Skyward Sword is a true Nintendo game, blessed and cursed at the same time by both the overbearing presence of Nintendo’s ancient figures and the progressive touch of the world’s best rising talent. It is a work that highlights the Legend of Zelda’s team’s best and worst design practices, while showing clear signs of fast improvement in most areas. By redefining the combat and item usage while finally setting down an origin story for subsequent Zelda games to base themselves upon, Nintendo has shown a greater commitment to the Zelda franchise more now than ever before.
Visuals and Audio
Like many things in the game, the art style and visuals of this game in general have proven to be quite divisive. Technically speaking, the game is fairly impressive at times, running at a rock-steady framerate (apparently locked somewhere above 30 frames-per-second) even as heavy particle effects, water physics, or dozens of enemies (one specific scene late in the game comes to mind) run in the background. All textures look perfectly fine from medium to long distances, but there are a couple of occasions (like when crawling through a small hole in First-Person View) where the low detail becomes obvious. Similarly, some assets (such as trees and their foliage) might look somewhat blocky and awkward when viewed from specific angles.
As a whole, though, I’ll argue that the entire package is one of the most beautiful games on the Wii: a vibrant but well-balanced color palette ensure the vistas never get dull; passed through a specialized depth-of-field filter, all objects in the distant background turn into virtual brush-strokes, truly looking as close to a painting as a videogame has ever looked; with neither the horrid disproportion of Wind Waker or the half-baked realism of Twilight Princess, the character designs are arguably the best of any Zelda game yet, and the top-of-the-line animations (and they truly are top-of-the-line for the entire game industry) only help make the characters some of the most charming in the series’ history; gorgeously employing camera work and cinematic techniques during the main story cutscenes, meaning and weight is brought to action and drama scenes alike. Unfortunately, text boxes and a lack of voice acting still hold back the impact of these cutscenes, particularly hurting the timing and pacing of the events. On the other hand, Nintendo is practically prepping to make the jump to voice acting in Zelda, considering how Link often “speaks” with many gestures and mouth gesticulations, much like a Mute person would.
In addition, there is some wasted potential when it comes to using certain visual motifs (the rhombi in the Godess Sword and Fi’s legs, or the Japanese attire of the Dragons, for example), especially in contrast to a game like Deus Ex: Human Revolution, which uses its motif of regular polygons and triangular shapes as a metaphor for the direction society has taken all-too-well. It’s not that anybody could have expected any videogame developer to be so progressive and meticulous when it comes to tying storytelling themes to the visual style of the game, but it certainly is a missed opportunity.
Musically speaking, this game is one of the strongest there is not only in terms of other Zelda games, but of the entire game industry. Simple character themes that are introduced early in the game get mixed in to main themes during important events later in the game, Boss themes aren’t only composed to mirror the context of the battle but also change either subtly or drastically as a fight progresses, recurrent Boss themes get revisited with variations, Area and Temple themes may change depending on your actions…the attention to detail is staggering. To top it off, the music maintains a strong Impressionist aesthetic throughout its entirety, turning even mini-game music from carnival tunes into atmospheric and focus-enabling themes. Skyward Sword’s composer Mahito Yokota, the same man that composed the majority of the Super Mario Galaxy and Super Mario Galaxy 2 soundtracks, is truly a brilliant composer and deserves to take Koji Kondo’s place as Nintendo’s musical big-cheese. Of the Sound Engineering in general I can’t really speak of except to say that, save for the orchestration of most of the game’s music, it sounds like Zelda games always have, which isn’t a bad or a great thing at all.
Anyone familiar with the Zelda series knows what a convoluted joke the story had become in these games. This is not because the narrative of each individual game was doing anything particularly wrong, but because Nintendo never really cared about bringing cohesion to the different elements of the story, leaving hardcore fans struggling to find where exactly did each game fit. This is not so in Skyward Sword.
With Skyward Sword, Nintendo attempts to finally set down the base on which the Zelda games are built upon. It works basically as an origin story, detailing how it is that several elements of the franchise (such as the Master Sword, the Triforce, Link and Zelda’s seemingly endless reincarnations, and a few other things I don’t want to spoil) came to be in the beginning. However, it is also a story worth telling on its own merit, with quite a bit of meaningful character conflict and development as well as worldly struggles. To put it succinctly, it is a Fantasy Epic with elements of coming-of-age and love stories. It sounds great, but I’d be lying if I said it was a masterful story; yet it is arguably the best in the franchise, and shows great promise for Nintendo as storytellers in some of their future games.
