The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
25 years ago in the land of Hyrule, a stout, green-clad adventurer wandered into a dark cave where he found an old man alone between two torches. “It’s dangerous to go alone,” the old man said, as he offered the boy a sword and sent him out into the dangerous wilds. Whether he knew the destiny that awaited this boy, the tumultuous history of the land, or was just a crackpot in a cave giving out swords to little boys, is debatable. What’s clear is that throughout the 25 year history of the The Legend of Zelda series Link, the Hero of Time, would find himself traversing land, sea, air and even time itself to rescue Zelda, defeat Gannon, and save the land of Hyrule over and over again.
“Skyward Sword is the prequel of prequels”This time around Link’s adventure begins high above the clouds where people live simple lives, travel a floating archipelago on the backs of their majestic Loftwings, and think nothing of the world below. In Skyward Sword Link is a knight-in-training living at an academy with his childhood friend, and headmaster’s daughter, Zelda. The two spend the opening of the game preparing Link for the bird race that will determine the next senior class member of the knight academy. The first few hours of gameplay are spent acclimating to the controls, developing the plot, and introducing us to the world above the clouds. Life in the sky is simple and all that people of Skyloft know. To them there is nothing below the clouds. They worship the goddess who gave them their home, their Loftwings, and the sky. They have no ruling body, relying on the knight academy to lead them and essentially making the headmaster their ruler, and Zelda their princess. The knight academy protects the people from forces unknown while the bazaar offers reprieve from the daily grind of flying and pumpkin harvesting.
Skyward Sword is the prequel of prequels; it aims to weave together the origin of Link, Zelda, the sword, the villain, the kingdom, and the legend to provide the backdrop for the rest of the series. The timeline of The Legend of Zelda is one of the most hotly debated stories among gamers, and this time around Nintendo has stepped in to say that this is how it all began. An origins story of great importance for the series canon, the question is: does Skyward Sword manage to deliver?
Nintendo presents the story through gibberish and a silent protagonist. There is no voice acting in an understood language, but rather dialogue is conveyed through text and emotional responses. In order to tell a story of such breadth, there is far more dialogue here than ever before. The story is presented in large, entertaining cinematic chunks that are some of the series’ best storytelling moments. Usually these happen before and after you discover new areas, or take down a dungeon. Unfortunately there aren’t enough smaller segments of story during the quest, which often results in hours of silent exploration. To make up for this you are given the chance to speak with a plethora of NPCs who all have something to add to the adventure. There are enough opportunities for fun, silly, and challenging side-quests to add dozens of hours to your play time with nearly none of them being required to complete the main quest. Some side-quests are simple fetch quests while others actually involve making choices that can impact the lives of the NPCs. You are even given a side-quest to complete side-quests. Even though they are optional, the quests are well worth the extra effort for their rewards and the fun of completing them.
The story of Link’s sword plays immense importance, which is made obvious by the inclusion of a new, complex combat system via the Wii Motion Plus. Nintendo has implemented true 1:1 control over Link’s arm. If you move your arm to the right, twist your wrist, and point the Wiimote downward, so will Link. It’s certainly impressive, but the novelty wears off quickly. The obvious problem is that the controls don’t always work as intended. The purpose of 1:1 control is to create a feeling of being a part of the action, yet when things become hectic, the best of us revert to wildly flailing the Wii Remote. The result is a never-ending clang of metal on metal. Even when taking your time and, say, attempting to slice from the left, the game all too often interprets that as an upward slice, which is deftly blocked by smarter enemies who now also have a greater range of movement. These moments of frustration don’t happen often, but can cause a lot of frustration when they do happen.
“The gameplay has improved drastically since Twilight Princess”Nintendo has also taken this opportunity to add some manner of motion control across some other mechanics. Most of these do work well with the obvious being aiming projectiles, flying your loftwing, and making menu selections. You will use motion controls to insert master keys, draw symbols, break free of enemies, balance on ropes, swing from vines, and more. These instances don’t detract from the experience, but other uses of motion controls are completely unnecessary and actually pretty annoying. The most frustrating example has to be with throwing and rolling bombs. Things get confusing very quickly when you’re trying to aim the trajectory with the analog stick while flicking the Wii Remote to launch the bomb all while trying not to move either in the process and throw off your aim. I would have been fine with pressing the A button for this, or at least the option to customize the controls.
Aside from some motion control woes, the gameplay has improved drastically since Twilight Princess. One major complaint about the Zelda series is that menu navigation and item switching has never really been upgraded much from the original game. The issue is that in a Zelda game, you are often changing items, which means you are often removing yourself from the action. While Twilight Princess introduced the rotary dial of items, Skyward Sword has managed to refine the system into something completely unobtrusive. Your sword, map, and other main abilities are permanently mapped, while items and certain other abilities are categorized into three groups. These are accessed via a rotary dial where you can choose an item with a point of the Wii Remote all without the game even pausing the action. Throughout my play-through I probably accessed the actual menu twice. There is rarely any reason to do so other than changing some configuration settings. This seemingly minor tweak kept the action flowing much more smoothly than any previous Zelda game.
Another larger departure for the series, and a very welcome change, comes from the way the adventure unfolds. Fans of the series have come to expect most of their time to be spent traversing vast, yet sparsely populated worlds that simply exist as a means of getting from one dungeon to the next. You could always expect to find hidden secrets and dangers in the over world, but most of the action took place inside massive dungeons. Skyward Sword defies these expectations as the majority of the exploration, discovery, and action occurs outside. You’ll spend far more time making your way to the dungeon than actually completing the dungeon, yet both are equally enjoyable experiences.
Although the series staple of acquiring new items to reach new places remains intact, another welcomed addition is that you won’t only be using your latest gadget to progress. In Skyward Sword you’re required to make use of your entire arsenal at any given time, so that item you got at the beginning of the game is just as useful at the end. Additionally you are able to upgrade your items using materials you collect from fallen enemies, chests, and hidden locations. Your shield also comes with a damage meter this time around. As you block, your shield gets weaker and can eventually break requiring you to repair it.
Since Skyward Sword represents the origin of Link in all his incarnations, the graphics have been stylized in a way that creates a mix between Twilight Princess and Wind Waker. They’re detailed up close, but blurry from far away, full of pastel blues and greens that merge like water colors. The overuse of this effect may be due to the Wii’s limitations, which are overly apparent in the system’s fifth year, but it often works to the game’s benefit. The style is interesting, yet still not as detailed as Twilight Princess nor as artistic as Wind Waker. One graphical flaw concerns the severely lacking variety of enemies. Often you encounter the same enemy with a different coat of paint to indicate a higher difficulty level. This is a design choice like that worked on the Super Nintendo, but even then there was a greater variety of enemies to encounter in A Link to the Past.
We have waited a long time for a true, Wii Zelda game. Skyward Sword clearly represents the pinnacle of the Wii’s capabilities both graphically and in terms of motion controls. Unfortunately neither works perfectly. The improved mechanics as well as the fantastically told story certainly make up for the system’s shortcomings. You can easily overlook occasionally frustrating controls and early 2000s graphics when the adventure itself consistently motivates you to want more and more for all of the nearly 60 hours it takes to complete. Skyward Sword isn’t perfect, but it absolutely is not a game that should be missed by fans of the series. It easily warrants dusting off the Wii, finding some AA batteries, and getting your waggle on for one last hurrah.