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Nintendo Wii Review: The Legend of Zelda – Skyward Sword

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Ever since I first played it, The Legend of Zelda:  Ocarina of Time has been one of my favorite videogames.  As I have written previously, I have played the game on multiple platforms and always found my trips through that version of Hyrule to be exciting and different. 

While the franchise may not have seen very many lows, it certainly has experienced some lesser moments (Wind Waker).  And, as much as this may get me slammed, I would be lying if I didn’t say that Link’s newest adventure, The Legend of Zelda:  Skyward Sword should have been better.  The story is only kind of interesting (not that one expects Zelda tales to stray greatly from the formula… that would be like Mario not having to rescue Peach).  Worse than that though is the fact that the control scheme enhancements here only serve to detract from the fun that the game would otherwise be rather than increasing it, the in-game graphics are distinctly mediocre (even if the art style is great), and the issues don’t even stop there.  In short, this is a really good game, but it isn’t a perfect one.

Skyward Sword opens with a young lad by the name of Link (you can rename him anything you want, but seriously, are you not going to go with Link?) waking up at his knight academy school and needing to prepare for a big test.  Link lives on a magical land up above the clouds and, as with all the other folks that live up there, he’s got this bird whom he’s bonded to which he can call and which will take him to various other islands above the clouds.  Naturally, Link has a super special bird as his partner, the kind of bird no one has seen for an exceptionally long time.
Now, I don’t know whether this portion of the game was in development before Avatar, but certainly once that film came out, the story here should have been moved in a new direction.  Essentially, your introduction to this new Zelda game makes it seem like a bad takeoff of the James Cameron movie combined with the need-to-travel-to-various-islands annoyingness that plagued Wind Waker  (which was the biggest problem with that title).  I call this a “bad” version of Avatar because the graphics are rather jaggedy, and the story of the birds we’re given at the outset here lacks the depth of Cameron’s tale.   

That momentarily aside, soon enough Zelda is captured, brought down to the lower world below the clouds and Link is on a quest to find a free her.  To do this, Link has battle creatures (like Skulltulas and all the regular Zelda baddies along with some new ones) and gain various tools and weapons (like a slingshot).  Link travels, as one would think, through forests, water areas, fire drenched locales, and a whole lot of temples and dungeons.

So much of that is traditional Zelda and works well as such – the game struggles though with the way Link has to go about his mission.  One of the big alterations to this title from previous ones is its reworking of combat.  No longer does Link just generally slash (and spin while slashing), he has a number of different sword moves.  He can slash sideways, vertically, diagonally, and even stab.  The game requires the Wii MotionPlus to make this happen—and some editions of the game include a controller with MotionPlus built-in—but the commands are not as responsive as they ought to be. 

Whether the reason for this is there simply being too many types of sword moves, the added abilities of a MotionPlus still being unable to sufficiently track movements, or something else, the truth is that you will regularly struggle to get Link to execute the specific sword move you need to execute in order to defeat your enemy.  This isn’t always a huge problem, but there will be battles you are almost certainly going to lose as your attempt at a side slash turns into a diagonal and is consequently blocked. 

That simply shouldn’t be the case.  As a system, the Wii is now five years old, what it is capable of doing and what it is not capable of doing should be readily apparent.   To have so much of the combat built around a system which is moderately serviceable at best is hugely disappointing, especially for a tentpole franchise like Zelda.

The truth though is that there are several different things in the game which give one the feeling that it wasn’t quite completed.  Just as a single example, there’s the first temple you visit in the game.  At some places in the game it’s called the “Forest Temple,” at other times it’s called the “Skyward Temple.”  Yes, that’s a small thing, but please remember it is simply a second example of an unfinished corner of the game.  Put together, one can’t help but get the feeling while playing the game that with more time it could have been made into something exceptional.

