Skyward Sword’s Brilliant Overworld Design

HanyouMay 11th, 2012 by Hanyou

One of the first notable things about Skyward Sword’s overworld — even the developers advertised this — was its dungeon-like design. It was compartmentalized, claustrophobic, and packed with puzzles and action at every turn. There was little room for passivity; the sailing and open fields of past 3D Zelda games gave way to a more frantic but more focused approach. By no means was this approach better, but it fit both the tone and the gameplay choices that pervaded all of Skyward Sword, and is a product of skillful design. It also allowed the plot to unfold gradually within the constantly developing world and encouraged new ways to play that still felt familiar.

To those who’ve played other 3D Zelda games, and especially those of us who were introduced to Zelda or gaming in general with games like Ocarina of Time and The Wind Waker, the approach might have felt brand new.  But it’s obvious that it echoes past Zelda games, specifically the two-dimensional ones which are widely regarded as classics.  What sets it apart is its implementation and design.

Skyward sword is an action game, and everything about the game — from its Wii Motion Plus-focused control scheme to its focus on combat — makes this abundantly clear. But most importantly, and perhaps least immediately obvious, is the overworld design, which funnels the player through countless motion-based challenges seamlessly integrated into a linear quest. This is not a Zelda game designed with openness in mind. It is, arguably, not even a Zelda game that feels like it’s designed to house a living, breathing world. Instead, its focus on raw action gameplay rewards not exploration, but maximization of the resources and items that the game constantly throws at the player. It’s a system of punishment and reward that needs refined, artful gameplay to provide an enjoyable experience.

In the process, it borrows ideas liberally from past Zelda games, but applies them differently. In the original Legend of Zelda and A Link to the Past, a variety of gameplay styles were possible in the overworld, and they felt spontaneous, not programmed. A Link to the Past had a fair amount of stealth gameplay; there was no shortage of opportunities to dodge and strategize when navigating around enemies, and it helped that your health was constantly threatened in the early stages of the game.

Skyward Sword earnestly implemented that for what felt like the first time in a 3D Zelda game. This is partly due to the combat system itself, which is fast-paced, strategic, and wholly different from that of any other Zelda game, but without an overworld that complemented the gameplay, it simply wouldn’t have been successful.

The design of each area appears at first to be labyrinthine. Visiting each area for the first time, it’s easy enough to get lost and turned around, especially in the similar-looking central area of Faron Woods. The first trek through Lanayru Desert is certainly confusing, and offers a host of new gameplay ideas to supplement the experience, along with forcing the player to rely on the map while constantly contending with the quicksand scattered about. Eldin Volcano offers more obvious variety than either of the other regions, with a segmented approach that utilizes fetch quests in its limited space.

One of the brilliant things about this design is that as the player advances through the game, they will no doubt become intimately familiar with each of the individual regions. This is because they’re constantly being repurposed and expanded, and the plot-based expansions are offered up one at a time so that there’s always something more to an area. One trek through Faron Woods won’t show you everything it has to offer, and you probably won’t guess at the flooding that occurs later in the game, or the implications it has for the gameplay. The tightly-packed caves and towering walls, complete with platformer-style gameplay, that marked the early regions of Lanayru Desert couldn’t have prepared us for the more open, entirely different Sand Sea. And it’s unlikely most would have guessed, when navigating the initial challenges of Eldin Volcano, that the area was designed with stealth in mind, and was later to be littered with enemies that actively hunted a vulnerable Link, stripped of items, at every turn.

These regions were designed for variety, and by the end of the game it felt like the designers knew this was important and made the overworld first; The overworld was a response to gameplay ideas, but it also fed them. You had exactly the sort of experience the game designers wanted you to have when you played Skyward Sword, and it was an experience of varied but well-developed gameplay supplemented by a clever and evolving plot. Perhaps more than any Zelda game before it, Skyward Sword’s world felt like it responded to every item Link obtained and every small twist in the story, so that by the end it was fundamentally cinematic.

What was missing from this overworld was player input and a sense of discovery, which is basic to the Zelda experience. By focusing their ideas and patterning the world, the developers allowed it to take on all the traits necessary to distinguish Skyward Sword from its predecessors. Perhaps in the future, however, Zelda overworlds would benefit from a more mixed set of gameplay ideas. Skyward Sword echoes the 2D games’ overworld, but adds to it by constantly developing and changing things about the overworld. What would it feel like if this development was supplemented by the kind of player input that made A Link to the Past or even the more contemporary The Minish Cap stand out?

In any case, Skyward Sword, with its action focus, would not be nearly as good as it is if it didn’t have an overworld which held up its ideas. The concepts introduced in the three major regions should be celebrated as a milestone for Zelda that drew on classic ideas and introduced new ones. Perhaps Nintendo can find a clearer path for the future by looking back at some of the things that made previous overworlds as great as they were.

Author: Hanyou

Hanyou has worked for the article staff, both as a writer and as an editor, for over a year. He has also been an active member of the Zelda Dungeon forums since 2008 and an avid fan of the Zelda franchise since 1998. He has degrees in writing.

