Is The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword the Wii's last great game?
Is Link's last adventure on the Wii his best yet?
It became painfully obvious back in June at Nintendo's E3 2011 press conference that The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword would be the console's last blockbuster title. Come to think of it, Skyward Sword was the only Wii game the company even mentioned.
So does Skyward Sword deliver the precision sword controls that Wii owners have been dreaming of since day one? Or is it the final chapter of an era of clunky motion control? We've dusted off our Wii consoles to find out.
First, a very happy 25th anniversary to The Legend of Zelda franchise. Thank you for making me feel really old.
Nintendo is justifiably proud to share the milestone with everyone who's picking up Skyward Sword for the Wii, as all copies come with a 25th anniversary music CD featuring all kinds of Zelda tunes.
It's safe to say that Skyward Sword marks the Wii's last hurrah, and thankfully, the latest Zelda game certainly ranks up there with some of the console's best offerings.
For starters, Skyward Sword looks as good as any game can ever hope to on the Wii. The art direction has been brilliantly conceived, taking full advantage of the system's specs, and using a few blurring tricks to make things appear like a gorgeous watercolor painting.
Of course, coming from a season loaded with remarkable graphical achievements like Uncharted 3, it's easy to say that Skyward Sword doesn't even come close. But that kind of comparison isn't fair. Graphically speaking, the Wii has always been in its own category, and for what it's worth, Skyward Sword resides in the upper echelon of that spectrum.
So how does Skyward Sword play? For the most part, things start off pretty familiarly. Though for the first hour or so, the game does share an eerie resemblance with one of the story arcs in James Cameron's "Avatar." Regardless, you're led on a path to collect the basic sword, shield, and green suit combo, and then whisked away to the first world.
The overarching theme in Skyward Sword is right there in the name. All facets of flight are continually woven into the game's story and action, but never does it feel forced or gimmicky. Level and puzzle design remain mostly clever and at times even cerebral, save for a few minor instances that I felt came off a bit cheap. At any rate, Link has at his disposal the knowledge of Fi, a spirit that lives in his sword and can be pinged for advice, enemy analysis, and other information.
Perhaps the biggest feature that Zelda fans have been clamoring for with Skyward Sword is true one-to-one motion control over swordplay. It's far from perfect, but the sword control in Skyward Sword is mostly satisfying. The feeling of executing a series of combination sword attacks is truly awesome.
There were, however, plenty of instances where Link's arm was nowhere near what I was doing. Since almost all of the enemies and bosses are vulnerable based on how you swing the Wii remote, I encountered dozens of intensely frustrating situations where I simply couldn't progress because Link was out of sync with what I was doing.
It gets worse. There are handfuls of balancing acts that Link finds himself performing that generate an insane amount of frustration. Unfortunately, the initial MotionPlus calibration that must be completed at the start of each game doesn't seem to last very long. Which is perhaps why Skyward Sword tricked me into recentering my remote's pointer every time I pulled up the world map. Get used to that down direction on the directional pad--you'll be using it a lot to center yourself on the screen.
But by far the most upsetting instance of the sword control for me is when I had to execute Link's special move: aiming the Wii remote to the sky, letting my sword charge, and then slashing down at a target. For me, it was impossible to reliably get the correct motion locked in, regardless of how straight and tall I was pointing the device.
At the end of the day, if I'm considering Skyward Sword to be the pinnacle of the motion control movement, I can easily say it's something I don't need anymore. I'm not quite sure Nintendo feels the same way, but there's nothing wrong with offering two ways to play Zelda games moving forward.
The characters in Skyward Sword are among the oddest I've come across in a Zelda game. The cultural disconnect is more evident here than in previous titles, with Link's odd-sounding grunts and the annoying squeaks and gibberish of nonplayable characters. Now I'm sure there's a sizable number of Zelda loyalists who will chase me with pitchforks for saying this, but I think it's time we gave Link, Zelda, and all of the creatures that inhabit their worlds some real-life voices. Twenty-five years and none of these people has ever said anything memorable--it's time.
Overall, Skyward Sword easily provides one of the best experiences on the Wii. Motion control--especially combat-based--in a game as long and layered as a Zelda title is tough to pull off. The pros by far outweigh the cons in Skyward Sword, and it's truly the last must-have game for Wii owners.
Let's begin by addressing the elephant in the room. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is an expertly crafted piece of interactive entertainment that overcomes the visual limitations of the Wii hardware, and the inherent awkwardness of applying the Wii wand controls to anything outside of sports games. That said, it is important to acknowledge an obvious, if usually unstated, fact. There is what we would now call a Jobsian Reality Distortion Field around games in the Zelda series, and to a lesser extent those from other franchises such as Mario, Donkey Kong, and Metroid (heck, and even Uncharted, Gears of War, Elder Scrolls, etc.)
