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Skyward Sword Revisited

Skyward Sword, the most recent console game of the Zelda series, and the only installment developed with the Wii’s capabilities in mind, is the source of a considerable split among the franchise’s fanbase. While some are deeply in love with it, others abhor it as a game centered around motion control gimmicks and filled with game-padding fetch quests. Although each side has extremely solid arguments to back their views, the game is neither perfect nor flawed to the point of being devoid of enjoyable moments. It is somewhere in the middle of that scale, and it presents some intriguing design choices that the franchise will certainly benefit from if Nintendo chooses to further expand them.

It all starts with character development, and through it Nintendo shows that it was aware of many of the complaints directed at Twilight Princess. That game offered a core of great characters, but out of the circle of Link, Midna, Zelda and Zant there was little to be found. Skyward Sword’s story creates deep well-developed emotional bounds between a large cast, and the relationship between Link and Zelda – not to mention the tragic way through which they are separated – becomes the pounding heart of a storyline that connects a large number of great personages.

Skyloft is packed with other folks who are on the outskirts of the game’s central plot, and they are all slowly unveiled to players – and their personalities built up – on the large array of sidequests the game presents. Nintendo, historically, has had trouble tying up Zelda sidequests with noteworthy awards. Heart Pieces are usually the main object of players’ obsessions, but once all of those are collected and linked to sidequests, the company has a hard time figuring out what to give players other than rupees, which are abundant on pretty much everywhere you go in the game.

Skyward Sword solves those two issues – lack of a variety of awards and giving a use to rupees – masterfully by deploying two strategies that are so good, simple and clever that not using them on future Zelda titles would be a waste. Rupees are given use via the existence of the possibility to upgrade Link’s many tools, including his shield and pouches. Meanwhile, many sidequests – instead of giving away tangible items – reward players with Gratitude Crystal, which can be collected and used as a currency to acquire better shiny prizes, therefore forcing players to solve numerous sidequests to put their hands on a single special item.

Aside from requiring a bunch of rupees, upgrading Link’s trusty equipment can only be done once a certain amount of specific materials are acquired. The smartness behind such move is that, since different materials are dropped by different enemies, combat becomes much more engaging. Respawning foes are no longer a major annoyance, but a welcome sight to anyone who wants to unlock new features for Link’s slingshot, give new powers to the flying Beetle, make the arrow and bow deal more damage, and apply other improvements to the character’s arsenal.

A few years past its release, one of the biggest targets of players’ complaints are the game’s motion controls. Skyward Sword was the Wii’s great motion-based adventure. After all, it was the only major single-player game produced by Nintendo to truly utilize the Wii MotionPlus accessory: the equivalent of a second generation of motion controls due to how greatly it expanded upon the features of the original Wiimote. To some, Skyward Sword resonated as a major technological achievement, for it proved that the new kind of controls could be used in a huge game from a major franchise. To others, though, the game failed exactly because it was over-reliant on that sort of gameplay.

The truth is that, perhaps overly excited with its new technology, Nintendo did go a little bit too far regarding the situations on which movement was used. Swimming and flying, for example, were two important activities on which motion controls would not have been able to deliver any gain of immersion or fun. Yet, the company blindly proceeded to find a way to use motion-based commands to steer Link when he swims and his bird when he flies. The result: two of the game’s most used movements ended up being less intuitive and effortless than they could have been had they been implemented through traditional button presses.

On the other end of the spectrum, both combat and the usage of Link’s equipment gained a whole lot from Wii MotionPlus. Combat undeniably became more challenging and engaging, as facing any enemy – from the lowest underling to the big bad bosses – demanded precision on the direction on which Link slashed his sword. And, when it comes to the game’s tools, not only did the pointer allow for a much smoother use of the slingshot, hookshot and bow, but it also supported the creation of some fascinating items that made great use of motion commands, such as the whip and the flying beetle.

Still, even with the benefits brought by MotionPlus, the precision of the motion controls keeps generating much debate. One camp feels movements were often not accurately captured and translated onto Link’s sword, causing much frustration during combats; while the other side of the rope claims things worked perfectly fine for the most part.

