The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword arrived in late 2011 to much fanfare and glowing praise from many video game outlets. IGN proclaimed: “The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is the greatest Zelda game ever created”, and Eurogamer assured us: “It is the most formally inventive Zelda in a long time.”
Now, I was a late comer to Skyward Sword due to its release falling firmly in the period that I had become disillusioned with the Wii, its lack of 3rd party support and abundance of shovel-ware. I toyed with the idea of repurchasing the system just to experience this apparent revolutionary new Zelda game, but cooler heads prevailed and I decided that £170 was just too much to spend on one game, even if it is the best Zelda game ever put to disc.
Fast forward to 2015, and I’m making use of the Wii U’s backwards compatibility to finally clear this game from my expansive backlog of titles, and while there are a lot of awesome ideas present in Skyward Sword, to claim it to be the most “formally inventive Zelda” just doesn’t ring true for me. Skyward Sword recycles the same Zelda formula that we saw in 1998 with Ocarina of Time, and does very little to build upon its predecessor.
Don’t get me wrong, Skyward Sword does a lot of awesome things; it’s gorgeous to look at for one, with it’s beautiful water colored environments and painterly aesthetic making it seem like the perfect melding of Ocarina of Time and Wind Waker with a splash of Okami thrown in; in fact, the art style is so well implemented that you’d be forgiven for thinking you were playing an interactive cartoon. It’s clear the art style is covering for the Wii system’s shortcomings and outdated hardware, but it does a good job of doing so; when compared to the likes of Skyrim it just doesn’t compare, but what Nintendo has managed to accomplish with Skyward Sword – running on hardware that is ostensibly a GameCube – is an incredible feat of video game craftsmanship.
That being said, one of the biggest problems of Skyward Sword’s predecessor – Twilight Princess – was taking such a long time to let you off the leash and explore its vast world. Skyward Sword repeats this sin in emphatically, as it meanders for far too long in its opening stages. It’s roughly an hour before you’re finally let off the leash (more if you’re interacting with NPCs and taking in all of the cut scenes), and I would have appreciated a little more haste akin to 2013’s ‘A Link Between Worlds’.
Some of the ideas present throughout Skyward Sword are nothing short of genius; one puzzle requires you to carry a time altering stone through a dungeon, but the stone’s time altering ability only affects items and enemies that are in its immediate vicinity, requiring you to strategically plan your path in order to avoid reanimating statues into live enemies or negatively affecting your surroundings by turning back the clock and removing platforms and bridges that are required to progress.
However, for every outstanding new idea, there are probably 10 old ones that are simply rehashed tropes of old Zelda games. Dungeons are still themed around specific weapons, with boss’ weak points clearly highlighted (e.g. hit the giant glowing eye with an arrow) so as to completely remove any challenge or strategy from the boss battles. Even if the boss’ weak points weren’t sign-posted, you can rest assured that a babbling blue annoyance named Fi (Skyward Sword’s version of Navi) will outline the entire course of action for you and remove any sense of accomplishment you could have gained from solving the puzzle for yourself.
This is a theme throughout the game, as Skyward Sword unnecessarily holds the players hand at every turn. What was great about the original Legend of Zelda was that it dropped you into Hyrule Field and allowed you to explore and figure things out for yourself, giving you free reign to choose your own plan of action and tackle dungeons in whichever order you prefer; it genuinely felt like you were on an adventure. Skyward Sword is a stark contrast feeling more like a tour than an adventure as it holds your hand throughout, pointing you in the direction you should be heading, detailing how to solve certain puzzles and providing you with a sidekick that removes the any challenge from the game.
Even Skyward Sword’s overworld seems to discourage exploration. What wowed me about Ocarina of Time as a kid was how vast Hyrule Field felt and the fact that you could see Death Mountain in the distance and were able to walk to it and climb it if you felt so inclined. You’d learn the secrets of the overworld, you’d understand where everything was in relation to each other, from the Gerudo Desert to Lake Hylia; it felt like a living breathing world (at least it did back in 1998). Skyward Sword on the other hand feels like a series of disconnected locales, the exploration elements boil down to visiting a series of small uninteresting islands with few landmarks or points of interest, and the dungeons areas are accessed by skydiving through specific points in the clouds, making the game feel like a series of disconnected mini-maps instead of the sprawling overworld that made Ocarina of Time feel so revolutionary.
It’s also worth noting that Skyward Sword consists of just three main areas and – considering it’s essentially a 40 hour adventure – you’ll be visiting and revisiting the same areas multiple times before the credits roll, making this by far the most repetitive game in the series. It almost seems like Eiji Aonuma heard the complaints about Wind Waker’s short (but concise) length and chose to go in the opposite direction with Skyward Sword, substantially padding the game in order to make it a more lengthy adventure; length doesn’t necessarily make for a great game.
One of the biggest issues with Skyward Sword is its reliance on motion-controls. I get that this was Nintendo’s primary focus back in 2011, and it led to them selling a phenomenal number of Wii consoles and capturing a huge portion of the casual market, but for me the motion controls just detracted from the experience. It had some great ideas – with the 1:1 motion tracking allowing you to target specific body parts or attack enemies in specific patterns based on their orientation – but even the Wii Motion Plus wasn’t able to make this system seamless and the game would occasionally misread or completely ignore some of my attacks. Admittedly 90% of the time it would respond correctly, but a fail rate of 10% is far too high for an action-adventure game like The Legend of Zelda, and being defeated by a boss through no fault of your own can lead to some Wii Remote shattering frustration. However, the motion controls do add some value, with the Hook Beetle making particularly good use of their inclusion, as you use the Wii Remote to guide this flying mechanical Beetle through narrow spaces or over chasms to hit switches or collect far-off items, but I often found myself wish I could use the control-stick to aim the bow and Clawshot instead of having to constantly point the controller at the TV like a fool.
All things considered, Skyward Sword is an adequate Zelda game, it’s just hindered by its reliance on motion controls and mechanics that haven’t been significantly improved upon since 1998. By no means is it a bad game – and if it shipped under a different name then I’d probably be in love – but for a game that supposedly took five years to develop, it genuinely feels like it was rushed to market in less than two years. The fact is that the Zelda franchise has set the bar so high, that the disappointing installments feel even more lacklustre than they otherwise would. I’m hoping that the Wii U Zelda game (due out later this year) drastically alters the Zelda formula and gives us the next-gen Zelda game we’ve been waiting for since Twilight Princess.