Fashionably Late: The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

Most people who know me know that I’m a pretty big fan of Nintendo and their games, so what I’m about to say next may be kind of surprising; I’m actually not that big a fan of The Legend of Zelda series.

Don’t get me wrong, they’re good games, but Zelda is one of those franchises that I didn’t really get into when I was younger, mostly because I had a hard time wrapping my head around it. Zelda was (and still is, to a degree) one of those franchises where all the games were about secrets. It was all about knowing where to go, what characters to talk to, what order to pick up items in, and exploring every possible nook and cranny of every dungeon to solve the puzzles you needed to get through to progress.

Frankly, I didn’t have the patience, time or resources for it as a kid. Think for a moment about the days before the Internet: unless you had a subscription to Nintendo Power or twenty bucks to drop on a strategy guide, you were pretty much forced to go everywhere, talk to everyone, and hope you finally noticed that one little thing you missed whenever you got stuck. That just wasn’t in the cards for me at eight years old.

The first game in the series I owned was Link’s Awakening on the Gameboy, which, even today, I still haven’t beaten, since the solutions to some of the dungeon puzzles are so frustratingly obscure. The first game in the series I actually completed was A Link to the Past, which I finished in 1998, nearly seven years after it was first released and the same year that its sequel, Ocarina of Time came out.

After finishing LttP, I was extremely hyped for Ocarina, and I greatly enjoyed the first third of the game…at which point I hit the dreaded Water Temple. I got stuck and abandoned the game for fifteen years, until I finally beat the re-released version on the 3DS (incidentally, I still got stuck in the Water Temple, but this time I had a much better strategy guide to help me find the one key I had missed more than a decade prior).

After I admitted defeat and gave up on Ocarina of Time as a kid, I kind of lost my taste for the series. My brother was a big fan, though, so I borrowed the games from him and tried them out. The next game, Majora’s Mask, was so strange and such a departure from the rest of the series that I couldn’t get into it, and the game after that, Wind Waker, had a forced stealth sequence* near the beginning that made me give up on the game in frustration.

*Note to game designers: From henceforth, if you include forced stealth sections in a non-stealth game, I will track out down and beat you unconscious with a sock full of tangerines. You have been warned.

At that point, I had pretty much given up on Zelda, but as the result of a surprise on the part of my father, I found myself waiting with my him and brother outside of our local Target in the cold for eight hours on the evening of November 18th, 2006, to buy a Wii on the day the system launched. For those who didn’t own a Wii when it launched (and judging by the absolute bedlam that resulted whenever a new shipment came in over the next year, that’s probably most of you), there were only six decent titles available for the system when it came out, and one of those was the new Zelda game, Twilight Princess. So, in spite of my misgivings, I picked up a copy, and it quickly became one of my favorite games of all time.

The game had it all; a dark atmosphere, a solid story with memorable characters, excellent art design and visuals, well-planned overworld areas and dungeons, a impressive soundtrack and engaging boss fights. Even the motion controls were well-implemented, considering that they were tacked-on late in the game’s development. I loved it, and I was incredibly excited when Nintendo announced that they would be releasing another Zelda game for the Wii, one built from the ground up for the system, and designed around the improved MotionPlus motion tracking technology.

That game was The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, and I picked it up shortly after its release in late 2011, only to have my spotty luck with the Zelda series kick in when Wii’s disc drive started to fail after five years of faithful service. By the time I took my long-out-of-warranty system to be repaired, I had been de-railed from the game long enough that I had moved on to other titles, and I didn’t come back to it until earlier this year, more than two years after I bought it, and after two more Zelda games have been released. At the rate I’m going, I’ll be caught up with this series right around the time the sun expands into a red giant and kills us all.

Now, on the off-hand chance that someone reading this post hasn’t played a Zelda game before, the series is about a young man (or sometimes an older boy) named Link who is drawn into a quest to fight evil and save the land of Hyrule, a Medieval-styled fantasy land, from the forces of darkness, usually led by a Big Bad named Ganon, with aid and guidance from the titular Princess Zelda. The story often revolves around questing for or preventing the Big Bad from obtaining the Triforce, an artifact made of three golden triangles containing the power of the gods.

