its increased use of cutscenes, but Skyward Sword takes this to a whole other level. Nintendo advertised that around 100 minutes of cinematic sequences take place in the game and not only is that apparent, but these scenes are masterfully done. You feel the excitement and action during sequences such as the first main story break (akin to young Zelda’s Hyrule Castle escape in Ocarina of Time), but the tender, emotional moments are equally as moving. As a film major, I could go on for pages on certain examples, nothing brilliant uses of lighting, framing, and camera movement, but that may be for another, spoiler-filled day later down the line. These cinematics are complemented by characters that are expressive, engaging, and simply fascinating. While the main characters naturally stand out in this regard, it is a testament to the game’s depth and design when players care for the characters they meet during sidequests, too. Whether you help a character grow stronger as a person, rip their heart out by misusing a love letter, or even help them become a human, these characters have personality which similar ones in other games seem to lack. The voice acting helps immensely in this regard – while Link is still the same silent protagonist as ever, other characters have more voice-driven exclamations at their disposal. You really get a sense of their mood and character, with the invaluable experience of adding your own subconscious voice onto them. I would argue that those who want a fully voice-acted Zelda game, Link not included, are missing the point of what makes the characters so special already.

STORY

Everyone seems to want to know how the story is and by telling you the following, I am being extra careful to tread lightly on the spoiler front. If you are trying to rank Zelda’s stories, I think it mostly comes down to personal opinions and what you appreciate most in a story. So it is not fair for me to say that Skyward Sword is the best Zelda story ever told. It is not difficult to say, however, that Skyward Sword is up there with the best Zelda stories and it happens to be my personal favorite. There are many that love Ocarina’s wide-spread, world-saving quest, as well as Majora’s bittersweet time-traveling, interpersonal events. For this game, however, it is important that the motivation of saving Zelda is the root of everything, which makes the strength of the character development that much more important. Yet, the true strength of Skyward Sword’s story, without going into too much detail, is the concept of personal growth, which is fundamental in a classic hero narrative. Ocarina had Link going through two time periods and subtlely learning things along the way, while Majora dealt with acceptance and understanding along the 72-hour time frame. When you play Skyward Sword, hopefully you will notice how the game reinforces the transformation from what Link starts as, to what he ends as. In addition, the writing overall was rather still, which helped establish a great deal of characterization and humor. Plus, when the game throws in many references to Zelda and Hylian mythology, it’s a special feeling to understand everything, so for the Zelda enthusiast, the experience is quite a treat. Giving specific examples would involve spoilers, so I will have to stop there. For the purposes of this write-up, I was very pleased with the narrative as a whole and its resolution.

SOUND

An integral part of the Zelda experience is all about sound. For the first game to involve fully-orchestrated tracks into the score, similar to Super Mario Galaxy 2 (2010), they do so splendidly at all the right moments. These are mostly done for big cutscenes, bird flying, and more – while they evoke all perfect emotions then, for the rest of the game, the music style is similar to that of Twilight Princess. The MIDI-esque soundtrack is noticeable when compared to the orchestrated parts, but it is essential to contribute the dynamism that Skyward Sword’s soundtrack has, much like Twilight Princess’ did. By that, I mean that songs will fluidly transition at appropriate points depending on the circumstances, by either adding or removing aspects of instrumentation. This is most notable in Skyloft’s Bazaar shop area, as well as one of the three main land areas, which implements a simple, but effective puzzle mechanic extensively.

