Friday 27 January 2012

Video Game Review | The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, dev. Nintendo

I can map out my entire life with reference to The Legend of Zelda. At two years old I dare say I was a little little to care about the first game when it was released in 1986, but I did find my way back to it after adoring A Link to the Past in the early 90s, on the Super Nintendo I shared with my younger brother. Then in 1998, Ocarina of Time - arguably the pinnacle of the entire franchise, and assuredly the game that sold me on the series forever after - was released for the N64. I haven't missed a Zelda game since.

Which isn't to say I've finished them all, or even enjoyed them, every one. The Wind Waker, yes... and each of the subsequent handheld installments, from The Minish Cap in 2004 on through 2009's Spirit Tracks, not because they were particularly brilliant, but because there honestly wasn't a lot else for me to do with my DS.

Sadly I couldn't stand the awkward emo wolf-whispering of the last major game in the series, not to mention its ill-advised early motion controls. Twilight Princess was the only reason I bought a Wii, way back when, and I hold it solely responsible for all the garbage I've played on the system since.

Perhaps that's unfair of me. I mean, it did have its upsides: for one thing, it was in widescreen. Yay for widescreen! But when the best thing you can think to say about a game is that its aspect ratio was acceptable, methinks there's a larger problem in play. A larger problem that - alas - also pervades the first Zelda game designed from the ground up for the Wii, because of course Twilight Princess was essentially an ever-so-slightly upscaled Gamecube port. And it showed.

Anyway, let me be quite clear here: as staunch a defender of The Wind Waker as I am, Skyward Sword is easily the best console Zelda since Ocarina of Time. In fact, I think it might be a better game than either of the aforementioned candidates. So considered in isolation, it's rather a masterpiece; gorgeous given the limitations of the system - which I can finally sell on, now that I've played its swan song - and incredibly deep when you recall the one-note nonsense the console has become infamous for. If Skyward Sword is your first or your second or even your third Zelda game, you're going to love it. You are. And don't go telling me you're too old for baby games! You aren't, and in any event, this isn't that, so there.

But I began this review with a run-down of my experience of the series for a reason. Two reasons, even. In the first, I did so to stress that these games are exceedingly important to me, and to many other players like me. They're touchstones of a sort... landmarks by which we may measure the passing of generations, and I don't merely mean in terms of hardware. A new Zelda - and they are not so commonplace as all that: this is only the 8th console iteration in 25 years - so a new Zelda is a potential treasure... to look forward to, to love when the time comes, and to love looking back on after the fact. Or not, as was the case with Twilight Princess.

Largely, though, I started in this manner because, at least as I see it, the problem with The Legend of Zelda - specifically the problem with the latest incarnations thereof - is its legacy. A legacy that has touched me and millions of other gamers, large and small, but also a legacy that means that the developers of Skyward Sword are beholden to certain gameplay elements, narrative developments and indeed, an old-fashioned attitude: whimsical bordering on the nonsensical. In short, because of this legacy, the series has hardly changed since its inception a quarter of a century ago, when the vast industry of today was but a single pixel of a thing, and nostalgia can only transport one so far.

It would be unfair of me to say that there are no innovations in the latest Zelda game. Sure enough, there are a few new twists to turn, including the prevalence of Monster Hunter-esque collectibles around the three broad environments players will navigate over the course of their epic quests: bugs to be caught with your butterfly net, and rare drops which explode out of the family-friendly smoke that envelops dead enemies. Collect enough of these components and a man in Skyloft will use them to improve your equipment.

And there's lots of new equipment: a mechanical golden beetle you guide around in order to cut ropes or sever stalks, a vacuum cleaner you use to suck up piles of dust, and several other additions. Meanwhile most of your old favourites are back, including but not limited to the whip, the slingshot, the bow and arrow and the bomb bag. New or old, pretty much every gadget in this Link's inventory is implemented in an interesting way, up to and including the master sword, which one can loft for massive damage, or use in conjunction with a shield to parry and counter-attack.

It's no mad flurry of waggle either. Skyward Sword takes full advantage of the Motion Plus add-on it requires, and though I'd have appreciate alternative control options for several of the more finicky gadgets, most if not all of the array on offer work as advertised. Thus a sense of novelty will see you the first few hours you spend with each new piece of equipment, but eventually - indeed repeatedly - you realise you're still playing the same old game, just now with working motion control... and however functional they may be - and it bears saying that they were still more functional before the Wii had its wicked way - new controls do not a new game make.

In its own right, Skyward Sword is or is near-as-damnit the equal of the most memorable Zelda games in the series' whole history. It may very well be the best game on the Wii - in my mind only Super Mario Galaxy comes close to touching it - but if you're anything like me, once the nostalgia and then the novelty has worn off, you'll realise you've played it before. And that's fine, as far as it goes, except that Zelda deserves better.

Next time Nintendo makes one of these games, something's got to give. Whether it's the players or what they'll be playing remains to be seen - it could go either way - but take heart, as I do, in the fact that the series' creators seem uncharacteristically aware that they're this close to alienating the very gamers who made The Legend of Zelda such a success almost 25 years ago to this day. I can't give Skyward Sword a pass, exactly, but with that in mind, I am optimistic enough to refrain from damning it entirely.


  1. I bought this game last week, and was really ticked off to get home and discover only then that oops, I don't actually have the MotionPlus controller or add-on. So now I have a $50 game that I can't play until I go out and buy another $20 accessory. It's good to know that it's all worth the price, but dangit, I want to play it now and not have to wait!

  2. Like yourself, Zelda has always defined my Nintendo habits - I remember buying a Super Nintendo just for Zelda . . . and then selling the whole system a few months later.

    I would have bought this sooner or later anyway, but you've definitely made me a bit more eager to give it a try. Thanks.

  3. In all honesty, I didn't care for The Wind Waker, but I preordered Skyward Sword for me and my wife and enjoyed it (I got my wife into Ocarina of Time, which is her favorite game, and she is now a bigger fan of Zelda than me).

    Skyward Sword is one of the best games for the Wii, but I'm waiting to see if Xenoblade tops it. The game comes to the U.S. (where I live) in April, and from what I've seen, and the reviews the game got in the UK and in Japan, I'm wondering if it is better than Zelda.

  4. @Reid - Xenoblade, eh? Wasn't on my radar at all, mate, but I popped over to Eurogamer, read their review, and it is now. Maybe I'll hold onto this console a little longer after everything!

    So what was it about The Wind Waker that killed it for you? I should say my memory of playing through way back in the day it is probably pretty rose-tinted - I never did get a Gamecube, so it was my only experience of Nintendo's last system, and my little brother and I took turns with the same save - but I'd still argue that it was solid RPG for its era, if a touch too cutesy for its onw good.

  5. @Bibliotropic - Yeah. I can imagine how that'd be an absolute bloody nightmare. Honestly, if I'd had to cough up the extra £20 or whatever for the Motion Plus add-on, I don't know that I'd have bothered. It certainly makes this Zelda game a much more satisfying experience, in terms of its motion controls versus those of Twilight Princess - may we never again speak its name - but I've used mine all of twice, in Skyward Sword and... was it Wii Sports Resort?

    It's just a lump of plastic destined to be forgotten in a box in the attic otherwise. Like all my other Nintendo accessories... except the Super Scope, which I might just mount. :)

    But whenever your Motion Plus nubbin arrives, Ria, you'll have a hell of a time with Skyward Sword. Enjoy!

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