At 25YL, we love gaming, and moreover, we love The Legend of Zelda series. That’s why we’re going to cover the entire Nintendo Franchise, including handheld games, every week. This week, we are taking a look at the second Zelda entry on the Wii, the divisive Skyward Sword.
After Twilight Princess, Nintendo once again found themselves in the very difficult position of having to follow up another Zelda masterpiece. To me, TP was the pinnacle of a realistic and cinematic Zelda game and there was little-to-no room for improvement—not that they’re in the habit of repeating themselves, particularly in this series. Not since they had to follow up Ocarina of Time had they been in such a situation. Back then, they miraculously pulled Majora’s Mask out of the bag. What they managed to achieve with a rehash of OoT‘s visuals, combined with a darker, more surreal tone in such a short amount of time was genius. I even preferred it in a lot of ways, and may even have liked it more overall than its predecessor, but it’s very hard to compare them as MM is very derivative.
Did lightning strike twice with Skyward Sword? I’d have to say no, but it was a great attempt. The strategy from Director Hidemaro Fujibayashi and producer Eiji Aonuma was sound; after the gritty realism of TP, they decided to go for a much lighter tone. Thankfully, they didn’t go for full cartoony graphics as they did in Wind Waker, but the environments, in particular, were much more vibrant. Nintendo also developed much more accurate motion controls for the fighting mechanics and they even developed a story that would take place chronologically before any other Zelda game. These were all solid ideas, but the execution was quite uneven at best. The tone, inspired by impressionist painters like Paul Cézanne was good overall but wildly differed in certain parts of the game.
For example, in Link’s home of Skyloft (an island in the sky), the tone was so bright and colorful that it could give you a mild headache if you weren’t used to it. Whereas the game’s final boss is genuinely frightening when you first come up against him. It could be argued that this juxtaposition adds to the impact but it could also be quite jarring. Personally, it just made me want to be in the darker parts whenever I was in the saccharin ones. For me, this meant that the game missed out on that integral, cinematic quality that the best Zelda games (OoT, MM, and TP) all shared. However, both the accompanying artwork for the game, and a comic that was also released to coincide with it, are both excellent.
The new motion controls were not perfected and could become tedious at certain points in the game. On paper, I’m sure they looked good, but in reality I don’t think they could account for the various spaces, furniture, and people that they would be used in conjunction with. To make things worse, you needed to upgrade your controller to be able to play the game (although the original release came bundled with the Wii Motion Plus) due to the update. It’s no surprise that the developers struggled with them so much that they were nearly discarded altogether.
The story was the best of these ideas but was restricted by the environments. Usually in a Zelda game, the vast world that you explore in your own way adds to the narrative and feel of the game, but in SS the route is more straight and narrow. The areas are boxed in, which made the game less adventure, more RPG. This was done to compact and streamline the game and make it more accessible. Apparently, this was because the developers thought that the world and dungeons in TP were too large and that players would enjoy revisiting the same locations multiple times. This was obviously a massive error in judgement, as proven by the next console installment, Breath of the Wild, which turned out to be infinitely more vast than even TP. A lot of SS actually reminds me of Super Mario 64, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, just different.
There are plenty of great elements throughout the game though. The score is the first to be performed by a full orchestra, composed by a team lead by Hajime Wakai and supervised by the legendary Koji Kondo. The story feels fresh, which is achieved through exploring the origins of Hyrule, Zelda, and the legendary Master Sword, a recurring weapon throughout the series. The prelude tells of an epic battle between the Goddess Hylia and the demon Demise, for the Triforce, during which Hylia raised the survivors on a section of land into the sky that would become Skyloft. This was to protect them from her all-out final attack, which was successful, but left the land decimated as a result. By the start of this story, the residents of Skyloft have lived above the clouds for so long that they believed that the surface no longer existed.