If you’re looking for a bigger problem, the game suffers from what I consider to be a cardinal sin in the gaming world – not letting you do things simply because it’s not what the game designer wants you to do.  Have you ever played a title where you should be able to jump from point A to point B (you’ve certainly made such jumps in other levels), but you can’t because the game wants you to traverse a different path?  There’s absolutely nothing blocking you from making the jump, you’re simply not allowed to do it.  That should never happen, and yet Skyward Sword has many such moments.

For instance, in the sky world, you can jump off any of the sky islands and have your bird catch you – the bird senses where you are and just meets you.  That is, it does except for when it doesn’t.  On the main island in the sky, you have to jump off a platform, not just off any corner of the island (as you can on the other ones).  There seems to be no reason for this whatsoever, except that the game chooses to not let you get your bird any other way.  Of course, if platforms were necessary that would be fine, but the other islands don’t have them and don’t require them, so they’re not necessary… except for when they are.

As another example, one of the tools you pick up in the game is a beetle which you can send out much like Batman sends out his batarang in Arkham Asylum/City.   The beetle can be controlled when in flight and has a finite distance which it can travel.  But, that finite distance changes depending on circumstances, there’s no reason why the distance it can travel should shorten, but it sometimes does if you’re trying to use it in a way the game doesn’t want.  Additionally, the beetle can pick up items – hearts, deku nuts, etc., etc.  There seems to be no reason why it can’t pick up a piece of heart container, but it can’t.  There’s really nothing different about such an item from anything else, but the game doesn’t want you to be able to do that so you can’t.

The list of such offenses goes on, and it is unfortunate.  Obviously, to some extent, games need players to travel down a certain road in order to move forward.  However, if the game is going to force a player in a direction, it needs to do that in a natural fashion, not by simply not allowing the player to do what can be done elsewhere.

Pacing within the title, too, is an issue.  It feels as though you’re constantly having to stop to hear someone tell you some irrelevant bit of information (including your travelling companion who provides hints and explanations which are rarely useful), which very much hurts the flow of the game.  Additionally, the speed at which Link moves (as well as stuff like the Beetle tool) feels terribly slow in certain areas.  You can run, but doing so causes Link to deplete his stamina and then you’ll crawl along until he recovers.  Then there are load times in the sky when getting on and off a bird (at certain locations), and going from one island to the next on a bird can take forever.

On the plus side, some other changes to the traditional Zelda setup work well – there is an upgrade system to weapons and armor here which adds a great element of depth.  As you traverse the worlds (upper and lower), you collect various small items which can be combined with your equipment for some rupees to give your stuff new powers.  This system isn’t as grand as an RPG game, but it is a change for the better.

There are, beyond a shadow of a doubt, a lot of fun moments in The Legend of Zelda:  Skyward Sword.  There are great sidequests, fun games, excellent dungeons/temples, and a whole lot of interesting ideas behind the game.   You fight some great enemies and some of the puzzles are really and truly interesting.  Link’s progression in the game, too, works.  The adding of new equipment and skills for Link is well-timed, there is regularly something different and wonderful to learn.  You will find in the game all those great things that make a Zelda game a Zelda game.

Unfortunately, those negatives still end up staring you right in the face.

Perhaps part of my issue with the game is that I expect too much from a Zelda title, especially with this one coming right on the heels of Ocarina of Time‘s rerelease for the 3DS.  The PR materials for Skyward Sword even invoke Ocarina of Time, talking about how this game “lays the foundation for the events” in Ocarina of Time.  After playing Skyward Sword, you may find yourself longing to go through Ocarina of Time again, not because of where this game ends, but rather for what it lacks. 