A quick glance at the aggregated reviews on Metacritic, our sister site, shows a large number of "perfect" review scores for this game--literally 10 on a scale of 1 to 10, which would leave no room for improvement--and there are several areas of the game that could use improvement or updating (and note, as always, that this is not a rated review, but instead a broader analysis of the game).
But to lead with what works, I always appreciate that Zelda games start with a kind of clean slate, not exactly resetting the characters and universe, but with few direct threads between most of the games that require you to have played previous installments. As a genre continuity nut (ask me about U.N.I.T. timelines sometime), it's still semi-important to me to know that Skyward Sword takes place before Ocarina of Time (itself recently remastered for the Nintendo 3DS), but I always get a little lost in the timey-wimey stuff that has split the game's timeline over the past 25 years into alternate universes and future incarnations (such as Wind Waker's pseudo-Link).
Which is to say that the game offers two paths to entry: one for longtime fans of the series, and another for first-timers, who need not be scared off because their grasp of Zelda history is thin-to-nonexistent.
The Wii-centric controls work much better here than in Twilight Princess, the previous Zelda Wii game. Even with the Wii Motion Plus wand, sword movement isn't exactly one-to-one, but it's reasonably close, and the game's fights don't require an exacting amount of precision, just the appropriate application of several different types of broad swings. Still, playing any kind of third-person adventure game without two analog sticks--one for movement, the other for camera control--feels dated, as it's become the universal norm for games on other consoles.
As for the characterizations, Link remains cipher, acting as the player's conduit into the world (which is itself a break from the normally over-the-top protagonists in many Japanese games). The Zelda character is presented with a surprising amount of depth, and actually has dialogue that isn't cringe-inducing. The same cannot be said many of the game's other characters, thinly drawn stereotypes often accompanied by a too-obvious musical cue.
I've accused some Nintendo games in the past of, with characters spouting baby-talk-sounding gibberish and tepid, simplistic dialogue. I wouldn't go that far here, but there's still overuse of expository dialogue--a trap many video games fall into--and nearly every conversation in the game reads as overly stagey.
Fortunately, the exploration, dungeon diving, and questing overshadows that, and once you get away from the talking and get into the running, jumping, flying, and fighting, it's a much more satisfying experience.
As possibly one of the last big-game releases for the history-making Nintendo Wii, Skyward Sword could have coasted on fumes and still be a hit. But to its credit, there's enough reinvention of the game's controls and format to make this the most forward-looking Zelda game ever. Those with long memories of the franchise will be more forgiving of its anachronisms than new players coming in cold, but even someone who is a casual Zelda aficionado (such as myself) can easily spend many entertaining hours in the game, which is ultimately what it's all about, right?
The Nintendo Wii's lifespan as we know it may begin and end with a Zelda title. If so, I could think of worse ways to go out. Nintendo continues to circle, recycle, and reissue its core franchises in seemingly ever-more-referential iterations (see Super Mario 3D Land, etc.), but with a clever eye toward satisfying newcomers as well as series veterans. This is a trick that other franchises like Final Fantasy have an immensely hard time with. It's not easy to accomplish.
Skyward Sword is a wonderful game, a wide-open, fun, colorful, and challenging game, but I don't think it's revolutionary. The experience lies solidly somewhere between Ocarina of Time and Wind Waker, with a dash of its own ideas. It's also very weird at times, as I'm always reminded of when I get knee-deep in a Zelda game: my first experience with a "friendly monster" who kidnaps a small girl to a cottage deep underneath the local village reminded me of that, fast. Overwrought characters that feel like they escaped a Hiyao Miyazaki movie are alternatively either amusing or annoying, but they do help animate the game in a way that I find other titles (such as Skyrim) have a hard time doing.
This is also, however, probably my favorite game of the year, mostly because the game's mix of accessibility and addictively laid-out milestones make for, once you've slogged through a slow first hour of introductory story, a wonderfully family-friendly mix.
Really, the Zelda games are like elaborate platformers: "dungeons" and the areas surrounding them are equally full of challenges and puzzles. Mysterious secrets are tucked away everywhere. Those looking for a great Wii game will be thrilled; however, Skyward Sword also shows its graphical limitations quite clearly. The 480p visuals pale in comparison with current-gen Xbox 360 and PS3 titles, and it's not even close.
Zelda: Skyward Sword is one of the very few games that supports the more accurate MotionPlus controls that have been baked into Nintendo remotes for well over a year. It's always been a mystery as to why these more accurate controls aren't incorporated elsewhere, but in Zelda they still feel like the game's weakest link. I kept having to raise my arm awkwardly, imitate bowling moves, and do other such action gestures, which removed me from the immersiveness of the game. And re-calibrate my Wii remote every hour or so didn't help.
It's a shame more games like Skyward Sword don't exist for the Wii, but it's a crowning swan song--and a reminder that the Wii has actually had a decent library of excellent games over its somewhat mercurial run. Dust off yours for this one--it's worth it.