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  • RedDekuScrub

    I thought that Skyward Sword had one of the best overworlds. The only problem that I has was that they were dicided into parts, and the only way you can travel from Region to Region was to go back to the Sky and then go back to the leand below. I understand that they probably did this to promote exploration of the sky and to give each ragion a totally unique feeling, but it got kind of annoying when you running around to find treasures for upgrades and what-not.

    • Baileygirl99

      i totally agree. i like the games where we can just call Epona, ride across Hyrule field, and be where we need to be (OoT). usually, i would spend so much time looking for a bird statue to go to the sky and a different region, that i would forget what i was doing by the time i got to the bird statue! and my bird didnt fly very well

  • Awesome

    Really my only complaint with the overworld of Skyward Sword was the fact that the three regions did not feel connected to each other at all. With games like Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask, hell every other Zelda game (minus a few areas in Twilight Princess), every area actually has felt connected to the others. I guess what I really wanted, was a way to get to the other provinces by land instead of solely relying upon the Loftwing to take me to the next area. It had the feel of Super Mario 64’s castle overworld. There were lots of places to explore, but it was just like jumping into a painting, except with Skyward Sword it was jumping into the clouds. Besides, for how great the land overworld was set up, the sky overworld was terrible. All of those pointless floating islands whose only purpose was to have chests on them that you already basically found on the surface felt cheap. I wanted islands that might have had random caves like the Wind Waker or Twilight Princess. As great as the overworld was, it took away the sense of discovery and adventure as the places you needed to discover were limited to 3 (minus maybe the thunderstorm.) While revisiting areas is awesome and I would love to see it again, I would also love to feel like there is more to explore than three areas.

    Rant Over

    • RedDekuScrub

      Heh, we posted almost the same thing at the same exact time, lol.

      • Awesome

        Haha I know right. Guess great minds think alike

        • RedDekuScrub


    • Baileygirl99

      i couldnt agree more.

  • Red-tunic link

    I loved the land overworld for SS.

  • MW7

    Amazing article and well thought out. You basicallly summed up a huge chunk of why Skyward Sword disappointed me. I was hoping for something completely different than what Nintendo delivered. Freedom and exploration used to be synonymous with the Zelda series for me, and I hope Nintendo returns to this kind of overworld.

    I do see the similarities between the earlier Zeldas and Skyward Sword now that you’ve pointed them out, but I do feel like they couldn’t be more different in other ways. Most importantly to me is the striking difference of being able to traverse virtually the whole map from the outset of Legend of Zelda whereas Skyward Sword opens up piece by piece. I think the ideal Zelda overworld is more of a middle ground like A Link to the Past’s in which some parts of the overworld are saved for later but a majority of it is pretty much free-roam.

  • Guest

    Good article, but I disagree that the overworld of SS echoes past 2D Zelda games. Most of the 2D Zelda games have an intense sense of exploration and can often reward a player generously for straying off the beaten path. SS’s overworld at first glance looked like it was going to be labyrinthine, but quickly dissolved into generally linear routes. 2D Zelda games often feel like they contain some of the most non-linear of overworld designs to the point that you can complete many tasks at your leisure and under your specific terms.

    I did like how the overworld felt less like a field (though I prefer the wide expanse of Hyrule Field), as it offered a new experience. Eldin felt familiar but with a fresh spin as it had a greater emphasis on scaling heights and climbing than other mountainous/volcanic regions in previous Zelda games, Lanayru did something very unique with the desert theme. But overall, the overworld didn’t seem well constructed from an exploration perspective. Thus, discovery, as you stated, was somewhat missing here. Perhaps it would have honestly been stronger if they had more stray paths, more tunnels and caves akin to TP’s lantern caves and the hidden grottoes of OoT and MM. This is a series that prides itself on exploration and discovery, and SS’s overworld held back.

    And I know others will disagree with me on this point, but I sincerely believe the overworld suffered by having the three main areas disconnected. It felt less like one land below the clouds, and more like I was picking out game levels, or the separate worlds you find in Kingdom Hearts (at least the first two, I haven’t played past those). It was disjointed, and it nagged me throughout the whole game. Even just a few short hidden paths would have done wonders to immerse the player in that surface world. Having to constantly fly back up to the sky to go from one area to another was an unnecessary task and could have been remedied by connecting paths on the surface or even just a warp mechanic. The overworld of OoT felt connected because there were numerous ways to get from place to place–you didn’t always have to set foot in Hyrule Field to get from one place to another. For example, you can get to Lake Hylia from Gerudo Valley, Goron City and Zora’s River from the Lost Woods, and Zora’s Domain from Lake Hylia (only as a child), among other routes. This made Hyrule feel like one big cohesive unit. In MM, the four cardinal areas were not connected, but as the whole world was grounded and came together at the center, at Clock Town, and as such it didn’t feel like the world was disjointed. The inclusion of an automatic warp mechanic also certainly was useful. Even WW felt more connected, though islands were separated by a great sea, because oddly enough, that sea was the very glue that bound the islands together as one unit.

    (Also, as a side note, not being able to get to the surface areas at night is an absolute bummer, to put it lightly. It makes the surface feel like it has even less variety, which is something that an overworld containing only three areas cannot afford to sacrifice.)

