The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword review

Review: Rebuilding many fundamental aspects of the series and providing the first good reason to own a Wii in more than a year, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword may be the best Zelda game in the series to date

Some of the fondest memories I have as a kid are playing Zelda with my friends in the backyard. We’d have epic battles, fighting through swingsets that were vines and leaf piles that masked angry Moblins or Octoroks, ready to pounce. It’s hard to believe that it’s been 25 years since the original Legend of Zelda was released for the NES. Since then, we’ve battled Ganon and those like him more than 14 times in games like Ocarina of Time, A Link to the Past, The Wind Waker, and Twilight Princess. With The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, Nintendo had the unique challenge of building a Zelda game from the ground up for the Nintendo Wii. It took five years, but Eiji Aunoma, Shigerum Miyamoto, and company have created what might be the best Zelda game yet.

Skyward Sword, while definitely a Legend of Zelda game through and through, is the biggest shakeup the series has seen since Ocarina of Time brought it into 3D in 1998. The game is home to a number of firsts for the series, including a new overworld structure, completely rethought combat gameplay, new and unique types of puzzles, a love story, and a rethinking of how dungeons and bosses work. There’s plenty that you’ll recognize in Skyward Sword, but the Zelda team has made a bold effort to try some new ideas here, and the result is likely one of the best games of this generation of consloes, or any other.

A Wii problem

One of the biggest problems the Wii has had is that motion control is fun and all, but video games come from a history filled with more and more buttons. Every major game series has evolved with complicated sets of controls involving multiple joysticks, direction pads, button combinations, triggers, and more. Though it came out swinging with some great games for the Wii, Nintendo has suffered because it essentially split the gaming audience into two: Those who play Wii Sports and simple motion games and those who want to play deeper, more complex titles. The thought was that if players start with a game like Wii Sports, eventually they may graduate to a game like Zelda. This theory hasn’t worked out so well. Third party publishers lacked the skill to appropriately use motion control to enhance hardcore games, and Nintendo’s in-house game development has been split between games that appeal to hardcore fans and games aimed at the masses. Games like New Super Mario Bros. and Donkey Kong Country Returns attempted to meet gamers halfway, but only increased the gap of creativity affecting the Wii. Simply put, the console has lost its way over the last few years.

It’s sad that it took until the end of the Wii’s life for this to happen, but The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is proof that motion control can enhance core games in substantial ways. Somehow, Nintendo has managed to simultaneously make Skyward Sword easier to learn and play while increasing the game’s complexity in some fundamental ways. It brings the Wii full circle, delivering on the promise of motion control in a big way.

The taming of motion control

In Zelda games, your mission is to embark on a quest to save the world. To do this, you traditionally have two items to start with: A sword and a shield. Skyward Sword de-emphasizes the importance of the shield (you don’t need one) and completely changes how you use your sword. Instead of hitting the A button a bunch of times to attack, all sword control is done without buttons at all. To pull out your sword, you shake the Wii Remote. Once it’s out, you can freely move the sword up, down, left, right, in a circle, however you want with the Wii Remote. But the key is that to fight, you have to quickly swipe the Wii Remote in a direction.

There are eight ways to slice, each corresponding to a direction. When you fight enemies, they will each have their own vulnerabilities. Moblins, for example, will randomly move their sword into different positions. To defeat them, you have to swing your sword from a direction where they are currently defenseless. Stalfos are a bigger challenge as they often have two swords and hold them in a defensive position when fighting, so there’s only one way you can stab them. Even the annoying Deku Babas–these guys are straight out of Little Shop of Horrors–are now deadly enemies because they require a specific sword slice to be defeated. Lizalfos make a showing and now have a giant iron arm to help them pound you down. They are a scary foe, indeed. Every Zelda enemy now has its own unique way of being defeated. This is not an easy game. Enemies will rip you apart if you don’t figure out their patterns.

This swordplay gives Skyward Sword perhaps the most complex and intellectually challenging combat I’ve seen, but because it’s so intuitive and natural to swing the Wii Remote as a sword, the complex controls get out of the way and let you concentrate fully on the enemy at hand. Zelda could never have achieved this level of combat with standard button controls.

This is only one way that motion control enhances the experience. Every new weapon you earn, like the slingshot, uses a quazi first-person viewpoint and has you use the Wii Remote to aim on screen as well, making for a consistently varied gameplay experience. You can actually move around while you’re in a first person viewpoint, which is also now used for a technique called Dowsing, which helps you find your next destination or hidden items.

Swapping weapons and secondary items like bottles is also now possible to do on the fly by holding a button and angling the Wii Remote a different direction. Flying and swimming, both of which are prevalent here, are made much more fun and intuitive through the use of motion control.

