Roughly one year ago, Skyward Sword was released for the Nintendo Wii, marking the 16th major entry in the franchise and the first Zelda game to use full motion controls. The game received nearly universal praise, getting 9′s and 10′s left and right from countless reviewers. Many critics also labeled it as the most significant breakthrough in modern gaming since Ocarina of Time, some going as far as to call it the best Zelda game ever made. Whether that’s true or not is debatable, but it’s also not what I’m here to talk about. As the title of this article suggests, I’m going to be analyzing Skyward Sword‘s strengths and weaknesses. I’ll start out with the weaknesses in order to get them out of the way. After that, I’ll move on to the strengths and wrap everything up at the end. So without further ado, let’s get started.
While I strongly believe Skyward Sword was a great game overall, it definitely had its shortcomings. These shortcomings were significantly less degrading to the overall experience compared to those of most other modern titles (at least for the most part), but they were still less than stellar. The following features are what I believe to be Skyward Sword‘s largest missteps.
Skyward Sword‘s overworld is a mixed bag for me. I love a number of things about it, but at the same time, I have a few gripes. For starters, there’s the Sky. The travel itself, unlike in the previous transportation overworlds, didn’t have any immediate flaws, but the Sky’s environment was rather sub-par. The clouds were pretty to look at, but that’s all there really was to it. It was visually unimpressive. To add onto that, the content was spread pretty thin, a mistake repeated from The Wind Waker‘s Great Sea, Ocarina of Time‘s Hyrule Field, and Twilight Princess‘s everything. Not much happened while flying through the Sky. The occasional tornado, Guay, and Octorok would appear (as well as some flying squirrels to skydive with for 20 rupees), but these were pretty uncommon.
Why couldn’t there have been more danger? Why couldn’t the Skytails seen in the Thunderhead have been scattered all across the Sky? It would have given the Skyloftian Knights a reason to be patrolling the Sky in the first place, as well as something to pay attention to. Why couldn’t there be flying minigames to participate in, like racing other Knights or breaking targets (like the test Headmaster Owlan gave Link in order for him to earn use of the Spiral Charge)? And, most importantly, why couldn’t the islands be more important? Why were the islands not larger and capable of being explored? I have nothing against them being small, since they’re not the surface, but did they really need to be as miniscule and empty as they were? The Loftwing was fast and fun to control, so at least flying it around wasn’t completely boring, but the Sky as a whole was a notable let-down compared to what it should have been. I enjoy traversing it, but it could have been vastly more entertaining.
Then there was the disconnected surface. One of the largest aspects of the Zelda formula is roaming around the overworld without restriction (with logical exceptions, of course). The surface being disconnected prevented that sort of thing from being completely realized. It’s almost ironic, given how most of Skyward Sword‘s surface portions were actually pretty open and generally free of hallways — with the exception of Lake Floria, of course. That was nothing but a hallway. I just can’t help but wonder how open Skyward Sword‘s surface would have been had it not been disconnected. Well, at least the individual portions being mostly open was a step in the right direction. Hopefully Nintendo will get it right in the future.
Thankfully the overworld wasn’t a complete dud, unlike quite a few of Zelda’s modern overworlds, but it did leave something to be desired.
I somewhat hesitate to bring this up since literally every Zelda title has skimped on detail in their stories, but the fact that Skyward Sword stepped up pretty much every other major storytelling aspect makes the lack of detail stick out more than usual. The characters, dialogue, and presentation all went through significant upgrades in Skyward Sword, creating a much more active and engaging plot than in any previous entry in the franchise. So why wasn’t the detail upgraded along with these? Specifically involving the backstory.
Imagine if more of the game’s backstory had been involved with the overarching plot. Imagine how much more of an impact Demise’s resurrection would have been had we had learned even more than we did throughout the events of the game. Imagine if the three Dragons had been given a proper explanation and role in the story rather than just basically being there. There’s so much more that could have been discussed in Skyward Sword‘s story, and I can’t help but wonder why Nintendo didn’t put these sorts of things in the game. Zelda’s story isn’t all that important, so it’s less of a flaw and more of a missed opportunity, but it’s just kind of strange to see developers step up the series’ storytelling in every area besides the details. Hopefully future games will improve on this, and hopefully the Interloper War will one day receive a proper explanation, whether via a backstory or direct events in another prequel.
