Onward and upward, but where do we go from here?
This console generation has not been kind to the Legend of Zelda series. Often considered to be one of the most beloved console gaming franchises of all time, that legacy has been tarnished in the years since cult classic The Wind Waker released on the Gamecube in 2003. In many ways, Zelda has become a victim of its own success; trying to please all of its fans, yet failing to fully satisfy any of them. Each installment tweaks the basic formula to some degree, but the main architecture of every game remains largely the same, and the once strong foundation is beginning to crumble with age.
In celebration of the Zelda series' 25th anniversary, Nintendo takes the franchise back to its roots, figuratively, by making Skyward Sword a prequel that sets up and defines everything that has taken place in the series to this point. There's noticeably more effort put into the story of Skyward Sword, and likewise into creating a cohesive narrative for the franchise as a whole. The game begins on a floating island in the sky, Skyloft, with series protagonist Link enrolled in a Knight Academy, just before he earns the right to fly his crimson Loftwing, a massive bird capable of conveying Link from one aerial island to the next. Before long, Link embarks on a journey to the land below, tasked with the familiar goal of rescuing his childhood friend Zelda, but the way the plot progresses by the end will influence the way you look at the overarching Zelda plot from now on.
There are multiple allusions and references in the story to long-standing staples of the series, implying and outright explaining the origins of many key items, characters, themes, and motivations. Attentive and devoted fans will notice constant in-jokes and homages throughout the game celebrating the series' 25 year history. The characters, new and old alike, are more nuanced and interesting than they've ever been, and the friendly flirting relationship between this incarnation of Link and Zelda lays a solid groundwork and provides ample motivation to see the story to its inevitable conclusion. The sole lacking exception, unfortunately, is Link's constant companion, Fi, the spirit that resides in his sword. She behaves and speaks robotically, and perhaps because of this, is lacking in personality. Furthermore, her blatant and constant reiterating of even the most basic concepts and goals in the game, combined with the slow text speed, make it seem as if Nintendo is trolling everyone who ever had the gall to complain that Navi was pedantic and overly verbose; Fi is easily twice as intolerable.
This constant hand-holding for the sake of newcomers has become a heavier burden on the Zelda games as time moves on, which has lead to the first few hours of every game feeling overly slow and uninteresting. The constant reminder of basic 3D gaming concepts like lock-on targeting and holding a button to run faster makes the intro sequence of Skyward Sword practically a barrier to entry to anyone that's played a Zelda game before. You can only do these things so many times before being told how to do it yet again makes you want to snap your controller in half. It doesn't stop entirely after the first few hours of the game, either. Every time you collect a bug or a smithing item to upgrade your equipment for the first time in a gameplay session, you'll receive the same explanatory text describing the object and its basic use. It got to the point that I wanted to leave my game file open at all times so I wouldn't have to read about a Jelly Blob for the 15th time.
It constantly seems like Skyward Sword is struggling with how elaborate and involved it wants itself to be as a video game. The Loftwing flying mechanic introduced in the game was added to invoke the sense of freedom and exploration that the sailboat provided gamers in The Wind Waker, yet the skies surrounding Loftwing are smaller, less populated with activities, and less interesting to look at. The aging tech of the Wii does the feeling of adventure a disservice in this case as well, since, while you are able to fly to and over any piece of land in the sky, oftentimes when you board or leap from your bird you'll be confronted with a quick cutscene to hide loading before being allowed to control Link once more. You can't literally swoop down and land your bird, nor can you weave in and out of the obstacles and the people on many of the islands. It's a jarring disconnect in a feature that should have elicited open-world fun and wonder. Travelling to the earth below is even more constricting; you simply fly your Loftwing to a hole in the cloud cover, and then pick a spot on the map to be dropped off at. There's no flying allowed at all on the surface of the planet, and this is probably partly due to the fact that the game lacks any real sense of an overworld at all. Aside from the scattered islands in the clouds, and the town of Skyloft, the game mainly consists of three regions that are basically hubs containing a few dungeons and mini-dungeons each. There's next-to-no exploration or travelling allowed for the player, and the game is oddly directed for a series that was originally created to allow exploration and experimentation. In many ways, the original Legend of Zelda was one of the first "sandbox games", and there's practically none of that legacy evident in Skyward Sword. Likewise, the lack of many interesting mini-games or side-quests and secret rewards definitely hurt anyone hoping to do more than plow through the story. Not only do your rewards usually amount to nothing but the typical bigger wallets and ammo bags, but the mini-games are painfully lacking in creativity. One of the small handful of mini-games is pretty much just Minesweeper. Minesweeper... in a Zelda game... in 2011.
