Birth of a hero

As reserved and conservative as they may come across at times, Nintendo knows how to celebrate the big moments. Mario’s 25th anniversary saw the release of a limited-edition Super Mario All-Stars, reminding us that it’s OK to look back on the past and appreciate those old games for what they were—and what they’ve done for so many of us as gamers. Well, now another Nintendo mainstay’s joined the 25th-anniversary club, and he’s got a brand-new game that pays tribute in its own special way: The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. Featuring classic elements, characters, and enemies from many of the best Zelda games of the past—with plenty of nuances to make it its own standalone title—Skyward Sword’s conceived as a prequel to Ocarina of Time, a title not only considered by many to be the best Zelda game of all time, but also one of the best videogames of all time. Those are some pretty heavy Iron Boots to fill.

Skyward Sword opens with a brief history of Skyloft, an island in the sky created by the Goddess to save humanity from the massive monsters that populate the earth below. To protect the remaining people, the Goddess devised a cloud barrier that would both keep humans off the land and the monsters out of the sky. Once this backstory’s established, we find Link, as always, oversleeping. Zelda—who’s portrayed as Link’s lifelong friend in this game—sends a majestic bird called a Loftwing to wake up our pointy-eared hero, and he heads over to the statue of the Goddess as Zelda prepares for a traditional Skyloft ceremony. After a short opening quest that introduces Skyloft’s many denizens, Link must participate in the ceremony, which serves as the game’s flying tutorial. Once victorious, Link and Zelda embark on a celebratory flight across the clouds until a dark tornado from beneath the fluffy barrier reaches up and knocks Zelda off her Loftwing. Link must now find a way down below the cloud barrier—and, in the process, fulfill his ultimate destiny.

The first thing you’ll notice is the distinctive look the adventure takes this time around. Strongly inspired by impressionist art, Skyward Sword will take your breath away as it mixes elements from Wind Waker and Twilight Princess to suggest the feel of a living painting. But this new graphical style also has gameplay elements in mind, as it allows for exaggerated enemy designs that still maintain elements of realism. That creates more obvious strengths and weaknesses in many of the foes Link faces, and it’s also an obvious nod to the controls—but more on those later. You’re constantly solving puzzles and meeting challenging foes even when you’re not dungeon-crawling, which adds a lot of playtime to the overall adventure. The audio’s also brilliant, featuring a full orchestral composition that seamlessly flows with the story. And, of course, music once again plays an integral role—a traditional Zelda motif for many years now. All in all, this game will please your eyes and ears better than any Wii release—aside from, perhaps, the Mario Galaxy titles.

Skyward Sword lays enough groundwork so you can see how this is indeed a prequel to Ocarina, but you’ll also notice parallels to later games in the series: Link’s crimson-colored Loftwing acts as Link’s transportation in the air much like the King of Red Lions does for Wind Waker’s oceans. And Fi, the spirit of the titular Skyward Sword, acts much like Navi does in Ocarina, locking onto targets and providing hints and information when needed. These elements work well, and I’m sure they’ll stir up timeline enthusiasts once they see all the connections, but it’s when you start to scratch past the surface of Skyward Sword that you begin to see some of the flaws. Though many key elements from past games are still present, like exploring diverse regions, conquering puzzle-laden temples, and collecting fantastic items to help you overcome larger-than-life bosses, some changes might irk fans—beyond the fact that Link starts with six hearts instead of the traditional three.

The most blatant annoyance storywise definitely has to be Zelda’s disempowerment. Though she still plays this society’s role of princess as the knight headmaster’s daughter, she almost comes off as pining for Link from the second you meet her. In the EGM offices, we likened it to Metroid: Other M’s unfortunate relationship between Samus and Adam. I understand that Zelda and Link are played off as best friends in this game, but she just comes across as reliant upon Link long before she falls below the clouds—following him around like a lovesick puppy and hoping he’ll win the ceremonial festivities so they can take a celebratory ride together above the clouds. You could argue that since this may be the very first Zelda, she hasn’t yet evolved the characteristics that come with being a princess of a large kingdom. Still, it just comes off wrong and dampens the moments when she tries to be the more strong-willed character we’ve grown accustomed to over the years.

In the grand scheme of things, this could be construed as minor, but what really keeps Skyward Sword from reaching the level of several of its predecessors is the control scheme. Remember how I mentioned that the visual design emphasizes enemy strengths and weaknesses? Well, this graphical quirk comes from the conscious decision to make Skyward Sword too reliant on motion controls and Wii MotionPlus—and it’s this element that singlehandedly holds the game back from elite status.

Twilight Princess’ motion controls worked because the game was more forgiving of your movements; simple flicks of your wrist would provide the desired results. Now, due to the enemy design revolving around the motion-control gimmick and being forced to use the MotionPlus—which follows you too well—you’re often pulled out of the immersion, because you’re constantly reminded that you are holding a controller whenever the controller doesn’t do what you want.

A perfect example is the miniboss you face in the first temple. It’s a Stalfos, a Zelda enemy staple from the very beginning. This dual-sword-wielding skeleton towers over Link, so in order to do damage, you must swing where the Stalfos isn’t blocking. If he’s holding his swords horizontally, you must swing horizontally through the gap; if he’s holding them vertically, you strike vertically. Unfortunately, if you’re like me and have played a good amount of button-mashers over the years—or even just older Zelda titles—your instinct is to attack hard and fast. But if you swing too fast, even with MotionPlus, Link won’t be able to catch up to you. Or, worse yet—since I’ve yet to meet someone who prefers to play games standing up—if you’re sitting down, it’s impossible to swing the controller perfectly horizontally or vertically every time, and you’ll often have to reset your position, destroying the illusion of immersion.

Another failure of Wii MotionPlus comes with bombs. For the first time in the series, you can roll bombs into crevices and holes instead of just dropping them or throwing them, and this is necessary at certain points to open doors or take down particular enemies. The problem, though, comes from the way most people hold a Wiimote. Think about it: You have your thumb on the A button, your index finger on the trigger, and your other fingers wrapped around where the batteries are stored. If you attempt to roll something, like in Wii Sports Bowling, you’re going to turn the Wiimote to its side so that the bottom of your hand faces toward the sky. The problem in Skyward Sword is that this makes the bombs sail far off to the right of your intended target and forces you to overcompensate with an uncomfortable palm-down technique more akin to throwing a bocce ball.

So, yeah, the controls are pretty rough. And it breaks my heart, because I think this could’ve been one of the greatest Zelda games yet had the controls just worked. But, despite the controls, this is still a great Zelda game. You’re looking at a 30-hour-plus adventure if you’re a Heart Container fiend like myself—and probably still a good 20 hours if you’re just looking to complete the story, even if all those fetch quests get a little tiring after a while. Even with cruddy controls, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is still an epic adventure worthy of the franchise—and it should absolutely be played by all fans of the series.

SUMMARY: Skyward Sword has all the elements of a spectacular Zelda tale, but poor controls prevent this from reaching an Ocarina-like level.

  • THE GOOD: Classic Zelda elements remind us of 25 years of greatness
  • THE BAD: Poor motion controls remind us of 5 years of flailing futility
  • THE UGLY: The hole in my living-room wall after throwing the Wiimote through it in frustration

SCORE: 8.5

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is a Nintendo Wii exclusive and therefore reviewed only on the Wii.