Skyward Sword is Simultaneously the Best and Worst Zelda Game

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword was a pretty polarizing game. A lot of it had to do with its Wii MotionPlus controls – if you didn’t like them, there was no way you were going to be able to get into the game. Its new visual style also proved problematic for some – it wasn’t quite as suited to “high fantasy” as Twilight Princess, nor was it as crisp and clean as The Wind Waker, and so it fell into a kind of limbo between the two. Couple that with a boatload of questionable design choices, unbalanced difficulty, and you’ve got a recipe for a lackluster entry in a big franchise.

But it’s not all bad by any means. There are a slew of critical things that Skyward Sword positively nailed.

A Well-Made Gameplay System

Regardless of whether you liked or disliked Skyward Sword‘s motion controls, there’s no denying how polished and finished they were, especially compared to the waggle-filled, tacked-on controls in Twilight Princess.

Link’s sword moves basically the way it should, whether you’re simply idly adjusting it in your hand or hacking away at enemies (and grass). Various “steering” controls for flight, swimming, and the Beetle all work very consistently as long as you don’t try to point your remote at some really odd or exaggerated angle. Aiming takes a little getting used to for those of us who swore by the Wii Remote’s infra-red pointer, but the ability to point the remote in various ways depending on what feels most comfortable is a nice bonus. What were once messy and inconsistent Nunchuk controls are now a lot more responsive when it comes to pulling off moves like the Shield Bash.

In short, the way the game handled was pretty much exactly what one would expect from a motion-controlled Zelda.

The best part of all those innovations? The sword and shield motion controls actually opened up the possibilities for an enhanced combat system. Being able to execute more kinds of basic sword attacks due to the wider range of directional input resulted in enemy AI being adjusted to defend from each of those directions. This means that melee enemies don’t just go down if you just approach them and mash the B button; you actually have to respond to your enemies’ movements. It’s a much more skill-based, reflex-intensive system that closely resembles the combat structure of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, and it adds a layer of difficulty not present in its 3D predecessors.

A slew of other gameplay additions help the game come closer to par among other modern action games: a stamina-based dashing and climbing system that makes even basic traversal a test of strategy; a shield durability meter that depletes as you weather hits from enemies; a greater focus on enemy loot and weapon upgrade trees; more seamless inventory navigation; additional quick-travel options (in the form of the frequent bird statue drop points).

Another great feature was the shift to more open adventure fields, which replaced the often corridor-like regional sub-areas in other 3D Zeldas. Filling up the world with actual stuff and making it more friendly to player curiosity beyond the usual “I see something I can’t reach with my current equipment” was a nice change of pace. Faron Woods in particular stands as a shining example of how Zelda‘s world can be designed in a fairly open, non-linear way without resorting to empty field areas.

I’d go so far as to say that Skyward Sword‘s key innovations constitute some of the best gameplay system improvements in the franchise’s entire history. Truly wielding Link’s sword with the help of Wii MotionPlus was just that satisfying, and all its potential for more intense battles, a greater degree of player customization via the equipment and upgrade system, and a more exploration-driven world is definitely apparent throughout. U

Unfortunately, where the game falls flat is not in its level of polish, but in the quality of the game content.

A Great Foundation, A Disappointing Game

Despite all its great strides and solid ideas, Skyward Sword suffered from one ginormous issue: its content wasn’t quite up to par. Though it was advertised as the biggest and most expensive Nintendo project to date, its reported five years of development time didn’t quite show, and the amount of content certainly didn’t meet or surpass that of previous installments.

The issue comes, I think, from Nintendo’s misunderstanding of the meaning of “game content” as it applies to a game like Zelda. “Game content” basically boils down to “stuff that’s in the game” – that is, the characters you meet, the places you visit, the enemies you fight, the items you find, and so on. Skyward Sword frankly wasn’t the most ambitious Zelda in terms of any of these categories.

While I’ve praised its bold new approach to world design as an improvement over the tunneling of previous games, the game suffered from a couple other crippling problems.

On the surface – or rather, in the clouds – is its noticeable lack of a true “overworld.” Instead, players explored the largely barren Sky, which somehow took the wide open emptiness of The Wind Waker‘s Great Sea and managed to magnify it by delivering even fewer actually-substantial islands to explore. Those that did exist cast aside the mini-dungeons and enemy challenges that made treasure-hunting across the ocean worth its while. In the past, I’ve famously criticized Twilight Princess‘s overworld for being too empty, but I wasn’t advocating for the removal of the overworld – and certainly not for its replacement with a “field” that’s even emptier.

