The Wii is fading, no question. In a generation that revolves around online play and high-definition graphics, the Wii has become more of a party system for casual gamers. It just wasn’t putting out the memorable gaming experiences that made Nintendo such a household name in the first place. That’s what makes The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword so special for me. It serves as a reminder of what Nintendo does well, why video games aren’t just about absurd amounts of violence and that motion gaming can be more than just a bullet point on the back of a game case. This is the title that many Zelda fans will love and even those new to the series will soon find themselves rambling about finding more rupees and Deku nuts.
This latest installment in the Zelda series has been long hyped at gaming conferences for its handling of motion gameplay and the fact that it’s another Zelda, something that I’ll admit is enough to get a bit of drool on my bottom lip. The Legend of Zelda series contains more hits than misses, but it’s hard to place a finger on how a game with motion controls will fare well before its release. There’s a huge difference between my memories with a game like Ocarina of Time and how I imagined playing Skyward Sword must feel. Having said that, no other game has had me alternating between sitting and standing to play it (of my own volition) with a smile on my face. How I played aside, Skyward Sword is first and foremost a Legend of Zelda game which is never a small accomplishment.
The legend of Legends
This tale of Link and Zelda, set very early in the historical timeline (if you care about that kind of thing), starts in the clouds on a landmass called Skyloft. This is not a tale of princesses and castles; Link is a student at a knight’s academy on the verge of achieving knighthood. The game is also not a story of horses; the main mode of transportation there are giant birds called Loftwings. After a sudden attack, Zelda finds herself kidnapped to the lands beneath the clouds. Soon afterward, Link is then granted the ability to wield the titular Skyward Sword and gives chase. Thus begins what is essentially a new and exciting, yet familiar, Zelda quest.
While the introductory setup to the story is deliberately slow, the world Skyward Sword creates for you is full of personality. Skyloft plays out as a central hub for the adventure and the people there will become easily familiar as Link comes and goes. A handful of characters will stand out as they eventually ask Link for help with their own personal troubles and the city’s bazaar is full of shopkeepers who will appear as more than blank salesmen to sell what you need. Link’s companion this time, an artificial intelligence named Fi that resides with the sword itself, might not have as flashy a personality as prior travel pals, but she has a handful of moments that stuck with me and made me happy to have her at my side. Another standout is a rival character by the name of Groose. Not trying to spoil too much, I later pulled a total 180 on how I initially felt about him. Touché, Nintendo.
Once Link dives beneath the clouds, the story immediately picks up as Link makes his way towards his the game’s first real dungeon. Even the lands Link explores outside of dungeons are full of unique characters and memorable locations. Though the adventure asks Link to later revisit old areas with new objectives, no two trips felt the same to me. Over the course of my 40 hours (whew), I grew to enjoy finding out what was hidden just out of reach. While there are other small islands floating around Skyloft, none of them were really able to match the majesty of a new area on the surface.
Link to the past games
The main gameplay of a Zelda game boils down to traveling to a dungeon, finding a special item, defeating a boss and then repeating this until the end. Skyward Sword presents those familiar with the series (especially the excellent Ocarina of Time, don’t even argue with me) a heavy dose of the expected, but cranks it up a notch by making the whole adventure more engaging and challenging. In fact, the majority of the game feels like trial after trial, forcing Link to prove himself as a true hero and worthy of wielding the sword given to him. The dungeons remain devious houses of traps, keys and locked doors, asking to be played a certain way that revolves around the gadgets and items Link is granted over time. The bosses of these dungeons (and even those found outside) are the final tests of item mastery and I found these to be awesome living puzzles.
Not all is the same in Skyward Sword. Link comes with a stamina meter this time, which controls his ability to sprint, climb and use more advanced sword techniques. This is integrated well into the Zelda formula and adds just a bit of management into how Link performs his actions. At a key point in the game, Link receives a magical harp to play, similar in simple ways to the ocarina in Ocarina of Time. The harp here is mostly used in limited places to reveal secrets or open passages, so I was a little disappointed that I couldn’t spend any downtime trying to start my own covers of pop music. Lastly, Link has an adventure pouch. This bag starts out limited, allowing a small number of items like bottles and shields to be carried on-hand, and slowly expands in size. Separating these items from the gadgets is definitely useful in a pinch, since the game doesn’t pause when selecting the right tool for the job.
