While all eyes will soon be shifted to the Wii U, the Wii’s successor, Nintendo still expects there are “millions” of this generation’s console to be sold. If any game from the Japanese publisher/developer can move units off store shelves during the holiday season, it’s The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. Not since the launch of the Wii in 2006 has there been a proper console Zelda release, and with more than 89 million Wiis out in the wild now, the installed base–and therefore revenue potential–is far higher than with the previous entry. Record sales are almost ensured, but sadly, it’s a wasted opportunity.
The more things change…
I originally started this review with a fairly lengthy recap of Nintendo’s many past digressions culminating with The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, which wasn’t just a bad game, but also an inexcusably horrid business decision that severely burnt loyal Nintendo fans, even the ones who were too ignorant to realize it. But I deleted all that, because this interview with Nintendo of America President and COO Reggie Fils-Aime speaks for itself. In it, Fils-Aime claims that he believes there hasn’t been a game of the same caliber and score of Skyward Sword, based on what he counts are eight perfect ratings on Metacritic.
“I don’t know if there’s going to be a video game in history that’s going to be able to compare to Skyward Sword,” he said.
Meanwhile, Bethesda Softworks announced earlier in the week that rival action-RPG The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim has been awarded over 50 perfect reviews globally. It’s this kind of blind arrogance that proves Nintendo executives operate within a bubble, while the fact that Skyward Sword suffers from many of the same shortcomings that befell Twilight Princess suggests that shortsightedness extends to their development teams as well.
The story begins promisingly enough. In Skyward Sword, the princess Zelda is not the usual damsel in distress, but a main character on equal ground with the hero Link himself. Perhaps beyond Link even, as she’s definitely the more fleshed-out of the two. They live on a floating island called Skyloft, high above the clouds where most of the residents believe that there’s nothing else in the world besides them, and certainly nothing below. I can’t imagine what a lonely, existentialist nightmare that must be, given that Skyloft is about the size of a single city block in Los Angeles, but after meeting all of the NPCs I doubt any of them are intelligent enough to ponder such a thing. Residents of Skyloft also have a giant winged bird, known as a loftwing, that is bonded directly with them and no one else. This is the one major addition that shakes up the aging Zelda formula and made me wonder if I was in a for a truly unique experience. Just watching Zelda and Link dive off the cliffs of Skyloft and whistle for their loftwings as they freefall is so very un-Zelda-like. It’s both absurd and exhilarating at the same time, giving me a brief moment of uninterrupted excitement. (see our review on Need for Speed: The Run).
The more they stay the same
Then it starts. Almost immediately the cracks start to show, as controlling your loftwing is, of course, handled solely by way of the Wiimote’s motion controls. And they still don’t feel right. But more on that later, as the loftwing actually makes up very little of the game play in Skyward Sword. Soon Link will find himself on the surface far below Skyloft, which is essentially the land of Hyrule. Skyward Sword is a prequel to all other Zelda titles in the timeline, so don’t expect Lon Lon Ranch or anything of that sort. What you can expect is all the familiar tropes the franchise has been recycling for decades now. The forest, desert, and volcano regions make up the surface, and each one has a temple that Link will enter after first completing one of many increasingly predictable fetch quests.
You may have heard that Skyward Sword is the most lengthy Zelda game yet, easily spanning 30+ hours and considerably more if you want to do and see everything. That would be great, except that only about 15 hours of that is original content. In what is easily the game’s largest offense, after completing all three temples, you’ll then be sent back to the same exact areas for more fetch quests. Take a moment and really think about that. Nintendo, one of the premier game makers in the history of video games, is using the same unacceptable approach to artificially and lazily extending Skyward Sword that you would find in a crappy movie-game adaptation. As a natural reaction, I audibly blurted out “Are you f***ing kidding me?!” several times during my time with this title.
The dungeons aren’t even that big or impressive once you do get to them. Having just played Skyrim and Assassin’s Creed: Revelations, the entirety of Skyward Sword’s on-foot areas feels like it could fit into a corner of the map in either game. Link is thankfully more agile than his successors (remember, this is a prequel), able to sprint medium distances and even run up relatively low walls. This makes for a slightly more interesting layout that in previous games, but to be fair, the Prince of Persia and Lara Croft have been doing this kind of thing for decades now. What is considered innovation in a Nintendo game is archaic by any other standard.
Enemies have been designed around the motion controls this time (rather than the tacked-on control scheme seen in Twilight Princess). For example, man-eating plants may have a vertical or horizontal mouth, and you’ll need to slice accordingly with the Wii remote to defeat them. Humanoid enemies come equipped with weapons that they’ll block with, requiring you to circumvent their defenses in order to strike from a vulnerable direction. Unfortunately, even after all this time, the controls just don’t work consistently. I can’t count the number of times I slashed from the right in real life only to have Link stab forward, or some other maddening misread of the Wii MotionPlus control. Most of the time you can just flail about wildly until you eventually get lucky and hit an enemy, stunning them and allowing you to unleash a flurry of sword attacks, but you’ll eventually encounter certain enemies that will penalize you for the Wii’s flawed technology. Soldiers that wield electrified weapons will shock you for a chunk of health with each swing, and I’ve never cared enough about a Wii game to throw my controller until Skyward Sword.
