I wouldn’t blame you if you accidentally called it “Skyrim Sword.” I had that thought too.

19Dec11

Skyward Sword is my new favorite Zelda game.

That might not mean much on its own, but I’ve been playing Zelda games since the series first came to the US back on the NES. While I haven’t played every single game in the series, I have beaten most of them, with only a few exceptions-the most significant being Majora’s Mask. I never beat Zelda II, but considering how much of an oddball that whole game was, I think most people didn’t beat it without cheating somehow. Point being, I know my Zelda games.

So why does Skyward Sword supplant my previous favorite, Ocarina of Time? (Wind Waker was a close second, but the Triforce Hunt near the end brings it down.) Does it reinvent the series in as drastic a way as OoT? Not quite. But it does some very important things for the series while it’s just being fun to play in general. Fair warning, the rest of this post may be full of spoilers. Just so you know what’s coming.

One of the first things it gets right is that the motion controls are useful to the gameplay. There were times when my sword didn’t react exactly how I wanted it to, so they weren’t perfect. But because swinging my sword involved more than just pressing a button, or waggling my hand randomly, I had to think about how I was going to attack with even minor enemies. That small band of goblins was never going to pose a significant threat to me when I was getting near the end, but the fact that they could block an attack meant I couldn’t run in, hit A 3 times, and then grab their loot. It also meant that at the end, when I was facing a literal army of enemies (I killed at least 100 of those bastards), the threat felt real. There was a good chance that if I wasn’t careful, or took too long to get to the boss, I could have died from the attrition, and I was definitely worried about being significantly weakened when I got there. Some might not like that they never reach a god-like level of power against regular enemies, but to me it both made the gameplay more exciting, and kept the story from going off the rails.

The more important reason this is my new favorite Zelda is that used tradition in the best way. They kept what worked, and felt free to change everything else. I don’t know about other players, but to me the boomerang was always an item I had to tolerate more than enjoy.  You usually got it near the beginning, and if it did any damage other than stunning, it was minimal. So when I entered the first dungeon, I was sure I would get the boomerang…but I didn’t. In fact, there is no boomerang in the whole game, not even as an optional thing you could pick up on the side. The replacement, the Flying Beetle, is an odd piece of machinery…but it could also do more than pick up random items and hit switches. It could also grab bomb flowers and drop them onto both rocks and enemies for some aerial bombardment, and the first person view meant it could scout an area for you. Not every item was as versatile, but nothing stayed in the game just because it had been there in the past. There was no Mirror shield, blue or red tunic, power gauntlets/ring, or iron boots.

The same philosophy extended to the game mechanics. This was the first Zelda that had an upgrade system you had any control over. Others would give you item upgrades, but doled out in specific ways, such as turning your Hookshot into a Longshot. While the system for upgrading items in Skyward Sword could be a little frustrating (it had the common issue of showing you what you needed to upgrade something well before you could actually get those items), it still gave a sense of agency. There was never a time where I had to upgrade something just to advance the main plot, or to make it useful. It also avoided being overwhelming in complexity. There’s nothing wrong with being able to make a wide variety of items, but having clearly defined limits for what you could alter meant I never felt lost about what I could do, or should for that matter.

Then you have the NPCs, or the lack thereof. While the world outside of your town isn’t barren of life, it’s still mostly  hostile terrain. The only Goron you see is an explorer, and he gives no hints about other Gorons or what they might be doing. The Zora and Kokiri are also completely absent. You do meet a strange mix of kiwi birds and plants, a race of human-sized mole people, and an aquatic race more reminiscent of sea horses than fish. Then there are the ceramic midget robots…but they’re already dead, which is a bit hard to explain. Somehow, it makes more sense in the game.

That does lead into another strength of the game, its ability to sneak up on you with memorable moments. It has its share of powerful moments in the main plot, probably none more powerful then when Zelda explains who she really is…and apologizes to you for forcing you into your role as the hero. But as much as that touched me, it was overshadowed by the number of times I was astonished or amused by what was happening in the middle of a dungeon. Such as the time I first faced the villain Ghirahim, and he seemed to take an almost laviscious amusement in creeping Link out. Or getting to the mini boss of a dungeon, and discovering it was a steampunk robotic version of Blackbeard, with an electric sword and extending hook hand. And I had to make him walk the plank into quicksand to win the fight. None of these moments were presented as exceptionally strange or noteworthy, they were just there, as though it was perfectly natural. Which made them all the more effective, of course.

As I said above, though, the main plot isn’t lacking. If we don’t yet have a game where Zelda is a playable character, we at least got to see her take an active role from the beginning…and rather than being a remote princess you hear about, she’s a childhood friend you care for. That simple change makes the plot take on a much bigger resonance, and Link’s actions are not just for the sake of a vague duty. It also means that while Link still doesn’t speak audibly, he has a chance to emote in a way that’s more subtle than in past games. You can even give a snarky response at one point. It’s a nice mirror to the customization of your equipment, that you get some degree of control over his character as well.

Finally, in light of a recent article about what might come next for the Zelda series, Skyward Sword is a positive sign for the future. The game’s head producer has said that he thinks the series needs to fundamentally change going forward. Skyward Sword could be taken as the start of such a change, with its tentative steps to give players more control over how Link develops. Does this mean we’ll be looking at some kind of Grand Theft Hyrule situation? Of course not. But Skyward Sword did enough to change the Zelda formula that I wasn’t sure what I would find as I played the game, and that’s a good feeling. I certainly hope the next one hits the balance with this level of skill, even if it tilts the actual content a little more towards giving us full control.

If you haven’t played Skyward Sword, do it now, and make sure you come in with an open mind. Otherwise, you’ll be missing all of its charm.

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