It’s been six years since the release of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. Despite being tied with Majora’s Mask and Breath of the Wild for my favorite Zelda game, Skyward Sword is generally considered to be the low point of the 3D Zelda titles. As such, I’ve always thought that it was an amazing game; an easy 9.5 or even 10. Though a recent play through of the game has allowed me to see Skyward Sword a bit differently.
I suppose I should get the most controversial point out of the way first. I can recall having virtually no trouble with the motion controls when playing Skyward Sword for the first time and could not believe others had issues with them when my experience was fine. Having replayed the game, I’ve started to pick up on some issues. While I don’t find Skyward Sword anywhere near unplayable, activating Skyward Strikes can be troublesome. Not only is getting the Wiimote to work so that you activate the charge for the attack difficult, but it takes quite some time to charge as well, leaving plenty of opportunity to mess it up. Eventually you can upgrade the Goddess Sword to the Master Sword so that it charges instantly, but that should have been the default from the beginning. Rather than earning an upgrade it feels like we’re removing a flaw that shouldn’t have been present. There are some instances of motion controls that are completely unnecessary as well: why do we have to shake the nunchuck to do a spin attack in the water? Why do we have to swing the Wiimote up to make the Loftwing flap its wings? Shouldn’t those sorts of things be relegated to a button?
Despite the above complaints I do maintain that the motion control makes for a refreshing combat system. I’ve always felt that Zelda combat has been way too simplistic with strategies for fighting enemies consisting largely of just pressing the attack button repeatedly. Breath of the Wild in particularly becomes guilty of this when you learn to flurry rush everything to death. Skyward Sword, meanwhile, discourages such blind offensive tactics as each fight is a sort of puzzle that you must solve.
While the motion controls aren’t without their flaws, I’ll never be able to get behind the hate they get on the Internet.
I have nothing to say about Skyward Sword’s overworld that hasn’t been said countless times already. I fully admit it’s the low point of 3D Zelda overworlds so let’s just get the negatives out of the way:
- Overworld feels too disconnected
- Sky is barren and unfun to traverse
- Linear level design on the surface leaves little breathing room between dungeons
Credit where credit is due, though: Skyloft is the greatest hub area a Zelda game has had since Clock Town. It looks gorgeous, the music is a joy to listen to, and there are some halfway decent NPCs to interact with along with sidequests that are above average for a Zelda game, though I admit that isn’t saying much.
The dungeons range from mediocre to incredible; the first two dungeons are very standard Zelda fare and fail to impress, but from that point onwards the quality takes a massive uptick. The Lanayru Mining Facility introduces timeshift stones, which are an extremely creative mechanic that singlehandedly makes the Lanayru region the best in the game. The Ancient Cistern has some of the best theming of any Zelda dungeon, and of course, I’m sure we’re all aware of the unexpected demonic underworld segment. The Sandship makes even better use of the timeshift stones than the Lanayru Mining Facility and is probably my favorite Zelda dungeon. The Fire Sanctuary admittedly falls flat, but then the Sky Keep’s gimmick of moving the rooms around, making the dungeon a puzzle in and of itself, makes it the best final dungeon. All things considered I think Skyward Sword could contend for the best selection of dungeons in the series. It would have serious competition from Ocarina of Time and Twilight Princess, sure, but it could still compete.
Oh, and Skyward Sword has great boss fights. I know that’s a controversial opinion, but it’s one I stand by. I don’t need to get into the badassery of some of these fights since we’re all familiar with them(taking down Koloktos with his own swords). While the second fight against The Imprisoned was unnecessary and we should have gotten a second Ghirahim fight that distinguished itself more from the first, these really aren’t a big deal. The first and third Ghirahim fights are great, and the same applies to The Imprisoned, so I’m willing to overlook one stinker on both ends. Negative reactions to these have been overblown. Tentalus is also a damn fine boss fight with an amazing buildup and great atmosphere: the only reason it’s not considered one of Zelda’s best is because of Tentalus’ design.
The game’s visuals are a mixed bag. The game employs an art style that helps mask the Wii’s technical limitations by blurring out distant areas to resemble a watercolor painting. This actually works quite well; most prominently while sailing the Lanayru Sand Sea. However, while the art style works well for the environments, the character models often suffer from it. There are MANY times throughout the game where characters delve into uncanny valley, which is unfortunate, because there are a few times where character models look absolutely gorgeous. I’m looking forward to Skyward Sword’s remaster so that the game’s artstyle can be done justice.
The plot is fairly standard Zelda fare. Zelda gets kidnapped, you collect MacGuffins, the TriForce is thrown in there… The basic storyline of the game is nothing special, but as far as the cast of main characters go, this game has the strongest. We have our most emotional and characterized Link, arguably the best Zelda, the best villain in Ghirahim, the best Impa incarnation, and one of the few Zelda characters with a full-fledged arc in Groose. Fi is the only weak point, but even she gets her tearjerker moment in the end along with two other characters. Compare this cast with the other Zelda titles that each only have one or two standouts. Oh, wait, you can’t. Because there is no comparison. Skyward Sword takes it, no contest.
And another strong point that ties into the plot is the game’s presentation; Skyward Sword feels VERY cinematic. A lot of Zelda titles have fairly unambitious cutscenes with dialogue that isn’t particularly well-written, character models that are static, and, well… not that many cutscenes in general. Skyward Sword, on the other hand, is firing on nearly all cylinders. I say “nearly all”, because it is lacking voice acting, and it definitely should have been the first to experiment with that, not Breath of the Wild. The presentation is also helped by the fact that we actually have a proactive villian for once: Ghirahim shows up at the end of nearly every dungeon to menace Link and deliver an entertaining monologue. I was always looking forward to running into him at the end of a dungeon, and he almost always delivered(Ancient Cistern Ghirahim left as soon as he showed up). He easily has the most screentime of any Zelda antagonist. In fact, I think he’s the only truly good villain the series has gotten. But I’ll write an article on that later.
On a less positive note, perhaps the single greatest issue I have with the game is padding. The surface only has three general regions to explore, and even though you discover new areas upon your return to each one… you return to each one. This isn’t a problem with the Lanayru region, as the Lanayru Sand Sea is absolutely incredible and probably the high point of the game, but the return segments for the Faron and Eldin region involve needless backtracking. And, of course, you have to return to each of the regions a third time for more filler… It didn’t bother me during my first playthrough, but I was a lot less critical of games at the time and nowadays I see it for the egregious flaw that it is. Skyward Sword’s padding is just awful, and more than anything else it’s what stands in the way of this game being a masterpiece.
On a more positive note, the soundtrack for the game is great. Easily my personal favorite of any Zelda title. The game is the first in the franchise to provide a fully orchestrated soundtrack, and it’s absolutely gorgeous. Unfortunately, though, most of the great pieces consist of boss battle themes and music that plays during cutscenes; this leads many to not have enough exposure to some of the better pieces. The earworms are confined to specific one-time events rather than constantly looping in an overworld segment, which las led to the soundtrack not getting as much credit as it deserves.
In the end, Skyward Sword has some glaring flaws. I can’t deny that the overworld largely blows or that the motion controls don’t always perform optimally, but this game does things well, and when I’m experiencing the massive highs of the game I’m able to forgive and even forget the lows. It’s not perfect, but damn it, I love the game.
Even though it exhibits mediocrity at points, it ultimately filled my heart with rainbows and made me positively giggly.