Skyward Sword was actually a bit less linear than other modern Zelda titles due to a healthy amount of isolated moments of non-linearity in the overworld and most of the dungeons, such as finding the Kikwis and the sliding puzzle in the Sky Keep. However, the game was still too linear for Zelda’s standards; the overall progression of the game took place on a solitary path. It’s a shame that this is the case, because Skyward Sword brought back quite a few classic Zelda elements, such as a heavy focus on resource management and RPG elements. Why didn’t it go all the way and bring back full-fledged non-linearity?
I can understand the first three dungeons being presented in a linear fashion, since that’s been done ever since A Link to the Past, but why couldn’t the second half of the game have offered open choice with the dungeons? They could easily have been designed to not rely on the items found outside of themselves. What’s a shame is that they almost were. The Sandship only requires the Whip to be used once, and the Fire Sanctuary only requires the use of the Clawshots twice (plus it never required the use of the Whip or Bow). These moments could have easily been removed from the dungeons with no real effect to the overall design because the only instances of their use don’t matter: The Whip was only used to get across a gap in the Sandship, the Clawshots were used for the same thing on two separate occasions in the Fire Sanctuary, and the Bow served as a valuable accessory in the Fire Sanctuary rather than a necessary item, something it also would have done for the Ancient Cistern. There isn’t really any reason for the linearity of the game’s second half. We should have been able to complete dungeons 4 through 6 in any order we desired.
In addition to this, the developers should have taken it a step further and opened up the surface to be freely explorable shortly after completing the Lanayru Mining Facility. The Sky would still have been important as an efficient means of getting from province to province quickly, after all. It also would have allowed for an incredible amount of room to roam around in conjunction with the province areas already in existence, striking a great balance between exploration and progression, as well as allowing the provinces as they are to feel less corridor-ish. That was probably Nintendo’s intention with the Sky, but since it was so lacking in content, it obviously failed that role. I already discussed the overworld in detail, though, so I don’t think I need to elaborate any further.
The linearity of Skyward Sword marks questionable decision-making, and I don’t think I will ever be able to wrap my head around it. The fans have asked for non-linearity to return for years. Why do developers insist on keeping the series linear? Whatever the reason, I guess all we can do is hope that future games will return to having non-linearity as a major focus.
Despite some minor flaws, Skyward Sword succeeded in many areas. Its strengths were simply phenomenal, and they’re exactly why this game was so critically acclaimed in the first place. The following examples are what I believe to be the most significant things that Skyward Sword managed to get right.
Motion Controls and Combat
Skyward Sword‘s biggest success was without a doubt its control scheme. With extreme intuitiveness, 100% precision, and sheer entertainment factor, this game’s controls were absolutely flawless in execution. Their involvement in the game was intense, providing more innovation and more interaction with Link’s environment than any previous Zelda game, bar none. The sword, the items, the Loftwing, the swimming… virtually everything in Skyward Sword took advantage of the Wii MotionPlus, gracing gamers, casual and hardcore alike, with some of the most impressive gameplay the series has seen to date. Nothing was left unrefined with Skyward Sword‘s control scheme.
Before I move on, I would like to address that there were some people that reported issues with the controls. However, none of these were actually the fault of the Wii MotionPlus. As was pointed out in this editorial, the controls required accuracy, accuracy that some people may not have been able to easily apply. This is a personal issue, not a problem with the controls. The fact that it’s possible to play the game without experiencing any issues whatsoever is proof of this. With that said, let’s get back to the main topic.
Of course, with so many things in Skyward Sword taking advantage of the Wii MotionPlus, the combat was in no way excluded. Many enemies used specific patterns that needed to be exploited in order to be taken down. Enemies like the Bokoblins, Stalfos, and Lizalfos required precision swinging if players were to have any hope in landing a hit, let alone defeating them, whereas enemies like the Octoroks and Sentrobes had players take advantage of the Shield Bash to bounce back their projectiles. This was made even better by the significantly improved enemy AI, which allowed them to efficiently respond to Link’s attacks, whether by blocking or dodging. Even the most basic enemies went through remarkable upgrades, right down to the freaking Deku Babas, which have a variant — the Quadro Baba — that provides one of the most intense combat experiences out of any enemy in Zelda history. Most other enemies and many of the bosses would absolutely punish players for trying waggle their way to success, retaliating with attacks that took off 1-2 hearts of damage, which doubled to 2-4 hearts in Hero Mode, causing players to have to think twice before swinging away.
