When most people think of Wii games, they think of waggle-fests. The majority of the Wii's game library is plagued by titles that simply slap-on motion control into games that weren't at all designed with them in mind. This isn't so much a fault of the hardware (not entirely, at least), but of Nintendo itself.
They set the precedent for this behavior five years ago when The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess launched on their newly launched console. Everyone was looking for an example of how to use motion control in traditional video games, and Nintendo was poised to show them the way. Unfortunately, they made a bad call by giving their flagship release a tacked-on control scheme that, while decent, was a poor example, thus setting the stage for others to follow.
With the Wii slowly on its way out, however, Nintendo has wised up and decided to leave us with an example the platform was clamoring for: The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. As one of the very few games to use the Wii Motion Plus add-on, granting the game true one-to-one motion, Skyward Sword makes the ultimate case for why motion matters and how it can be used effectively. It's not perfect, suffering from the occasional technical oddity like all other Wii games do, but it's also the best use of motion control there is.
The best example lies with the swordplay. Before, swinging Link's sword was a matter of mashing away on an attack button. No strategy whatsoever was involved, every skirmish being very passive. Now, however, with the Wii Motion Plus powering Skyward Sword's controls, you swing his sword by swiping the Wii remote, it essentially being Link's sword. Horizontal, vertical, and diagonal slashes all translate beautifully, each executed near-flawlessly. Every little movement you make is captured as well. Tilt the remote slightly and Link will do the same with his sword. The pleasure of seeing your actions translate so effortlessly into the game gratifies immensely. It's a fantastically immersive feeling, one that demonstrates the potential of motion-based input.
Because of the added fidelity, combat comes alive like never before. Suddenly you're having to pay close attention to your enemies' movements as well as your own. The position of your sword, and the stances of your foes, matter. No longer can you just wildly and senselessly attack your way to victory. Now, you need to slice-'n'-dice judiciously, think critically; watch and wait for an opportunity to strike.
|These guys are one of the best early examples of the greatness of Skyward Sword's combat.|
Tangoing with a spider? Flip it on its back with an upper-cut so you can stab it in its weak point, for its hide is too strong to slice through. Dueling against a large, shielded, spear-wielding monster? Tear its wooden shield apart; or, if its guard is barbed with streaks of metal, parry its thrusts and attack while the brute is stunned. Battle is no longer a simple case of mindlessly bludgeoning foes: its about carefully watching their patterns, learning their tells, and using their weaknesses to your advantage. It feels like actual combat now. And it's all thanks to the one-to-one motion.
As a Legend of Zelda game, there are few surprises in store if you've played the series regularly. The story, which is another riff on the ol' "chosen hero rescues Zelda and saves the world" bit, the gameplay, heck, even some of the music: it'll be familiar to you. That's not a bad thing, of course -- that's what made The Legend of Zelda so successful -- especially since it only highlights what has changed this time out.
For one, the lack of a semi-open world to explore. The vast fields of yore have been abandoned in favor of smaller, more structured locales. The over-world has moved heavenward, now acting as the middle-man between Skyloft (the hub; a floating slab of land and the only real town in the entire game) and the lands below. Your means of transport are through birds known as loftwings, avian which every citizen of Skyloft owns.
For it being the only open space around, there's little to see and discover in the sky. Only a handful of landmarks exist in, the nondescript rocks and the occasional patch of land housing a treasure chest or two (or three) taking up the rest of the real-estate. From a narrative perspective, it's understandable why the surrounding skies are empty. (Very little land ascended heavenward, you see.)
Still, to give such a sizable playground but not populate it is a waste. There's nothing to make flight interesting. No combat, barely any obstacles, and nothing to discover; just a straightforward, uneventful journey. The act of flying works joyously, of course, tilting the Wii remote working wondrously in steering your bird about. But again, with nothing to do, soaring amongst the clouds ceases to charm before long.
The earth below is much more carefully structured, made with constant engagement in mind. The locations of Skyward Sword present themselves as elaborate, intricately crafted gauntlets. They aren't very big, but there's plenty to be done within them. Enemies and puzzles litter the path to the dungeons proper, giving your trek onward a constant series of challenges to overcome. Sometimes even creating small-scale set-pieces, such as one instance where Link must ascend a mountain of sand while archers rain down fury upon him.
|Hey, remember these guys?|
Action receives a bigger focus out in the field, the roads leading to dungeons/temples/whatever-you-wanna-call-'em not as concerned with solving puzzles. Traversal and combat are what command attention here, and that gives way to more thrilling, eventful excursions. Because you're always doing something, whether that be vanquishing monsters or climbing about the environment, you never grow wearisome from pushing through previously trotted ground. That the types of monsters that appear change as the game progresses, offering up a new challenge or two, only solidifies that ward.
