Header image courtesy of Fernosaur via Deviant Art.
Oh Zelda Franchise, how far you’ve fallen in such a short amount of time. Will you ever regain your former glory? At this rate, probably not. It’s taken me far longer than it should have to get myself into Skyward Sword and actually finish it, but I have now done so with a 100% completion rate, a first for pretty much any Zelda game of mine since…actually I believe ever. I have never gone through and done absolutely everything possible in a Zelda game until Skyward Sword, and sadly, it’s part of the reason I dislike the game so much: I was hoping I’d find contentment after completing another side-quest. Is Skyward Sword really that bad? Yes, it is certainly a Bad Game That Should Have Been Great.
Before I go on a tirade about exactly why Skyward Sword failed as a game, I still need to point out where it did a lot of good, and there is quite a lot of that. The music is great with a lot of enjoyable tracks, the characters are some of the most vibrant and interesting, and the dungeon designs are amazing.
Specifically speaking about dungeons, it was great that items found significant use outside of their respective dungeons. Too often in a Zelda game you’ll acquire a new item, only to never use it again except in a few select spots. Skyward Sword does a fantastic job of utilizing what they have, and the same goes for the areas of the world. Backtracking aside, the sheer amount of use they made from the same levels is astounding.
Finally, I’ll say that once I actually got to see the final boss of the game, Demise, I loved him to death. Finally, an imposing, amazingly powerful boss that actually looks like a serious threat. I’m just sad he was so underused until the eleventh hour.
But with all this good, what could be lacking? Well…
Motion Controls Can’t Replace Buttons
I stated in my initial gameplay impressions that the motion controls work and work well. I still maintain this…for the most part. Swinging the sword works great when all you want to do is slash trees or wail on a boss’ weak spot, but when you get to precision, things can take a nosedive.
It was very strange when I realized I was enjoying fighting tall skinny trees more than bokoblins as they all had swords that they’d put up to block my attacks, essentially eliminating the whole purpose of the sword controls being capable of slashing in eight directions. Nowhere was this more apparent than when fighting bokoblins with electrified swords as trying to slash them always resulted in me getting stunned from electrocution. The best strategy turned into just doing a spin attack, followed by a finishing blow when they were on the ground, neither of which really required the motion controls to feel great.
Probably the worse offender of the poor motion controls is the actual Motion Plus controls themselves. They work great for the beetle, and throwing or rolling bombs was quite enjoyable most of the time, but the bow and arrows and the clawshot were wildly imprecise. The strangest thing is, the bow and arrow controls worked better in Twilight Princess, purely because with the limitations of the standard Wiimote, you’re required to point the controller at the screen for its position to be read. With Wii Motion Plus, the game just senses the change in position from where it was before the item was pulled out, making me have to either awkwardly re-center the item, or just deal with the wonky angles, neither of which made me feel like I was immersed with the item, which was the goal here.
But Zelda games don’t worry about the controls as much anymore, which is why the difficulty of Skyward Sword is laughably easy. The same was true with Spirit Tracks and Phantom Hourglass as the motion or touch controls required the game be forgiving, not because it didn’t think you could handle things, but because it knew it would fail you. When the game knows it has to bump down the difficulty just because the controls don’t work, why not just throw in controls that do? I died a total of two times, once to a min-boss and once to the final boss, all because I didn’t trust the controls (and rightfully so). At least I’d be able to look forward to engaging quests, right…?
Side-Quests Feel Unbelievably Shallow
With every good Zelda game, it’s not necessarily how good you are with a sword but how clever you are with solving problems. Some of the greatest times in a Zelda game occur in between the dungeons when you’re just exploring the world. Ocarina of Time set a dangerous precedent by including the Gold Skulltulas, hidden gold spiders throughout the game that when defeated yielded a token. Collecting all 100 tokens would essentially give you infinite money, which at that point in the game was utterly useless. The payoff for the actual story behind collecting said tokens was also entirely useless.
Flash ahead to Majora’s Mask and the game is riddled with side-quests, though most of them feel extremely enjoyable. Some will reward you with heart pieces or masks, but for the most part it’s the thrill of completing another storyline and helping out the townsfolk. It wasn’t until Twilight Princess that we saw pointless side-quests return with Agitha’s bug hunting quest and the poe spirits, both only existing to fill your wallet.
The biggest problem is that none of the Zelda games have figured out how to make money truly valuable. Usually by the middle of any game, you’ve bought everything you’d ever hope to buy, meaning that finding another gold rupee is about as exciting as cutting grass for small rupees. A reward means nothing if there is no meaning behind it. What good will another 300 rupees do me if I have nothing to buy?
