There exist certain gaming franchises which become infallible with age. Fans — their memories alight with nostalgia — look to recapture moments that defined their earliest gaming memories in modern generations. This perfectly summarizes my experiences with Nintendo’s iconic green-tunic-ed Zelda series. Some of my fondest memories include exploring the expanses of Hyrule Field in Ocarina of Time and sailing aimlessly across the tranquil waters of Wind Waker. Despite all that, I will be reviewing Skyward Sword as a stand-alone product, wiping away the thick nostalgia condensed on my spectacles.
Story & Tone
The tone of Skyward Sword is a cautious one, not quite as wholesome as a Sunday morning cartoon but clearly afraid to come too close to the maturity that was Twilight Princess. The game’s first boss broke the traditional boss mold of three-strikes-to-the-big-glowing-eye, which led me to believe the franchise wanted to move in a different direction. Then, almost as if it never happened, I was right back in a child-safe world with Nintendo written all over it. If only the game took a stronger stance to decide if it wanted to offer the nonsensical but cute atmosphere of Animal Crossing, or make a dramatic impact in the way that Twilight Princess attempted.
Being the first game in the Zelda series timeline, Skyward Sword has a lot to cover to lay the groundwork for future games while still providing a solid story of its own. Here the game mostly succeeded. It brought me on a journey that had me emotionally invested as I watched various obstacles come between Link and Zelda. Despite the triteness of their situation, I could feel for Link and I wanted to reunite him with his childhood friend, Zelda. I also grew attached to the game’s bumbling would-be bully, Groose. He starts out as your classic jerk, but as his motivations are revealed and he becomes more involved with the hero, he in transformed into a source of loveable and welcome comic relief.
Don’t mind me, I’m not that important.
There were some loose ends I wish were tied up, however. Early on it’s made clear that Link and his uniquely red-colored Loftwing share a close bond, however this connection is never deepened or expanded upon to make the player feel attached to the bird. Ultimately the Loftwing becomes a simple vehicle that squawks. Missed opportunities such as this caused the game’s ending scenario to fall flatter than I’d hoped.
First I need to address my biggest gripe with Skyward Sword: motion controls. The technology just isn’t ready for this ambitious of a game. Enemies and bosses frequently need to be bested by executing one of several different blows aimed at a weak spot or opening in a target’s defense. This is done by swinging your Wii remote in the designated direction. For instance, swinging straight down in front of you would make Link (presumably) do the same thing. I would say, with confidence, these controls functions correctly far less than they should. Later in the game, when enemies begin to punish you for not attacking in the correct direction, this came to be a great source of frustration, making me bemoan removing my sword from its sheath. And motions controls further invade other mechanics, such as swimming, to put a damper on everything from combat to simple exploration.
Swimming is as cumbersome as it looks
Onto the brighter side! The player can upgrade nearly all of Link’s tools to vastly modify their medieval load-out. You can acquire these upgrades by gathering drops from enemies or bugs scattered throughout the world. I became quite partial to my bow and arrow, as its motion controls were the simplest. Naturally, I upgraded my bow twice, so it could deal monstrous damage. Then, to keep me swimming in arrows, I purchased an extra quiver. My thirst for arrows remained unquenchable, so I purchased a second quiver and upgraded them both twice — resulting in a massive stockpile of arrows I could bring with me on dungeon crawls. Such customization has never existed in a Zelda title, and I found the flexibility to be a welcomed modernization.
We can’t talk about Zelda unless we touch on dungeon design. And it really does shine in Skyward Sword. While initially, dungeons are somewhat shallow, they become quite complex and fun near the end of the game once most of Link’s tools are unlocked. Dungeons themselves take on themes to further deepen puzzles. Possibly the most innovative example of this is with area-specific time travel. Please, spare me the Steven Hawking lecture and (in Navi’s voice) listen. There exists within the Zelda universe a mineral called a Timeshift stone that, when struck, does what its name implies: shifts time. One particular area is filled with the stuff and in a number of instances the solution to a puzzle is either forward, or backwards in time. This means the player will have to think critically about cause and effect to solve puzzles. I found this to be a very innovative mechanic that gave a new layer of depth to both the dungeon itself and the game’s depth of problem solving. Another very memorable dungeon experience was on a revisit to a previously explored area. Normally this is when most critics would begin to lament “lazy level design!” However, when I returned I found the area entirely flooded with water, which created a visually pleasing and imaginative landscape.
There were moments when I stopped to examine my surroundings in Zelda. The game cleverly works within the limitations of the Nintendo Wii by causing a mosaic effect on items that extend beyond a certain distance. Still, I would say Skyward Sword just manages to get by as a visually acceptable game in this generation, and that is due largely to minimalistic art direction. The music is classic Zelda fodder: epic, energetic, and always enhancing the atmosphere right up to a awe-inspiring final boss stage.
Skyward Sword was an ambitious game, attempting to bring fans the most interactive and advanced Zelda experience to date. It shook things up by allowing the player to customize their equipment to a level never before possible. Innovative level design made for some memorable and enjoyable puzzles that were always more fun than frustrating. But the technology of the Wii was clearly pushed to the limit, as graphically and functionally the game struggled to stretch its wings and fly.