Matthew Sawrey

a portfolio of videogame writings

Legend of Zelda Skyward Sword

Dev: Nintendo EAD

Pub: Nintendo

Plat: Wii

There are many moments throughout Skyward Sword that, given time, could easily become iconic to this most revered of franchises: Raising Link’s blade vertically to the sky, motion controls unifying your hand and his as light trickles down the sword, bathing it with a divine evil banishing power. Or leaping forth mid flight from your crimson Wingloft, the emerald green hero’s tunic rippling through the air with a painterly white ocean of cloud below, Link’s exhilarating freefall guided by the tilt of your wrist. Strong imagery that may one day be ushered in the same nostalgic breath as those first steps out into the open world of Hyrule back on the NES, or raising the master sword from the pedestal in the Temple of Time thirteen years ago. Only time will tell if Skyward’s moments are reminisced about as fondly, but for now they speak of Nintendo’s attempt at a bold new series direction. An arguably necessary attempt to move away from the shadow of Ocarina and reinvigorate this most cherished and passionately fanboyed series on its 25th anniversary with genuine change.

Nowhere is this change more refreshing than in the permeance of motion control throughout the adventure. Worlds apart from Twilight Princess’s temperamental waggle and wobble prone aiming, the increased fidelity granted by motion plus swordplay and gyroscopic aiming accurately reflects every tilt, twist and swipe of the remote. Shackling this freedom of sword movement into 8 preset directional attack angles may seem a limiting decision at face value considering just how precise Motionplus is. Persist though and the wisdom of this choice reveals itself through the strategic design of enemies: Adversaries now demand a degree of planning and forethought to defeat as they directionally block sword swings and dodge with an aberrant amount of agility, counterbalancing your newfound nimble sword movements.

Take for example the common Deku Baba; historically this aggressive Hyrulian plant was a relatively innocuous foe, posing little challenge and serving only as an easily defeated introduction to Z targeting. Now that initial Baba encounter serves to acquaint you with the new rules of swordplay; an unprecedented challenge it demands a precisely angled slice along a slobbering razor toothed jaw line. Or the 3 headed King Ghidora style mini dragon who’s heads regenerate if not all destroyed in a single strike, the twist being that they constantly switch between angles of alignment requiring a perfectly timed and aligned sword movement on your behalf to vanquish this adversary.

Sheath Links’ blade, root around his rather exotic item pouch and the ulterior possibilities afforded by motion plus reveal their full fruition. Old staples like bombs now differentiate between an overhead lob and an underarm bowl. Whereas new items explore a range of more diverse control options: A Flying beetle with gripping pincers allows you to tilt glide remote objects into unreachable areas, and the Gust Bellows, an inexhaustibly windy vase facilitates experimentation with a surprisingly robust physics engine through gyroscopic aiming. Far from the one dungeon preserves of past Zelda’s, the employment of these items is more diverse and mixed throughout the adventure.

There are occasional hiccups of technical inconsistency, but there is no denying that this is the most frequently inventive and natural implementation of motion controls in an adventure game yet, with a variety comparable to Warioware: smooth moves. Yet it all fits, ingrained into everything from menu navigation to flight controls without feeling situationally forced or unnecessarily redundant.

Hardly limited to just motion control Nintendo’s fresh ideas are evident throughout the environments of this Hyrulian origins story. Links’ hometown Skyloft is as placidly tranquil and sun soaked a local as Delfino Plaza at first, only revealing dark character secrets at night throughout the many return visits. It serves as a hub surrounded by the open sky; much like Clock Town was surrounded by the open land of Termina. In Skyward Sword however the sky is your Hyrule field, a large expanse that interconnects the disparate lands below.

Traversed atop Link’s Loftwing flight is a joyously swift and responsive affair to control. A sharp up-down flick of the remote flaps its wings gaining altitude or pitching the remote toward the ground causes your Loftwing to tucks in its wings for a speedy screen blurring descent. It is such a shame then that the sky feels so barren and lacking in activities, a resplendently composed painting of blue and white with little substance besides its few small islands. Even Wind Waker’s vast ocean contained more of mystery and intrigue than this.

It is the virgin grounds below the cloud that contain much of that mystery and intrigue with some of the most radical departures from series conventions. Untamed by Human civilisation for many years, these are lands of decaying relics and artefacts of past civilisations. Where towns of human characters have been predominant focal points in previous console Zelda’s, now wild animals  compose a supporting cast of studio Ghibli esq anthropomorphic expressiveness: A gang of burrowing obsessed mole men mine the depths of a simmering volcano and timid bulbous bodied half squirrel half shrubbery creatures shy away into the forest fauna.

Separated into 3 provinces these lands are a gameplay intermediary between dungeon and overworld. Saturated with platforming and puzzles that were once the preserve of only the interior dungeons. Link’s new energy draining sprint ability is utilised in new athletic platforming challenges around these expansive exteriors. And multiple return visits made throughout the narrative progression repurpose these lands with varied terrain and obstacles. Whether bathed in shadow, bathed in the other-worldly silent realm (a platforming collection challenge given a greater sense of urgency through time limit impositions and imposing, one hit kill guardians adversaries) or just overly bathed in, these instances provide some of the most unexpected and interesting sections of gameplay.

