Life in Canada is pretty great. I have a beautiful wife and three energetic dogs. Health care is free and the air is clean. So the only thing that really stresses me out is my massive backlog of games. For reasons we’ll leave unmentioned, I have more games still in their original packaging than games I’ve finished.
With this many unplayed games, it can be impossibly difficult to determine which new games will garner my attention, purchase, and ultimately, my play time. Every now and then, I’d like to update you on my backlog progress in the Diaries of a Backlogged Gamer. Some of you may laugh or cry or poke fun, but if I’m truthful with myself, I should probably be writing something to evoke some sort of reaction, right?
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (Wii U) (2011)
Wide eyed but naive.
It’s hard to say if I got my money’s worth with Skyward Sword. After more than 60 hours invested before seeing the final credits, I have a hard time recommending this to anyone feeling guilty for having missed it without some halting hesitations.
My joy with Skyward Sword can be visually represented by a standard deviation curve. Starting on the low end and climbing to a measurable plateau. But there’s a distinct moment in this game where my awe bubble was gently penetrated and things went irreversibly downhill from there. All the while, MotionPlus technology – the game changing tweak to the Wii Remote, allowing “one-to-one” movement – plagues Skyward Sword from beginning to end, though in varying degrees.
But I feel like I’m getting ahead of myself. Skyward Sword sets Link and Zelda in Skyloft, a beautiful landscape suspended above the clouds a la Bioshock Infinite. Like the Super Mario Galaxy series, Skyward Sword has a certain Disney-like quality. The soundtrack is fittingly triumphant and anthemic. The pastel colour pallet is brilliant and works well to hide any graphical weaknesses encumbered by the Wii’s hardware. No need to go for photorealism in 480P and, like The Wind Waker, if a HD remake were ever to jump to Wii U, this art style would translate nicely.
We’re in familiar territory with Skyward Sword. Zelda is in trouble and Link will simultaneously discover and play out his destiny. Link, though mute to us, and Zelda have a classic “will they-won’t they” relationship. We jump between realms (sky and surface) and time periods. Boss battles are a mix of iconic and forgettable, each with a pattern and exploitable weakness. Link has a fairy-like helper, named Fi. Adventures, quests, and mission objectives are routinely rolled out in threes.
Wait. That last one’s either a good thing or a deplorable one – depending on your allegiance to the series. For me, the formulaic approach began to wear thin at about hour 40, 10 hours after the slow start gave way to thrilling gameplay. Sadly, my patience with Skyward Sword was tested with each and every swing of the sword or flight on Link’s Loftwing. Or while swimming. Or navigating the menus… you get the idea.
There are starving kids around the world who would love to have MotionPlus Technology.
The struggles were constant and real. And it’s really too bad because when Skyward Sword works, the hairs on my feet stand on end (and nothing says “great gaming experience” like static-charged hobbit’s feet). But there are beats in this game that caused me to think, well, of course, some of the world’s best game developers have a hand in this world. There’s a multitude of reasons The Legend of Zelda has endured for more than 25 years and one of them is how it makes you feel. Case in point: the Claw Shot. Not an innovative item in the series by any means, but when I acquired the Claw Shot, Skyward Sword could do no wrong. Every puzzle and traversing challenge felt so good to conquer with this item. The aiming perspective, the contact-and-lock sound, and the urgency with which Link is drawn towards a target or grassy wall all culminate to a visceral moment. Daisy chain a few of those together to explore new areas, and this is exactly what we play Legend of Zelda games for: that feeling. It’s one of accomplishment, excitement, and awe.
How Skyward Sword employs new weapons/items in puzzle-solving scenarios is a hallmark of the Legend of Zelda games. Introducing new mechanics with a leaf blower or flying vice grips with a basic puzzle, then expanding to more advanced capabilities is an example of perfect game design.
Before the wonder of the Claw Shot wears off, I find the Whip and the cycle repeats itself. The Whip is easily the most versatile item in the game. Enemies, chasms, and out-of-reach levers are no match for the Whip. Even highlighted “hit me” spots on a few bosses are no match for the Whip.
And somehow, the MotionPlus controls are reliable for these items. And this only fueled my anger when my sword wouldn’t swing the right way or when the Beetle or Loftwing tilted in opposite directions from my input. Or when I spilled my drink trying to “bowl” a bomb down a hill. Not to beat the proverbial deceased mustang, but motion controls ruined Skyward Sword. The more they didn’t work, the more wildly I’d swing the Wii Remote around – perpetuating the problem. I certainly didn’t do myself any favours by getting frustrated, but it felt broken. I felt disappointed and let down. More poignantly, I wanted to prove to myself that I could enjoy a Wii game regardless of how unpopular motion controls became.
