*** Spoiler warning ***
This review contains numerous spoilers about The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword and other games in the series.
I typically don't write comprehensive game reviews because of my terrible attention span but Skyward Sword inspired me to give it a shot. I've been a diehard Legend of Zelda fan since I played the first installment in 1986. I've purchased every subsequent game at, or extremely close to, launch. I probably wouldn't even own a Wii were it not a delivery vehicle for more Zelda games.
Skyward Sword brought the series to a pivotal junction. The problem is I'm not sure if it's taking the series in the right direction. It's not a simple question of "Is it better than Twilight Princess?" or "is it as good as Ocarina of Time?" - it's much more complicated than that. While Skyward Sword contains elements found in prior installments of the series, it also solidifies several major directional changes that have been creeping in since Shigeru Miyamoto handed control of Zelda to Eiji Aonuma.
Since this is my first review in this style I suspect it will come across a bit disorganized. Go ahead and bear with me on this, I promise to make it thoughtful and entertaining along the way.
OK, I can't promise either of those but here it goes...
The Zelda series began as an open world game. Link was handed a sword by a bearded stranger and left to his own devices to sort out the rest. Exploring the world wasn't an optional side-quest, it was required. The dungeons were numbered but the order didn't really matter all that much. To this day I always finish dungeon 6 after dungeons 7 & 8. In the days before GameFAQs it could take months of exploring to find everything. The first sequel was a bit more linear. Link was steered toward a defined path but had opportunities to veer off it.
As the series grew the path to victory became more rigid. In the 64-bit era it introduced a lengthy tutorial mode to each game. OK, Link to the Past had a tutorial but it was over in a few minutes. Ocarina of Time wouldn't let Link out of the first village without completing an entire dungeon. Majora's Mask had Link wait 72 virtual hours and play a round of hide 'n seek before unlocking the overworld. Wind Waker required Link to conquer two sizable dungeons before allowing free exploration. In its defense though it featured the largest overworld of the series. In Twilight Princess Link had to learn how to wrangle bulls, fish, and survive as a wolf before he could see the rest of the world.
Relatively speaking, Skyward Sword opened up quickly. Link has to talk to a few people in town and win a race then he's on his way. He doesn't have a lot to see at first though. The entire sky is open but unlike Wind Waker there's not much to visit. Most of the floating islands are uninhabited, serving only as hosts for treasure chests unlocked on the ground. After 30 minutes Link has exhausted everything he can do in the sky and descends to the forest where again he's forced into a linear quest.
As an excuse to learn the dowsing ability Link plays another round of hide 'n seek much like the introduction of Majora's Mask. This games seems to go on too long, the same objective could have been met tracking down a single Kikwi.
It's several hours into the game before Link encounters any significant resistance. Things get challenging quickly after then though. In typical Zelda fashion Link starts with just barely enough heart containers to survive and few weapons in his arsenal. Add in a learning curve for the motion controls and even experienced gamers will find some early deaths. I'm not ashamed to admit that my first encounter with a skulltula resulted in a game over screen.
In many ways Skyview Temple is the hardest in the entire game. To further add to the difficulty Link doesn't even find a new weapon there. It's customary in Zelda games to find some sort of missile attack in the first dungeon. Instead Link acquires the beetle, a tool for exploration with limited offensive capabilities.
This is no knock on the beetle, it's one of the most fun items in the series. I used it heavily to survey new locations and to test the limits of the environment. It would have been immensely useful in previous Zelda games too. Just imagine having it in the complex dungeons of Ocarina of Time.
For all its usefulness its no help in the first encounter against Ghirahim. This is where mastery of the motion controls is fully tested. Many enemies can be defeated by flailing the controller randomly but not this recurring boss. This is another time when I'm not ashamed to admit defeat on the first try. Come to think of it, this fight was the second and final time I died in Skyward Sword. It was one of these things where I finally figured out how to win when I was near death, the next attempt was a lopsided victory.
