Five years since its launch, Nintendo’s Wii has been a huge success for the company -- at last count pushing close to a staggering 90 million units shipped worldwide -- largely credited to its wider appeal to a new casual gaming market; buoyed by the innovative motion-control and a catalogue of very accessible, party-friendly games.
For core gamers, however, the story hasn’t been so rosy. For many of us the poor old Wii has become a dust collector, with only a handful of games worth paying attention to in the console’s twilight years as attention begins to turn towards the forthcoming Wii-U successor.
So in terms of games for gamers, it’s not a stretch to say that for most of us, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is essentially the last Wii game.
You know the story by now: a brave young pointy-eared warrior is called on by a higher power to save a princess from a great evil. Nintendo have been retelling The Legend of Zelda now for a commendable 25 years -- evolving each addition to this flagship franchise alongside their hardware, some iterations pushing more boundaries than others.
As loved as the series is, the developers at Nintendo have the delicate task of trying to maintain the core aspects that make a Zelda game a Zelda game, while at the same time getting the most out of the strengths of the console (in the Wii’s case, motion-control) and doing their best to keep up with the evolutions of contemporary gaming. On the first two points, they have mostly succeeded here, but Skyward Sword unfortunately falls short on the latter, missing the bars raised by its competitors in several aspects.
As the subtitle suggests, this time around the underlying themes are the sky and the sword and these roles are played out by the setting, and the motion-control mechanics, respectively. The journey of the Link and Zelda of this epoc, commences in a quaint little town in the clouds called Skyloft.
Everyone in Skyloft flies around on giant birds and ancient myths tell of a surface land beneath the clouds, but nobody can go down there to find out because their birds won’t pass through the cloud layer. The people in this tiny, isolated village appear to spend their days either trading goods or training to be knights, yet the biggest threat in this floating utopia are weather patterns and a schoolyard bully.
Ok, so a convincing narrative has never been Zelda’s strong suit -- more just a convenient vessel for the game mechanics and that’s ultimately what we get here once again. As new paths predictably open up beneath the clouds, the skies become the overworld linking them all together and you travel from place to place riding the aforementioned giant bird.
The concept is sound, but the execution not so much, as the limited airspace around Skyloft is only sparsely populated by scattered and uninteresting islands that mostly just serve as places to inconveniently store treasures that are gradually unlocked through the course of the game.
The motion-controlled flying starts out interesting enough but rapidly becomes a chore as you’re required to go back and forth between each quest -- passable when there’s longer periods between journeys, but utterly laborious for the basic fetch quests that the game features in abundance.
Swordplay is this game’s biggest diversion from its predecessor. Unlike the loose, directional-waggle implementation of the Wii Remote and Nunchuk in Twilight Princess, Skyward Sword offers much finer control over your blade, making the Motion-Plus attachment (now built into newer Wii Remotes) a mandatory requirement.
This enables the player to slice in eight distinct (Y and X-axis) directions, with a forward (Z-axis) thrust thrown in for good measure. Enemies and bosses throughout the game are forged to interact nicely with this and will move their armoured points and weak spots around, challenging you to approach from the correct direction.
Again, this sounds great -- and is admittedly one of the best implementations of motion-control swordplay to-date -- but it’s still not quite the (perhaps idealistic) experience I think many of us had in mind in the Wii’s early days. It’s all well and good to watch the one to one movement between Link’s sword and your remote when you slowly wave it around, but in action, things don’t always respond the way you expect and a slice you’re attempting one way in the heat of battle all too frequently comes out askew.
The other weapons and interfaces that use pointer-based motion control for aiming often require manual recalibration -- so often that the developers assigned the down d-pad arrow to that task -- and of course, as the motion sensor in the Wii Remote/Nunchuk configuration essentially replaces what would be the second analogue stick in a traditional console controller, having it occupied entirely by your sword means no free-form camera control.
The motion movements aren’t always as intuitive as you’d expect either. A good example is the Skyward Strike, which is a special move Link performs by pointing his sword at the heavens to charge up a more powerful attack. As the player you’ll likely expect this will happen just by briefly pointing your sword as vertically straight as possible. However, the game is actually more lenient on the vertical alignment, but rather requires that you’re holding it perfectly still.
So as fun as the motion sword play is at first glance, it does come at a cost: frequently frustrating flailing and having to continually, jarringly re-centre the camera with the Z-button as you roam around the 3D space and the d-pad as you’re aiming. I’m not a hater of motion-controls by any means -- there are certainly several styles of game that clearly benefit from it, but like Twilight Princess, Skyward Sword has done little to help convince me that Zelda can be one of them.