I say all this because of the side-quest that takes up the entirety of the game’s side-quests, the search for gratitude crystals in order to turn Batreaux from a demon into a human. Gratitude crystals are awarded in bunches of five as you help the residents of Skyloft do utterly mundane things, like help a baby get its rattle back or talk to the Item Check Girl until she likes you. None of these side-quests mean anything or have any weight to them. Baby’s rattle’s lost? Who cares, get a new one. Kid needs Link to deliver a love letter to someone who lives a floor above him? Shut up, I’m busy, get over yourself. There’s only one side-quest that would have ended badly for anyone, and that’s the one that tasks you with flying out a little ways and finding a guy’s sister who’s loftwing is hurt and needs medicine, but even then you’d just assume that someone would have found her eventually. It’s not like there’s any dangers in the sky, not really.
Collecting every gratitude crystal ultimately turns Batreaux human in a very dull scene, and then he’s human. That’s it. Yay for him. You’re them given the Tycoon Wallet, capable of holding 9,000 rupees, plus the 900 extra I could hold from the spare wallets I had. The most I ever had on my person was 1,600, the cost of the last Piece of Heart in Beedle’s shop. What an unbelievable disappointment. At least finding all the Gold Skulltulas was hard, which leads me to my next point…
The Game Insults Your Intelligence Every Step of the Way
Fi appears to point out the most obvious things ever. Your hearts drop down to three and start flashing, plus you can hear the classic annoying beeping, but still the game feels it necessary to have Fi pop out the first time this happens and explain that your hearts are low and that you should find more. And every time after that. She doesn’t pop out but a second notification beep starts to let you know that she has information for you, which just so happens to be “Master, your hearts are low. You should find more hearts.”
It’s almost like the game doesn’t want me to discover anything on my own. The dowsing ability is clear enough of this. Instead of saying, “An important item is missing and can be found in the forest,” Fi will pop out and say, “Master, there is a 95% chance that the item you’re searching for is in the forest. Let me set your dowsing ability to locate it.” Then a third notification beep starts to let me know that I can dowse for something new, making me pull up my dowsing ability even if I’m not in the right area to do it yet. Having an ability that just points me toward an item it wants me to find isn’t creative; it is literally the game holding my hand and dragging me from one point to another.
I didn’t once feel stuck in all of Skyward Sword. I used a walkthrough to look up a total of two Heart Pieces (one was from a mini-game that appears in an area that I’d have zero reason to ever return to and the other was from a dungeon because I didn’t search hard enough), plus I checked to see how to beat the final boss since I just wanted to speed the process along, though the solution was “Just keep slashing him, stupid.”
Being led along by the hand is aggravated more and more by the fact that the game has a lot of really clever puzzles that don’t tell me how to solve them. I just figure them out by myself and feel clever. So when the game stops itself to point out obvious puzzles after I’ve already proven I can solve the harder ones, I’m understandably bothered. Then again, leading me by the hand is one thing; it’s not as bad as…
I’d rather be lead around than be told to go pick up something from the store because the game was just there but forgot to grab the milk. The further into the game you go, the more often you’ll find yourself needing to perform an utterly pointless fetch quest for no good reason other than to elongate the game and pad out its playing time. Few things are more troublesome than learning that the location you were just in happens to be where an important item is located and that you need to travel back just to pick it up now that the game wants you to use it.
Here’s a great example of a needless fetch quest: Before getting to the second dungeon of the Eldin Volcano area, you come across a few paths that are blocked by fire. You put these out by pouring water from a bottle into the mouths of nearby frog statues. After doing this twice, you come across a much larger door (the entrance to the next dungeon) and a much larger frog statue. The game tells you that your bottles won’t do the trick and that you’ll need a larger container in order to pour enough water into the frog statue. Instantly this says to me, “Hey, don’t travel forward just yet. You’re at the next dungeon, but go back a ways, otherwise you’ll finish the game too quickly.”
Naturally, instead of the game letting you figure out what you need all by yourself, Fi tells you to head back to see the Water Dragon as she has a large water basin you saw her healing in earlier. So you head to the sky, fly over to the Faron Woods, go ask the Water Dragon for her basin, have a robot helper grab it and follow you back into the sky, head back to Eldin Volcano, and then drop down below the clouds.
Keep in mind that once you’ve visited a bird statue in an area, you can use that a sort of teleportation point from the sky, so when you drop below the clouds you can choose to land at that bird statue instead of having to run through the whole area again. There is a bird statue right next to the giant frog statue/next dungeon. When I leap below the clouds this time though, a cutscene shows me and the robot landing at the very beginning of the stage. Why? Because the robot claims I didn’t tell him where I wanted him to take the water basin and now that we’re under the clouds he doesn’t feel like going back up and then down because…reasons I guess? This leaves me with the task of trudging back through the entirety of the Eldin Volcano region, adding the element of an escort mission to the mix since I have to protect the robot from taking damage from enemy fire, all because of an arbitrarily placed fetch quest meant to prolong my advancement.
