The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword impressions
Before I get to what I thought of Nintendo’s last huge release of 2011, a little context might help to understand how I view the series of The Legend of Zelda as a whole. The first three games my family had for the Nintendo Entertainment System were (of course) Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt, Lifeforce, and The Legend of Zelda. At the time Zelda was too daunting for five year-old me, but it was an amazing game to watch my brother and Papa play. I remember borrowing Zelda II: The Adventure of Link from a friend and being confused by the change in game play but impressed nonetheless with the world it created. Then I rented and played through The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, which became one of my favorite games of all time. I’ve owned, played, and loved just about every proper Zelda game since then (yes, I’m excluding the Phillips CD-I games as well as the LCD handhelds) – and I literally received The Minish Cap in the mail last Saturday. The Zelda series represents to me what video games can be when enough thought are put into them. Ultimately, Zelda games are puzzles requiring the player figure out almost everything, from effective combat strategies to advancement in mazes. There’s a lot of thoughtfulness and mindfulness going on. The least appealing factor about the series is its reliance on its own tropes, primarily the “Received New Item, No Longer Need to Think about How to Move Forward in the Dungeon” trope. Yeah, when you get the whip, that will make the rest of the dungeon easier and you now know what to use on the boss. Regardless, it’s difficult for me to not appreciate the earnestness with which they deliver that trope. The designers want players to constantly feel like they are mastering the games.
Of course I picked up Skyward Sword as soon as it was made available, or at least as soon as my pre-order arrived in the mail three days after its availability in stores. So eager was I to play that I did not even bother to wait until the next day to pop the disc in and go, despite the fact that my pupils were still dilated from that afternoon’s eye exam. It was Zelda time, and I needed to experience the new addition to its world. Skyward Sword didn’t disappoint in the areas where it needed to remain strong, and it brought new experiences to the table.
Skyward Sword is about the full maturation or realization of its version of Link. It begins with the Japanese cliche of our protagonist being a lazy over sleeper who probably would not accomplish as much in life if not for his female best friend’s, Zelda’s, interference. She wakes him up in the beginning of the game, and she wants him to be the best bird rider and knight of Skyloft – their floating continent home – possible. It is made very clear that everyone sees Link’s potential but realize that he would not be able to reach it without Zelda.
The plot eventually moves to a point where Zelda needs to be found (although she is not captured) and Link must become a sword master and all around badass. But along the way people will let you know how well you are not performing. The local bully, Groose, makes it a point to say that you’re not so great. You dismiss it because he’s a bully and jealous of your relationship to Zelda, his unrequited crush; but it’s hard to continue dismissing it when you land on the world beneath the clouds and are repeatedly smacked by sentient plants and bokoblins. If longtime players are initially confused by starting with six hearts (health for the uninitiated) instead of the usual three, it becomes clear when Link is knocked down to two within half an hour of reaching the forest. I’m no pushover when it comes to games like these, so it is clear that this was absolutely intentional.
At one point in the game, Zelda does get captured. You are not aware of it at the time, as you are busy trying to reach and then get through the temple. By the time you reach the end of the temple you see empty shackles on the ground. Impa, a familiar helper character for the fans, tells you that the princess was indeed captured, but she stepped forward and took care of it since you took so long. The ongoing criticism the game makes of you is that you really aren’t any good at this hero thing.
I wish I could say that the game reaches a clear turning point, but it doesn’t. There is just a gradual build as your abilities as a player improve as well as Link’s abilities as a hero. You start improving your sword, the Goddess Sword, until it becomes the Master Sword that Links in future games (notably Ocarina of Time and The Wind Waker) possess. Enemies that used to provide problems take fewer and fewer hits. An instructor at the knight academy makes note of how you quickly picked up on a skill that tends to take a while to master. Groose begins to respect you, and it’s not even begrudgingly. Areas you are forced to revisit take less time to traverse. Then re-occurring boss and seeming villain of the game Ghirahim starts taking real damage from your attacks. When you reach the final area of the game, waves of bokoblins of all varieties and shapes are sent after you – and you slice through them like they’re nothing. The final boss requires that you know your battle controls completely, as he (it?) is a three-part duel. You better know how to block, and you better know how to properly strike with your sword. It also helps to know that when he raises his sword to the sky to catch lightning and throw it at you…you can do the same as you’ve been required to use a similar technique throughout the game. I didn’t intuit that, but it would have made that last fight a lot shorter.