There were also many different ways to go about defeating enemies. Using the Deku/Quadro Babas as an example again, you could defeat them the “normal” way by slicing in the direction their mouths were open, or you could do any of the following: Throw a bomb and watch them catch it, stun them with the Slingshot to prevent them from attacking before slashing their mouth or stalk, use the Skyward Strike to attack from a distance, cut their stalks with the Beetle (hanging ones only), shoot their mouths or stalks with the Bow, or parry their attacks with a Shield Bash and cut their stalks with the sword. That’s 7 methods in total. And keep in mind, that’s just one enemy out of the entire game — some of the tougher enemies had options like this involving the sword and shield alone. All of this added up to Skyward Sword having much more diverse combat situations despite the lack of Hidden Skills and items. Of course, not every enemy featured that amount of diversity, but these were very few and still featured at least 3 ways of being taken out. The amount of thought put into each and every enemy was quite honestly astounding, and the amount of attention needed to survive encounters with the tougher foes (or at least come out unscathed) was off the charts. Skyward Sword had one of the most engaging combat systems out of any video game period, and it would be a huge shame to not see it expanded on it in the future.
Puzzle-Solving and Overworld/Dungeon Transition
Zelda games have long been known for their ability to provide entertaining and challenging puzzles within their dungeons. Games like Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask, The Minish Cap, and Spirit Tracks each had stellar puzzles that marked not only some of the best in the series, but some of the best puzzles in gaming in general. Skyward Sword continued this tradition expertly.
Nearly every dungeon was chock full of hazards, enemies, and brain-teasing obstacles, each with near-flawless pacing and the perfect atmosphere to fit the setting. In fact, the first and final dungeons were arguably the best the series has seen so far in their respective placements. The Skyview Temple offered an all-out dungeon experience rather than a tutorial — something unheard of in most previous Zelda games — and presented a chokingly-thick atmosphere, while the Sky Keep provided an amazing non-linear experience alongside reliving the environments of previous dungeons with new challenges. The dungeons were executed so well in this game that I would personally argue they outdid those of any previous title in virtually every way possible.
The puzzle-solving wasn’t strictly confined to the dungeons in Skyward Sword. Oftentimes, the overworld acted like a dungeon itself. It’s not something entirely new to the Zelda series, what with A Link to the Past and The Minish Cap featuring overworld areas with some minor dungeon-like elements, but Skyward Sword took it to the next level by presenting scenarios that were actually somewhat thought-provoking, rather than having us jump through a few craftily-placed hoops (not that I’m criticizing the two previously mentioned games). The transition between overworld and dungeon was seamless as a result, a feat every previous Zelda title struggled to achieve even if they came close. It’s a refinement the series was in need of, and I was thrilled to see that Nintendo finally managed to successfully blur the line between the two. As I touched on earlier, Zelda should definitely go back to being open-world, but not maintaining the puzzle elements seen in Skyward Sword‘s surface portions would be an absolute waste of the series’ potential.
Resource Management and RPG Elements
One thing that had been seriously lacking in the modern Zelda titles was resource management. Most things were practically handed to players on a silver platter and never required much thought in how they could affect the gameplay. The Lanturn in Twilight Princess was a decent exception to this, but that’s 1 item out of, what, 20? Items didn’t need to be used carefully. Conservation was never a legitimate factor. Skyward Sword significantly improved on this. There were often times where conservation was needed due to minimal resources in the overworld; item containers like Seed Satchels, Bomb Bags, and Quivers, could not hold very many of their respective items from the start, making Deku Seeds, Bombs, and Arrows hold more value and importance. In addition to this, increasing capacity didn’t consist of buying or winning larger containers that were permanently a part of Link’s arsenal. Instead, extra containers had to be purchased, or your containers upgraded with other resources, only increasing your total capacity by small degrees with each addition.
That was just the tip of the iceberg, though. These containers, along with other types of items — shields, bottles, and medals — each took up a slot in the new Adventure Pouch, which could initially only hold up to 4 items. More pouches could purchased or found throughout the game in order to hold more items (a maximum of 8), but players still had to carefully choose what they wanted to bring along on their adventure, preventing Link from ever becoming ridiculously overpowered. Another upside to this was that it featured a sense of customization. If you wanted to carry multiple shields, you could. If you wanted to carry around multiple item containers, you could. If you wanted to not purchase the other 4 Adventure Pouch slots to make the game more challenging, you could. Lots of freedom of choice was involved, and it really went a long way in helping improve how players had to manage their inventory.
