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The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

Review: The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

12:00 PM on 11.19.2011 // Jonathan Holmes

If the Wii had launched with The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, everything would have been different.

Instead, the console launched with The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, a game that sent all the wrong messages to third parties on how to create a successful Wii game. Twilight Princess sometimes utilized the Wii Remote in cool ways (like pointer aiming) but also tacked on motion control in unnecessary ways (like sword swinging), giving the illusion of added functionality while adding little to the gameplay. The game looked great by GameCube-era standards but did nothing to exploit the increased power of the Wii and/or work around the console's technical limitations by going with a less realism-focused art style.

Despite all this, the game was a huge hit, signaling to third parties that the cheapest, most effective way to make a successful Wii game was to make and/or port a standard PS2/Xbox/GameCube-era title and tack on some motion controls. Of course, we all know that strategy didn't really work for third parties. After the initial honeymoon period, Wii owners expected more than that.

They wanted something like Skyward Sword.

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (Wii)
Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Released: November 20, 2011
MSRP: $49.99

Skyward Sword feels like the perfect celebration of the Zelda series' 25-year history. From the packed-in CD containing the best music from the franchise performed by a full orchestra, to the option to purchase the game with a golden Wii Remote Plus, the whole package feels more like an event than any other Nintendo release in recent memory. It would be a shame if the game weren't able to match the quality of its optional pack-ins (I'm looking at you, Epic Mickey). Thankfully, Skyward Sword delivers.

It features more new ideas and changes than the series has seen since Majora's Mask while simultaneously working to include and refine all of the best ideas from the past 3D Zelda titles. In Skyward Sword, you will go back in time, sail across a vast and daunting sea, travel to an otherworldly dimension, and in the process, become emotionally connected to a small, strange community filled with amazing, unforgettable characters. You'll also skydive off your porch without a parachute, ride bird-back into battle against a giant shark monster made of black mist and hatred, be sexually harassed by a bad-ass dude in white lipstick, commune with robots, hit a cat in the face, play a harp for butterflies, get your face hugged by the Zelda equivalent of a face hugger, and use your remote-controlled flying beetle to launch death from above upon herds of giant electric desert crustaceans.

The game's storyline also feels like a refined evolution of the traditional series narrative. Like most Zelda titles, Skyward Sword is a coming-of-age story, but this time, it starts off from the perspective of a teenager. The game is about Link and Zelda both coming into adulthood, going out into the world, leaving the sheltered past of childhood behind, and discovering themselves and each other. It just so happens that in this scenario, that "sheltered past" is quite literally the equivalent of a magical bomb shelter. Before waging war against invading demons, the Goddess of the Zelda world created a small village in the sky, inhabited by the chosen few in order to keep them safe from the coming battle. Skyward Sword tells the tale of Zelda and Link leaving that behind for the first time and, in doing so, setting the entire Legend of Zelda timeline into motion.

Along the way, they encounter plenty of people, with concepts of sexuality and gender always bubbling right below the surface. First up is that guy I mentioned previously -- the sexually threatening, emotionally disturbed villain Ghirahim, who seems to represent the idea of unhinged, wholesale abuse of power. Then there is Impa, his female counterpart/nemesis, who similarly blends male and female gender archetypes together while exemplifying the greater virtues commonly associated with both sexes. Largely through dealing with these two characters, Link and Zelda learn what it means to be a man and a woman (respectively).

It feels so good to see the heroes and villains of a Zelda game have so much symbolic weight again. As much as I love Ganon, beyond his mildly interesting childhood, he's basically a one-note tune. I can't even remember what the villains of the GBA and DS titles were motivated by. Twilight Princess's Zant and Midna were interesting experiments in atypical characterizations, but with Skyward Sword, the series is back to giving us a cast of characters that completely defies expectation.

