Has Nintendo finally release a console installment of The Legend of Zelda series that critics don't immediately fall in love with? Look at that chart. Does that look like hate to you? No sir and / or ma'am, that's love right there.
One could almost feel the bulging hordes of game reviewers pressing against Nintendo's review embargo for Skyward Sword, eager to burst forth and regale you with the news that Link was back and better than (almost) ever before. That this was the Wii game you've all been waiting for, and that yes, you should buy a Wii just to play it. You'd think it was Skyrim or something.
Please don't hurt me, Zelda fans. You know I love you, and Nintendo loves you as well judging by these shining reviews. Imagine me holding them aloft as the "item get" music plays.
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is Nintendo's closing argument on motion controls with Wii, especially as it relates to traditional games. It seems fitting that saving the world alongside Link will, for many of us, act as the first and last time we spend dozens of hours with a game inside our Wiis.
And boy, how far we've come. It takes only minutes with Twilight Princess again to understand how tacked on those motion mechanics were, and Skyward Sword's evolutionary leaps only compound the idea that we should have played Link's last adventure with a GameCube controller in both hands. How you come into Skyward Sword partially depends on how you took to Link the last time. Top to bottom, I found Twilight Princess painfully boring, which is, perhaps, a fate worse than bad. My reaction was fueled by a combined indifference to the game's uninspiring world, characters, and gadgets, and the tepid, half-hearted implementation of motion to make the mechanics more physical.
Especially as it relates to the last point, Skyward Sword could not be more different. It's not just the added fidelity from Motion Plus that makes the difference, it's that your physical actions are truly meaningful when it comes to engaging in just about every combat scenario in Skyward Sword. The very first enemies in the game will beat your ass to the ground if you're not reading their moves, and Skyward Sword quickly teaches players that "waggle" will not work here—period. To be successful in combat, reacting to the placement of each enemy's hands is of utmost importance, and while one becomes extremely adept at taking out the early combatants after a few hours, from start to finish, Skyward Sword asks much of your wrist. When the credits rolled, my hand ached, and it felt great.
As the flagship component of the Zelda franchise's 25th Anniversary, you couldn't ask for a better identikit of the series. As it moves through the all-too-familiar cycle of temples, tools and time-travel, it touches on the franchise's lowest points, adopts its most stellar attributes and, at frequent intervals, taps into a kind of magic that no game ever has before.
That magic doesn't come in the form of a bold reinvention of the formula that's served as a backbone for the entire series. You, as the emerald-clad savior of the golden-haired apple of your eye, are still going to make your way through temples, collecting relics and handy tools while dispatching final bosses. That's set in stone, as is most of the order of these dungeons — can you guess what treasures you'll find in the forest and fire-themed temples? If you answered "a slingshot and bombs, respectively," congratulations, you've played any Zelda game ever.
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Yet, for all its big talk, Skyward Sword is surprisingly economical with space. The Surface - a kind of proto-Hyrule where Link spends 80% of the game - is split into three unconnected regions. Coming from Twilight Princess' hulking continent it sounds stingy. What, no Hyrule Field to gallop across? Instead, every acre is crammed with purpose.
Link's dowsing ability - point the sword and follow the bleeps - is basically an excuse to pump the land with treasure hunts. By the end you're collecting so much tat - Goddess Cubes, upgrade materials, insects, heart containers, rupees, side-quest doodads - you'll wonder if the game was co-developed by Rare circa Donkey Kong 64.
And Nintendo make up for the smaller acreage - although, in fairness, the map dwarfs Ocarina's - by modifying landscapes for meaningful return visits. Some tweaks are small: increased enemy presence, perhaps, or new items hoisting Link to unseen heights. Others renovate entirely, turning safe ground treacherous and turning dry ground... wet.
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Alongside birdy, your closest ally in Skyward Sword is Fi, a spirit contained within your sword and sent by the goddess to offer assistance. She can be called upon at any time, Navi-style, to chirp about the enemy you're facing, detailing the best tactics. Yet as far as Link's guides go, Fi is refreshingly non-intrusive. It helps too that she's a charming character. Characters like Fi, the cutesy Kikwi folk, the roaming Goron tourists and Skyloft's own barmy cast of uniquely strange inhabitants give Skyward Sword's world real flavour and texture.
I had concerns that carefully plotting my attacks for every swing would get boring or frustrating, but the opposite was true. I've never felt as engaged or interested in the combat portion of a Zelda game as with Skyward Sword. If you run into a group of enemies waggling the Wii remote like a madman, you will be torn to shreds. Success in swordplay depends on studying opponents' moves and attacking at the right time and from the right angle. When the correct method to defeat each foe finally clicked, I felt a sense of satisfaction that repeatedly tapping the A button never provided.
This impressive combat system leads to some of the most interesting boss battles in the series' history. Whether you're fighting a giant scorpion or a sword-swinging robot, Skyward Sword rarely falls back on the formula of using a tool to knock out the boss and then attacking it three times in a row. You need to be much smarter and much more persistent to best these bad guys. In fact, the last two boss encounters are the most difficult fights in any Zelda game thus far.
The most important change is that most everything feels new. The fights against giant boss creatures at the end of each dungeon don't rely on old ideas. The classic characters are replaced, for the most part, with novel ones. If you already know what's going to happen, is that really capturing the spirit of the original Legend of Zelda, in which we all went in blind? Skyward Sword shows that "a real Zelda game" is about more than certain items or certain gameplay rituals, which in the end is more meaningful than adding better sword controls.
Oh Link, it's nice to have you back, lil buddy.