    (Another side note: had the sky been less empty and included more islands and things to do, I would have been absolutely fine with what was offered on the surface–and vice versa. One of these “overworlds”, be it the surface or the sky, should have offered players with something to explore like an eager adventurer. But neither the sky nor the surface had much in the way of discovery or exploration.)

    I guess the best way I can sum it up is this–I liked the idea of SS’s overworld, but I’m not too keen on its execution. It would be cool to see them attempt this kind of overworld again, but with more secrets, more winding and criss-crossing paths, more caves and roads-less-traveled, and a greater sense of exploration and discovery, as well as connecting areas in some way. It was a good experiment here; now let’s see them really push this overworld concept to its full potential.

  • Garo Master

    Honestly, it’s a cool idea with the whole world being a dungeon, but I prefer overworld hubs. And no, I don’t count the sky as a hub because unlike the islands in sea travel games, most of the islands just have treasure chests. Like I said, it’s a breath of fresh air, but if Nintendo wants the newer Zelda games to be comparable to the classics, they’re gonna have to try quite a bit harder.

    • Oni Link

      I agree, that extra effort in making Skyward Sword’s overworld hub much more interesting would have probably made it the undisputed champion.  It feels like they just added in a few things and said “good enough”.  Don’t get me wrong, the game is awesome how it is, but any real Zelda fan sees what it could have been.

      • John

        Yeah. Exactly. It’s like they say good enough. But wait! there needs to be 12 more heart pieces. oh no prblem. just start link off with six.

        i think that was kinda dumb to have six hearts in the begining and less hearts to find. i mean really, where are you going to put all those heart pieces in a linear overworld. thats why i like the link to the past type overworld and ocarina of time.

        • AntJuice

           Nailed it man, thats half the deal. A true mother truckin hero of time collects all the bitchin heart pieces, skulltulas n bugs n shit. U know!!!

          • Garo Master

            AMEN TO THAT, BROTHER!!!

        • drrobotnik2

          I liked skyward sword overall but the 6hearts always bothered me throughout the game made me feel like a newb…

      • Garo Master

        Oh… I left something out. I’m glad your siding with me and all (gathering others that are against Moonfall makes me among the most hated commenters), but SS had more problems than overworld. I’d put it in the middle of the Zelda spectrum. But thanks for actually reading what I said instead of the idiots that just assume I’m wrong ’cause apparantly “SS was perfect and flawless!” My point, it would need a bit more to be “undisputed”. While on the subject, people need to understand the difference between “perfect” and “enjoyable”. For example, MM is my all time favorite videogame, but OoT was more polished and well made. People need to start seeing through that perspective.

    • AntJuice

       loool Garo Master.. lovin the name.. I’m on Stone Tower temple on MM, I’ve never got this far dude! Ha Im 22, but when i was kid I got stuck at Great bay.. So i went and bought a nintendo the other week off ebay.. oh yehhh nostalgia times coming up! Haha man just got the Great Fairy Sword… Wooot Woooot! :D :D

  • Oni Link

    Before you guys kill me hear me out…..

    I know Xbox games are basically prohibited from this site lol, but imagine Zelda with a world like Skyrim (probably mentioned before, but whatever).  What I mean is a totally endless free roaming Hyrule.  It would have all the classic races of inhabitants. Death Mountain and Lake Hylia would obviously be there, but with much more complexity to them.  Imagine being able to play for 100 hours and realize that you have barely advanced the storyline (if that’s what you choose).  It would also be cool to have more than 2 or 3 swords and to actually have to go off the common path to find them. 

    -Its either that or they can just turn Zelda into a four screen shooter like everything else. JK lol.

    • Baileygirl99

      hmmm…i agree with on everything except for the 100 hours gameplay. And in Ocarina of Time, you have a sidequest where you can get a giant sword, to go along with your master sword

    • AntJuice

      Hey brother, you know.. haha Skyrim, I’ve never played it but obviously heard of it… but your comment makes sense man, like.. I think Zelda is kinda heading somewhere I’m not so sure of.. I will never not like the series, like when I was a kid.. fuck man, like Anouma and Miyamoto KNOW the language of children, and the music etc..

      I think Nintendo need to focus back on the heavy duty plots, I haven’t played Skyward Sword yet either, just OOT, MM, MC.. but for me those games are the kinda essence (especially OOT/MM) of Zelda.. like theyre plots, dungeon designs and charachters.. Amazing..

      I think they need to look back at the series, and think about where they first came from, and the idea they had of the Triforce etc itself..

      I guess, after 25 years and several team member position swaps n shit like Anouma wanting to bail after Wind Waker (I think it was him..), it would be easy to kinda lose the true ‘image’ that they set out with at the beginning..

      I’m not saying they are, but in regard to your comment.. it would be good to see the old school OverWorlds etc make a return.. and I agree about the 100 hours of playability.. I mean when I was a kid.. I got stuck (this isn’t a joke.. LOOOL) on the Water Temple in OOT for 7 months cos I couldn’t find a key..



  • Ganjai the Grey

    Hmmmm,  Cut out all friendly towns and races for extended Dungeons? …. No thanks.

