Autopsy: Skyward Sword

Beginning the Zelda series play-through with the first chronological game (complete with drinking game), Skyward Sword is definitely one of the more controversial entries.  There’s definitely some attempt to shake up the series formula and yet the game never truly shines with its originality because of how many references and call-backs there are.  The marketing to tie the game with Zelda’s 25th anniversary didn’t help.  Add in motion controls and the game is going to be a “love it or hate it” deal.  This autopsy of the game will show that Skyward Sword is easily the worst 3D Zelda and a contender for the franchise’s lowest point.

“Worst in the series” might seem like hyperbole until people realize Skyward Sword doubles down on things people hate about Zelda.  Case in point:  tedium.  Majora’s Mask has a section where the player has to go underneath the well and exchange bottled items (fish, milk, a blue potion, among others) and magic beans with mummies in order to progress through the well.  While the majority of those items can be found within the well itself, it’s rather tedious to send the player on various fetch quests to get these items.  Thankfully, it’s only a small part of Majora’s Mask and this whole sequence only needs to be done once.

Skyward Sword, on the other hand, takes that sequence and turns it into the whole game.  “Sure, I could tell the player where Zelda went and send them towards the first temple…but first, they must find these three Kikwi!”  “The player could enter the second temple after climbing up a volcano but first, they must assemble the five pieces of the dungeon entrance since it was broken because plot!”  “The Water Dragon could teach Link the song of the hero but first, they must break the song into collectibles the player now has to go fetch!”

The whole sequence to find the Sandship is like this too.  First, collect a navigation map from the pirate’s house that is inexplicably located on top of a massive rock.  Next, go to the shipyard and ride around on a mine cart to realize the ship’s not here and is probably somewhere else.  Then go to the pirates’ hideout and realize it’s not there either.  With all those locations ruled out, the ship must be somewhere out in the sea but it’s invisible so have fun locating it!

Skyward Sword is the longest game in the series but longevity does not equal depth.  It’s also not necessarily “good” if a game’s length is needlessly padded out.

One other bit before moving on:  People complained about Twilight Princess having way too long of a prologue.  Skyward Sword‘s an even more egregious offender.  It can be argued that a more intensive tutorial is necessary since the game is so reliant on motion controls.  Well, Ocarina of Time had the series jump from 2D to 3D and that game’s tutorial is maybe 30 minutes (if that).

Combine the above complaint with the game’s motion controls and it’s easy to see why people dislike Skyward Sword so much.  To its credit, the swordplay can be incredibly immersive (when the motion controls aren’t so finicky) but there’s never a point where the Wiimote is preferable to a game pad.  Different types of sword attacks have been common in the series since Ocarina of Time so it’s not like none of the sword combat could be reproduced on a conventional controller.

If anything, the motion controls make the game harder than it should be.  There will be more than a few times the game won’t register the Wiimote’s commands because the sensor’s just not registering the player’s input.  Also, while it was mentioned earlier the swordplay can be immersive, this can backfire.  Most enemies have a tell on which way to swing the Wiimote but how fast it needs to be done is a process of trial and error.

Take the third fight with Ghirahim where the boss pulls out the giant sword and the player has to hit the blade in a certain manner to “chip away” at it.  If a player is immersed in the fight, they’ll try to hit the sword as fast as they can.  That’s a mistake since Ghirahim shifts the blade so the same sequence won’t work, so the player has to actually slow down.  This breaks the immersion since why would Ghirahim leave such an opening?

This isn’t to say Skyward Sword is completely terrible.  The soundtrack’s possibly the best in the series.  The characterization for the Skyloft citizens (particularly Groose) is well-done.  Despite complaining about how ridiculously drawn-out the Sandship sequence is, it’s one of the best parts of the game (everything from the Ancient Cistern to the Sandship is golden).  The scenery is gorgeous and the art direction outside of certain parts of characters (Link’s lips, Zelda’s nose) is outstanding.  The stamina gauge, sprinting and the adventurer pouches are all welcome additions to spice up the series.

These compliments are not enough to save the game, though.  Terrible game design and finicky controls are enough to keep this game from being one of the series’ best.  Add in perhaps the most boring overworld in a video game ever (it makes sense that the air around Skyloft is mostly monster-free but it’s definitely not fun to fly around with little to worry about except tornadoes) and obnoxious hand-holding from the worst NPC companion in the series and Skyward Sword‘s going to rank at the bottom of the Zelda tier.  At the very least, no way it’s better than the other 3D console titles.