I’m normally a fan of Zelda game, but The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword was a huge letdown for me.
I will preface my scathing criticism of the control scheme by saying that I hate motion controls in general. Outside of party games like Wii Sports and Mario Party, motion controls are unnecessary gimmicks that never work anywhere near as well as they should to offer a genuinely pleasant experience. Even with the Wii MotionPlus accessory, movement detection is far from precise and just annoys me by refusing to acknowledge what I see as valid input.
As for Skyward Sword in particular, I get that the developers envisioned players being able to BE Link. You aren’t just pressing B and some combination of the d-pad or control stick to perform certain sword techniques, you’re actually swinging the sword. In theory, that’s an amazing idea. If it worked absolutely perfect, swinging the Wiimote in tandem with Link’s slashes would be hugely immersive. Regretfully, it just doesn’t work that well.
While I’m far from those speedrunners on YouTube playing through Zelda games with 3 hearts and beating them in under 2 hours, I’d consider myself pretty good. I’ll usually figure out dungeon puzzles pretty quickly, and I rarely experience a game over even in Zelda games I haven’t played before. Skyward Sword has killed me probably more times than all previous Zelda games combined. I wouldn’t mind if this was truly my own fault, but at least 4 out of every 5 mistakes are because of the wonky motion controls. Sword slashes don’t quite line up with what I physically did, aiming is unsteady and feels like it wasn’t properly tested during development, and I feel like I’m recalibrating the controller at least once every 15 minutes.
Even if the motion controls did work well, I’m inclined to say I wouldn’t always want to have to swing my Wiimote around like an idiot just to play a Zelda game. Call me lazy, but I don’t want to have to work out or physically exert myself when I’m playing a video game. I want to be able to zone out and just play a game. Furthermore, as a father to young children, I’m often holding one or both while they nap and it’s awful hard to actually play without waking them up. With a traditional controller, I can usually stay still enough to play while they sleep and not risk waking them up.
Nintendo certainly tried to employ motion control elements in new puzzle and enemy types, and I can respect them for that. However, I feel like they pushed way too hard on that front. It seems like everything has a motion control facet to it, even if it really shouldn’t. They’ve shoehorned some sort of motion requirement into seemingly everything you do in the game. Again, this wouldn’t be so bad if it worked. When my input doesn’t match up with the game output the majority of the time, it just ends up giving me a headache and causing me unnecessary frustration.
It seems nearly every enemy has some sort of blocking mechanism that requires precise sword slashes or maneuvers to bypass. Deku-Babas must be slashed with the way their mouths open, which is a cool mechanic. If you slash wrong, they just startle and open their mouths again, without any real penalty to the player. Bokoblins can block sword slashes with their own sword, but can usually be defeated pretty easily, especially if you catch them off guard. The one exception would be those with the electric weapon, which hurts Link if the player slashes against the weapon. For most of the normal enemies of the game, it’s frustrating that you can’t just slash and kill them, but the penalty for a bad strike isn’t severe.
For bosses, an incorrect sword slash is punished severely. Think Dark Link from Ocarina of Time, but apply that sort of mechanic to probably half or more of the bosses in Skyward Sword. What’s worse, is the game doesn’t give you any sort of hint or indication about how you should attack. Outside of asking for help, most of the bosses consider of me flailing wildly and hoping I landed a lucky hit here and there. Trial and error? Pretty much impossible when the game gives no discerning feedback.
While I feel like motion control elements are laid on a little thick, I can respect Nintendo for attempting to incorporate a new technology into such a headlining series like Zelda. Were motion control to really take off, they would have been on the forefront of the movement. As it were, motion control mostly died off toward the end of of the seventh generation (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Video_game_console#Seventh_generation) of video game consoles (not that you’ll hear me complain).
On a positive note, motion control did allow opportunities for new puzzles and enemies. It adds a layer of depth and complexity that a traditional controller just doesn’t offer. However, the janky implementation is what kills the entire idea for me. Re-syncing the controller every half hour, repeating the same puzzle 10 times or more because the motion control took a slightly angled input instead of a perfect horizontal or vertical slash, having Link frequently run in some random direction because of a weird nunchuck connection… there were far more problems with the motion control implementation than there were benefits.
Though I realize it’s a non-ideal solution filled with plenty of hurdles, I would’ve loved to have seen a no-motion-control setting or version of the game. While it may be difficult to implement, I can honestly say I would’ve taken a slightly reduced version of the game, stripped of some of the puzzles and with simpler enemies, had I been given the opportunity to play it with a standard controller.
Beyond the motion controls that I have an undying hatred for, gameplay in Skyward Sword was mediocre at best.
