In this series of articles comparing major elements of Skyward Sword with those of previous titles in the Zelda series, I have already covered the introduction, the overworld, and the story and characters. This will be the final article in this series, comparing the core gameplay of the game to that of its predecessors. The core gameplay of a Zelda game, arguably, is the combat and the puzzle-solving; the skills you use the most while navigating the overworld and that are tested the most by the game’s dungeons. Since the dungeons exemplify the core gameplay so well and are often considered to be the most important element of a Zelda game, I will also discuss these and their bosses.
The combat is especially prominent in Skyward Sword, as it was in the last major console game, Twilight Princess, and for this reason it’s especially important to discuss and compare to that of older games.
I should not need to tell you about how Skyward Sword uses Wii MotionPlus. The game tracks nine different types of sword strike, which must be used strategically in battle. All of the 3D Zelda games have included multiple directions for swings. Ocarina of Time originally allowed the player to do horizontal and vertical swings as well as thrusts. While little importance was placed on swing direction in those games, it’s actually not true that it wasn’t a factor, and skilled players may have noticed that swinging horizontally at Dark Link from the side opposite his shield made landing a hit far easier, and paying attention to what attack you use could be of use in both The Wind Waker and Twilight Princess. Despite this, however, it has never been used outside of obscure combat tactics and Skyward Sword makes this feature newly prominent, as well as doubling the number of possible strikes.
This new layer to the combat provides increased depth as well as difficulty, as does anything that increases the complexity of a game. Enemies also utilize the same control principle in their attacks and especially in their guard, forcing you to quickly familiarize yourself with new foes or else lose many hearts. Depending on player skill and unique playstyle, the player may find themselves having a lot of trouble fighting even basic foes, and for some enemies this may never completely go away, even late in the game. Whether this is true for you or not will probably depend on your ability to adapt to the controls as well as your ability to think with the concepts behind the combat and enemy design.
Two of the Hidden Skills from Twilight Princess return as basic techniques, as does the Sword Beam from classic Zelda games, now called the Skyward Strike. The Ending Blow from Twilight Princess will be used to quickly dispatch fallen enemies, and the Shield Bash is used to deflect enemy blows and to preserve your shield; if an attack is successfully bashed rather than merely blocked, the shield’s durability meter will not deplete. These shield controls are an expansion to the basic ones that were also first established in Ocarina of Time, and they function identically to the new sword controls in that they add a new layer of depth as well as difficulty. The shield will take getting used to, but adds a lot to the game (especially in terms of inventory management and upgrades), and can be invaluable in defending yourself against challenging foes. You may, however, find that after mastering the shield, the combat will no longer be nearly as challenging. You can use the Shield Bash to create massive openings, allowing many free hits without much risk. This is of great benefit to players who have difficulty with the combat, but for those who enjoy the challenge, they may find this disappointing unless they limit their use of the shield.
One of the downsides of Skyward Sword’s combat comes with the number of enemies you’ll face. The enemy count is surprisingly small, and you’ll constantly re-fight a lot of the same foes or only slight variations of them. This is made acceptable by the depth, however. As I previously stated, many of the foes will continue to challenge you throughout the game, and many of the later weapons have various uses or interesting results against enemies new and old. There’s always fun to be had, even with recurring enemies.
You may still eventually find yourself wishing for a little more, though. Most of the items are handled well, and there are plenty of upgrades to spend your time on, but at times you may find yourself wondering why certain items aren’t very useful outside of their obvious applications, or why there weren’t upgrades available for them. Other times it seems like Nintendo missed out on opportunities to make more upgrades or give the weapons some good and obvious combat functionality, like the Whip, which is virtually useless in combat and doesn’t do as many things as the Snake Whip from Spirit Tracks did. The Clawshots have also dropped functionality since their first appearance in Twilight Princess, now becoming little more than a basic mobility item without much active gameplay.
The Clawshots and Whip are not even particularly useful during puzzle sections, either. As I said, all the Clawshots do is allow you to move from place to place, while the Whip only has incredibly standard use, mostly flipping special Whip-only switches. No puzzle solving whatsoever. Other items are used much better in the puzzles, however, and navigating the areas, removing barriers, and finding secrets is often very enjoyable as you brainstorm unique ways to roll bombs, or have to spot and carefully aim at targets with your bow at great distances.
The puzzle-solving in Skyward Sword seems straightforward in some areas, but in others it’s completely unique. The uniqueness often comes from the application of the motion controls and new item functionality. Many Bomb rolling puzzles can be found throughout the game, you’ll use the Gust Bellow to blow away sand and manipulation propellers, and for the first time in a while, careful sharpshooting with the Bow is crucial. The items are not the only thing that adds a new dimension to the puzzles, though. You’ll find that it’s often new concepts that create fun puzzles, like the Stamina Meter, which limits your actions. There are plenty of simple but enjoyable moments where the limitations of the Stamina Meter force you to complete tasks quickly, or in stages, and this expanded element of the gameplay, along with the motion controls, adds a huge new element to the game. The controls in general allow expansion of the puzzle elements from previous games, and as Nintendo has discussed, light puzzle elements are present in nearly all battles due to the added depth of the controls and combat system. The swimming controls are just like the Stamina Meter and other motion controls in this, but they unfortunately suffer from hardly ever being used. The game’s closest thing to a water dungeon, the Ancient Cistern, requires very little swimming, and the only other swimming portions of the game are very brief. This was a completely underused element. The puzzles are also kept fresh in this game by the constant addition of new elements, from the guardian eyes of the Skyview Temple, the rolling boulders of the Earth Temple, the Timeshift Stones of Lanayru Desert, to the moving of rooms in the game’s final dungeon.
