My introduction to the Zelda franchise.
When I pre-ordered The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword as a Christmas gift for my partner in 2011, I wasn’t really into Zelda games. I’d played the original NES The Legend of Zelda as a five year old (but at the time much preferred its Wisdom Tree reskinned Spiritual Warfare). In 2010, I’d tried playing Twilight Princess on our Wii and had even made it about a quarter of the way through before I got so unbelievably frustrated that I quit. Having not been a regular gamer since playing the SNES as a pre-teen, I found the jump from 16-bit to a full 3D world to be overwhelming and I just couldn’t get a handle on the controls, which is unfortunate when you’re trying to manage Epona while keeping a wagon full of your friends safe from fiery archers on boar-back.
Fast-forward to summer of 2012, when my depression was taking a serious turn for the worse. For some reason, I started thinking about the storyline and characters of Twilight Princess and how interested I’d been in them despite my frustration with the gameplay. I decided to give it another shot, and as I’ve written before:
I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess quite possibly saved my life. At the end of a long day, I would come home, put on the rattiest sweatpants and T-shirts I owned, wrap myself in blankets, and play Zelda. For hours. And hours. The story intrigued me. The characters were lovable and complex. The bad guys ranged from hilariously stupid to frighteningly hard. (I may or may not have thrown the Wiimote and nunchuk across the room and gone into spasms when the boss of the Temple of Time was revealed.) I was able to completely engross myself in a world that wasn’t my world, and in this case a world that reflected the darkness I feared and the beauty I longed for. I was able to literally defeat that darkness. And that was so, so helpful to me.
I’ve seriously been playing Zelda games ever since. I’ve gone through Twilight Princess another time, Skyward Sword, Wind Waker twice, Ocarina of Time, and Link Between Worlds (I’m holding out on really playing Majora’s Mask until there’s a 3DS or Wii U release of it). The storylines and gameplay and puzzles and design are all just utterly delightful to me. In general, my favourite Zelda game is whatever one I’m currently playing. Which right now happens to be Skyward Sword. As I was wrapping up my first playthrough, I wrote about it on Zeldathon: Because it’s Dangerous to Go Alone. But going through it a second time, I’m noticing a lot of different things that I’d like to parse out. Spoilers abound, so be aware.
The story begins in a town called Skyloft, which is spread across several islands in the clouds. A small settlement lives there, coexisting with large birds called Loftwings that serve as both pets and transportation between airborne islands and are the bird of choice for the knights of Skyloft. There are rumors that there’s an entire world beneath the clouds, but most people don’t believe it. Link is a student at the Knight Academy, and is best friends with his fellow student, Zelda (who happens to be the daughter of the headmaster). It’s clear that Link and Zelda are in love, though it’s never been stated. After Link wins a race that puts him at the top of his class, while he and Zelda fly out together to celebrate, a terrible storm rises from the clouds and carries Zelda below. Link learns that there is indeed a world beneath the clouds, called the surface, and that the goddess has chosen him for a special journey. As he travels throughout the various regions on the surface in search of Zelda, he encounters a demon lord called Ghirahim, who is also searching for Zelda with plans to use her spirit to awaken his evil master, whom the goddess imprisoned thousands of years ago. In due course, it is discovered that this is possible because Zelda is the goddess herself, reincarnated as a mortal. Aided by Fi (the spirit of his sword), the citizens of Skyloft, a handful of Gorons and a few dragons, Link fulfills his mission as the hero of the goddess and defeats both Ghirahim and his evil master. He and Zelda opt to remain on the surface together rather than rejoin Skyloft, and we leave them sitting happily together in the beautiful woods of Faron.
The perks: things I love about the game.
The story. I love having an origin story, something that explains where the master sword came from and why it seems that Link, Zelda, and Ganon are inextricably tied together. I love that Link and Zelda start out as the best of friends, too. Their interactions in other games always seems pretty stagnant (understandably, as a princess to a warrior). But making their relationship personal like this makes her being the damsel in distress a little easier for this feminist to stomach, since there’s a legitimate emotional tie between them. Of course Link would risk his life to find and protect her. Tracking her feels like the natural thing to do, and discovering Impa (and her initial dislike of Link) is puzzling and makes me feel even more determined to prove her wrong about me. I like the discovery of the goddess Hylia and how she’s so central, even above the three goddesses. The idea of the great swords having spirits within them is fascinating to me, and I can’t help but think of Fi whenever I play any of the other games now. I just find the whole story poignant and engaging.
