Totally Not a Review: The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

Part of me considered starting this review with an hour-long tutorial about how to read reviews, but I thought better of it.

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is a game where four of the six words in the title do not actually matter for the purposes of a buyer’s guide. You already know what a Legend of Zelda game is going to entail, for the most part. I have never been a fan of the kind of review that says "If you’re a fan of _____, you’ll enjoy _______." But Zelda is the exception that proves the rule. Those of you who like Zelda know what you are getting in to, those that do not like Zelda also know what they’re avoiding.

But that is just the beginning of the story.

And that is what Zelda has always been, a collection of stories. It’s the story of Link rescuing Zelda. It’s the story of banishing evil. It’s the story of a series with the weight of the world on its shoulders. It’s the story of cynicism and optimism that give way to more cynicism and more optimism. It’s the story of developers that were afraid to release a game less than thirty hours and, in doing so, hurt it. It is the story of possibilities, coming so close to being a masterpiece but being held back because Nintendo develops their video games in a bubble.

There is a strong undercurrent of derivation to discussion of Zelda games. A not-insignificant amount of people believe the games to mostly be the same, continually offering the same rehashed scenarios, pacing, and puzzles under slightly different skins. For as much as I love the series, there are times when this is uncomfortably true. Twilight Princess made a point to tell you exactly how much it was Ocarina of Time in the first half of the game, partly as a way to attempt to provide change in the second half. And it was that sort of flagrant trading on its past that essentially forced a breaking point for the series. It was a line in the sand for many fans: "Change or we’re out." This is the first task where Skyward Sword had the burden of being the series savior hoisted upon its shoulders.

Where Skyward Sword takes on the other charge is being the last word on motion controls. The pre-release hype, as hype often does, promised that it would be the game that delivered on the potential of motion controls. Perhaps in a sense this was a fated encumbrance for the game, as Twilight Princess kicked off the motion control paradigm on consoles and, outside excellent aiming, failed to make good on its promise of innovative new gameplay using the controls. Or, well, even non-annoying gameplay in some mechanics, most notably using the sword. Skyward Sword was supposed to convince people that it could not only work, but it could add something to the game.

There comes a point where all these expectations put on a title serve little else except to wind up fans like a catapult. The tension eventually becomes too much and destruction inevitably happens. Forums lit up with claims like "The best Zelda ever" months before release, idolatrous praise that could not possibly be verified until the game released, but was still taken as gospel to willing believers. Now that the game is finished, out, and appraised by every source under the sun...it is still surprisingly difficult to reach any sort of consensus.

Where the game succeeds, it does so magnificently. It is not hyperbole to say that Skyward Sword hits some game design highs that few games have ever seen from a distance. Some parts overflow with creativity, allowing you to take in the magnitude of what you’re seeing around you or force you to think laterally before progressing. These parts will make you remember the moment when you were a kid and Zelda finally clicked for you. Maybe Skyward Sword’s equivalents will not overcome your nostalgia-fueled memories, but they evoke them in ways that feel complementary and not insulting. You can rest assured that people who are looking to build new Zelda memories that are not related to it being dangerous outside will find them in Skyward Sword.

The old Zelda fan will still find plenty to like, however. As Skyward Sword marks the 25th anniversary of the series, small references from games like Zelda 1 to Twilight Princess are sprinkled here and there. Timeline theorists and timeline whackjobs alike can easily find enough to satiate themselves on winks and secret signs scattered throughout the game. Things are still kept thematically consistent, however, despite veering dangerously close to driving through the game’s fourth wall. Skyward Sword reminded me of the time I stayed up late one night to save the Deku Tree and that is some of the highest praise I can offer a Zelda game.

It is unfortunate that all aspects of the game do not merit such soaring praise. Every three dungeons, the game forces the player to retread old ground with new goals in mind. The goals range from fun to boring and wrap a noticeable noose around the game’s pacing. Depending on your tolerance of such things, they may not be enough to pull out the platform on the game, but they inarguably needed to be trimmed. Sometimes you will revisit an area to find that everything is entirely different, but the objective is still no fun. Other times, you may be somewhere identical to the way it was before, but the mechanics of what you are doing are fresh and interesting. The lack of internal quality consistency in these backtracking segments may be just as infuriating as the backtracking itself.

Skyward Sword makes some other questionable choices that may supremely annoy some players. One boss fight in the second half of the game is spread out over literal hours. You keep returning to discover the enemy is back and this time has a new form. While I get the logic, and the mechanics sometimes introduce cool new ways to fight him, the repetition eventually sets in and takes what should have been a nifty set piece boss fight in to something you will wish was cut. Add in a situation where you literally repeat the first dungeon (though admittedly shorter since all but one door is unlocked) and it is difficult not to come to the conclusion that Nintendo was afraid of releasing a Zelda game shorter than a few dozen hours.

