Note: I had done this review for my website Airship Over Water a month or so ago. I know Skyward Sword is mostly old news now but I only recently completed it again and I added some extra thoughts. I just thought I'd try to share it with this audience as I used to comment/post here quite frequently but haven't really posted anything as of late. Hope you get some enjoyment out of it. :P
There is no game quite like a Zelda game. The formula can be copied and emulated, but no matter what, no one can produce the Zelda experience quite like Nintendo. And 2011 brought us the 25th anniversary of the Zelda franchise, and along with that came a new game -- The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword.
Skyward Sword was released for the Nintendo Wii on November 20th, 2011, in North America. This is the first Zelda game designed specifically for the Wii. While Twilight Princess was released in 2006, it was initially designed for the Gamecube and then ported to the Wii during production, so SS was being sold as the Wii-Zelda game that fans had been dying for. When the Wii was first released back in 2006, one of the first things that came into any fan's mind when holding that Wii remote was, "I can't wait to play a Zelda game where this remote is my sword." And while Twilight Princess still offered a good Wii experience for Zelda fans, we eagerly awaited the first game designed from the ground up to make use of the Wii hardware.
Skyward Sword not only makes use of the Wii's standard motion controls, but it actually REQUIRES players to have the Motion Plus technology. Whether you play with the Remote Plus or simply attach the Motion Plus attachment onto a regular Wii remote, it makes no difference, but the game is simply unplayable without it. Shigeru Miyamoto and Eiji Aonuma, two of the producers for Skyward Sword, sold the experience by saying that the Wii remote IS your sword, with 1:1 motion matching up with your character on screen.
But Zelda fans already know this. So how does Skyward Sword actually stack up against other Zeldas, and most importantly, can it be hailed as the greatest Zelda game of them all?
You of course play as Link, who in this game, is a student studying at the Skyloft Knight Academy. Skyloft itself is a unique concept because it's actually a city in the sky. The game is best explained as having two layers. The first layer is Skyloft and all of the floating cities in the sky. Link and other characters in Skyloft get from one platform to another by flying on their loftwings -- giant birds that bond with a human at a certain age (think Avatar). The second layer is the ground below, where the game's dungeons and enemies are found. In the opening story, Link is about to take part in a race that, if won, would grant him senior status at the Skyloft Academy. After some typical Zelda-antics, he eventually does win the race. The character of Zelda in this game is actually the daughter of the head of the academy, and a childhood friend of Link. This is the first game where you really feel that she is an intricate character with her relationship to Link because they are legitimate friends (maybe someday more) and you spend a lot of time with her, as opposed to a game like Ocarina of Time where she is simply someone you meet and then are forced to rescue.
Granted the same thing happens in Skyward Sword. After winning the race, Link and Zelda enjoy the evening together riding their loftwings, but a strange storm finds them, and knocks Zelda into the world below. Link awakens and finds that Skyloft has a legendary past that foretells of a hero adventuring to the world below. Of course that hero is Link. He takes the Master Sword, who in this game is accompanied by a being called "Fi," who serves as a guide during the game. While she actually lives inside the sword, she springs out at key moments to help Link during his adventure. While I never found Navi to be THAT annoying in Ocarina of Time, Fi is just as useful and just as talkative as Navi or Midna (from Twilight Princess). She has this emotionless input to all situations, even if great danger is ahead. Sometimes this makes for some funny dialogue, like when she gives you an exact percentage of your chance of survival. That being said, even I never found Navi as annoying as Fi can be. You can access her by pressing down on the directional pad, and sometimes her icon will blink over and over if she wants to tell you something. This can be especially annoying when all she wants to do is tell you that Link is low on hearts or the batteries in the Wii remote are low, considering these are things we can already find out just by looking at the screen.
The initial villain of the game is not Ganondorf, but a new threat called Ghirahim. Skyward Sword is said to be first in the Zelda timeline, and while pieces fall into place during the story that can be pointed to other Zelda titles, Skyward Sword mostly stands on its own. Ghirahim is a creepy character in his own right, breaking the mold for most antagonists in Zelda titles. From the moment he appears behind Link, sticking his tongue out and hissing in Link's ear before their first encounter, you can tell this is most certainly not a Ganondorf clone.
The game has a visual style that can easiest be described as a mix between Wind Waker and Twilight Princess. What I mean by that is -- the characters have mostly realistic proportions yet the entire game almost seems cel-shaded. This is a real contrast to Twilight Princess in the regard of how colorful it is, which I loved. It's nice to see Link wearing a very clear green tunic, flying on a bright red bird with a baby blue sky in the background.
I would even go as far as to say this is the most colorful Zelda title ever. But that all being said, it's somewhat disappointing that the game doesn't look better. It feels like this visual style could have been replicated 6 years ago on the Gamecube. Twilight Princess was a fantastic looking game, but my one complaint was that it was too dark. Skyward Sword is a strange opposite in that it looks much more colorful, but it doesn't look technologically superior.
