Oh, Nintendo. Trust the company that brought us the Virtual Boy, FLUDD the water-shooting backpack and, just recently, the bolt-on analogue stick, to leave it six whole years before releasing a game that embraces the Wii’s unique features on every conceivable level, and in doing so makes the console downright essential for any and all core gamers in one fell swoop of a giant crimson wing.
Imagine your favourite bit of a Zelda game. Ocarina Of Time’s vast, explorable landscape, perhaps? What about Wind Waker’s massive ocean of blue to pioneer? Or perhaps you were all about Twilight Princess’s tricksy sword moves and bug hunting? All those staples are present and correct, and in spades too; clearly in a concerted effort to pull together myriad factors of Zelda lore for this 25th anniversary celebration. But the most important and outstanding truth about Skyward Sword is that it does so much more besides. And that so much more is original, dynamic and, most thrillingly, a true progression for the series, even while this instalment delights in steeping itself so much in its past glories.
As ever, Link begins the game awaking from a moody teenage slumber, but this time he’s not been dreaming about Triforces or scary men from the desert. No, this time it’s a titanic, slavering beast trying to gnaw his face off, snapping and snarling in a way that you just dread, inevitably, facing in boss form later. It’s a stark contrast to his comfy home life. A bird-riding knight-in-training in a floating town known as Skyloft, it’s not long before Link’s plunged into a predictable, tacky and generally unfunny opening hour or so of sub-Saved By The Bell high school drama. The big bully, the leering sidekicks, a sabotaged race and a desperation for all concerned to win the affections of a certain blonde-haired, pale-skinned headmaster’s daughter serve as a plodding introductory act, but at the very least set up the game’s impressionistic visuals and joyful, fully orchestral soundtrack to be something far more upbeat than Twilight Princess’s attempts to be dark. And besides, all the handholding and humorous asides are a good enough way to become accustomed to the single most important new feature in Skyward Sword – the extremely novel control system.
Further, Nintendo being Nintendo, it’s not long before this emphasis on wielding the Remote begins to blossom into wider, ever more intriguing ways to interact with the game on numerous levels.
From raising the sword in the air, He-Man-style, to power the weapon up for a ‘Skyward Strike’ projectile attack, to confounding a giant eyeball guarding a door by spinning the sword in 360-degree rotations, to solving puzzles by slashing in sequences or inserting the sword into puzzle blocks, the wider game is keenly designed around the blade, making it a key tool in far more situations than just combat.
The motion control focus doesn’t stop there either, of course, with almost every one of Link’s new toys somehow driven by hand movements. Simple, analogue aiming with the slingshot moves swiftly to swinging a whip, or even piloting a tiny beetle through the skies, its pincers able to collect items or carry and drop bombs with a superb top-down camera mode, every new collectable creating another new twist for the Wii Remote’s possibilities. At the same time, many of the items and weapons are now upgradeable at Skyloft’s marketplace, or by meeting certain characters in the narrative. This adds a new meaning to inventory completion, hoarding the game’s many collectable minerals, feathers and even bugs in order to keep building on what you’ve already got. The extended adaptation of items also means that they continue to be useful throughout the game; a far cry from the one-hit wonders many pick-ups have been in the past, used extensively in one dungeon or one boss and never seen again.
This holistic approach covers the entirety of Skyward Sword, each element carefully intertwined with the rest, more care than ever before having been taken to ensure each separate gameplay device links intelligently with every other. It’s exactly in line with Nintendo’s promises to structure the game in new and attention-grabbing ways. It means that, while Skyward Sword still unfurls its story and possibilities in as linear a manner as the series ever has, a sense of exploration and scale has still managed to return to the series that, arguably – due to developmental approach or the simple limitations of 3D technology – hasn’t been seen since the freedoms offered by the very first adventure back in 1986.
The way this has been achieved is with a firm sense of pacing. Ocarina Of Time’s Hyrule Field was packed with elements, but regrettably small, while Twilight Princess or Wind Waker’s aquatic versions contained many of the same destinations, but with a great amount of empty space in between. Skyward Sword brilliantly solves this problem of scale versus exploration by splitting the open world and the focused, adventure sections neatly in two. The sky – Link’s childhood home and location of the Skyloft town – now fulfils the role of the large, explorable area, Link’s enormous red bird rideable around its entirety with deft flicks of the Remote causing his mount to flap, dive and swoop. At the touch of a button, however, Link can leap from the bird, freefalling through the air. From here, he can drop into portals that lead to specific areas of ‘the surface’ below, exploring several key (and instantly familiar) sectors of the apparently abandoned and wild world below Skyloft. It’s an extremely clever approach to creating gameplay value and scope in each area, as there’s far more going on in each region than simply following, as so many times before, a set path towards the next dungeon.
Getting around these areas largely on foot, meanwhile, is an experience that borrows more than a little from Assassin’s Creed, immediately making the traditionally ponderous Link one of gaming’s more energetic heroes. He’s been beefed up to a satisfying level of athletic prowess, running up low walls to grab platforms and overhangs, and dashing at speed until his new stamina bar runs down. The stamina bar governs almost every facet of Link’s moves, in fact, with ill-planned vine-climbing sessions ending in disaster should he run out of the energy to keep climbing, or wading through quicksand to reach islands ending abruptly as he sinks to his death. Several memorable situations even see Link staggering up sharp slopes, dodging boulders hurled from enemies above as he struggles to reach safe outcrops before it’s too late.
Swordfighting, too, is affected by the stamina bar, particularly in duelling boss encounters in which feinting and resisting the temptation to telegraph moves is key to landing crucial hits. It’s just another layer of subtlety which makes the swordplay feel almost as immediate, and filled with as much unlimited potential, as the first time you laid hands on an analogue-controlled Mario in the plumber’s first N64 outing.
But after all this, there are still dungeons to consider, and they’re up there with the best the series has offered. Starting intimate but tricky, the first few dispense with the time-honoured separate, colour-coded floor maps, bringing the detail of the overworld map into plans far more useful for navigation beyond guesswork. But you’ll need the extra help, Link’s increased nimbleness and more nuanced toolset forcing more balls than ever before to be juggled simultaneously to achieve results. The game’s save system has finally been evolved to match the challenge, too, with bird-shaped stone statues now serving as manual save points, appearing mid-dungeon (sometimes in almost every room) and offering the ability, as well as saving, to leave the dungeon mid-puzzle or even teleport back to Skyloft to stock up on supplies, fix a shield or otherwise upgrade your inventory.
Skyward Sword takes Zelda in a direction in which the challenge is no longer in limiting the player’s abilities, but in choosing which of a great many skills is fit for task. A fully-functional right arm would be a powerful tool to apply to any adventure game, but Nintendo takes these possibilities and makes them truly explode, crafting a world that almost perfectly melds a quarter of a century of gaming tradition with technology that still feels absolutely current.