on November 25, 2011
Let me preface this review by saying that I'm a Nintendo and Zelda fan. I have played all the Zelda games except for the CD-i games, and have beaten "Ocarina of Time", "Wind Waker" and "Twilight Princess". When 3DS was released in North America, I did not get it on day one, but I did get it on day three, and when "Ocarina of Time 3D" was released, I beat it three times, one for each save file you get. I had to delete a save file to play it a fourth time.
You are probably thinking that a main-series, console Zelda release can never be less than gaming perfection. However, I would beg to differ, pointing you to "Zelda II: The Adventure of Link". "Skyward Sword" is the second coming of "Zelda II" in that respect, and it has done the unthinkable and finally supplanted it as the most disappointing Zelda game of all time. If you have not played this game, you have no idea how terrible it is, so before you judge this review and vote it down, I implore you to read this review and other "negative" (I prefer the term "honest") reviews before making your own decision about purchasing this game. Nintendo has really dropped the ball with this game. The release of the MotionPlus accessory never really generated the second life for the Wii that they intended, so they forced it into a traditional core gaming franchise and the result is "Skyward Sword".
The controls are very bad. Almost every action involving the Wii remote is filled with frustration and stress - from flying to just simply trying to cut grass. Very early on, you get a taste of flying. However, the controls are overly sensitive, yet unresponsive at the same time - the worst of both worlds. For example, you will tilt the controller to the left to turn left, but there will be slight lag until your bird actually turns. To make up for this lag, you will be tilting the controller even more than necessary. By the time you do this, your bird finally has turned, but the extra turning you have done to compensate for the lag has made the bird turn even more than necessary. It's not just the lag that accounts for the bad controls, either. It is just too sensitive. A slight tilt of the controller will cause it to turn a lot, and there is no way to adjust the sensitivity. This is not how we were taught how to fly in real life, or in video games. Flying by tilting a horizontally-aligned controller is simply unintuitive.
The sword-controls are terrible as well. Cutting grass - something that has been a staple of the franchise since "Link to the Past", is now needlessly difficult. In Twilight Princess, one could simply shake the controller, and Link, your on-screen avatar, would effectively cut grass. In this game, simply shaking the controller is not enough; oh no. You must be precise and shake it horizontally, because grass grows vertically, and thus to cut it, you must chop it horizontally. Now this would not be that big of a deal if when every time or at least 90% of the time you performed a horizontal slice with your controller, Link did the same. However, this is not the case. Also, every little, seemingly innocuous enemy in the game now has become a mini-boss encounter, where precise timing and sword strokes are needed for victory. This is an extrinsic vicissitude for the Zelda series. It slows the gameplay down, and breaks up the pacing.
Here are some more examples of the horrible controls:
This is not so egregious in execution, but is in theory: walking across a tightrope. When Link walks across a tightrope, he will alternately teeter to the left and right - not because you are failing to hold the controller steady, but because Nintendo programmed him to do so. At first, I was wondering why I was teetering to the left and right when I was holding the controller steady. Then I realized that instead of programming tightrope sequences so that Link's movement intuitively mirrored the player, as in all the other actions, like flying and sword-swinging, they repudiated that philosophy for this one type of event, making the player react to Link's movements, rather than the other way around. This makes no sense in the commonsense, logical desire of having one theoretical, uniform game design philosophy.
In another example of paradoxical, inconsistent game design philosophy, the "Sheikah Stone" makes a reappearance. It made its first appearance in "Ocarina of Time 3D", and it gives players hints when consulted. One of the caveats of this tool is that it is only accessible on Skyloft, the main hub area. The inclusion of the "Sheikah Stone" baffles me to a certain extent. I can see how this will help the more casual gamers, but when the controls are unresponsive, rendering the game difficult beyond the reach of casual gamers, I do not see the point of its inclusion. My point is that a "Sheikah Stone" should have been the last thing on Nintendo's list of considerations. Their priority should have been to fix the controls, and then a "Sheikah Stone" would have been unnecessary.