The area that shines the brightest is without a doubt the soundtrack. Just as Super Mario Galaxy 2 had a full orchestra, Skyward Sword does too -- mostly. There are some tracks and audio bits that clearly sound like older Zelda titles, but 90% of the game has you hearing beautifully orchestrated live tracks. I would dare say this Zelda game has the best soundtrack of all of them. In fact, I have no trouble saying that.
So what of the gameplay? Sadly this is the area where I struggle the most to talk about, just because I have problems with it. As far as the sword combat? It works quite well. If you hold the Wii remote up high, pointing directly into the sky, Link does the same. If you swipe from the lower left to the upper right, Link does the same. If you stab forward, Link does the same. He does all of these things in near 1:1 motion -- and it works (most of the time).
The problem for me lies with the aiming. Most Wii games make use of the sensor bar that sits on top or below your TV. Most Wii games have it so wherever you aim the end of your Wii remote, a reticule comes up on screen. You can almost imagine an invisible laser going from one end of your remote to the screen, but Skyward Sword doesn't make use of the sensor bar. When the game first calibrates the Motion Plus, you then point at the screen one time and center the pointer yourself. From this point on, the game expects that you will be holding the Wii remote in this general position for the entire time. What I mean is -- if your hand changes grip and you hold the remote slightly different than where you first calibrated it, you have to re-center the reticule. This can mostly be solved by pointing at the screen BEFORE going into aiming or a first-person-view, but it feels unnatural. Too often did I find myself going to aim my slingshot and I would be forced to re-center before getting off an accurate shot. This is easily done by hitting "down" on the directional pad on the Wii remote, but it simply makes me wonder why Nintendo went with this choice. Is it playable? Of course. Is it frustrating? Yes. Do you get used to it? Eventually.
I hate to call this a game-breaking factor, because it wasn't, but my biggest gripe with Skyward Sword would have been any controls outside of the swordplay. The bossfight after the first dungeon is heavy on swordplay, and at that moment I realized how good the sword combat truly is, but the aiming in SS is an issue. I would find myself feeling disappointed by being taken out of the experience. It's so troubling to walk into a room, use a weapon that uses aiming, only to realize Link is turning far to the right because your Wii remote had shifted while playing.
What I liked/disliked about Skyward Sword:
What I liked about Skyward Sword:
* The visual style. I absolutely love the color palette this game utilizes. Sure, when you set it next to the gritty color scheme of Skyrim, Skyward Sword seems like far too “peaceful” and “happy” of an experience. But Zelda games are about an adventure, and what makes this game so unique is that there really is not a game out on the market that looks like it. The character models are distinct. When you take a step back and look at all the architecture and landscape, the game really looks beautiful. The only reason I don’t LOVE this visual style is that some of the character models and button icons look quite jagged – as if you can see the edges of the polygons used to make them. You can tinker your TV settings and even play it on a standard TV, but it doesn’t look consistent in it’s presentation. Some smoothing out would have made this game absolutely stunning, but it’s still a good looking game either way.
What I disliked about Skyward Sword:
* The sword combat. Now don’t get me wrong – I was looking forward to that 1:1 motion experience with my remote being my sword, but it’s not responsive enough. I would dare say that Wii Sports Resort swordplay did a better job of making me feel like I was holding an actual sword in my hand. If you turn the game on and just stand around, doing basic sword swipes, the game will read your every movement without flaw – but it can give you the incorrect response at the worst time. During the third dungeon, you fight a scorpion boss that literally has “eyes” inside the pincers on its hands. At one point during the fight, the only successful way to hit the enemy is by stabbing, and despite my perfect stabbing motion, Link would perform a downward vertical slash. And this happened multiple times. I would pause the game, readjust my grip, and pull off a few successful stabs, but then the same annoying result would return. This simply should not happen. That being said – the sword combat is great when it works – and it works 80% of the time. But 80% is not good enough.
What I LOVED about Skyward Sword:
* The music. Words cannot describe how heroic I feel when “Ballad of the Goddess” plays at any point in the game. And while that is the main track of the game, all the other songs sound great too. While it’s not “totally orchestrated” like Mario Galaxy, it’s about time we had a Zelda game with actual instruments performing the soundtrack. It really makes the experience that much better, and so many of the songs are sure to be classics for the Zelda franchise. Even the slight voice acting the game has serves its purpose very well. From the “OOHHHH!” that Beedle (the flying shop owner) lets out when you respond to his questions, to the optimistic giggling of Zelda when she runs into Link on Skyloft, it really works well.
What I HATED about Skyward Sword:
* The aiming. First off -- I am aware that the remote doesn’t make use of the sensor bar, unlike many others who have reviewed the controls poorly. But even with the motion-aiming that was implemented, I still feel this was a poor choice. Coming from someone who played Twilight Princess on the Wii and enjoyed aiming with the sensor bar, I really am puzzled why the changed this. If someone had a small TV, I suppose this could be somewhat helpful, but it feels too unresponsive and wonky.
