Editorial: Skyward Sword: Twenty Months Later

After Majora's Mask of course

Perhaps my second favourite Zelda game.

A month before The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword released in North America, I wrote an open letter to the possibilities of what the game could be. I recently decided to take a look back at this article to see if the game lived up to my high expectations as I continue my second serious playthrough of the title. And while the game certainly is not (and should not be) a mash-up of every title I listed, it almost strangely satisfies my demands.

Skyward Sword absolutely keeps the charm and playfulness of Wind Waker, but provides a more rich and complicated world without bogging it down in vapidity like Twilight Princess. The game never plunges to the desperate pits that Majora’s Mask indulges in, but certainly leaves room for darkness with unsettling elements. When I first played the game, I was very alert to recurring gameplay elements. I would recognize the task to collect “tears” from Twilight Princess combined with the need to utilize a mix of stealth and speed to avoid the invincible guardians from Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks and chalk up the experience to my memories with those games. Playing Skyward Sword a second time is allowing me to experience what the gameplay is like for its own merits, and I am glad I am able to see it that way now. The sections – although there are only three – are thrilling and more challenging than initially expected, and are accompanied by the perfect music.

In fact, this second playthrough has also allowed me to take a deeper appreciation for the music. While the overworld music is pretty and appropriately epic, it is the only disappointing track because it must be compared to the stellar overworld tracks from other titles in the series. Skyward Sword‘s overworld music only tops Majora’s Mask‘s uninspiring use of the main Zelda theme. Otherwise, the soundtrack weaves in and out of the game’s many moods and backdrops while not ignoring melody and its need to maintain a cohesive feel.

Nothing like needing to skydive in order to get anywhere.

I will never stop using this screenshot.

Because of the large number of familiar elements, it was initially easy to dismiss the many changes to the Zelda formula. Certainly the familiarity is there (and arguably necessary to allow the series to remain itself), but just being able to check off the expected locations of forest, mountain, and desert and their inevitable dungeons would do a disservice to how the game is continually throwing the gamer’s expectations out the window. Sure, some of these attempts fail (I am specifically thinking of having to re-enter the first dungeon and the three bosses that need to be beat multiple times), but the overall success is well-worth the stumbles. What the player assumes to be a pattern is finished and taken over by a new pattern before it is switched up yet again. In fact, it is a surprise that the game feels as cohesive as it does, considering the many winding paths the gameplay takes.

One area in which I am maybe most pleased that Skyward Sword apparently listened to my letter was in its decision to make Zelda do more as a character. Her adventure with Impa is just as crucial to the story as what the player takes Link through. This fact is especially stressed by the developers when the credits roll and are accompanied by images of Zelda’s previously-only-hinted-at adventure. Not only that, but Zelda is a well-rounded and flawed character. She is not some vapid princess who only exists to give purpose to the protagonist (*cough* Peach *cough*), but instead has to make complicated decisions in order to do her part to save the world. It not only gives the titular character the respect she deserves, but gives Link’s story more weight as his relationship to Zelda is with that of a human being, not some one-dimensional symbol.

When I replayed Twilight Princess I was reminded of cool moments and excellent dungeons and bosses, but was more urgently reminded that the game felt largely empty beneath its tight design. I was worried that returning to Skyward Sword would provide the same revelation. Happily however, like all good art, more of the game revealed itself over time and further examination. This has certainly also been true for masterpieces like Final Fantasy VII, Final Fantasy IX, Shadow of the Colossus, and Majora’s Mask, and it appears as though Skyward Sword is joining the ranks.

Eiji Aonuma talks of the upcoming Wii U Zelda game as if it is going to further deconstruct the way we look at the series and rethink the typical structure of the games. After the success of Skyward Sword, this is a very exciting prospect to me. Twilight Princess proved that trying to remake Ocarina of Time would provide diminishing returns, so I welcome change to the series. Now only if they could include a “I have played a billion Zelda games before” option to allow for less hand-holding in the opening hours, I would be set.

What about you, LusiSwords? Have you revisited Skyward Sword or another favourite and been very satisfied in the way it ages? Let me know in the comments below!