Killing skulltulas is another thing that has been greatly overcomplexified. In "Ocarina of Time", killing skulltulas had a short learning curve, but it was understandable and intuitive: if you got too close, it faced you constantly, rendering it invulnerable to your sword. If you got too far from it, it retreated beyond your reach. At just the right distance, it would first drop down and then turn around, exposing its vulnerable underbelly for a brief moment, giving you an opportunity to strike. In "Skyward Sword", however even after much trial and error, I could not figure out how to defeat one. I soon ventured forth into the internet in search of a method, and was satisfied when I realized that I was not alone in my troubles. Of course, I also found snarky simpletons who, instead of helping people like me, proceeded to insult them for lack of "skill" and took their skulltula-killing troubles as an offensive gesture to their beloved God and king: the almighty Nintendo.
One of the most egregious vicissitudes in "Skyward Sword" is save-points. Their philosophy was probably twofold: 1) it is not just a save point - you can do some other stuff, like taking to the skies, and it serving as a waypoint as well, and 2) maybe they found that people did not know how to save in Zelda games so they included save-points. The first reason is understandable - adding functionality. The second reason, however, is egregious. In other Zelda games, you can save nearly anywhere. You may not start at that exact location when you turn the system off and return, but your progress will be saved. In "Skyward Sword", you must first find a save point, and then when you want to stop playing and save, you must either keep playing and hope to find a save-point, or return to a save point you have already found and then save, wasting time that did not need to be wasted. This is an example of removing functionality: a bad thing.
Navi-itis returns. You remember how annoying Navi was in "Ocarina of Time"? Well, the spiritual successor is here. I won't spoil anything but I will warn you that if your shield is about to break (yes, shields can break in this game - how asinine is that?), or even if you are low on hearts, this Navi-wannabe will annoy you. I think that the traditional pinging sound that was there from "Zelda 1" tells me all I need to know about how low on hearts I am!
Nintendo seems to be feeling the pressure of being more like "Monster Hunter". They have unnecessarily added millions of little knick-knacky materials to collect through the course of your playthrough. These materials can be used to upgrade your items. This is not too bad, since it's optional, but when you come across a material, for example: a feather or a skull, the game must go into an animation of Link holding it up, then it tells you what it is, and then it goes into the menu, showing you how many of it you have. Then, you must exit the menu, if you want to keep playing. Every time you turn off your Wii or quit a play-sesion and then come back to play, if you find something for the first time for that playthrough, it does this again. It's unnecessary and annoying. The same thing happens for the higher-echelon rupees. At least it doesn't do it for blue rupees (worth 5) anymore like in "Twilight Princess".
Another thing Nintendo has unnecessarily adopted into its game is a partial form of "floating combat text". In many other traditional RPGs, when you hit something or it hits you, numbers pop up indicating damage done or dealt. In this game, when you get hit, the same thing happens, but with hearts (e.g. if you lose two hearts, in addition to losing two hearts on your life meter, a "- [heart icon][heart icon]" will appear next to it). This is unnecessary and insults the player's intelligence. If I had five hearts and something hit me, and I now have three hearts, I can do the math and figure out that I lost two. I don't need the game to show me.
Nintendo knew this game was hard. At first I was taken aback at how Link started off with six hearts. Usually he starts off with three, no? Then I played the first dungeon. "Oh... That's why."
Not all is bad in "Skyward Sword", however. Theoretically, I like the idea of taking a Zelda game into the sky, like how "Wind Waker" was an entire Zelda game built around the theme of wind and the ocean. Also, the new stamina-meter, which I disliked at first, grew on me, and I learned to appreciate it. For example, Link can now move faster than his run (let's call the faster run a "sprint") without having to roll around all over the place, and he can run into a wall at this speed without bumping into it and subsequently falling down, for the "roll" has been remapped to the nunchuk's accelerometer. To roll, all one has to do is sprint and then shake the nunchuk.
