Skyward Sword: The Best of the Best?

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword has been officially released for almost three weeks now. Since then, the game has become a best-seller for retailers worldwide and has received phenomenal reviews all around. This is the Zelda game fans have been waiting for since Nintendo first revealed that their new home console, the Wii, would use motion-based controls. Many loved the thought of Link swinging the iconic Master Sword as they swung the Wiimote, and this notion became the basis for what people thought Zelda Wii should be. Needless to say, plenty of fans were disappointed when they discovered that Twilight Princess lacked the 1:1 motion controls that would later provided by Wii Motion Plus. True, Twilight Princess was directly ported from the GameCube and fitted with Wii-style controls, but what this game inadvertently managed to do was cloud players’ perspective of what Nintendo could actually do with their new technology.

Thankfully, Skyward Sword is the embodiment of Nintendo’s original promise. Contrary to what many fans feared after the glitchy demo displayed at E3 2010, Skyward Sword’s mechanics run smoothly and efficiently. Of course, gameplay isn’t the only thing that makes or breaks a game. Fortunately, many reputable video game critics, such as GameInformer and IGN, have given The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword a perfect 10 out of 10. In fact, this is how IGN starts off their review:

“The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is the greatest Zelda game ever created. It’s the best game for Wii and one of the finest video game accomplishments of the past 10 years. The game has once again raised the bar and forged new territory for an iconic and innovative franchise. It’s not enough that it finally establishes a powerful, stirring origin story or that it features near-perfect pacing. What puts Skyward Sword over the top is its layered, dense, absolutely perfect gameplay that manages to not only nail motion-controlled combat but remarkably offers a stunning level of diversity.”

Wow. The greatest Zelda game ever created. Considering the Zelda series’ status within the video game industry, this is a loaded statement. It is almost equivalent to saying what the greatest Shakespeare piece ever written is, since both are often considered the best in their respective mediums. And IGN isn’t the only one with this opinion. From all over, critics and gamers alike have been calling the content-packed blue disk a masterpiece. By saying Skyward Sword is the best Zelda game, people are in turn calling it one of the best games of all time, since Zelda is often considered the pinnacle of gaming. But just how accurate is this statement? Of course it is only opinion, so not everyone will agree, but from a gameplay, presentation and story perspective, just how well does Skyward Sword stand up to the other “best of the best” games that make up the Zelda series?

Since the time IGN and GameInformer began reviewing, seven Zelda games in total have received a perfect score. They are Ocarina of Time, Link’s Awakening DX, The Oracle of Seasons, The Oracle of Ages, The Wind Waker, Twilight Princess, and now Skyward Sword. Also, it is worth mentioning that in GameInformer’s 200th issue, the original Legend of Zelda took best game of all time, therefore qualifying it for a perfect score as well. Since all of these games received the same rating as Skyward Sword, it should be safe to compare them and determine if the newest addition to the Zelda series truly is the best installment yet.

So to start I’d like to talk about gameplay, specifically the controls. Here is what IGN had to say about them:

“Pairing itself with Wii MotionPlus, Skyward Sword’s 1:1 combat is a revelation. I never want to play a Zelda game any other way again, and playing through this makes me wonder why we didn’t see motion control of this quality before. The responsiveness and intuitiveness of the entire arrangement is superb. The applications of Motion Plus never step into gimmicky territory. Guiding your mechanical flying Beetle, rolling bombs, swimming in water and soaring through the sky by pivoting and flicking the remote not only feels natural, it makes you wonder how you ever played an action game that wasn’t on Wii. Zelda: Skyward Sword is the purest, most perfect realization of Nintendo’s ambitious goals for motion-controlled gaming. It somehow took five years, but the definitive proof plays out before you on the screen.”

It pleases me to confirm that IGN has hit the nail on the head, and that Skyward Sword has the most intuitive and fun controls of the entire Zelda series. Swinging your sword is responsive and exhilarating. Unlike Twilight Princess, you cannot just flick your wrist in any direction to defeat an enemy. Using your sword, you must strike your opponent at its weak spot, which may or may not change depending on how that specific enemy adapts to your moves during battle. But the fancy new controls aren’t just exclusive to swordplay. To my surprise, they affect almost everything you do! Want to ride your Loftwing? Steer it with motion-controls. Want to go swimming? Use a spin-move underwater with motion-controls. Want to use an item? Pull out your beetle and pilot it with motion-controls. It may sound gimmicky, but trust me, it’s not. After playing Skyward Sword, you will never want to go back to the button pushing of every other Zelda game that precedes it.