The dungeons are roughly the same as the paths leading up to them, only with emphasis on puzzle solving and with a big boss fight at the end. They, too, have been downsized, mostly consisting of a handful of rooms set on a single floor. A far cry from the multi-tiered labyrinths of Zeldas past, certainly, but no less effective in their goal.
These are the crux of The Legend of Zelda. They are what move the game forward and expand your tool repertoire. Within each lies in item that plays a critical role for that particular dungeon. For instance: find a whip and that will receive extensive use, as the temple is made with that tool's use in mind, puzzles especially. In general, the items are employed as a means of uncovering switches that open doors or chests containing keys to the next room. Often the precise steps to reaching a solution are a touch roundabout -- exiting and entering a room by scaling the outside of the complex so that another door can be opened, for example -- but that's what makes the puzzles taxing and sometimes brilliant.
Dungeon items also tend to play a role in the boss fights, save for a couple of instances of pure sword fighting. It's a part of the formulaic design that The Legend of Zelda so adores, and a predictable one at that. Nevertheless, the battles provide plenty of spectacle to keep them enthralling. Whether it be facing off against a massive, six-armed suit of armor wielding a number of gigantic swords, slicing up over-grown insects amidst a bed of sand, or even combating a massive sea monster on the remnants of an old pirate ship, Skyward Sword delivers a ton of style and urgency to its boss encounters.
Orchestrated music brings those struggles a strong, dramatic flourish to the action. Wailing violins and sonorous drum beats slowly build, inducing dread as the gargantuan beast advances toward you. Then, as the tide shifts in your favor, the violin notes adjust to a constant high-pitched tone supported by a low, barely audible percussion, declaring your move to gaining the upper hand, every sword strike eliciting quick, piercing, satisfying string plucks. The music's swift evolutions add an extra layer of excitement to boss battles. Never before have they felt so energizing to fight.
Skyward Sword's biggest asset is its increase on engagement. The game always keeps you busy. You're never not preoccupied or driven while in the field, even if it's just sweeping the area for previously-overlooked treasures. One instance could see you searching for the parts to a dungeon key, another seeing you ride in a mine-cart like a rollercoster. The healthy variety and elaborate design of the levels keeps them from being a bore, even when you have to backtrack (which happens a lot). In actuality, backtracking unveils secrets and allows you to access once unreachable areas. You start wanting to return to levels, therefore, because you have to know what treasures lie in wait that you may missed before. Maybe it's a heart piece, a rare treasure (which can be used for crafting; more on that in a sec), or just a bunch of rupees; either way, it's gotta be something good.
|I assure you there is a perfectly reasonable explanation for this.|
That sense of discovery is always what's made The Legend of Zelda gratifying to play, and the same remains true here. Its not quite on the same level as previous installments what with there being fewer open plots of land, lessening that sense of just randomly happening upon something, but it's hardly an issue. Again, it's merely a trade-off for more fully populated levels, and a more than reasonable one at that.
One of the more interesting additions is the ability to upgrade Link's gear. By collecting various trinkets from felled monsters like skulls or claws, Link can take them to Skyloft's blacksmith to enhance his equipment. Shields can become more durable, for instance (they can only take so many hits before expiring), or the size of arrow quivers and bomb bags can be increased, among others. None of these ameliorations are necessary, of course. They're merely there if you wish to give yourself the upper-hand. It's a swell addition, though, one that could be expanded on in the future.
Skyward Sword presents its world through a mixture of stylized art and realism. There's an unmistakably cartoonesque look to many of the world's inhabitants, their misshapen features granting an endearing and distinctive likeness. The art itself is lush and vibrant. From the liveliness of Faron Woods and its bright colors to the empty, desolate deserts of Laynaru, ruled by seas of quicksand and peppered by ruins of old civilizations, Skyward Sword's incarnation of Hyrule is a constant visual treat.
When people will look back on the Wii years from now, Skyward Sword will likely be the game people remember as the game to deliver on the Wii's initial promise of motion controlled delights. Sure it's not perfect -- slashes sometimes register as thrusts and vice versa -- but it's damn close. This is the best the console has to offer, control-wise. Incremental adjustments spice up the age-old formula in small but effectual ways, making the game one of the first in a long time to try evolving the series in a long time. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is a fantastic beginning to Nintendo's grand send-off for its first foray into the world of motion, and a genuinely superb game as well.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I have not received any compensation for writing this post. I have no material connection to the brands, products, or services that I have mentioned. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”