Trying to roll bombs or aim projectiles is just as shoddy, while control over the camera is also very limited, preventing you from being able to easily and quickly look around, whether it’s for your next destination or a giant boss that’s standing right on top of you. This is a problem that Nintendo essentially invented with the old Super Mario 64, and many others have evolved and nearly perfected it since then, yet it remains to be a considerable flaw on any core game for the Wii. It’s very likely that Skyward Sword will be the Wii’s final major title from Nintendo (or at least the last one that anyone cares about), and for the controls to still be a notable point of frustration and inaccuracy proves once and for all that the console is only good for glorified tech demos and party games aimed at the most casual of non-gaming gamers.
Plenty of WTF moments, but not the good kind
When the technology isn’t bringing down the experience, the jaw-droppingly bad design decisions are. The Zelda series has always been known for its epic boss battles, and yet the first dungeon’s boss in Skyward Sword is essentially a Wiimote tutorial masquerading as a sparring match with the game’s homoerotic, androgynous main baddy. And I don’t mean homoerotic in a cutesy Tingle sort of way, I mean during one cinematic the primary villain of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword embraces Link from behind, whispers closely into his ear, and then turns directly to the camera and oscillates his tongue suggestively. And it doesn’t stop there. The game is filled to the brim with one-note supporting characters, all ripped straight out of the worst episode of Pokemon imaginable. More than ever, the developers have infused an overpowering Japanese sense of humor that may amuse small children, but it absolutely devastates the game for anyone looking for the deep, meaningful experience the company falsely advertised on very rare occasions. And just like the dungeons themselves, a couple of the already-disappointing boss battles are recycled several times. I’m also pretty sure one of the bosses was modeled after Mike, the talking eyeball from Monsters, Inc.
The silver lining
Visually, Skyward Sword is a success. Taking a somewhat impressionist approach, the aesthetics tend to look like a blend of watercolor paintings and mosaics. This grants the game a colorful and vibrant feel, but it’s also very deliberately used to cover for the system’s underwhelming processing power. At one point someone walked by and said, “My God this game looks terrible!” They had just finished Uncharted 3, so their standards are much higher than the average Wii owner’s will be, and while I still yearn for a magnificent Hyrule in all its HD glory, I disagree that Skyward Sword looks bad. It has a few rough patches, particularly with draw distances, but overall it’s a joy to behold.
Though my favorite part of Skyward Sword is hands-down Fi, the spirit of the sword Link brandishes. Appearing in the form of a robotic girl, Fi is infinitely less annoying than Navi and Midna combined, and she can actually be of use in giving hints or analyzing enemies (somewhat similar to Metroid Prime). Since Link is a voiceless robot himself (not literally), it’s entirely up to characters like Fi, Zelda, and the game’s villains to carry the weight of the dialogue and story. It’s unfortunate that Fi doesn’t track all of your quests, however. The game features a sizable dose of optional sidequests, and once you activate them there’s no way of tracking them, another amateurish oversight on Nintendo’s part. But it makes little difference since the sidequests are boring filler. Why would anyone stop to rescue a cat from a ledge or deliver pumpkin juice when all existence on the planet is being threatened by a demonic force?
Sidequests aren’t the only half-baked attempts to further pad the game; you can now upgrade Link’s equipment or even his potions by finding crafting ingredients. These range from bugs to ores and various other objects, but the entire system is too poorly implemented. You’ll only encounter a limited number of these items during your travels, and I found they tended to be more trouble than it was worth. If I didn’t have the parts I needed to upgrade an item when I visited Skyloft, I’d skip over doing it altogether. And never once did I think to myself, “Damn, I should have upgraded….” So it’s not just a lacking concept that’s been done far better elsewhere, but also a pointless one that doesn’t add anything meaningful to this game.
The more I played Skyward Sword the less I liked it. Like many Nintendo games or even consoles, there are some core features and gimmicks that can be entertaining under very specific circumstances, yet they’re utterly bogged down by obsolete conventions, repetitious filler, and undeniable proof that the Wiimote flat-out doesn’t work as a viable replacement for a standard controller. I did enjoy parts of it here and there, and if you only own a Wii then it’s not like you have many other quality options available to you, but as Nintendo refocuses on next year’s Wii U, this game acts as a somewhat disappointing sendoff to the console that, for better and for worse, changed the gaming industry forever. Even when the many flaws or ineffective controls aren’t getting in the way, it’s all just so familiar. Skyward Sword imitates not only other, better role-playing games and past Mario/Zelda titles, but it also copies and pastes massive chunks of content from within itself as well. I know that fans and Wii loyalists will rabidly delight in this game, but until Nintendo learns some new tricks or, at the very least, can keep up with other modern day developers, I think I’ve finally, reluctantly, outgrown the Zelda series. 65 out of 100