As you might have guessed, these intuitive 1:1 controls come with a fresh new level of difficulty. As GameInformer puts it, “If you run into a group of enemies waggling the Wii remote like a madman, you will be torn to shreds. Success in swordplay depends on studying opponents’ moves and attacking at the right time and from the right angle.” This is something that I can definitely confirm. The first time I encountered a bokoblin, I was positive that this was the hardest enemy in the entire game. This, of course, happened towards the beginning of my journey, so I wasn’t yet fully used to the controls. Then, just one dungeon later, my opinion changed completely when I met the lizalfos. This kept happening throughout the entire game, since every time I met a new enemy, I’d have to discover their weakness! But the difficulty wasn’t so extreme that I threw down my remote and ragequit. Rather, I was just pleased that Nintendo had finally made a moderately difficult Zelda game. And to all those that complained about the new number of starting hearts, you will need those extra three hearts!

Of course, gameplay isn’t just about the controls or the difficulty. In Skyward Sword you’ll find the many diverse dungeons that the Zelda series is known for. They are, however, a little different this time around. Instead of having anywhere between two and six floors, the dungeons in this game are almost all one floor, with only a handful having more. In addition, each floor usually only has a few rooms, but they are relatively bigger and there are no shortages of things to do in them. This change feels nice, especially since I didn’t find myself blundering around while trying to navigate through the rooms and floors. One change I am bittersweet about, however, is the exclusion of a dungeon compass. While you are shown the location of treasure chests when you get the map (which overall makes things easier), the compass has been with us since the very beginning. While I can’t find a logical reason for not including the compass, I’m not totally complaining. One less item you have to find, right? Oh, and don’t worry about items and bosses; you will find a new item every dungeon, and yes, they often help you defeat the bosses, which are some of the biggest and baddest ever seen in Zelda.

When you are not in a dungeon you’ll find yourself in the sky or down in the land below. Each of these places is fun to explore, but both have their flaws. On this topic, IGN writes:

“Previously, a wide open mainland would branch off to smaller areas that would lead to vast dungeons. That concept effectively ends in Skyward Sword. Though the sky realm is a huge area to navigate, it’s generally just used as a way to access different regions in the land below. There is [also] a slight disconnect between the earthly realms, but that does serve to add a sense of wonder about the unknown, particularly when huge areas of your map remain blank.”

Most of what is said above is true. Compared to The Wind Waker’s Great Sea, the sky of Skyward Sword, which is mainly used for travel, seems dull and empty. It’s certainly not littered with islands like most were expecting, although there is a logical reason for this within the game’s story; as explained in the game’s intro, only small portions of the land were raised into the sky. As for the land below, it’s no Hyrule; it cannot be compared to the overworlds of Ocarina of Time or Twilight Princess. This is due to the fact that the land, as stated above, is split into three sections: a forest, a volcano, and a desert. In contrast to what IGN believes, I do not think that this separation adds wonder to the world. In fact, I just find it annoying. For example, in order to travel from one province to another, you must constantly return to the sky. This becomes a hassle after a while, but you spend so much time in each of these sections compared to the time you spend traveling that it isn’t a big enough issue to ruin the game. It does however make the game lose the charm of traveling across the connected land of Hyrule.

Despite the minor flaws and inconveniences that you will stumble across while playing, the gameplay of Skyward Sword is great. No, it’s better than great. It’s fantastic. The controls are fun and refreshing, the dungeons are as jaw-dropping as ever, and the world around you is fun to explore. Compared to any other Zelda game, Skyward Sword has the best gameplay of them all.

