- Written by Aljosa /
- Published: 11 August 2014
When a new game in a beloved franchise is revealed or nearing release, fans will take a step back to appreciate its predecessor. When you apply this phenomenon in the context of The Legend of Zelda franchise, you get what’s called the “Zelda Cycle”. The Zelda Cycle insists that when a new main title is released, it is deemed a failure and fans will retroactively praise the one that came before it. Now, one can argue for days on the legitimacy of the Zelda Cycle and whether or not it even exists, but that’s not important to this article. The entire concept of the Zelda Cycle got me thinking about the last console game in the series- The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword.
Works of art are frequently re-examined for their cultural, societal, and aesthetic qualities because they weren’t appreciated in the past, and some of them end up enjoying widespread acclaim after the fact. Taking a critical look at games years down the road should be absolutely essential and encouraged if video games want to be legitimately considered “art”. It is worth having these discussions because just like some games can age and become outdated, others can only rise in stature and acclaim. Nearly three years and a new console later, I picked up The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword recently again and have come to the conclusion that it is one of my favorite titles of the previous generation.
Revealed at a disaster of a showing at E3 2010 and then released to rave reviews in the media back in November 2011 (currently, it is sitting at 93 on Metacritic), Skyward Sword nonetheless has had a very mixed reaction by fans of the series. It has been widely praised for its dungeons, graphical style, and the new features it brought to the series, but just as widely maligned for its fetch quests, mandatory tutorials, and on some occasions, its controls. Besides the original reveal of The Wind Waker, it is certainly the Zelda game that has experienced the most polarized fan opinion. Regardless of past opinions on the game, however, I feel like Skyward Sword will see a renaissance of positive outlook towards the game just like any other mainline Zelda title. It is a title that has amazing highs and takes the franchise in a new direction.
As soon as you start the game, you are treated to a gorgeous stylistic design that is a mix of the old and the new. Taking visuals from The Wind Waker and Twilight Princess, the game makes the most out of the Wii’s lack of graphical prowess. It employs a lovely water color aesthetic and this is particularly apparent when looking far into the distance. At times, it really does look like an Impressionist painting in motion akin to a Matisse or Van Gogh. The upcoming Zelda title for the Wii U looks to be a culmination of the aesthetic used in Skyward Sword so it’s fair to assume that Skyward Sword’s design is well liked amongst the Zelda development team.
An orchestral score was the most obvious evolution for the series and it was well worth the wait. The main theme for the game is almost flawless and somehow combines the personal tale of Skyward Sword with the epic fantasy of the series’ history. Dungeon and battle themes are all quality and really, I can’t think of a “bad” track in the entire game. Instead of being composed by one or two composers (Koji Kondo and/or Mahito Yokota) Skyward Sword was made by a team of composers. That they were able to achieve a cohesive sound for a game of this size is a staggering achievement. The music (and presentation) is by far Skyward Sword’s strongest area.
The starting area is called Skyloft and to contrast other towns in the Zelda franchise that are empty with a lot of locked doors and dead ends, Skyloft is a lively place that invokes calm emotions and feels like “home.” Located high up in the clouds, it is more like paradise that reminds me of a cross between a town in Animal Crossing and BioShock Infinite’s Columbia. The hub world is the sky and what it lacks in surprises and exploration it makes up by allowing you to fast travel to your destinations without tedium.
Link has been constantly changed, edited, revised, and even changed back over the course of the character’s existence. His personality in Skyward Sword is that of a strong and silent individual who cares deeply for his friends and Zelda. Despite not having any dialogue besides the trademark grunts in combat, Link is a fully formed character with his own personality, and he represents Nintendo’s greatest attempt at making him more than just an avatar for the player. The iconic tunic is there too and Skyward Sword tells the story of how the Master Sword came into being. Zelda’s character in Skyward Sword has her as not a princess, but a reincarnation of the goddess Hylia and Link’s closest friend.
To talk about narrative in Skyward Sword is to discuss the game’s emotionally charged story led by the two main characters: Link and Zelda. I firmly believe it is Nintendo’s first “real” attempt at making a character-driven Zelda game. The dynamic relationship between Link and Zelda I mentioned earlier adds a personal theme and is genuinely the first time that I took a critical look at the characters in a Legend of Zelda game. Throughout the story, it is apparent that Link loves Zelda and the relationship between the two is very significant because it moves the plot along from the beginning to the end. The only reason Link goes down to the surface world in the first place is because of Zelda; he wants to save her and is willing to go where no other resident of Skyloft has gone before and without this basic setup to the conflict, there would be no story. Link and Zelda are the driving force of the game more than ever before.