So, with little left to do in the forest it was time to return to the sky. Awaiting Link was a collecting side-quest, a tradition that started with skullatola hunting in Ocarina of Time. Like the Bomber's Notebook in Majora's Mask, the gratitude crystal quest revolves around helping people. I enjoyed this aspect of the game, talking to everyone both day & night to see who needed an errand run. I also just plain thought it was hilarious to hop in a random bed and catch a nap to advance the clock.
The other two collecting side-quests were a bit less interesting. Both involved finding an area rich in bugs and/or upgrade items and running through it repeatedly. The item upgrade system itself was a nice addition to the franchise. I took a very stingy approach. I upgraded the Beetle immediately and waited on the others. I didn't upgrade any shields until I had the last one and left the various bags until the end when I had plenty of leftover parts.
The potion upgrades were the one thing that made the game heavily unbalanced in favor of the player. The red ring in the original Zelda made Link nearly invincible, the Guardian+ potion and potion medal combination made him completely invincible. This will come up again when it's time to confront the last boss...
The next stop on Link's quest was the Eldin Volcano, a desolate but visually impressive area. It's here that the stamina meter first becomes a major obstacle. Up until the volcano the limited run ability was merely occasionally annoying. Once Link has to scale a mountain while dodging attacks it's practically a death trap. I can't help but wonder if the stamina meter was a late addition to the game to increase the challenge.
The Fire Sanctuary interior was even more impressive than the surrounding overworld. The architecture sports a hybrid of Indian and Thai design. It was all too easy to become lost in the surroundings and miss an enemy or obvious switch. The temple culminates with the boss Scaldera who is reminiscent of the Helmasaur King from A Link to the Past. Although not difficult it was a fun little battle.
Link's tour of early Hyrule continues with the Lanayru Desert. Assuming the Temple of Time is a fixed location this will eventually be the home of Hyrule Castle. Despite the relative lack of scenery this was my favorite area in the game. Other than the sky of course this desert had the most open space and freedom to explore. This was a change from previous Zelda deserts which were usually confined to a small space. Even the Gerudo Desert of Twilight Princess feels cramped by comparison.
In the center of the desert is the best dungeon in the game, possibly the best in the series - the Lanayru Mining Facility. The Timeshift Stone concept was very innovate and one of the highlights of the game. They work best in the desert setting but it could have been applied to the other areas that hint at having a history. The difficulty level here felt about right too, both in terms of combat and puzzle solving.
It's also in the Lanayru Mining Facility where the soundtrack really stands out. The music here set the tone perfectly and stands out as one of the best tunes in the game. It's somewhat similar to the music from the Forest Temple in Ocarina of Time.
After clearing the three overworld zones it was time for the first of three fights against The Imprisoned. If I never fight that boss again it'll be too soon. The first time was challenging and fun but it got repetitious fast. OK, when I first saw him I had to fight back laughter because he reminded me of that sneaker-wearing monster from Bugs Bunny. I figured a boss with no arms couldn't do much damage but I was way off. This is another spot where the stamina meter causes angst, if Link is knocked down his only chance is to sail above The Imprisoned and try to drop down to the right spot.
The thought of potentially fighting him three more times is the only thing keeping me from trying the Thunder Dragon's challenge. It was a neat idea for a boss, but overdone.
After dispatching The Imprisoned it was time for the four trials which meant revisiting each area and unlocking a new dungeon there.
If I ever interview the developers of Skyward Sword I know what question I'll ask first - did anyone on the team actually think the four trials were fun? They were my least favorite part of the game and make it unlikely I'll play through again despite the many parts I enjoyed. The challenge at Eldin Volcano was the worst by far. Even if Link chugs a Stamina+ potion before it starts it's of little help. It took me three attempts to clear this one. My downfall usually occurred on the part where Link has to be guided down a slide and narrowly avoid pools of cursed water. It wasn't the sliding part itself but trying to get back up to the top after missing a teardrop.
Over the course of the trials Link finds the clawshot. Like Twilight Princess the clawshot was a letdown, an item that can only be used in very specific ways. That wasn't the case for its predecessor, the hookshot. In Link to the Past, Link's Awakening, Ocarina of Time, and Majora's Mask the hookshot could be fired at anything just to see what happened. Sometimes it led to bugs being exposed, Link gaining access to a part of the map he should not be able to reach, but it was worth it to have the freedom to experiment. In the later Zelda games the only spots where it works are clearly labelled, there's no point in trying anywhere else.