Lack of camera control isn’t the biggest spectre of archaic game-design that haunts Zelda, however, that award goes to the voiceless, wooden characters and their unskippable reams of text-box dialogue.
Attention Zelda developers: of all the traditional features of your games that vocal fans are tenaciously clinging to, no voice-acting is not one of them. I would even take a "Well! excuuuuuuse me, Princess!
" over yet more of this huffing and puffing and grunting and beeping and sighing while repeatedly being forced to: stare at box of slowly-typed text; press A to continue; over and over and over again.
If you hold A, it speeds up the text-roll from third grade, to maybe fifth grade reading speed. This kind of thing is passable in lighter games with looser narratives like Mario Galaxy, but they’re trying to tell a meaningful story here and presenting it in this antiquated half-assed way does it a real disservice.
As a result, attempts at any real kind of emotion during character interactions come off looking like ventriloquist dolls and worse when they’re supposedly singing -- mouths just flapping up and down out of time with the melody.
It’s hurt further by some of the completely remedial tips that are presented this way -- it’s by no means a simple game (it's even rated M for Mature here in Australia), so if you actually need to be told some of the absurdly obvious things they explain in this manner, you really don’t have any hope of getting far.
Without spoiling too much, your sword is imbued with a computerised spirit called Fi, who bears a striking resemblance to Halo’s Cortana and will harass you frequently and non-consensually -- like Navi and Midna before her -- with unskippable information that is not always of interest to the player.
To top it off, there are some laughable moments where you actually get to choose between several dialogue response options -- none of which seem to have any effect on the outcome of the conversation. This is simply just one area that other games at the Triple-A level have moved past long ago.
The last major criticism of Skyward Sword is of course the graphical tech, and to put it kindly, this is not a game that should be winning any awards for its visuals. It may well be among the best looking games on the Wii, but let’s not kid ourselves here, the simple geometry and textures still look positively retro next to every other big budget 2011 holiday season title.
What’s intended to be an impressionist style in the art direction could probably be more accurately described as “beer goggles” -- heavily utilising a rendering effect that just blurs every object and texture in the world that is outside of the player’s immediate vicinity with a crude watercolor effect.
There’s a lot of great set pieces though and thematically vibrant areas that do really make the most of what they have to work with, but if like me, you’ve just been playing something like Battlefield 3, Skyrim or The Witcher 2 beforehand, it’s going to take a bit of adjusting before you can properly appreciate a lot of the pleasant imagery here.
The musical score doesn’t suffer the same penalties however, as the iconic theme song returns and the team have composed even more memorable and thematically appropriate tunes. Like previous games, this could be a down-side for some, as the repetitive catchy melodies can really get jammed on a loop inside your head. But I personally find them to be one of the consistent strengths of the series.
Now at this point, you’re likely thinking that after a dozen or so paragraphs of relentless criticism that I absolutely loathed this game, but that’s honestly not the case. The sour points that I’ve just described do stop this from being the perfect game that it could have been, but damned if the nature of Zelda doesn’t still shine bright through this tarnished exterior.
As I begrudgingly trudged through the tediously slow introductory area of the game, things really weren’t looking good. Then I completed the first dungeon and the more items I accumulated, the more rewarding the puzzle solving started to become.
After giving the game a few good hours, the graphical inadequacies melted away I began to notice and appreciate the areas of that game where the real development time had been spent. The story, characters and visual fidelity may be tired, hollow and lacking, but the best efforts of the level and game designers are genuinely commendable.
I clocked in at around 36 hours through to the end boss and that was a long way off completing all the auxiliary challenges the game has to offer. I would say though that -- before you even quantify the wasted time trapped in dialogue and sky-transit -- there’s a bit too much length for length’s sake, with some excessive backtracking and lazy level recycling. Losing most of this would not have affected the story and would have almost definitely improved the pacing.
Enough arm-chair game developing though, because the fact remains that despite all these detractors, I still continuously found myself wanting to keep pressing on to just one more save point, so they simply must have done some things right.
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword’s strength lies squarely in the wide array of items and the meticulously crafted dungeons that exploit all of these variables in challenging and creative ways. If you can push through the gruelling introductory quests and let your technical expectations regress a few years, there’s a worthwhile experience waiting on the other side.
Existing Zelda fans should find this game to be a cut above the last outing, but it’s not likely to win over many that haven’t enjoyed past Zelda games. Skyward Sword holds dear to a lot of things we love about the series, but quite frankly just doesn’t do enough to move things forward, leaving us with a merely good game that should have been great.