Skyward Sword, Downward Spiral

WARNING: This article contains unmarked spoilers for The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword.

Let me preface this half-review/half-some other thing with the qualification that I cannot and will not call The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword a “bad game.” Too much work and effort was put in by too many people for me to feel at all comfortable with dismissing it like that. I made a similar qualification before when discussing Grand Theft Auto V; some consideration has to be made for effort and personal taste when reviewing a game.

All that said, Skyward Sword deeply disappointed me to the point where I had to stop and think super hard about whether my problems were with SS in specific or with modern 3D Zelda games as a whole. It’s actually pretty remarkable that in the sixteen years since Ocarina of Time came out, there have only been five modern 3D Zelda games released, with a sixth coming soon for the Wii U. I sound like I’m making an unnecessarily specific category but there’s no better way to describe the main series console games that have come out since the Nintendo 64. 1)For the record: Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask, Wind Waker, Twilight Princess, and Skyward Sword.

My issues with SS really drove home how similar these games can be and how much they rely on a very specific formula and structure. We got into this discussion a bit with Link Between Worlds, which eschewed that typical formula and structure in favor of letting the player rent weapons and items whenever they wanted and taking on the dungeons in whichever order they desired. It was a good game but it remains to be seen how Zelda U will change or continue that discussion. As of this writing we are only a few days away from Eiji Aonuma and Shigeru Miyamoto demoing a bit of live gameplay of Zelda U and it appears to be, as Aonuma promised during E3 2014, a truly open game.

Isn’t Zelda open, though? Not really. I thought so too, but last year I read a piece by Tevis Thompson, “Saving Zelda,” which like this one, was penned after a playthrough of Skyward Sword. It’s thought-provoking, especially for people like me who hold Zelda games in immensely high regard. 2)Now that I’ve played Skyward Sword, I can say I’ve played every single Zelda game all the way through save for Adventure of Link. There are things I agree with and things I disagree with, but a few things really stuck out to me–namely this passage:

“Modern Zeldas do not offer worlds. They offer elaborate contraptions reskinned with a nature theme, a giant nest of interconnected locks. A lock is not only something opened with a silver key. A grapple point is a lock; a hookshot is the key. A cracked rock wall is a lock; a bomb is the key. That wondrous array of items you collect is little more than a building manager’s jangly keyring.”

Upon first reading this, I was offended. Rather, I was still riding the offense that flared up upon reading the earlier line “Zelda sucks, and it has sucked for a long time.” Still, this was a lot for me to take in. I thought about it a lot—probably much more than I should have. I couldn’t argue with this. Thompson was right, maybe about Zelda sucking but definitely about the worlds of Zelda. After playing Skyward Sword I cannot agree with that point strongly enough.

Part of that is why Skyward Sword felt so much like work rather than playing a video game. Another part of that is the motion controls. I tweeted out a while ago that part of growing up is realizing that motion controls, even when properly implemented in a game structured around them, do not make Zelda games fun. They make them tiresome. I will concede that it is cool that it matters which way I swing my sword for just about every enemy and boss and puzzle. But it stops being fun pretty quickly.

I might have had a better time were motion controls not mandatory but with the way the game was set up that wouldn’t even be practical. Instead, I had to carry on standing directly in front of my television making sure that my slashes were going in the right direction, that I was holding the Wiimote just the right way when flying around the hopelessly empty world, that everything was just the way the game wanted it to be. Man, typing all of that out sounds super depressing. Probably because it was.

Worse was the unapologetic filler that made me realize that maybe it wasn’t all Skyward Sword’s problem. There were three very specific instances during the course of the game where, had I been a lesser person, I would have thrown my Wiimote down and said “to Hell with this!” The first came when I was about to enter one of the early dungeons when, wait! No, you need a key to even get in here! Oh, and the key is broken up in five pieces that you have to go find now. Have fun!

The second came right before the next-to-last dungeon. I had to go and enlist a robot helper to help me carry a basin of water so I could pour water on a thing and open the door. I made the mistake of thinking I could go right to the summit of the volcano and not have a problem at all. WRONG! The game forced me to land at the base and then had the nerve to tell me, via that robot helper, that I had to protect him during the climb up. Never mind that the spotty AI meant that he would invariably run into any enemy no matter how far away. What should have been simple turned into an unnecessary escort mission.

The third came after that dungeon, when I thought I was finally in the home stretch. WRONG! I go help this big flying fish dude and expect him to teach me the Song of the Hero. Whoa, slow down, Link! That song is broken up into four pieces for some reason and I’ll only teach you the piece I know when you go learn the other three. Had this not been so close to the end of the game I might have quit right there but I powered through.