This second visit to the three areas wasn't all bad though. Two of the game's highlights are encountered along the way.
The Ancient Cistern dungeon wasn't all that memorable. It was far less complex than the water dungeons from Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask. It pulled through in the end with a spectacular boss battle against Koloktos. I don't know much about Thai culture but I've eaten at plenty of Thai restaurants and his design reminds me of statues I've seen at them. Then again for all I know those statues could be from Iceland. I have actually been to India though and he also bares a resemblance to some portrayals of Vishnu. Like the Fire Sanctuary this seems to be a blend of these two cultures.
This brawl against Koloktos made great use of the motion controls, it never once felt like it was you vs. the controller instead of you vs. the boss. Hacking off a boss' arm and using it against them is something more games need to do. Maybe Timekillers did this, it's been too long since I last played it to recall.
The Lanayru Sea, although brief, was another great experience. Like the mining facility it shows glimpses of an even earlier Hyrule. If Skyward Sword is truly the first game in the Zelda timeline then what are we to make of this earlier era? Between the timeshift stones and visit to the early Sacred Grounds there was some thought put into this previous time. I can't help but think these are foreshadowing yet another prequel. Sailing a living Lanayru Sea could be a major component of it.
Link's short voyage takes him to the pirate ship which is similar to the Lanayru Mining Facility in its use of time shifting. Despite this similarity it doesn't feel repetitive. From the outside it appears small but the complexity of the inner rooms makes it feel like one of the larger dungeons in the game. It's also where Link finally acquires the bow which is a formidable weapon in this installment. In the first Zelda game the bow serves a specific purpose and is rarely used otherwise. In Ocarina of Time it became a powerful weapon and has only progressed since then. In Skyward Sword it's now so strong that it simply had to be acquired late in the game to avoid making the previous dungeons a cakewalk.
Unfortunately the pirate ship ended with the worst boss fight of the game - Tentalus. I won't lament that he was too difficult because I defeated him on the first try, thanks to being fully stocked on healing potions. I don't mind bosses that dish out damage, what I can't stand are bosses with attacks that simply can't be dodged at all. There are several phases in the fight with Tentalus where Link has no choice but to take a pummeling.
After completing another tour of Hyrule it was time to embark on the Song of the Hero quest. Completing it required going back to all three areas one more time...
This is when I had a horrible realization - these three areas were really it for the game. There would be no new places to explore, specifically no winter level. After the gorgeous winter level in Twilight Princess I was really looking forward to seeing what Skyward Sword would do. Some find the winter levels annoying because of the difficult footing but I enjoy the atmosphere. Ocarina of Time had the frozen Zora's Domain and ice cavern with their somber tone. The mountain village in Majora's Mask was the most realistic looking area in the game. Even Spirit Tracks had a scenic winter level, although it could only be viewed from the train tracks.
Twilight Princess bested them all though. Snowpeak was a flawless reproduction of a frozen landscape. I can't think of a single game that captured the winter setting more accurately. It was a upgrade over Majora's Mask which was an upgrade over Ocarina of Time. Skyward Sword could have gone a step further, maybe using the motion controls to balance on blocks of ice. Unfortunately it skipped this setting altogether making the game feel unfinished.
I heard of the game breaking bug associated with the Song of the Hero quest and knew that the best way to avoid it was saving the desert for last. I opted to visit the forest first, it was a time consuming but simple mission. Next I hit the volcano which offered a substantially more difficult stealth mission. At first I was a bit annoyed at having to run through the volcano yet again but ended-up enjoying this best of the three. The desert challenge was tricky and made good use of the ancient Sacred Grounds story. It also introduced a new cavern to explore which was welcome.
With the ground levels now done three different ways it was time to enter the final dungeon - Sky Keep. I have to start by saying that I've always been terrible at sliding tile puzzles, I doubt I've ever completed one without the assistance of a screwdriver. This mental dysfunction kept me spending more time trying to arrange the rooms than solving them. Thankfully they retained their completed state even after being moved.
