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Skyward Sword Through the Lens of Truth

 
The Wii was Nintendo’s best selling home console ever, and it had a breathtaking backlog of beloved games. Among these are two Zelda titles, however only one was made just for Wii. While Twilight Princess’s dual release felt more like a GameCube game with a couple easy tweaks to add basic motion controls, Skyward Sword’s integration with the hardware went much deeper. Utilizing the Wii Motion Plus attachment or Wii Remote Plus controllers, this game presented something very unique which I know has been met with mixed reactions, however other elements of the game are unanimously praised. Let’s jump in and see how it stacks up against the greats.

Graphics

This was one of the few times I noticed just how underpowered the Wii was in comparison to the competition of the day. At the time, much of my gaming was also done on Xbox, and transitioning to Xbox 360 brought an abrupt change from the likes of the new HD textures in games like Halo 3 and Chrome Hounds to the Wii, which was basically an overclocked GameCube.

Despite the major power difference, the watercolor art style maximized the potential of the Wii. While it was not up to snuff with other consoles of the time, it was among the most graphically appealing titles for the console. Cleverly choosing a new art style to pair with their hardware made waves for Breath of the Wild as well, but Skyward Sword sort of started that trend several years before.

The art style fits the hardware like a glove, but with that in mind, is it a good art style? This is the part of the game which gives me mixed feelings. I adore the official artwork published for this game. The watercolor pops off the page just as emotionly evoking as any other Zelda game. My issue is the way it translates from there.

While the art on paper instills so much feeling, the stalwart hero, Link and the dastardly demon Ghirahim suddenly look much flatter and blander once they open up to the third dimension. In-game it felt like some strange combination of the previous two styles; the realistically proportioned people of Twilight Princess with the light, almost whimsical color palette of Wind Waker. Individually these two art styles worked incredibly well, but once combined it was unusually unappealing.

I said before that this was one of the most visually appealing works for the Wii, and that is true, but not of the characters so much as the delicately detailed environments. These lovable locales filled with ferocious foes to fight were usually more interesting to look at than any of the characters. I liked Zelda’s ingame aesthetic, and that was about it.

I love the original art, and the modelers maximized the potential of the hardware as well as they could, but an awkward combination of art styles and limited hardware pulls back what could have been perfect to a seven out of ten.

Sound

To me, this game is an odd egg in terms of music. I don’t know much about most of the lead composers, and they seem to be a somewhat randomly collected bunch that had worked at Nintendo for a while. The only one who had previously worked on a Zelda game was Mahito Yokota, who was under Toru Minegishi on Twilight Princess. His other works were mostly Dynasty Warriors games from his time at Koei before he started with Nintendo, though he had also worked with Koji Kondo on the Super Mario Galaxy series.

So a bunch of unknowns with fair experience came together, but did they prove their place was earned? Well, yeah. All their pieces were beautifully scored, recorded, and expertly integrated with the story. I’d say there were a few times where I wished the score had been more Zelda-y, like a bombastic overworld theme akin to Ocarina, but overall the score was so in tune with the story and locations that I barely missed it.

My final point is one that ties into the gameplay and I’ll touch on it a little in there as well. Playable music returns! This time Link is gifted the Goddess Harp and playing it is… quite frankly dreadful. The tunes here aren’t horrible, but listening to quite a bit of trad Celtic music myself, I know the national instrument of Ireland is capable of so much more. The simple stroking mechanic felt very disconnected from the music, which was so basic it left me with a bad taste in my mouth every time I had to endure it. Any instrument iconic enough to be outlawed as a weapon of war by the English Queen deserves better treatment than this.

Really the issues are few. Other than blatant disrespect for one of my favorite instruments and a slight lack of Zelda-ness, the sound in Skyward Sword is spot on. Still earns a solid nine out of ten.