The cinematic nature of the cut scenes. Since story is one of the main things that draws me to the Zelda franchise, I’m really delighted with the quality and quantity of cut scenes in the game. So much is explained, and it’s done so well that it keeps my attention and draws me into the story even more.The graphics and art style. Honestly, there hasn’t been an art style yet for any of the Zelda games I’ve played that I haven’t thoroughly enjoyed (other than the original Ocarina of Time. That shit was hard to look at it, and I seriously couldn’t get a handle on it until I picked up the 3DS version). But the attention to detail, the impressionistic feel (seriously, Faron Woods reminds me so strongly of Monet that it’s breathtaking at times), the life-likeness all around from character design to enemy design to even the inclusion of the insects and birds. It’s gorgeous, and for me, as a visual person, it’s a huge perk and makes the game so much easier to play. My only complaint, which is so minor I’m not even putting it in the pitfalls section, is that sometimes it’s difficult to tell that vines are vines. That’s only a problem I’ve run into in Lanaryu Desert, though, and my partner assures me that it’s just me.
The wealth of characters and side-quests. I feel like this is something Zelda has done well ever since Ocarina of Time, but it strikes me as particularly strong in Skyward Sword. Forming relationships with everyone on Skyloft and throughout the surface is intensely satisfying for someone who likes to talk to people and explore as much as I do. Fulfilling sidequests (when it’s optional) is equally satisfying, I find, especially the different quests I’m able to do differently on a second play-through. Link is often given a choice of action or response, and I love how this helps flesh out his character and changes the gameplay slightly in different scenarios. I also really enjoy collecting bugs and gratitude crystals, and working off my debt at the Lumpy Pumpkin after destroying his chandelier for a heart piece.
On that note, as I mentioned in my review from last year, I particularly enjoy the character development of Groose, Zelda, and Link. The journey that they all go through, together and separately, feels authentic and helps me better connect to the game and the story.
I also appreciate the role that the Gorons are given in the game. It seems consensus among Zelda fans is Gorons are typically a strong but dimwitted race, and I’m excited to see them portrayed as anthropologists and archaeologists, thirsting for knowledge and willing to share that knowledge with all they meet.
The mechanics and Motion Controls. Being able to sprint for short distances is really handy (and, of course, necessary for various sections of the game). Also being able to dash up walls to grab onto ledges and being able to dart up or down vines and ladders was awesome. I find myself trying to do those things whenever I go back to playing the Wii version of Twilight Princess. I love the indicator when throwing bombs, and especially that you can store bomb flowers in your bag. Zooming in when shooting arrows is really helpful when trying to take out enemies that are really far away. These are all little things, to be sure, but they help make the gameplay a little more seamless for me, and I’d love to see them retconned in re-released of other games.
I also like being able to recenter the control when dowsing or using items like the beetle or the whip, which I know is something that many people really despise. To me, it functions exactly like targeting, so it’s something that feels pretty natural to do (and makes it easier to play sitting in different positions, because I can just recenter the controls to work from wherever my arm naturally falls). In some ways, I really like how the motion controls make you work with the sword. Basically, I like feeling more engaged in the game by being more physically engaged with what I’m doing.
The Ancient Cistern. This is by far the best Water Temple I’ve ever played. It’s based in part on the story of The Spider’s Thread, which adds a lot of background to the temple from a philosophical and historical standpoint, and the juxtaposition of the beauty of the upper temple with the scariness of the bottom dungeon is breathtaking. (Seriously, though, the dungeon aspect puts me in mind of the Spirit Temple in Ocarina.) It’s definitely a typical water temple in mechanics, as far as having to raise and lower water levels, but it feels so fresh and innovative that I just can’t hate it. It also houses my favourite boss of the game, Koloktos.
The Timeshift Stones. While Lanaryu Desert is by far my least favourite section, I can’t help but love the ingenuity of the Timeshift Stones and how they function within the game. They make solving puzzles within the game really satisfying, and seeing areas transform instantly from the past to the present is fascinating to watch. I love seeing what’s changed and what hasn’t.
Ghirahim. By far my favourite villain ever. (Zant had so much potential. I think Ghirahim is what I wanted Zant to be.) I love his sass, his rage, his playfulness, and how terrifying he is when you first come upon him as a boss. The battles against him are frustrating but enjoyable, and the music for him is just the perfect mix of epic and terror-inducing.
