Review: The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (Nintendo Wii)

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: Nintendo
Genre: Action
Release Date: 11/20/2011

If you asked me how to spell anticipation, I guarantee I would find a way to work the letters Z-E-L-D-A in there somewhere. While Skyward Sword was not the first Zelda title for the Wii console, it is certainly the first to be made with the console’s technology in mind. Twilight Princess was a launch game for the system, but it was developed primarily for the Gamecube and the controls were shoehorned in last second (although they still delighted me given the motion control gimmick was so new to me at the time). So to have to wait until what is basically near the end of the system’s life cycle in order to play the first true motion controlled Zelda, expectations could not possibly have been set any higher.

Now, here we are with the launch having both come and gone, and while it took me some time due to holiday demands, I finally finished the game. The one game that I not only waited five years for, but is the only Wii game that released this year that I’ve actually played. As easy as it would be to write this off as a fan playing a fan’s game, having such high expectations has an equal chance of being a major disappointment. Heck, it was around this time last year when I played and reviewed Final Fantasy XIV and was so disappointed with it I was practically offended. How does Skyward Sword do when looked at under a microscope?

Let’s Review

Skyward Sword takes place at the very beginning of the Legend of Zelda timeline. For those of you keeping track at home, this means it precedes even Ocarina of Time which was originally defined as “where it all started.” It’s a bold approach, as prequels often open themselves up to a whole world of inconsistencies and plot holes. Luckily, most Zelda games are generally self-contained anyway, but its contribution to the overall legacy is notable, even if it takes awhile to get off the ground.

As Link, you start off in the land of Skyloft which is basically an island that floats in the sky (thus making the pun I made last sentence all the more amusing). Much like the Kokiri and their fairies, the residents of Skyloft have their own bird that they use as transportation and summon it by way of leaping off the side of the island and whistling for it. Not sure why they don’t go the safer route of waiting for the bird to land and then climbing on, but that’s not quite as exciting, is it? Anyways, much like mankind’s early beliefs that the world was flat and that we could fall off the side of it, the residents of Skyloft believe there is nothing below the clouds and as a result, take care not to venture down there. It’s an interesting take on a society based solely in the skies, and one that I enjoyed.

The game actually starts right before the Wing Ceremony, which is done to honor one’s transition into knighthood. To become a knight, one must be adept at using their giant bird, and a contest is held to see who is most fit for the job. Before this can take place, however, a group of Link’s classmates led by a large Elvis-looking man named Groose kidnap his bird and hide him away. While this opening sequence is effective at introducing the player to the controls and the characters, it moves very slow. While most Zelda games have some sort of introductory sequence that kicks things off, it takes Skyward Sword several hours before you even get a crack at your first dungeon much less being given an opportunity to swing your sword for the first time. As someone who was excited to take the new motion controls for a spin, this was slightly frustrating and even more so if you happen to not be a Zelda fan in the first place.

That said, I did appreciate the attempt at establishing more of a bond between the characters of Link and Zelda, as now they are more than just simply strangers being pulled by the strings of destiny. Zelda is a childhood friend, and not just some princess in a castle this time around. Heck, she’s not even a princess at all in this game, which was an interesting direction on the whole premise.

When you do finally have a chance to leave the island, as is par for the course, tragedy strikes and Zelda gets sucked up by a mysterious whirlwind and dropped into the clouds below. You later learn that there IS in fact a world below the clouds and that both you and Zelda are destined for greater things. You spend much of the early part of your quest in pursuit of Zelda as does the game’s antagonist whom you will clash swords with many times over.

And speaking of swords, the Goddess Sword that is given to you early in the adventure houses a spirit of sorts known as Fi who fills the role of the Navi/Midna archetype this time around. Unlike her predecessors (or would it technically be her successors?) she is very to the point and behaves much like an artificial lifeform giving you facts and probabilities in regards to your situation rather than annoying or berating you. On that same token, it comes at the cost of any real sort of personality for the character, though she will grow on you as the adventure continues.

