The Legend of Zelda series is twenty-five years old this year. It is part of the foundations of the world of video gaming as it exists today and it impacts on and affects countless games produced for our pleasure year on year. It is a collection of great titles, each adding something to the mythos and quality, with many regarded as the finest of their generation. The finest ever, in some cases. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina Of Time is most cited as the best Zelda game ever, although those with a fondness for the 2D world will recall The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past with wanton excitement.
Familiarity though breeds contempt. Whilst the wording may be harsh, the result is the same. Zelda games are a variation on a formula. Each iteration is a wonderful game in and of itself but the impact of any given example dwindles or lessens as you become more experienced, more aware of its nuances and expectations. If a significant change does occur, for example the cel-shading visual style in the wonderful The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker on the last generation of hardware, the backlash is palpable. Anything Nintendo do has been destined to disappoint. Either fans will not appreciate the change or they will feel it’s just more of the same. Granted it’s more of the same perfectly pitched game play, and most would still play it, but the feeling you had once when opening your very first Zelda game on Christmas morning just wouldn’t be there anymore.
Equally The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is their last chance in one key regard. It is likely the last classical Nintendo adventure to appear on the schizophrenic Wii console. Welcomed into the arms of the world with glorious applause only to be flattened in later life with cries of casual gaming, tacked on motion controls and missing out the hardcore. Could this game turn the popular thought on its head and ensure the Wii as a concept is remembered as it was envisioned, rather than how it is often seen?
Nintendo, as ever, have faced the challenge head-on and found the perfect solution. In The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword the production team comprising of Eiji Aonuma, Shigeru Miyamoto and more have delivered nothing short of a masterpiece. It melds the well-trodden path of the Zelda adventure with a near-perfect implementation of motion controls to the extent that it feels natural and instinctive, just as a traditional controller feels to those brought up with one in their hands. The narrative is fuelled by emotion leading to a number of spine-tingling moments and not a single step on this journey is in any way a chore (after re-learning how to control your avatar nominally named Link). The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword makes you feel like you did the first time you played Zelda, whichever title that was. It engages, delights, encourages and excites in equal measure, taking you on a wonderful journey that only Link, Zelda and Nintendo can take you on.
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword opens up as fans of the series would expect with Link (or whatever you choose to call your character) an innocent youngster with no knowledge of what he is to become nor of what is to befall him. In this particular instance he is training to become a Knight of Skyloft, a town built on a floating island above the clouds. Legend tells of the world beneath being overrun by demons and the Goddess creating the world on high to allow a haven of safety to which her people could retire and live out their days. On this first day in which you join Link on his journey you are due to take part in an event the victor of which will move one step closer to Knighthood. Of course, being in the sky, horses are no good and each citizen of Skyloft has their own bird uniquely connected to them for both their lives. Throughout the trials and tribulations the player must go through in order to provide Link with the chance to fly with his bird, win the day’s event and move one step closer towards becoming a Knight, a relationship between he and Zelda plays out wonderfully well ensuring the gamer is emotionally tied to these characters alone - and as one - until such point at which the two are separated and the adventure begins in earnest. An adventure which by that point the player is more than ready to go on.
This opening act and all that it involves - not least the tentative and unsure throes of romance between the youthful main characters - plays out beautifully. Its pace is extremely well judged, each step of the journey teaching you how to play the game, imparting the background mythology and emoting the bond between boy and girl (and bird). The joy obtained from these early hours is more than in many games’ entirety. It not only provides the player with the tools to then tackle the larger challenges ahead but also provides reason to do so. The start of the game, as related by Shigeru Miyamoto himself when explaining the reason for the game’s delay of one year, is so important to the overall feeling at the game’s completion and so well played here that nothing will stop you from continuing right to the end.
