After five years, at the end of the system’s life cycle, a Zelda game developed for the Wii has finally arrived. No matter the result, Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword had an uphill battle to prove it was worth the wait. Anything short of greatness was bound to disappoint. I had lots of fun in my 50-hour playtime, but I never felt like I was playing the next big thing or something truly special, which is a rarity for a Zelda title. There are flashes of greatness in Skyward Sword, but they are weighed down by vast stretches of dull, formulaic design and repetition. Charles Dickens said it best: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
The story is typical Zelda fare. This time, legend tells of a world where bad guys emerged from the earth and took over the land. People took refuge in the clouds, and that’s where we find Link, a teenager living in the town of Skyloft, studying at the Knight Academy. After a long introduction that features high school drama, a bully subplot, and a bird race, Link takes his classmate and lifelong friend, Zelda, for a ride on a giant bird. Just as he is about to get some action, a tornado sweeps her away. Once again, Link must save Zelda and the world.
The story is simple, but it has more charm than ever, and the characters have even more expression in their faces than the purely cel-shaded Wind Waker. The relationship between Link and Zelda is also deeper and filled with more history and romance than at any point in the series’ history, and it lends meaning and urgency to the adventure. That said, it takes too long to get going, and it adds to one of the largest problems with the game, which is a ridiculous amount of dull, filler content. And while the ending is certainly beautiful, it doesn’t have the payoff fans have always wanted, which is odd, because the beginning sets up the payoff that doesn’t happen.
As the franchise ages, it finds itself in an awkward, mid-life crisis transitional phase, struggling to maintain relevance without losing its identity. Change too much, and it’s not Zelda; stick too closely to the formula, and it doesn’t feel special, despite the wait or general quality of the final product. Skyward Sword features lots of tweaks to the formula, but it still adheres a bit too much to the path paved by modern Zelda titles, particularly Wind Waker and Twilight Princess. There are strokes of brilliance, but they fight against repetition, outdated hardware, deliberate pacing, instances of lazy design, and the series’ biggest innovation, a new control input.
Skyward Sword is designed exclusively for MotionPlus, the enhanced motion control technology for the Wii. It generally works, but it’s not how I’d prefer to play, and it doesn’t prove its necessity. Both combat and puzzles are built around the advanced motion controls, and while they inspire innovation, especially in combat, all of it could have been accomplished with a standard, dual-analog controller. Boss keys are now puzzle pieces that have to be rotated into place, and while there is a certain novelty and immersion to rotating your Wii remote to do that, it could just as easily be done with an analog stick.
Same goes for the combat. Sword combat requires slashing in specific directions, which adds a layer of complexity to a series that has mostly relied on pressing an attack button to tackle enemies, but this added depth could have also been achieved by mapping sword combat to a right analog stick. Motion controls are integral to the design, but they never prove there isn’t a way of working around them with a more traditional controller. There should have been an option to play with the classic controller for those of us who would prefer it that way.
Worse, the motion controls aren’t 100 percent accurate, and they don’t provide the fidelity of standard controller inputs. MotionPlus has a tendency to get wonky and lose your positioning. It’s nice to free yourself from pointing at the sensor bar, but that comes at a price. You can hit down on the directional pad to re-center the pointer, which works for situations where you have to aim, but that doesn’t help you when you’re in the heat of battle, and the Wii remote misreads a vertical slice as horizontal. The game is generally more difficult than most previous modern Zeldas, and there are moments in battle where it tries to prove the necessity of MotionPlus. You might get frustrated, like I did, and waggle your way through these battles, which negates the supposed precision required to endure them.
And certain motion control choices never feel right or natural. Shaking the Wii remote and nunchuck to perform a spin move eventually becomes second nature. It’s quicker but less comfortable than simply holding down the attack button and letting go. Performing a roll, which has always been a big part of modern Zeldas, now feels extremely awkward and unintuitive. You have to hold down the sprint button and shake the nunchuck to roll, and it never feels right, to the point where I avoided performing the maneuver. Bottom line: the motion controls work, and they inspired some interesting choices, but they’re not perfect and certainly not necessary. The same exact game could have been released, relying exclusively on a standard controller, losing nothing in the process, and gaining fidelity and familiarity.
