Skyward Sword is the first considerable shift in the way Zelda games have been structured, and it is almost a complete success
Up until the release of Skyward Sword, it had been 25 years, or 9125 days, or 219000 hours since Nintendo first unleashed The Legend of Zelda onto the world. It is possible to say that, through that amount of time, there had never been a single second elapsed during which no developers inside Nintendo’s headquarters were working on a title of the franchise, just like there has never been a millisecond since then without a Nintendo system being turned on while a Zelda adventure unfolded on the screen.
Through that quarter of a century, Nintendo was constantly creating quirky characters, calculating puzzling dungeons, drawing stunning art, engineering immersive scenarios, and constructing moving plots; and during that same period, the company – with almost full accuracy – hit its target of creating games that rank among the best titles ever right in the bullseye.
Legacy, though, is a very heavy burden, and as it is to be expected, every new game in the series is already born with a huge weight on its shoulders: the weight of being automatically compared to its glorious predecessors. No series in the gaming world, and perhaps in the entire universe of entertainment, is as demanded and analyzed as microscopically as The Legend of Zelda, because no series has garnered the same level of respect for being so consistently amazing for so long.
Whether or not The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is the crowning achievement of the series is one endless discussion, but one thing is for sure: until its launch, no game in the franchise had tinkered with the pillars of a Zelda game the way Skyward Sword did. It is a title that doesn’t blow all other Zelda games out of the water, but it proves that – if necessary – successful changes can be implemented to the series; shifts that could give it enough vitality to roll for another 25 years.
Skyward Sword serves as the prequel to Ocarina of Time and deals with the origins of many legendary aspects that are recurrent throughout the series. An epic orchestrated piece sets the tone for the telling of the story of how the Triforce was created by the three goddesses – Din, Farore and Nayru – and entrusted to Hylia. Soon after that event, the Demon Lord, Demise, amassed an army in order to grab the Triforce for himself since the object would grant him his wish for endless power.
During the battle between the good tribes of the world and the evil army, Hylia used her power to send pieces of the land skyward in order to fully protect humans and the Triforce from Demise. The battle was fought, Demise was defeated and sealed, and with the passing of time the world under the clouds became a source of mystery, interest, and fears to those living in peace in the sky. And it is on one of those islands that Link, the chosen hero of the goddess, lives his life unaware of his fate.
From the get go, Skyward Sword manages to develop a deep relationship between Zelda and Link. He is the quiet absent-minded boy who is about to compete in the Wing Ceremony, an important competition whose winner gets promoted to a knight, and Zelda is the daughter of the headmaster of the academy where Link and other students have classes and train.
Through its first three hours, Skyward Sword takes a turn towards cinematic territory and develops its central characters masterfully. The underlying feeling of romance in Link and Zelda’s relationship is absolutely heartwarming and their dialogues are very well-written, not stepping into clichéd land-mines at any times.
By the time tragedy strikes and Zelda falls to the land below the clouds following a mysterious incident, players will be so involved in the duo’s sweet relationship that the source of the urge for adventure will not be restricted to seeing what dungeon comes next. There will be real motivation in saving the damsel in distress and bringing those two friends back together, and the plot is smartly developed by alternating the unraveling of both the traditional good-versus-evil saga and the human aspects that surround the journey.
By the time one gains control of a fully equipped Link, it is possible to notice how big of an overhaul has been done in the controls department. They are definitely hard to get used to, not because they are bad – although there are indeed some hiccups here and there, but because never has a game been so integrated with actual motion controls.
Skyward Sword throws a whole control philosophy out the window, and brings in a new paradigm. Even the most experienced players will fumble with the setup at first, as if they were 5 year olds having their first contact with a joystick and having to look down at the position of the buttons before every move. It takes patience and a bag of good will, but within four or five hours the difficulties will be surpassed and it will be easy to see the benefits brought by the Wii Motion Plus. Zelda games have never been this streamlined and engaging, and it is all because of the controls.
Undoubtedly, the game’s focus on motion will disappoint some of the fans, which will see the little issues of responsiveness and a few other quirks – such as the occasional but far from bothersome recalibration that is prompted by the game – as proof that such philosophy does not work in a game of the Zelda brand. Those that are able to look past the little issues, though, will probably not want to go back to a traditional control method.