Of course, the main difference between older Zelda games and Skyward Sword are its implementations of motion controls, thanks mainly to the Motion Plus peripheral. While Twilight Princess experimented with allowing players to waggle Link’s sword in the faces of enemies, Skyward Sword goes for broke and turns the remote into a living extension of Link’s sword arm. Mimicking vertical and horizontal slashes, more often than not, produces the desired result on-screen. It’s a true case of being easy to figure out, but taking time to master. In the early hours, I had a few choice words with Skyward Sword about how my sword-swinging was not what Link was performing on-screen. By the end of the game, I felt I knew the ins, outs and tricks for success. Not to brag, the student had become the master.
Motion controls also extend to raising Link’s shield, easily done by shaking the nunchuk. All of the gadgets Link acquires also use motion in some way, whether it be flicking the remote to toss bombs or aiming directly at the screen to fire a bow and arrow. When it comes to flying or swimming, movement is handled by holding the remote level to the floor and tilting it to rise, fall and turn. That’s not to say that there aren’t any motions with complications. Skydiving took me way too long to completely get the hang of and I felt unsure I was even doing it totally right when it worked. Thrusting the sword required me to focus on not accidentally shaking the nunchuk at the same time, a move that would cause Link to perform a strong vertical spin instead of a quick forward stab. Using gadgets also uses the remote’s immediate orientation as the center point, sometimes meaning I’m aiming the remote at my dog next to me instead of the screen just to shoot arrows forward. However, the game easily allows you to re-center your aim with a button press so that your movements make more sense, something I utilized frequently.
Oracle of lights and sound
As much as I wish I could rave about playing a Zelda game in true HD (the highest and mightiest of definitions), I’ll just have to keep waiting. On the bright side, Skyward Sword still doesn’t disappoint when it comes to an incredible style and attention to detail. Colors are vibrant and the animations bring the world to life on an amazing level that the Wii is perfectly capable of handling. If Wind Waker can be described as a cartoony cel-shaded Zelda, Skyward Sword is that look’s older brother who went to college and traveled the world every summer. There was no time when playing the game that I felt that I wasn’t getting the full and intended visual experience. The wind blowing Link’s cap, the enemies reacting appropriately to being struck by my blade, the water and lava flowing around me… Skyward Sword is overflowing with a feeling of love and care to the series and I just can’t deny that the charm took me over until the final credit had rolled.
The music of the Zelda series is iconic stuff, with the opening notes of the main theme able to evoke countless memories of my own personal adventures in Hyrule alone. It’s not surprising at all that Skyward Sword would contain some old songs and tunes (opening a chest still never gets old), but it’s amazing how the new songs just seem to fit into the universe. It might take time for some tracks to sink into memory, but the main melody for Skyward Sword is an instant classic for me. When a remixed version of the song struck in during an epic scene, I found myself way too caught up in the moment. The fact that the game comes with a soundtrack CD is further proof that this music is worth listening to, not something that can be said of all game releases.
There is no true voice-acting in Skyward Sword, just gasps, sighs and gibberish when dialogue is on-screen. This choice might not please everyone, but I’m a child of the text-only age and certainly don’t mind reading speech boxes. Hell, I even provided my own voices to certain characters. When you read the lines of the villain like a certain character from Family Guy, let me just say that the enjoyment of no voice-acting is amplified to amazing levels.
2011 has felt pretty rough for the Nintendo Wii, but Skyward Sword is a game that makes it totally worthwhile to own the system in the first place. The experience is familiar yet new and similar yet unique. Sure, the game isn’t one hundred percent flawless. The text scrolling speed isn’t as fast as it could be, the action takes hours to truly begin and motion gaming, however precise it tries to be, is still prone to trial-and-error gameplay and the occasional hiccup. For me, these issues are more like specks of dust on what is essentially a gaming diamond this year. My praises far outweigh any of these curses and my overall enjoyment of Skyward Sword isn’t hampered at all by these minor concerns.
Skyward Sword deserves to be thought of just as highly as Ocarina of Time and Wind Waker, two of my favorite games for their respective systems. There’s no question that Skyward Sword will be one of the top games in the Wii’s lifetime. The change in controls gives new perspective on how gamers can play a Zelda game, let alone an adventure game, and makes it more than just another iteration of what I consider to be one of Nintendo’s top-tier series. The new setting is full of winks and nods to the games that preceded it and an avid Zelda fan like myself can’t help but light up when a reference is noticed. I’ve played a lot of great games this year, but no other game has made me feel so good about enjoying my time with it. Skyward Sword is engaging, accessible and highly capable of being considered a classic by many in this gaming generation.
Giant Bomb (images)