Like recent Zelda installments the final dungeon takes Link down memory lane, reliving snippets of previous challenges. Although this has been done since at least Ocarina of Time it doesn't feel worn out. I expect every future Zelda game to continue this tradition.
After finishing Sky Keep, and reuniting the Triforce, Link is off to face a gauntlet of enemies in the past. The first stage is a mad onslaught of enemies that never seems to end. It was a smaller scale version of the Savage Labyrinth from Wind Waker or the Cave of Ordeals from Twilight Princess. It was the only part of the game that was physically exhausting but well worth the workout.
This leads to the last appearance of Ghirahim, Link's final confrontation against the demon who has been stalking him throughout the game. This was very much a battle to quickly memorize patterns. He is dispatched with relative ease leaving Link in great shape for the final battle with Demise. One nice addition is the ability to save and recharge before the last boss. Too often in games it takes 30-60 minutes to reach the last boss only to find no opportunities to save if the hero is defeated.
The last boss fight was anti-climatic for a couple of reasons. Up until the end all the interaction is with Ghirahim. After Link defeats him he is greeted by Demise who he's only heard of. Contrast that to Ocarina of Time where Ganon is introduced early in the game. Link's quest is apparent at that point - become strong enough to defeat Ganon. Skyward Sword isn't the only game with a surprise last boss, many RPGs pull this trick and it's anti-climatic then too. For example, without spoiling anything I'll just say this is one of the reasons why Final Fantasy VI is better than Final Fantasy IV.
The other downer to the last boss battle was the incredible easiness. I went into the last battle with the Guardian+ potion and potion medal equipped. Although I took plenty of hits, I didn't lose a single heart. That's not good. Majora's Mask had a similar issue where the last boss was incredibly easy if Link had the Fierce Deity mask. The key difference is earning the Fierce Deity mask required collecting every other mask in the game, some of which were quite challenging. On the flipside, no special quests are required to obtain the Guardian+ potion or potion medal. Maybe I should go back and try the last boss without the Guardian+ potion.
I know I'm not the first to think of this but you know what would have been cooler than Demise? Having Groose become the first incarnation of Ganon. His story of personal transformation was fine of course, changing from a petty gang leader to a selfless hero is perfectly inspirational. However, I would have preferred the storyline of Groose being driven to evil by his hatred of Link and lust of Zelda. It would have been better than "hey here's some random dude" at least.
The ending was satisfying anyway. Link and Zelda start a new life on the surface, something that I'm certain will generate piles of weird fan fiction. I haven't tried the Hero Mode yet but it's nice that NIntendo revived this idea again.
The Evolution of the Zelda Series
Alright, we've recapped the game more or less. It's finally time to resolve the main question this article is asking - just where is the Zelda series headed?
Skyward Sword is remarkably similar to Twilight Princess in its core design. The graphics and storyline are different of course but they share one major commonality - forced adherence to a dungeon order through storyline events.
This isn't entirely new to the series. Each game to a certain degree steered the player in a recommended direction. Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword took it to a whole new level by locking down segments of the world until key events were triggered. In previous Zelda games some areas were off-limits until Link acquired specific items to enter them. It's a difference of items vs. events.
It sounds small but this is the most significant way the series has evolved, even bigger than the jump from 2D to 3D. It fundamentally changes how the player is allowed to proceed through the game.
Looking at the major console releases we can see how this evolution has occurred:
Legend of Zelda - Before accomplishing a single thing, including obtaining the sword, Link can access every overworld location except for two locations that require the raft. He can also enter six of the nine dungeons immediately (with an asterix on the ninth dungeon which can technically be entered but is locked after the first room). The first eight dungeons can be completed in any order.
Zelda II: The Adventure of Link - Like the original the overworld is locked down by items. Unlike the original it is considerably more confined. Link can only access about a quarter of the map in the beginning. After learning a few spells and finding the raft he can freely travel around the entire land of Hyrule. The dungeons can again be completed in any order. Since defeating a dungeon boss results in automatically gaining a level it's not a bad strategy to save a few bosses until the end.