Those diverging opinions are completely understandable. Where button presses are binary (you have either pressed the button or not), movements offer a large room for interpretation. Therefore, a line must be drawn by the developers to determine the exact point on which a not-very-precisely delivered horizontal slash is still a horizontal slash and the point on which it becomes either something completely different or something that is totally unrecognizable.

Naturally controls of that kind demand a far greater finesse than standard buttons, and sometimes it becomes awfully hard to define whether or not a movement was performed correctly. Players, in the heat of the battle, will likely feel angry and frustrated when the not-so-perfect diagonal attack they thought they delivered well registers as something else in the game. It then becomes a nearly futile exercise to say for sure whether or not that agitated movement the player executed should or shouldn’t have triggered the desired attack.

Regardless of the unpredictable nature of the interpretation of movements, the motion controls have certainly pleased many. Therefore – in order to reach out to both lovers and haters, and being faithful to the “the more the merrier” philosophy – it would certainly be nice for the company to make the next Zelda flexible enough to allow the use of a traditional control scheme to those that cannot stand the sight of the Wiimote; and a motion-based option to fans who felt Skyward Sword thrived on its focus on movement for combat and item usage.

Another extremely polarizing turn the game decided to take was the way on which it handled the segments taking place in-between the dungeons. The overworld of Twilight Princess was rightfully panned for being too empty, so on Skyward Sword Nintendo countered with an overworld that was smaller on its scale but tightly packed with content, exploration and puzzles. In fact the game’s outdoor gameplay was so great that it was reminiscent of Majora’s Mask, a game that – due to its short number of dungeons (four) – had to rely on what happened outside them, producing some flooring adventure sequences leading up to the traditional gauntlets.

Even if the game did fail on some of those segments, such as the flooded Faron Woods on which running around collecting musical notes is a chore that is there to clearly pad the game, it did well on most occasions. Even the frequent backtracking, as Link is forced to visit each one of Hyrule’s three regions three times, becomes justified and enjoyable because each trip – much like it happens on a Metroid game – either reveals new areas that could not be explored initially or presents already-seen landscapes in completely new ways.

Examples of great backtracking that can be highlighted include the occasion on which Link is kidnapped and has all of his items taken away on his third visit to Eldin Volcano, forcing players to take a new approach to explore the area and beat enemies; or the whole section of the adventure that leads to the Sandship, on which the Lanayru desert gains a great deal of depth due to the discovery of a large sand plain that was once a vast ocean infested with pirates.

For every bad segment that takes place in-between dungeons, there is another that showcases how incredibly engaging the approach of smaller overworld can be. Learning the difference between what works and what doesn’t might as well be the key to the success of the next Zelda if Nintendo decides – and let’s all hope they do – to use the structure deployed on Skyward Sword on upcoming Zelda titles.

Skyward Sword signaled a strong shift on the franchise’s frame, and as the slow-paced exploration of the dungeons leaked to the outside world, it delivered great moments and it found clever ways to use Link’s arsenal in the form of puzzles and battles. It might either be the first step on a bigger overall transformation or the new shape and style Zelda will sport from now on. Whatever case may be true, with some adjustments, the bricks laid by the game can be used to drastically improve the franchise.

In spite of the unshakable emptiness that plagued the game’s sky overworld, as opposed to its consistent under-the-clouds land, it is a title that: delivered great ways to implement more sidequests and make them rewarding, found great use for rupees and materials dropped by enemies, provided stellar combat through its use of motion controls, delivered an excellent package of seven full-fledged and challenging dungeons, told its story with an exquisite taste for character development, and tried to change the common Zelda structure that has mostly remained unchanged.

Skyward Sword stumbled here and there, but its attempts to move the chains forward were true, aiming towards a positive horizon. It might not be the first Zelda game one thinks of when faced with the daunting question of “What is the greatest Zelda game of all time?”. However, a few years down the line, when the franchise has had enough time to digest and absorb all seeds planted by Skyward Sword so that they can bloom into great flowers, the question “What is the game that changed the Zelda franchise the most?” might only have one correct answer.

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