As this review's been nearly six years in the making, it's only fair I cut to the chase: I still intend to bury The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. Admittedly, I embark on this task with some trepidation: it is not a game that is outright terrible, as I have implied in the past. This is not the so-called sorcery of the previously-discussed Zelda Cycle; a carefully-evaluated 100% run does reveal it is a professionally-designed title with your typical Nintendo polish and all that, and like Twilight Princess before it, there are some good moments I dare not wish to minimize.
That does not, unfortunately, dissuade me from believing Skyward Sword is possibly the most underwhelming output from Nintendo's own studios in their entire history of game development. This is not to say it is the worst -- Donkey Kong Jr. Math and Urban Champion have endured three decades of mud-slinging for a reason -- and this excludes second-party efforts and third-party collaborations (Metroid: Other M, being worse in every way that matters, would obviously be the runaway winner).
Nay, I talk about games strictly designed from The Big N itself, and this is also a hesitant claim when you consider the general quality imbalance of the Wii/DS era: fellow series entry The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass for DS could match the very same claim, and the copy-and-paste composition of Animal Crossing: City Folk remains uncharacteristically lazy nine years later. And yet it's the non-existent impression of Skyward Sword that stings the most: it's a game that recognizes Zelda has grown stale, yet for all its ambition it not only fails to solve any growing pains but go against the very values the series cherished in the first place.
Gameplay-wise, most everything to do with this involves the overworld. See, Skyward Sword presents a balance between two worlds: The Sky, where Link and the rest of civilization live, and the unexplored Surface. Whereas decent arguments exist for The Sky's purpose as a Hyrule Field-esque hub, I've yet to encounter anything remotely similar for The Surface, with its goal of "the entire world being a dungeon" falling short in its fatal flaw: the emphasis on level-based progression. Every region has a "zone" to clear, with all being centered around puzzles -- be they bombing bridges, rescuing woodland critters and using magic stones to revert time -- all the while dowsing for trinkets and finding your way to the region's specific dungeon.
In other words, the whole game is essentially a take on Twilight Princess's Twilight Realms, which need I remind you were never very popular in the first place. Because everything's designed as a puzzle, traversing the world becomes a tedious process as you'll find yourself repeating the same minor puzzles again and again: you'll swim through that flooded tree again, you'll be navigating those same minecarts again, and you'll have to climb that goddamn Eldin Volcano again and again. We could, of course, simply zip back up to the sky and dive back down again into another spot, but when considering a) the natural progression of the story and b) how obviously tiresome that is, it's not really much of an option. The game embrace the identity of being "dense" with these confined zones, but exploration yields little fun thanks to repetition, and barring perhaps the Lanaryu Desert the puzzles are hardly worth deviating from Zelda's open origins.
When considering how Skyward Swords segues these puzzles into the dungeons, it's a big problem, and it leaves an especially bad impression with the first two spelunkings. Both are entirely cookie-cutter, consisting of one floor each and failing to leave any sort of impression thanks to their brevity. The Earth Temple is an especial shocker, squandering its only solid concept (rolling on a boulder through lava) in largely restricting it to traveling purposes and making even the iconic boulder-chase a complete joke with low-key xylophone music.
From there, things are hit-or-miss: when it's slogging around and emphasizing dull puzzles, you get non-entity duds like Fire Sanctuary (which creates the unfortunate sideffect of two nearly identical-looking fire dungeons). When it actually taps into its imagination and continually ties in a compelling mechanic throughout the overworld (Timeshift Stones), you end up with winners like Lanaryu Mining Facility and the Sandship. It's an uneven balance that gradually wears away that familiar anticipation of a new dungeon, and only the Timeshift Stone dungeons stick out as being particularly successful. (For the former, I suspect since you're constantly venturing into caves/abandoned buildings beforehand -- all of which utilize the same mechanic -- as opposed to the first two dungeons, it's the one area that succeeds as the "overworld that feels like a dungeon" template).
