the artistry and psychology of gaming


Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword – A Counterpoint

Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword – A Counterpoint

I feel like I was one of the last to play Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, and I was pretty stoked for it.  My lady played it before I did, and I got up at six o’clock in the morning to get in some gaming before I had to leave for work – I believe I was playing Odin Sphere at the time – only to find that she was still playing; she’d forgotten to go to bed.  Twice in a row.  Of course, I was even more excited at that point, but I had other fish to fry.  I know how to fight with an actual sword, so one-to-one motion meant more exciting combat than even Twilight Princess, which was already fantastic.  My sister’s boyfriend had been playing it since its release, so he kept telling me about all of these cool features.  Our own David Kempe had written a review about it.  Finally, on January 16, 2012, I embarked on what many were calling the greatest Zelda game to ever grace a console.  I met it head on with great enthusiasm, drinking in every second, but as time went on, my enthusiasm began to fade, and now, as someone who has played nearly every non-portable Zelda game ever made, I’m putting it at the bottom of my list.  Needless to say, my final impression is far less favorable than that of Mr. Kempe, but what could possibly have gone so wrong?  Before you proceed, know that there are spoilers abound, despite my efforts to try to keep them to a minimum.  I’m also adding the disclaimer that I’m not going for shock value, and I do not want this to become another 8.8; this is just an honest opinion from a long-time fan of The Legend of Zelda.

I always say that the core of a game is its gameplay. You’ve likely heard this rant from me several times, so I’ll spare you another.  My biggest problem with this game is control.  Now, I say this with the disclaimer that I play Wii left-handed, but that isn’t as big an issue as it might be for two reasons.  First of all, if Wii Sports, what is essentially a tech demo for the Wii’s hardware, and Dragon Quest Swords, a relatively low-budget title that’s nothing more than a spruced-up version of a Plug-and-Play game, both have options for left-handed players, then there is absolutely no excuse whatsoever that a big-budget title that is the twenty-fifth anniversary celebration of Nintendo’s second biggest franchise not to have one for its second title for the Wii, a system developed by Nintendo itself, especially when the main character has been left-handed since the third game in the massive franchise.  I am aware that the Game Cube version of Twilight Princess had its dungeons reversed for Link to be left-handed.  I am also aware that in the Medieval Era, castles were built so that right-handed people would have the advantage defending.  The reason that the Greek word for left-handed, sinister, has a much different meaning in English is because left-handed warriors were thought to be cheating.  Well, I don’t think it would make that big of a difference in a Zelda game, because you’re not often fighting other swordsmen while ascending or descending a narrow spiral staircase. If the layout really is that big of a deal, just flip it! You’re Nintendo; you have the budget!  The second reason I feel it acceptable to harp on the controls, despite my left-handedness, is that a lot of the problems I experienced cannot be blamed upon that; it’s not going to affect much other than the swordplay.

Not harcore enough, eh? Well, at least I can be left-handed!

Now, to actually review the controls; in a word, (actually two) they suck.  My first big problem with them is one that I encountered with both the skydiving and the loftwing flying; they’re often very counterintuitive.  I kept trying to point in a direction to point my bird that way, but you’re supposed to tilt it.  Walking on tightropes, something you’ll do an awful lot, was also rather unintuitive, having your move the Wiimote back and forth with each step you take; what exactly is that supposed to simulate?  Other anomalies include pointing the Wiimote up to thrust the sword into the ground, and down to remove it from the ground.  Those gripes are admittedly minor, and I adjusted to them in time, but the biggest problem I had with the controls is that they usually just didn’t work.  I’d swing one way – after adjusting to how the sword responds to being held in the “wrong” hand, mind you – only to have it swing perpendicular to the desired direction, or even some other way entirely.  I couldn’t swing the sword in earnest, because that causes the Nunchuck to move enough to activate the spin attack, so forget using it like an actual sword and having any fun with the combat, like I did in Twilight Princess.  My dreams of awesome combat were once again reduced to waggling my controller, though this time, hoping it would do as I asked.  In fact, there was a room in which I was attacked by enemies with electric swords, and fighting them was so frustrating that I took out my bow and shot them point blank, curtly announcing, “There, I fixed it,” just because it was easier than trying to get the sword to swing in the direction I wanted.  The Skyward Strikes were cool, but often I found that Link just wouldn’t hold his sword completely upright to charge up for one.  When you’re running around, trying to avoid tentacles erupting from the floor, you can’t exactly take your time trying to center the thing, so you run in circles, hoping to get lucky.  They delayed the game over a year in development to get the thing working, so why does it still not work?

A perfect landing!