Aiding navigation around them is the new dowsing ability. Switching play to a first person viewpoint Link outstretches his blade and is guided to objects or people by way of visual and audio cues. A handy ability that helps to alleviate the possible frustrations of losing your way. But it can sometimes feel a little too much like handholding in what is largely a relatively easy quest.

Consider the assorted array of experiences encountered in the overworld and the fact that there have been 106 prior Zelda dungeons (play the quiz – here), and those of Skyward Sword seem all the more exemplary. Meticulously constructed and fiendishly puzzling these are some of the most intelligently designed corridors in the whole franchise. Each broken down into interconnected mini-puzzles that always provide an easier route of progression once completed, peppered with enemies and mini-bosses. One particular standout revolves around localised time manipulation, transposing dusty rusted ruins into mechanical futuristic temples. Whilst, without revealing too much, another centres upon a delightfully brain knotting meta-puzzle of almost rubix cube complexity.

It is disappointing then that Skyward Sword falls prey to the old Zelda tendency of extending its core quest longevity through unnecessary and repetitive fetch quests, dragging an otherwise compelling experience into a tiresome slog for pieces of this and sections of that. They never quite reach the levels of irritation felt around collecting Wind Waker’s triforce, and the consistent mix up of gameplay elements aids somewhat in dissipating frustrations. But they feel too protracted and all the more unnecessary considering the vast volume of unique and outstanding content found elsewhere.

A simple item upgrade system involving the collection of Bug’s, with an Ape Escape style net and dropped monster items also strikes a dull note, hardly benefiting the journey in any way. Link doesn’t need any more assistance; he already has hearts in the double digits and multiple bottled fairies. Not once is an upgrade essential to progression and collecting enough items for each can be a painfully long winded chore. Less here would definitely have been more.

          

Fi serves the companion role much like Navi, Tatl, Ezlo, Midna, or the King of Red Lions before her (although chronologically after, this being a prequel). She conveys a decidedly calculated and methodical approach to her thoughts and observations. Entangled throughout the story in interesting twists she provides a mysterious consort, although never quite reaching the enigmatic heights of Midna’s motives.

An attitude that is employed to great effect in the impressionistic Cezanne inspired art style. Embracing the host consoles’ lack of power with what has become the Wii’s mantra of creative stylization over raw technical polygon pimping horsepower. Skyward Sword has a look that falls somewhere inbetween the bold sharply drawn cartoon outlines of Wind Waker, the slightly blurry realism of Twilight Princess and looks almost like a console version of Minish Cap.

A fitting visual feel for this series Origin story, a telling of the original legend that establishes the series back-story with protagonist Demon Lord Girahim setting the scene. He makes for a peculiar mixture of menacing malice and campiness with a penchant for licking ears. A disappointingly absent presence throughout large portions of the experience, combat encounters with him are some of the most simple yet interesting of all thanks to a twist on the old Phantom Ganon formula combined with ultra sharp reflexes. Far from the most interesting though other boss encounters find a more diverse variety of methods to exploit Link’s item pouch and newly refined sword motions.

For all the polish, twists and fresh ideas laden upon this latest instalment however, it still distinctly follows the Zelda formula: hub world, exterior exploration, dungeon, new item, big boss, heart piece and sacred stone/jewel/waffle iron, rinsed and repeated. And along with these come all of the gripes of the past. No voice acting, quest logs or autosaves grate harder as time progresses and the series refuses to leave behind these relics of design.

Where Twilight Princess was a love letter to Ocarina, Skyward Sword celebrates the franchise as a whole. In addressing the origins of the series it recalls many past Zelda titles: The wide open expanse of the sky reminiscent of those cerulean oceans from Wind Waker. The effervescent surrealism of the silent realm from Twilight Princess. In Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks the inventiveness of items experimenting with an interesting new control method. The strange dark character side quests of Majora’s Mask and even Girahim reminds of the Minish Cap’s Vaati or a Link to the Past’s Agahnim.

It is at its core then, and despite all of Nintendo’s new ideas, another Zelda adventure. One rejuvenated through motion control, a gorgeous impressionistic style and instances of outstanding design. But one that still follows that core Zelda formula. With all the rupee collecting, damsel rescuing and puzzle solving tropes attached. Whether you view this steadfast adherence to its past links as necessary tradition or a stubborn unwillingness to modernize is a personal perspective and likely one that will define your opinion of the overall experience. But what it undoubtedly is, is an incredible, epic and heartfelt adventure. One that leads an (admittedly late) charge for Nintendo’s innovation in motion controls with that bold image of Link’s blade pointed triumphantly toward the sky for a truly fitting 25th anniversary celebration of one of gaming’s most deservedly treasured franchises.

9

Would have been a 10 if Tingle was in it….

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