As for presentation, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword presents itself like no other game. Knowing the limitations of the Wii, Nintendo chose an art style that would catch peoples’ attention and look beautiful during gameplay. Quoting IGN:

“Great graphics don’t always revolve around polygon counts and high-res textures. Where Skyward manages to excel, and completely overcome its hardware limitations, is its creative and inventive art direction. The minimalist approach not only serves the game’s tone but allows the designers to come up with outlandish environments and creatures that wouldn’t work in a more realistic setting.”

The result is what can best be described as a moving impressionist painting. As Link moves closer to an object, the details become clearer and clearer, but as he moves away from it, the object blurs up. It doesn’t blur up messily though. Rather, the object looks like a backdrop in a painting. Nintendo pulled this off so perfectly it’s astounding. I’ll be honest: I hated the graphics at first, but then I stepped into the world myself. I would see Eldin Volcano in the distance, all smudged and blurry like it wasn’t really there and had been painted on a canvas that Link was standing in front of. But as I climbed the mountain the volcano became more and more real, and it was then that I fully appreciated the graphics.

If you’ll recall, ever since the first Skyward Sword trailer played at E3 2010, many people have been describing it as “The Wind Waker combined with Twilight Princess.” Well let me tell you, that is exactly what the new Zelda looks like. However, it is somehow better than both. It’s like a polished Twilight Princess and a more hardcore The Wind Waker, put together and mixed into the art style that is Skyward Sword. It’s not as unrefined as the first nor as childish as the latter, it is just perfection; a unique balance between the two. This applies even more to the cutscenes. During epic cutscenes (and I assure you, they are epic), there are particle and lighting effects like I’ve never seen from Nintendo. I am very pleased, and Zelda has never looked better.

The last new addition to the presentation of this Zelda game is the inclusion of fully orchestrated music. Not only does this performance style sound unbelievably beautiful compared to the soundtracks of previous games, it also sets the mood for the entire adventure. Music has always played a pivotal role in The Legend of Zelda since the beginning, and after hearing it performed by a full orchestra, you may be disappointed from now on if you get anything less.

Finally I want to talk about Skyward Sword’s story, which according to GameInformer is the biggest surprise of the entire game.

“For all the different shapes it has taken, the plot of The Legend of Zelda has always been a fairly predictable affair that feels like an afterthought. Skyward Sword doesn’t elevate the art of video game storytelling, but it is a major step up for the franchise, with clever writing, an interesting (if strange) new villain, and a wide cast of characters that would feel at home in one of Disney’s better animated movies.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Obviously I cannot say much, since many people have not beaten the game, but just know that this is without a doubt the most fulfilling and magical experience ever branded with the name Zelda. You will find yourself on a rollercoaster ride, taking dips and turns you never saw coming. I will not lie, this was the first Zelda game that ever made me tear up, and I don’t usually cry. It’s just so powerful of a story, and the character development is excellent. I have never cared for or been so intrigued by virtual people more than I did when I played Skyward Sword. Take Ghirahim for example. He can be directly compared to Zant from Twilight Princess, but in that game Zant was the blandest character imaginable. Sure, he had a small amount of backstory, but he hid behind a mask for most of the game and showed close to no emotion. Ghirahim, on the other hand, is one of the most eccentric villains I have ever seen, and he does have a few moments when his anger takes him over and you really see just what kind of a person he is. I used Ghirahim for my example, but it goes without saying that the true character development was put into Link and Zelda, for their story is the one worth playing for.

In conclusion, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is a melancholy tale of finding not only the one closest to you, but also yourself, and this is true not only for Link but for many other characters as well. My two primary reviewers, IGN and GameInformer, clearly have an understanding of a good video game. They agree (as do I) on almost all points: gameplay, presentation, and story. The motion-controls are fantastic, fun to use, and are implemented into every aspect of gameplay. The graphics and music of this game are beautiful and unlike any other Zelda title, which in this case is a very good thing. And last but not least, the story is epic and enthralling, truly a worthy origin story for one of video gaming’s most adored franchises. It’s fairly easy to say that Skyward Sword truly does surpass every other game in its franchise. The Legend of Zelda as a series hasn’t evolved so much since the famous Ocarina of Time on the Nintendo 64. Skyward Sword is a wonderful game that shall surely dwell within the hearts of Zelda fans for years to come. It is a game that all Zelda fans should experience. The best of the best.

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