While relationships are nothing new to the Zelda franchise, it seems like they tried harder this time around. The important word in the sentence is “tried”. While in the past there have been relationships with gone-too-soon uncles (A Link to the Past), longtime friends (Ocarina of Time), and sisters and grandmothers (Wind Waker); those relationships were more stated than experienced. Skyward Sword offers a regular group of villagers with occasionally changing dialogue. This enriches the game environment…but only so much.
The primary relationships in the game are with Zelda, Groose, and to a minor extent with Ghirahim. To be absolutely blunt about it, Zelda is a failed relationship in the game because everything about the relationship is implied from the beginning. There is little that can be done with her being absent for so much of the game, and by the time you catch up with her she is overtaken by the spirit of the goddess. Yeah, it’s dumb but you move on from it. It’s fortunate that Link is more expressive than all his counterparts save for The Wind Waker and its direct sequels, but even those expressions aren’t enough to truly help players experience the feelings involved.
The relationship with Groose is probably the best done in the entire game. Because he is such a jerk in the beginning, you have no choice but to loathe him. He captures your bird, he makes fun of you in front of his group of friends, and then he tries to cheat you out of passing your final test. He also bears some resemblance to Gannon, with tan skin, red hair, and light brown eyes. We are destined to dislike him – until about a third or so into the game when he clumsily joins Link’s descent to the land below the clouds. We get to watch him become a hero in his own right, and we see his jealousy over Link’s relationship with Zelda grow into more than the mere obsession it was presented as. He really does care for her, and he wants for her what is best for her – which he starts to see is Link. He develops a friendship with Link and ultimately becomes a character that I was disappointed was not present enough in the game.
And Ghirahim was a great character from the beginning. He had an absolutely gaudy character design that seemed to be based on overemphasizing some of the celebrated character design elements from the past 20 years of Japanese gaming and anime. He is a display of how tacky it all looks. At first he is presented as almost equal but just superior to Link, and the first fight they have is probably one of the more clever encounters in a Zelda game. What is unfortunate about that fight is that it’s re-experienced twice more throughout the game, ruining its novelty. But as you encounter him throughout the game, you see some development with him. He at first can’t seem to remember your name, as you are a nothing to him. You become a bigger pain with subsequent encounters, as he cannot forget your name and the damage you’ve done to him. By the end, unfortunately, his relevance is washed away due to his being a merely the big bad’s arm despite his presence’s paralleling Fi’s.
Who is Fi? Well, no modern Zelda adventure is complete without the requisite exposition-spewing helper character. Fi is the spirit of the Goddess Sword in Link’s possession. Well, something like that. She is also considered the artificial intelligence (AI) of the sword, a result of ancient technology long lost and destined to be lost again. (In a recently released Zelda timeline, it was revealed that Skyward Sword precedes all other Zelda games and technology never evolves beyond the dark ages.) She pops out of the sword at various times to explain your current goals, describe items you have just acquired, and to give hints. Most of the time this is done without your needing it. Fi is there to simplify the game for the most casual player. She is also there to bring players up to speed if they haven’t played for a while. I appreciate her for the latter situation, but otherwise I think she interrupted my game sessions too often. I also didn’t appreciate her breaking the fourth wall to talk directly to me, the player. No need to talk about my health bar when it is low or tell me about the state of my Wiimote’s batteries. If you have to do it, make it some sort of joke that is obvious to the player but does not break free of the game’s world. It’s annoying. Fi gives all of this factual information to Link, never sharing anything emotional with him; but for some reason at the end of the game we are supposed to be upset by the prospect of putting the sword to rest. She’s little more than an interactive instruction manual or strategy guide. I’ve never shed a tear after putting either of those items away.