On the other hand, some of the most interesting parts of the narrative come from the development of Non-Playable Characters (NPCs). Typically, Legend of Zelda games have always had relatively weak NPCs that only stay afloat because of their oddball personalities (the exception being the magnificent Majora’s Mask, which still remains the Zelda game with the best NPCs and sidequests of the entire franchise). Skyward Sword manages to once again break that mold, by giving many of the NPCs distinct personalities that change depending on the context in which you encounter them, clearly fleshing out these characters and making them seem more like living entities in this virtual world, as opposed to the cardboard cutouts of old. Though there could certainly be more NPCs, the interactions you will have with them more than make up their number with quality: help an enamored man get the woman he loves, then see him hide his home life under false pretenses to impress his girlfriend; lead on (or not) a terribly bored girl and see her personality get sweeter and sweeter the more vulnerable she lets herself be near you; help a “house-husband” pacify his baby while his wife sleeps soundly and carelessly; see the shop-owner miserably balance his checkbooks at night, his mid-day happy and helpful demeanor all but left at the workplace…until you trade with him, at which point he becomes a happy, helpful man once again. I recall many other similar interactions, and I didn’t even finish all the game’s sidequests yet.
There are so many different things being said about the controls all around, with some people saying they hold back an otherwise great game, and others claiming they are part of what makes the game great. Well, in my own words, what I can say about the controls is that they are liberating. To be perfectly honest, I have grown weary of games that have me mash buttons incessantly or mindlessly, and so it comes as a gigantic breath of fresh air when Skyward Sword allows me to swing in any direction, roll bombs along the ground, crack my whip as if it was in my hand, and fly my bird as if it was a paper airplane.
Let me go in full detail:
Movement works the same as always plus a few excellent additions, with the Control Stick being used to move Link around and “A” being used to Run faster. Fans of the franchise will remember how tedious it was to climb boxes and short walls in Ocarina of Time all the way up to Twilight Princess, an issue that has now been fixed by giving Link some added context actions. For example, running into a wall will make Link try to run up vertically for a short distance, making short climbs much less time-consuming and much more flowing than before. Similarly, climbing vines and stairs has been made easier now that you can give a short burst to Link by flicking the Wiimote up, making him “leap”. Another important addition is the ability to move while using the ‘c’ button to look in First-Person View, a liberating choice that was enigmatically missing from all previous Zelda games. Lastly, the flying mechanics are easy to grasp, with the Wiimote being turned and twisted like a paper plane to make the Loftwing soar through the skies, while flapping the Wiimote up and down (preferably with a wide motion) makes the bird flap its own wings and gain altitude.
Sword controls are simple to grasp, with enemies accepting 8 different possible directions of attack (verticals, horizontals, and the four diagonals) as well as a stab. While you can hold your sword in any orientation with 1:1 fidelity, attacks depend on accelerometer readings, meaning you must use force to get Link to start a slashing animation. To avoid the problem of Motion Plus drift (if you are not familiar with this, don’t worry as it is not a problem in Skyward Sword), the game will recalibrate the orientation of your sword whenever your Wiimote is pointing directly at the sensor bar (it is helpful to keep the sensor bar straight in front of where you naturally rest your arm to avoid problems with recalibration). Keep in mind this is the only time that the sensor bar is ever used in the game, as all the menus, items, and screen selections are made through Motion Plus only.
There are also a few other context-sensitive controls for later areas in the game (using a cannon or riding a minecart, for example), but they too work around twisting and turning the Wiimote Plus so they are quite intuitive.Items are controlled in different ways. Aiming items such as Slingshot are aimed by pressing the item button (‘B’) to pull them out of your pouch, then moving the Wiimote in the direction of your aim. Once again, aiming does not interact with your sensor bar at all. Instead, the aiming cursor is reset to the center whenever you press the B button, making it easy for players to fool themselves (I’ve read many accounts of gamers who would press ‘B’ while they were holding the Wiimote vertically and, thinking they had to point toward the sensor bar, ended up looking at the ground in-game). Make no mistake: this isn’t a bug, glitch, or unpolished mechanic. It is the result of a design choice (avoiding the sensor bar as much as possible in order to get rid of the ever-present cursor of Twilight Princess and give more freedom to the player), and the best you can do is learn how this mechanic works early to save yourself some frustration. In the case of bombs, you have the option to throw them overhead or roll them like bowling balls. To do this, you simply orient Link with the control stick and use the Wiimote (and no Nunchuk) to make the motion of what you want to do in-game. It takes some un-learning for those that have previous bomb mechanics hardwired into their brain, but is actually quite intuitive for anyone else (including gamers with little experience). Another item, the flying Beetle, is handled almost exactly like flying on the Loftwing.
