The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
Released: November 2011
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is the latest entry in a very long series, and is the very first story in the game universe chronologically. When Zelda is knocked from Skyloft, a city above the clouds, her childhood friend Link sets out to find her. Over the course of a grand adventure, exploring the wonders and dangers of the land below, Link and Zelda discover that they both have a role to play in an ancient prophecy, and must work in parallel to save their world from a mystical swordsman and his demonic master.
Skyward Sword is currently sitting at 93 on Metacritic, receiving unanimously positive reviews. Critics loved the motion controls, story, and level design, while some didn't like the side quests, and a very few didn't enjoy the motion controls. The closest thing there was to an actual complaint is that the traditional Zelda formula is very much present, and while the formula is good, a lot of critics are starting to get tired of it. Skyward Sword received many awards, including game of the year from a number of publications.
Shockingly for a Nintendo game, Skyward Sword did receive a “patch” in the form of a Wii channel update to address a bug with a side quest that halted game progression.
A lot of reviews claim that Skyward Sword features 1:1 motion control (or complain that it doesn't). Well, it doesn't really try to. Link holds his sword in the same position you hold the Wiimote, but the swings are not 1:1 — there are 8 directional strikes, a thrust, and a couple of special moves. That said, the motion controls are fantastic and really add a lot to the swordplay, and you actually have to learn and improve in order to progress. Early enemies have their own sword, and will hold it to block attacks from certain directions. The thing that really impressed me is that they'll alter their guard to match where you're holding your sword, so you can actually feint and trick them into a bad position. More powerful enemies — animated skeletons — have two, three, or even four swords, and will block all but one or two angles. It's really cool and rewarding to have a swordfight that actually rewards you for speed, precision, and focus. The only potential criticism is that it slows down combat.
And that's just the swordplay. The flight and swimming controls require you to tilt and rotate the controller, and take a bit of getting used to, but also work well. You get a whip that you use by making a whipping motion, which is always fun. The nunchuk controls your shield and your rolls.
The interface is also motion-controlled, which seems standard — but your inventory menus have a quickly-accessible radial view, so you can very quickly and easily swap between items without having to access a menu. Very handy.
Some reviewers complained that they had to recalibrate the controller very frequently. I only had to a couple of times, so I'm not sure what their issue was. Too much sun (IR interference)?
Love it. Skyward Sword looks like a more realistic and detailed Wind Waker, and it pulls it off gorgeously. My favourite part is that a visual filter is applied to distant objects that make them look like an impressionist painting: instead of getting blurrier and fainter farther away, objects instead get bigger and thicker brush strokes to define them. Up close, you'll see a slightly cartoony object, but from far away, you'll see a soft shape defined by a few strong brush strokes. It works really well and looks great.
Character designs are also fantastic. It's fairly minimalist, but each character looks distinct due to close attention to clothing styles, colour, and fairly liberal proportions.
Fans of the Zelda franchise will really enjoy how Skyward Sword weaves in story elements from previous games. At the beginning of the game, there's almost nothing to ground you within the Zelda universe — things are new and different. Players new to the series will experience a great game, but Zelda fans will spot a lot of references that'll make them grin. Spoilers ahead!
Gradually you start to see references worked in: a Goron, the Gerudo Dragonfly, a Temple of Time that obviously isn't the same one, but bears the same name. Later on it really begins to pick up, with references to the Triforce and the three goddesses Farore, Nayru, and Din. Eventually, you participate in the creation of the Master Sword itself, and the game even sets up a canonical explanation for why there are so many Links and Ganons throughout history. Every time one of these references came up, I couldn't help but smile. The story goes from seemingly its own thing to gradually setting up the world for Ocarina of Time to take place.
Gear & Upgrades
Some traditional Zelda gear shows up — bombs, the slingshot, the bow, empty bottles. But there are plenty of new additions that are a lot of fun to play with. The Beetle is pretty cool; it's a remote-controlled mechanical bug that can pick up items and activate certain mechanisms. There's a whip, which you can use for various whippy purposes. A totally unexpected one is the Gust Bellows, an enchanted jar that contains an infinite supply of wind. Link can uncap the jar to provide a powerful, directed, continuous gale of wind that can push back enemies and objects and blow away dust.
New to the Zelda franchise is an upgrade system. Most items can be upgraded three times at a shop in Skyloft. Instead of finding or earning, say, a larger bomb bag, you can collect materials to upgrade it yourself. Some items just receive a numerical boost — shields and bags mostly — while some upgrades add special qualities, such as the Scattershot upgrade to the slingshot, or the speed boost ability you can add to the Beetle.
You also have to watch your shield durability. Your shields take damage when you block, unless you counter. If you break your shield, you can't use it until you repair it.
Also new to the series are medals. They're items that give you a passive benefit while carried, like finding more rupees or an extra heart on your life bar.
Interestingly, you don't have the inventory space to carry every item you come across. You can't carry the full complement of bottles without sacrificing medals, and you'll have to decide between carrying multiple shields for every situation or remaining vulnerable to certain enemies.
The dungeon design is noticeably different from previous Zelda games. Most dungeons feature one or two rooms that act as a central hub, and objectives branch off from and return to the hub. Objectives frequently modify the hub room to some extent. It's a neat structure that makes each dungeon feel more unique, since the hub rooms are very different from each other and communicate different themes. They also do a much better job of incorporating more gear into the puzzles, so you don't feel like some of your items are only useful in one or two areas.
This hub philosophy also extends to the game as a whole, where Skyloft is your central location and you return many times over your adventure. It helps keep the characters memorable, even the shopkeepers.
Ballad of the Goddess
The game's music is pretty good, and there are a couple of really catchy tunes, but I still can't get over this video.