Still, I don’t think Skyward Sword has the best soundtrack of any Zelda game overall. I found that aside from the oft-internet-noted “Zelda’s Lullaby reversed” theme (dubbed “Ballad of the Goddess”) and the flying theme, few themes resonate with the player as being memorable. Although, I must say I am a complete sucker for the “romance theme” that plays during the “Father, what if Link’s not ready” scene at the beginning. As far as the quality of melodic composition goes, I would still have to say that if you compared the flying theme from Skyward Sword with the sailing theme from Wind Waker, I would much rather go on a boat for the sole purpose of listening to that piece. Perhaps I believe that Skyward Sword’s soundtrack just doesn’t measure up to past games because of how infrequently you use the game’s main instrument. Sure, it’s used to move main plot points ahead, but you won’t be using those songs nearly as much as you would have in past Zelda iterations. Although, I do recommend playing it at any time when you get the chance and notice what happens. With lack of frequency comes lack of memorability, and while the the soundtrack overall certainly has a lot of quality, it still has yet to really stick with me like past games did.

GAME STRUCTURE

Skyward Sword is broken up into two distinct locations – Skyloft and the surface. Skyloft is Link’s home, where he has grown up with friends, teachers, and neighbors. With all these people that will need assistance over the course of the game, as well as the shop with a wide variety of services, this is where you will travel to for a break in the dungeon-tackling. The place is rather large, intricately designed for later events to transpire, but it is very important for the player to learn the layout of the land as quickly as possible. Consulting the map often is always an option, but it’s always much easier to know where you’re going automatically and all it takes is a little bit of practice. When you take to the sky, the Wind Waker similarities become more apparent, as the sky is filled with small islands, some with their own sidequest and many containing chests that are unlocked by freeing Goddess Cubes. Meanwhile, the surface is broken up into three large areas, which Zelda veterans might be able to already name. These areas are exceptionally dense, as they are not only large in scale, but demand revisiting for main quests, only for the player to discover that new things can be explored with the addition of the latest upgrades. It’s a very Metroid-like style, which is certainly different for Zelda, as most exploration in past games has been about breadth of areas, as opposed to depth. Drop-in points are unlocked when you call upon bird statues to save, which become critical for future revisits. While there are some arguments for padding, I can understand how some can perceive the structure as such, but I wasn’t particularly bothered, especially when I could experience a new part of the vast area I thought I knew.

In the couple years before Skyward Sword was released, Nintendo kept praising it for breaking the Zelda norm, so if you intend on taking these words as revolutionary, I would prepare to be a little disappointed. More specifically, it does many things different and keeps many things the same, which I appreciate. Some critics blast the game for having a predictable formula, but I think that comes with the Zelda territory and why fans love these games. You know what you’re getting into with dungeons, using items, and solving puzzles or quests to move the main plot along. The differences shine though in Skyward Sword, as main dungeons are shorter in length, but the in-between surface events are exceptionally dungeon-like in their own right. Essentially, it feels like you are playing one long dungeon while you are in the main surface areas, accented with buildings that really emphasize this point with more challenging puzzles and brilliant bosses at the end. These puzzles are exceedingly well done, as I found myself remarking out loud how clever certain designs were on several occasions. Of course, whenever you want a break from the puzzle-solving, Skyloft is always a quick flight away for the player to get their sidequesting on.

The new concept of upgrading equipment is very prevalent in Skyward Sword and it works quite nicely in concept. Over the journey, Link will acquire eight main items and can carry up to eight items (with purchased expansions) in his Adventure Pouch. These held items can include empty bottles, item ammo expansions, effect medals, and more. Items will be upgraded by collecting a wide variety of treasures and bugs throughout the game. Certain upgrades will ask for specific treasures (plus a price), while bugs will be used in sidequests and infusing potions to make them stronger. It’s a great idea for RPG enthusiasts, as your Link can be prepared for adventure completely differently than someone else’s. While it could have been fleshed out a bit more, it will add many more hours to gameplay, but for those that could care less, it is entirely possible to complete the game without bothering to upgrade a single item. That kind of balance shows the strength of the design, giving the players choice depending on preference, without hindrance for either choice.