There are two central benefits brought by this new implementation, the first one being combat. Players can now accurately perform a large number of different slashes, and it is all done by performing the correspondent move. It is possible to stab – a motion that sometimes is indeed problematic in its capture; perform vertical or horizontal swipes; and start moving the sword either from the left, from the right, from the top, or from the bottom. The game gives players total freedom as to what attack to execute.
The large array of moves becomes vital because all enemies in the game are designed so that only specific slashes will successfully land; for example, Deku Babas can have either vertical or horizontal mouths, which means only a slash parallel with its mouth orientation will defeat it. Combat has now become a puzzle in itself, and by doing so Nintendo has added a lot of value to a game whose battles would have otherwise been solved in button mashing affairs.
The second benefit comes in the equipping of items. Players no longer have to map equipment such as the bow, boomerang or hookshot to a limited number of buttons. Instead, all that it takes is a press of the B-button and a wheel with all items will open up. By dragging the cursor towards the item of choice players will select the item and quickly equip it. There is no need to pause the action, and the switch from one item to another can even be done as Link is walking.
Boss battles, dungeons and, as a consequence, the whole game gain a brand new dynamic, which is incredibly beneficial since for the first time ever the dungeons, the overworld, and the bosses require a balanced use of all the items in Link’s inventory. The item acquired in the dungeon is no longer the key to do everything, working – instead – as an extra ingredient on the recipe that allows Link to travel further and further into his quest.
The alterations brought by Skyward Sword are not limited to the controls, though. The game’s structure has also been considerably shifted although it still follows the pattern that has been present in the series since A Link to the Past. Here, Link will do a small quest above the clouds, which will open up an area below the sky; explore the area; reach the dungeon; and go back to the sky to open another area. It’s a cycle that repeats itself constantly, but that is made interesting by the different puzzles, scenarios, and enemies that show up along the way.
During its second half, the game will make players backtrack into previously visited places, as there are only three distinct areas below the clouds. In Metroid-like fashion, the backtracking centers around the discovery of incredible brand-new locations that could not be accessed due to a lacking piece of equipment.
A few of those missions lack creativity and end up coming off as dull means to extend the playing time, but most of them are actually deeply engaging and creative, such as when Link – having lost all his equipment – must find smart ways to sneak through a slightly altered enemy-ridden version of a previously visited scenario while trying to recover his items; or the long mini-epic ocean-centered quest that leads to the finding of a haunted vessel.
The biggest difference between Skyward Sword and all previous Zelda games lies in the fact that, here, the dungeons seem to have leaked to the outside of their own structures; the overworld, instead of being the usual empty landscape through which Link mindlessly rushes with his transportation method of choice, has now become an open-wide dungeon where, in place of distinct rooms, players will find one large area that needs to be carefully explored by killing enemies and solving progressive puzzles so that Link can reach the actual dungeon in the area.
Consequently, the game loses to its recent predecessors in terms of explorable area, but the result is an adventure that is just as long and much more engaging, as it is always demanding players that they look around, explore, find ways to get through treacherous land, and use their entire inventory in the search of items that will open up the way to the dungeon. Skyward Sword is, therefore, much denser and more constant in its challenge than previous Zelda games.
Once players reach the dungeons, they will be treated to the usual mind-blowing Zelda design, and it is worth mentioning that Skyward Sword has the strongest most consistent bunch of dungeons among all titles that preceded it. Because dungeons are no longer centered around one specific item, most of the puzzle solutions are much less obvious this time around, instead making Link dig to the bottom of his inventory to find previously acquired items that will help him in certain situations.
Link’s inventory, which presents the usual items such as the slingshot and bombs, has also received some brand-new clever pieces of equipment that make use of the motion-centered nature of the game, such as the beetle – a flying insect controlled with the tilting of the Wiimote – and the whip, which can be used to beat down enemies or manipulate far away switches depending on the way players flick their wrist.