The dungeon design of Skyward Sword in particular is impressive. As I discussed in my article about the Skyward Sword overworld, many of the overworld areas feel like dungeons, in terms of how many enemies you’ll face and in how many puzzles you’ll solve just getting from point A to point B. You’ll even fight overworld bosses along the way, such as The Imprisoned and Levias. This would make you think that the dungeons of the game lack any importance, but in actuality Nintendo has compensated by giving Skyward Sword some of the best dungeon design of the series… for the most part.
In previous Zelda games, many of the rooms in a dungeon will contain very little to do. Twilight Princess in particular had vast dungeons with many rooms and floors, but most of the rooms were generally meant for only one or two things. Skyward Sword marks a complete reversal of this trend; the majority of the dungeons have a single floor, use a minimal number of rooms, and cram an amazingly large amount of things into each. The Earth Temple, the second dungeon of the game, is the most extreme example in that it contains literally only four rooms, but also contains roughly the same amount of content as the dungeon preceding it, which had many more rooms. These dungeons are complex, with a lot of creative ideas, and they have seamless design so the experience flows smoothly from puzzle to battle to new item.
I think that if this high level of quality had not been achieved, the dungeons in Skyward Sword would have been far more disappointing than those of other Zelda games, as they would have been overshadowed by the dungeon-like overworld. With how the game is designed, however, the dungeons act as pinnacles of gameplay, the decidedly funnest parts of the game which you will still eagerly await. More than ever, these areas and their bosses act as climaxes to sections of the game and as breathtaking transitions from one region to the next.
What’s especially pleasing about these dungeons is how many themes they combine together and how much they innovate. In my past article about dungeons, I talked about the importance of unique themes in dungeons, and especially the combination of many themes. To my delight, Skyward Sword beautifully showcases this principle, outdoing even many of the more unique dungeons from past games. Each dungeon is a distinct area that feels fresh because of its own themes and ideas, and you rarely feel that you’re walking through the same type of area. Unfortunately this does occur somewhat during the game’s later half. After completing the fourth dungeon, the Ancient Cistern (one of the most conceptually amazing dungeons in the game), you will find yourself in the Sandship and the Fire Sanctuary, and while both of these dungeons also have unique feelings and use their own ideas, they do partially copy the gameplay concepts and atmospheres of their predecessors from their corresponding regions, the Lanayru Mining Facility and Earth Temple.
This is the point where the dungeon design also feels like it takes a dip in quality. The first three dungeons are designed exceptionally well and always have a new idea being presented, but the following three have a more traditional Zelda execution, which isn’t necessarily bad, but feels like a step back considering what the dungeons in the game’s first half were like. This is an example of the game being incredibly innovative, but unfortunately it’s also an example of how the game sometimes loses its momentum.
The dungeons are challenging, dangerous areas – a product of both the new ideas and controls, but also of the dungeon design itself. You will find the hardest enemies and worst traps of the game here, and the puzzle design, particularly in the Lanayru Mining Facility and Sky Keep, is devious. And this of course brings us to the bosses, the final challenge of any dungeon.
The mini-bosses return, of course, and are almost always the type of enemy to challenge you in sword combat. These duals are often challenging and fun, although it’s unfortunate that virtually all of them are sword battles. Aside from this fact, the mini-bosses are a decent mix of unique foes and powerful groups of regular enemies. There is even a dungeon where you will fight none, and one where you will fight no less than four.
The major bosses of the game however are very different. With the exception of Ghirahim – a recurring boss encountered in two of the game’s major dungeons – these are not sword battles. The bosses of Skyward Sword are a varied collection of foes, from large monsters to mechanized statues. The fights themselves are incredibly varied as well, with no set standard. Ghirahim for example is impervious to most weapons, and has no weakness to the items found in his dungeons; he is purely a sword dual. This isn’t the only time where the use of the dungeon’s item is limited or removed. Moldarach is largely a sword battle, and the Gust Bellows from the dungeon are only used to reveal him during his second phase. Most of the fight against Tentalus is much the same. There is no set way or degree to which you’ll use the items, and every boss has new ideas behind it.
Most of the bosses continue the two-phase concept from Twilight Princess, forcing you to fight one section of the battle before a boss reveals new tricks and changes the fight, but unlike in Twilight Princess, the bosses can not usually be dispatched by revealing their weak point and attacking it only three times. Instead, bosses often have a lot of health that drags out the fight and makes it challenging. If they were enemies that died quickly, they would have been nearly as easy as those of previous games. These are some of the best boss fights of the series, and indeed, I’d even credit them as some of the best of any video game I’ve ever played.
Skyward Sword’s gameplay, at its base, is some of the best of the series, but it doesn’t differ from Skyward Sword’s other elements; like the game’s introduction, overworld, and story, there are small flaws present that may be found annoying by some even if they don’t ruin the game. Skyward Sword is one of the most polished and impressive games of the series, but it was held back from its full potential by these flaws. As always, I hope that Nintendo takes what they’ve done here and expands on it, adding in new ideas and polishing off all of the game’s problems. If they do that, then I think, truly, they will create the greatest Zelda game of all time.