The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
Release Date: November 20, 2011
The Legend of Zelda has been one of the leaders in innovation over the last 25 years. Zelda was the definitive console experience on NES: the game that couldn't be played on an arcade machine. Ocarina of Time revolutionized the way developers created games in a 3D space, and Twilight Princess increased the world's scope beyond what any Zelda game previously did. While Nintendo took many chances with the Metroid series – both good and bad – and released new Mario title after new Mario title, The Legend of Zelda has been the publisher's flagship series, the franchise that is the true representation of what the company is capable of. After a five year wait, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is finally upon us, and to the delight of hardcore fans and Zelda detractors, Skyward Sword offers an experience unlike any game before it.
Skyward Sword's plot is full of Zelda clichés that have been used since A Link to the Past. A "theme of threes" is present in Skyward Sword, just like many Zelda games before it, and has Link setting off to obtain three items, then another three, and finally three more with plenty of twists and turns along the way. What sets Skyward Sword apart from previous Zelda titles is the way the narrative unfolds, and the emotions the game provokes in the player.
Nintendo tried to do this in Twilight Princess, and it worked to some extent: players built a relationship with Ilia, Colin, and Midna as the game progressed, and it was truly saddening to see that Ilia had lost her memory. Skyward Sword isn't anywhere near as dark as Twilight Princess was, but it does do a much better job at character development than previous Zelda games. The most obvious example is the dynamic between Link and Zelda – it's deeper than the series is used to, and it borders on the romantic at times. There are several moments of non-verbal communication between Link and Zelda that evoke plenty of emotion, especially early on in the game and at one point towards the latter two-thirds.
Even Link's schoolyard rival, Groose, changes as the narrative in Skyward Sword carries on. Groose begins as a blubbering buffoon trying to best Link and take Zelda for himself. At one point I was convinced that Groose was the ancestor to Ganondorf and the Gerudo tribe – Skyward Sword takes place several hundreds of years before Ocarina of Time, and is the origin story of the Master Sword – and Groose's tan skin and orange hair only fortified my theory. However, Groose eventually turns into a noble character and helps Link in his quest in a large way, dashing my Gerudo theory.
Skyward Sword's world is alive and thriving in a way that few Zelda games have been able to replicate. Twilight Princess featured a large, bustling Castle Town, but few of the NPCs were actual characters with their own personalities and mannerisms. Similar to the Light/Dark Worlds in A Link to the Past, Skyward Sword is broken up into two separate overworlds: the Sky and the Surface. The Sky is home to Skyloft and several floating islands around it, and is sure to draw comparisons with the Great Sea in The Wind Waker. The difference here is that the Sky is far smaller than the Great Sea, and the bird Link flies on – known as the Crimson Loftwing – travels much faster than the King of Red Lions. As Skyward Sword is the very first game on the much debated Zelda timeline, it takes place during an era where the inhabitants of Skyloft – the ancestors to the Hylians – have no idea that a world, eventually to become Hyrule, exists below them.
Skyloft itself resembles Clock Town from Majora's Mask more than any other town in the Zelda series. There are plenty of NPCs that go about their business, along with a bunch of side-quests for Link to take care of when he isn't trying to save the known world from an evil demon king. Side-quests in Skyward Sword are numerous and the best of any Zelda game, but none of them are as deep as the Anju and Kafei side-quest seen in Majora's Mask. The only one comparable is a large side-quest for a demon that wishes to become a human: players must help out the various citizens of Skyloft with their quests in order to obtain Gratitude Crystals that will transform the demon into a human once enough are collected.
Along with numerous side-quests, Skyloft is also home to Beedle's Shop (an airship this time around) and the Bazaar, a shopping center home to many different retailers. The Bazaar alone captures the unique charm found in Skyward Sword; each of the shopkeepers have their own theme that weaves into the main Bazaar's tune as Link approaches them, and each shopkeeper has their own distinct personality. The owner of the general goods shop – ammunition, shields, that sort of stuff – will go out of his way to make Link feel welcome, but if players don't buy anything, he struggles to hide his frustration and even dips his head in sorrow as Link walks away. The same is true for Beedle's airship shop: if Link doesn't buy anything, Beedle will get frustrated and activate a trap door below Link, dropping him from his ship. Unlike previous Zelda games, especially Twilight Princess, there's plenty to spend with rupees and players will find themselves coming back to the Bazaar over and over.
