I’ve got a question for the readers out there: Do you remember what made you want Nintendo’s Wii? Was it the innovative use of motion-controls that snared you? Or perhaps it was the console’s inviting casual nature and promises of great things to come that sent your heart racing. Five years in, many of these promises were kept, many were not, yet there’s no doubt that many of the better game of this generation came from this supposed underpowered hardware, proving that true genius comes from design and interaction and not just high-definition theatrics. Now that the system is nearing its end of its lifeline, it’s only fitting that Nintendo would close things out the same way they began with the release of a new chapter in the long-running Zelda franchise, coincidentally its 25th Anniversary.
With its required use of enhanced motion-controls, orchestrated soundtrack, and some of the most inspired visuals that I’ve seen, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is nothing less than proper for fans who’ve been part of this epic adventure from the very beginning, and again challenges our preconceptions of an truly excellent game.
It’s never easy trying to best the latest installment of the series, especially after being mesmerized by the absolute magic and perfection of The Ocarina of Time, the cerebral puzzling of Majora’s Mask, the cartoonish charm of The Wind Waker, and finally the epic ambitiousness of Twilight Princess. While each of these games contains pieces of brilliance within them, most of them fall short from being the ‘complete’ package, at least for those longing for a deeper sojourn into the mythos of the Triforce and the land of Hyrule.
Considered a prequel to Ocarina of Time, our adventure begins on Skyloftt, a floating island which sits above the clouds and the world and its troubles below. Link and his childhood friend Zelda prepare themselves for the island’s annual Wing Ceremony, which bestows knighthood to the winner and – more critically – the affection of its golden-haired female presenter. But things take a turn for the worse when Zelda falls into a monstrous hole that opens in the sky, sending her downward to the surface of Hyrule and the monsters that inhabit it. A nocturnal visitor guides link to the magical temple of the Goddess, where he learns that his destiny is greater than he could have imagined, and with the power of the Goddess Sword by his side, the stage is set for a quest filled with intrigue and danger, where the fate of the world – and his precious Zelda – hangs in the balance.
The fundamentals of the plot are grounded and well-illustrated like others entries before it, continuing the trend of expelling voice-overs and relying on characters’ expressive gestures and easy-to-read text bubbles to bring its surprisingly deep narrative to life. There’s a larger and more concerted effort placed on cinematic moments this time around, with the use of in-game cinematics bringing this pageantry to life. Yes, the familiar absense of vocal dialogue is still pronounced instead of real speech, but I dare you not to smile when you first read an adorable Kikwi tell you that “you seem OK, even though you’re scary.”
Many of the usual Zelda tropes are here; you’ll still endure an opening sequence that constitutes a training session, you’ll still acquire the necessary tools like the slingshot and bombs, and there’s still no jump button. On the surface it can seem like most of the changes were purely superficial, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. Apart from the new contextual motion-controls, there’s plenty that’s completely new here, with weapon additions like whips and flying beetles, and Link’s activities are now tied to a stamina bar, which rapidly depletes as he sprints, climbs, hangs, and engages in other strenuous activities. There’s also a new upgrade system that lets certain items increase in strength and durability, and the new mapping system that lets you plot waypoints is by far the best in the series’ history.
You’ll even take to the skies and traverse using your beloved motion-controlled bird. Those who would accuse Nintendo of simply ‘playing it safe’ with their treasured series do so at their own peril, as much of the game’s true innovation comes from the synergistic relationship between Link and the player, and there are few words to describe how titillating it still is to hear those familiar jingles that let you know you’ve uncovered a secret, or as you take in your first glimpse of Skyloft to finally braving the damp confines of the Faron Temple.
When you finally get to explore on your own, you’ll appreciate how much of modern Zelda gameplay is untouched, and far more evolutionary than anything as you take flight and brave the mysterious world underneath the sky. The environments are varied as you meet the locals and spend the majority of your time getting lost among the numerous sights. The areas you travel between are usually vast and provide their own substance while gradually unveiling something new that might’ve been overlooked the first couple of times. The latter holds true, as you’ll be trekking across the same massive areas various times in your journey more than once. Thankfully, there’s enough creativity to make this type of backtracking more of a pleasure than an exhausting grind.