    • Red-tunic link

      They added 3 races, kiwis, mogmas, an them jellyfish…things.Plus I would MUCH rather have a linear overworld that’s filled with more stuff than an open area with hardly much in it.

      • Ganjai the Grey

        Oh please, the races were merely a few acquaintances along the way.
        I would MUCH rather have had vibrant villages and cities full of unique characters and life, rather than lifeless linear fetch quests.

        • myperuba

           my favorite part of zelda games has always been the characters in them. i feel like skyward sword…almost all the characters were boring and didn’t make you care about them at all. random but i was just thinking even the soldier in OoT is better than most SS because you give him a mask for his son, something personal and heartwarming i guess. and that’s just a random unimportant person in that game, not even mentioning all the terrific characters that were way better than him. SS characters were just eh to me. this is probs why WW is my favorite game, followed by MM

          • Red-Tunic link

            I liked the characters of SS, my favourite being ghirahim.

          • Ganjai the Grey

            I know right! Ocarina of Time, is truly a Masterpiece.
            It’s like a Storybook put to life!
            Truly an evolution of gaming and story telling.
            Something the world had never experienced before.

  • GeauxZelda

    i hate wen people say skyward sword was missing a sense of recovery….. thats rediculous!!! u said urself that evey coner offerend a new experience in each area. if thats not discovery then wat is? discovery is finding new things, it is not playing a game so open that u get lost, which it seems like that is wat u want. maybe im wrong, but i know i dont want that

    • Guest

      I see where you’re coming from, but perhaps I can clarify what some people, or at least what I, mean by SS lacking a sense of discovery (I assume that’s what you meant, and “recovery” was merely a typo). I apologize in advance if I get long-winded here.

      Reading your comment, I’m instantly reminded of a specific moment in ALttP. If you just wander around the overworld, you can find a number of valuable items and secrets off the beaten path. At any point after acquiring the Zora Flippers, you can swim the river and go underneath a bridge, and you fine a lazy man under there. If you speak to him he’ll give you an empty bottle. This is just one of many similar moments in that game…you never have to go under that bridge, you never even have to swim in that direction, but you are rewarded for exploring and as such discover a little secret. That is discovery.

      There are many non-linear paths in ALttP’s overworld design, and you can travel to and from places however you please. Despite this, you never feel lost like you are apt to do in the original LoZ, as the paths are constructed to push you in some direction anyway. You constantly have a sense of direction while simultaneously possessing the freedom to explore, and when you do explore, you are rewarded. Even some mandatory items require you to scour about like an archaeologist on a mission. You discover secrets and items while also discovering the world around you. It is a sort of symbiotic phenomenon. You learn and become familiar with your surroundings by exploring and discovering, and by becoming more familiar with your surroundings you are more prepared through experience to discover and explore.

      Honestly, I cannot recall a single moment in SS in which I had discovered a secret through my own exploratory efforts like I did in previous Zelda games. The only thing that made it feel like I was discovering and exploring was the fact that it was a new game that I had never played before. That immediate “Oh wow! A new area! A new game! Look at this place, I can’t wait to explore it!” feeling I got when I first landed in each new surface area unraveled to slight disappointment when I found the paths were painfully linear and there was little to actually discover. For example, I thought I saw an alternate route in Faron Woods and was eager to see what I might find by taking that path instead. But as I traveled on it, I found that it was a very short dead-end with nothing but a lone tree housing Deku Hornets and their nests. This unfortunately was not an isolated instance in Faron. Other times in Eldin, I kept seeing bombable rocks embedded in the walls. Maybe they lead to a deep cave I can explore! But they were little more than small crawl spaces, little holes you just crawl into and grab some rupees or hearts, maybe some Eldin Ore if you were lucky. It would have been cool to bomb a wall and instead discover a new path that connects to one of the other major two areas, perhaps leading to Faron or Lanayru–rewards for your discoveries, not mere blue rupees. A measly blue rupee or a hive of angry Deku Hornets is less of a reward and more of a big middle finger to me, which many players might find infuriating.

      Admittedly, Lanayru was the best of the three main areas in terms of construction, as it was less linear and provided some nice alternate paths if you chose to use them. Still, you didn’t benefit much from using a different path, but it at least gave you options. And the use of Timeshift Stones also gave a greater sense of discovery than what I had seen in Faron and Eldin, as it vastly altered the landscape.

      tl;dr — I cannot speak for everyone, but I am fairly certain nobody wants to get hopelessly lost in the overworld. I think people just want to navigate an overworld that allows them to explore on their own terms and offers them numerous paths to traverse. And they want to discover something when they take the alternate route, something more than rupees in a crawl space or hornets in a tree. Caves and grottoes and secret routes and rewards under bridges–things that deviate from your main path and main quest but can be helpful and fun and require exploration to find–that is what I want. SS was fun, it was enjoyable, but it could have benefited from a stronger overworld with a better focus on exploration. And if one fears that would have been in opposition to SS’s focus on enemy interaction and action-oriented gameplay, then pack those caves and alternate routes with some crazy-strong challenging enemies. You give both the people who want to explore and the people who want more difficult enemies what they want. And the main path is always open for those who just want to continue on their main objective.