The most useful feature of the Bazaar is the item upgrade shop. As Link ventures to the world below, he'll come across a variety of materials: various types of bugs, ancient relics, flowers, and more. These materials can be collected and brought back to the upgrade shop, where the owner will upgrade items in Link's inventory. It works in the same way upgrades work in Monster Hunter games, and provides a deep and engrossing experience. What makes it amazing is the fact that while there are only three different types of shields in the game, each one can be upgraded multiple times to increase its defense – shields in Skyward Sword have a health meter, and will break after enough wear and tear.
Luckily, Link is able to bring several shields with him when he ventures to the Surface world. This is made possible with another new gameplay mechanic in Skyward Sword: the Adventure Pouch. By holding the minus button and cycling through a radial menu, players can select from a variety of items, including different shields, potions, and medals (items that have a multitude of automatic effects on Link, such as finding more hearts or more rupees). Link begins with only four spaces in his Adventure Pouch, forcing players to think about what type of items they want to bring with them. Link's Navi-esque companion, Fi, will let players know how effective their current Adventure Pouch is if they choose to consult her. Adventure Pouch upgrades can be found throughout the Sky or by purchasing them at Beedle's Shop, giving players yet another way to spend their hard-earned rupees. Selecting items in Skyward Sword, whether it's from the Adventure Pouch or weapons, takes place in real time, meaning that enemies will still be able to attack Link even as he drinks a potion to restore health.
The Surface is vastly different from any Hyrule or Termina in previous Zelda titles. It's broken into three different sections: Faron Woods, Eldin Volcano, and Lanayru Desert. Nintendo's goal with Skyward Sword was to create an overworld that wasn't as empty as the one seen in Twilight Princess, and they have achieved this goal brilliantly. Each section is very compact and feels almost like its own dungeon – the only difference is that it takes place outside, is much more wide open than a dungeon, and makes use of environmental puzzles. No more can Link run straight to the next dungeon: he's faced with plenty of obstacles and challenges along the way.
After the first three dungeons of the game, Link returns to these same areas, only now he's able to venture further into them with equipment that he didn't have the first time around. It's almost like a Metroid style of backtracking, only players won't be spending as much time in the areas they've already visited. Each overworld offers a different challenge than the last, and each one introduces a new gameplay mechanic that constantly keeps things fresh. Since these overworld sections are more like their own dungeons, Nintendo decided to give players a very detailed map in Skyward Sword. This map shows specific environmental obstacles on it, and allows players to place blue waypoints to mark destinations and places of interest.
To keep the sense of exploration alive, Nintendo littered the Surface world with Goddess Cubes, blue blocks that shoot into the Sky when activated. Each Goddess Cube is aligned with a locked treasure chest hidden somewhere in the Sky that Link can open once the corresponding Cube is activated, and the rewards found inside are well worth the challenge of activating the Cubes and finding them in the Sky.
Another way Nintendo has kept the Surface world fresh is by incorporating the Silent Realm into each of the three sections after a specific point in the game. The Silent Realm is a version of a small portion of the Faron Woods, Eldin Volcano, and Lanayru Desert that is home to ferocious enemies that kill Link in one hit. The object of the Silent Realm is to collect 15 tears of light without being hit once, but there's a catch: Link is unable to use any of his items, and the enemies in the Silent Realm will be automatically alerted to Link's presence after a 90 second timer goes off. The only way to refill that timer is by collecting more tears of light.
It sounds like a drag, but the use of stealth and warping of the environment makes it tons of fun. I was only caught once in the four total Silent Realm trials, and each one was full of intense, frantic, and genuinely fun moments. It also helps that there are orbs that will shine a beacon above each of the tears for 30 seconds, and not only can players re-do the Silent Realm as many times as they want if they fail, but tears that they found in previous run-throughs will show up on the map permanently.
Much like the Surface world portions of Skyward Sword, dungeons are more compact than in previous Zelda games, particularly Twilight Princess. Each room usually has its own puzzle to solve, making dungeons just as long as they were in Twilight Princess even though they're less than half the size. Skyward Sword's first two dungeons aren't anything special, but the game really picks up with the third dungeon and on. The two Lanayru Desert dungeons are my favorite out of any Zelda game, and feature a puzzle mechanic that can easily be its own game: Timeshift Stones and Orbs. These stones – and later in the game, orbs – return portions of the desert and its dungeons to a time before it was a desert; it's essentially a time travel mechanic. It's absolutely genius, too, because in both dungeons players have to solve puzzles in rooms that allow them to activate the Timeshift, and then solve a completely different puzzle in "the past" in order to continue further into the dungeon. Much later in the game Link is able to carry a large TimeShift Orb, which returns a circular area around him to its pre-desert and mechanical past as he walks around, adding another layer to an already amazing puzzle mechanic.