The Zelda franchise is one of the flagships for Nintendo.  It is one of the reasons why people would choose a Wii over a PS3 or a 360 (I certainly bought a Wii before I purchased either of those other two systems), and it needs to stand head-and-shoulders above everything else (save Mario).  Skyward Sword is an excellent game – there is a lot to explore and a lot to love about it.  There is more going on here than is often the case, but it isn’t perfect game.  It is, unquestionably, one of the best titles the Wii has to offer, and we have to wonder if that doesn’t cause this to be graded on a curve.  Skyward Sword, with its would-be Avatar opening, Wind Waker-esque islands, not-responsive-enough motion controls, and actions which don’t hold with the game’s own rules, feels a little too recycled and a little too rushed.  There is fun here—a good deal of fun—and you will spend a lot of time exploring the plethora of nooks and crannies, but the game isn’t what it could have been.  Maybe if/when they release a “Master Quest” version it will be, but it isn’t now.

We are not suggesting that you not play Skyward Sword.  If you do play it, odds are you’re going to get past its issues and really enjoy yourself, but that won’t make the issues simply disappear.

Skyward Sword is great and it enhances the Zelda franchise, but we want more.

In summation: we believe The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword to be an excellent game. We also believe that it is not perfect, and that to extol it as a perfect game is to miss some of the title’s terribly obvious flaws. What makes the game excellent is the fact that despite the flaws outlined above, it still manages to be wholly engaging and a lot of fun. We do like the game–a lot–but our huge enjoyment of the title doesn’t blind us to its problems.

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is rated E10+ (Everyone 10 and older) by the ESRB for Animated Blood, Comic Mischief, Fantasy Violence.

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About Josh Lasser

Josh has deftly segued from a life of being pre-med to film school to television production to writing about the media in general. And by 'deftly' he means with agonizing second thoughts and the formation of an ulcer.
  • vincent

    o…k… where did people start comparing avatar to zelda? stay on topic man! also i don’t think every fan of the franchise thinks that the game will be “perfect” as long as i have a great time playing the game. and you totally missed the point of wind waker. zelda is all about the joys of exploration and finding something new. wind waker probably embodies that goal more then any other zelda title do date with the exception of SS. and in my opinion OoT was just as bad as TP where it had really nothing to do outside the main quest line

  • Maggio

    I love the article… This is one of the first articles that talks a lot about the flaws of Skyward Sword… What I didn’t like was the fact that you mentioned Wind Waker as being a lessor title in the series… I would normally say “Oh, well that’s your opinion.” but Wind Waker was better than Twilight Princess in so many ways. Twilight Princess was the lessor title in the Zelda series, the game RUSHED so much… I felt like Nintendo was trying way too hard to do what the fans wanted them to do, instead of them doing what they have always done… I have not played Skyward Sword yet, so I can’t tell you if it’s a “perfect game” or not, but I can at least call you out on the Wind Waker thing…
    I have to agree with Vincent with the whole point of Zelda… If you have read the interview (maybe article), where Miyamoto says that he got the idea of Zelda from his childhood… He explored woods and caves… That is what Zelda is about. Zelda is all about exploring the vast world and seeing all it’s beauty… and then saving that beautiful world from evil.
    I don’t want to make my comment bashing your article too much, so I do want to say that the whole not being able to do what you want/the designers are forcing you to take a certain path, is something I have disliked in Zelda, but at the same time, I look at Zelda as a story being read… If you read a book and you know you could easily turn the page to skip boring parts would you? Or would you know that the author did it that way because he/she felt like that was needed in the story? When you said that you could do certain things here and couldn’t over there, maybe the designer made it that way because they felt like it was the best decision.
    In the end, I love the article and still can’t wait to pick up the game in a few days. Thanks for your time and effort into making this review.

  • seriously?

    Can’t take this article seriously. Much more established reviewers with much more credibility have said the motion controls work nearly flawlessly. Also, if the Beetle could pick up heart pieces, then the player would never have to work for them. They are hidden for a reason. Using the beetle would defeat the whole purpose…

    And that Avatar comparison… How exactly is that valid? I don’t think this guy really knows what he is talking about. The game was in development for 5 years, and one piece of dialogue – which was done by NoA during localization – causes him to call the game rushed. The dialogue in question isn’t even an issue. Skyview Temple IS a forest temple.

