It may seem difficult to believe, but The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is the first Zelda game to be developed exclusively for the Wii. Twilight Princess was a port of a GameCube title, and Link's Crossbow Training was a simple pack-in for a controller accessory. If there's a game that was built from the ground up for the Wii, this is it.
Set at the very beginning of the Zelda chronology, Skyward Sword is the origin story of the entire series. Forget the multiple timelines and the different versions of the classic adventure. This is where it all started.
As the story goes, the land of Hyrule was beset by a great evil. The goddess lifted her people into the clouds, to the floating land of Skyloft, in order to keep them safe. She then banished the great demon from Hyrule, though the lesser monsters were left to their own devices. Now, many years later, the demon is awakening and Link is suffering from ominous visions. Not sure what to make of them at first, he realizes their true meaning after Zelda is sucked down to the surface below the clouds and the Goddess Sword reveals itself — and the great prophecy — to him.
Spread out over a good 30-40 hours of gameplay, the plot driving Skyward Sword is fairly standard hero fare. Elements of series lore are intertwined with more traditional fetch quests, which are designed to extend gameplay and encourage you to explore the world. For the most part, these side-quests do their job well and appear within the story organically. Some of them border to the tedious side, though that is the exception rather than the rule. Oddly enough, the most boring part of the game is actually the beginning.
Tutorial sections are not uncommon within games, especially in the current days of limited manuals, but Skyward Sword's intro is almost banal enough to make players want to give up on the game. Zelda games have always been about the adventure, with the story falling into a supporting role, so when you jump into a new game and are faced with screen after screen of story text, it's a little off-putting. This is compounded by the fact that story text cannot be quick-skipped. Engage someone in conversation (even accidentally), and you're stuck until he or she is finished talking.
Character-wise, Zelda's initial portrayal is disconcerting as she isn't simply a friend of Link's or even a traditional romantic interest. She's a teenage girl who acts like she can't wait to corner our erstwhile hero in a dark room and jump his bones as soon as possible. It's like someone at Nintendo decided that Zelda needed to be sexed up with teenage drama, and it seems wholly out of place. Thankfully, once you get past the first hour or so of gameplay, things start to improve.
Exploring the world of Hyrule is very straightforward, thanks to a linear progression system and a detailed auto-map. Unlike prior Zelda games, which often encouraged players to freely explore, Skyward Sword is pretty direct about keeping you on your path. The way forward is never in doubt, with your magical companion Fi (she lives in the sword) sometimes preventing you from going a certain way if the time is not right.
Instead of a traditional overworld design, Skyward Sword relies on a hub world setup. Skyloft acts as the world hub, with the various sections of Hyrule unlocking as you move forward in the game. The ground-based sections of Hyrule are distinct. To move between them, Link must return to Skyloft, where Link can also restock on gear. Multiple connection points between Hyrule and Skyloft make travel simple, ensuring that you don't have to waste time running back and forth over the same ground.
One mistake the game seems to make on a consistent basis is remembering when you've seen something. It's not unusual to have a "first time" animation play multiple times when revisiting an area. For example, in the earth area, there is a fire-breathing lizard that appears as a standard enemy. The first time you encounter the lizard, a short cinematic plays with the lizard scurrying for cover. After leaving and returning to the area, the same scene played at the same spot. Another "first time" animation that repeated had to do with consumable items. If we used the consumables to upgrade an item, the next time we found one of the same, the "first time" animation would play. It's not a game breaking issue, but it's odd to see in a AAA title.
With all that said, it's the motion controls that define Skyward Sword as a game, and it's the motion controls that are its biggest blessing as well as its biggest issue.
When the motion controls work, they work brilliantly. With 1:1 mapping of Link's sword, the hand-to-hand combat is perhaps some of the most visceral and refreshing action ever seen in a Wii game. You don't just make random swipes with your sword; Link replicates your actions in-game.
Want to cut away something by Link's right foot? Make a downward slash to your right. Need to take out an enemy above? An upward swing is the way to do it. Need to take out something in front of you? A forward thrust gets the job done. You can even channel a little "He-Man and the Masters of the Universe" by holding the sword upright and then attacking with a charged blast.
Combining the swordplay with a shield (mapped to the Nunchuk) further enhances the feeling of being in the center of the action. Once equipped, the shield can be lifted simply by lifting the Nunchuk in front of the player. Thrusting the Nunchuk forward performs a shield bash maneuver, which can stun an opponent.
Outside of direct combat, the motion controls are less than ideal, in part because the Wiimote seems to get off-center quite easily. This is most noticeable when using weapons or items that require targeting or flying, such as the beetle. You can launch a flying beetle, and the first one out will perform as expected, but the second one out will inexplicably be off-center. Similar inaccuracies seem to crop up when flying around in Skyloft, as your mount will sometimes randomly turn to the side when you're trying to climb. Re-centering the Wiimote is a simple process, but it is a repeated annoyance.
When players are on the ground and adventuring, the biggest issue is likely to be the camera. It doesn't hang directly behind Link, so it's not always obvious when he's not facing forward. This isn't a big deal most of the time, but it is an issue when Link is jumping. On more than one occasion, Link missed what should have been straightforward jumps across small pits or over vines simply because he wasn't centered before takeoff. Unfortunately, it's nearly impossible to tell if you're centered or not unless you tap the Z-lock and center the camera behind Link.
Despite the control issues and the slow start, there is something magical about the pacing of Skyward Sword. The game always feeds you a new objective at just the right time, while never overloading you with options. There's never a point at which you feel rushed, and there is nothing preventing you from going back and exploring a previously completed area.
Dungeon design is also a high point of Skyward Sword, with the expertly crafted dungeons easily rating as some of the best in the series. If any element of Skyward Sword reverberates with the essence of the original game, this is it. Each dungeon is a puzzle unto itself, and progression can be devilishly frustrating, even though the solution is usually found at arm's length. Taking a break and returning with fresh eyes is enough to overcome any roadblock, though today's gamers are likely to cheat and just look up the answer on the Internet.
Ultimately, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is an excellent entry into the series, but its rough spots prevent it from achieving true brilliance. It's still a fantastic choice for any Wii gamer, and it deserves to be in your library.
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