Skyward Sword Review: Skyword Words

Right now, I’d like to focus my efforts on Nintendo. For better or worse, the rise of the Wii put them back in a situation to determine the future of the industry. What sucks for you, as the sort of person who would read something on the internet about games instead of just playing them very occasionally when someone reminds you that they exist, is that you no longer dictate what is and isn’t successful. Through their attempts to make games more accessible to, well, old people and “filthy casuals,” The majority of consoles owners these days are the casuals you so fear. They haven’t even heard of Penny Arcade. Scary, isn’t it?

So, a couple years back, Nintendo released a game that scored bafflingly high on nearly every review site, despite being easily the worst of its series that I have ever played, and I have to assume (since I am unwilling to be the one who cries bribe) that this is because of the influx of casual gamers in the mid 2000s. This game was The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, and I think it’s time we talked about it without the six-year drought between games clouding our judgment.

Nintendo, we love Zelda. All of us. You have to know it. You see the game sales and the merchandise sales and the fanart and the… well, the piracy. You can see, every day, how much we want to play the games. What can be more difficult to see is who is paying you and why. The who, if the loud voices of the interweb are to be believed, is mostly guys like me. Males, roughly around 30, who were the right age to get in on the ground floor. For us, The Legend of Zelda was our first glimpse at what video games could be.

We had played as somewhat relatable characters (meaning something that looked human, not a dot or a wedge or a vehicle) in games before, but always running left to right, or around one single screen. Stuff like Pitfall and Mario was cool and all, but we were all getting a little tired of the ol’ left to right. With Zelda, we were playing a relatable character in a huge continuous world. Sure, it was set up as single-screen encounters, but they all connected seamlessly with each other, and created a magnificent illusion. It seemed like it went on forever! There was no way we could see it all!

 

As if this wasn’t enough, to have this seemingly never-ending game, it played so well. Everything worked exactly the way you expected it to. It had consistent, fluid animations, heck, even the screen changes when going to another area were beautiful, how they slid smoothly into place based on the direction you were going. It was, for its time, absolutely stunning to look at.

And the combat was glorious. Not just that, but it merged seamlessly with the exploration. You walked into a different area and were almost always immediately threatened by, like, land octopi that shot rocks at you, and these creepy, spinning things that beat the crap out of you while they flew around and you could only hurt them when they occasionally landed, and this ugly mermaid thing that, I think spits at you? It’s fire spit, though, so it’s not weird. One type of enemy were these blue pig-goblin guys who I, honest to God, called “spear chuckers,” because I thought that was they were doing. I was a little kid, I didn’t know it was anything offensive; I was just describing what they did (except it turns out they were probably arrows). When people dug down deep into their reserves of racism and pulled out that old chestnut, I thought they were talking about the guys from Zelda, and I totally agreed with what they were saying. Those guys were the worst. They would show up in the middle of like seven other dudes who protected him from you, and you had to fight so much harder when that one guy could hurl death at you from across the screen.

When combat got tough, you turned to the items you slowly amassed. Arrows and bombs, mostly, but everything you had also helped you explore the map. Fight, explore, fight, explore. It was thrilling. You retrieved most of the items from the dungeons scattered throughout the game. Their entrances took up next to no space on the map, but they spread under the ground like ancient roots. So, you got to explore around those, too. There was so much exploring to do, you felt like you could never see it all. For most of us, it was probably true. But the puzzles, the exploring, and the combat all pulled from the same pool of resources. They were all solved by objects you could find and harness, and most items got a decent amount of use.

When we played it for the first time, there was a large, collective paradigm shift. We wanted to feel like that again. We wanted more games to do this. And they did, to an extent. The genre of light-action, open-world RPGs took off from this point. Not many really captured the scale of it, though, or the balance. The second Zelda game, Adventure of Link, tried to fuse the original game with the left-to-right runners that were dominating the market, but the feeling wasn’t even close to the same.

They took the lesson to heart, they figured out what we’d liked about The Legend of Zelda, and when they made their entry for the Super Nintendo, they gave us exactly what we wanted: more of the same.