And really, the adventure as a whole gets better as it goes. You meet a lot of characters whose incarnations exist in other entries of the franchise, not to mention new characters that eventually grow more likable as the story progresses (such as Groose who is really a big softie under the surface). You also learn much of Skyloft and how it came to be as it was, as well as other things that you otherwise wouldn’t expect to, such as a certain someone and a certain something. The final moments in particular pay off in spades and make the otherwise unacceptably slow start ultimately worth it in the end.

Story/Modes Rating: Incredible

The team behind the Zelda franchise seems very adamant about using the cel-shaded “Toon” Link that was first introduced in The Wind Waker. Since then, this design has been featured in The Minish Cap, Phantom Hourglass, Spirit Tracks, and the various Four Swords spinoffs. The fan reaction was initially very negative, which could explain why Twilight Princess took on such a darker tone. Skyward Sword on the other hand seeks to reach a compromise between the cartoony and the more realistic visual styles, looking something like a more colorful Ocarina of Time.

It’s really hard to be impressed by Wii graphics these days, with much of my time being occupied with the various HD consoles out there. That being said, when stacked up against other games on the system, Skyward Sword is a visual treat. While I did prefer the darker mood and visual style set by Twilight Princess, I’ll still make the concession that everything looks very well designed. Even in the skies where much of what you see is clouds dotted by tiny little islands, there is a neat blurring effect that occurs to objects in the distance that become more visible as you get closer to them. And the engine runs very well, which is always nice.

Nintendo has also gotten better with having their characters convey emotion through expressions, as they move around more realistically now and they can better show emotion though their facial animations. Often times during cutscenes, the camera will zoom in on someone’s face and you can see their eyes darting back and forth or lines crinkle up in a show of determination. There are also little details such as prior to entering a dungeon, Link will hesitate for a moment before taking a deep breath and entering inside. Things like this don’t go unnoticed, and I really appreciated the extra details.

Graphics Rating: Classic

If you ever wondered why Nintendo decided to offer a soundtrack with this game, it’s actually a very easy answer: the music is simply wonderful. Aside from just genuinely being pleasant to listen to, I do have something of a personal list of things I expect from video game music. It depends primarily on the type of game of course, but for a game of this genre, it goes something like this:

1) The music that plays while exploring towns and the world in general should be pleasant or otherwise not annoy the crap out of me.

2) The music should compliment cutscenes effectively, such as making me feel emotional if the scene calls for it or likewise horrified if something appalling occurs

3) Boss battle music should genuinely be epic and get me in the mood to knock some heads.

There are others, I’m sure, but these are the most important and Skyward Sword manages to do this in spades. More so at the end of the game than at the beginning, but the soundtrack throughout is very well done with its successful blend of songs both old and new. There’s even a song at the beginning that is sung partway by Zelda herself which was a real treat.

As is standard with all games in the franchise (not counting the horrible CD-i releases), there is no voice acting in the game save for the little sound bites that play when you talk to a character. To me, this is enough as I can read faster than what the characters would be able to say to me, and plus they’d never find anyone that could meet fan expectations for what those characters should sound like anyway. Not everyone will think that of course, but I like it just the way it is.

Sound Rating: Unparalleled

In one of the biggest changes to user input since the DS releases, Skyward Sword is almost entirely motion controlled. It makes use of the Wii Motion Plus, which is why bundles were being offered containing a controller that had this functionality built in. While you still move Link around with the joystick located on the nunchuk, his sword hand mimics whatever position you have the remote in at the time. So if you slash to the left, Link slashes to the left. If you swing down, he will swing down, and so forth. It’s a very drastic change and a very ballsy move on Nintendo’s part to require the motion control feature for its player base. Luckily for them, the technology generally works well and is unobtrusive to the experience. At least for the sword fighting.

Other actions are tied to motion controls as well in ways that are seemingly unnecessary. You spend a lot of time flying from place to place on your bird and this requires you to aim with your Wii remote. This part isn’t so bad so long as it’s just simple travel. There is a minigame that requires you to capture something before your competition does and although it doesn’t seem like you can technically lose in this segment, it’s not particularly all that fun and something of a nuisance. The same is true during another sequence that comes late in the game. An item that you get early on that is used to hit faraway switches and carry things around is also motion controlled and can be a bit of a hassle. That’s not the worst of it though.

