Nintendo walks a strange line with all of the games they put out in their core franchises. If they change too much, their fans get angry. If they change too little, everyone starts accusing them of being a backwards company who never innovates. In the end, though, everyone’s points are rendered moot, since their games always have a high level of quality, and let’s face it, no one takes better advantage of Nintendo’s hardware than themselves.
Skyward Sword doesn’t just keep that high level of quality, it also takes advantage of the motion controls in a way that everyone had written off by now. It’s really the most fitting game to send off the Wii from its parent company; it looks at the strengths of the system, the weaknesses of the hardware, and addresses it all in ways that continue to surprise the player until the credits roll- and yes, by the end of it, you’ll have changed your views on motion controls (unless you liked them- in which case, you’ll like them more).
There are a lot of changes going on in Skyward Sword, and I should say this right now: even if you don’t like the Zelda formula, and the idea of going into themed dungeons, finding special items and defeating the bosses with those items doesn’t interest you, you should still play Skyward Sword. It’s all about the motion controls. I don’t want to throw the words “game changer” around lightly, but really, you’ve never seen them done as well as they are here, and it just widens the gap to show how far behind them Microsoft and Sony are with their motion peripherals.
Everything you do with them just feels really good. Of course, the swordfighting is great and responsive. While it may look incredibly gimmicky, the action moves fast enough that you have to really react to what’s going on, and a lot of the enemies do a good job of taunting you, countering your attacks, and adapting to where you’re holding your sword. You have to fool them to get around their defenses- and this gets more difficult when enemies start to have electrical charges on their weapons, making a mistimed attack even harmful to you. Waggle will not work. You’ll get lucky (and one enemy really only works if you just hammer on him haphazardly), but for the most part, you’re just elongating what could be quick, fun battles. You even have to use the rolls, dodges, and shield bash to get around your enemies and stun them, because they will counter you, and it can quickly destroy you if you’re not paying attention.
The items you find are also surprisingly good, and you wind up using all of them until the end (and there’s a late-game section that really makes you realize how useful even the weirdest of them can be). None of them are really used in combat anymore- it’s all about the sword now- but the amount of fidelity and new ways to use items brought by them is pretty interesting, even if some of them don’t come into play too much (the whip steals a key off of an enemy at one point. Then that never happens again). Of course, the bosses are still defeated by these items, and they can still stun enemies or take them out from afar. The weapon switching is now done in real-time, too, so you can still run and take damage while switching items- so be quick about it.
Beyond the motion controls, there have been a few new systems introduced as well. You can run now, but there’s a stamina meter so that you can only run for so long. It’s not really for getting around places or through the overworked, though, as it features into puzzles and obstacles in the game. Climbing takes up stamina, and there are chunks of the game where you have to balance out how far you can run to get between platforms in, say, quicksand. You’ll not be able to do anything if stamina runs out, so be careful.
There’s also a bit of an upgrade and crafting path in the game, too, with some of the collectibles you get. Bugs are used to upgrade potions, which can do things like restore hearts, to even repairing your shields. Treasures are basically random drops from enemies, and they’re used to upgrade equipment, like your shields and a few other things. You don’t upgrade your sword, though, and the path isn’t branching to make it so that you have a special Link that’s all your own, but it’s a neat thing that can be pretty helpful. As mentioned, your shields can break, but when they’re damaged you can repair them, or just buy new ones. There are 3 types, and they all have their own advantages, so you can upgrade and take all of them with you, using your new Adventure Pouch (which gives up to 8 slots for things like bottles, shields, and medals that change drop rates of items).
The overworld is completely revamped, too. It’s no longer the open field connecting the areas like in previous games, and is more of a Metroid style of challenges that opens up more later when you get more items. I was surprised to see that some areas were still opening up right to the end of the game, so it doesn’t feel repetitive to go back because you’ll always be seeing something new. The time-manipulation in the desert particularly stands out as one of the best things I’ve seen in video games in general, not just Zelda. It makes getting to the dungeons more of a puzzle, which is pretty fun, and gives you a lot more to do through the whole game, not just the dungeons.
Which isn’t to say that the dungeons aren’t some of the best and most justified in the series. Whereas older games just had you awakening sages or collecting seals for some undefined reason, the MacGuffins you’re going for here make a lot of sense, and actually change your equipment and give you new places to go. The areas even make more sense, and look like actual temples that have just fallen apart over time, not just a series of weird challenges. I remember one that didn’t even have a key in it- why would a place of worship need one? You even go back to one of the dungeons later to collect something, which really goes to show they actually are places of sacred importance, not just levels with weird bosses.