But despite my nitpicks and preference for a standard controller, motion controls never make or break the experience. You’ll get used to them, and they’ll fade into the background, allowing you to focus on the core game, where the biggest disappointment lies. It’s ironic that a game supposedly reliant on innovative motion controls would often feel like it’s just going through the motions.
A lot of the Skyward Sword’s problems could be summed up by a quest that occurs late in the game. You see, before you can enter the final temple, you’re forced to find three dragons who can teach you three parts of a song that open the temple. One of the dragons wants you to prove your worthiness, so you must swim around an area you’ve explored many times already and collect musical notes. Swimming around and searching for these notes is painfully tedious and feels like it was added just to extend the length of the game. Something more compelling could have taken its place, such as another temple. Or anything. Too often it feels like Link is in a fetch quest inside of a fetch quest inside of a fetch quest. You’re forced to wade through oceans of boring content to get to the fun stuff.
Half of the game is too slow and padded with too much filler. There are roughly four hours of story and tutorial before you’ll reach the first temple. Remember Twilight Princess? I loved it but never replayed it due to the dragged out beginning, and Skyward Sword has even longer start. Unfortunately, it’s not even confined to the early moments. I clocked almost seven hours of filler fetch quests between the third and fourth temple, and probably just as much time between the sixth and final temple.
Zelda feels like it has fallen into a creative rut, in which you must fetch a certain number of items before you can enter a temple. In Skyward Sword, you do this with different “dowsing abilities,” in which you hold out your sword (Wii remote) in first person perspective and look around, essentially using it as a metal detector. Collect the items, collect more items, and then go get some tears (similar to Twilight Princess) and finally you can enter the temple.
The tear fetch quests are more exciting than in Twilight Princess, because if an enemy so much as touches you, the tear collection is lost and you have to start over, so there is a constant sense of urgency to the Spirit Realm sections. I appreciate earning the right to enter temples, but the journey could feature more interesting ways of doing so. There are a few moments later in the game where pointing your sword to find random pieces of junk gives way to more compelling fetch quests, such as sailing to find sea charts (in a segment that feels crafted for Wind Waker fans) and switching between the past and the present, altering entire areas and stretching mind-bending puzzles between time.
The dull, formulaic nature of the fetch quests is amplified by repetition. There are only three main areas—forest, desert, and mountain—which are visited over and over. To be fair, these areas sometimes change when you revisit them, but you’re still doing mundane tasks such as swimming for musical notes or escorting a robot carrying a basin of water all the way up a mountain you’ve already traversed before. You’re also forced to fight the main villain in the game three times, which sucks because the battles with him rely on motion controls, and they are easily the worst boss fights in the game. The other boss fights are epic and lots of fun, which makes fighting the main villain three times worse, because it feels like he’s taking away from potentially cooler battles.
All of this repetition and fetch questing is spread across a streamlined, barren overworld. Floating in the sky above the main areas is a town and a bunch of rocks with nothing interesting on them. Imagine Wind Waker shrunken down to a fraction of its size with absolutely nothing in it, and you’re on the right track. If you long for the dense, populated world of Majora’s Mask, or the giant map of Link to the Past, play those games, because Skyward Sword lacks any of those things. There are side quests (most of which I didn’t play), including a very clever, funny one about a girl and a monster early on, but they mostly seem to originate in the main town of Skyloft. There are treasure chests scattered about the rocks in the sky, but they remain locked until you strike Goddess Cubes hidden throughout the main areas. The best thing that can be said of Skyward Sword’s overworld is at least it doesn’t take long to travel between the main areas.
And yet, sprinkled within all these disappointments, there are reminders of why we love Zelda, including some of the best temples in the series. Ancient Cistern is easily my favorite water temple. Sandship, which takes place on an ancient pirate ship, is about as far as the series has ever strayed from a traditional temple while still retaining the basic elements of a Zelda temple. Sandship’s boss battle isn’t confined to a single room but instead unfolds across the entire level as you rush to escape the sinking ship. It’s reminiscent of the opening boss fight in God of War II. And I won’t spoil the final temple, but it’s massive, filled with head-scratching moments, and utterly unique and ingenious. Each of these temples stretches the idea of what a Zelda dungeon can be to its creative limits without abandoning the basic temple structure entirely.