That being said the dungeons are still nothing to scoff at either. In an effort to make the most out everything, the number and overall size of dungeons has been reduced in an effort of including quality versus quantity. What you’re left with are challenges that really push your thinking to the limit. To be honest, This game might provide the greatest challenges and puzzles I’ve played yet. Don’t confuse this as a fault of the game however, because the dilemmas you will face are remarkably ingenious in execution time and time again, which makes me wonder if the wizards at Nintendo will ever run out of ideas.
Ever since Ocarina of Time, Link has been accompanied by a companion, and its no different here, as you’re joined by the otherworldly spirit Fi that lives within the Goddess Sword. She serves as a living computer of sorts, and is quick to hand out advice, enemy analysis, and even grants a new ability known as “dowsing”, which allows Link to actively locate a particular type of item and/or energy when attuned to its particular frequency in first-person view. If you have some time and patience, Fi will help you discover a lot of the secrets that are hidden. If her tips and guidance aren’t enough to impress you, then her calculating presence is truly a comical delight as you play.
Another major change is the unique overhauling of the user-interface, which drastically reduces the amount of button presses for actions like switching out weapons, using items, or just navigating the enormous landscapes you’ll travel through. Practically everything is presented in contextual ‘sticky’ menus that stay open as long as buttons are pressed, with presets for the most critical items pre-mapped and readily available using small motion ‘swipes’ that make accessing data easier than ever. After using this, its hard to imagine ever going back to the old way. Even the layout of gear is revamped to make critical thinking more important than before, allowing you to expand your gear slots to hold more items such as bottles and bomb bags, while also helping you find more upgradable equipment. Not everything can be carried all at once, however, so deciding what to carry with you is more paramount than ever, which adds a new layer of complexity outside of just solving puzzles.
Games featured on the Wii typically mean having to deal with visual limitations, but like many other Nintendo games on this console, it dutifully works with what it has to portray artistically elevated graphics. Basic low-resolution polygons and geometry are cleverly obscured in vibrant colors and painterly textures that make this world feel like a living watercolor mosaic with bouncy mushrooms, lush fields of grass, and detailed monstrosities that fill the screen with their presence. The results fall somewhere in-between imaginative and realistic yet create an entirely new aesthetic for the franchise, one that’s pleasing to the eyes and titillating overall. Seldom has the graphical potential of hardware been utilized for the right creative impression, and Skyward Sword certainly makes the most of what the Wii has to offer; this is definitely a remarkable-looking and wonderous game.
While the music from past Zelda titles was great, some felt the quality of the soundtrack could be even greater. It was only fitting that Koji Kondo and accompanying symphony bring new heights of aural power with a full orchestra performing the majority of tracks. They’re magnificent, and compliment the more traditional themes that modulate their tempo to suit the action onscreen with sweeping overtures when the action comes full circle. The new track “Ballad of the Goddess”, which serves as the official theme of Skyward Sword, is fantastic and will certainly be remembered as one of the best themes in recent memory.
The Wii birthed manageable motion-control gaming as we now know it and by all counts Skyward Sword is the culmination of everything Nintendo has learned about gestures, waggle, and proper 1:1 accuracy. The game requires the use of MotionPlus, but this addition isn’t superficial, as Link’s new flexibility translates into swordfights that are far more involving and strategic than ever, with enemies now attacking and defending in ways that require exact contextual directions such as left, right, upward swipes/downward stabbing, and even the cherished spin attack. Every move is handled using exacting gestures on both the Wii Remote and Nunchuk that correspond to your real motions – often in tandem.
Despite me sometimes having to fight with the controls as my thrust gestures seldom worked in battle and learning that my trusty bird occasionally had a mind of its own, the added sensations of being directly responsible for Link’s tactile attacks made putting up with the occasional inaccuracies worth the effort. It’s an effective demonstration of what intuitive motion-controls could offer when it’s done properly compared to traditional controls.
So does The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword claim the righteous title of being deemed “the best” in Nintendo’s long-running series? For me, there are enough innovations to the core formula and manages to feel fresh and invigorating, while the game’s beautiful artwork and orchestrated soundtrack constitute finer production values that experienced yet. True, the motion-controls exhibit a learning curve, but the reliance on directional attacks allow for greater strategy and immersion. For Wii owners aware that its golden era is rapidly coming to a close, there’s no excuse for you to miss out on one of the greatest games of the year, and quite possibly the best game the system has to offer.