This believability also comes down to the core motivations of the characters. Simply put, there’s a reason for Link to want to save Zelda, and the story even goes so far as to explain why Link, Zelda and Ganondorf are always meddling in each other’s business. It really bridges the gap well between older, pre-Ganon stories and the newer ones, and kind of ties up a timeline- though we still don’t know where all the games are in the super-secret Zelda timeline, it gives reasoning for certain events.
Gameplay has never been a problem for the series, but with the new systems and controls, it’s at its best here, and I’m just waiting for the sequels to see how they can possibly evolve this formula. It continued to surprise me to the end, demanding I do things that games have never asked of me before and making me have to think, not just to defeat certain enemies, but also to solve puzzles. This is The Legend of Zelda at its finest, and the option to restart the game immediately after in the more difficult “Hero Mode” is pretty tempting; I just want to play it more.
Let’s get all of this “it looks good for a Wii game” stuff out of the way. Skyward Sword is a great looking game, period. Nintendo smartly ditches the realistic style of Twilight Princess, going for what they described as an impressionist painting look. It’s actually pretty amazing how well they’re able to capture this feeling at times. There’s a visual filter on that progressively renders the world between what looks like an early Monet painting and into a vibrant, richly detailed world in the foreground.
I suppose it’s almost like a counterpart to Okami- they both choose an artistic style and invest their look in it heavily. Both succeed greatly, and it gives very unique look to them that other games can’t really touch.
Even without any of that, the art direction on the characters and enemies is fantastic. They animate well, have good expressions, and even react when you use your items on them. Some of the mouth movements aren’t quite as smooth as they were in Twilight Princess, but since there’s no voice acting, it’s not really a huge removal, especially since you’re going to be reading instead of looking at the characters.
All of the environments are pretty stunning, too. There’s a specific look to the dungeons that go past just “fire” and “water” and tell you a lot about what they were used for when they were new. Other art styles seem to have been brought in, with some Muslim and Indian-looking architecture popping up in a few places. Effects on things like water and magma look great, too, and the water stopped me every now and then, and I just stared at it, thinking about how nice it looked.
And no, I never once stopped and thought about how good it would look on a more powerful console. This is art direction at its finest, and you completely forget that this is running on what’s essentially 10 year old technology. All the people finding ways to play it on their PCs in 1080p definitely show how great it can look, but even in standard definition, this game’s gorgeous.
Skyward Sword did something pretty amazing. Every time it introduced something that I thought was going to be annoying, or really long, or that seemed like it was just filler, it wasn’t. Running through old areas gave you a lot of new things to find, and even items that open up treasure chests in the sky, making adventuring and finding new upgrades feed into itself more. It’s a little more linear, but that makes it a lot more dense- I got through this game in 46 hours, and didn’t feel like I’d wasted a bit of my time.
The motion controls feel great. The world is fascinating to explore. I even got sucked into upgrading all of my items, because why bother if I can’t have the best Beetle in the world? I’m even convinced that this is the strongest lineup of special items in the series, and the lack of something like a Boomerang is never really felt because the other items pick up the slack- and then some.
There are even things in place to make it easier if you get stuck, with a robust hint system at your disposal to show you how to get through particularly difficult challenges. It’s optional, and only ever accessible in 2 places, but it makes it possible to not compromise the difficulty, but still bring in less-skilled players.
On the other hand, my biggest problem is that there are some parts that just hold your hand a little TOO much. There was a point, for example, where someone asked if I knew how to do something. I said yes, and they still explained it. Perhaps it was in less depth than they would have otherwise, but it was still pretty weird. Fi, your new companion, is also doing her best to make sure you’re not lost, but that goes to the point of telling me some pretty obvious things (Oh, that thing that looks like a Timeshift Stone is a Timeshift Stone? Zounds!). Even worse are the treasures and bugs. Each time you load your save file, the game resets the fact that it’s told you before what each one is and tells you again.
Every. Single. Time.
It’s just a minor gripe, though. It wastes a little time, but gets you back in. Fi’s hints aren’t so direct that you’re not left wondering at how to do a puzzle, so you can still waste time trying to figure out what the heck you need to do in some places. And if the best gripe I have for the game is that it tells me what a Lizard Tail is when I pick it up a few times, clearly, this game has very few problems and is just a lot of fun through and through.
To reiterate, no one takes advantage of Nintendo’s hardware like they do themselves. If there was ever any doubt about the quality of Skyward Sword, perhaps you were forgetting what franchise it was in. Or you were forgetting who it was being developed by. Nintendo’s core franchises get some of the best games amongst all three of the console manufacturers, and Skyward Sword is another stellar addition to a fantastic family of games. It establishes a new direction for combat, and even justifies motion controls- something that’s been a long time coming. The only question left is where it can go from here, but if it’s only half as good as Skyward Sword, it would still be a phenomenal game.