The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword Review: Redefining Tradition

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword Review: Redefining Tradition

Have you ever played a game that took forever to come out, only to find yourself wondering, “What the hell were they doing for all this time, anyway?”

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is not one of those games. It has taken Nintendo five years to release a game in this series developed exclusively for the Wii, and it delivers in every way possible, including some you wouldn’t necessarily expect. The visual design and music are gorgeous, the gameplay varied and well-paced, the script humorous. And there’s a lot of it. As of this writing, I’ve lost 30 hours to Skyward Sword, and I still have more to do.

To be fair, these sorts of superlatives might describe any Zelda game. What sets Skyward Sword apart is that its designers have truly rethought the Zelda framework, which has not changed much in the 25 years since the release of the first game. The Zelda series is one of the most oddly ritualized in all of gaming; there is a whole laundry list of things a Zelda game simply must have or else its fans would be utterly scandalized. There’s a certain comfort in knowing that every time Link opens a treasure chest, he’s going to hold the item above his head with a smile on his face while we all hum along to the familiar “dah-dah-dah-DAH” musical cue.

Skyward Sword is not the game to slaughter that particular sacred cow, as ridiculous as it sometimes seems when it’s dropped into an otherwise deeply serious moment in the story. But in creating the first game in the series designed around motion controls, the developers have taken the opportunity to ask themselves: What is truly necessary to make a game feel like Zelda, and what is just excess baggage left over from 25 years of clinging to tradition?

This isn’t the first Zelda to make use of motion controls. 2006’s Twilight Princess, which launched alongside the Wii, was a GameCube game that had rudimentary motion controls grafted onto it in the final stages of development. Even as an afterthought, they worked well; the game was a solid proof of concept that showed how motion could be integrated into a richer game experience than the Wii Sports mini-games. But what the Wii needed was a game that was designed from the outset to use motion controls. It took Nintendo all of the ensuing five years to finish it, and somewhere along the line, it decided that Skyward Sword would require the MotionPlus add-on for more precise controls.

The most immediately obvious way that this affects the new game is in the swordplay. In Twilight Princess, waggling the controller any which way produced the same basic sword strike. In Skyward Sword, your onscreen sword mirrors the position and orientation of your hand, allowing you to slash any which direction or poke your sword forward when a thrust is called for. To power up your blade for a big strike, you hold your Wii Remote above your head. (Shouting “By the power of Grayskull!” when you do this is optional but encouraged.)

You don’t encounter as many enemies in Skyward Sword as in previous games, but each enemy fight is more meaningful since you can’t just hack and slash your way through them without getting your sword at the ready and making precise cuts.

If there’s an issue with the motion control, it’s that the implementation of it is straining against the limitations of the technology. Gyroscopes and accelerometers will go out of whack and need to be calibrated. Skyward Sword works around this as best it can: There’s a button that will instantly recenter your aim.

Swordfighting is just one part of the story. Link’s array of useful items all use MotionPlus in a variety of ways. There’s a whip that you can furiously crack at things to swing from them or pull them toward you. But there’s also the bug-catching net, which requires you to carefully hold the controller in place as you creep up on an unsuspecting insect and gently but quickly scoop it up. That level of subtlety is an especially thoughtful use of motion controls to create realism; you cannot simply just go around waving the net wildly and expect bugs to fly into it.

Skyward Sword is not an open-world adventure; it is rather linear. But what makes it feel more like a world than a set of levels is that you could be doing anything at once—you might notice bugs crawling near you while you’re fighting a reanimated corpse, and as soon as he’s dead again, you drop what you were doing and set off to fill your pouch with more bugs. This is not the happy coincidence it would be in an open-world game; Skyward Sword was meticulously designed this way by people who had enough time to agonize over the placement of every single bug.

The experience is often serene, almost meditative at times; you’ll slowly poke through the forests and deserts and have time to take it all in. But it’s not as if the game has a pacing problem, or injected filler to pad out its prodigious length. You’ll always feel like you’re making real progress toward doing something vital. This is a beautiful world; they want you to luxuriate in it but not get tired of it.

Twilight Princess had everything you could possibly ask for in a Zelda game; Skyward Sword has less and is better for it. You don’t have to pause the game to access Link’s toolbox and painstakingly select the next item you’re going to use—you simply hold the B button to bring up a radial menu, point to the item you want, and let go. Every item is a multifunction tool that you use throughout the game; nothing becomes obsolete as things like the Boomerang would in previous games.

There are save points scattered throughout the adventure, even in the middle of dungeons. This might sound like an obvious improvement, but it will be taken as something approaching heresy by the more traditionalist of Zelda fans. If you die, you can continue at the last save point with all of the items you’ve found. Nintendo clearly wants players of all skill levels to be able to finish the adventure.

To that end, you can actually customize Link’s loadout to suit your play style. You’ll always have all of your key items, but your secondary pouch won’t hold everything you find. If you want to play defensively, you can load it up with Heart Medals that give you extra hit points, bottles full of reviving potion, etc. If you’re confident and just want to go kick ass, you can store extra arrows and bombs in there.

Bug catching and treasure hunting play into this customization angle. The rare objects that you find around the world are used to upgrade your items, strengthening your shield’s defense or boosting your mechanical beetle’s flight time, for example. You don’t have to do any of these things to complete the game, but they are good substantial rewards for going the extra mile and hunting down rare ants (which, again, is amusing in and of itself). If you find yourself with an overabundance of stuff, they’re also a great way of raising cash—although you have to figure out on your own how to do that.

Zelda plots are high-stakes, saving the princess and the world from some horrible demon, but Skyward Sword’s writing works best when it drills down on the personal lives of the handful of people that inhabit the world. Wandering around the central city of Skyloft will always yield some interesting side story involving the people in the town. It’s worth it not just because you know there will be some material reward at the end but because the dialogue is so well written and surprising. There’s still no voice acting, but at this point, it’s a deliberate stylistic choice rather than a cost-cutting measure. (I don’t know how long they’ll be able to hold out on that, though.)

The most important change is that most everything feels new. The fights against giant boss creatures at the end of each dungeon don’t rely on old ideas. The classic characters are replaced, for the most part, with novel ones. If you already know what’s going to happen, is that really capturing the spirit of the original Legend of Zelda, in which we all went in blind? Skyward Sword shows that “a real Zelda game” is about more than certain items or certain gameplay rituals, which in the end is more meaningful than adding better sword controls.