The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is the greatest Zelda game ever created. It's the best game for Wii and one of the finest video game accomplishments of the past 10 years. The game has once again raised the bar and forged new territory for an iconic and innovative franchise. It's not enough that it finally establishes a powerful, stirring origin story or that it features near-perfect pacing. What puts Skyward Sword over the top is its layered, dense, absolutely perfect gameplay that manages to not only nail motion-controlled combat but remarkably offers a stunning level of diversity.
Every story has a beginning, and The Legend of Zelda is no exception - we simply hadn't been privy to it until now. Nintendo is finally willing to take a look at Hyrule's distant past, focusing on a Link and Zelda who are childhood friends before, as you might expect, something goes horribly off track. Link then embarks on a quest with the fate of the world - and his friend - in the balance.
Skyward Sword sets a new, important benchmark for Nintendo. Modern video games have made significant strides in how they present stories to audiences, and it seems as though Nintendo has finally taken notice. Skyward Sword features cinematics that play out like a movie. At times they are downright captivating with their picturesque settings and powerful drama. The game lacks voice acting as always, but characters' emotions shine through regardless, and the framing of scenes is incredible. As the story moves into its final act, you'll be stunned at the quality on display here. This is easily Nintendo's best storytelling to date.
The tale is, at heart, fairly simple. An evil entity wants to destroy peace, love and happiness, and Link is going to make sure that doesn't happen. It's not so much the plot that's important but the people in it. Skyward Sword's characters are phenomenal. Link is his usual mute self, more of an avatar for the player than anything else, but everyone surrounding him is remarkably memorable and charming. Zelda herself is by far the star of the show and her relationship with Link early on forms the backbone of the entire game. You want Link to succeed not so much because you're worried about saving what will eventually become Hyrule, but because you genuinely care that he cares about Zelda.
The same could be said for most of the supporting cast. Fi, a spirit that functions as Link's advisor and guide, is a spectacular creation, probably best likened to a benevolent GLaDOS. Though primarily designed to give players direction and tips, Fi is actually a great source of humor as she fails to understand human emotion and reports brutally honest statistical percentages on your likelihood of success. Smaller roles, such as the couple dozen inhabitants of Skyloft, are so distinct and colorful you'll likely remember them despite their insignificance to the larger plot. Between day and night cycles as well as the ever-shifting narrative, there are plenty of side quests for Link to pursue - and that's to say nothing about the wider world, above and below the clouds.
Pairing itself with Wii MotionPlus, Skyward Sword's 1:1 combat is a revelation. I never want to play a Zelda game any other way again, and playing through this makes me wonder why we didn't see motion control of this quality before. The responsiveness and intuitiveness of the entire arrangement is superb. The applications of Motion Plus never step into gimmicky territory. Guiding your mechanical flying Beetle, rolling bombs, swimming in water and soaring through the sky by pivoting and flicking the remote not only feels natural, it makes you wonder how you ever played an action game that wasn't on Wii. Zelda: Skyward Sword is the purest, most perfect realization of Nintendo's ambitious goals for motion-controlled gaming. It somehow took five years, but the definitive proof plays out before you on the screen.
The new combat system requires skill and patience. Though impulsive, unpredictable waggling can get some results, most enemies are programmed to react to such behavior, and they'll punish you for it. On occasion my temper would get the best of me against an enemy, but swinging my remote faster didn't help. Some enemies anticipate your moves or use their weapons to block certain attacks, making routine fights far more challenging and complicated than in past Zelda games. None of your enemies are overtly difficult, but the added complexity, combined with more sophisticated puzzles and world designs, make each victory that much sweeter. What Ocarina of Time started with lock-on targeting, Skyward Sword perfects by adding layers of nuanced strategy. You'll rarely die, but you'll find yourself working hard to defeat and out-maneuver your opponents.
Combat isn't the only area of the game that's become more thought-provoking. Nintendo has changed the concept of dungeons and the overworld itself. Previously, a wide open mainland would branch off to smaller areas that would lead to vast dungeons. That concept effectively ends in Skyward Sword. Though the sky realm is a huge area to navigate, it's generally just used as a way to access different regions in the land below. The game wisely implements a quick travel system early on, allowing Link to rapidly access areas he has already explored and removing a potentially tedious element. There is a slight disconnect between the earthly realms, but that does serve to add a sense of wonder about the unknown, particularly when huge areas of your map remain blank.
The changes don't end there. Not only is travel faster, but the surface world packs in an enormous amount of content. Taking a page from Metroid, Skyward Sword requires you to travel repeatedly back to familiar environments, each time altering some key attribute or providing you with new tools to make the experience completely fresh. New areas and paths lead to vast, unexplored territory that is just as deep, important and engrossing as any of the material that preceded it. Combat aside, Nintendo's greatest achievement in Skyward Sword just might be its new approach to designing its worlds. Arriving at dungeons and temples now takes hours, and none of that time is wasted. The sheer brilliance on display here, evident more and more as you journey deeper into the game, will stun even the most jaded gamer.
