Posted on September 12 2020 by Sean Gadus
Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword have fascinating legacies within the Zelda franchise, with both games have been widely divisive among fans and critics. Some players adore these games, some players dislike them, and many have mixed feelings about them. While I could spend a great deal of time breaking down the different perspectives about these two games, this article is dedicated to one of my favorite aspects of both games: the inclusion of areas floating in the clouds. Both games include segments of gameplay that take place on floating cities, with Twilight Princess‘ City in the Sky dungeon and Skyward Sword‘s hub city of Skyloft.
And while fans and critics of the Zelda series often enjoy comparing different Zelda games, it is also beneficial to compare Zelda games to other games outside of the franchise and its established norms. By including sky-based areas, Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword became two of several titles across the gaming landscape from the mid 2000’s and the early 2010’s that used the sky as a key setting. In addition to Twilight Princess‘ City in the Sky and Skyward Sword‘s Skyloft, some of the most notable examples of this trend were Metroid Prime 3‘s Skytown and Bioshock Infinite‘s Columbia. Within a span of seven years, these four well-respected games all featured worlds above the clouds. Each game has its own unique take on the concept, with distinct design ideas and art styles that vary widely.
So with that in mind, let’s take a look at these spectacular cities in the sky and examine both their similarities and their differences.
City in the Sky – The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess
City in the Sky remains a fascinating and iconic location in The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. The steampunk-inspired dungeon is home to Ooccoo, the odd chicken-like bird creature that is used as a warp item throughout the previous dungeons in the game. The technologically advanced city is made of several interconnected floating buildings that are in various stages of disrepair. When Link arrives in the city (via a massive cannon), the dragon Argorok is tormenting the local bird citizens. The imposing stone architecture, massive spinning fans, and metal mesh grating give the dungeon a distinct look that clashes with the more traditional fantasy elements found elsewhere in the game. Following in the footsteps of other dungeons like Wind Waker‘s Dragon Roost Island, City in the Sky has a great mix of indoor and outdoor areas to explore, with the player moving between the indoor and outdoor space fluidly.
Overall, the dungeon fully embraces its role as a place above the clouds. The double Clawshot is the dungeon item, and it proves to be one of the most impressive items in the game. The grapple tool allows the player to traverse massive gaps between floating buildings and platforms. Many of the puzzles within the dungeon involve navigating bottomless pits, battling torrential winds, and moving through wide-open rooms that are spread throughout the city. The boss area is separated from the rest of the city, requiring the player to turn on some giants fans in order to bridge the divide between the two parts of the city. Finally, the room immediately prior to the boss involves the player attaching Link to spinning metal grates and slowly navigating the vertical space until the player reaches the boss door, which is perched high above entrance.
City in the Sky also has one of the most stunning boss fights in the entire Zelda series: Twilit Dragon Argorok. The epic battle against this draconic foe fully embraces the verticality offered by an open-air setting. The battle takes place on a massive wind-swept area with metal pillars rising into the sky from each of the four corners. The player must use the Clawshots to rise high into the air, grapple onto the dragon, and send it crashing into the ground with the added weight of the Iron Boots. The second phase of the battle involves clinging to flying plants (Peahats) in the pouring rain. The player must avoid Argorok’s fire attacks, grapple over to the dragon, and stab the beast in the back. The battle is one of the best in the game because it uses the dungeon item and the core tenants of the dungeon (wide-open space and verticality) to great effect.
SkyTown, Elysia – Metroid Prime 3: Corruption
SkyTown remains one of the most gorgeous locations in the Metroid franchise. While much of Nintendo’s groundbreaking science fiction franchise deals with galactic bounty hunter Samus Aran delving into dark and ominous alien worlds, Metroid Prime 3: Corruption brought the series into a wider, more galactic setting. In Metroid Prime 3, there are multiple explorable planets that Samus visits throughout her epic adventure, and each location has its own distinct art design. One of the planets that Samus must visit is Elysia, a planet covered with swirling gas clouds. Hanging in the atmosphere of Elysia is Skytown, a floating research facility originally designed by brilliant Chozo aliens.
More than any other location in the Metroid series, SkyTown revels in wide-open space and wide scenic vistas. The floating research facility is a series of large outdoor platforms and towers connected by roller coaster rail systems, grapple points, and cannons. While Metroid Prime 3: Corruption was released on the relatively under-powered Wii hardware, SkyTown is an incredible achievement in visual design. Retro Studios, who developed all three Metroid Prime games, demonstrated great art and level design, and the developer more than made up for a relative lack in console horsepower. Much like City in the Sky in Twilight Princess, the facility has a steampunk-inspired design, with elegant domed towers and twisting metal rails. And like Link’s journey through City in the Sky, Samus must navigate both outdoor and interior space in Skytown. The mix of indoor and outdoor areas helps to add variety to the setting, enemies encounters, and puzzles.
While much of Skytown is concerned with puzzles and traversal, there are also some thrilling combat encounters. The machines that once protected the research facility will attack Samus throughout her journey leading to some fun, cinematic robot battles. The Ghor boss fight, which involves a mecahnized bounty hunter, begins with the boss wrecking Samus’ iconic gunship. Additionally, one of the best areas of Skytown is the Xenoresearch Labs, where an assortment of Phazon Metroids are being housed. When Samus removes the energy core (power source) from from the area, she frees all the Metroids in the confined research lab and is thus forced to move through the darkened corridors and blast all the Metroids that were just released. This thrilling section has elements of science fiction horror to it, reminiscent of tense sequences in films like Alien and Aliens. The nightmarish Xenoresearch Labs sequence is a great contrast to the calm and awe-inspiring atmosphere that permeates the bulk of SkyTown.