PERFECT EXAMPLE – If you want to dowse for a specific item, you hold in the C-button on the nunchuck. Doing so brings up a first person view for the dowsing, but also a “ring” of items you can dowse for. You might have the options for dowse for hearts by selecting the right corner. You might have the option to dowse for treasure by selecting the left corner, but this “ring” only stays on-screen while you hold in C. If you want to dowse for hearts, you need to point to the right side of the ring. You slightly point the remote to the right side, and release the C-button, and now you are dowsing for hearts. HOWEVER – the problem is, your awkward position of slightly pointing to the right has now become your center of vision. To go left, you would actually point the remote straight. Or to go right, you would have to point the remote even farther right. YES you can recenter your vision by hitting “down” on the directional pad … but WHY did they do this? I shouldn’t have to correct my own vision. If I am pointing to the left, I want Link’s sword to point to the left – not base it on my starting motion. It’s the kind of frustration that can best be understood by experiencing it. There are moments in the 50+ hours I put into the game where I felt like I really got the controls, but I still had issues. Is it game-breaking? Not exactly – but it’s irritating. To be quite honest, the aiming system and most of the controls were the main problem I had with the game. I am not against the 1:1 sword motion and motion controls in general, but Skyward Sword does not work WELL ENOUGH. This is a Zelda game, and quite frankly, the errors it has should not be overlooked just because this is the first console Zelda in years.
Of course I loved the game. I really did. Story wise – I think I can safely say this is my favorite Zelda, but even Twilight Princess on the Wii had controls that had decent motion controls. Skyward Sword should have felt a lot better, considering it was released years after Twilight Princess. I understand the Motion Plus accessory assists in the 1:1 motion of sword and remote, but it honestly doesn’t sometimes. I shouldn’t be punished for doing a horizontal swipe that the game registers as something else, or if Link responds on-screen too late.
But let’s praise Skyward Sword some more, because it really does deserve it. The game is very long and if I absolutely hated the game, I simply would have stopped playing. The story – good Lord – the story is fantastic. It has this perfect mixture of the sidequests from Majora’s Mask, along with an intriguing main quest that draws you in. There were at least two points in the game where I felt like the ending boss battle was so close, only to realize more dungeons awaited me – and I never felt like I wanted the story to end.
Most of the characters are very memorable. One of my favorites (and I imagine may other gamers) was Groose. At the start of the game, Groose starts out as a bully to Link. He is jealous of the close relationship that Link and Zelda has, so he tries to put down Link and impress Zelda every chance he gets. Although they never outright admit it, Link and his friends hide his Loftwing at the beginning of the game, trying to stop Link from competing in the Skyloft race. When Zelda goes missing, we see the slow development of Groose from being an arrogant bully, to a responsible young man who helps Link more than once fighting a great evil. He completely does a 180 from the stereotype he begins as, and legitimately becomes a heroic type that goes through a lot of rewarding development.
So no – I do not hate Skyward Sword. I loved Skyward Sword. The story and soundtrack are amazing – quite possibly the best any Zelda game has ever produced. Gameplay wise – I am open to motion controls, but this needs work. It takes far too long to get what the intended “hang” of the controls is. It is one of the best games of 2011 and one of the best games on the Wii library. If you do own a Wii and are tired of making “dust” jokes about it, there is no reason not to pick up Skyward Sword. It’s a satisfying Zelda experience on the Wii, and while it disappoints in some areas, it exceeds in others I never expected.
And while that is my only true complaint, it puzzles me that other reviewers have called Skyward Sword the best Zelda of them all, even being superior to Ocarina of Time. Allow me to make a quick point -- from a technical standpoint and concerning the length of a game, Ocarina of Time was trumped a long time ago. But what made Ocarina of Time so special is how revolutionary it was. Of course if you put OOT and SS side-by-side today, Skyward Sword would win from a visual standpoint. But Ocarina of Time was the first perfected 3D adventure game. That useful thing called Z-targeting? We can all thank Ocarina of Time. Having access to multiple items by the tap of a button without pulling up a menu? We can thank Ocarina of Time for that too. Even with these innovations, the game still holds up today.
Skyward Sword does so much right. The story is incredible for a Zelda title. The game has a unique visual style that truly looks beautiful. The soundtrack is hands-down the best in any Zelda title. The gameplay works, but I do have some small issues with it.
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword gets an 8.5/10.
I love Skyward Sword. I look forward to the Zelda-escapism only it can provide, but the game is not perfect. It simply is not. And I do not think it is the pinnacle of Zelda games that others should be compared to. That title still belongs to Ocarina of Time. But that being said, every Wii owner should without a doubt get this game. It's just a necessity for anyone who calls themselves a Nintendo fan. Playing Skyward Sword was one of the best video game experiences of my life, and I know there are millions of others who feel the same.