Great ideas are important and all, but they won't mean a lot without excellent craftsmanship to back them up. Skyward Sword doesn't disappoint on this front. The art direction, music, pacing, and sound design are all fantastic. The game has a Wind Waker-style cel-shaded look, but instead of showing influence from children's manga and Warner Bros. cartoons, the game appears to take its visual inspiration from Studio Ghibli and Lilo and Stitch-era Disney films, all while retaining the signature Zelda style. That visual style, combined with extremely expressive animation, music (often performed by a full orchestra), and sound design, results in a game that can take the smallest moments and make them feel like a symphony.

Early on in the game, there is a moment when Zelda looks at Link and everything comes together so perfectly that I literally did not press the button to move the scene along for a full 30 seconds. I didn't want the moment to end. The look on Zelda's face, the way her eyes animated, the music, her body language -- it was all so beautiful. Though she barely says a word, you can tell from all the other elements coming together that Zelda wants Link; she loves him like a brother but wants him and their relationship to be more, though she's just not sure if he'll ever make that happen. In the hands of other developers, that one moment would have been instantly forgettable, just another bit of dialogue in a typical videogame cutscene. In the hands of the Skyward Sword team, it's a moment that I'm still talking about now, even after experiencing the hundreds of other similarly striking sequences that the game has to offer.

For me, the really great thing about Skyward Sword's presentation is that it takes things to such a fantastic, artistically beautiful level without ever sacrificing its videogame-ness. Other than some frightfully beautiful singing, the game features no voice acting, and it's only better for it. Beyond that, videogame logic is still mixed into the experience at all times. Wandering around the woods and see a tree stump? Have a seat on it and you'll get all your health back in a flash. Meet a monster in the basement? Don't be afraid, he's a good dude. In fact, he just wants to be human! If you collect enough gratitude energy from the people in your town (in the form of little glowing energy blobs that look exactly like the Star Bits from Super Mario Galaxy), you just might help him become a person. The game is packed with little moments like that which say loud and clear that Skyward Sword is a videogame and proud of it.

Skyward Sword is also not afraid to take risks. Probably the biggest risk it takes is the implementation of mandatory MotionPlus controls. That's right: nearly all the action here is motion-controlled. This results in a game where all the combat feels much more real. Although it's initially more difficult, it is ultimately all the more rewarding and exciting for it. In past 3D Zelda games, it became easy to just Z-target to guard, wait for an opening, and then jam the attack button in order to win. That won't work in Skyward Sword. You must direct your strikes with intent and precision if you want to win most battles, though the game does a good job of slowly teaching you exactly how to go about this.

Remember Ghirahim, that sexually charged villain I mentioned earlier? He will not let you proceed very far until you learn how to aim your strikes. In fact, he'll yank your sword right out of your hands and throw it at your head if you just flail wildly at him, as if to say "your days of button-mashing your way through the Zelda series are officially over."

From there, the game continues to throw tougher and more cleverly defended enemies at you, forcing you to fight smarter. The Bokoblins armed with taser swords immediately come to mind. Ignore how they're guarding, and you're sure to clash swords with them, which will lead to your taking a shock, losing some health, and leaving yourself vulnerable. Add to that the fact that your shield can only take a limited amount of hits now, and you have a Zelda game that forces you to take every battle seriously. That may sound like a lot of work, but once you get good at the game, both in terms of dexterity and strategy, it feels more satisfying than any other title in the series (and just about any other swordplay-focused game, for that matter).

Speaking of broken shields and the need for strategy, Skyward Sword's flow often feels more like Monster Hunter Tri than Ocarina of Time. You'll constantly be heading back to town to buy new shields and supplies while crafting new items and bolstering your equipment with ingredients and goods found in the wild. These hunter/gatherer gameplay elements definitely feel inspired by Monster Hunter, but thankfully, the monotony that sometimes plagues that series isn't present here.

Part of that is because each area in the game is like a virtual jungle gym, with plenty for this new, very active Link to do. Like in Majora's Mask, there aren't a ton of different areas, but they are all huge, with plenty to do, and new options, environments, and dungeons are always opening up. As in the better Metroid games, returning to previously explored areas of Skyward Sword with new weapons and abilities will yield the potential for new lands to explore, puzzles to solve, items to collect, and challenges to overcome.

