I’m going to put this on record: The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is my least favorite Zelda game of all time. But I’m not stopping there; not only is it a poor Zelda game, it’s also a poor videogame in general.
Without even touching upon the love ‘em or hate ‘em motion controls, there’s more than enough evidence to show that Nintendo should’ve taken a step back, looked at Skyward Sword’s innovations, and asked themselves, “Are we sure these ideas are good?”
“Nintendo never innovates with Zelda” and “Every Zelda game is the same” are some of the arguments Zelda detractors tend to throw around. They have some merit; almost every game follows roughly the same structure: you get a slingshot, a bow, some bombs, etc. etc. and then you use that “dungeon item” to defeat the dungeon boss. So with Skyward Sword it seems Nintendo took those complaints to heart. They added new gameplay mechanics and some new items. Too bad many of them are terrible.
Let’s start with the stamina meter. Link gets to sprint now! Yay? Problem is, whenever you start sprinting, a big, green meter shaped like half a lime pops up to show you how much stamina you have left. Not only does it look ugly and out of place with the game’s aesthetic, but Link has the wind of a 70 year-old smoker. In previous games, if you wanted to run faster you’d equip the Bunny Hood, ride Epona, or perhaps do a little bit of Goron rolling. Now you can sprint for a few seconds, wait for the gauge to refill, then sprint some more.
But the stamina gauge affects more than just sprinting. Almost every other activity in Skyward Sword is dependent on that little citrusy meter. Climbing, spin attacks, carrying things, pushing and pulling blocks are all dependent on Link’s incredibly tiny stamina pool. While a stamina meter could create a fun sense of risk vs. reward, the fact that it lasts for such a pitiful short time in Skyward Sword makes it more frustrating than anything else. How can Link sprint away from an enemy if they’ll just catch up in a couple of seconds when it runs out? I suppose he can politely ask them to wait to attack him after he’s caught his breath. Everyone knows monsters obey the rules of Time Outs.
Let’s move on to dowsing. Dowsing. I shudder every time I hear that word now. We get it, Nintendo. Skyward Sword is played with the WiiMote–a thing you point at the screen. We don’t need a gameplay mechanic to remind us of this. Dowsing has to be one of the dumbest things ever, and it only gets worse when you realize you have to use it all the damn time.
Here’s how pretty much all of Skyward Sword goes: you go to a new area, Fi (more on her in a bit) pops up and says that something (or things plural) is hidden in the area, she suggests you dowse for them, and then the game turns into a hot n’ cold, hide n’ seek simulator. Were gamers supposed to be impressed at this “innovative” way Nintendo managed to include the WiiMote’s pointing ability?
You’re trying to find Zelda? Dowse for her! You’re trying to find some lost forest bird/plant things? Dowse for them! Musical notes swimming in a lake? You guessed it; dowse for them! I’m not complaining that dousing required the use of the WiiMote. It still would’ve been a terrible mechanic if you were moving the cursor around the screen with an analogue stick. The problem is that dowsing made the game resemble a bunch of never-ending fetch quests.
There are other mechanics I could touch upon–flying and the loot system–but I have other things I want to talk about. So just know that those two are also filled with bad ideas, but let’s move on to the game’s narrative.
I’m a fiction writer, so a game’s narrative is always something I pay attention to (see: Killzone 3). Zelda games aren’t known for their incredibly deep narratives. Rescue the princess, stop Ganon, save Hyrule, rinse and repeat. But I remember reading reviews and other articles that raved about how Skyward Sword had a better narrative than previous Zelda games. Unfortunately that narrative ends up being distilled into: you need to prove yourself; go do these fetch quests; eventually defeat some evil demon monster.
For the record, I’m not against Zelda’s “save the princess” story. It’s simple, but it works. However, I do have a problem with the way Skyward Sword’s presentation, both its in-game narrative and the design choices surrounding that narrative. You can tell a simple but effective “Zelda story” without having to resort to the same design choices (like how Thompson points out that all of Link’s items function as keys) over and over again.
In Skyward Sword for every new dungeon you encounter, it seems like there’s a new time-consuming sidequest just to “purify yourself” or “cleanse your spirit” or some such nonsense before you can even enter. From a gameplay perspective these quests ruin the flow of the game as they keep you from actually experiencing what Zelda is all about: exploring dungeons, getting new items, and beating bosses.
From a narrative perspective these quests and the reasons given to the player as to why you have to do them break the flow of the narrative. While he tends toward exaggeration, Ben ‘Yahtzee’ Croshaw puts it best at around the four minute mark. The fetch quests and weak narrative reasons for them sap any sense of urgency from the story.
The game tells me (over and over again) that I need to stop the Imprisoned and save all of creation, but before actually letting me do that, I have to prove myself worthy. Over and over again. By the end of the game, I’d actually forgotten why I was collecting all the different doodads. I just knew I had to do it to get through the game. It bled any sense of desire to figure out where the story was going right out of me.
But what’s a story without characters to sell that story? For the most part I have no complaints with Skyward Sword’s iterations of Link and Zelda. They’re both the same archetypes they’ve always been, and by now that’s blandly inoffensive. I don’t care if they get developed more than that or not.
But early on in the story you meet Fi, Skyward Sword’s version of Navi. She’s a Goddess-created computer program that lives in your sword and speaks in auto-tune. At first, her overly verbose way of explaining everything was entertaining. Early on, I exclaimed to my girlfriend, “I like Fi! She’s funny.” I spoke too soon. For as annoyed I got with Navi’s incessant “Hey! Listen!” she’s got nothing on Fi.
Skyward Sword already has a bad habit of telling the player its story through longwinded conversations instead of showing, or because this is an interactive medium, letting the player do and experience the story more organically. But then Fi has to step in. She steps in after every conversation where an NPC tells Link where to go or what to do and repeats all of that information in the most roundabout way possible and always with made up probability statistics. I grew so tired of having to read lines like “There’s an 85% chance that Zelda is in the vicinity,” that I groaned every time Fi would pop up on the screen. Without her, Skyward Sword would have some fine, if a bit bland, characters, but with her, the game is worse.
“If it ain’t broke…” or Innovation for Innovation’s Sake
Skyward Sword gets so many things wrong because it felt like Nintendo was trying to silence the innovation-demanding subsection of their fan base. Instead all they needed was somebody on the development team to remind them of the old phrase “If it ain’t broke (and this ‘it’ happens to be a beloved, 25 year-old franchise), don’t fix it.”
Link never needed a sprint button, dowsing is a mechanic that wouldn’t be needed with more focused level design, and Fi should’ve been scrapped at the drawing board stage. In trying not to make another Ocarina of Time rehash, they’ve moved themselves away from that all-important videogame tenant: fun. And frankly Skyward Sword wasn’t any fun at all.