For a long time, the series was believed by most people to be a series of stand-alone titles with no connecting plot, but eventually Nintendo confirmed fanboy suspicions by revealing that the Zelda games all take place in the same universe. The Link and Zelda featured in these games are almost never the same people, but rather reincarnations of two people who are reborn over and over in order to defend the land…who always happen to have the same names. Go figure.

Anyway, the timeline explaining how all these games are connected can be found here, if you’re so inclined, but the important part for the purposes of this review is that Skyward Sword is, chronologically, the first game in the timeline.

The gameplay for these titles revolves around Link exploring an overworld map, finding dungeons where the MacGuffins he’s hunting for in that particular game are located, fighting through hordes of monsters, solving puzzles, and obtaining new weapons and treasures that will help him on his quest. There are variations from game to game, but for the most part this formula holds true, though Skyward Sword does its best to play with it.

In this game, Link and Zelda are both from a land called Skyloft, which is a floating island suspended in the sky by the power of the goddess Hylia. Shortly after Link begins his apprenticeship as a knight, Zelda is sucked out of the sky by a freak tornado (boy, that seems to be a recurring theme lately), which prompts Link to go on an adventure to find her, which eventually evolves from a simple rescue mission into a quest to help Zelda defeat the (again, chronologically) original villain of the series, the Demon King Demise.

Unlike in previous Zelda titles, which featured one large, connected overworld, Skyward Sword’s overworld is broken up into four distinct hub regions. The first is Skyloft and its surrounding islands. Link traverses the region by flying on his Crimson Loftwing, a giant bird that serves as his mount for this game (and that other characters seem unduly impressed by). As the game progresses, Link unlocks points where he can descend from Skyloft to the land below, into three distinct regions; Faron Province (the woodland/lake region), Eldin Province (the mountain/volcano region), and Lanaryu Province (the desert region). Within each of these regions Link must find and explore various dungeons to accomplish his goals.

These overworlds are all expansive with tons of things to do; the path to reaching a dungeon is almost like a dungeon in and of itself, with all the tasks you have to complete to get there. And though the player has to revisit each region many times over the course of the game, it’s always to explore a new location or to do something new and different, so each visit feels fresh. Skyloft, in particular, has lots and lots of sidequests to participate in which can yield helpful items, and participating in them will add several hours to the overall game experience.

The dungeons, likewise, are well-designed and distinct from one another. The Earth Temple has you log-rolling a giant stone eyeball across pools of magma, the Lanaryu Mines have you activating localized time-shifts to solve puzzles, and in the Ancient Cistern, the player must swim through underwater mazes and ride a giant Buddha statue like an elevator. This is some of the tightest and most interesting level design I’ve seen in a Zelda game.

The combat is also probably the best of any game in the series so far. In most Zelda titles, combat isn’t particularly nuanced; you just hit the monsters with your sword or with special weapons until they die. Skyward Sword, however, makes use of the Wii’s motion controls to give you near 1-to-1 control of Link’s sword. This means that the game tracks where you’re holding the controller, and moves Link’s sword accordingly, and slashes it in the direction you swing the Wii Remote.

The result is a combat system that actually revolves around swordplay, where you must look for openings in your opponent’s guard and swing at them where they’re vulnerable before they can shift their defense in reaction to you. It takes some getting used to, but it makes fighting enemies exciting, whereas in other Zelda games it can sometimes feel like a chore.

The swordplay isn’t the only thing to be tied to the motion controls. Many other actions, from swimming, to flying the Loftwing, and even using most of Link’s special items, are all motion-based, and they work very well, most of the time. I’d even say that the controls are close to 99% accurate–but that 1% will have you tearing your hair out.

Some of the mini-games, in particular the archery contest and the mine-cart race, had serious problems detecting my motions, and I spent more than an hour apiece trying to meet the goals of those games and failing miserably. I ultimately ended up succeeding by looking up exploits on the Internet that forced the controls to respond the way they should have been doing all along. These errors weren’t enough to make me give up on Skyward Sword, but they were a blemish on an otherwise excellent game.