13 comments on “Editorial: Skyward Sword: Twenty Months Later”

  1. I should probably get around to entering that first dungeon. That’s as far as I got 2 years ago when I picked it up. I’d been considering trying to give a shot at completing all of the zelda games that I own and this would probably have been the last as I was going to attempt them in release order, but maybe now I’ll just go play this one. Either that, or I should finally finish OoT.

  2. I have not replayed Skyward Sword, actually. And reading this makes me wonder why. I tend to replay most games I own at least once, and usually right after finishing them the first time.

    I liked this game quite a bit, and I like how it REALLY uses the motion controls. Unfortunately this game tends to get bogged down in its association with the Wii. That it took until the final big release of the Wii for us to receive a real display of what a motion control-based game can be. I think this discussion and the subsequent dialogue about the Wii and Nintendo’s performance has been toxic to an otherwise great game.

    Also, I would LOVE an option to pick from the start that lets you get right into the game. In fact… if Nintendo were brave, they would make their next Zelda title similar to the first one. You begin the game and you IMMEDIATELY start playing. Maybe add an *optional* tutorial section for those who might need it, but otherwise just get right into it. Bring back that sense of exploration and discovery long missing from Zelda games.

  3. @Mel: The motion controls in Skyward Sword, however nicely done, were still vastly more cumbersome and unpleasant to use than traditional controls. And that, in the end, did for my desire to play it. It is a glorious and wonderful world, but travel through that world must needs be done on the back of a deranged and wilful sow called ‘motion plus’. To that end, it simply became more tiresome than agreeable after a short while.

    You do hit upon a vital need: to get people to begin and immediately start playing. Both Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword suffered long, tedious, thoroughly mundane openings. Finding fish for cats? Knocking down beehives? Befriending cheeky monkeys? Evading the school prefects? Facing down the town bully? Yes, these are all laudable things in their own way, and no doubt would slot nicely into a game like Earthbound. But we are talking about The Legend of Zelda here: a game whose foundations lie in the realm of epic, not of the mundane. The most successful of the Zelda games immediately thrust the greatness of fate upon Link. The more this is bogged down in little, petty, personal, quotidian tasks at the beginning of the game, the poorer the game is as a result.

    It is extremely sententious to wave one’s hand about and say, “But *these* little things are what matter! This *personal* and *emotional* connexion between Link and the other characters in the world is what a *real* hero is about!” The fact of the matter is that this is not the case in an epic (which is why Paradise Lost doesn’t present us a litany of Lucifer’s daily washing-up, and why the Odyssey is not concerned with the vital daily management of the ship), and moreover, saying that such a banality is ‘epic’ will not make it so. Link is there to face down great evil, not to spend hours mucking about with petty evil and–worse still–tawdry triviality. The sooner that Miyamoto et al. realise this, the better it will be for the series.

  4. @Mel/Lusi – I agree with both of you to an extent about the motion controls, actually. I agree that Skyward Sword is pretty much the best you can get with a more complicated game that imbues motion controls into its mechanics and that Skyward Sword’s association with the Wii’s putrid pile of shovelware is a disservice to both the title and how well the motion controls are implemented. Even to the degree that people are under the assumption they should instantly understand the controls and cannot understand that they need to improve more than the game needs to be fixed. Any just like any title that needs mastery, it feels good to arrive at a place of greater competence.

    That being said, I’m going to be extremely relieved when the series returns to traditional controls. Although motion controls are implemented pretty much as well as they can be in the game, they are still motion controls, as Lusipurr points out, and I would take traditional controls for a traditional game any day.

    While Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword both had long openings, Skyward Sword’s is more compelling from a narrative standpoint and this helps. I’m not sure what being a “real hero” is about, but making a great game with a narrative certainly requires an emotional connection (among many other things). That being said, there is certainly much room for improvement in Skyward Sword’s opening. There is a way to get the sense of serenity in Skyloft and the import of Link and Zelda’s relationship and to establish Groose (who becomes surprisingly important and endearing later, so his journey is also an important one), without pulling the gamer along by his ear. Just look to a game like Final Fantasy VII which certainly has great emotional pull and interesting character dynamics, but throws the player into the fray right off the top. Even Final Fantasy IX’s opening allows Vivi to do far more in the opening hour than Link can hope to do in Skyward Sword.