Now, this wouldn’t be such a big deal, but not only do all of the bosses require precision strikes, most of the regular enemies do as well, some even going so far as to electrocute or otherwise punish you if you mess up.  The boss fights were excellent, especially the very thrilling final battle, or at least they would’ve been had the controls worked properly.  I know it seems like I’m spending a lot of time on this, but when a game’s central mechanic is broken, it does tend to ruin the entire game.  Think how it would be if Mario had trouble jumping, or if Mega Man had trouble firing his arm cannon, just shooting in random directions, like the C. Shot from X5 or the Shadow Armor’s buster from X6.  What should’ve been the most exciting part of the game wound up making me wish that I just had a regular old controller.

Those who know me knew this was coming, too, but I’d like to talk about the minigames.  There are really only maybe four or five that you have to win for full completion of the game, and most of them really aren’t that bad… in theory.  Again, problems with the controls interfere with minigames that should be really easy.  For example, I had to resort to Wife Mage Grindynaut not only for the archery, which should’ve been very simple, but also the boss rush.  For as long as we’ve been together, she does the irritating minigames, and I do the combat challenges; that’s how it’s worked since our first Zelda game together.  I did the second run through the Cave or Ordeals in Twilight Princess using maybe two healing items the whole way through; combat shouldn’t be a problem for me.  Now, with the skydiving roulette thing, I got lucky and got it on my third try.  My point is, what the minigames lack in quantity, they make up for in sheer frustration.  Can we please just make them rupee grinding things that you can do if you want, and ignore them if you don’t?

They mapped out all the minigames for me. Thanks.

Now, the other main problem with the game part of the game I had was level design.  They took twenty-five years of solid level design – fourteen, if you’re only counting the 3D games, which are admittedly different in design – and just threw it out the window.  When I wasn’t yelling about the controls, I was usually yelling about the poor or just plain weird level design.  I am unqualified to adequately describe it, but there just seemed like there was something off about how the areas were put together.  On top of that, there were times during which you had to return to and through old dungeons, having to find new keys to reopen doors that you’d already unlocked before.  The game was long enough without any unnecessary padding.

Sure, it's pretty, but why am I here again?

There were also a lot of ill-conceived things that didn’t make sense within the context of the game that were crammed in, too.  Bug catching had a really strangely-controlling net, and was often irritating to do, though catching them had a rather small impact on the game, so ignoring them was not entirely out of the question.  There were timed challenges, much like gathering the spirits in the Twilight Realms in Twilight Princess, but only giving you ninety seconds in between each one before the guardian statues would reanimate, turning their homicidal attention toward you, and unless you could find another item, you’d be killed in a single hit.  In these areas, if you also touched the water, or were spotted but the lantern ghosts, these statues would awaken immediately.  Oh boy, mandatory stealth sections; my favorite.  I think the worst offender by far, though, is that the stuck an escort mission into a Zelda game.  These things belong in Resident Evil, Call of Duty, or Metal Gear Solid, and I’d prefer it if you were to keep them out of my Legend of Zelda; that’s not why I play the games.  It’s like Nintendo is destroying everything unique about its franchises to imitate inferior games; we’ve already seen this in Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, at least from an aesthetic standpoint.

Despite there being four, it's not as bad as the escort mission.

There were also a lot of pointless stylistic choices.  I know that Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask, and Wind Waker all had musical instruments and songs to learn for them, but they just had no place here.  My gripe that it’s a lyre, not a harp is admittedly minor, and Final Fantasy 4, my favorite game in the franchise, makes the same mistake, but it’s still something that comes up every time that someone refers to it as such.  You’re not actually selecting the notes that the instrument plays, just keeping rhythm, so, once again, it comes down to waving a stick back and forth until the song starts in earnest.  You learn five songs throughout the course of the game, and it just picks whichever one you need when you need it, so what’s the point?  Speaking of music, another weird thing is the dancing that Fi – pronounced “fie” with a long I, not “fee”; read the Spanish portion of your instruction manual – does when you learn a new song.  She sort of… figure skates on the air… Speaking of Fi, herself…

In Ocarina of Time, my style of gaming went something like this.  I’d start doing a side quest, and a little bit in, I’d hear a, “HEY!”  A little icon would blink in an out-of-the-way portion of the top of the screen, I’d ignore it, and wouldn’t hear another peep out of the obnoxious little twinkle that everyone seems to think is so annoying and intrusive.  In Skyward Sword, it goes something more like this: A crazy, auto-tuned, gibberish-spewing spirit with fishnets jumps out of my sword and talks to me like a robot for what seems like an eternity about something I’d figured out at least five minutes ago.  Yes, Fi looks cool; very cool, in fact.  The problem is that she’s actually every bit as annoying as everyone claims Navi to be, and dumb as a brick to boot.  Some would argue that that’s the joke; she’s poking fun at Navi.  Fair enough, but intentionally annoying is still annoying.  When you get low on hearts, the game starts beeping, then Fi starts beeping, too.  I can appreciate a joke, poking fun at something – Parodius is an excellent example of in-house satire – but when the joke is dead a few hours into a sixty-hour game, it becomes abrasive by the end.