I can't but wonder if this is partly in fault of a weak artstyle. Skyworld Sword's impressionist "painting" aesthetic is a concept that's nearly as eye-grabbing as The Wind Waker's cel-shading, but while it executes a presentation that's more colorful than Twilight Princess (which is good), but it makes numerous failings that prevent it from being especially distinctive (which is bad). This could just be 2011 speaking -- by then, Wii's SD presentation was more woefully outdated than ever -- and yet when considering the deliciously plush Kirby's Return to Dream Land was released just a month prior, I can't think of any other reason why inspired concepts like the Ancient Cistern -- a dungeon take on an ancient Buddhist fable -- don't leave any impression.
This isn't entirely fair to its technical accomplishments -- the draw distance has a neat effect where the background renders colored dots so emblematic of impressionism -- but I'm stricken far more by its technical failures; case in point, what's up with the trees? That screenshot you see above was from the Skyward Sword's initial E3 2010 presentation, and I remain stunned at how representative it is of the final game. If N64 graphical techniques were necessary to maintain the impressionist look, then I'm not sure if it was worth the effort.
This even extends to the character design: while the human characters are generally fine (check out the animated merchants that populate Skyloft's Bazaar), the enemy design -- particularly the bosses -- continually undermine any sense of danger, be they ridiculously simplified to the point of comedy (Tentalus, who could very well be the gargantuan lovechild of Mike and Celia from Monsters Inc.), come across as mid-boss material (Moldarach) or just look really dumb (any and all Bokoblin variations). It's very hard to take most of them seriously regardless of any inspired concepts going on (which, honestly, isn't many: Tentalus is perhaps host to the series' most obvious weakpoint), with only Koloktos and the final boss succeeding in engaging design (the latter less so, if only in that I was so demoralized from everything prior).
The Imprisoned is by far the biggest offender on both an aesthetic/gameplay front, being an incarnation of evil that is a giant goofy worm who you must slay by slicing his toes and engage in three incredibly repetitive boss fights. On top of all the malfunctioning camera angles, the infuriating stomp-induced shockwaves and that it generally takes forever to kill, it's simply not fun. While defenders have pointed to clever uses of the air draft to take it down quickly, that just further highlights what a waste of time it is, as I really do not want to run around like that three times.
Nor do I care for Skyward Sword's directive as an "origin story". Let it be reminded that with Ocarina of Time being the original "first" game chronologically, there are naturally going to be retcons, and Skyward Sword is in no short supply of those (and while we're mentioning the N64 masterpiece, let us also note the frustration of this being the fourth consecutive 3D Zelda title contextually riding on its coattails). Even with that in mind, it falls into the all-too-common prequel traps of explaining/retconning things we already knew (how the Triforce came to be), introducing things that don't end up having much relevance (mentions of an ancient kingdom) and perhaps even undermining things we already knew (we already knew why Ganondorf became the way he did, and this eternal curse deal arguably trivializes The Wind Waker's poignant monologue).
Much of this can be distilled into one problem: Skyward Sword's story really likes baiting the player, and it is never not the most frustrating thing. I can't fault this direction entirely given the world set-up (Skyloft, the floating island where Link, Zelda and the rest of the humans reside, is the only organized civilization in the world, whereas The Surface is mainly un-colonized wilderness), but this means there's not lot of meat to chew on besides the main plot points; consequently, it ends up feeling unusually thin. Take, for instance, the ancient kingdom we learn about in the opening and eventually excavate within the aforementioned Lanaryu Desert. The introduction of a fourth Goddess immediately grabs our attention, the Timeshift Stones imply this was once an area of much greenery, and the monkey-esque robots reanimating to life present an adorably bittersweet intrigue.