Visually, Skyward Sword is impressive. The graphics are bright and colorful, and the artstyle has a painterly quality to it that’s very pleasing to the eye. Technically, the game is carefully designed to avoid visual issues like texture pop-in or frame-rate drops, which is commendable, considering the scope of the game and how other, similar titles have struggled in those areas on the Wii hardware. The sound design and score are also moving, and among the best in the series.

Yet, there are some tweaks to the formula that I wasn’t as wild about. Skyward Sword introduces a crafting system that lets the player upgrade certain items and equipment by collecting treasures from monsters and chests in the environment. While this sounds interesting, it ultimately results in grinding for item drops, which is one of my least-favorite parts of any RPG. The game also introduces a durability mechanic for Link’s shield, wherein the shield can take damage and break if used improperly…but the whole thing can be avoided by learning to parry attacks properly, which the game is very forgiving about, so the entire mechanic seems rather pointless.

I liked the introduction of the Adventure Pouch, a sub-inventory, aside from Link’s normal array of special tools and weapons, that certain items like Bottles, Shields, ammo capacity upgrades and stat-altering Medals are carried in. It introduced an element of strategy to managing the load-out Link was bringing to any given dungeon, though, because so many of these items are optional, the game doesn’t expect you to be carrying them, so I rarely felt like these items were the only reason I made it through a given area. Again, a good idea neutered by the rather forgiving difficulty.

And the difficulty is one of the divisive aspects of this game; many people complain that the game does too much hand-holding, and that the introductory portions of the game that ease newbies into the experience last far too long. To an extent I can understand those complaints from series veterans, though I think the overestimate how capable new players are of picking up and playing a game like Skyward Sword. Nintendo made these changes to accommodate new players in the interest of bringing new blood into Zelda fanbase, and I can respect that. At the same time, though, the tutorial sections of the game aren’t very well-handled, and they can drag quite a bit. I think that there are better design choices that could have been made in that regard, by either making those sections skippable, or by taking a “show, don’t tell” approach and teaching through design rather than through text.

On the subject of tutorials and hand-holding, there’s the character of Fi, an AI-like being that exists inside Link’s sword and helps provide him with direction and explanation as the game goes on. A lot of people hated Fi, claiming that she interrupted the game too much, on the same level as Ocarina of Time’s Navi. Those people are dirty, dirty liars.

Nobody is as annoying and intrusive as Navi. Fi does have a few “Captain Obvious” moments, but for the most part she just waits for the player to call on her input, rather than shouting “Hey! Listen!” incessantly every twenty minutes until you drop everything to listen to her explain what you already know your goal is, even though you’re fully aware of it and God, I’m just trying to shoot these ghosts so I can get the last Bottle and shut up, Navi, I HATE YOU SO MUCH!!!

…Ahem. Sorry. Just thinking of…her…makes my blood pressure spike faster than–anyway, Fi is not terribly intrusive or annoying, and I kind of like her as a character. She’s a bit of a letdown after Twilight Princess’ awesome companion character, Midna, but overall she’s just fine.

The rest of the game’s characters are memorable and interesting, from school bully Groose (who I keep imagining with the voice of Biff from Back to the Future) to crazed villain Girahim and to Zelda herself, who gets a lot of character development in this game. Even Link, as silent as he ever is, manages to convey a wealth of emotion through expression and action, making him a more relatable protagonist than the Final Fantasy franchise has managed to produce in the last ten years.

Bottom line, while Skyward Sword does have its faults, its strengths more than make up for them. It’s not my favorite game in the series (A Link to the Past and Twilight Princess both trump it, in my opinion), but it’s still a worthy entry to one of the most venerable video game franchises out there, and that’s saying a lot.

Well, after 50-odd hours of Skyward Sword (yeah, this one’s a doozy), I’m ready to take a break from Nintendo titles for a while. I think something a little more obscure is in order. Something off-beat…something death-defying.

‘Til next time!

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