If you're not a long-time Zelda fan, basically, if you play the Ballad of the Goddess from Skyward Sword backwards, you get Zelda's Lullaby, a song dating all the way back to A Link to the Past and featured prominently in Ocarina of Time.
The story is where Skyward Sword is the most different from previous games. Yes, Zelda disappears at the very start of the game — but she then goes off and does stuff on her own, and it's actually Link who falls behind and needs to catch up to her! Zelda seems to be fulfilling her role in events perfectly, while Link is the one who's being doubted and tested. And it's not like you never see Zelda again until you rescue her — she and Link meet up several times throughout the game.
The bad guy is mysterious and intriguing, and has some neat magical powers. His credibility is strained a bit from time to time, though. He keeps going on about how Link is annoying him so much, and he'll really deal with that troublesome kid... next time they meet up. He says this three or four times, and it had me wondering when he would actually “deal with” me.
For all the improvement to the standard formula and dungeon design, Skyward Sword falters a bit in the side quests. They tend to be more standard fetch quests with little to disguise that you're simply going from point A to B and back to A again. Not that any of the side quests are bad; they just feel a little weaker than the rest of the game.
Skyward Sword presents only four major environments: the sky, the forest, the volcano, and the desert. You return to the sky frequently, since that's where Link's home is. That's fine. The forest, volcano, and desert are used 3 times each. The first time, you're exploring a new area. The second time, you move through the same area seeking a gate, which leads you to a whole new part of the environment. The third time, you revisit the initial area, but with huge changes.
You may get tired of seeing the same environments over and over, but they're reused brilliantly and they didn't get old for me. Revisiting the forest and the volcano for the third round of dungeons was especially cool.
The Zelda Formula
Skyward Sword makes no effort to significantly alter the 3D Zelda formula. It has a lot of small improvements that make the experience better — for example, you use each piece of gear more frequently, so it's not just get item/use item/forget item.
But each chapter of the game is laid out in an almost painfully obvious way. Dungeon sequence 1: collect 3 map stones. Dungeon sequence 2: collect 3 sword power-ups. Dungeon sequence 3: collect 3 song fragments. Almost every major plot point occurs in groups of 3. There are even two bosses that you fight 3 times each over the course of the game. It's a very obvious way to re-use three environments again and again.
The thing is, I love the Zelda formula. It's a little more obvious than usual here, but it never bothered me and I still had fun.
The spirit of your sword, Fi, is for the most part not annoying. That's good. There are a couple of things that bother me about her, though.
When your controller is low on batteries, you get a warning message and some beeping. This happens every time you use a door or enter a new area. Ugh.
Fi also insists on quoting statistics and probabilities at me. That would be okay, except that she continually presents probabilities that aren't 100% certain, which turn out to be right. You'd think she'd get it wrong once in a while, or be a little more certain about some things. For example, when she tells you that item X is hidden somewhere in Skyloft, and you discover a secret building that no one's ever seen before, Fi tells you that there's an 85% probability that item X is in that building. Looking for an item that's been hidden for thousands of years, I find the one building that no one has found for thousands of years... and she tells me that item X is probably in there? So, what, there's a chance it might have been sitting unnoticed in the town square the whole time?
Like many Zelda games, Link receives a powerful magic artifact in the form of an instrument, and this time it's a harp. That's fine, except when you play it, you hardly even do anything. Previous games like Ocarina of Time and Wind Waker required you to play the right notes in the right order, but in Skyward Sword, you just kind of... strum. Sweep your hand back and forth in the correct rhythm and there you go, you've played a song on your harp. Pushing a sequence of buttons has little enough to do with playing an instrument in the first place, and Skyward Sword reduces it even further.
Importantly to me, since you don't actually play the melody yourself, it's hard to remember or care about each song. I can still remember most of the songs from Ocarina and Wind Waker years later, but ask me to hum the tune for Skyward Sword's forest melody (whatever it's called) and I can't do it.
The most annoying part of this game is the text. I'm not demanding full voice acting. I just think there should have been a text speed option (it's slow) and an option to turn off the incredibly annoying “you got the thing” text. You get a thing — okay, the game tells you what it is. That's fine. However, if you get more of the thing through quests or chests, it tells you what it is in full every time. That's annoying. What's even worse is that the game doesn't remember what you've found between sessions.
I found a chunk of Eldin ore! Okay, it's a mineral concretion that can be used in crafting. Thanks game, that was useful.
I found a chunk of Eldin ore in a chest. It's a mineral concretion that can be used in crafting. Yes, I know, thanks.
I turn off the game for now. A couple of days later, I continue my quest.
I found a chunk of Eldin ore! It's a mineral concretion that an be used in crafting! I KNOW!!!
Recommendation: Play it.
Skyward Sword is one of the best games on the Wii, hands down. I know a couple of people who don't really like Zelda games, but I'd recommend Skyward Sword to them anyway, because it manages to keep enough of the traditional formula but with a new enough spin that it feels pretty fresh. The motion controls are fantastic — they're a lot of fun and really add some depth to the swordplay, as well as making menus easier and quicker to navigate. There's more to it than we're used to, and that's a good thing. Plus, it could be your last chance to experience “the traditional Zelda”, since Shigeru Miyamoto will no longer be the creative director of the franchise, as he has been for the last 25 years (!!).
The only warning I would attach is that while it doesn't appear to be at first, Skyward Sword is very much a prequel to Ocarina of Time and the rest of the Zelda franchise. Not to say that you'll have any trouble understanding what's going on if it's your first Zelda — you just won't notice a lot of the references or really appreciate some of the depth.
So yeah, play Skyward Sword, it's super awesome.
Screenshots are copyright of Nintendo used here under fair use.