Pros: Amazing control scheme, great combat and challenges, great looking, best Wii game ever.
Cons: Tedious (but optional) mini-games, occasionally awkward controls.
For years, critics have been insisting that the Wii, for all its success, was a mistake. That its gesture-based controls were limited and its low-def graphics could never satisfy the discerning modern gamer. To all those critics, Nintendo has blown a big raspberry with the release of action-adventure game The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, a game that proves exactly what the Wii is capable of. It refutes every critic and proves every bad Wii game was not the fault of the console but of the developer. It is the best game ever made for the Wii, a thrilling experience, and something that makes me a little angry.
Why must Nintendo finally prove the Wii’s viability just as they are about to replace the console with the very different Wii U?______________________________
Published and Developed by: Nintendo
For ages: 10 and up
Release Date: Nov 20, 2011
The Story: Zelda Goes Bye-Bye, Link Is Born to Save Her
Legend of Zelda games all have a similar structure. The protagonist, Link, is an above-average boy living a peaceful village life. Zelda is a girl generally part of the ruling class. Zelda goes missing and Link sets out to find her, often learning in the process that he has a grand destiny. This destiny involves fighting monsters, solving puzzles, and every once in a while fighting a giant monster that functions as a sort of hostile, fast moving puzzle.
In Skyward Sword, Link lives in the airborne island of Skyloft. Residents travel to other, much smaller sky islands on giant birds, and Link sails the skies on his bird the way he sailed the seas in Wind Waker.
Zelda games always begin slowly, sometimes painfully so, but while Skyward Sword doesn’t take off like a rocket, it starts well, weaving the game’s basic tutorial into a story of Link’s attempting to recover his missing bird just before a flight test that will determine his future. He passes the test, of course and shares a few meaningful looks with the pretty Zelda before she and her bird are sucked up by a tornado. Link soon learns he has a DESTINY, and acquires a helper, a sort of robotic nymph who guides Link on a quest that takes him below the floor of clouds beneath Skyloft to earthly realms full of monsters, treasures and dungeons. He also acquires a nemesis, Demon Lord Ghirahim, an amusingly creepy villain who makes colorful remarks like “you’ll deafen yourself with the sound of your own screams.”
Gameplay and Controls: Beautiful Gesture Controls Support Exciting Adventuring
The Zelda games tend to reuse basic concepts over and over. When Link opens a chest, a musical TA-DA will play as he pulls out the treasure. Slashing flowers and barrels with his sword generates gems and health-restoring hearts. Useful bomb plants grow here and there. Link acquires various tools – a sword, a slingshot, a bow and arrow - each just at the point he needs it to continue his adventures.
But these games always use these tried-and-true basics as a foundation for original and inventive gameplay, and Skyward Sword offers many new tools and challenges tightly entwined with the Wii’s motion controls.
While there has been one previous Wii Zelda game, Twilight Princess, the gesture controls are much more elaborate this time around. The game requires use of the Wii Remote Plus controller, which offers 1 to 1 movement. So while in Twilight Princess you simply waved your remote like a maniac to battle enemies, in Skyward Sword you must use your remote like a real sword, aiming at foes’ weak spots. Man-eating plants will open their petals vertically or horizontally, and you must slash down or across accordingly. When confronting a humanoid combatant with a shield you need to aim where the shield is not. You have a shield of your own which can, if thrust forward with a shake of the nunchuk at just the right time, stun an opponent.
Other tools and weapons have similarly precise controls. You can throw a bomb with an overhand fling of the remote or bowl it along the ground by letting the remote point down (for which I always had to stand up). A robotic beetle is steered by tilting the Wii remote in the same way you steer when riding your bird. And you can fire your bow (which comes unusually late in the game) by holding a button on the nunchuk, pulling it back and then releasing. It is similar in approach to the mini-game collection Wii Sports Resort, but it is so much more impressive when all those controls are seamlessly combined. Even the menu selection screen is easier to manage because of the implementation of gesture controls.
This is the way gaming should feel. It is impossible to imagine Skyward Sword using any other control scheme, but more significantly, it makes the prospect of playing any action adventure game with nothing but buttons and triggers unappealing, an ancient, clumsy, outdated approach.
Deeper Into the Game: Vast and Beautiful, With Extras
The world Link explores is vast. After over 20 hours of adventuring through forests, deserts and molten lava, Link is given fresh equipment that lets him go back and explore new parts of these same areas. While this does entail going back over some familiar territory, the game is continually opening up in the style of the Metroid Prime games, so there is always something new. The game offers many intriguing ideas; I especially liked sections in which striking rocks could move Link from a ruined present to a past of fancy technology and snarky robots.
It is also a fantastic looking game. Clouds blowing overhead create ever-shifting shadows in the desert, molten lava flows in glistening rivers, fellow Skyloftians wheel around you as you soar above the clouds. Skyward Sword proves what I have always said; what makes a game beautiful is not its technological specifications but rather its art design.
In between epic adventuring, Link can take some time to explore Skyloft. Throughout the game, his fellow citizens have problems that only he can solve, and you can spend your time delivering love letters and pumpkin soup for the betterment of civilization. Rewards for this can result in money and treasure that can be used to buy and upgrade items. Upgrades often also require, for some reason, bugs, and Link can scoop them up here and there using a net that, just like the sword, must be aimed and tilted just right.
The Downside: Hey, Nothing's Perfect
Skyward Sword is a brilliant, imaginative game, but it does have its flaws. Once Link learns to swim he must master an annoying trick to leap out of the water (players should have also used the nunchuk to trigger speed bursts when flying, which would have been both a better method and a way of training them for the swim-jump eventuality). A musical harp is central to bland rhythm sequences that adds nothing whatsoever to the game. The ability to attack fallen enemies with a fatal blow doesn’t work well.
The game also has a set of mini-games whose most notable commonality is none of them are especially fun. A poorly conceived take on Minesweeper, a game where you fall through hoops onto a roulette wheel, a badly designed pumpkin balancing game, all made me wonder, with so much great content available, while the developers would waste theirs and the players’ time.
The game also, like all Zelda games, has no voice acting, relying instead on text. I think Nintendo does this simply because that’s how Zelda games are always done, but I’m not a fan of the style in general, and if it must be done, players should be able to set the speed the text rolls out. I had to hold the A button down constantly to move the text as fast as I could read, then press the button to move to the next sentence, and it was all rather wearying. You also cannot skip any text-dialogue scenes, so every time you die in a boss battle you will have to page through the same dialogue before when you restart.
Verdict: Buy This Immediately. If You Don't Have a Wii, Buy One of Those
But Skyward Sword’s flaws are dwarfed by its virtues. A huge epic that took me over 60 hours to complete, the game is endlessly imaginative and original. No game has so clearly shown the potential of the Wii. Sadly, that potential is showing up just as Nintendo is shifting gears with the upcoming Wii U, downplaying the Wii remote in favor of a fancy touch screen. And Skyward Sword does so well with that old remote that it makes me less excited for the Wii U, because now that I have seen the full potential of the Wii, I want more games just like this one.
But the Wii U is coming, and I suppose that means that someday we will have a Zelda game that just as perfectly illustrates what makes that console special. And it will probably be released just as Nintendo is ready to move onto something else.