A new Zelda game wouldn't be complete without some new puzzle-types. I liked moving the key around with the controller to fit into a lock, although it featured reverse controls (up is down, left is right, etc.). In this respect, it does a good job of creating some new puzzles. Incremental challenge is a good thing, as long as the controls don't get in the way of it. As you now know, however, it does get in the way of it. After getting through the first two dungeons, I realized that the most difficult small-fry enemy was one of the first ones you meet: the piranha-plant thingies. This is an example of incorrectly increasing the difficulty of a game.
Also of positive note: the "Deku Leaf" makes a return, although it is called the "Sailcloth" now. Functionally, it works the same as the "Deku Leaf". Unfortunately, this welcome return is simultaneously met with an unwelcome alteration in the controls. This item is controlled with the "Wii Remote Plus", and, you guessed it, the controls are terrible. Near the beginning of the game, you must use this item to land on a small circle on the ground. I tried at least 20 times before I was able to land on it. Eventually, I realized that the less you moved the controller, the better off you were. You were not controlling the game; you were simply giving the game the input it desired to perform the output you wanted. This is a big change from how most video games are designed. Most video games empower the player and give them the illusion that they're imposing their will upon the game. "Skyward Sword", on the other hand, forces you to play by its rules and molds the player into its own, unwilling pawn. Maybe that's why some people like this game. They are unknowingly pawns and tools in the universe, and thus enjoy or are used to being in this position in the world.
I found that the most effective way of fighting the Bokoblins (red bad-guys) was not to swing the controller at their weak points but to wait for them to drop their guard, and in that second before they attack, you the player should strike quickly. Waiting for an opening? I understand using that philosophy for designing boss battles, but small-fry enemies should not have been designed like this.
The graphics are a mixed bag. Sometimes, especially during cutscenes, I was impressed at what the Wii was capable of. I found myself thinking, "Is that FMV?" However, at other times, these times being most of the time, I found myself thinking, "This looks worse than 'Twilight Princess'." A lot of the animations and models seem to be ripped straight from that game, tweaked a negligible amount, and then daubed with a low-detail, saturated, faded-rainbow paintbrush. Everything looks washed-out and all the colors seem to bleed together, like a watercolor painting done by an elementary school student. It is hard to tell what is what from a distance. I know what Nintendo was thinking when they went in this artistic direction. They knew they could not compete graphically in the realism department with "Xbox 360" nor "Playstation 3", so they went in the opposite direction of accentuating their "superior" artistic vision, so that the Wii's graphical shortcomings would be ignored with a lush, unique, graphical style. However, it fails to deliver on its intentions. I am not opposed to non-realistic graphics. Oh no. "Wind Waker" is one of the most beautiful games ever created, and looks miles better than this game. "Wind Waker" was designed to be a "cartoon that you play" - this coming straight from Miyamoto's own mouth, and I wholeheartedly agree. "Skyward Sword", on the other hand, feels like a rainbow threw up on a Miyazaki film. It just doesn't work. Also, why does Link have to look so much like Michael Jackson? Could he not have looked a little more human, and less extra-terrestrial? Nintendo got his face wrong in "Twilight Princess", right in "Super Smash Bros. Brawl", then even fixed "Twilight Princess" Link's face for the "Wii U" Zelda tech demo at E3 this year, but lost it again for Skyward Sword.
The music is surprisingly bad as well. The soundtrack sounds less like a Zelda game, and more like a generic JRPG soundtrack. After looking up the credits online, I found that a whole stable of composers not named Koji Kondo was involved in it. "Ah..." My suspicions were correct.