Normal swimming is done through the use of the joystick much like your standard movement is. If you want to dive underwater and maneuver though, you have to hold down the A button and then move the Wii remote around like you would if you were on your bird. This really screwed with me a lot, trying to go from one method of movement to another like that. Especially when you are given the option to do a little underwater spin attack that can be used to propel you out of the water like Ecco the Dolphin. These actions could’ve been made so much easier by at least giving me the option to use standard controls, especially when the Wii Motion Plus has to be recalibrated as often as it does.

Maneuverability aside, the other buttons on the controller work as advertised. The A button is context sensitive, generally allowing you to interact with people and objects, though it can be used to dash now. Dashing uses up a new stamina meter, and will deplete as you run, leaving Link breathless if it runs out. It is also used up if you are climbing on objects or scaling a cliff or something, but it can be replenished by stamina fruits that you find on your way. Just be careful if it ever does run out as you will lose grip on whatever you are hanging onto and will plummet to the ground.

The B button will use whatever item you currently have selected and simply holding it down will bring up an item wheel that lets you point and select which item you want to have equipped. There’s also a second item wheel that appears if you hold down the – key that contains consumables such as potions, though it can also be used to equip your shield. The + button is reserved for bringing up your map and you can set landmarks for yourself with C. The C button is also used to “douse” for targets, as it puts you in a first person view and pointing your sword in the direction of whatever you are searching for causing the screen to beep at you the closer you are to it. Rounding the rest of the buttons out is Z for the classic “Z-Targeting” which will lock onto an enemy for you or center the camera and the 1 button that brings up your inventory. The 2 button just shows a help screen.

Shields went through a major change this time around. Shaking the nunchuk will not only bring up the shield for you to block, but if you do it at the right time, you can shield bash an opponent. This is a skill you have to master quickly if you don’t want your shield to be destroyed, as it employes a durability meter this time around. Yep, you heard me right. And it drains fast, especially on early shields. There’s an engineer in Skyloft that can repair shield damage for you or even upgrade your shield to withstand more damage. Doing so requires not only money, but materials that you find out in the wild which may require a bit of, for lack of a better term, farming on the part of the player in order to ensure not being shieldless during a critical moment.

Instead, you’ll be relying more on your swordsmanship, as certain enemies can only be attacked a certain way. Early foes will hold up their sword either horizontally or vertically which tips you off on which way to swing to penetrate their defenses. Later on, some of them will have electrified weapons, which will punish you for choosing wrong. Even later still, you will face enemies with so many arms, you can only damage them by swinging one specific way, and they will change up their defenses a lot. This is all in addition to using other items on them, such as bombs or projectiles. It’s a little bit more to think about than in past entries, though as long as you don’t sit slumped down like I did, the game is very good at recognizing your motions.

Beyond that, it’s very standard Zelda fare which is a good thing as a fan of the franchise. There are still lands to explore, dungeons to conquer, and bosses to face. At the end of the day, that’s all I really wanted and so long as the new additions don’t get in the way of that, I’m happy. Some of the new things shake up the formula a bit in both good and bad ways, but I still enjoyed the game immensely and the minor control issues I had didn’t stand in the way of that.

Control/Gameplay Rating: Good

When it was said that The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword would be a 50+ hour game, I laughed to myself a little. Because honestly, what game in the series has ever taken that long to finish? After having played through to the credits doing minimal sidequests, I clocked in at almost 40 hours. Considering the number of optional quests and items to collect, the amount of time you spend in Skyward Sword can easily surpass the 50 hour mark, which took me by surprise. There are fetch quests to do, minigames to play (such as a bamboo chopping game), and an assortment of things to find. Not to mention almost every item you obtain can be upgraded in some form or fashion, even the infamous bug net. When you’re finally done with the game, a Hero mode is unlocked which is very similar to the Master Quest in Ocarina of Time 3D where all of the enemies do twice the damage. The layouts are all the same as before, the game is just more difficult the second time around. In short, there’s a lot to do.

Now for the bad news. Some of the game seems unnecessarily padded out. In previous games, you could simply play a tune on the Ocarina and you can be warped to various parts of the world. In Skyward Sword, whenever you arrive in a land you’ve been to before, you can drop in next to any previously activated bird statues in that area. However, you can’t warp between them, nor can you warp to ones in other lands. You either have to fly to another land, or in the case of getting between bird statues in the same area, you have to leave the area and then immediately come back. I expected a bit more polish than this.

