Review: The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword Makes Exceptional Use of Wii Motion Controls
At a Glance
The Wii Remote really is a remarkably versatile little controller. At its best, it offers a degree of precision not found with traditional controllers, and completely transforms games in the process. But until now, its never quite been able to make good on the promise it demonstrated back in 2006.
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword does its best to make good on all that nebulous potential. And for the most part, it succeeds. It's not far removed from Twilight Princess and its ilk, but key design decisions make it one of the very few Wii games that I can't imagine playing on any other console. It's proof, if any was needed, that smart design goes hand-in-hand with good motion controls.
Enemies encounters are now like a puzzle of sorts, where simply swinging the Wii Remote is apt to result in blocks and even painful counterattacks. The need for a more considered approach is never more apparent than in the first dungeon, which features a boss who mocks and chastises your swordplay as you try to break his defenses. It's frustrating at first, but once you get the hang of it, normal controllers almost start to feel primitive. I'm playing Skyrim right now, and it feels like my hands are tied behind my back.
That's pretty much what I was expecting from the very beginning out of the Wii, and it's a shame that it's taken this long for it to happen. But hey, better later than never, I suppose.
Link's other tools all make use of the new motion controls in one way or another. The slingshot and the bow make use of classic pointer-style aiming; bombs can now be bowled, Wii Sports-style; and the traditional musical instrument is directed by swinging the remote in time to the music. Even more importantly, the tools are all useful for pretty much the entire game. No more one-and-done gadgets ala Twilight Princess's Spinner (exception: the Slingshot, which quickly falls by the wayside, as usual).
Some of it has to do with Skyward Sword's impeccably designed dungeons; some of it has to do with the fact that it takes a page from Metroid. Like its fellow Nintendo franchise, Skyward Sword will occasionally return to previously explored dungeons -- something rarely seen in a Zelda game -- where old tools once again become new, and new tools are given new applications. Moreover, many of the tools have a variety of applications, such as scouting and negotiating chasms.
The downside of this new approach is that the franchise's trademark exploration is significantly downplayed for this entry. And by "downplayed," I mean that it's practically non-existent. Instead, the floating island of Skyloft focuses more like a hub from which each of the game's regions can be accessed. The new treasure system -- hidden items that can be used to upgrade existing tools -- would seem to provide an impetus for striking out into the world, but the new abilities bestowed on the tools are more or less superfluous. Even a more powerful bow and arrow didn't do a whole lot for me.
To Nintendo's credit, Skyward Sword is absolutely packed with content. There's hardly any fluff to be found in the 35 hours or so it takes to complete the main quest, outside of the typically sluggish opening scenes. But I feel like Zelda should be going back to its roots and becoming less linear, rather than moreso. It's a curious decision, and I'm not sure it'll sit particularly well with longtime Zelda fans.
And as much as I like Skyward Swords' first boss fight, I feel like the adventure as a whole takes a while to find its feet. The second dungeon in particular feels like business as usual, down to the fact that it follows the traditional Forest Temple-Fire Temple pattern. It's not until around the second half that it really gets going, and that may not be quick enough for more casual observers of the series.
But Nintendo shows their design chops soon enough, and the latter dungeons are absolutely glorious. The fifth dungeon in particular ranks among my favorite Zelda dungeons of all time, even edging ahead of the Yeti Hut in Twilight Princess. But even at their worst, all of Skyward Sword's dungeon feature splendid traversal puzzles that require a high degree of spacial awareness to solve. I'm especially pleased that Nintendo has opted to favor more organic challenges over traditional "push the box" puzzles. Skyward Swords' best challenges can offer a hundred different views of one room, making even the smallest dungeons feel gigantic.
All that I said, I would be remiss if I didn't mention the "Silent Realms," which feel like a throwback to the much reviled stealth puzzles in Phantom Hourglass. The Silent Realms are nothing more than timed collect-a-thons where even one mistake can wipe out five or ten minutes worth of progress. Put against the more organic nature of the dungeons, the Silent Realms stand out like a sore thumb.
Apart from these minor hiccups though, Skyward Sword is a remarkably well-designed adventure with some superb boss encounters, the best of which seamlessly integrate the motion controls that lay at the heart of the experience. Its main sins are that its a bit of a slow starter and lacks the exploration that has long been one of the franchise's strengths. And even the terrific new motion controls aren't apt to alleviate the burnout some fans might be feeling after a decade's worth of 3D Zelda titles.
Nevertheless, it's a good, well-designed adventure that does much to redeem five years of motion controlled shovelware. When I look back on it, I think I'll mainly remember the combat -- not something I've ever said about a Zelda title. Whether that's enough to push it into the upper echelons of the franchise is for history to decide. But for now, the Wii can rest knowing that its potential has finally been realized.