Nintendo needs to bring Miyamoto back to the director's chair. He understands that gameplay is paramount. When you first start up Skyward Sword, you are bogged down with cutscenes and meaningless fluff in the form of small-talk conversations with NPCs. You may have thought "Twilight Princess" got off to a slow start, but holy snap, "Skyward Sword" takes it to the next level. If the story and characters were half-interesting, maybe I would care, but unfortunately it is not. People play Zelda games for the gameplay, not the story and cinematic work.
It is not the idea of motion-controls in a Zelda game that is the problem here. It is in the execution, which is very bad. If there is copious ambiguity whether my failure to succeed is because it is not what I am supposed to do (as in the proper method of solving a problem) or it is because the controls are not responding to what I want to do, it is a major problem. As the great James Rolfe (the "Angry Video Game Nerd") once said, the number one important thing about a game is "being able to ****ing play it". I would love to swing my controller and be able to hit the enemies in their weak-spots, quickly and deftly; however, this is not possible because of the horrible control-response. I would love to be able to quickly transition from a neutral state to a rolling state when dealing with bombs, and then dexterously aim it to my own choosing. Again, this is not possible because of the horrible controls. "Twilight Princess" was evidence of how motion-controls could enhance a game to make a game greater than the sum of its parts. "Twilight Princess" on the Wii was easily superior to the Gamecube version. "Skyward Sword", on the other hand, obtrudes the game with its motion-controls, effectively making a gamer lesser than the sum of its parts. I wish there was a Gamecube version of this game.
Let me now discuss my rationale for giving it 1 star: If you mouse over the respective stars, from the fifth star to the first star (furthest to the right, to the star furthest to the left), the mouse-over descriptions are as follows: "I love it", "I like it", "It's OK", "I don't like it", and "I hate it".
"I love it" would be something I would say about "Ocarina of Time", and I have thought it to myself, and have even said it out loud to my friend back in 1999 or 2000. These games leave you in awe, feeling like a kid again. Those memories of getting a brand-new game for Thanksgiving-break or Christmas and playing it after you rip through the plastic wrap come flooding back to you. "Super Mario 64" and "Twilight Princess" are more examples.
"I like it" would be something I would say about "Wind Waker". The art direction was revolutionary, but the gameplay seemed to be an incremental evolution from "Ocarina of Time". In other words, it was good, but it did not blow my mind. That is fine; not every game can blow your mind.
"It's OK" is something I would say about "Metroid Prime". I was never a big fan of the Metroid series, but I did give Metroid Prime a shot and eventually beat it, but sometimes people have different tastes. These tastes are not meant to offend anybody.
"I don't like it" would be something I would say about "The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion". It did not do much for me, coming from an MMORPG like "World of Warcraft" and trying to capture that magic in single-player form; I have since yet to find a single-player RPG that has really kept me engaged for as long as an MMORPG. I rue the day I ever bought that game (WoW); it spoiled me. Still, I would not say that I hate Oblivion, because there is nothing fundamentally flawed about it; it's just ugly, boring, and not for me.
"I hate it" is not something I say often about video games. I do my research and I have a sixth sense when it comes to buying games and it does not involve internet game-reviews. But when a game is this fundamentally flawed, as in the controls don't work (forget about the design, which is secondary), we have a problem. The only thing I can compare "Skyward Sword" to off the top of my head is a really difficult NES game that is cheap (by cheap, I mean the AI is cheap) beyond imagination and is likely to have been reviewed by James Rolfe. Indeed, whilst playing "Skyward Sword", I found myself thinking and saying out loud many of his epithets like "What were they thinking?" and "This game is horrible!" I know there is a "first impressions" video on cinemassacre.com regarding this game, but it was made not by Rolfe, but by his friend Mike Matei. I would like to hear Rolfe's own opinions about this game.
This has been the most disappointing holiday game lineup in recent history - from the overhyped "Battlefield 3", the most iterative game of all time: "Modern Warfare 3", the still-ugly-with-terrible-melee-combat Skyrim... What in the world is going on? God save us all.