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The time has come, once again, to do battle as Link.

Nintendo Wii Review: The Legend of Zelda – Skyward Sword

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.

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.

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