And this just keeps happening. I could give at least half a dozen examples, such as the need to ask various random characters if they’ve seen some stupid item or one of the worst examples, the Water Dragon refusing to teach me her part of the Hero’s Song because she wasn’t convinced I was really the Chosen Hero yet, so she takes the notes of the song and throws them into the now-flooded Faron Woods (her doing because, meh?), telling me to go fetch them to “prove I’m really the hero.” I’ve already saved her, powered up the Master Sword, and found Zelda past the Time Gate (a totally wasted function, more on that in a moment). The only conceivable reason for the Water Dragon to further test me was to, you guessed it, pad out the game’s playtime.
But all of this fetch-questing, disappointing side-questing, wonky motion controls, and insulting challenges would be forgivable is not for the last and most damaging of critiques…
There is No Impetus to Adventure
Every good story needs a reason. Mario wants to stop Bowser because he’s kidnapped the Princess and threatened the Mushroom Kingdom again. If Mario doesn’t do it, no one will. Cloud wants to stop Sephiroth because he’s killed Aeris, destroyed a handful of towns, and is pulling a meteor down onto the planet. In Skyward Sword, there is no solid forward drive other than, “Hey, some bad stuff might happen if you don’t go do…something…?
Let’s take a look at the previous games first. Ocarina of Time has a clear impetus to adventure as the Great Deku Tree is killed by Ganondorf’s actions, thus freeing Link from any obligations at home and sending him toward adventure. Initially the adventure is pushed forward because Link and Zelda want to beat Ganondorf to the Triforce, but after Link is frozen in time for seven years, Ganondorf destroys Hyrule, leaving you wanting to fix things and restore peace. Very clear motivation and impetus to adventure.
Majora’s Mask is even clearer as to the motivating force as the moon is falling. You can look up and watch it slowly come closer and closer, to the point that if you wait out the three days, it will actually crash down and result in a Game Over. As the days pass, the people around the land of Termina will notice something is wrong and react accordingly by becoming more frantic about the situation. Everything drives you forward to act and act swiftly.
Twilight Princess begins with Link’s village being attacked by goblins and being driven to search for Illia, his childhood friend, resulting in his discovery that much of Hyrule has been covered in Twilight. The world feels populated with characters who are actively distressed with the situation, and Midna does a great job of being an assistant character that also makes you want to move the plot forward.
Even The Wind Waker, one of the games with a more laid-back approach to the story, starts with your sister being kidnapped and Link joining a pirate crew, leading to a general sense of adventuring. The world feels expansive and the sense of wonder is heightened, plus the fact that the entire land is covered in an ocean gives an underlying feeling that something bad has already happened and must be fixed as soon as possible. My point is that every previous console Zelda has clear motivation and an impetus to adventure.
Now let’s look at Skyward Sword. The entire civilization of these peoples is Skyloft, a floating hunk of rock in the sky. Everyone has a loftwing to fly around on, there is virtually no crime, and although new knights are trained every year, there’s no clear and present danger ever facing the town. Link is told to go on a quest in order to rescue Zelda after she’s pulled below the clouds, but once there we learn that she’s in pretty capable hands with Impa. Link is always showing up right after Zelda has been to location after location, though there’s never really a clear reason why she needs to travel from place to place. Eventually Link finds her by going through a Time Gate, shoehorning the notion of time travel for no apparent reason as they don’t actually use it for anything other than a simple puzzle near the end of the game and a way to prolong the final conflict just a little bit.
As you go about your adventure, nothing seems to be in trouble. Everyone is cheery up in Skyloft, just going about their business and happy that you can help them find baby rattles and crystal balls and such. No threat up in the clouds, nope. Down below, not much is different. Faron Woods has a few monsters, but nothing serious, plus the residents are more or less protected by the Water Dragon fairly well. Eldin Volcano has a population of Mogma who seem content to just dig around in search of treasure, so again no real conflict there. And the desert providence is the most barren yet as the only inhabitants are deactivated robots. What is really at stake here? Why do I care about anyone here?
Again, the entirety of Skyward Sword’s forward momentum is relying on our desire to save Zelda. We’ve already done that! Give us something new to care about! Saving Termina from certain destruction was something new to care about. Desiring to help Midna restore her people was something new. Even discovering why Hyrule was covered in water was something new. “Go get Zelda” is dated and just isn’t enough to propel me forward in a game that came out in 2011.
The saddest part of all of this is that Skyward Sword has so much potential. The dungeons are great and the characters do have interesting personalities and models. But then there’s nothing really connecting the dungeons and no real purpose for any of the characters, so it all feels hollow. We have an amazing antagonist, both in Ghirahim and then in Demise, yet there’s not a lot riding there. Overall, it feels like a game with a lot of great concepts but no real idea what to do with them. Despite taking the longest to develop, it feels like it still needed another year to figure out what to do with itself.
So that’s where we are now. I enjoyed parts of Skyward Sword, but ultimately it is a letdown. Do you agree? Were you disappointed with the game we got? Do you feel it could have been better and how so? Leave a comment and let me know. Don’t worry, I can wait. It’s not like the world’s in danger or anything.