And then...that's it. We don't learn anything about how this technology came to be, or the shift in biomes, or really much about this ancient civilization at all. There are tantalizing hints, yes, but that's all they remain, and that it always happens with the most interesting details is never not frustrating (right down to the sudden namedrop, build-up, and the irrelevant introduction of the "Temple of Time" in the same location. Granted, there is another location that eagle-eyed fans should recognize as being said area, yet not only does that feed into the same problem, that an overhead shot from the ending implies it's supposed to be something else strikes as a shocking oversight)
Even on its merits as a standalone tale it's frustrating, which mainly boils down to its character utilization. Let's put it this way: I enjoy most of the characters at their base level, but care not for how the story ultimately handles them. For instance, Skyward Sword's iteration of Zelda remains the most adorable yet, and the budding romance between her and Link does work and all that, but I care not for how the plot requires her to continually bait the hero. Yes, this is done purposefully, and admittedly it does pay off with a heartfelt scene, but it does not scrub the frustration of just how little context is shared about The Surface, and without substantial sidemeat to chew on it never comes off as anything but barebones (particularly when considering how previous 3D Zeldas laid the major stakes by the second act; here, Zelda literally just goes "take this harp kthx bye").
Meanwhile, the villain Ghirahim is deliciously evil with all his gruesome dramatics, and yet...did anyone else notice he doesn't do much of anything? Yes, he does summon boss monsters to torment poor Link, but it's not until the very end that he succeeds at any of his dastardly deeds, and consequently he just comes across as a bumbling lackey. Compare him to the similarly vain Yuga of 2013's A Link Between Worlds, and I yearn for what could have been.
Only two exceptions exist for this self-set rule, and it's never not fascinating how they lie at entirely opposite ends of this spectrum. On the good end, you have Groose's transition from the local bully to being a genuine, good-natured hero by the tale's end. That he's a constant force throughout the story (and has the best lines) is what makes this work, and also makes me yearn of how this could've been accomplished with the other characters.
On the other end lies Skyward Sword's greatest sin in Fi, who I can confidently claim is one of the worst characters in Nintendo history. A robotic soul dwelling within what will become the Master Sword, Fi's presentation as an analytic servant would be logical for such a character's initiation, but that she stays that way throughout the entire story is nothing but wasted potential. Adding insult to injury is the teeth-gnashing "goodbye" sequence, a scene so lazily rote that it screams of writers forgetting they had to flesh out an actual character until the last minute.
Far, far worse, however, are her infamous analyses, serving the worst case of handholding within the entirety of Zelda. Fans are quick to dismiss these by pointing out "well, Midna did it more in Twilight Princess" or "well, there were those power-up explanations in Link's Awakening," and while these are worth observing, they hardly match how patronizing Fi is in pointing out the obvious. Below are paraphrased examples I collected from my replay:
"Master, I am detecting new enemies ahead even though you can see one standing five feet in front of you. Did you also know you press Z to target an enemy, then Down to call me even though I told you already?"
"Master, I know you just started the game, but I wanted to tell you your Shield Durability is low even though I told you that the last time you played."
"Master, I think this door is important, which you can tell because it needs the Boss Key."
"A report, Master: I can no longer detect Zelda's aura even though she obviously left in a big climatic cutscene just moments ago."
"Master, I can confirm you lost the trial. I am now going to tell you the rules again even though you already know."
"Master, this strange mark appeared when you played the harp. I can confirm it reacted to your performance, which should be obvious to anyone with eyes."
"Master, your new bow's elasticity can propel arrows through the air allowing you to hit targets from afar, which everyone not just familiar with bows but with Zelda games in general should know. Also, I'm going to tell you exactly where to fire it right now."
Common is the Zelda sidekick who points out information you just heard, but none match the aggravating matter-of-fact tone treating the player as a baby, offending both fans and newcomers alike. This isn't even the worst offender, which would be her initiating a godawful chime reminder to change your Wii Remote batteries. Yet another defense arrives that you have to initiate the verbal warning from Fi, but hell no I'm not going to wait out the ten seconds for the sound to go away.