The overworld is the heart and soul of The Legend of Zelda. Dropping right into the wide world at the very beginning of the first game, taking your first steps into Hyrule Field in Ocarina of Time and Twilight Princess, even setting sail for the first time on the Great Sea all carried a certain weight and wonder to them that other games haven’t quite been able to match. While your first flight in Skyward Sword may try to play to a similar tune, without being a true overworld at heart it fails to fully deliver.

The other glaring flaw was the overexposure of each of the major gameplay fields. I love the central Faron Woods to death for its complex level design that hearkens back to 2D legends like A Link to the Past, but I certainly didn’t need to be forced to explore them no fewer than five times by the end of the game. It didn’t help that after the game’s first half, there were barely any new areas to discover – and those that did exist were pathetically small and suffered from that tunneled, linear design that plagued past 3D Zeldas.

Combine these flaws, and you get a Zelda world that isn’t particularly ambitious, and sacrifices a deeper game experience for a bland hub and shallow retreads of the same areas, with one-shot twists sprinkled on top.

I’ve praised Skyward Sword‘s combat system for the added challenge it offers – at least in theory. The enemies, while they’re able to block oncoming attacks more intelligently than ever before, are largely non-aggressive, meaning that defeating them is more a matter of persistence than it is a trying affair. Damage delivered by enemy attacks seems to have gone up as a way of balancing this, but it doesn’t eliminate the flaws: the skill threshold, for all the enhancements to the combat controls, is still fairly low.

It doesn’t help that there are very few enemies in general, a phenomenon that’s only highlighted by the fact that the very first pack of grunt enemies you face is one of the largest you’ll meet throughout the first two-thirds of the game. After that, it’s largely a series of one-on-one battles, which would be no problem if Link wasn’t so overpowered compared to basically everything else. What happened to the days where the serious enemies could take just as many hits as the player? You could still cut right through them if you were good enough, but if you weren’t quick you’d get torn to shreds.

Even some of the great ideas were executed poorly in the end. The item upgrade system, while a terrific idea on paper, wasn’t really balanced well. Unlike in the original Zelda, where even experienced players would struggle without the increased offensive might of the Magical Sword or the defensive powers of the Blue and Red Rings, Skyward Sword‘s upgrades seem to exist mostly for vanity collection purposes.

It’s a flawed articulation of a fairly simple concept. In most RPGs, better gear exists so players can keep up with the power levels of their enemies. That’s not to say that you can’t win without better weapons – usually the right strategies can prevail regardless – but for the average player who might not be up to maximizing battle efficiency by crunching the numbers, getting ahead more or less requires that they pick up stronger gear. For Zelda, the idea ought to be similar – those players who manage to commit the best tactical approach to enemies to muscle memory will be able to take on anything, but for everyone else, finding those shield upgrades, more powerful swords, and so on will be critical for survival in the later stages of the game.

Unfortunately, that’s not how the difficulty wound up being scaled in the end. The game was clearly designed around the default equipment, to the point that it seemed like the upgrades system was more or less tacked on at the tail end of development (which, judging by previews, is probably true).

It’s not that the ideas were bad; it’s that the game that was created to showcase them seemed in too many ways to miss the point. The missing overworld, the not-quite-tough-enough enemies, and the inevitably pointless item upgrades system all proved that you can have a pristine gameplay core, but without compelling content to back it up, it’s nothing more than potential waiting to be realized.

Both the Best and Worst

What Skyward Sword has going for it was that its potential had already taken several steps past the mere conceptual stage. The intuitive MotionPlus control framework was already complete; a more complex combat system was fully implemented; its other new gameplay elements were definitely decided upon and put into motion. Unfortunately, the gameplay foundation is only half of the picture, so even as I can call Skyward Sword the “best Zelda ever,” I can also look at its comparatively low-quality content and see the “worst Zelda ever.”

As I said in my first Zelda feature here on GenGAME, the future of the franchise is going to depend not so much on making a better game engine, but instead on delivering on the good-old quality craftsmanship of the setpieces we encounter as we play.

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