The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is a game that begs you to judge it prematurely. Even before playing Link’s latest journey to its terminal juncture, I experienced numerous argumentative spells of wanting to shallowly despise the game, to deem it a moderate failure and an unnecessary re-tweaking of a franchise that has never needed to make dramatically drastic changes in order to deliver a masterwork. Conversely, there was a separate, more forgiving, conspicuously humane part of my consciousness that occasionally desired to claim Skyward Sword as the greatest Legend of Zelda title in existence, the entry that finally outshines Ocarina of Time and dutifully tries its hand at becoming the finest action/adventure RPG ever created. Then, instead of simply halting my playthrough at the 39 hours it took me to decimate the main storyline, I actually put in the extended gameplay prescribed to complete the game 100%, taking on the genuinely daunting Hero Mode until there was simply nothing else to do but use the disc as a coaster, and my opinion of the game, which at one point varied from “so-so” to “stunning,” ultimately rested firmly on the fact that, no matter which way you look at it, Skyward Sword is ambitious as all hell, among the best Wii has to offer in terms of a captivating cinematic endeavor and, assuredly, a much better game than the perfunctorily designed Twilight Princess, but falls short of being branded as a more substantial or revolutionary Legend of Zelda chapter than Ocarina of Time.
With Skyward Sword, Nintendo defines the phrase “going for broke,” essentially reinventing the Legend of Zelda control scheme by implementing the Wii’s highly accurate MotionPlus technology to a remarkably grand degree, forcing the player to fully embody the role of Link; the result is a truly transporting enterprise that validates my consistently frowned-upon renaming of the protagonist as “Mike.” More than any other Legend of Zelda title, Skyward Sword requires intensive concurrent usage of the player’s body and mind; each enemy is a specific riddle that must be solved, their attack patterns call for calculated (oftentimes hasty) analysis and correspondingly executed combat decoding in order to defeat them in the most effective, recommended manner. Gone are the days when employing constant button-mashing tactics against the seemingly weakest of foes would warrant progression; now lifelike and fluid movements are key to getting the better of the game’s innumerable baddies. In addition, Skyward Sword successfully uses the expert storytelling the Legend of Zelda series is known for as a conduit to weave and convey a fresh, if at first a shade uncomfortable, fashion in which to guide the realm’s anointed savior, ceremoniously appareled in green, to his ultimate destination. Regardless of my unfledged reservations, I knew the game was something special early on when I hoisted the Goddess Sword from its formerly eternal resting place and raised my Wiimote aerially to signify that I was its rightful master.
While not the most outstanding all-around Legend of Zelda title since Ocarina of Time (I’m still hanging that distinction on The Wind Waker, so have me crucified), Skyward Sword boasts the series’s most involving, entrancingly imagined narrative. Aesthetically recalling one of my favorite RPGs of any generation, Skies of Arcadia (sans the pirate theme) for the ill-fated Sega Dreamcast, Skyward Sword’s beyond-the-wild-blue-yonder super fairy tale is a grandiose epic populated with a colorful cast of veritably memorable characters (most notably your ethereal traveling companion who resides within your sword, the oft-accidentally hilarious Fi, a welcome change from the endlessly annoying Navi), wonderfully wrought twists, sincerely emotional moments, and countless captivating environments that push the Wii’s graphical capabilities to their utmost limitations (what I wouldn’t give to bear witness to these surroundings displayed in HD). Overall, the visuals are a disarming combination of The Wind Waker’s inappropriately lambasted cartoony artistry (“Cel-da”) and the darker-toned optical maturity of Twilight Princess.
The game’s central hub or overworld area, a series of islands strewn among the clouds called Skyloft, initially feels slightly underdeveloped, with little use for it other than repetitive backtracking in order to restock supplies, but as you delve deeper into Skyward Sword’s protracted undertakings, Skyloft reveals itself as a treasure trove of side quests and passageways to cleverly hidden objectives. Soaring around Skyloft atop your trusty Loftwing, a large species of avian that resembles a cross between an overfed parrot and a duck-billed griffin, is a much more difficult to direct affair than sailing with King of Red Lions in The Wind Waker, but unlike that game, Skyward Sword’s periods of head-scratching meandering provide a suitable reward if you can maintain the willingness to endure stretches of wholly less-than-enticing gameplay. Similarly, the vast lands of varying climate and terrain laid out below the upper atmosphere, typically only used as pawn-populated scenic routes to the franchise’s signature boss lairs (a highpoint of Skyward Sword, to be sure) operate patently different here, acting as their own breed of mini-dungeons, with which myriad puzzles, fetch quests, and formidable adversaries are sweepingly scattered, providing an extra layer of complexity to a game that already possesses it in spades.
Varying from other Legend of Zelda entries that approach masterpiece status, Skyward Sword’s primary issues surface sooner rather than later, mostly due to Wii’s scant pixel-bursting horsepower and the dependability of its motion controls. The Wiimote’s calibration falters far too frequently for a game that necessitates pinpoint precession from the outset, and soon regularly pressing down on the D-pad to center the cursor’s base of trajectory becomes an uninvited second nature. Camera angles tend to snag on tight maneuverability cornering here and there, framerate fluency can lag when a flurry of activity is taking place on screen, and invisible walls do pop up at locations that could have easily been polished with a stricter attention to detail. However, these faults are at their most distracting very early on, and once the flow of Skyward Sword’s newfound stylistic swerve is comprehended and subsequently vaulted, the game’s command procedures absorb into your cerebral cortex as a substitute set of physical functions that only engage when you boot up your Wii.
Signified by Skyward Sword’s packaging with an excellent orchestral soundtrack that encompasses 25 years of groundbreaking scores, music has always been an integral aspect of the Legend of Zelda series, and what’s being dubbed as the Wii’s swan song just so happens to lay claim to one of the most dazzling video-game OSTs I’ve ever heard. Every area has a range of noted cues and tempo fluctuations that add a heightened level of dramatics to Link’s ventures that has not been so acutely felt since Ocarina of Time.
With Skyward Sword, Nintendo does something that commonly causes other developers to quiver: challenging themselves and their audience rather than the competition. In questioning the optimum strength of their own glass ceiling, and the attention span of their followers, they’ve put together a game that may very well alienate diehard members of the Legend of Zelda fanbase. This is a traditional Legend of Zelda adventure buried beneath a nontraditional one, and reaching the available gaming enlightenment takes a considerable amount of dedication. Although there are barefaced frustrations aplenty, Skyward Sword is the reason I’ve been enamored with video games since I stood no higher than my mother’s knees. No other game this year rewards the player’s patience more graciously, or with such peerless elegance.