The level design truly soars to new heights within these three amazing temples, and it’s aided by deviously clever, fresh new puzzles and items along the way. You will rarely push a block and never light a torch. There are also a couple new items, my favorite being a flying beetle that allows you to scout areas, hit far away switches, pick up items, and drop bombs. The best part about the items in general—and this is one of the best things about the game—is that they aren’t used in one temple or area and then discarded. You have to consistently keep all of them in mind and ponder which one to use in each new room. If anything from Skyward Sword sticks and becomes a franchise staple, I hope it’s this design choice that always keeps all items relevant.
It’s odd that a new yet unnecessary control input forced Nintendo to look at Zelda items and puzzles in a fresh light, but the result proves Zelda doesn’t have to be in a creative rut. The well isn’t dry, and Zelda hasn’t painted itself into a corner; if anything, as much as Skyward Sword often sticks to a well-tread formula, it also promises that the future is bright and potentially full of surprises and tricks up its sleeve.
Minor tweaks, such as a stamina meter and light RPG elements, are less compelling but also welcomed. If you hold down the ‘A’ button, Link runs, and the stamina meter quickly depletes. Allow it to drain completely, and Link is slow and useless until it refills. Running is great for quick escapes during battle, and the stamina meter adds a platforming element to running up hills or through quicksand. There is also a shop in Skyloft where you can upgrade shields and items if you find the right hidden collectibles scattered throughout the game. Even smaller, nearly inconsequential changes include shields breaking over time and compasses being consolidated into dungeon maps. I’d like to see the stamina bar return, and if the series wants to stay fresh and exciting, I’d love to see it fully embrace its RPG side with a deeper leveling and upgrade system. That would result in the series maturing and spreading its wings on a fundamental level more than motion controls ever could.
Of course, it goes without saying that the visuals and music are outstanding. The art style falls somewhere between the cartoony look of Wind Waker and somewhat more realistic style of Twilight Princess and most other 3D Zeldas. I’d actually prefer if it looked more like Wind Waker than a washed out, impressionistic pastel compromise. The music is as beautiful as ever, if not always as memorable. And would it surprise you at all if I told you there still isn’t voice acting? Of course not. You knew that going in.
Because for all the bold, daring, ingenious changes and improvements and superior level design, the bulk of Skyward Sword is dull, deliberate, and frankly, boring. Too much of it is comprised of filler content and safe choices. I had more fun with nearly every previous Zelda, especially entries such as A Link to the Past, Majora’s Mask, and Wind Waker. And like nearly every Zelda game, it has been praised by critics and fans as the second coming. That kind of fanboyism encourages Nintendo to avoid taking big risks and truly shaking up the franchise. If anything Zelda is praised without question, Skyward Sword is the best we’ll ever get going forward.
But who am I kidding? Nintendo doesn’t listen. The company marches to the beat of its own drummer. Always has and probably always will. This independent, pioneering spirit birthed the Gameboy, Super Nintendo, and the Nintendo 64, as well as my favorite, most underrated console, the Gamecube. It also brought us the Super Scope and Virtual Boy. It provided Nintendo’s greatest paradoxical success in the Wii, a system that broke sales records and kept the company alive but also ended up being the company’s worst system from a software, longevity, and fan support standpoint. Nintendo seems to operate in a vacuum that simultaneously inspires bold creativity, bad choices, and adherence to the past. In that sense, Skyward Sword is a fitting epitaph for the Wii, but hopefully not for Nintendo.
+ Three amazing temples
+ More difficult than most Zelda games
+ Fresh puzzles and items
+ Utilizes all items consistently throughout
+ Stamina bar and RPG elements
+ Story is deeper and more cinematic than most Zelda games
- Filler, fetch quests, and repetitive design (including lack of boss variety)
- Bland, barren, streamlined overworld
- No standard controller option
RATING: 3 out 5 stars