The relationship to the Goddess Sword is not limited to Fi. Skyward Sword boasts being the first Zelda game with 1:1 sword control, thanks to the implementation of the Motion+ accessory, a battery draining device that attaches to the back of a Wiimote in order to better track the player’s hand movements. I paid an extra $10 to receive the Wii Remote+ bundle version of the game that included a gold colored Wiimote with built-in Motion+. My assumption was that having the accessory built-in meant they fixed the power consumption issues, but I was mistaken. Playing the game killed so many batteries it was embarrassing.
It was almost worth, it though. It was neat to see Link turn and twist his sword in ways similar to how I moved the Wiimote. If the player makes a downward motion with the controller, Link slices down. If the player makes an upward motion, Link slices up. Left, right, and angles are all represented. Even a forward thrust results in his jabbing an opponent in the belly. This wasn’t just a gimmick, as precision was required for almost every single enemy encounter in the game.
Perhaps the Motion+ is too precise. I’ve encountered, and read reviews about, the thrust motion’s difficulty. It’s unfortunately very common to fight a monster that requires you thrust and do nothing else, lest you find Link in a world of hurt. It’s not that the thrust doesn’t work, like many complain. It’s that it’s difficult for our own bodies to provide that perfect outward motion without the slightest jerk up or down, not to mention whatever motion it requires for a player to move the Wiimote into a position in which they feel comfortable thrusting. The Motion+ is just too sensitive. This also lead to problems for me in that I treated the Wiimote as a broadsword instead of a rapier – as in I would wind up before attacks. Needless to say, the wind-up would be registered as the attack while the following motion would be missed altogether. The wind-up was rarely the right attack.
Where would the Zelda series be without puzzles? Knowing this, Nintendo spread the puzzles out throughout the game, beyond just the dungeon areas. Now the overworld leading up to the dungeons is itself a maze, and combat with more than just the bosses is a puzzle. Reviewers have stated that the overworld itself should be considered dungeons in their own right. I don’t disagree. They wind around and require the acquisition of new items to advance to specific areas. And they’re tough. It’s very easy to get lost.
But the enemy combat is where it really excited me. Tapping a button, or the screen, is how combat was successfully accomplished in previous games. Very rarely would one have to think about how the bad guys were hit, although certain strategic elements were added to the 3D games. Most of the time this required hopping behind enemies and slicing them in the back.
Skyward Sword makes you face your opponents head on, but these opponents know how to defend themselves. At first it’s a matter of them holding their weapons at various angles to deflect your more obvious blows. Then they start holding electrified (or otherwise imbued weapons), which punish you for failing to properly strike. Precise control of your weapon is absolutely necessary.
But in my situations, if I’m to be honest, it’s best to be on the defensive. Counter attacking is just as important as it was in The Wind Waker, although it requires much more precise timing to accomplish. Block with the shield when a bokoblin swings his sword and you’re in for a greatly simplified battle. Not every enemy encountered makes it so easy, but this does make the overworld segments less harrowing.
The puzzles outside of combat are, unfortunately, less interesting. Most major dungeon puzzles just require that you find the item hidden in the dungeon, target the special interactive object, and move ahead. Very few puzzles require more than that, and unfortunately the novelty of those quickly wears thin as you are forced to repeatedly encounter them in succession. Oh, hey, you realized that you needed to run outside, fill a bottle with water, and pour that on a fire? How about you do that three more times? Oh, hey, you realized that the table near the entrance of the temple changes the room arrangement? Guess how many times you have to futz around with it? Puzzles are at their most impressive when they’re not done to death.