You’ll also find that you spend a great deal of time backtracking through areas you’ve already been. To be fair, every time you return to a region you’ve been to for something story related, new areas unlock that are generally large enough to become regions all their own. At the same time, you’ll sometimes be sent on fetch quests that involve running through dungeons you’ve already been to before or in one instance, being stripped away of all your gear only to obtain them again in a drawn out stealth mission. These segments could have been stripped away without affecting the enjoyment of the rest of the game, but luckily they don’t last long enough to ruin your good time.

Replayability Rating: Very Good

Despite some of the handholding that goes on at the beginning of the game, I thought Skyward Sword as a whole was a bit more challenging than some of its predecessors. Much of that could be contributed to my posture, as the game wasn’t reading my swings as well as it should, but I also couldn’t rely on the shield as much as I used to be able to for fear of its destruction. Items and potions are also used up on the fly now, rather than from your inventory menu, so you have to be wary that you’re not about to get socked before you have a chance to switch gear or refill your hearts. The amount of gear you can even carry is limited now too, as excess items have to be checked in at the bazaar in Skyloft when they are not being used.

Once you get used to these changes though, it’s still not an overall difficult game. Many of the bosses telegraph their attacks in advance of actually doing them, and the weak points for most of them are usually very obvious. Some of them hit like a truck when you mess up though, making the unlockable Hero Mode all the more challenging if you’re looking for something a bit more hardcore. The game is very consistent though, and I never once felt cheated or that things were way too easy for me.

Balance Rating: Great

While the new motion controls, in addition to the stamina meter and upgradeable gear, change up the traditional Zelda formula a bit, they don’t quite shake things up the same way that the original release of Ocarina of Time did. Not that any game really could at this point, short of introducing some form of full on virtual reality. Still, it keeps things fresh while keeping consistent the things that Zelda fans appreciate the most.

To put it simply, this game is to Wind Waker what Twilight Princess was to Ocarina of Time. Instead of a vast ocean to explore, you instead explore islands in the sky in order to find hidden treasure chests or even destructible islands that contain secret caches of goodies. The primary difference being you spend more time on the ground than you do in the sky whereas in Wind Waker you spent much of your time in your sailboat, sometimes to its detriment.

All that being said, this is still the most impressive use of the Motion Plus technology that I’ve personally experienced and is a fantastic title to showcase it. If the Wii version of Twilight Princess had originally utilized it, I’m betting a lot more people would’ve been impressed with that version of the game and the Wii system in general. Shame it took so long for a franchise I care about to pull this off.

Originality Rating: Above Average

Companies that design my favorite franchises are very fortunate that I’m a rather patient person when it comes to games with a slow start (Final Fantasy XIII comes to mind). Were it an untested IP or a game I didn’t have any expectations of, I probably would not put up with the kinds of things that I do with these games. Skyward Sword probably takes the longest of any of the games in the franchise to get going, which is risky business when you’re simultaneously trying to appease your shrinking installed base as well as attract new fans. Once you get passed the sluggish opening though, you’re in for a treat.

Everything about the game gets better the further in you get: the level design, the story, the boss battles, etc. There are even more boss battles than there are dungeons to traverse, which are often times the most exciting confrontations in these games for me. I’m impressed at how they are still able to come up with new puzzles with equally exciting boss confrontations after making these games for 25 years now. If you’re a fan of the franchise the magic is still there, and I personally couldn’t stop until the credits rolled.

Addictiveness Rating: Classic

Appeal Factor
The Legend of Zelda has a huge fanbase that will definitely want to check this game out. For everyone else, it’s a bit of a toss up. On one hand, you have an enjoyable action/adventure title that takes full advantage of the Wii’s technology and still manages to garner the attention of the mainstream despite existing on a platform that even Nintendo themselves is withdrawing support from (though they did recently announce Xenoblade for North America, how crazy is that?) On the other, many people I’ve discussed the game with immediately lose interest when the topic of mandatory motion controls comes into play. And I can see their point. No one should be forced to use motion controls, it should be an option that’s there to enhance the experience if you want it to. Much like the 3D on the 3DS, you should be able to turn it off if you don’t want it. It’s a great technology and all, but you alienate a potential market by doing this. A market that will likely buy Skyrim instead if they own the hardware in which to do so.