And it was good! It was! No one would argue that. A Link to the Past was the perfect next progression for the series, I suppose. They had the technology to do so much more with the style, though, and they kind of got… carried away at times. Where the first Zelda had been lonely and chaotic, Link to the Past was absolutely filled with characters, and progression became very rigid. The first Zelda let us wander wherever we wanted, regardless of whether or not we could handle the enemies there, but Link to the Past forced us to talk to every single villager any time we wanted to keep, you know, exploring. That was the whole reason we came. To explore. And when it did let us explore, it was a pretty limited area. It practically had bumpers attached to it. But, it was so pretty to look at and so very fun to play, that we didn’t really notice how limited we were. We were just happy to be playing another Zelda, throwing bombs everywhere to find caves and cutting grass to survive. It was a Zelda game! And it was exactly what we asked for! Sure, it had taken 4 years, but it was a real sequel to the game we had all fallen in love with.

But, after Link to the Past, there was silence for a while. Link’s Awakening came out, but it was a Gameboy game, and took a step backward to a more NES kind of look. Also, it was weird. I liked it, but it was not a normal game. I think it’s been long enough that we can all admit that. It was a port of Link to the Past turned spin-off that was handed off to/taken over by a few members of the staff from Link to the Past. There’s a giant egg, and a chain chomp from Mario, and the beginnings of the franchise’s new focus on music. We didn’t know it, but pretty much every new Zelda after this would have us playing songs at birds, and at little girls, and at some rocks, and like a million walls, and even the sun.

But finally, seven years after its last true predecessor, Ocarina of Time arrived. What The Legend of Zelda did for 2D gaming, Ocarina did it again for 3D. It was even the same sort of situation as before. Most 3D gaming had been small, disconnected instances, maybe connected by an overworld if we were lucky enough to avoid selecting missions from a menu. And, just like the first time, Nintendo creatively strung maps together in a way that made it feel almost seamless, even though it was basically doing exactly the same thing that Super Mario 64 did with its crazy jumble of maps. The only real difference was that you constantly moved back and forth between maps that connected with no fanfare. You didn’t press A on a sign or picture to open a menu to warp to another world, you just went through a door or walked into that forest you saw from a ways away. Everything you could see, you could go to. Sure, it was a completely different map, but it felt like a single, cohesive world.

I loved it so much, I could have cried. There was so much story happening. Even more than Link to the Past. The world felt so alive! At least, it felt alive in the first few areas that were accessible. Most of the game is completely locked off to you until you accomplish very specific tasks in very specific orders. It’s generally pretty clear what you need to do to progress, but it breaks up the exploration into bite-sized chunks. The areas you access later in the game are desolate wastelands, and they’d have to be, wouldn’t they? I am clearly the only person alive who managed to find the bombs required to clear the rocks I just blew up, so anyone on the other side was just trapped there until I showed up, right? Probably everyone else who lived by the lake died of starvation.

It was exactly the same as Link to the Past. It was the most samey Zelda that had ever been made. It made everything in the franchise fit into one game, and it did a damn good job of it. It quite literally changed the game. It challenged the industry to make something bigger and better, and that was a very good thing. Story in games was still in its infancy, so I can hardly fault them for making it progress the way it did. Even now, most open-world games have pretty forgettable stories. The only obvious exception I can come up with is Grand Theft Auto 5, but even there, the story is fairly bland, and it is instead the script that is fantastic.

What I’m trying to say is there’s not just nostalgia at work when a new Zelda game comes out. There is also an unspoken expectation that this game is going to change the world in some way. No real change happened for a while after Ocarina of Time. They had sold more copies of that game than anything else they’d ever made, and they stuck to the formula that had evolved quite rigidly. This was a great business decision. I can’t refute that, and I respect it in its way. Keeping your company alive is a good thing. So, there was no real innovation to be had from the franchise for a very long time. Just game after game that was really very good, but didn’t move the franchise forward. People began to fear that it was stagnating, and called Twilight princess names, even though it was really quite good considering Nintendo insisted on following the same formula as before.

Maybe it just looks good, now, in retrospect. Because Nintendo, as they did with Link to the Past, listened to our ideas and our concerns, and, when they were developing Skyward Sword, they made great strides forward to really evolve the franchise.

They turned it into what they’d been fighting the whole time.

Skyward Sword is the most locked-down Zelda game you will ever play. Case in point: it has six entirely separate areas that lead to the entrances of the dungeons. Three of them don’t exist at all in the beginning of the game, because they’re the same areas as the first three with slight tweaks so you have to navigate them, differently.

There is no world map. There is, however, a cloudy overworld that contains the three portals that just drop you off in three vastly different parts of whatever world is supposed to be beneath the clouds. You get to watch a fun cutscene of Link skydiving into the portal every time you hop off your flying Pokemon. That is what it looks like, okay? It looks like a Pokemon, it doesn’t seem to exist unless I’m riding it, and I can jump off a cliff, call it, and it catches me before I hit the ground. It’s a Pokemon.