Most normal enemies and especially the bosses had very non-intuitive strategies that either required getting lucky or looking up a guide. Ghirahim, a recurring boss, never exactly reveals how to reliably attack him. Mostly, I just swatted like mad and hoped I brought enough fairies to last the entire fight. The Imprisoned, another recurring boss, has some ridiculously cheap tactics (or gimmicks if you want to call them that), but there really isn’t any indication of how to take advantage of them unless you’ve seen another player do it.
Puzzles, too, are frequently cryptic beyond a reasonable level. Zelda games traditionally leave me scratching my head for a few minutes, but a seasoned veteran of the series will inevitably figure out any puzzles. Many puzzles in Skyward Sword offered no hints or highlights, and frequently implemented unexpected items in ways that were never revealed to be possible. You’re just supposed to switch through every single item until you find something that works, I guess. Here’s three switches, good luck finding what order you need to activate them in.
Though hard to divorce from puzzles in a Zelda game, I’d like to specify that the general level design was quite entertaining and inventive. The way that some levels are given a duality dynamic, or open up different areas through different events is honestly impressive. Specifically clever is the final dungeon, in which players can shift rooms around via those sliding puzzle style interfaces that are scattered through the dungeon.
One thing I will say that Nintendo nailed is the final battle. Previous Zelda games have always built up to an epic finale, but I honestly have to say that Skyward Sword may very well have the best final boss fight of any Zelda game. It’s certainly in my top 3.
Another stellar gameplay facet is the inclusion of shadow realm segments. After given some time to explore each new area, you’re forced to enter a shadow version of the area. In these segments, players must find 15 orbs and get out without being struck even once by an enemy. The eerie and panicked nature of these portions, as well as the stealthy tactics that players must employee to successfully get all the orbs are new to Zelda, but a very welcome addition. Though there are only 4 segments in the game, I have to say they’re probably my favorite parts. Late in the game, players are given the opportunity to replay each of the shadow realms in a sort of time trial mode.
Though not as infuriating as the control scheme for the game, I really hate the characters in Skyward Sword.
As previously mentioned, the recurring bosses that show up again and again are annoying in combat, but their personalities aren’t any better. I’ve heard people praise how Ghirahim is such a fantastic antagonist, but I don’t understand all the love for him. Fans describe how he’s more deceptive and unstable, than many of the more stereotypical villains of Zelda (read: Ganon and Ganondorf). Sure, he’s a change of pace, but he annoys me.
Fi, the ever-present guardian of Skyward Sword, seems both better and worse than previous assistants. The main improvement is that Fi isn’t the slightest bit annoying. Anyone who played through Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask will likely recount a deep hatred for the phrase, “HEY! Listen!” To alert players to new information (or more often for me, low battery power in the wiimote), Fi emits a soft chime and causes Link’s sword to glow. How is Fi worse, then? She really just didn’t seem helpful to me. Hints were rarely anything better than Captain Obvious would give me, and analysis of enemies frequently gave me only things I’d already seen myself.
Officially the origin story for the Zelda universe, I was really excited to start playing Skyward Sword mostly to see how everything began. I even delayed reading Hyrule Historia because I didn’t want to spoil the game for myself.
Outside of the creation of the Triforce and the origin of Ganon, the story was… generic. Something something, goddess’s chosen hero, something something, must discover oneself and power up your sword, something something, fight this evil thing. Maybe it’s just my over-exposure to the Zelda series or the often uninspiring plots of video games, but I wasn’t impressed. It was cool to see an official canon description of how the Zelda universe came to be, but the rest of the story was lackluster.
Overall, I don’t regret playing the game. My gripes about the controls and gameplay aside, it wasn’t a terrible game. I love the Zelda series, and I’m genuinely glad I played through the origin story. The motion controls sucked, but I know of many people who actually enjoy them.
Skyward Sword is obviously not my favorite Zelda game. Frankly, I don’t know if any sequel will ever dethrone A Link to the Past, least of all A Link Between Worlds (but that’s another post for another day). Simultaneously, it isn’t my least favorite. I’d gladly replay through a challenge mode run of Skyward Sword in lieu of enduring through Phantom Hourglass or even trying Spirit Tracks. It’s a little south of average, but it isn’t complete garbage.
As it stands, I’d give Skyward Sword a 3/10. Had Nintendo offered a setting to turn off motion controls, I’d likely give it a 5/10 or 6/10. Give some general hints on the less intuitive bosses and puzzles, it may get as high as a 7/10 or 8/10. Maybe a remaster with those changes would really knock it out of the park, the Wii-specific 2011 version just doesn’t do it for me.
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