Skyloft and The Empty Sky – The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
In 2011, another Nintendo game featured a floating city: The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. Unlike Twilight Princess‘ City in the Sky and Metroid‘s SkyTown, which both included some combat, Skyloft serves as an almost entirely peaceful central hub for Link’s adventure. The early hours of Skyward Sword involve Link running errands around the idyllic town. Skyward Sword, another game featured on the unique Wii hardware, has an art style reminiscent of many bright impressionist paintings. Overall, the relaxing town of Skyloft consists of several floating islands filled with brightly colored houses, a bazaar full of shops, a knight academy/dormitory, and a massive statue of the goddess Hylia.
While Skyloft was generally praised for its colorful design, the rest of the sky was not as well-regarded by fans or critics. Overall, many players felt that the sky was not fleshed out enough, as it has only a handful of islands scattered across its explorable space. Most of these bite-sized islands across the sky are only home to Goddess Chests and other bonus collectibles. Overall, there is very little room for real exploration or surprise. For a series that is well known for its exploration and discovery, the sky is an area that felt stale and boring compared to the more nuanced hub areas in other Zelda games.
Skyward Sword also bucked Zelda tradition by including an extremely limited Day/Night cycle that did not live up to the standard of cycles created in previous games like Wind Waker and Twilight Princess. In order to visit Skyloft at night, the player must find a bed and sleep there; the player will then awake at night. Skyloft is beautiful at night with glittering stars and glowing fireflies, but some minor enemies like Keese and Chus can also be found around the town at night. Unfortunately, the player does not have the ability to explore the sky at night. If Link tries to leap off the edge and call his Loftwing, he will be rescued by a Loftwing Knight and placed back on Skyloft. This strange decision to restrict access to the sky at night further limited the scale of the world and made it feel less organic.
The best area in the sky besides Skyloft in Skyward Sword is the Thunderhead, a quarter of the map covered by a massive thunder storm. This area includes several interesting islands, including the Isle of Song, a location Link must return to throughout his journey. The Thunderhead is also the location of one of the only flight-based boss fights, as Link must face off against the infected Sky Whale Levias. The dramatic battle makes great use of the flying mechanics in the game, giving the player a rush of excitement as they soar through the air, chasing the massive sky whale. The Thunderhead is the one area in the sky that feels genuinely surprising, perhaps a hint towards what a more fully realized sky world could feel like in a future Zelda game.
Columbia – Bioshock Infinite
Perhaps the most famous city in the sky across video games is Bioshock Infinite‘s Columbia, created by the brilliant and now-defunct Irrational Studios. Influenced by American Exceptionalism and the grandness of early 20th century design, Columbia stands out as the most visually stunning of the four cities discussed in this article, with gorgeous art design and impressively detailed environments. The game’s introduction, where protagonist Booker Dewitt views the floating metropolis of Columbia from a small window in his rocket, remains one of the most stunning introductions in gaming. While Bioshock Infinite, one of the most impressive first-person shooters of its generation, was originally released for PC, PS3, and Xbox 360, the game has been ported to Nintendo Switch and other current generation consoles. Even in 2020, the game still looks gorgeous with incredibly detailed environments and memorable characters.
Bioshock Infinite, which was involved in a lengthy and turbulent five-year development cycle, included a skyrail similar to the system found in SkyTown from Metroid Prime 3. While the system in Metroid Prime 3 used the concept mostly for traversal, Bioshock Infinite uses the skyrails to add an extra layer to many combat encounters. A clever player can swoop down from the skyrail system to pick off enemies, use the system to retreat when they have low health, or find new vantage points to fire from. Some of the best fire fights in the game take place in massive open-air environments, which force the player to consider many variables such as high vantage points, the path between skyrails, and enemy deployment locations. Some sequences even include attacks by zephyrs and airships, which add extra wrinkles to combat encounters.
On first impression, Columbia shares some similarities with Skyward Sword‘s Skyloft. Exploring Columbia for the first hour of the campaign make the player feel like they have stepped into a bright, beautiful, and bustling city. However, as the player continues Booker’s journey, it becomes increasingly clear that the beauty of Columbia is a veneer that hides a dark heart of violence, racism, and exploitation. Later areas in the game reveal that the poor and minorities of the city live in terrible conditions and are forced to do backbreaking labor. The world of Columbia has elements that completely break the illusion of a beautiful, perfect floating metropolis, which are key to Booker’s journey with his companion Elizabeth. Much like Metroid, the Bioshock series has its roots in science fiction horror, and several stretches of the game veer into that territory. One of the best sequences in the game involves the exploration of a twisted science fiction prison and a brief look at a nightmarish future. Overall, Columbia’s beautiful turn-of-the-century design and its hidden heart of darkness make it one of the most thematically nuanced settings in gaming.
An Enduring Fantasy
Cities in the sky have been a long-standing tradition in popular culture, from Laputa (which appeared in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels) to Star Wars‘ Cloud City. The concept remains an idea that writers and designers have an enduring fascination with. One reason for the repeated use of the concept is the sense of wide-open possibility. While we have charted millions of miles of earth’s geography, the sky offers a fresh canvas for dreamers and innovators. Floating cities allow designers to experiment and create wild designs that wouldn’t make sense anywhere else. As a player who has played all four of these excellent games, I’ve come to believe there is nothing quite as spectacular and evocative as a shining city seated above the clouds.
Do you know of any other floating cities that share similarities with City in the Sky, SkyTown, Skyloft, and Columbia? Let us know in the comments below!
Sean Gadus is an Associate Editor at Zelda Dungeon. He loves playing video games, reading books, and geeking out about all things Star Wars and Batman. His first Zelda game was Ocarina of Time. He is currently exploring the hellish depths of Rapture in Bioshock and rereading Vicious by V. E. Schwab.