It took a long time for me to warm to The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, or at least longer than you’d expect of a game many anticipated to be one of the Wii’s crown jewels.
It starts off frustratingly slowly. After an arty opening sequence that explains how the surface of the world has been corrupted by demons, forcing people to live on floating islands in the sky, I spent more than an hour steering Link – our perpetual protagonist, clad in his signature green – through a series of basic and somewhat boring activities clearly meant to teach players the game’s somewhat unusual control system and acquaint them with the people and places of Skyloft, a village floating in the clouds.
Eventually, Link’s closest friend, Zelda, disappears (this should come as no surprise to fans, who know well the blonde’s predilection to peril), and we’re given clearance to mount his rare crimson loftwing bird and begin exploring the world below with an aim to rescue the distressed damsel. I was ready for things to finally get started, but ended up frustrated when I spent two less-than-exhilarating hours pathfinding through a forest with little in the way of challenging enemies or interesting puzzles.
Then, just as I was beginning to wonder what sort of blunder Nintendo had wrought with one of its most beloved properties, I reached the game’s first real dungeon, Skyview Temple. It was two hours of pure, unadulterated interactive bliss; the essence of the medium’s most compelling elements distilled into perfectly playable form.
Every nook and cranny of this splendidly designed level is bursting with perplexing puzzles, satisfying secrets, and bedevilling baddies. I had to use Link’s sword – which is mapped to the Wii Remote Plus for true one-to-one control – in clever ways to confuse stony guardian eyes keeping watch over doors and treasure, as well as battle an androgynous arch nemesis who toyed with my fighting style in shrewdly dispiriting fashion. Nearly every object I stumbled upon seemed to contain a meaning or purpose that was just waiting to be discovered, understood, and exploited, including a strange three-dimensional key that needed to be twisted in just the right way and a remote control robotic beetle that I used to explore areas Link could never have reached on his own.
I’d finally found the franchise’s hallmark sense of wonderment, which had been absent from those first few hours. I didn’t want it to end.
Of course, it did end. But the next temple, set in a fiery volcano, was loaded with just as many moments of fulfilling discovery. So, too, was the long path through rocky canyons that led up to it, as well as the deserts, mines, and lakes that lay beyond. In fact, the game turns out to be bursting with these hours-long mini adventures that brim with thematic puzzles that break your brain in the best of ways.
Luckily, there are plenty of avenues of help available for those who get truly and hopelessly stuck. A futuristic artificial intelligence that acts as Link’s guide throughout his quest can be consulted for hints, advice, and analysis at any time. We can also talk to an oracle who tells our future, visit a magical stone for counsel, and, when looking for specific items, use Link’s sword as a dowsing rod that pulses when pointing in the proper direction.
Indeed, you can count on Link’s broad collection of equipment and weapons – new additions get doled out at regular intervals along his journey – to prove useful in all sorts of unexpected, non-traditional ways. I can’t even count all the clever uses I found for the game’s bomb plants. Certain pieces of gear, meanwhile, have a habit of getting upgraded at critical junctures (the flying beetle I mentioned earlier is eventually able to do much more than simply go places Link can’t), resulting in gratifying “aha!” moments that come with the realization you now have the power to overcome obstacles that were previously insurmountable.
I’d rather not spoil any of the other details that make the adventure elements of Skyward Sword so entertaining. Suffice to say our exploration of the surface world lives up to and often surpasses even the greatest moments in previous Legend of Zelda games.
But I can’t quite forget the game’s weak start, which turned out to be indicative of the disappointment I would feel whenever I journeyed back to the world above the clouds and engaged in some of its simple character-driven side quests and mini-games.
I think the problem may be that I’ve outgrown the franchise’s primitive and painfully whimsical storytelling. Moments between Link and Zelda are tender and genuine, but most narrative scenes are loaded with juvenile jokes and are totally devoid of all subtlety. And that all-text dialogue! Nintendo is like a stubborn Hollywood studio circa 1930, inexplicably refusing to move forward into the “talkie” era.
And while Link and Zelda have winsome, elf-like countenances, most other human characters are defined by their bizarrely misshapen faces and bodies, some deformed to the point of appearing almost like a child’s drawing. People who walked into the room while I was playing and saw these characters offered adjectives ranging from “creepy” to “budget” to “just plain ugly.”
All I know is that after a few tepid conversations in Skyloft I’d find myself gripped by an urge to spend all my rupees on supplies at the bazaar, dive off the nearest cliff, and land on the back of my trusty loftwing to take a trip straight back down to the dangerous delights of the world below.
Still, when it fires on all cylinders – which, after the tedious opening, is most of the time – The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword fully justifies the franchise’s quarter-century-old status as an icon of the medium. If, as seems may be the case, it turns out to be the last major game to grace the Wii before it’s successor, the Wii U, arrives next year, then at least it will send Nintendo’s little white box out with a bang.
Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
ESRB: Everyone 10+