    So yes, personal and emotional connections matter a lot, I’d say, but they are certainly only one piece of the puzzle. They would be nothing without other great elements just like I found Twilight Princess to be empty without the thematic and emotional grace that Skyward Sword has, despite TP’s technical excellence. It is the deftness with which the Zelda series has often tied in the emotional with the epic that has made it such a dear favourite to many, and stating that this is not the case will not make it so.

    I think that matter is completely separate from the grueling openings which we can all agree upon.

  5. I wonder to what extent Zelda’s ’emotional’ component is what you choose to project upon those games, Ethan? I have never really thought of the series as having a surfeit of emotion, though it certainly makes use of a degree of familiarity and nostalgia. Then again, I have never enjoyed the 3D entries to the extend that I have progressed particularly far into them, so it may be that I am missing something crucial.

  6. Probably not to a great extent, Julian. Perhaps (probably) more so when I was younger. That’s why I used to refuse to accept I’d like a Zelda game more than Ocarina of Time. From what I can gather of your perspective, it seems like a mix of not progressing far (the 3D games often work well as entire pieces, the later portions giving unexpected perspective on earlier portions), and your sensibilities not matching up. Both of which are totally fair. If you’re not keen on a game, why trudge all the way through it? It’s why – although I’ve never beaten or really understood the appeal – I don’t argue with people who swear by games like Link to the Past or Chrono Trigger. I certainly don’t understand the adoration for the games, but because of all the respect given by such a large portion of the gaming community including the opinions of those I respect and trust, I am able to simply accept that my sensibilities don’t line up with these titles.

  7. @Ethos: ‘Just look to a game like Final Fantasy VII which certainly has great emotional pull and interesting character dynamics, but throws the player into the fray right off the top.’

    Indeed, but I spend the opening of FFVII bombing a reactor, fighting with Barrett, trying to bomb another reactor, fighting with Shinra, outwitting the Turks, sneaking into Corneo’s mansion, evacuating Sector 7, fighting Shinra and the Turks again, climbing up to fight Shinra again by busting into their HQ, busting out of gaol, following the trail of Sephiroth, fighting Shinra again, and then escaping Midgar.

    I spend the beginning of Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword in performing excruciatingly mundane errands for the mongoloid townpeople, only after the fulfillment of which am I allowed to actually get a glimpse of the meaningfully ‘epic’.

    The point is that you can have character development and emotion in an epic, but they do not by themselves make epic.

    Front-loading an epic adventure with quotidian bullshit is not something laudable. Saying, ‘these modern moments are there to build character interaction!’ is not some kind of get-out-of-bad-development-free card. One can develop a character in an epic without tossing aside the epic itself; one can have emotion without boring people to bits as they collect bugs and give fish to cats using arcane fishing minigames. Only when the 3D Zelda games take this lesson onboard will they be worth playing.

  8. That was the point I was making, Lusipurr. I was pointing to FFVII as an example that Zelda should look to. I’m not sure why your argument seems to assume otherwise. I get annoyed at Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword’s overlong openings too. I was trying to say that Zelda games can keep their emotional strength without stretching the openings to such insulting length.

  9. @Ethos: ‘I’m not sure why your argument seems to assume otherwise.’

    Because your following comments appeared to hedge your position, and so you were not as clear as you might have been.

  10. That may be a portion of the reason, yes. I’m glad I could clarify.

  11. The last big revisit to a game I did was the Chrono Trigger play through and I was not disappointed. I would like to give Skyward Sword a chance but after playing Windwaker I don’t think I could enjoy any Zelda game that doesn’t have sailing. I was watching Smooth McGroove play some Zelda 3 recently and that one impressed me all over again despite its age. That game is better than a lot of current generation open world games I would say.

  12. That game really needs a VC release, Jahan!

    Skyward Sword is the 3D Zelda game that I would most like to be able to play through, but I can’t really stomach more that twenty minutes at a time because I don’t like motion controls. Such a shame.

  13. @SN: My initial thought to that was “maybe someone can mod the game down the road”, but then I remembered that the motion controls are really built and designed into the game. If it were modded out it would be a massive undertaking that changes quite a bit of the game, I should think.

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