Gameplay

Okay, the elephant in the room is staring me down so I’m going to get him out of the way. Motion controls: good or bad? I say yes. Within most enemies’ designs were some sort of puzzle mechanic which made you think quickly as to how you should attack. If you weren’t quick to react, the game would punish you and knock you on your butt. This was a great mechanic and it always felt satisfying to beat an enemy with one of these puzzle mechanics. It really pulled you into the game.

On the flip side, the motion controls pulled you out of the game constantly when they were implemented in other ways. As mentioned previously, the forced motion mechanic on the Goddess Harp was unnecessary. It didn’t feel like playing a harp, it felt like timing a minigame (which to be fair is kind of what it was). This whole thing would have been more interesting if you could just have pushed a button and been done with it. Likewise the 3D boss keys felt really gimmicky, there was a disconnect between the immersive swordsman and his use of the Beetle, which otherwise was a cool item, and worst of all was flying Link’s Loftwing. I couldn’t get off that blundering bird fast enough. Flying felt awful and nonsensical in its implementation. If they had let me use the joystick, even just as an option, I would have felt so much more forgiving, but by forcing a nonstandard control scheme was not a good decision in this case. But wait, I liked the forced nonstandard sword controls, why is this different? Well swinging a sword is obvious and natural. Wiggling a remote and tilting where you want to steer is not. There is nothing about holding the Wii Remote that makes me think “Gee, I bet this is how it would feel to drive a bird.”

Speaking of flying, my other major issue with this game is the overworld design. Directly after the release of Twilight Princess, I had a thought that the next logical step, based on the evolution of Zelda world design, would be to make an open-world game. It didn’t help that I was playing way too much Morrowind for my own good at the time.

They pretty much did the exact opposite of that. Soaring around the clouds would have been so much more enjoyable if I could have just landed anywhere and explored, but instead you were pigeon-holed to land at the start of a trail with a dungeon at the end. Along the way was incredible puzzle design and unique geography, but it was such a linear progression from start to finish that it felt like three steps back from the last game in terms of explorability. Even just adding some more directions to go with optional treasure or trapped holes full of monsters would have added a ton. Having one way to go means that even if there’s cool puzzles and combat to overcome, it doesn’t feel as good to get to the end. If you just follow a path, the sense of discovery dies.

Man, I must hate playing this game, huh? Actually quite the opposite. As I said, there was still fun stuff to do between dungeons despite the linear progression, and once you entered the dungeons you found some of the absolute best in the series. Unique items like the Beetle, Whip, and Leaf Blower Gust Bellows opened up tons of clever puzzle options. In addition, several dungeons reused the Timeshift Stones, magical devices that would allow Link to interact with the same world many years, if not many decades before, and create changes to the area in the present day. This is my favorite dungeon mechanic that has ever been implemented in the series. Finally, the Sky Keep’s slide-puzzle mechanic brought a totally new spin on exploration by allowing you to traverse old rooms in different orders to get you to your objective.

The thing that bugged me most about this game, though, is its overall difficulty. Though the dungeons were exactly what I want out of a Zelda game, they were by far the easiest in the series, and the easiest part of these easy dungeons were the bosses. In general the designs and fight mechanics were fun, but a few outliers were major disappointments, emphasizing the easiness in the other ones. Scaldera had a strange design which I might have liked a bit better if he had not been a clone of King Dodongo in a much simpler arena. Tentalus recycled the “dodge and shoot the eye” mechanic of Gohma from a quarter century before. And the cream of the crop, the most disappointing boss in the series, The Imprisoned had a great back story overshadowed by the lame fight.

Spoiler alert, you fight him three times, and the only mechanic of the fight every time is to CUT HIS TOES. I get that the Dark Lord Sauron can lose all his power from having his finger cut off, but that’s because of the magic ring. Normally losing a few digits should not affect you that much. If it wasn’t already a trash fight, it found the same major issue as the Temple of the Ocean King. Recursiveness can be okay, but having an identical fight three times just makes me not want to do it in the first place.