The music. I’ve heard lots of people say that they find the orchestrated music to be lacking the character that the music of previous games had, but I couldn’t disagree more. I’ve always found that music is one of the strengths of every Zelda game, and this game was absolutely no different. Inspiring, haunting, epic, and evocative, it really helps me connect to the story and the gameplay. I especially like that they brought back the thing from Wind Waker, where the music reflects when you strike enemies. It’s just a little something that adds so much.
The pitfalls: things that frustrate or enrage me.
The pacing of the story. Don’t get me wrong. By and large, I think the story is reasonably strong. But the pacing feels so alternately sluggish and rushed that it’s difficult to keep up sometimes. The prologue, when rushed, still takes a solid couple of hours. It seems like the game takes a while to get on its feet, and once it does, it flails through the forest at break-neck speed only to fall on its face in a marsh for a few hours every now and then.
Okay, so that metaphor got away from me.
But honestly, my first playthrough, I lost interest in the game halfway through. That’s a game-killer. Having an invested gamer lose interest in your game because of bad pacing is just really not a good thing to have happen. And even when I did play it regularly the first time, I struggled with what I needed to do and how it needed to be done, and often forgot what my goal was to begin with. As I’m playing now, since I’ve been booking it through the game for the past few weeks, the pacing hasn’t felt quite as inconsistent, but it’s still pretty bad. Ocarina of Time and Wind Waker are definitely much better paced.
Extraneous cut scenes. Every time you pick up various items for the first time after a save, there’s a cut scene that’s relatively short, but just long enough for me to scream at the screen, “I KNOW WHAT A JELLY BLOB IS FOR THE LOVE OF HYLIA AND THE THREE GODDESSES.” It really interrupts the flow of the game, especially for items that I clearly have a bajillion of already. This gets particularly awful in dungeons or temples, whenever you have a button you need to step on, and a cut scene is triggered to show you what that button does. The moment you step off, the cut scene shows you that the action is reversed. I get it, that’s a handy thing to do…the first time that I step on and off the platform. But to do it every time, especially when you change the camera angle (which changes the direction the controls will turn me) just immediately pulls me out of the game. I’m no longer an active participant, I’m now a woman sitting on her couch yelling at Nintendo for being so. freaking. tedious.
The Motion Controls. I know, I know. I said I love them. And I do, for the most part. But when they go wrong, they can go really wrong and have frustrating consequences. I’m a firm believer that controls should never get in the way of a player enjoying a game. And I think that Motion Controls are innovative, and I totally get that Nintendo wanted to capitalize on that. But this playthrough, I found the controls far less responsive than I remembered from my first time. I lost more than one shield to this, despite shield-bashing, and often had trouble using items like arrows and clawshots. It was infuriating for me in my second battle with Ghirahim that my shield didn’t work and I couldn’t get to him with my sword.
The trials in the Silent Realm. I have a love/hate relationship with the trials. And the guardians. I think they’re quite ingenious and properly terrifying. But it takes a lot of practice and a lot of will-power, and it’s equal parts ridiculously hard and terrifying. My partner actually quit playing the game in the middle of one of the trials out of frustration. I only made it through the first time because we broke down and bought the guide, and I had him walk me through it. I mean…frustration is fine with a video game. If everything came easily, it wouldn’t be a good game. But a game that has so many frustrating aspects, some frustrating enough to make a dedicated fan put down the game…that’s a problem. Second time through, I did them all on my own, much to my pleasure and relief. I only had to redo two trials, so they didn’t inhibit my progress through the game.
Fi, hand-holding, and interrupting game flow. If you’re a Zelda fan, you know how people complain about Navi. She’s considered too insistent, breaking into the game too much, forcing you to do things or acknowledge her in ways that make her a damn nuisance. Well…I promise you, after playing Skyward Sword, you will miss Navi. It’s a bit frustrating to me, because I think that Fi has a lot of potential. The concept of the master sword having a walking talking android spirit is fascinating to me, and I feel like that specifically could have been explored more satisfactorily. But as she appears in the game, to me she’s an unmitigated disaster. You can’t skip through her dialogue, many times you aren’t given the option to ignore her, and both of those are made so very much worse by the fact that she is incredibly long-winded. Her presence and insights make the game feel so much more tedious than it might feel if she were a companion more like Midna or even Tatl.