    Additionally, I don’t think this guy understands how the stamina meter works. You aren’t supposed to use it until Link gets tired and then wait for it to recharge. You have to use it intelligently so that Link never reaches that fatigued state.

    I enjoy reading articles that aren’t afraid to point out a game’s flaws, but this one was just a steaming pile of s***.

  • Alex Zangari

    lolwut?

    You totally trashed the game and gave it a point below a perfect score. What is this garbage. At least go the full mile if you plan on ripping it apart.

    On the other hand, I can’t even imagine your focal points ruining anything. Especially your idea of a “cardinal sin.” Did it really hurt so much to run to a platform? As for these alleged other cases of jumps that can’t be made because “the game doesn’t want you to,” I’m sure there’s a perfectly good reason for each of them. Not because I’m a Zelda fanboy with too much hype and faith, but because you honestly made a complaint about the Beetle item not picking up heart pieces (in other words, ruin 99% of the puzzles).

    Poor visuals, Wind Waker as a low point, etc… your comments just eat away at any credibility you could hope to have. And complaints about the story? It’s a freaking LEGEND, it’s supposed to be about the history and lore of the fantasy world you’re surrounded by, not some cinematic drama ploy like the games these days that try to be movies. Zelda is a video game and doesn’t try hiding it. The story is about being the character, not watching the character. You’re biggest mistake is that you judged Skyward Sword like it was any other game, where effort is made to be cinematic or easy or what have you.

    If you can’t fit in Link’s boots, that’s your loss.

  • Really? Really!?

    Are you serious about that Avatar comparison? Giant birds= Avatar? Seriously? How on earth does the concept of giant birds remind you first and foremost of Avatar? Did you not consume any form of science-fiction/fantasy entertainment before the fall of 2009? Go look at the TvTropes page for “dragon rider”. I’ll wait. Now please come back and tell me that Avatar somehow is the poster child for a concept that dates back to Tolkien. I honestly can’t believe you used movie as derivative and shallow as Avatar as a comparison point to a video game that has literally almost nothing in common with Avatar.
    “I call this a “bad” version of Avatar because the graphics are rather jaggedy, and the story of the birds we’re given at the outset here lacks the depth of Cameron’s tale”
    Wow. Just, wow. I’m sure Nintendo is disappointed you disliked their attempt to compete with Avatar.

    Christ.

  • I couldn’t make it past the first page..

    Ok first off, you somehow draw some weird connection between a terrible movie and this game just because of birds.. Let me try that a sec, LoZ:SS is a great game but it seems like they clearly copied every movie and story ever made because the characters can walk. Did I manage to sound like the author of this article?

    Anyway, moving on to another flaw in this article. Zelda does not get captured in the beginning like you say, she gets attacked, falls to the ground below the clouds and then sets off on her own journey. She does get captured later in the game, momentarily, but you only get hints about that and she frees herself before you are able to come to her aid.

    Oh and one more thing, in Legend of Zelda: Link to the Past, you realize there was a large bird that could carry you around the map right? I say large because pixel wise it was about equal to the size of Link. So yeah, maybe you should flip your theory around and blame Cameron of taking his bird idea from LoZ.

  • no offense dude buy

    you kind of lost me at calling wind waker a “low” in the series: its one of the series best

  • Omar gomez

    What a party pooper! Somewhat mean spirited. Tell me do you dwell in sorrow all the time?

  • gerzzo

    I feel bad for you guy…everyone here thinks your review is terrible. I am sorry to say it, but after reading it I think the same. Good thing is that you can try harder next time =)

    Cheers.

  • Ben

    Honestly, you have purposely given this kind of review to increase your traffic. To that end, you are a success to your goal but a jackass for writing a review based on disagreeing with only what you have read from people who actually played the game. A shame of journalism – you are.

  • http://tvandfilmguy.com Josh Lasser

    Everyone is, naturally, entitled to their opinion. But, for what it’s worth, I have played the game, and I rated it better than Gamespot did (they too noted issues with the controls).