Although, as of this writing, Skyward Sword has become the fastest selling game in the franchise, so clearly Nintendo must have some idea of what they’re doing.

Appeal Rating: Classic

Since I ponied up the extra cash to get ahold of the controller bundle, let’s talk about that a bit, shall we? The outer box is pretty spiffy looking with a shiny reflective variation on the gold color covering much of the surface area. Inside, you get the Wii Motion Plus controller with its own jacket included, which is also a gold color, but more of a matte finish. It has the Triforce design on the top of it, which looks great and it’s nice to have another controller that has the Motion Plus technology built in rather than having the large peripheral hanging out the bottom of it. Unfortunately, the soundtrack doesn’t come in its own jewel case this time around, though it too has a shiny gold label on it, which looks nice. On the plus side, it’s located inside the same case as the game, so you are less likely to lose it at least. A hardcover book or something to go on the inside would’ve been a nice bonus, but considering the price, it wasn’t a bad deal at all.

One thing I feel obligated to make mention of, even though I never encountered it myself, is the news of the game breaking bug that can be encountered when playing Skyward Sword. Towards the end of the game, you will embark on a quest to revisit all three major regions of the land over again. If you do the one in the desert first, and then talk to a specific NPC multiple times, you can lock yourself out from being able to do the other two parts of the quest, thus screwing your game. It can be avoided by either not talking to that NPC more than what is required, or by visiting that area last (which is what I did). Still, it’s a shame something like this snuck past Q&A, especially since it doesn’t surface until the game is almost finished.

Look, I work in the software business, so I understand that despite the most rigorous testing, some bugs are going to sneak through. I get it. However, aside from telling people how to avoid it, Nintendo isn’t implementing any sort of fix for it. No patch. No recall. No nothing. The same thing happened when Metroid: Other M came out. The bug wasn’t discovered until after my review of that game went live, but you could essentially screw yourself out of finishing that game too and being forced to start over. There should be no reason why these problems can’t get fixed.

Miscellaneous Rating: Above Average

The Scores
Story/Modes: Incredible
Graphics: Classic
Sounds: Unparalleled
Controls/Gameplay: Good
Replayability: Very Good
Balance: Great
Originality: Above Average
Addictiveness: Classic
Appeal Factor: Classic
Miscellaneous: Above Average

Final Score: Great Game!

Short Attention Span Summary
After a whopping five year wait, the next console based Legend of Zelda is here. And the short of it is that Skyward Sword was everything I expected it to be or wanted it to be. There are a few nagging issues to be sure: the slow start, some actions mapped to motion controls that don’t need to be, and a little more backtracking than what’s necessary. But judging the experience as a whole, it was a grand adventure from beginning to end and given the choice, I would play it all again if I had to. I think Zelda fans will be delighted so long as you are not totally against the motion controlled based setup and the padded length. The visuals stand out compared to other things offered on the system and Skyward Sword has one of the best soundtracks in the franchise thus far. The level design is still strong after all these years, and the boss battles are as exciting as ever. I was also a huge fan of how they tied in the game’s story with the timeline shared by the other games. It’s not even close to my favorite in the franchise, but as long as I had fun with it and can see myself enjoying it in subsequent playthroughs, is that really such a bad thing?


4 responses to “Review: The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (Nintendo Wii)”

  1. Mohamed Al Saadoon Avatar

    I disagree with the line that motion controls should be optional. If a game is built from the ground up to use motion controls. It should never be able to be switched out. It’s like playing Dance Dance Revolution with a D-pad….I mean you can do that but why bother?

    1. Sean Madson Avatar

      Yes, but Dance Dance Revolution as a franchise has always been a dance game that used a peripheral. This is the first Zelda game that uses motion controls and it’s a game that could have functioned without it (much like how Twilight Princess’s Gamecube incarnation didn’t use motion controls). It would have taken some reworking, yes, but at least you are not alienating a potential audience. At the very least, certain things like swimming could have done without them.

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