In these early steps of course only the basics of game play are shared. Link has limited tools to play with but these do include his sword, something no adventurer can hope to achieve greatness without. Swordplay is the best illustration of how brilliant the motion controls are in this game, when learnt. It cannot be stressed enough that it is not immediately clear how well the implementation works until you train yourself to play it properly. With 1:1 mapping thanks to MotionPlus technology the sword in Link’s hand mirrors that of the Wiimote in yours. Move to the left, in a circular motion or up to down and Link does the same. He has six axes of attack meaning that if an enemy has their shield covering one side, you must attack from the other, or from above, or down below. As you progress throughout the game new items are obtained for you to use to defeat bosses or make your way into previously unreachable dungeon chambers, but also just to help you do old things in new ways. One such item obtained in the first dungeon (and shown in demos of the game before its release) is the beetle which you can guide through the air, allowing you to approach out of reach areas, pick up and carry items and cut ropes. It brings a whole new dimension to the game and is all thanks to the marriage of technically excellent motion controls with the magnificent level and puzzle design from the game’s creative team.
So motion controls do reach maturity here and are the benchmark for how to blend and use them to the game’s benefit rather than as novelty or afterthought. However there are limitations, and this is why it’s so important to understand there will be a period of learning. Whilst throwing or bowling a bomb is going to be a straightforward concept, the fact that if you point the Wiimote too far off the screen in an early swish of the sword or over-zealous throwing action, it does need reorienting before it becomes naturally usable again (the human arm only bends in certain directions!). A simple centering and press of the D pad does this, but early on it can cause multiple problems. In the second dungeon this nearly reached Wiimote throwing point but in hindsight it was purely lack of ability to implement what Nintendo had provided. Eventually actions require wrist flicks and small movements, not big elaborate enactments of cinematic sword fights. You still get that onscreen, of course, but with much more assured regularity than otherwise. By the third dungeon any concerns had passed and the sheer invention of the dungeons was all that remained. This game may very well be the paradigm shift required to ensure motion controls are part of gaming - for everyone - for the future.
The third dungeon was a highlight. It brought together everything learnt up to that point and all tools obtained to create a wonderfully clever, enlightening and enjoyable temple challenge, one which whilst taking a significant portion of time is not something you would ever want to end. The main tenet of this level and its approach was that pockets of history could be created, literally, where a fanciful gemstone existed. By hitting this a temporal distortion emanated bringing all within its reach to life, as opposed to the downtrodden desert wasteland it was before. The puzzles had a whole other dimension added to them (literally) and each time the answer presented itself a smile crept out and a realisation that this was the most fresh Zelda has ever been since Link’s first outing. The invention never faded, either. Throughout the game the challenge is always the other side of obvious leading to success early at times and late at others. Every item is utilised fully and expectations changed thanks to the subversion throughout the game designed to help fully realise the scale of difference this Zelda has to others despite the fact it’s very much the same.
Outside of the dungeons and boss fights (some on the scale of Shadow Of The Colossus) there is plenty to do. Flying around the skies with your bird, hunting for treasures above and below, meeting people and helping them eliminate their troubles. The whole game is as large as you choose to make it, with the central quest taking a good thirty hours even if you’re a dab hand at such examinations. Expect up to fifty hours if you prefer to soak up all there is to see and do.
As you progress the likelihood is that you will absorb all that The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword has to offer. For a Wii game its art style and execution is remarkable, all bright colours and pastel textures. Wonderful lighting and vibrant design. The characters you meet are cute and clever, interesting and engaging. The soundtrack as always is masterful, displaying the usual orchestral brilliance, incorporating the new with the old. You’ll likely want to listen to the music outside of the game, it’s really that good.
All told then, the argument to play The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is remarkably compelling. What Nintendo have delivered is arguably the benchmark for the system, probably this generation of hardware and quite possibly the history of video games in totality. A lot has been written and said this year about how a game has to move on from its predecessor if there is to be a continuation in a series, otherwise it can never be thought of in as high a regard. Whilst such an argument has merit it doesn’t factor in here at all. The creativity on show here is a number of magnitudes greater than most games. The core narrative is knee-tremblingly effective and includes multiple moments to make hairs stand on end. The central relationship is incredibly emotive. There is always something to do and it’s always enjoyable. This is all wrapped up in a truly new way to play. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is the crowning achievement in one of the greatest game series of all time.
Is Skyward Sword the best game ever?