And though it is not really motion control related Link’s new ability to sprint and run-jump up walls (Prince of Persia-style, almost) is incredibly invigorating and changes the entire game experience. There were several delays in the creation of this game, and if half the time spent developing Skyward Sword went into this control system, it was well worth it.

A grand prequel

So you now know how the game controls, but perhaps I should enlighten you a bit on why you’re embarking on a quest in the first place. Legend of Zelda games are told and experienced as legends. You play as the great hero in a tale passed down from history. Like all legends, there are recurring characters, magical happenings, and epic things to behold. For the last 25 years, every Zelda game has weaved itself into a single universe of characters, goddesses, and events. Hundreds, maybe thousands of years pass between games–there are multiple Links and Zeldas–and the connections between the many titles are often vague, at best. But like anything in Zelda, the connections are there if you care to take the time to dig them up.

Skyward Sword seems to be a prequel to the events of the Imprisoning War, depicted in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. The game starts out on an island in the sky. Long ago, the goddesses lifted a village up from the world below to protect the inhabitants from the evil on the surface. A cloud barrier was created and the demons were sealed into a realm beneath the surface. Unfortunately, that seal is breaking. When Zelda falls beneath the clouds, it’s up to you to rescue her. Oh, and did I mention that, for the first time in 25 years (if you don’t count the cartoon series), Zelda and Link have a bit of a thing going on. They’re in love. Nintendo has been reluctant to put Zelda in the series much, but it’s nice to have an actual reason to save her.

I won’t ruin the plot, but there is a new metrosexual villain and a lot of epic talk of gods and goddesses. It’s all fun, taking itself a little lighter, with humor more like The Wind Waker than Twilight Princess. The story is completely linear and bare bones, but there is a bit more meat here than a lot of Zelda games and I enjoyed it immensely.

Rethinking the dungeon and world

Like the new play controls, Nintendo has gone back to the drawing board on its approach to the overworld, dungeons, puzzles, bosses, collecting, and saving in Skyward Sword.

Overworld: Skyward Sword borrows the free roaming world concept from The Wind Waker (substitute a boat for a flying bird), but its series of flying islands are much more compact and less intense than the massive ocean grid of Wind Waker. In addition, there are three areas underneath the clouds: a forest, a volcano, and a desert, which each provide their own unique items, dungeons, inhabitants, and challenges.

Dungeons: A lot of fans love dungeons, but I’ve never seen them as the strongest part of the Zelda games. They are here in force, but Nintendo has spread out the concept of a dungeon. Instead of only entering these segmented puzzle areas, the entire overworld is filled with dungeon-like puzzles. Since there are only three main areas on the surface, you return to each world multiple times, learning and exploring new areas of it with each visit. As a result, it’s not as important to know when you’re in a dungeon or not. The dungeons are there, and they’re more clever than ever, but Nintendo has spread the love around.

Bosses: No longer are bosses tied to dungeons. More than once, a boss battle has sprung up out of nowhere and I’ve also beaten more than one temple without fighting a new creature at the end. Nintendo has freed itself from delivering precisely what fans expect and now seems to deliver boss battles–which are always exciting–whenever the game’s pacing could use it.

Puzzles: I have been playing Zelda games for years, but Skyward Sword has stumped me almost continuously. There are old puzzles here, like using bombs to break open cracked walls, but many of the tired concepts are gone. You won’t be moving many boxes or lighting torches in Skyward Sword. In addition, the worlds seem to have a grand design to them. Unlike previous games, where you’d unlock a section of a world, walk through it, then move on, Skyward Sword areas have a winding structure to them, continually unraveling and revealing new secrets in common areas.

Collecting: Collecting has been a part of Zelda since its beginning, but Skyward Sword amps it up in some new ways. Instead of finding chests full of heart pieces and rupees (yes, you still find these), there are hidden items all over the game world. Dozens of bug species are hidden about, and a bunch of other rare items like Monster Horns, Ancient Flowers, Evil Crystals, and Goddess Plumes are scattered around. Chests, pots, and grass aren’t the only places to find hidden items. There are now digging locations, mounds of sand to blow away, and a number of other items.

Saving: You can now save in more places, instantly transport back to the sky anytime, and resume your save space from anywhere in a dungeon. Save points are plentiful. Thank you, Nintendo.

If you think some of these changes sound bad, well, I’m sure some fans won’t like them. But the bottom line is that the structure has shifted, but Skyward Sword still delivers a rich overworld, creative dungeons, more puzzles than ever, and a lot of boss fights. Have fun with the surprise.