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The critics have spoken! According to the aggregate review site GameRankings, Super Mario Galaxy 2 has replaced Ocarina of Time as the highest-rated video game of all time. This honestly comes as no surprise, since the sequel offered improvements to the already critically-acclaimed engine first used in the original Galaxy, which came out just 0.02% shy of Ocarina‘s lofty ratings. While critics’ ratings certainly aren’t everything, the end of Ocarina‘s nearly twelve-year reign at the top of the charts nonetheless brings to mind an important question: is Skyward Sword set to become the greatest Zelda game yet?

Personally, I’m hopeful that Nintendo is finally ready to pull off that feat, one that Aonuma has stated as his mission as producer of the series. But before we can guess what Skyward Sword will need to do to achieve that goal, we need to look at what Super Mario Galaxy 2 offered that made it so special.

Number one on that list is pure, unadulterated fun. The first Galaxy had already achieved this through its unique style and the traditional Mario feel; Galaxy 2 makes no further attempts to “grow up” beyond its colorful happy-go-lucky roots. If anything, it tries to further emulate the feeling of “fun” by including classic Mario elements such as Bowser’s fortress, the Hammer Bros., and of course Yoshi to grab those of us who remember them from our childhood romps through the Mushroom Kingdom. It even borrowed similar elements from the New Super Mario Bros. games for those new to the series as of the Wii generation.

There’s something new to do around every corner, be it planet-hopping, floating as a Bee, or jumping from cloud to cloud to collect all those Silver Stars, bowling your way across a gauntlet of twisting pathways as Rock Mario, or exploring an undersea cave on a Koopa’s shell. Many have criticized Galaxy 2 for having too many levels without fleshing any of them out as much as previous 3D Mario games, but I feel – and many of the critics agree – that one of its greatest strengths is the sheer volume and variety of challenges.

While Ocarina was certainly fun, and wasn’t exactly a stranger to incorporating elements from its rich history, it just didn’t offer the same variety of gameplay that Galaxy 2 did. This could be the case due to the typical Zelda formula – investigate a new area, discover the pathway to a dungeon, get the special dungeon item, use the item to clear the dungeon, and then return to the field to further investigate. Mario on the other hand isn’t bound by the same rules. The path to each individual Star stage is pretty much freeform and can offer whatever challenge the creators feel like including. Due to the nature of the game’s outer-space setting, there are some cases where moving from one planet to another completely changes the level’s atmosphere.

Can Zelda find a way to achieve the same variety? While I doubt that Zelda will ever go into space and thus will always have to in some way adhere to the continuity of its fantasy world, the creators have already hinted at innovating the way the game is played. We’ve had Link transform into multiple forms in Majora’s Mask, fight tag-team in Four Swords Adventures, fly with the help of a winged companion in Twilight Princess (a segment that Galaxy 2 borrowed for a couple of its own levels), and even ride vehicles in Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks. Incorporating more “special circumstances” into the gameplay, where players have to use items creatively or even in tandem to get past obstacles or defeat enemies, will offer that sort of variety.

Thankfully, Aonuma has gone on record to say that part of his goal in Skyward Sword is to focus less on creating a big game world or ambitious story and more on making the game fun to play. Galaxy 2 took a similar approach, foregoing the typical “hub world” characteristic of 3D Mario games as well as focusing less on story in favor of offering new and exciting gameplay. We’ve already gotten a taste of how better gameplay will feature in Skyward Sword through our exposure to the new controls, which promise to add new dimensions to the Zelda experience.

Another element that Galaxy 2 brought to the table was challenge. While it’s far from the “hardest game of all time,” Galaxy 2 did have a number of situations where even a slight mistake would carry a heavy cost to players. One of the least forgiving in the early stages was the Flip-Swap Galaxy. Galaxy veterans used to being able to use the spin attack mid-air to get extra air during their jumps had to resist their instincts, because in the Flip-Swap Galaxy, spinning meant shifting the floor around. A poorly-timed spin meant death.

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The challenge in Zelda, on the other hand, comes less from the actual execution of tasks than from figuring out what needs to be done. Once you know how to hit the boss’s weak point, you can do it without taking damage, and in some cases without even thinking about it. There are very few circumstances where bosses vigorously protect their weak points – and those cases are usually very patterned and easy to follow. Bosses in Galaxy, while often formulaic as well, at least involve high-paced, high-stakes action. Several of them took me out at least a couple times; I beat most Zelda bosses on my first try.

Many clamor that Ocarina of Time was definitely harder than Galaxy 2, and to them I say: “Were you 21 and a pro at video games when you played Ocarina? Were you ten and on your first console when you played Galaxy 2?” I may think Twilight Princess was a cakewalk, but I’ve watched others with less history on their gaming resume struggle with it. I have no doubt that had I played Twilight Princess and Galaxy 2 when I was still a video game newbie, they would have both handed my ass to me ten times over (and the latter gave me plenty of trouble as it is).

I’m happy to say that Skyward Sword seems to already have taken a critical step in the right direction as far as difficulty through its unique control scheme. Say goodbye to the days of scripted battle actions executed by simple button-mashing (or Wii waggle in the case of Twilight Princess) – now we have to rely on our own precision and skill to take down enemies. Not only that, but in the E3 demo, we saw enemies who took off entire segments of health – the boss occasionally dealt two full hearts of damage! Since demos are usually easier than the real deal, I think we can safely say that the combat difficulty is going to increase based on this knowledge alone.

Difficulty of play closely ties back to the fun factor. Games are a lot less fun when there’s no challenge to them. Aonuma seems to realize this important ingredient of enjoyability too, for he has assured us that he does not want to make Zelda games easy to beat, but rather easy to play.

Then of course there’s the soundtrack. Galaxy 2 stands out from most Nintendo games in that it has an orchestrated soundtrack, and that alone is enough to blow Ocarina‘s music out of the water. There’s also a sharp contrast between Galaxy‘s bold course tracks and Ocarina‘s comparatively soft and low-key dungeon music. That’s not to say Ocarina is completely devoid of interesting music, such as the Hyrule Field and Gerudo Valley themes, the tracks for any boss battle, or the touching ending credits song – Galaxy 2 just has a lot more energy across the board. With Skyward Sword confirmed to have orchestrated tracks, however, the next major Mario title may have to watch its back in the music department.

I’m not going to harp too much on the graphics. The upcoming 3DS update might render any comments on that subject null and void when it’s finally released (and that could go for the soundtrack as well!). Suffice to say that Galaxy 2 will probably always look good, while Ocarina‘s polygons definitely won’t. While there are definitely some things that still need polish before the final release, Skyward Sword offers a unique visual style that, if pulled off well, will look just as impressive and remain just as timeless.

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Right now I’m fairly confident that Nintendo has taken what it’s learned over the years and is applying those lessons to the newest batch of games all across the board. That means Skyward Sword should, by all indications, be cut of the same cloth as Galaxy 2 in terms of quality and lasting appeal. But while we can speculate all we want, the true test will come when the game releases next year. Until then, we can only hope that the new hero among Zelda games is nearly upon us.

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