Dungeons are now smaller, and tired staples like lighting torches and endlessly pushing blocks are largely absent in favor of far more creative concepts that frequently use all of the items at Link's disposal. Some dungeons even relish forcing you to methodically work one item to the next, a reminder that you have many tools at your disposal. Skyward Sword's dungeons not only manage to progressively get better, they're some of the most genius designs ever seen in the Zelda series. The final temple just might be the best Nintendo has ever created.
Despite their polarizing, standard definition nature, Skyward Sword's visuals count amongst its strongest points. Nintendo has finally found a style that perfectly embodies the Zelda series. By capturing the maturity of Twilight Princess and the vibrant, youthful energy of Wind Waker, this franchise now has the perfect outlet to fully express itself without compromise. Full of bizarre, quirky characters as well as creatures from the darkness, Nintendo has found a tone that captures the best of both ideas while still serving the most important element of all - the gameplay.
Great graphics don't always revolve around polygon counts and high-res textures. Where Skyward manages to excel, and completely overcome its hardware limitations, is its creative and inventive art direction. The minimalist approach not only serves the game's tone but allows the designers to come up with outlandish environments and creatures that wouldn't work in a more realistic setting. Animation and character expressions are equally well done, and are largely responsible for why the game's cinematics work so effectively. Nintendo also implemented a clever, distance-based filter that blurs objects and scenery further in the background. Though initially jarring, it actually has a rather painterly quality to it that hides its attempt to help Wii cope with the game's epic scale.
Music has always been an important element of the Zelda series, increasingly so when Ocarina of Time tied gameplay and sound together over a decade ago. Skyward Sword represents a shift in that dynamic, confining the involvement of music and instruments largely to optional tasks or the plot itself. Don't expect acquiring the harp to significantly change how you'll play the game. Songs are generally discovered and played once as Link continues his adventure. Beyond that, expect to only play strings when Link needs a bit of extra health or wants a hint from a Gossip Stone.
The standard for music in the Zelda series is very high. While this legacy makes it difficult to rank this score above other titles, some of the themes in Skyward Sword stand alongside Zelda's best, utilizing orchestral music for the first time in the franchise's history. Nintendo was very selective in its usage of the orchestra, opting only for sequences that were very grand in scope. The music that plays as Link flies through the sky is a great example of this.
No game is perfect, and Skyward Sword suffers from a few small issues. Every now and then the camera isn't quite in the position it ought to be. The Wii Remote will require calibration here and there, and somehow seems to know when doing so will be most inconvenient. The framerate will dip now and then, and of course the game is constrained by Wii's processing power as well. By and large the biggest amount of grief will come from whether or not the game is meeting some fans' expectations. Key ideas or iconic franchise concepts - you won't see the Iron Knuckle or the infamous Cuccoos here - were thrown out entirely in the name of evolution. All of these are fair observations, but ultimately they pale when compared to Skyward Sword's strengths. In many ways this game represents a breath of fresh air, the next major step for a superb franchise. It's hard to even care about small problems when you're watching Nintendo lay out its vision for the future of its grandest saga.
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword will be remembered for revitalizing a franchise that had, for a time, seemingly settled for being merely great instead of revolutionary. Once again, Nintendo is demonstrating its unparalleled ability to craft some of the greatest gameplay this industry has ever seen. Remarkably, this Zelda game manages to reshape its control scheme, design sensibility and pacing all at once while still telling a brilliantly powerful story featuring some very memorable characters. Increasingly Nintendo refuses to compromise cinematic storytelling for gameplay, finding a balance that seems effortless.
It's fitting that Skyward Sword arrives on Zelda's 25th anniversary, because it truly pulls from the franchise's entire history, even addressing the winding narrative directly within its story. It captures a grandness and scope we haven't seen since the 2D era. It advances combat and control in the most significant way since Ocarina of Time. It finds a tonal and visual harmony between Wind Waker and Twilight Princess. And, most importantly, it leaves a mark on the franchise that future installments will no doubt draw inspiration from for years to come.
This is the Wii game we've been waiting for. Through all of the mini-games and odd sports collections, many wondered if and when Nintendo would ever find a way to deliver a deeper experience that still fulfilled on Wii's limitless potential. Skyward Sword makes good on that promise.
The origin story, characters and cinematic sensibility here are superb.
Nintendo's creative visual style here is not only the best on Wii but truly timeless and stunning.
The soundtrack doesn't quite measure up to the franchise's best, though that's a very high standard. No voice acting, though not necessary, does hurt the cinematic feel.
You'll never want to go back to traditional controls for a Zelda game.
10 Lasting Appeal
There are tons of side quests that will keep you busy. Plus there's incentive to play through the entire 40-hour adventure again.
TOTAL SCORE 10 'MASTERPIECE'