As always with Nintendo, Skyward Sword has some truly great design choices that go far ahead of the rest of the industry. And as always with Nintendo, though, Skyward Sword has some design choices that stay so far behind the rest of the industry. You take the good with the bad.
Let’s talk about the bad first: unskippable, slow cinematics come back in droves, from the traditional chest-opening cutscene to the camera focusing on a wall for a full 3-5 seconds after you blew it up before playing the classic “discovery” jingle; the endless babying WILL get on your nerves, with the game stopping to tell you again, in painfully slow text, what an Eldin Ladybug is and how many you have caught, or Fi reminding you that are looking for Zelda, just in case you forgot; the fact that, after so many iterations of Zelda games becoming more and more meaningful and cinematic Nintendo still refuses to add proper voice acting, clearly holding back a narrative that could be so much better than it already is; the fact that the entire world is divided into self-enclosed areas instead of at least adding small transitional areas that take you from one big area to the next (so for example, you would use the first Stone tablet you get in the game to open up a door to a transition area that takes you from the Forest to the Volcano instead of having to go to Skyloft and drop down from somewhere else). These are small things, but they certainly keep the game from being a truly groundbreaking game.
For every bad design choice, though, there are great design choices that bring the balance back to the positive side and beyond: items are used in some of the most clever ways of all Zelda games, and they continue to be used throughout the rest of the game as opposed to becoming useless after completing the dungeon they were found in; combat is the very best in the series with MotionPlus mechanics adding many new possible strategies, while enemies have multiple ways of being defeated, including the final boss; secrets are abound throughout the whole game, with tons of Goddess boxes, bugs, chests, and Heart Containers being smartly hidden off-the-beaten-path and requiring you to reach them in unexpected ways; a few mechanics from older Zelda games come back to be used better than ever before (the most obvious example being the Guardian sections from Spirit Tracks, which are actually fantastic in Skyward Sword. Another obvious example would be during one of the best boss fights in the game, but you really don’t want me to spoil that for you); the dungeons, though there are only seven and they are slightly linear and puzzle-heavy, are among the best in the series with the exception of maybe one that I personally felt was too much of a re-tread of older concepts (but I will say, I’ve seen many people praise it heavily on message boards); the side quests are plenty and quite varied, with some asking of you to complete silly mini-games while another makes you choose which NPC’s love life you will complete (and which one’s you will crush); though sectioned, the three big areas are indeed quite big, and I would say the size of them all add up to more than Twilight Princess’ total area, and is probably about twice as big as Ocarina of Time’s total size. There are a ton of other small design choices that pad the entire game in a glowing light, which makes me able to forgive Nintendo for the bad design choices at the end of the day.
Another important design choice to mention is the fact that there is a lower focus on exploration, which itself brings about a more cohesive sense of adventure. In other words, some will be slightly ticked by the direction the Zelda franchise has been heading toward since Ocarina of Time, while others will champion the new heights these design paradigms have reached.
Running between 40-50 hours of gameplay, this is one of the meatiest Zelda games yet, with a large part of the content being optional in the form of side quests, item upgrades, collectables, secrets, and mini-games/challenges. Fortunately, this added content is not tedious at all, with much variety coming from the different ways you must reach Heart Containers and Goddess Boxes to the number of mini-games that make use of otherwise unexploited mechanics (such as the skydiving and the minecart mini-games).
Furthermore, the game has a Second Quest (or Master Quest) of sorts called Hero Mode, in which enemies do twice as much damage and hearts no longer appear from either grass or enemies, though Dungeons don’t seem to change at all. This added challenge is bound to make quite a few gamers play the game for another 30 or so hours, I’d wager (I myself am about to dive right into it as soon as I finish writing this).
Ultimately, Skyward Sword represents different hopes and ideas regarding the game industry. Taken at face value, Skyward Sword is an impressive game, wildly excelling in many key areas that more than make up for a few annoyances that come from some of Nintendo’s apologetic or simply strange design choices. Compared to the franchise it belongs to, Skyward Sword is a crowning achievement in regards to the sense of adventuring that has been the focus of all Zelda games since Ocarina of Time, but it also doesn’t bring back any of the non-linearity and wild exploration of A Link to the Past or Link’s Awakening. How much of an issue this continuing non-linearity will be to different gamers is entirely subjective, but at worst this lack of non-linearity can be a slight disappointment that keeps the game only from being a truly timeless masterpiece. Peered into as if a crystal ball, Skyward Sword represents a very bright future for the franchise, with the series’ most tired conventions being quickly replaced (like the sword combat) or reinvented (like the movement mechanics) all while its main elements (dungeons, bosses, story) continue to rocket skyward at a tremendous pace.