Words cannot express how hyped I was for The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword in 2011. I’m a massive Zelda fan. It shows on the design on my phone case, the banner of this website, and in my own choice of games. I own almost every main series game. I love the universe. I consider it my favorite series of all time. I thought Skyward Sword was going to change Zelda forever when it released. And in a way, it did. There’s a lot Skyward Sword did right, but at the same time, I found it extremely sloppy in the long term.
It’s hard to sum up exactly why this is. My theory is that it’s the anniversary curse. Skyward Sword was the 25th anniversary celebration for this illustrious franchise. As a result, I think the game was a little bit rushed. To pile on, it released on the Wii, a console that was on its way out by that point. Considering the circumstances, it flew too close to the sun, so to speak. Still, as a celebration of Zelda month, we’re going to look at the positives and negatives of Skyward Sword and see what it could’ve done better.
First, let’s look at what Skyward Sword did right. I think that aesthetically and musically, this is one of the greatest games in the series. Its soundtrack is fully orchestrated, its art style is beautiful, and it has interesting characters. Zelda herself is more relatable than ever, and Ghirahim is a cool villain. The game’s wind and light effects, sound, and animation are all on point.
In theory, a mount that can fly is an interesting way to bring the series into true 3D. Collecting items to upgrade your gear is a great fit for Zelda, and it worked well in this game. Conceptually, the ability to sprint, shoot beams from your sword, and fight with motion controls were all great. On the outside, the game is hard to resist.
The problem is that after this initial shock and awe, I discovered Skyward Sword is like a shallow ocean. It looks and sounds so good that you forget what it actually is. You forget that the game’s idea of dungeon crawling is constantly using flawed, extraneous Wii MotionPlus controls to solve repetitive puzzles and go through telegraphed combat scenarios. Eventually, though, you notice that treasure chests are barely hidden — they sit around just ripe for looting. You notice that your stamina meter runs out every five seconds. You notice that the worlds and dungeons are undeniably linear. The sky overworld, for all its limitless potential, does little to capture your attention.
Skyward Sword has a lot of problems that lead into one another. If I were to at least try to summarize everything, I’d say the game draws too much attention to needless mechanics and the old series staples. The actual feelings behind the Zelda experience got lost in the sauce. As Arin Hanson said in his Zelda Sequilitis video, “it asks of us not our sense of adventure, or even our wit, but rather our ability to point to an area and walk towards it.”
This game’s companion, Fi, would have been an amazing addition, but her constant, irritating interventions just provide bland information. She tries to keep the player on-task, to keep them from peeking behind the curtain and realizing just how little they’re given. The game needlessly wastes time by repeatedly taking you into an inventory menu to describe a collectible item you’ve already seen every time you obtain it in a new play session. The beginning of the game where a player learns how to navigate and climb should not be an errand to retrieve a cat from a roof. It’s laden with tutorial after tutorial meant to hammer the game’s controls into your mind in such a blatant and boring way that I can hardly believe I finished it.
At this point I should talk about the controls of this game. This game trades on a one-to-one motion control gimmick, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The problem is, the game is too heavily designed around it. Sure, firing bows with super-precise control or piloting a mechanical beetle to reach hidden areas and solve puzzles are both great ideas, but they’re unreliable and take you out of the action.
Combat feels like a step backwards — each enemy simply shifts their vulnerable locations to try to throw you off. As a result, fighting mostly consists of adjusting to a specific pattern of attack, reducing it to a fancy quick-time event. One-to-one motion control is so rigid that there’s no room for the variety of moves we saw in Twilight Princess. It works OK, but it makes you constantly fight bland enemies, execute specific motions, and pause to recalibrate your controller.
Speaking of diversions and sidequests, Skyward Sword needs more of them. A lot more. Especially in the Sky. The Sky tried to emulate the feeling freedom you get from sailing the ocean in Wind Waker, but instead included all the tedium and none of the intrigue. Virtually everything you do on the floating islands in the Sky is either a trivial 5-minute mission, or an unlockable chest. Barry Kramer made a great video all about this.
There’s so little variety or adversity in flying around on your Loftwing that it feels like a chore. It’s nothing but a way of getting from point A to point B (a common pattern in this game). It just feels like a pointless gimmick.
Speaking of gimmicks, another thing this game relies on far too much is its stamina meter. The player gets the ability to sprint and climb more quickly, but these actions drain a limited amount of stamina. “Stamina fruit” is frequently placed throughout levels to replenish stamina at key moments, but this is a band-aid. The stamina meter runs out way too quickly, and is the centerpoint of too many obstacles. Everything from bosses to dungeon crawling become less about gameplay and more around managing stamina.
This is a common problem with Skyward Sword. Look at the bosses. With the exception of cool bosses like Koloktos and Ghirahim, most bosses in the game are lacking in originality. They’re based around the motion control gimmick, or sprinting using the stamina meter, or using one-off items.
So how do we fix all this? The matter of fixing Skyward Sword, to me, is a matter of re-distributing resources. It means a shorter but well-designed Zelda game, a memorable adventure. For example, I would’ve taken a shorter main quest that set the player loose on a well-developed world over a long slog through endless, linear padding. I would’ve taken combat and puzzle-solving that was organic over endless motion control mechanics. I would’ve taken a few well-designed dungeons over a bunch of fetch quests that send me to the same areas again and again. I would’ve taken more sidequests to do in the Sky over endless dungeon crawling with barely any immersion.
If this game wants to do what Wind Waker did, it has to give us uncharted territory. It has to put giant islands high up in the sky, populated by cool enemies and home to interesting mini-narratives. It has to place more emphasis on expanding horizons, tying progression to reaching new parts of the Sky rather than simply retreading old ground down on the surface of Hyrule. It has to give us enemies to fight, maybe floating tunnels and puffy clouds to fly through. Basically, it needs more depth and variety.
The stamina meter has to last much longer, or even be infinite. The level design needs to accommodate Link’s more dynamic range of movements. As it stands, movement is limited to the point where it should’ve just stayed the same. Instead of giving us tedious combat where we have to swing in specific lines, make the combat more fluid and fast-paced. Maybe give the player clearly defined areas to strike at enemies instead of narrow lines. Above all, it should do away with all the hand-holding and just make the game simple and intuitive enough that the player can figure it out just by playing it.
I realize we’re never going to get these changes that many of us want so badly. But I take comfort in the fact that the next installment in this extraordinary series, Breath of the Wild, looks like it will be taking an entirely different direction from Skyward Sword. It will have an open world and a spread-out story, with endless possibilities for customization and exploration. From the footage we’ve seen, it will implement basically every change I mentioned here.
Because of this, I look at Skyward Sword with no regrets, and I choose to remember it for what it did well rather than what went wrong. Especially the soundtrack. (Just go listen to the soundtrack. Seriously.) Meanwhile, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild releases in March 2017, and I’m even more excited than I was for Skyward Sword. So…let’s hope we get a great game this time around!