However, when Zelda is taken below the clouds to the land below, Link must take the Goddess Sword, pursue her, and explore what lies beneath. Throughout the game, we discover that Hylia created this sword for a prophesied hero that will finally destroy Demise. The main aim of the game being to strengthen the sword with three sacred flames so it can evolve into the Master Sword. We also find out that Zelda is the reincarnation of Hylia. Only someone mortal can use the Triforce to wish for the destruction of Demise, so she sought after a hero as one to fulfil her duty. The game achieves a mythic quality and even more so than in a lot of previous titles in the series; it really does feel like the origin of a saga that spans millennia.
It also shows Link and Zelda as childhood sweethearts. This is quite bold as in previous games a romance has only been hinted at and their feelings for each other have remained quite ambiguous. It’s refreshing for the narrative to lean more heavily one way or the other for a change and their relationship is quite sweet. Also, the villain of the game isn’t Ganondorf/Ganon or some kind of variation of him but rather a much more primitive, feral, scary ancestor of his (Demise).
Time plays a key function in both the narrative and the gameplay. Time gates are the axis of the quest and there’s even a whole part of the land that has you manipulate time to traverse it. With the Goddess Sword comes the spirit Fi, who resides in its hilt and is your guide throughout the game. I’ve heard a lot of rumblings about people really taking a dislike to her but personally, I think she’s great and liked her digital-tinged design that was derivative of the sword’s look. She’s a good alternative to having a fairy and I didn’t find her agitating, as I did Navi. She can be unhelpful at certain points throughout the story but I don’t think that’s a fault of her as an aid, but rather the structure of the game in general.
The option to sprint for short distances and also wall kick were long overdue updates to Link’s abilities. The introduction of Loftwing Birds was also a welcome addition and a fun way to navigate the world. New items such as a whole range of different shields and a whip are attainable, allowing you to grab objects from a distance and swing, Indiana Jones-style. There’s also a blacksmith who can upgrade your equipment with certain materials that you collect throughout your quest. This is a cool, addictive bonus that should always be commonplace going forward. The dungeons vary wildly from the tedious (Skyview Temple, Lanayru Mining Facility) to the fantastic (Ancient Cistern, Sandship, Sky Keep).
However, the bosses are of a greater standard in both quality and difficulty throughout the game. The only major letdown being “The Imprisoned”. This is a form of Demise that is a giant, clumsy, poorly designed monster. Once you finally meet Demise in his proper form, you see that there is little resemblance or anything that links them together, which is odd, to say the least. It wouldn’t be such an issue if you didn’t have to fight this monstrosity not once, not twice but three times at different points throughout the game.
This is more than made up for with some of the best bosses of the series though. Ghirahim, the flamboyant, self-proclaimed Demon Lord is interesting and was based off one of the best sub-bosses of the whole series, Dark Link from OoT. You can see this from his look and the way you have to strategise (sometimes to immense frustration) to defeat him. It’s revealed just before the final fight, that he’s actually the spirit of Demise’s sword, creating a parallel between him and Fi.
The best encounters in the game are with Koloktos, the Horde, the final battle with Ghirahim, and Demise himself. The last three lead from one to the next and all are innovative in different ways, making up an epic finale to the game. Also, a shout out to the parasite Bilocyte, which infects the Great Spirit of the Skies Levias, an airborne whale. You fly freely on to his back to face the parasite, and this is the first instance I can think of where a big boss doesn’t reside at the end of a dungeon.
Overall, Skyward Sword is a mixed bag. It contains flashes of brilliance but also some of the weakest parts of the whole series. This game was clearly a transition, this is reflected in the fluctuating tone and combination of elements copied and pasted from older installments sitting alongside creative, new innovations. I’ve only completed the game once and I’m not in a rush to do it again. Conversely, I’ve conquered OoT, MM and TP many times and would love to complete them again, if only I had an abundance of time; which probably says it all really.
I have found myself returning multiple times to the final fight of the game, and also a part where you can you can run the gauntlet made up of all the bosses of the game in a row. This is something that none of the previous titles can boast. I believe that years from now, when we look back on the series, Skyward Sword will be viewed as an uneven but important stepping stone from Twilight Princess to Breath of the Wild.