It's worth noting, however, that the temples and puzzles found in the game are among the best in the series. Oftentimes, the solutions to the troubles you face are obvious in retrospect, but always rewarding upon finally figuring things out; the sign of a great riddle. Utilizing the Wii's motion controls also allows Skyward Sword to introduce new types of puzzles, and reintroduce some older classic puzzles in new and interesting ways. The levels are all well-designed and unique to the series, even though many of them retain some of the franchise's classic themes: forest, desert, and fire levels exist, but there are new elements, including physics puzzles and time distortion, that make them seem fresh and exciting again. The classic Zelda formula is a classic for a reason: putting aside how stale it has gotten in recent years, good game design is still good game design, and you're constantly tasked with new ways of looking at areas and obstacles. However, this game suffers from the same problem many of the recent Zelda outings have had: too much padding. You'll return to each region of the surface world at least three different times, and you'll fight some of the bosses two or three times each. Sure, each time you return to an area a small addition will now be accessible, and your opponents will learn a new move or two each time you come across them, but by the end of the game, you'll feel like you've seen all Skyward Sword has in store for you a few times over.
The key new feature for Skyward Sword is the addition of dedicated motion controls, elaborated on in direct response to their lackluster use in the Wii launch title, Twilight Princess. Every item, puzzle, or battle utilizes the Wii Motion Plus in some way, and when it works, it really feels like a great addition to the Zelda series. It's easily the best use of motion controls in a traditional gaming experience, and the game would be different, and likely worse, without some of the gameplay conceits that motion controls allow. Each battle requires your attention, making each enemy a threat, without being frustrating or overly difficult. The innovations provided by the Wii Motion Plus come with their own set of problems, though. Essentially, the motion controls in Zelda are not perfect. The aiming cursor needs constant re-centering (easily done with a press of the d-pad, yet still frustrating). Similarly, the game has trouble recognizing your movements accurately when you move too quickly, and there is a bit of input lag if you do too much at once, making the fast-paced battles near the end of the game unnecessarily complicated. Flying the Loftwing is unwieldy and finicky at first, but you'll get the hang of it, even though it never feels as intuitive as it should considering it's the main form of transportation in the game. In the end, it seems like your mileage may very when it comes to the accuracy of the motion controls, but like many motion games, when it works, it feels like magic, and when it doesn't, it completely takes you out of the experience.
Despite the somewhat dated hardware of the Wii console, the presentation in Skyward Sword is pretty impressive. The art style is beautiful, oftentimes looking like a living watercolor painting. As the middle ground between the grim reality of Twilight Princess and the whimsical cartoon that was The Wind Waker, Skyward Sword is clearly the best graphical style for the franchise going forward, allowing for realistically proportioned characters and imposing enemies while allowing for some of the more whimsical and emotive aspects of the series. The game will oftentimes make you forget that it's not in HD, save for some blurry textures and a hazy sheen over certain locations that make you wish things were just a little bit crisper. It really makes one wonder what Nintendo will be able to do with an even more powerful console in the next few years. The music in the game is as stellar as it's ever been, with new compositions fitting well alongside the classic franchise themes. All of the music is orchestrated for the first time in Skyward Sword, and the familiar tunes have never sounded better. The only problem with the audio remains the lack of voice acting. As the cutscenes and storylines become more elaborate and animated, it has become painfully awkward that text is the main source of dialog in the game. It makes key scenes and important revelations come across as hollow and empty when characters pantomime, and it's glaringly bad when a character will act out his or her lines and then pause until the player presses the A button, as if they're a theater performer waiting for their next line.
In the end, Skyward Sword marks the end of the first 25 years of the Legend of Zelda franchise. While the game has the same level of quality inherent in most games in the series, it has become bogged down by its own legacy and fan expectations. The series constantly seems as if it's trying to be welcoming to people who have never lifted the Master Sword while satisfying those who have beaten Ganon countless times before. The franchise is at a crossroads at this point, too involved for casual gamers, and too pedantic for the audience that once loved it. It genuinely feels like the series is at a breaking point. It either needs to drastically evolve or it will be doomed to becoming increasingly irrelevant to modern gamers. At this point, no matter how good any Zelda game is, they're only recommendable if you haven't already tired of the hand-holding and formulaic designs that have become synonymous with the series. Like many of the recent Zelda games, Skyward Sword has a bit of the old magic left in it, and it's the best game in the series in nearly a decade, but it's down to you to decide if it's worth sifting through all the monotony and archaic game design holdovers to see it through.