That's true of just about any Zelda game, but what makes Skyward Sword special is how fast-paced and streamlined it is. Even during those moments when I was just messing around, catching bugs, doing favors for NPCs, and exploring the game's world, I still felt like I was getting more done per minute than I ever had in past 3D Zelda games. Part of that comes from the game's run button, which is managed by an energy gauge (which is also tied to wall climbing, rolling, climbing up ladders, etc.). The ability to speed up your movement and perform more acrobatic maneuvers makes the game faster and more exciting while giving your mind a constant task of resource management to keep it occupied. The real-time inventory, which is fast and easy to navigate, is also a big plus. There are also the new gameplay elements of Dowsing (which helps you track down specific people, places, or things) and an on-map marker system, both of which do a lot to help you navigate your surroundings while never making it too easy to get to your next destination.

Then there is the game's "overworld," the illustrious Skyloft and its surrounding sky islands. This generally safe and benign area gives us what most fans wanted from Wind Waker's ocean -- an alternate form of transportation that's a joy to operate while delivering a sense total of freedom and plenty of little things to do if you feel like it. Yet it remains compact and focused enough that you'll never feel like you're stuck or slowed down. The game's signature instrument, the Goddess Harp, offers a similar experience. It's easy to learn and difficult to completely master, yet never a chore to play. You can even keep playing it while you're walking around. Better yet, the music you play will fit seamlessly into the game's score. That's just another testament to Nintendo's unified goal of making Skyward Sword the most slick, smart, fast-paced 3D Zelda yet.

Last but not least, there is the amazing finale and post-game content to behold. Nintendo has that information embargoed until November 20th, but if I have my druthers, I'll be back to update this review with information on these amazing new features then. Suffice it to say, they both left a strong impression on me.

For my tastes, Skyward Sword is a near-perfect experience. That said, I can still recognize why others may have problems with the game. Some will hate the motion controls, not because they are poorly implemented, but because... they just hate motion controls. I've let quite a few of my motion control-hating friends come over and check out the game, and while most of them came to really enjoy how the game played, almost all of them were put off by the initial experience of working with the game's 1:1 sword controls, stating that the game was too hard or that they needed to be aware of their own body while playing. Simply put, a lot of people want videogames to free them of the shackles of their own lack of coordination, to make it so all you have to do is hit the buttons at the right time to win. Though the game rarely requires you to do more than flick your wrist up, down, left, or right, it's still more physically demanding than a solely button-based game. That may be more than some players are willing to deal with in this highly competitive market.

For that reason alone, Nintendo should have allowed for Classic Controller support. It wouldn't have been as fun for me to play the game that way, but for others, I'm sure it would have been preferable, at least during the initial stages of adjusting to all the other new aspect to the game. For similar reasons, the game probably should have had optional voice acting. I wouldn't have utilized it, but I know a lot of people who won't tolerate "reading" the story of a videogame anymore, even if it's a perfect fit for the non-realistic tone and modern fairytale style. Beyond that, some of the few bosses felt a little too easy, though they were usually followed up by a challenge that more than made up for their lack of grit. There was also a fetch quest towards the end that wasn't quite as fun as it should have been. Other than all that, the game is pretty much perfect.

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is my new favorite 3D Zelda title, beating out Majora's Mask and Wind Waker by a substantial margin. It would be hard to go back to any of those games now. All of the gameplay innovations, emotionally involving moments, beautiful little details, and purely blissful experiences in this game have me completely and utterly spoiled. It's a very different Zelda game, one that will undoubtedly turn off some and absolutely enthrall others, but that's part of what Zelda does best, right? Fans of the series are still debating which game in the series is the best, and the arrival of Skyward Sword won't change that. Either way, there is no arguing that Skyward Sword is one of the most painstakingly crafted, lovingly developed titles in Nintendo's long, illustrious history. If you like videogames at all, you'd be goofy to not give it a try.



The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword - Reviewed by Jonathan Holmes
Entrancing - It's like magic, guys. Time disappears when this game and I are together, and I never want it to end. I'm not sure if this is a love that will last forever, but if it is, you'll get no complaints from me.

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