This switch from an open map to instanced dungeons changes the entire feel of the game. I’m no longer on an adventure, I’m running errands. In fact, there is a new form of currency that can only be earned by actually running errands and solving the various problems of the citizens of the overworld. This is the dumbest part of the Zelda formula that has been contrived over the years: friendhip. These are, at their core, games about a kid who murders things. The single most recognizable item from the series is a sword, for fuck’s sake. That’s about as violent as you can get. The game before Skyward Sword, Twilight Princess, was even rated T for Teen, yet we still somehow progressed to a game that revolves around making friends.

Isolated pieces of this game are fun. The motion controls muck up almost everything good about it, but there are fun pieces. The swimming would be interesting, if the controls weren’t so terrible. Same with the flying. And the fighting. You know what’s worse than making Link right-handed? Making him waggle his sword around like an idiot every time I move the Wiimote even a little.

The first boss fight is downright exhausting. My right arm was so sore, I briefly considered switching the Wiimote to my left hand, but I felt like that was somehow what Nintendo wanted me to do, and that doing so would be admitting weakness, and somewhere in Japan, an alarm would sound on Shigeru Miyamoto’s wristwatch to inform him that some out-of-shape nerd’s motion controls had gotten very sloppy all of a sudden, indicating the nerd had switched away from his dominant hand, and Miyamoto would laugh long and loud, then blow his nose with the sixty bucks I gave him for the game.

Also, while I’m on the subject of the boss, why are all main Zelda enemies slowly becoming evil drag queens? Ghirahim is the main bad guy (I think? Might not be a guy, considering how androgynous he/she/it is) in Skyward sword, and he is your first, third, fourth, and seventh boss fight, I think, probably. I know I fought him a lot. I would be fine with fighting the same guy over and over again if he wasn’t so insanely rambly and feminine. Zant from Twilight Princess was also feminine, but he was mostly just kind of weird. He threw tantrums, stomped around, and made very odd noises. I didn’t like him much, but Ghirahim’s little hair flip every time he talks makes Zant look about as feminine as Van Damme, in comparison. It didn’t make me want to kill him at all, in fact, it almost made it feel like killing him would be a hate crime. What it did make me want to do was look away. Every interaction with him was weird and uncomfortable, not because he was feminine, but because I didn’t really understand why he was feminine. Zant was a very sympathetic character in the end, and you understood why he was so strange, but Ghirahim was just a preening, monologuing, lady-boy.

In addition, he’s not a threatening enemy at all. Fights with him aren’t hard. His attacks are telegraphed well in advance and are easy to avoid. Several normal enemies encountered in the first desert dungeon did more damage to me than Ghirahim did in all of my fights with him combined. What made it “difficult” was how long it took. He defends almost flawlessly, and you have to trick him into defending one way, then switch and attack him a different way. If the motion controls did what you wanted, the fight would be laughably easy. All of the challenge is really just frustration. You use neither wits nor brawn to fight him but, rather, patience.

Which brings us to the real problem. I’ve skirted it before, with the locked-off nature of the maps. The Zelda franchise, since the move to 3D, has become a franchise in which you stand around and do nothing. I would like to go back and replay Ocarina of Time, now that I see the patterns, but the idea of watching King Zora take four hours to move out of my way so that I can progress makes me want to slit my wrists. Every single cutscene in Ocarina of Time takes a preternaturally long time. Look at this one, which happens when you piss off a Cuckoo (Just watch the first 30 seconds or so. It will be apparent when the cutscene is over):

 

What? Why? Why is there such a long video for this? And it happens every time. And it’s not just this. So many actions in Zelda games, but Ocarina of Time in particular, trigger ten second cutscenes of a door opening, or a switch flipping, or water stopping or starting. I like to think that this was a technical limitation, at the time, but it still somehow became tradition. If I stop playing Skyward Sword, then play it again the next day, I get to watch an unskippable text box pop up every time I pick up a new type of rupee that explains to me what money is. “You got a green rupee! It is- “I KNOW, OKAY? I PICKED UP ABOUT A THOUSAND GREEN RUPEES YESTERDAY, ALONE.