CONTROL

For the first Zelda game to feature Wii MotionPlus, you might be wondering if it works as advertised. The short answer of my experience was yes. The longer answer is absolutely, yes. It’s difficult to say what technical difficulties certain reviewers that bash control are having, when so many like myself are having a sublime experience. Players need to realize that there is a large difficulty curve when it comes to getting over “Wii Waggle,” especially if they’ve played other Wii games before. It’s humbling to know that if things aren’t working properly, it’s likely your fault and you need to improve as a player. However, if calibrations are off, you can recenter with the press of a single button, or recalibrate the MotionPlus entirely, which takes about ten seconds. It’s great to see all the tweaks that were given to items you thought you knew, but I’ll save those experiences for when you play the game.

Flying also works wonderfully, both with items that implement it and with your Crimson Loftwing that soars through the skies. I had difficulty with the first flying task, as I was constantly losing speed and falling, but this was quickly remedied by learning that I could gain altitude by shaking the Wii remote in a downward direction. Hopefully this helps you avoid similar problems when you play. When you travel the skies, it’s certainly much quicker than Wind Waker’s travel, especially if you use the special acceleration islands. Plus, you are engaged the entire time, which cannot be said in Wind Waker’s case. I don’t think I fall in line with the idea of “I don’t ever want to go back to a button-based Zelda game,” but this is a great achievement on the part of Nintendo that I really embraced. This is what the Wii’s vision truly was and it’s just unfortunate it had to come at the end of the system’s life cycle. It makes a video game player wonder what the Wii’s “hardcore legacy” would have been, had this kind of control been implemented from its launch in 2006, or even at MotionPlus’ launch in 2009. In short, it takes a great effort to become mindful of your motions, but once your skills improve, you realize how wonderfully the controls work. That is, unless you are somehow inexplicably plagued by technical or self-perspective difficulties.

GRIPES

I’m a pretty critical person by nature when it comes to media, so I encountered some aspects that I was less than pleased with. If I were to numericize the game with score, these gripes wouldn’t hinder it in any way, but it’s more based on my personal preferences. Your preferences may be different than mine. So with that clarification out of the way, here I go, still being careful with spoilers. There are times where Link visits a place called the Silent Realm. I won’t explain what you do there, but it combined my least favorite aspects of the past couple Zelda games and put it into one challenge. It was a clever gameplay choice and I’m sure some people will like the unbelievable amount of stress it causes, but I personally hated playing it. Also, why do game designers think slide puzzles are a good idea? I cannot stand them. I also wish the pace of the text was much faster – there was no menu option to change the speed and it was tiresome to hold A for the text to progress at a quicker pace. Finally, while the writing was excellent overall, you’ll probably find the story twists to be appropriately predictable as I did. Some of it was just too “on-the-nose,” if you catch my drift. I would give one example of how I wish they handled something differently, but it is super-spoilerish and I realize that they are trying to have this game appeal to all ages and gaming experience levels. Again, very personal gripes, but nothing that should detract from a typical game review.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Wow. Just wow, what a game. I wish I did not cram the playing time, but that is what needs to be done in the attempt of a write-up for the site. You need to know that this game is long. As in “about twice as long as any other Zelda game” long. So even though you unlock a “Hero Mode” after completion, would I play through it again? To be honest, it will be a while before I definitely do again. And when I do then, it will be spread out over a few weeks to fully appreciate it. I do plan on returning to the game soon, since I copied my save file to another save before the final boss showdown, so I can go back and try to 100% the game. Skyward Sword is that enjoyable of a game, when I of all people want to 100% a game. So, I don’t really believe in giving out a score, so what I will do is this…

– If you’re a Zelda enthusiast, you already have the game by now, I’m sure. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did! Let’s talk about it, but please use spoiler tags extensively in your comment responses!

– If you have a Wii that’s collecting dust, I will tell you that this is the best game for Wii. It fully realizes what Nintendo was trying to do with motion control and you owe it to yourself as a Wii owner to play this with MotionPlus.

– If you hate motion control (looking at you, other reviewers), please realize your own perfectly-acceptable prejudices, instead of calling a game bad because it does something that you don’t personally like.

Thanks for your time, everyone.

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