Ultimately, the Wii Remote was tasked with far too much in Skyward Sword.
Tilt, roll, altitude, boost, and directional controls are all mapped to the Wii Remote, while the nunchuck simply occupies space in my left hand. The nunchuck – let me be clear: with a joystick on it – has no use for flying or swimming. Nintendo created analogue controls for 3D movement no more than two console generations prior, and completely abandon this timeless innovation for what can only be described as a gimmick. Mechanics that work 100% of the time are timeless. Those that don’t are fads; they have no sustainability. And it’s a shame Skyward Sword – an entry in a storied franchise – crutched support on such a fleeting technology.
For other, less substantial or important games, a poor control scheme might be enough to cast it aside and label it skippable. But for some reason, I feel the need to justify my distaste for Skyward Sword beyond the problems with motion controls. Full disclosure, I absolutely adored Twilight Princess on Wii and feel that game accentuates how a more basic approach to motion controls is the better one.
Nonetheless, I’ll go on.
I wouldn't describe Skyward Sword as a dense experience. It’s light and spacey with a few pinches of spice for flavour. In Skyward Sword, Hyrule Field is ostensibly the sky, and unfortunately, the sky is devoid of landscapes, obstacles, or anything interesting at all. After a while, I began to wonder how to make flying more fun. Why was I forced to try and make a primary game mechanic more interesting? More troublingly, why was this prominent chunk of Skyward Sword so bad? I swear this will be the last I bring this up, but the answer, after some deep reflection, is that Nintendo really thought MotionPlus-powered flight would blow my hair piece off.
Link’s relationship with his Loftwing is such that I don’t remember the Loftwing’s name (did he/it have a name?). Nor do I remember most of the cast of characters. Of course there’s Lord Ghirahim, Impa, and Groose, but for the most part, Skyloft is populated by forgettable avatars. Link’s friends, the Mogmas, the Gorons, and so many others may as well be nameless. This missed opportunity is particularly perplexing because of Link’s responsibility to the populous. He’s on a quest to save each and every one of them, but I don’t care about any of them. The only instance where a character shows an arc or growth is Groose. Groose looks like Gaston’s (yes, I'm referencing Beauty and the Beast, it’s a masterpiece) red-headed, fetal alcohol syndrome-suffering cousin. He wants to prove his suitability for Zelda like Gaston for Belle. He’s boisterous but incompetent. He’s a bully but (unlike Gaston) becomes benevolent. But Groose is a throwaway. He’s Jar Jar Binks in Skyloft. He’s insufferable.
Blasphemy! This is Zelda!
But all is not lost in the character department. Impa kicks ass in Skyward Sword. She is a complex and mysterious protector. But she’s part of Zelda’s story. Playing as Link, we don’t get to see Impa much. We only get a glimpse at how deep the connection between Zelda and her guardian truly is, and it is remarkable. Without spoiling, the ending beautifully illustrates how Zelda entrusted Impa with her life. The role these two play in the story is monumental, but our experiences with them are like flashes of lightning. And that’s a miss for me.
Taking all this into consideration, imagine my confusion and self-doubt as a games journalist when the final boss battle (the actual final boss, not that phony “you’re totally going to fall for this one again” first final boss) came around. Demise, the world-threatening evil spirit, is irrefutably badass. His hair is on fire. His stature imposing. And (spoiler) he’s not Ganon(dorf). Even the setting for the final battle is gorgeous – though admittedly minimalist. Defeating Demise is wholly satisfying. So for those keeping score at home, I lied a little earlier – after things started going downhill, there was still another moment of pure joy to be had in the closing moments of Skyward Sword. Was it worth the time investment? Almost. But overall, I wasn't mad. Just disappointed.
These retroactive looks allow me to avoid hype trains. Playing a game four years after release means most people have moved on to something else and I will always revel in that opportunity. But every so often, our community is so seduced by a particular title that its aura lives on. Skyward Sword was released to critical acclaim and with only marginal negative revisionist history. There are nearly countless alternatives in the Legend of Zelda series. Tighter controls, memorable characters, tactile storytelling, and engaging environments can be found elsewhere and I wholeheartedly recommend you steer clear of Skyward Sword. Sorry Nintendo.