A Link to the Past - This is the first game to feature an in-game tutorial that locks the player out of the world until it is complete. After that the world is pretty much open. The dungeons can be completed in any order but it's a bit more challenging than previous games.
Ocarina of Time - This is the first installment that tries to force a specific dungeon order. The first three dungeons must be completed in order due to event locks. In the latter portion of the game there is some flexibility for tackling the dungeons out of their intended order.
Majora's Mask - At the beginning of each three day cycle the world is reset to its default state but Link retains all items he's found. This requires an item-based locking mechanism. The four major dungeons can be conquered in any order as a result of this. The game tries to steer the player toward a specific sequence but it can be easily bypassed. For example, Snowhead Temple is much easier with the hookshot which isn't "supposed to" be acquired until later in the game. The mask quests, although not required to complete the game, can be done in practically any order. This was a brief return to the series' roots which might be why it's my favorite in the series.
Wind Waker - Here it is, the first major Zelda game to force a very specific dungeon order. There's no other way to progress through the main storyline of the game. The vast overworld compensates for this a bit. It doesn't feel like a linear game because there is so much free exploration available.
Twilight Princess - This is where it's first apparent the series is changing to a story-driven design instead of an open environment design. The overworld of Twilight Princess in unveiled slowly, requiring Link to explore areas one at a time. Finishing a dungeon in Twilight Princess triggers an event that unlocks the next area Link should explore.
Skyward Sword - As we've just seen, this expands on the map locking system used in Twilight Princess. I'm sure a glitch will be found that allows Link to access an area early but it's a glitch, something the developers never wanted to happen.
I'm a huge fan of the Ys series so I don't mean it as a knock when I say Zelda is turning into an Ys game - an action RPG with a rigid storyline that must be followed in order, an overworld that only serves as transport from one plot point to the next, frequent cutscenes, collecting ingredients for item upgrades, boss rush mode, and an amazing soundtrack to back it all up.
With Skyward Sword it's possible the Zelda series completely severed its open world roots. Under the direction of Shigeru Miyamoto the series was focused on exploration and experimentation. Under the direction of Eiji Aonuma it has focused more on storytelling.
This isn't the first time the series has adapted to fit the gaming market and likely won't be the last. The series has survived nearly 30 years by regularly changing to get in front of gaming trends. Grumpy old gamers like me might claim we want more games that emulate the original Zelda or Ocarina of Time but we'd complain about monotony if Nintendo delivered them.
Deep down long time fans want to see the series evolve, even if it becomes unrecognizable someday in the process. Skyward Sword might not be the Zelda of old but it's an outstanding game on its own merits.
Bonus - Ranking the Series
I didn't intend for this to be about ranking the Zelda games but in some draft that's what I did anyway. Here it is unfiltered:
Where does Skyward Sword rank against the rest of the series? It's definitely above Spirit Tracks but that's hardly a stretch. I'll go ahead and rank it over Zelda II: The Adventure of Link and Phantom Hourglass which were both great in different ways. However, like Twilight Princess it's a bit below Wind Waker. Maybe the best question to ask is - does it rank higher than the game it's closest to, Twilight Princess?
That's a really tough one, I might have to replay Twilight Princess to say for sure. Although the visual styles are quite different they're about equal in quality. I think I prefer the variety of Skyward Sword to the generally dark tones of Twilight Princess. I'll also give Skyward Sword the edge in the soundtrack department. As for storyline, Twilight Princess' direct connection to Ocarina of Time's ending wins over the forced prequel plot. Writing a prequel story after the fact never works that well, see Star Wars episodes 1-3 for an example. With a few minor adjustments Skyward Sword could have a been a completely independent Zelda story instead of attempting to connect it to an already confusing timeline.
For now I'll put Skyward Sword over Twilight Princess but a second replay of the latter may change my opinion. That replay notwithstanding, here's my personal ranking of the series from favorite to least favorite:
Squarely in the middle feels about right. That doesn't make it a bad game or even an average game. The worst that can be said is it's an average Zelda game which still puts it in the 90th percentile of all games.