Bosses in Skyward Sword are much like the dungeons in that the first two set the stage and allow players to get accustomed to the game's unique play style, before they throw large and more powerful bosses at Link. Skyward Sword is home to some of the most intense boss battles in the series; the fourth dungeon features a boss that has eight sword-wielding arms, while a boss later in the game is fought on a sinking ship with a lightning storm in the background. The final boss of the game was particularly impressive, and I even died a few times before I was finally able to defeat him.
The various weapons Link acquires in the game are used to defeat their respective bosses, akin to Zelda tradition. Skyward Sword only features eight different weapons; a choice the developers made to prevent certain items – such as the Spinner from Twilight Princess – from being obsolete after its dungeon is complete. As such, puzzles in later field sections and dungeons make use of weapons obtained much earlier in the game. Each weapon utilizes Wii Motion Plus in its own unique way, and none of them use the IR sensor for aiming – not even the Bow or Slingshot. All of them – sans the Bug Net – work amazingly well.
Interviews that took place with Producers Eiji Aonuma and Shigeru Miyamoto long before Skyward Sword was first revealed yielded some interesting details, specifically about combat: every enemy was to be its own unique puzzle. After re-working it several times during development, this concept works beautifully in Skyward Sword: using Wii Motion Plus, players have 1:1 control over Link's sword and the slashes he makes. This is completely different from Twilight Princess on Wii, where all players had to do was waggle the controller and Link would perform some pre-made sword slashing animation. Some enemies early in the game can be taken down by waggling, but as the game progresses, enemies require great precision to defeat.
Bokobins, for example, will rotate their sword in a variety of patterns before finally attacking Link. While they move their sword around in defense, players have to attack them in their ever-changing weak spot; this may be below them, to the left, or to the right. Bokobins adapt as the game goes along, and they'll equip themselves with electric-swords that shock and damage Link if his sword touches theirs. This is true of every enemy in Skyward Sword: while not all of them use the same weapons as later Bokobins do, each enemy has at least one more powerful version.
Giant Bokobins with shields and spears will eventually appear, and are a great example of the type of combat present in Skyward Sword that just isn't possible with normal button presses. In order to harm the enemy, Link must first dispatch of its shield: a simple task that takes no more than cutting it apart in any direction players want. More powerful versions of this enemy appear later in the game, only they use a metal shield instead of a flimsy wooden one. Link is no longer able to cut apart their shield, so he must make use of another new gameplay element in Skyward Sword: stamina. This allows Link to sprint for a certain period of time, and can even let him run up the sides of walls and grab onto ledges. In this case, Link is able to sprint up and over the enemy's shield, taking him to the enemy's exposed backside.
The impressionist art style in Skyward Sword is a perfect blend between The Wind Waker and Twilight Princess. Not only does it fit the Zelda series amazingly well, but the art style in Skyward Sword allows Nintendo to hide many of the Wii's shortcomings in terms of processing power. Instead of using a fog effect for draw distances, Nintendo instead did what any painter of the impressionist era would do: smudge the background. Everything off to the distance – whether it's the Sky or the Surface – looks like a beautiful painting.
Surprisingly, Skyward Sword is the first Zelda game to make use of an orchestrated soundtrack. Not every song in the game is orchestrated – some of the item get tunes are ripped from Twilight Princess – but the ones that do sound fantastic. The orchestral score was handled by Mahito Yokota, the mind behind the Super Mario Galaxy 1 and 2 soundtracks. Musical instruments make a small return in Skyward Sword with the addition of the Goddess Harp, an item that is controlled by strumming the controller back in forth to the same speed as a trail of light.
Before the final dungeon of the game – and at any time afterwards – players are able to take part in Boss Rush mode, where they must take on each boss in the game one after the other without the use of their Adventure Pouch. The end reward is well worth it, and it is fun to see how much you've gotten better as the game has progressed. Beating the game will activate Hero Mode, a much more difficult version of Skyward Sword where enemies do double damage and the only way Link can re-fill hearts is by drinking a potion.
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is a true masterpiece. It's ultimately swappable with Ocarina of Time as the greatest Zelda game – and even video game – of all time, as Skyward Sword is just as revolutionary today as Ocarina of Time was in 1998. There's absolutely no way to play Zelda, or any sword based game for that matter, without the 1:1 sword controls offered in Skyward Sword.