Regarding the controls, perhaps the single most important aspect of this game when viewed through the lens of history, they both work and they don’t. What this means is, the controls do add something. If this game were forced to use a dual-analog controller for the same combat and the same puzzles, and even giving the benefit of the doubt that such a thing were possible, it would feel like a lesser game because of it. This title shows where motion controls can add to genres that exist and if they can improve on a franchise as old and storied as Zelda, developers can figure out how to add them in other games in interesting ways, as well. Controlling the items feels good, knowing that you have full 3D space to play around in is good, the controls are good.

Where they do not work, however, is in person-to-person consistency. They have a steep learning curve and the game pretty much assumes you have a mastery of sword controls by the first boss. Many people will have written the game off as broken if it does not click with them by then. The game will sometimes confuse positioning the sword as a slash, but positioning the sword rarely needs to be done at all, a fundamental gameplay aspect that is simply never explained to the player. Simple flicks in the eight circle-directions work just as well. And while the Wii Motion+ does allow the Wii to track the controller in complete 3D space, issues with a room’s lighting or problems with the device itself can cause inconsistencies. There is likely no greater frustration than trying to perform an action and not getting the desired result, which I mostly happened to avoid. There are also cases where the player will think they have performed a certain slash, but the game produces a different one, which is more often than not a case of the game being right and the player being wrong, but it can still cause plenty of frustration when you are rebuked by the boss despite being mentally correct about your attack.

The middle ground of all this is places where the controls work well, but the decision to use motion controls is still questionable. Underwater swimming is controlled by Link essentially being an avatar for the Wii remote, moving in 3D space as he does on screen. Cognitive dissonance soon sets in when you must use the analog stick when your head is above water or to turn around and talk to friendly aquatic creatures. The controls for Link’s feather vehicle, the Crimson Loftwing, involve rising and diving through the sky similar to Super Mario 64’s Wing Cap. The issue is that ascending requires a hard slam down with the Wii remote, likely intending to be a flap, which overall seemed unnecessary to be done that way. While flying the Loftwing was certainly not a bad experience, I could almost feel the fact that the controls were designed around E3 demos and Gamestop kiosks, a concession that Nintendo is usually better than falling to.

Skyward Sword is a title of dualities, rising to heaven and falling to hell, more akin to Majora’s Mask in its divisiveness than Ocarina of Time. Some parts of the game test your mettle with difficult combat, while others hold your hand when you absolutely wish they would not. It is a game that manages to sometimes fix what’s wrong with series and many times put those things front and center, as if proud of them. If your concern is that Zelda has not changed, this game will either reinforce your ideas or do more to dismiss them than any game in the series since A Link to the Past.

Zelda itself is a strange series in that way. Born as a hybrid of action RPGs, giving birth to adventure games, carrying kids in to a fully-explorable 3D world and over oceans, individual people have different things they prize about the series. Some prefer exploration, while others want a grand Lord of the Rings-esque world to view from the top of Death Mountain. Some firmly believe Zelda should be more of an action game, others do not care what the overworld is like as long as the dungeons are quality. Some want all of the above, because it’s Zelda, damnit. If any series of games should be master of all, it should be this.

Skyward Sword is a message to the Zelda fanbase: You will never get that Zelda game. For someone reading this review, Skyward Sword likely takes away something they love about the series. For someone else, it probably adds or expounds upon something they love. Those wishing for exploration may be repulsed by Skyward Sword’s almost steadfast focus on linearity, a change that resembles Call of Duty’s switch to corridor shooting with Modern Warfare more than it reminds you of Final Fantasy XIII. Others, such as myself, will find the that the increased focus on puzzle solving and essentially expanding the dungeon areas to include most everything below the clouds to be a positive change of pace.

Despite the flaws in the game, I left the title feeling like it was my favorite 3D Zelda. I make no claims that this will be a universal opinion, as reviews fall to both sides for more reasons than simply agreeing or disagreeing about the controls. There are moments of genuine, intended laughter and periods of out and out frustration. Mechanics that I ended up truly enjoying will likely be hated by some, such as the tense and frightening Silent Realm, a repeated section that places players entirely defenseless while they collect certain items. But it doesn’t matter. Zelda games are Zelda games. Even when they change, you probably have a good idea ahead of time if you will be able to ignore the crashing lows for the dizzying highs. You probably know by now if you would never be able to stand it. Those who are willing to take the leap, however, may find that there is an experience buried beneath the clouds that they will have a hard time forgetting.