  • Baileygirl99

    i like the overworlds that have all the areas of the game connected into one Hyrule. Obviously, this is before Hyrule was made,but i like how if i wanted to travel from the mountainous areas to the desert areas without having to go back to the sky and down again. i like when i can just go across a field to get to where i need to be

  • Yo_Soy_Error

    This is only referring to the land overworld right? Because the sky kind of sucked… 

  • CrackedBrain

    I’m ok with this game, I loved it so much because it has a great story and great elements plus the dynamic gameplay and I understand why this game doesn’t have a massive world to explore with the protagonist, in this case named Link by default, IT’S THE BEGINNING! maybe the rest of the unexplored woods maybe has a swamp or something like that, there are no roads to follow, there are no paths at lanayru desert and the eldin volcano is a volcano without huts or mines filled with gorons. Stop saying those bad things about this great game… if you don’t understand the plot don’t play it.

  • Linkasourous

    Lands were great, I do like the idea how they added different parts to the regions as the game progressed, but the sky could have improved

  • Cereal Bawks

    I didn’t like SS’ overworld that much. It’s far too linear and there’s nothing to explore. It’s pretty much TP’s overworld, but with linear pathways.

    • Heroine of Time

      I have to disagree with that. In all honesty, I think that Skyward Sword and Twilight Princess’s overworlds were complete opposites. Twilight Princess’s overworld was big and expansive yet empty, while Skyward Sword’s was smaller and disconnected but much more action-packed.

      …I think that’s essentially what the article was trying to say, after all. XD

      • Cereal Bawks

        Yes, it was much more action packed. I meant they were similar in terms of exploration.

  • tinypeanuts

    I’m on my second playthrough and taking my time this time and I’m seeing a lot of things I didn’t the first time around. To me the developers seem like a bunch of big kids with a great sense of humor and imagination. I love the design of Skyward Sword’s overworld. But I would love to be able to travel from one area to the next too without having to return to the sky. But then that would do away with the whole idea of a bird, wouldn’t it. I do kind of feel that the separate areas just don’t have a real connection to each other … yet they do. Traveling between them on a bird in the sky is basically the same as warping between them in TP and MM. Wind Waker, too. I generally don’t like to warp preferring to take the long way every time so in that sense it’s different for me.But you can’t please everybody and you can’t have everything. I can’t wait to see what Aonuma and the rest of the big kids at Nintendo come up with for the Wii U.

    • AntJuice

       Dude your so right. I’m going to uni to take a course in games Design next year, it’s hard cos nintendo and the Zelda team inspired me from when I was 7 or something when I first played Zelda OOT.. even before then, I used to design silly games imitating Duke Nukem 2D n shit, n then Zelda OOT came along when I hit primary. Fuck man, I wanted a time machine so bad! :D

      Haa, so.. it’s like, u seem like a genuine fan too, I can see the failings in Skyward Sword, I haven’t played it, and its fun reading all these posts and articles about it before having played it, it kinda hypes me up to expect whatever I get when I finally play it :D

      But like you said, the guys behind Zelda really are just big kids,  at at the end of the day they can’t please everybody. Their Ideas will change as they grow older, they will think of different angles for the game to revolve around etc. It’s kinda like a band might change their style when they get older, more melancholy or whatever.. a perfect example is the Rasmus.

      It’s the same people in the team pretty much that it was when they made OOT… so, we’re always gonna get great games from them :D


    • yo

      ^ Fucking THIS!!

  • ZFan99

    “the sailing and open fields of past 3D Zelda gamesgave way to a more frantic but more focused approach. By no means was this approach better”
    This quote made me think about the Zelda series. I agree that the attempt of trying to make it seem expansive was a bad idea; Faron Woods was basically a maze filled with enemies. Though they were low-level enemies, there were a whole lot. But an open field could work in an Open-World game. If all quests were totally optional, and there were no rules or anything, huge dungeons and expansive, open fields would be exciting. There would be no end to the game-play. There would probably be no bosses, but it may be exciting. Maybe a treasure hunt for the Master Sword, but you don’t have to get it, or if Link could use his fists, rendering even having a sword and shield at all completely optional. Also making the game have interactive ecosystems would be cool. (Live off of food &  water/buy it; If you remove a species’ main food source, they slowly die off; and if worse comes to worst, you just game over and the whole ecosystem resets.) Maybe you’ll have to find materials and craft a sword and shield. A certain story goes that the Deku Shield was actually crafted by Link using the Deku tree’s wood.

  • BlueHighwind

    Wow.  Rewrite this article and put the word “not” in the front of every single verb and you have my thoughts on this game.

  • Moribund Cadaver

    The irony of complaints over Skyward Sword’s overworld (not the skyworld) is that it’s not new; it’s basically the dense mazelike overworld from A Link to the Past.

    Now, having said this, there is a something from ALTTP that Skyward Sword doesn’t achieve – non-linearity. Especially late in the game, ALTTP did allow players more freedom in how to navigate sequences and dungeons. Technically Skyward Sword does allow some of this freedom with a few end game quests, but it’s not what it could be.