Worse still is how handholding grows beyond Fi, with item description reminders reducing Skyward Sword to a slog every every single time you start up the game, Yes, the game has the decency to not do the same thing with hearts and rupees again, but the Amber Relic you've picked up 40 times before is never spared. After enduring "You got a blue rupee!" five years earlier in Twilight Princess, it's especially tone-deaf.
So can we say anything nice? As mentioned before, there are some things I don't want to entirely bury, although those are mired in themselves. For instance, I can never make up my mind about the motion controls -- Skyward Sword's use of Wii Motion Plus for swordplay certainly made sense, although it can't escape being a product of its time. While it's hardly the only Wii Motion Plus title with the required initiation of setting down the Wii Remote and letting it calibrate every time the game begins, it settles further into "deflating slog" territory thanks to that ritual.
At the same time, it does work for what it is. I'm of the opinion it sets the learning curve a little too high (enemies like Bokoblins rely too much on sudden feints, and the training dummies in Skyloft's dojo don't prep you for that) and the 1:1 movement does render Link's movements a little unnatural, but it's the one of the sole oases of successful experimentation: when it's focused on analyzing holes in enemy postures; it is interesting; when it highlights quick n' dirty exploits (Lizafols and the Jenga-esque Beamos) it feels natural and dare I say thrilling.
Other maneuvers feel more clunky: bomb-bowling takes getting used to, swimming is an exercise I'd rather not partake in again, and playing the harp is akin to torture, but the rest are harmless. If there is any argument hailing Skyward Sword's motion controls as a success, they must begin with the Beetle, a flying gadget that yields countless experimentation, be it grabbing faraway items or chasing down frightened Bokoblins. If only the same could be the same for the other new items: Gust Bellows and Mogma Mitts are just lamer versions of The Minish Cap equipment.
Then there's the music, which... look, I really don't want to slam Skyward Sword's music, what with a) Hajime Wakai and Mahito Yokota leading the way and b) it being the first orchestral Zelda. There are effective MIDI songs, mind -- Skyloft is a particular standout, perfectly channeling that wistful nostalgia of "home sweet home" -- but like both Mario Galaxys before it, the orchestral songs are the runway highlight. While I could cite the stirring boss themes (which, in the cases of problematic boss design, elevate their encounters to the perilous threats they aim to be), The Sky theme is easily the best to my mind: unlike the Comet Observatory and Starship Mario, this hub accompaniment barrels out of the gate as a grand, rousing tune echoing the vast reaches of the sky, gradually evolving via percussion.
The only exception that comes to mind is the Lanaryu Mining Facility theme, which drives one to insanity no less than five seconds in. I'm not quite sure what that tortuous leading instrument is (a xylophone?), but I'm in no rush to get reacquainted with it; hell, even just finding the link nearly gave me a migraine. Regardless, it too is emblematic of undermining what is a compelling example of game design (the other being Fi's constant interruptions threatening The Sandship's pacing, which is otherwise the game's best dungeon).
Which is why if I must champion any part of Skyward Sword, Skyloft is the only acceptable choice. It is perhaps the most compelling Zelda civilization since Majora's Mask's Clock Town, complete with gut-busting sidequests (namely one involving a very expensive chandelier, which preys upon our destructive gaming habits), easter eggs (ever wanted to spy on an old man in the bath? Here you go.) and an opening tutorial that isn't nearly as painful as Twilight Princess's, remembering to world-build with its skybound concept (Not that it's not annoying: hope you like catching pets and moving boxes).
But Skyloft is an aerial oasis in a sea of mediocrity. As a whole, Skyward Sword is the culmination of frustrating design choices that plagued the series since Twilight Princess -- be it handholding, sluggish padding (swimming for music notes?!?), and un-Zelda level design -- that aggressively reduce any ambitions to the point of feeling not just tone-deaf, not completely at odds with what the series is about, but completely, utterly ordinary. And as a title meant to celebrate the series' 25th anniversary, I can hardly think of anything more disappointing.