Without spoiling much of the story details, it is serviceable, but the highlights are new characters like Groose, Impa, and Ghirahim. I like that it takes place in the beginning of the Zelda timeline so the creators weren’t bound by the shackles of what came before. Nintendo may not “care” about narrative in their games but Skyward Sword (among others) demonstrates they are capable of compelling stories in the context of a video game world. In Skyward Sword’s case, it can be just as powerful a force to get you through a game as the gameplay itself.
The gameplay of Skyward Sword is the bulk of where the negativity comes from. To start off, I want to make it known that I had no major issues with the controls of Motion+, but I did with the hardware. Constantly having to centre the cursor is mildly annoying but the absolute worst is the Wiimote going crazy during a flying or underwater section. Other than these rare glitches, I did not have an issue with the control scheme.
The combat is very straightforward and easy to grasp, but the downside for me is that I can see the game working perfectly fine as is on a gamepad. It is a huge shame that I can’t play from beginning to end on the classic Gamecube controller or even on the awesome new Wii U Pro controller. Just to have the option would be great, yet once again Nintendo has problems offering choice when it comes to inputs.
The gist of the combat is you swing in precise motions to strike an enemy and this system is used in increasingly creative ways, especially boss fights. Like Bayonetta, Skyward Sword’s boss battles are best when you fight a similarly skilled opponent. The fights with Ghirahim are the best in the game. Naturally, the Motion+ benefits extend to items and the flying beetle is one of the coolest Legend of Zelda items in a long time but again, this is something that could have worked just as well on a normal control pad.
Ignoring the lack of input options, I love the combat in this game. I’ve wanted a Zelda game with an emphasis on better swordplay and Skyward Sword does well in that regard. More often than not, you are fighting one enemy at a time and, just like the game’s overarching theme, each encounter is a personal one. It is going to be very interesting to see where Nintendo will go from here in the future.
It must be noted that there is a substantial amount of “fetch quests” in the game. I don’t mean to use that word in a derogatory way, but it is true: some parts of the game are spent collecting a specific item to progress. Surprisingly, I didn’t find these quests all that problematic compared to most people. Nintendo are ace at crafting new scenarios and I particularly enjoyed the Silent Realm segments. Stealth in Zelda games sounds like a nightmare to deal with but collecting Sacred Tears in this alternate dimension was very fun to me and can be finished in 5-10 minutes if you are skilled enough.
Nintendo is famous for inventing new gameplay scenarios that reinvent old ideas and in my opinion, a lot of the item hunts in Skyward Sword are puzzles in themselves. You might have to escort a robot or play a section without any weapons and it is fun. I’ve always had a soft spot for moment to moment gameplay that is constantly changing and giving us something new to try, and Skyward Sword excels at that.
Now we get to my favorite part of Skyward Sword: the dungeons. Twilight Princess’s dungeons, especially the later ones like Arbiter’s Grounds, Snowpeak Mansion, and the City in the Sky, were unique locations in the game world that were more than just a collection of arbitrarily designed rooms. Skyward Sword took this approach and increased it tenfold. Some of the highlights include the lush water environments of the Ancient Cistern, the fiery chasms and rivers of the Earth Temple, and the eerie time traveling Sandship. The structure of the dungeons is more “open” and the game does a good job at disguising the fact that they are still a series of connecting rooms.
Another big change that Skyward Sword brought to the franchise was designing the outside of the dungeons into a more hostile environment, sort of like an attachment to the actual dungeon. I like to think of them as appetizers before the main course. It is absurd how well some of these areas are designed (particularly Eldin Volcano) when you consider they are used for at least two different gameplay scenarios and it all blends in seamlessly into the world.
Skyward Sword’s only mistake is that the game treats the player like a complete newbie. The player is constantly being given hints that they don’t want and sometimes outright told what how to complete a puzzle by Fi, Skyward Sword’s Navi-like character. It’s annoying at best and downright insulting at worst. Recently, Nintendo has moved towards giving the player more freedom over how to proceed through a game and letting them dictate how much help they want along the way so hopefully this approach will bleed into the new title.
When it comes to creating games, a lot of the time I do not envy Nintendo. How does one even go about making a new entry to an almost 30 year old franchise that is loved by many and has garnered endless plaudits? It’s clearly not easy, especially when you are constantly berated with criticisms that your sequels do not change enough. Thankfully, Skyward Sword is enough of an evolution that I am left more than thrilled by the experience. What changed for me this time around? The main reason is my expectations have changed. Playing this game in 2011 I expected an epic adventure like Twilight Princess yet Skyward Sword has more in common with Majora’s Mask and even Link’s Awakening; a smaller and more personal (I really can’t state enough how perfectly that word describes this game) adventure that at the same time feels like a collection of mini-games built within a larger game world. While I do love games like Twilight Princess and Ocarina of Time, I am very happy that Skyward Sword exists and I hope more people will pick it up and give it another try.