While the land does not offer any open-wide spaces where no goal is present other than going from point A to point B, the sky will satisfy players that still have that desire to feel like they are on a journey through a sprawling world. Controlling Link’s giant bird, however, can be a dull affair. Since all of the creature’s movements are done with motion controls, navigating to the hero’s destination usually takes more effort than it should, forcing players to keep the Wiimote pointed towards the screen while shaking it every once in a while so that the bird flaps its wings to recover lost altitude.
The main problem with the sky, though, is that – far more than that of The Wind Waker – it feels empty even though its size does not even touch the gargantuan proportions of The Great Sea. With the exception of Skyloft – the central town in the game – and another four pieces of ground where fun mini-games and interesting people can be found, the sky simply lacks cleverly designed islands, as most of them look like bland floating patches of grass.
Due to such general lack of life, the sky lacks the strong sense of discovery and exploration that was present on The Great Sea and that made traveling between islands for 3 minutes an engaging experience. Instead of the excitement of exploration, players will mostly smell the heavy air of missed opportunity while mounting their Loftwing.
Like all Zelda games, Skyward Sword is filled with sidequests that complement the adventure. Skyloft is packed with interesting characters whose characteristics are made more extravagant by the game’s expressive visuals, hence giving them more personality and making them much more likable, and – as expected – most of them will have problems Link needs to solve by moving a little bit out of his central quest’s path. The rewards for clearing those tasks offer plenty of motivation, but while some missions are clever and provide neat bits of character development, a few of them feel padded and entail long trips through the world.
Additionally on the department of extras, under the sky, players will find Goddesses Cubes, which when activated by Link’s sword will open up treasure chests with big rewards located above the clouds. Finding and activating those cubes requires an extra deal of exploration of the earthly scenarios, and, in conjunction with the aforementioned sidequests, they are likely to turn Skyward Sword into a fifty-hour game for most players.
On the technical side of things, Skyward Sword is certainly – alongside the two Super Mario Galaxy games – the Wii’s finest hour. The art direction, a curious blend between the extremely cartoonish Wind Waker and the more realistic Twilight Princess looks perfect for the series. The Legend of Zelda has always been a series sitting between a real medieval world, strangely populated by extravagant characters, and the uncanny magical spiritual realm, and the graphics – which seem to have been taken out of a watercolor painting – convey exactly that. The anticipated orchestrated soundtrack lacks the catchy value some past Zelda songs featured, but in the other hand they add a lot to the game by making it undoubtedly grander and more urgent.
In a game as huge and Skyward Sword some occasional missteps are bound to show up. Fi, Link’s companion through the whole game, is a character whose robotic behavior starts off as amusing, but ends up being tiresome and stops players from creating any emotional connection to her relationship with Link. Skyward Sword also presents the minor game design flaw, inherited directly from Twilight Princess, where – after resetting the game and picking up from where they left off – players will have to go through a quick explanation on any bugs or materials they acquire even if they had already done so in a previous gaming section, an unnecessary feature that breaks up the pace of the game and annoys players.
Finally, whenever players select an item from their inventory list, the game will recalibrate the Wiimote by considering the point to where the cursor was pointing to at the moment Link brings out said item as the center of the TV screen, players who fail to notice that will invariably have to go through the hustle of re-centering their Wiimote every time they use an item. The game could have made such process clear so that all players know that, when pulling out an item, they must focus the pointer on the center of the screen so that the calibration is not out-of-sorts.
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is the first considerable shift in the way Zelda games have been structured, and it is almost a complete success. The main staples of the series are all here: puzzles, stunning bosses, incredible dungeons, overwhelming scenarios, and lovable characters, but at the same time it is clear to see that Nintendo tried to move away from many features that were rusting with the passing of the years, and they have done so quite well.
With 25 years on its back, there may be no harder task in the whole gaming industry than creating an amazing new title on the Zelda franchise, because as soon as a new installment is born, it will have to shine brightly under the light of comparison against masterpieces like Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask, and Wind Waker. Therefore, Nintendo’s ability to constantly rise up to that challenge during the series’ long history is worthy of praise and many thanks, for The Legend of Zelda’s ability to conjure up the feeling of awe from both longtime fans and newcomers remains perfectly intact.