    But the problem is that people have been fooled by illusions. The linearity they criticize in Skyward Sword has been a staple of every 3D Zelda game, including the vaunted Ocarina of Time. The difference is that those games created somewhat more of the illusion that a large open world was spread out before the player. Skyward Sword is, if nothing else, a lot more honest about what it is. And in being honest, it improves the quality of that kind of design tenfold. While a non-linear Zelda in the style of the 8 and 16-bit games would be a nice thing to return to, Skyward Sword executes the 3D Zelda formula better than any game in the franchise, including Ocarina of Time.

    The reactions to it do demonstrate how people are wed to perceptions over reality though.

    While it’s widely recognized, the empty skyworld is the only true design flaw in Skyward Sword. (You can dislike the style all you want, but Skyward Sword is not poorly designed; it’s one of the tightest and most nuanced Nintendo games of all time.)

    Had the skyworld been a larger, more robust realm with more points of interest, I think the intentionally linear micro-dungeons of the underworld areas would have gone over better with more people.

    • Jollyroger919

      The linearity they criticize in Skyward Sword has been a staple of every 3D Zelda game”

      I get the feeling you’re confusing linearity in context of the main quest with linearity in the overworld design. It’s true that 3D titles preceding Skyward Sword were not at all much more “open” in their implementation of paths in the main playthrough itself, but the majority of complaints directed at Skyward Sword’s linearity definitely seem to be referring to its overworld design in particular instead – and this, certainly, is no mere illusion. No one can state that TWW’s environment was as linear as Skyward Sword’s and expect to be taken seriously on that claim.

      • Moribund Cadaver

        The non-linearity of the 3D Zelda titles can be summed up as trivial in a meaningful exploration-reward sense.

        A Link to the Past, the most robust of the 2D Zelda games, allowed non-linear exploration that had meaningful rewards – up to and including attacking entire dungeons, once discovered, in a different order.

        The non-linearity of the 3D Zelda games, for the most part, is mainly cosmetic. The rewards of exploration are mostly discovering small collectibles such as heart pieces, extra rupee chests, and the like.

        Skyward Sword, as if realizing the 3D Zelda overworld was not really doing much, dispenses with a mediocre feature for a much more robust and focused overworld. That overworld still has the kinds of ‘exploration’ that OTT and Twilight Princess do: it invites scouring the terrain for hidden areas, heart pieces, materials, and so forth. If anything Skyward Sword *expands* that aspect. Perhaps many people felt they were being forced to follow an absolutely linear path because of the presentation of the overworld. But between the new crafting system and the rather lengthy insect collecting meta game, Skyward Sword invited the player to travel all over the game world looking for things not related to the main quest.

        I did note that a major flaw of Skyward Sword was the underuse of the skyworld. It *is* a fair point that The Wind Waker had a very open overworld, with a lot of things to discover. While most of those things still fall into the category of “more heart pieces”, they are all least found on a wide variety of small islands, and the entire system of dangers and roaming enemies in the ocean does make the travel and exploration more interesting than riding around Hyrule Field in OOT and TP.

        Had Skyward Sword featured a greatly realized and developed skyworld, it could have combined the best of both worlds – a master overworld that echoed TWW, and the focused pre-dungeon overworld zones that still were rich with their own hidden discoveries and a reason to go back to them besides the main quest.

        But IMO, that still doesn’t change the fact that the overworlds in OOT and TP just don’t offer as much as they seem, and aren’t non-linear in anywhere near the sense of a ‘proper’ non-linear Zelda overworld as seen in A Link to the Past.

    • thelegendoflink


      • Moribund Cadaver

        Sorry, I think you’re looking for David *Hayter*, star of screenplay and virtual screen, famed Metal Gear Solid voice talent and the man behind Solid Snake.

        Otherwise I have no idea what you mean.

  • Tony

    The problem is; the provinces lack variety for the most part. Sure the forest area later doubles as a the token water level, but the later visits of the Edlin and Lanayru provinces are just more of the same boring areas. I still can’t get over that other fire temple they threw in there. 

  • XenoAssassino

    Doesn’t matter what Nintendo does with the Zelda franchise. There’s always gonna be some loser who complains or has a problem with it no matter how great it may actually be….

  • BlackRaven6695

    Whenever Hanyou writes one of his excellent articles the Skyward Sword haters come out to play, seemingly missing the point of what he was trying to say. Skyward Sword was shameless and brash in its design choices; it sets off at a rocketing pace with it’s motion controls and Metroid Fusion style gameplay. The game is practically yelling “Adventure time and anybody who doesn’t agree with my game design can rot in hell!” The result? Many disappointed gamers, as you can see for yourself in the comments below. 

    Skyward Sword’s linearity and focus on the main quest aren’t the result of poor game design but a design choice that appeals to some gamers but not to others; some feel the game is cramped and has no idea what its supposed to be doing; others welcome the action and excitement. It’s a very polarizing design choice and if you picked up SS after playing Link to the Past, Ocarina or Twilight Princess you can either welcome the change or find yourself unwilling or unable to adapt to this new style. You can love how there’s so much more to do at Eldin Volcano or Lanayru Desert than there is at Death Mountain or Gerudo Desert, or you can pine for the openness and freedom that made previous Zeldas so great.