Then there were the RPG elements. Skyward Sword featured the aforementioned medals and the new upgrade system. The medals functioned similarly to the rings from the Oracle games by giving Link special benefits, from simple things such as finding more treasure or hearts, to more complex things such as having potion effects last three times longer or having more rupees and treasure appear but at the cost of not being able to open the Adventure Pouch. And speaking of treasure, that’s where the upgrade system came in. Bits of treasure could be obtained on the surface in two ways: Finding some lying around and via random enemy drops. These could then be used to upgrade Link’s quest items, shields, and item containers. Bugs could also be collected with the Bug Net and used to upgrade potions to give them stronger effects, such as refilling every heart instead of 8 or allowing you to take no damage instead of half. The upgrade system was a relatively simple addition to the series, but it definitely added a breath of fresh air to the tried-and-true Zelda formula that had been around for over 25 years upon the game’s release.
Skyward Sword was released on the Wii, so it’s graphics weren’t exactly constructed by a powerhouse, but it’s not about the graphical limitations themselves. It’s about what’s done with them. Skyward Sword seamlessly blended The Wind Waker‘s vibrant colors with Twilight Princess‘s detailed textures and combined them with an impressionist painting vibe to create one of the most gorgeous art styles gaming I’ve ever seen. Up close, things looked like 3D paintings with watercolor-like textures, while everything in the background looked like it had been painted into the scenery with pastels. It was a great workaround for the Wii’s limited hardware, and it allowed for Skyward Sword‘s graphics to not look so dated in 480p.
The cutscenes were also a major strong point. I mentioned earlier that the presentation aspect had been stepped up in Skyward Sword. This is mostly what I was talking about. Some of the cutscenes in this game were simply jaw-dropping and left me utterly speechless. The expressions on characters’ faces also provided intimate looks into their thoughts without them ever having to say a word. This has been a constantly improving feature in Zelda ever since The Wind Waker, but no current Zelda game has matched the amount of sheer emotion and liveliness that Skyward Sword had due to its stellar visual effects. If this is how Zelda looked on the Wii, I can’t wait to see how it looks on the Wii U.
The audio in Skyward Sword was equally as impressive as the visuals. Every sound effect was crisp and clear, and the character interactions were highly memorable despite the upholding of the traditional grunts and giggles, most likely due to them being used a lot more than in previous games. That and none of them were recycled later in the game. Where the audio really shined, though, was in the soundtrack. Rather than restricting itself to mainly simple, catchy tunes, Skyward Sword went for a much more robust and grand collection of songs, something not seen before in the Zelda franchise. That’s not to say that there was a complete lack of traditional Zelda music, but I and many others were constantly surprised at the overall change in style this game’s music had to offer. Pleasantly surprised, might I add. The music was designed to instantly capture the emotion that the surrounding environment was supposed to convey and amplify it. I could literally feel the music oftentimes rather than just hear it, and as a huge fan of captivating music in a video game, that was a huge plus for me. It was the kind of change in style I had been waiting for since my first introduction to Zelda with Ocarina of Time.
Of course, I can’t forget to mention that Skyward Sword was also the first Zelda to use a fully orchestrated soundtrack. It was great to finally see this in the Zelda series, as live orchestration just sound better than standard MIDI does. Ocarina of Time 3D was actually the first to feature an orchestra in a Zelda game (its credits featured this song), but Skyward Sword had orchestrated tracks spread across the entire adventure, and did they ever make a difference. The game’s intense moments just wouldn’t have had the same impact without it, as there’s something about live orchestration that has more soul and life to it. Needless to say, I hope Nintendo keeps this up in the future.
I think the biggest strength of this game’s soundtrack, however, was its overall balance. Skyward Sword always knew what kind of song to play at the right time. It knew when to make its music catchy, when to make it atmospheric, when to make it eerie, when to make it adrenaline-rushing, and when to make it simply gorgeous, and it always fit with the surrounding areas or corresponding moments. There were a few songs here and there that weren’t all that great, but overall it was one of the most amazing soundtracks ever composed. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised considering it came from Super Mario Galaxy‘s composer, Mahito Yokota.
Skyward Sword was a game with its ups and downs, but overall it had far more positives than negatives. It introduced many great ideas to the series and refined just as many old ones. As I said at the beginning of this article, it’s debatable whether or not this is the best Zelda game to date, but that’s not really what matters right now. What matters is that Skyward Sword was an incredible entry into a legendary franchise that will no doubt become yet another cornerstone for the series’ future, as well as the future of motion gaming. It’s one of the best Zelda games so far, and it stands up there with the best of the best in gaming, easily worthy of being in a Top 100 Best Games list. Here’s to hoping Zelda 3DS and Wii U continue this magnificent legacy and improve on it further.