There were more moments like that. And it made me realize that every modern Zelda game (and to a lesser extent, most Zelda games in general) follows very similar formulas. Go get these x amount of things, Link. Now that you have those, you can go get these x amount of things. Now here is the final boss. Fun game! To be fair, I’m being a bit harsh. But what is Ocarina of Time except getting three things from the first three dungeons and then five things from the last five dungeons, and then fighting the final boss? 3)This is coming from someone who still considers Ocarina of Time his favorite Zelda game, albeit less strongly than ever before.

The best Zelda games make that less obvious. Majora’s Mask has linearity subverted by the constant time travel. Wind Waker does the best job of it—you get the three orbs, yes, and then the Tower of the Gods happens. After that, the next two dungeons all depend on not only Link but Medli and Makar. And this is all not to mention Link’s multiple encounters with the Forsaken Fortress. I’m hesitant to talk about Twilight Princess because I have not played it in eight years but I think it is significant that I was extremely averse to it my first time through. 4)I intend to replay it on GameCube soon.

It’s not all bad in Skyward Sword, though. Similar to how the bad things about it accentuate things that can be improved about the Zelda series as a whole, its strengths attest to the best things about Zelda. Far and away my favorite thing in Skyward Sword is the characterization and, to a lesser extent, the plot. The Zelda of SS was, thanks to that time and effort I mentioned earlier as well as the power of the Wii console, one of the most expressive and compelling iterations of her character yet.

I did not expect Skyward Sword to make me tear up but it did with a scene near the end. Before Zelda seals herself away (which sucks and it’s about time we moved past that narrative device) she apologizes to Link for using him: “I knew that if it meant saving Zelda, you would throw yourself headfirst into any danger, without even a moment’s doubt… I… I used you. I can’t begin to tell you how sorry I am for pulling you into all of this, Link.” It was nice of her to apologize to me for having to play through that game! No, but seriously, I might just be weak but that moment of personal realization for Zelda combined with how capable the game was of expressing her emotion was a really nice moment.

Again, we return to Wind Waker for an example of how well that worked in the past. Though many people had beef with the cartoony style, it allowed for a great deal of expressiveness and emotion. When Link is loaded up into the cannon before entering Forsaken Fortress, we see a range of emotions play over his face: courage, regret, fear, resignation. When he desperately reaches out to [REDACTED] at the end of the game, our hearts are broken. We even feel emotion for Ganondorf during his final soliloquy.

Even the N64 games were capable of eliciting emotion. The most emotional thing in Majora’s Mask is actually optional: the Anju/Kafei sidequest that’s essentially impossible to complete without some sort of guide or walkthrough. Within the world of a Zelda game I want to be given good reasons for doing what I’m doing. Skyward Sword lacked that in a lot of parts.

It doesn’t help that every character save for Link, Zelda, Impa, and even ol’ Groose was ultimately forgettable. 5)I am not including Ghirahim because if I keep ignoring him he might go away. Wind Waker (Medli, Makar, Grandma, Aryll, etc.), Majora’s Mask (the people you help in the Bomber’s Notebook), Ocarina of Time (Malon, Talon, Saria, Darunia, Nabooru, etc.), and even Twilight Princess (MIDNA!!!!!!!) all had memorable secondary characters. If I don’t care about anyone in the world why should I spend time in it?

There were other, minor things about Skyward Sword that I found myself able to enjoy. The stamina mechanic kind of sucked but it was nice that Link could actually sprint now. Maybe one day he will be able to jump? The final dungeon, slide puzzle though it may have been, was actually interesting. Plus, it was nice to actually be able to walk right up to the damn Triforce. I appreciated that.

In all, I can’t really recommend Skyward Sword to anyone, especially since it’s been well over three years since it came out. It’s much more work than play, and the best parts of it (cutscenes, character designs, not having to trudge through filler) can be enjoyed without actually having to play it. What I’m more excited for is Aonuma’s desire to tinker with what supposedly makes Zelda games Zelda games. We got some of that in Link Between Worlds. In the fully realized 3D world of Zelda U, will he deviate further from the norm? Here’s hoping.

Notes   [ + ]

1. For the record: Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask, Wind Waker, Twilight Princess, and Skyward Sword.
2. Now that I’ve played Skyward Sword, I can say I’ve played every single Zelda game all the way through save for Adventure of Link.
3. This is coming from someone who still considers Ocarina of Time his favorite Zelda game, albeit less strongly than ever before.
4. I intend to replay it on GameCube soon.
5. I am not including Ghirahim because if I keep ignoring him he might go away.

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