    If you look at Nintendo’s other franchises, you can see that they’re adopting similar design choices across the board; Metroid Other M, Super Mario 3D Land etc. Like I said before, you can welcome the change or be disgusted with it. Eiji Aonuma has said that he felt Wind Waker and Twilight Princess just felt like remakes of Ocarina and he wanted to make something different for Skyward Sword so one can assume that the series is going to continue in the direction SS has taken. The question isn’t whether this was the right decision or not but whether it suits your tastes or not. If it doesn’t, well, complaining won’t help (sorry if that sounded harsh, bare with me). 

    I enjoy games like Skyward Sword because the fun comes to me rather than me having to wander around some empty area until I find something interesting. Other people love the sense of freedom and feel like SS is spoonfeeding them like a child, and they don’t like that. I understand that it must be very frustrating when everybody is like “Oh, Skyward Sword is great!” and you’re like “No no, idiot; the game practically plays itself!”. Still, it seems this is the kind of game Nintendo wants to make. That’s good news for people like me but for the other kind of gamer, there are games that can deliver what you want e.g. Skyrim.

    If you took the time out of your day to read all of this, thanks, it means a lot to me. If you understood even half of what I was talking about, this comment has done it’s job. The point I’m trying to make is Skyward Sword’s biggest flaw isn’t it’s difficulty, motion controls, skyworld, Fi, dungeon-like overworld, enemies, swimming or anything like that; it’s biggest flaw is that it has no consideration or sympathy for people who don’t agree with the design direction it has taken. 

    Nintendo always do the unexpected, regardless of how much it delights/disappoints you.

    • Guest

      I am one of those people who loves the openess and freedom of previous Zelda games. I do wish the skyworld of SS wasn’t so empty. I wish the surface overworld was connected and had more for me to explore and find, and I miss the natural progression of day and night which could have opened up numerous new opportunities. I enjoyed SS for what is was, but I also see what it could have been while still maintaining its overall concept, a design concept that was very interesting and fresh. I feel SS’s surface overworld and skyworld both needed fine-tuning and better execution. I am not a hater, nor have a missed the point of the article (in which the author admits himself SS lacked some sense of discovery).

      But I appreciate your respectful comment.

      People aren’t complaining so much as they are giving their opinion, just as you are.  And please understand that most of us who were not as impressed with certain aspects of SS do not refer to those that unconditionally loved the game as “idiots.” I hope I come across as more respectful than that.

      Actually, I should clarify, I loved the game, too. But that love soured when I think of how the game could have easily been much, much better, or at least much more polished. SS’s overworld looked deceptively full and brimming with things to discover, but it lacked content. I might find a bomb-able wall in Eldin, but it contained rupees or hearts. A stray path in Faron might just be a short walk leading to a dead end and some patches or grass that birds flock too, so you can try and collect some feathers and nothing else.
      Now compare that MM’s overworld, for example. Small and not sprawling like most other games, but it was full of content, things to discover and things to discover. Your interests were constantly piqued. And OoT’s overworld, which was deceptively empty-looking but contained many secrets and hidden grottoes and was interconnected with different routes. It felt like one cohesive whole rather than a mass of disjointed areas. And ALttP’s overworld, which was large but not overwhelming, full of non-linear paths but easy to traverse to your next plot destination.
      (I want to mention WW, but I am thrown off by your statement that Aonuma said WW felt like a remake of OoT. I’ve heard that assertion about TP, but WW? Really?  One of the reasons people disliked the game at first was because it felt too different from previous installments).

      I like the idea of SS trying to do something different. I wouldn’t want to play the same game over and over again. But SS’s overworld feels like an experiment right now. I do honestly believe it can be something really, really unique and great if more carefully executed in a future game while appealing to both camps of gamers (those who like this style of overworld design, and those who want some sense of freedom and self-roaming exploration), and everyone in-between. I would like to see Nintendo take this approach again, but with all things considered next time.

      One simple solution to what I see as a crack in SS’s overworld design would be more alternate routes for players to traverse. These routes could hold more optional secrets to discover and contain more challenging enemies for players who want a spike in difficulty, or they can lead to the other areas to connect the world as one. The main paths are always open for those who don’t care to explore or found the default difficulty satisfying.

      • RoBirk29384

        Agreed. All they had to do was connect the regions by land and give Link means to travel like, say, a horse, just to mix things up and give players a bit more freedom on how they choose to progress through the game. Perhaps if a Pegasus was used instead of the Sky Birds so as to bridge that gap.

        • Spoinkable

          So, all they had to do was add in a Hyrule Field and an Epona.
          So, all they had to do was make the same game. Again.

          • H37I

            you make a good point, sir.

  • Denning

    This is a message from Lord Nergal, “I await you on the Dread Isle.”

  • Denning

    This is a message from Lord Nergal, “I await you on the Dread Isle.”

  • Denning

    This is a message from Lord Nergal, “I await you on the Dread Isle.”

  • Denning

    This is a message from Lord Nergal, “I await you on the Dread Isle.”