The over-explaining in Zelda games hit a fever-pitch with Skyward Sword. It started getting popular in most internet circles to make fun of Navi, the fairy from Ocarina of Time who, every time we were starting to figure things out on our own, yelled at us to explain exactly what we had just figured out. Nintendo took our mockery to mean that we missed her. No. No, we did not. But, regardless of our feelings, in Skyward Sword we got Fi, a ghost-robot-ballerina that lives in a sword. One more time, in case someone missed it: she is a ghost-robot-ballerina who lives in a sword.

Fi is a walk-through, plain and simple. She controls your progress through the world by both limiting where you are able to go, and by pointing you in exactly the right direction. “It seems like you want to save Zelda. Would you like help with that?” No, Fi, I would not. “Good, because there is a 73% chance that she is in that building right there.”

I get that she’s a robot, so it’s… I guess… funny that she speaks in percentages? But, it’s also never actually a percentage of a chance, which sort of ruins the joke. If Fi tells you something might be where she’s pointing, it is. One hundred percent of the time. She never gives you information that’s partly incorrect so you have to work for it, she is always 100% correct. There’s no challenge in it, which leads to boredom, and, if you’re bored while playing a video game, there is a problem. Worst of all, this problem isn’t limited to Fi. There is an entire button that only functions as a “Here’s where you go next” button. Twilight Princess had a similar function, but it was much more limited in scope, and it worked within the theme. You were a wolf a good portion of the time, so you would smell something that belonged to someone, like a scarf or a doll (Or a keychain? Pretty sure it was a keychain.), so that you could track them. This made sense. It was uninspired, but it fit. Why the fuck does my sword have the ability to smell things!? And why is it called dowsing? Like a dowsing rod, yeah, I get it.

You know what I really liked about Skyward Sword? The maps. They were great! They had tons of detail crammed into a relatively large space and super creative puzzles that forced you to really evaluate your surroundings to solve them. The maps were incredible, but not for a Zelda game! I didn’t stumble across the volcano on my journey, a fucking Pokemon dropped me off at the start of the trail up. I didn’t see the big tree from a distance and decide I wanted to go to it, I parachuted to THE ENTRANCE OF THE FOREST LEVEL and a spooky robot lady told me that there was a BAZILLION PERCENT CHANCE that there was something interesting at the top of the tree. Oh, really Fi? Do you think? I mean, I mostly play video games to look at boring things and follow directions, so preparing my taxes would really be the best thing to – NO! I play video games to go on adventures! You don’t have to tell me how to go on an adventure. If you show me something that looks cool, I will want to explore it. I won’t have to be told. You did the exact opposite. You dropped me into a bush so I couldn’t see any of my surroundings, and you told me to just figure out how to get to an arbitrary location of your choosing. No matter how cool it looks, I’m not going to appreciate it unless I chose to go there. You can’t just point at something. You have to design the game in a way that facilitates discovery. You have to make the tree line break just enough to let me catch a glimpse of the temple beyond. Make me feel like I found it myself, even though you placed it right where I was going, anyway.

Then, once I’d conquered the levels, what did you do? You made me do it again. You put a little more lava in the fire area, we got to see slightly more of the desert, and you turned the forest into the water level. And you threw in a couple little bonus areas as on-ramps to boss fights that made it feel like I was running to Bowser. It’s funny, because I can see a lot of the same design sentiment in the newer Super Mario 3D World, and it’s all stuff that I love. Skyward Sword’s weird minigames and concept-driven vertical environment puzzles would make a great Mario game. You innovated so hard, it became a completely different genre of game. You gave us what essentially ended up being a platformer where I couldn’t jump at will.

I guess… it’s not bad. It isn’t. If I was playing as a bear with a backpack or a vertically-challenged plumber or a foul-mouthed squirrel, it might have been really enjoyable. But, I didn’t buy a quirky platforming game, I bought a Zelda game.

Now, you guys have recently said things about your new Zelda game that gives me hope. You say it’s going to be an open-world game in which I can explore at will wherever I see fit. And, as I’m sure you can tell, because this all sounds like a letter to an ex-lover and because I pretty much just said so earlier, I will be purchasing this game. So far, you’ve only made one game that has burned me, which means I still feel comfortable giving you my hard-earned money. And, you’ve called it just “The Legend of Zelda,” which makes me think you really may have committed to, in essence, starting over and trying to capture that feeling again. If this is the case, you will reaffirm the hopes of millions and commit them to your franchise all over again. If you don’t, you will confirm all of our worst fears, and Navi and Fi will escort this franchise into an era without the audience that gave it life.

[RR1]Theming is important for paragraphs. Segregate and rearrange!