Yes, she really says that.

The problem is, she’s just one of many annoying characters you’ll meet throughout the game.  I know that annoying characters are typical in a post-Ocarina of Time Zelda game, but I still maintain that I’d be more motivated to remember the characters and their names if they’d just act normal.  Voice acting would help this greatly, or, barring that, eschewing the grunts and gurgles that accompany the text boxes, and just reading what they have to say, since the noises the people make aren’t conducive to communication, anyway.  Like I said, it’s certainly not exclusive to Skyward Sword, but it’s still an area that needs improvement.  Oh, and no, I wasn’t impressed with or creeped out by the main antagonist; he was merely annoying, as well.

Now, it was more than just my journalistic obligation that dragged me through to the end; the game wasn’t entirely without its merits.  On the minor end of the scale was the incredible number of references to the rest of the series.  While it was a bit lame to have them practically turn toward the camera and say, “Hey, it’s our twenty-fifth anniversary!” at the beginning, but most of the rest of them were subtler.  My favorite was seeing Agahnim’s insignia on the back of the old woman’s cloak in Farron Woods.  On the major end, and a bit meta, was actually getting to hold the Triforce in your hands after fourteen years of waiting, since all of the rumors of its existence in Ocarina of Time were flying around.  For me, that was an awesome moment that almost made up for the rest of the game’s shortcomings.  That wasn’t the only of my Zelda fantasies that came true, though; Skyward Sword features a staggering six different swords, which is incredible in a series whose installments usually have no more than three, sometimes less.  Long have the Zelda clones exceeded their source of inspiration in this manner, but many of them no longer; Willow and Esper Dream 2 still win.

There were some other cool ideas and improvements, too.  For the first time, bombs were incredibly easy both to use and to acquire.  You can find them at bomb flowers, which respawn infinitely, and just stuff them in your pouch, magically snuffing them out.  When you pull one out, the fuse doesn’t light until it leaves your hands, and even then, you can stuff it back in if you can catch it in time.  The bombs also, not only can be thrown or rolled, but also have a big blue line and target, telling you exactly where they’ll land.  It took them a long time, but they finally perfected the bombs.  For the new, there are a few new items, though really only the Beetle, this games incredibly souped-up, remote controlled incarnation of the boomerang, sticks out in my mind.  My favorite new aspect, though would be the time stones, purple crystals that create a temporal bubble around themselves, restoring everything within it to its past state.  This is not only a cool idea in theory, it is also implemented very cleverly in many puzzles.  My favorite new innovation, though, is the advent of the map beacon.  You get a bunch of markers and can place them on your map.  That’s nothing new, but when you leave the map screen, there’s an enormous blue pillar of light at the marked area in the actual environment, so you don’t have to constantly bump in and out of the map screen.

Finally, I can tell where those things are going to land!

As for Mr. Kempe’s favorite, the Adventure Pouch, it’s okay; I didn’t really use it to customize my character all that much, but what I did like about it is that it made it practical to implement the medals.  Most of the medals increase the proclivity to which enemies will drop certain things.  Now, grinding money is a lot less random, since you can slap on a Rupee Medal or two to ensure you get money more often.  Farming items can also be made easier in this way, and one thing I really enjoyed about the game was collecting said items in order to upgrade my equipment.  It was generally thrilling to find a source of a new item and farm them until you had enough to get that new shield – of which there are a staggering ten – or upgrade one of your tools.  While it’s not something that Zelda usually does, it certainly beats the bloat that usually accompanies the inventory.  Honestly, I have yet to find a practical use a Deku Nut, and I doubt I will in the future.

So much glorious crap!

Now, for the part for which you might expect I’d have the most to say: the visuals.  At the beginning, and all throughout Farron Woods, I was drooling over all of the very colorful eye candy.  The woods were beautiful, and the first dungeon was absolutely dripping with otherworldly beauty, like I was inside some forest on an alien planet – one like Lennus from Paladin’s Quest and its sequel, not one that looks exactly like our own.  Then, I left Farron and arrived in Eldin… and was unimpressed.  Kirby’s Return to Dream Land proved to me that even in our current era of high definition and everyone striving for hyperrealism, there could still be unique beauty in the typical fire world.  Eldin took a huge step right back to where I started.  Even Lanayru Desert didn’t impress me much, and I’m a real sucker for a desert; the one place I’d like to visit before I die is Arizona, I love the desert that much.  Almost all of the beautiful areas were in Farron, though bits and pieces of the dungeons in Lanayru were pretty, as was Eldin during the eruption, which was a bit reminiscent of A Link to the Past’s Dark World version of Death Mountain.  The beauty of its dark, flaming horror was one that I found captivating. Of everything in the game, though, my favorite place from an aesthetic standpoint would have to be the basement of the Ancient Cistern.