That brings me to the hand-holding in the game. The hand-holding is extreme. I understand it in the prologue, when you’re presumably learning all the controls and what to do. But it’s not uncommon to watch a cut-scene that explains something, then have Fi explain the same thing back to you. When I say it’s not uncommon, I mean that almost every time a new quest is introduced, Fi pops up to let you know and pester you about it. There’s very little that you get to figure out for yourself, because Fi and the rest of the world is pretty intent on making absolutely certain that you have no doubts whatsoever about what to do and how to do it and when to do it and why.
Stamina gauge. This is one that I’m never sure how I feel about it. I really like being able to sprint and dash and roll and jump up vines and ladders more quickly. And I understand that the developers were trying to make it feel more like an RPG than your normal Zelda game. But overall, the stamina gauge seems to add another level of frustration that removes me from the gameplay, particularly in the battles against the Imprisoned. Speaking of whom.
The Imprisoned. I just…I can’t, you guys. I can’t with the Imprisoned. Running into Ghirahim over and over again, even having to fight him 3 times, doesn’t bother me in the least. He furthers the plot, he’s interesting, he’s funny and thrilling and scary and unpredictable. He actually says words. The Imprisoned…is a giant spiky muppet that does nothing but stomp up a spiraling hill while roaring, waiting for you to cut off his toes so he falls over, revealing a spike you can smash into his head. I understand that he’s the spirit of Demise, functioning much like Puppet Ganon to Ganondorf. But it seems that he serves absolutely no purpose but to give you something difficult to do. 3 times. You have to fight this faceless monster in a onesie 3 times, 2 of those times almost back to back. Sprinting to get ahead of him, or to stay close enough to him to reach his toes, hoping that there’s a stamina fruit nearby before you die and he reaches the Temple…it’s tedious.
Tentalus. Overall, the Sandship is a pretty fantastic dungeon. I find it annoying personally, but I recognize that it’s well designed and functions pretty great. But the boss is the love-child of Mike Wazowski and Celia from Monsters Inc. Beyond that, he’s not original at all. Cut off his limbs, aim for the giant eyeball. Got it, Nintendo. You like tentacles and eyeballs. We totally get it. But maybe, when you do a really smart dungeon like this, make the boss just as smart?
Unanswered questions. There’s also lot of questions I have about the world, Skyloft in particular. Where are the parents of all the students? We only know of Zelda’s dad and Pipit’s mom. Who are Link’s parents? Is Skyloft the only populated island? Why are there so few people there? If the goddess sent the islands up there thousands of years ago, why are there only a handful of people that seem to have ever died judging by the graveyard? How can Batreaux just show up after becoming human without people wondering who he is and where he came from? Where do the Loftwings live? Are they bred, or do they breed on their own? What do they eat? How does their relationship with humans really work? Where does everyone live? Why is the Knight Academy the only place with a bathroom? Why can’t you go flying at night? Why do you never see the surface at night? Are we really expected to believe that Link does everything he does in the various territories in the space of a single day when he’s there? Where is the sparring hall guy’s bed? Why does everyone just seem to accept that Link will sleep in their bed at some point? Why are gratitude crystals in the weirdest most remote places? (I have my own theories, which would explain why there are gratitude crystals in Link’s and Zelda’s rooms.) Why does the woman making soup in the bazaar never, ever, ever finish making her soup?!
Unfortunately, the word I’d use to describe Skyward Sword is tedious. And that’s saying something from a girl who’s usually a completionist when it comes to video games. I like going through and getting every single little thing that I possibly can. I will spend hours collecting bugs and monster claws and tumbleweed and rupees, and it won’t bother me at all. But this game seems really inconsistent in its treatment of so many things. I can’t just play it. I have to make sure that the controls are aligned, that I’m sitting in a way that best allows me to use my items if I need to point at the screen. I have to play through an amazing dungeon to get to a sucky boss, or go on a mission to do something that seems otherwise straightforward. As @mattmccullar said to me the other day as we were discussing the game, “I do think there’s a good game somewhere in Skyward Sword, but its buried beneath weird mcguffin quests and motion bullshit.”
Don’t get me wrong. I still adore this game. I’m willing to put up with an amazing amount of tedium for a Zelda game, particularly one that does have so many good aspects. But I’ll be even more excited if they end up re-releasing it for Wii U with a lot of problems fixed, as they did with Wind Waker.
What are your thoughts about Skyward Sword? What do you think makes a good Zelda game?