The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (Wii)
Developer: Nintendo EAD
Release: November 20, 2011
The English fantasy author Michael Moorcock wrote four series of novels collectively referred to as “The Eternal Champion cycle.” The Eternal Champion is a meta-character embodied in four completely different heroes. The Champion arises whenever the forces of Light and Dark are out of balance. His weapon is always a version of the Black Sword, and he always has a Companion.
The Legend of Zelda series of video games reminds me of the Eternal Champion cycle. There is always a hero named Link. He is always out to rescue a girl named Zelda. There are overworlds full of characters and side quests, and puzzle-filled dungeons laden with monsters. Nintendo has offered iterations of The Legend of Zelda on every console they’ve developed. All the Zelda games are different, and they are all the same.
For this year’s 25th Anniversary of The Legend of Zelda, famed designer Shigeru Miyamoto and his team proffer us the newest title in the series, Skyward Sword. Read on to discover just what kind of nostalgia that entails, and why we loved it.
NEW TWISTS ON AN OLD FAIRY TALE
Zelda and Link hail from a race of people who live on floating islands in the sky, and “the ground” is only a myth of legend. The village of Skyloft is protected by Knights who ride giant birds called Loftwings, and Zelda and Link are members of Skyloft’s Knight Academy. When Zelda is thrown off her Loftwing to the ground below by a freak storm, Link is revealed as the Hero of Legend who will descend beneath the clouds and defeat the evil force which took Zelda and threatens to break the imprisonment imposed upon it long ago.
This world in the sky is the major element that sets Skyward Sword apart from other titles in the Zelda mythos, and flying on a Loftwing is one of the highlights of the game. Wandering the sky with no purpose other than seeing the sights, accompanied by a musical score of Disneyesque majesty, is enjoyable in and of itself. Subtle Wiimote controls make flying smooth and easy.
The art design is inspired by the work of French painter Paul Cézanne, which takes the low-res visual fidelity of the Wii and turns it to distinct advantage. The musical score is of the usual superlative quality in Zelda titles, and the included CD, a Legend of Zelda 25th Anniversary orchestral performance of recurring series themes, is a wonderful pack-in.
THE WIIMOTE MAY BE GOLD, BUT THE CONTROLS AREN'T GOLDEN
Swinging the Wiimote draws Link’s sword, which then follows the motions of the controller for the most part. Thrusting forward with the nunchuck raises the shield, and thrusting again activates a shield bash. Making all of this happen consistently the way you intend it to during a fight is more of a challenge than it should be, and success in combat often depends on precision.
The same holds true for throwing or rolling bombs, or swinging a bug net to capture insects used as components for item upgrades. The motion controls are almost where they need to be, but not quite. They’ll prove to be frustrating, and you may wish for the option to use a control pad more than once, but those moments won’t last. If you’re a Zelda fan, the gold Wiimote Plus offered as part of a bundle package might make up for some of your frustration.
THE MORE THINGS CHANGE...
Link’s overarching quest in Skyward Sword is to collect pieces of an ancient stone tablet, and the dungeons that house those tablet pieces are challenging and require minute attention to the environment. Video hints are available through a Sheikah Stone in the Skyloft village, so if the player gets stuck they can head back home and (hopefully) the solution is waiting for them.
Each dungeon adds a piece of gear to Link’s arsenal which then becomes the key to unlocking new areas for exploration and solving new puzzles. Most of these items are instantly familiar to Zelda fans, but the traditional boomerang for hitting distant switches and gathering remote items is replaced by a mechanical flying beetle. This remote-control beetle is just as much of a pleasure to pilot as Link on his Loftwing.
...THE MORE THEY STAY THE SAME
Besides the lack of accuracy in the motion controls, the inability to skip large blocks of text when speaking to characters with whom Link interacts often, like the merchants in Skyloft, gets irritating. This feels like a no-brainer, and it’s shocking that no one thought to include a way to bypass these repetitive and unnecessary dialogues.
Not all of the puzzles in Skyward Sword have video hints, and some of those puzzles can be quite challenging. Solving them can be extended exercises in consternation followed by “The answer was right in front of me!” moments, and this pattern can wear on nerves. Skyward Sword is also best experienced not as a linear adventure. Moving from dungeon to dungeon without stopping by old haunts to see what new surprises have been unveiled will deny players a huge portion of the game’s total content. Anyone looking for a game that pushes them forward through a narrative, or who has low tolerance for puzzles and brain-teasers, is well advised to move along.
THE LANGUAGE OF ZELDA
Zelda games have a recurring language. It’s expressed in mechanics like pushing gravestones, charging up sword attacks, finding empty bottles for potions and collecting heart pieces. It’s heard in familiar musical cues when opening a treasure chest, solving a puzzle, or receiving a new item. It’s a language that unifies all the disparate Zelda titles, like the mission of the Eternal Champion, his Black Sword and Companion unify the various incarnations of the character in Michael Moorcock’s books.
The Faron Woods may remind you of the Kokiri Forest from Ocarina of Time. Soaring through the clouds and exploring the floating islands may remind you of sailing the seas in Wind Waker. The connections between events on the ground and unlocking surprises in the sky may remind you of the relationship between the Light and Dark worlds in Link’s Awakening, and enemies like Stalfos, Bats and Octoroks will take you all the way back to the original Legend of Zelda for the NES.
If you are a fan of The Legend of Zelda series you will love Skyward Sword because it speaks the same language and takes you through the same sorts of adventures you’ve been enjoying for 25 years.
Dennis Scimeca is a freelance writer from Boston, MA, and a contributor to G4, Gamasutra, GamePro, and The Escapist. Reach him through his blog, Punching Snakes, or follow him on Twitter: @DennisScimeca.