If only the whole game were this beautiful

The character design was a mixed bag as well.  Link looks like Link; he’s really not that different from his Twilight Princess appearance.  Granted, he starts the game wearing what looks like an ugly Christmas sweater, but after that, he looks just fine.  There are characters who look really cool, like Fi, and most of the cadets, particularly the guy in yellow and the girl with the red hair and pigtails – the game doesn’t make much effort to teach you the characters’ names.  There’s also a woman in the village with long brown hair, who was quite pretty; the storage girl, who looks alright; and the little girl, who even I thought was cute.  Then you have characters who look so weird that they seem like they should be in a different game, like Groose’s cronies, this guy who looks like he belongs in a ’70s-themed episode of The Jersey Shore, and the little girl’s mother, who I swear was inspired by Olive Oyl.  Even Zelda’s nose looks weird, like she’s a Mii that got accidentally saved after an errant click in the nose selection screen.  Some of them are even downright creepy and hard to look at, like the fortune teller.  Granted, it’s not quite as bad as the character design for Twilight Princess, in which it looks like the village missed out on several thousand years of evolution, but there’s still an inconsistent aesthetic, likely because they tried to cram so many references into a single game.

Top: The Good; Not Pictured: The Bad; Bottom: The Ugly

Even the enemies are up and down.  Most of the bosses look very cool, but then you have the main antagonist, who looks like someone covered him in glue, threw him into a textile storage facility, then sent him through an industrial strength sewing machine, and that includes his hair.  The regular enemies range from ugly goblins to cool looking birds and multi-armed skeletons.  I do like Skyward Sword’s take on a lot of returning enemies from elsewhere in the series; they look different – in some cases, very different – but they’re welcome changes.  I do wish they’d bring back the Goriyas, though.  I’ll have to say that most of the enemies in the game look pretty cool, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that you’ll be fighting an awful lot of those ugly goblins.  If nothing else, the game is aesthetically consistent in its aesthetic inconsistencies.

Sweetie, we need to talk about that outfit.

I have the same thing to say about the music that I’ve had to say about the music for every Zelda game I’ve played after Link’s Awakening: most of the music is atmospheric and forgettable, aside from maybe the main theme, but nothing really blew me away.  The sound effects are sound effects, and I’ve already discussed the voices, so that’s about it for sound.

There is a lot to like about Skyward Sword, but overall, I feel that its flaws outweigh its positive aspects.  It’s largely due to poor controls, which are omnipresent and require constant precision that just isn’t there, so it taints every single thing you do.  It’s hard to focus on the beautiful forest around you when you’re constantly frustrated by a lack of responsiveness.  I’m no foreigner or newcomer to the series; The Legend of Zelda was the second game I ever got for my Nintendo Entertainment System, which, alongside my Sega Master System, which I received on the same day, was my first gaming system.  I became so obsessed with it that I was always running around with a plastic sword; always on an adventure in my back yard, and the only kid running along the beaches of South Carolina in full armor.  I drove my parents so nuts with Zelda that they got me Dragon Warrior in an attempt to divert my youthful obsession with swords and sorcery in another direction, which, since Elizabethan English isn’t all that accessible to a four-year-old who wasn’t raised anywhere near a Holy Bible, largely backfired until my parents could teach me how to understand it.  Anyway, the point is that I loved it, and I’ve been playing Zelda ever since, and while I’ve not played them all – Majora’s Mask, Ocarina of Time’s Master Quest, the Four Swords titles, and the CD-i games, along with every portable installment aside of Link’s Awakening and its remake, have thus far eluded my agile thumbs – I’ve played quite a few of them, and I’m a long-time fan.  Knowing the capabilities of the series, I have to say that it really dropped the ball with Skyward Sword.  I know I’ve compared it to nearly every 3D Zelda game under the sun in this counterpoint, but it’s hard not to when the game compares itself to all of them and more.  I didn’t hate the game, but I didn’t like it either; I merely long for the days when Zelda returns to its roots with the main focus being on combat and puzzles, using all sorts of crazy gadgets to assist you in both.

Final Score: 4/10

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