Like the aforementioned Ghirahim fight. Since he’s the first boss encounter, it’s not a spoiler to say that you need to telegraph your attack and then change it. Ghirahim walks toward you with a hand extended in the direction from which you would swing your sword. He’ll catch your sword and make you feel stupid. You hold your Wiimote one way, then switch to another direction for attack. (Don’t do this too quickly or you’ll attack from the direction you’re telegraphing, which is annoying.) Neat battle, and it doesn’t require you use the item you find in the dungeon. However, you end up doing this every time you fight Ghirahim, which makes the encounters more annoying than interesting after a while.
To offset the lack of novelty in may puzzles, the game also supplies puzzling situations that lack intuition. Despite the focus on the sword’s 1:1 controls, it’s completely easy to miss out on puzzles that require a specific manipulation of the controls. Other games have the benefit of tried and true methods for accomplishing tasks that players know from experience. New controls result in new experiences, and it can stump players. I would normally consider this a major positive, but good game design edges toward better obviating solutions for less obvious situations. Spinning your hand around to dizzy eyes on a wall without knowing that they get dizzy doesn’t seem obvious when the hint is basically, “They follow the tip of your sword.”
The worst offenders, but only in my opinion, were two boss battles toward the end of the game. The first was a battle on the back of a giant flying whale. (Yeah, the dialogue explains that it’s a dragon, but it looks nothing like the three other dragons encountered. It’s a whale. There’s even a spout.) A parasite attacks Link by firing rocks at him. Up until that point, enemies who attack with rocks are countered by merely blocking with the shield and reflecting the shots back. This guy…not so much. The hint was that his eye was weak, but I couldn’t reflect shots into his eye. Turns out the player is supposed to realize that Link should hit the rocks back with his sword – first to the sides of the creature and then the eye in the center.
The last boss battle is the other offender, although the game doesn’t stop in its tracks if you don’t figure it out. In fact, I take full responsibility for not realizing that when the bad guy can catch lightning similarly to how Link builds up a skyward strike projectile attack, that means Link can catch the lightning as well. Instead I did the fight the hard way, but blocking multiple strikes and countering with my own while stopping just before the baddie could block my attack with an electrified blade.
To make up for the lack of intuition in some situations, and to make the game more accessible to people who do not play games so much (i.e., have some sort of life), there is a talking stone in Link’s hometown that provides video hints. I’ll admit that I never actually tapped it for use to see exactly how it works, but I like what it does for casual players. I don’t like that it’s a safe backup for “stumping” players with nonsensical situations.
I don’t mean to harp on those situations, as the rest of the game’s puzzles kept me enthralled. By those other puzzles, I mean the exploration and the combat, which makes up the majority of the game anyway. No complaints about a game that repeatedly gives me what I want.
What this game really came down to was giving me what I wanted and expected. What no one will ever complain about is this game not being a Zelda game. This is a very solid game in the franchise and likely to rate high on most people’s lists of favorite Zelda games. This may rate as high as second or third on my personal list, whose number one has not changed for decades: A Link to the Past. Nothing can dethrone such a straightforward game with fun puzzles, very little padding, and not attempt whatsoever to try, and fail, at writing an epic.
One of the worst aspects of Skyward Sword is one of the worst aspects of gaming as a whole: an overemphasis on story rather than game play. It’s time game developers realize that if they were actually good writers, they would be penning novels. Very few games strike a literary chord, and even those titles fail to be as timeless as games with the most interesting and consistent game play. Skyward Sword forces players to sit through horrid unskippable dialogue and failed emoting in place of having players experience situations and make their own emotional connections. You know, use game play, the only aspect of video games that cannot be in any way replicated in other storytelling mediums, as the central mover.
Which is a shame because the game play of Skyward Sword is absolutely fantastic. From the 1:1 sword fighting to the puzzles requiring running and climbing, the game play keeps players invested and focused on the avatar of Link. I lost so many hours playing the game because the game play did not falter me. This game is fun, and I know that I will end up playing it again in the not so distant future. It is a must-buy game for Wii owners looking for an experience.