  • Nathan Thurnau

    And thus we see where the influence of the early games found its way into Skyward Sword. I don’t know if anyone else noticed this, but it seems Nintendo intentionally implemented major elements of every console released Zelda game. The boat play in Lanayru was exactly what I wanted the sailing in WW to be. Dowsing and motion controls from TP, the dungeon like overworld from the early games where action simply doesn’t stop. In all honesty, the only game SS didn’t obviously borrow from was OoT/MM, other than the established style of 3D puzzle solving and dungeon design.

    • Denning

      This is a message from Lord Nergal, “I await you on the Dread Isle.”

  • Denning

    This is a message from Lord Nergal, “I await you on the Dread Isle.”

  • Denning

    This is a message from Lord Nergal, “I await you on the Dread Isle.”

  • Denning

    This is a message from Lord Nergal, “I await you on the Dread Isle.”

  • Eien

    Its funny, every time someone tells me there was no ‘discovery’ portion to SS, I stare at them like they have three heads. When I finished it I came out to the internet and was wholly surprised by these comments. For me, just having the stamina/run feature gave me exploration. I could go anywhere it felt like. I could try any thing. I could explore and find new things (even if they were slightly programmed, I mean come on, I wasn’t looking for tricks!).

  • foxmcloud555

    SS now ranks in my top 3 Zelda games, but I can easily see how it would not appeal to a number of people. Ever since the first game in the series, I have been someone who enjoyed the dungeons more than the overworld. That’s why my other two favourites are OoT and LA. OoT has the most utterly amazing dungeons from a mechanical point of view, and LA had an overworld that progressed like a very loose dungeon. This is one of the reasons why I was less of a fan of WW. While I still appreciate what it did, I don’t overly care for travelling for the sake of travelling, and in my opinion the dungeons were lacklustre.

    SS is basically 98% dungeon structure, and while there were a lot of tiny niggles that I’d have liked to see changed (night/day cycles, tiny loading screens, Fi needing to shut the hell up), overall the level design is some of the best that I could ever wish for.

    To put it another way; Where other Zeldas are a regular burger with your bun, lettuce, tomato, onions and a beef patty, SS is like 3 beef patties sandwiched in the bun with a smattering of lettuce.

    So you had better really, really enjoy beef.

    And by beef I mean dungeons.

  • Neutopia

    It’s weird, I own all 16 Zelda games, I loved them, I had to force myself through Skyward Sword so many times, I couldn’t get that into it, and I had been building anticipation for years, but now that I’m looking back on it like 6 months later, I really enjoyed it and feel the urge to play it again, that’s a first for me.

  • Infinite1UPs Mask

    Holy Crap. This one of the most fairest, comprehensive,and awesomest article on SS I’ve read in awhile. Good job Hanyou. You felt exactly the same feelings I did while playing SS. It felt like I was really playing the 2D Zeldas fully realized into 3D.

  • Demise’s Doom

    I’m very sorry to all of the people who genuinely enjoyed SS, but it can’t compare to its predecessors, Oot and MM. I believe that A Legend of Zelda game should be much more free-roam than SS was. With only three overworld maps, each with two dungeons (which weren’t even close to the greatness that other game’s had), it was much too limited for me. It could have been made much better if there had been “land bridges” between the three, with optional quests/heart pieces along each. Don’t get me wrong, the game was good, but it could use countless improvements to its overworld.

  • ELF<3

    I’m actually glad that there are no side paths because I always get lost in Twilight Princess. But I loved riding around on Epona in Hyrule Field.

  • Refreshing_OJ

    I understand the article and the idea behind the construction of the entire world of Skyward Sword, but seriously Nintendo. All because you think that the world is well designed doesn’t mean in any manner that I have to backtrack four times to three areas. That doesn’t make me want to play the game. By the tie I was finished with Skyward Sword, I was MORE than glad to finally kill Demise so Fi could shut up about how my hearts were low, or how she continued to break the fourth wall and inform me that the batteries in my Wiimote were low.

    I recall myself yelling at the television when I thought that I Nintendo would force me to backtrack through the final dungeon to collect tears once again in order to obtain each piece of the Triforce. The game was a success, and it really can’t be compared to any other game in the series because of how substantially different it is, but that doesn’t mean that it’s good unfortunately. The combat is fun, but the fact that it took THIS long for Nintendo to figure out precise motion controls concerns me. A lot.

    Excluding Fi, the over the top borderline completely insane characters, the awkward flying mechanic, and the fact that I had to continuously traverse the same territory, whether that be in a “spirit world” or in a slightly adjusted version of the original map, Skyward Sword was a good game. Unfortunately though, the entire game is composed of the bad parts that I just listed. It was a good try, but Nintendo, please. Make sure to leave out a lot of things you tried in this game in the next Legend of Zelda game.

  • MK388

    Am I the only one who unconsciously said “Other M” when finished the game? seriously, I like SS and Metroid: Other M, but both are somehow linear for their usual adventurous atmosphere…

  • Flagpole

    The overworld itself is great – it is (almost) perfectly designed. What Nintendo should have cared about is the sky overworld. In a game where the main overworld doesn’t allow for much exploration, the skies, which allow for a lot of freedom, should have focused more on exploration by adding a lot of islands and a few more side-quests/content, and not only as a mere mean of connecting regions.