Wow. That was a crapload of thoughts and it’s actually quite difficult to put into a number. I liked playing the game overall, but it had a lot of nitpicky points. Replaying the same boss dragged down the feel of the game every time you faced him, motion controls should not have been forced in every case, and the game had no good reason to be so easy. These points hit hard, but overall it was a well-made and fun game, which is what really counts. Totally average five out of ten might sound kinda lame, but it’s not as bad as it could be. Still a game worth playing, but not up to the usual Zelda calibur.

Story

Here’s the most highly praised point in this game’s favor. Pretty much everybody I know will tell you the story was great, and many go as far as to say it is the best in the series. I’m not here to tell you what popular opinion thinks, though, rather I’m here to give my thoughts on the matter. Luckily, my thoughts are pretty in line with this generalization.

Characters in previous Zelda titles remain pretty consistently static with a few exceptions. Skyward Sword really turns this around in order to present a very human-feeling cast of dynamic characters. At the beginning of the game, Princess Zelda herself (who is ironically not a princess in this title) is a fairly normal schoolgirl but comes into her own as the Goddess’s incarnation before she’s done. Our good buddy Groose learns the hard way that he’s not always going to be the hero he wants to be and learns to help in his own way. And Impa transforms from a brash warrior to a wise and wizened sage. The depth of character in these three is unparalleled in the series.

That said, I think it is still on the weaker end of the series in terms of overall cast. While these three intriguing souls brought more to the table than the average Zelda character, they were pretty much the only interesting characters in the game. Ghirahim felt pretty weak as a villain until he revealed his motives during the game’s final challenge, and at that point they did the ol’ switcheroo and revealed that OH NEVERMIND THE REAL VILLAIN IS GANON. Demise has the personality of a wet towel, and Fi’s robotic blethering makes me want to listen to Kaepora Gaebora again. Finally the only other character with enough screen time to even mention is Gorko, who was cool as a random Goron, but his purpose as a clue-giver made his personality feel more like a gameplay mechanic than a person.

Thinking back to other titles, you have all six sages in Ocarina, Marin, Tarin, Grandpa Ulrira, and the Nightmare in Link’s Awakening, Zelda, Hilda, Ravio, and Yuga in A Link Between Worlds. These feature a much better ratio of interesting characters to overall characters than Skyward Sword, and it made me long for more.

Beyond the characters, this game also added more to the lore than any title save Wind Waker. The creation of the Master Sword and the origin of Ganon were detailed in such an unexpected way, and it came across as unique, and opened tons of room for timeline discussion…

…That is until Hyrule Historia was published a few months later and murdered my feelings. But that’s a topic for another time. In fact, that other time came several months ago when I wrote this article. Anyhoo, the lore was good, and I like lore. Good stuff.

One more nitpick I have with the game is that in many ways it felt too much like some awkward tween romance, and it really didn’t stick well with me in that respect. I like high school drama in Glee, I’m not too excited about it in Zelda. Between this and a lack of memorable characters, this game racks up an eight out of ten.

Overall

This is among my favorite Wii titles, only beaten out by a hair by some other greats like No More Heroes. It is absolutely worth the time to play, and definitely deserves a spot in the Zelda series. If I were to offer my one primary criticism, it’s that the series didn’t deserve a step back. The series has always been about exploration, and to inhibit that was a low blow to the series at the wrong time in the waning days of the Wii’s life cycle. Luckily enough, its mechanics, story, and music made this game stand out above most of its competitors and earned a decent twenty-nine out of forty. I know, I kinda want it to be higher too.

Current Rankings:

Oracle of Ages/Oracle of Seasons: 40/40
Ocarina of Time: 40/40
Link’s Awakening: 40/40
A Link to the Past: 39/40
Wind Waker: 39/40
Twilight Princess: 37/40
Majora’s Mask: 33/40
Minish Cap: 31/40
Phantom Hourglass: 30/40
The Legend of Zelda: 30/40
Skyward Sword: 29/40
Four Swords: 28/40
Four Swords Adventures: 26/40
Spirit Tracks: 26/40
The Adventure of Link: 19/40