Monday, January 2, 2012

Rating System Announcement and The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword Review

Well, another New Year has started, and, just like last year, I’ve decided to change my rating system once again. Last year, I changed from a five-point scale to a ten-point scale, the reason being that I felt like the five-point rating system was too limiting, not allowing enough room to specify just how good (or bad) a game is. However, over time, I’ve grown to see my ten-point scale a bit…inflated. As an example, based on the old rating scale, a game that got a 7, while that should mean “good”, more or less meant “okay”. Meanwhile, a game that got a 6 wouldn’t be worth buying at all unless you were a fan of the genre. On the big gaming websites and magazines, such a system is generally used because publishers (who bring in tons of advertising revenue for them) would not be pleased if their game got a particularly low score. Being independent, I do not require money from advertisers, and, therefore, am in no need of such a scale. Also, while I did feel the five-point system too limiting, I do believe some generalization is called for when rating games: after all, mostly, you have the amazing games, the good-but-flawed games, the okay games, the bad-but-with-some-redeeming-qualities games, and the awful games. I don’t think I should need twenty (since I go by “.5”s) numerical ratings to describe just how well they fit into these categories.

Therefore, I have decided to switch to a grading system. It offers just the right amount of generalization while at the same time giving me leeway to describe exactly how good or bad a game is thanks to “plus” and “minus” distinctions. As is the usual way, short descriptions of each grade will be tagged onto every review, but I will explain it at the beginning of this review first. The Skyward Sword review will begin afterwards.

A(-)(+) A top notch experience all the way through. It may not necessarily be perfect, but whatever flaws it does have won’t take you out of it or make it any less worth your time. (Super Mario Galaxy 1 and 2)

B(-)(+) A very fun experience bogged down by some significant problems, whether they’re related to the story, gameplay, or both. However, it’s still a good game and worth the price of admission. (Kingdom Hearts: Recoded)

C(-)(+) A mixed bag. Generally fun to some extent and may shine in some areas, but is either too flawed to fully recommend or far too short for its price. Conisder it for a reduced price, at least if you’re a fan of its genre. (Rayman 3D)

D(-)(+) Subpar. It may not be terrible, but it is severely flawed and whatever it does well ultimately fails to save it. Even if you’re a fan of the genre, this is barely a bargain bin purchase. (Sonic Heroes)

F Insipid, disgusting, despicable, and insufferable. It is a scar on the face of human accomplishments that time shall never heal. The best thing we can do is avoid playing it at all costs. It is the only way to prevent its parasitic disease of awfulness from spreading. (Shadow the Hedgehog)


Does this game really even need an introduction? To some extent, we all know how beloved the Zelda franchise is, and, quite frankly, it deserves that love. The original Legend of Zelda was one of the first games of its kind, providing what were – at the time – a massive overworld and dungeons with tons of secrets to find, enemies to fight and puzzles to solve. Zelda II took the gameplay in a different direction, but A Link to the Past for the SNES would take everything the original game did and expand upon it and boy, did they do a great job of that! It set the standard by which all later action-adventure games would be judged…until 1998 when Ocarina of Time came out and applied the Zelda formula to a massive 3-D world, resulting in what is hailed by many, including myself, to be one of the greatest games of all time. The later 3-D games would be contested in some areas, but still received their own amounts of critical acclaim and legions of adoring fans. One of my personal favorites is 2000’s Majora’s Mask, which changed things up significantly from Ocarina with its unique three-day system, side characters that were actually fully fleshed out and had their own storylines, transformation masks, and insane amount of worthwhile side quests. But enough of my personal anecdotes; let’s get to the game at hand.

Anyway, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is the latest game in the extremely popular franchise, and its primary selling point is accurate swordplay thanks to the magic of WiiMotion Plus. While that’s great and all, rest assured: this isn’t the only improvement Skyward Sword brings to the table. In fact, Skyward Sword represents such a massive evolution of the Zelda formula in just about every respect and does so little wrong alongside it that it has, in my opinion, surpassed Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask as the greatest game in the franchise thus far. Let’s take a look as to why.

(Note that this review will contain spoilers for some items and gameplay elements.)


As I often do, before really getting into why this game is so amazing, I’m going to talk about the aesthetics. The most notable thing about Skyward Sword, graphically, is its art style. Essentially, it’s a cel-shaded version of Twilight Princess’ art style with much brighter colors. It looks absolutely beautiful and suits the general tone of the game well, adding a cartoonish goofiness to some characters and enemies while at the same time giving it some needed sophistication. The environments, in particular, are a graphical highlight. Some of the textures are a bit blurry, but eh, I can forgive it thanks to how great the rest of it looks. Then we have the score. This is the first time a score for a Zelda game has been fully orchestrated, and while its melodies aren’t quite as memorable as those of some of the other games in the series, MAN does it have its standouts. The Skyloft theme pretty much puts me in a good mood every time I hear it, and the Ballad of the Goddess, the game’s main theme, is, in my opinion, one of the best songs ever composed for a video game. I also loved the theme for the third dungeon due to the atmosphere it created and the music for the Sandsea, one of the areas you will be visiting in the game. Other than that, nothing else really stood out to me, but it works.

Moving onto the storyline, it is chronologically the first game in the series. It begins in Skyloft, a set of floating islands above the clouds. In the town on the main island, men train to become knights at the Knight Academy. Our Link this time around is enrolled in said Knight Academy, and said knights get to ride giant birds called Loftwings through the sky. Don’t you wish you were them? Regardless, Zelda, rather than being a princess this time around, instead is Link’s childhood friend. Unfortunately, she is sucked into a tornado created by Demon Lord Ghirahim, our villain of the week. Link is then called upon by Fi, a robot, to take the Goddess Sword from Skyloft and use it to save the world, as he is the Chosen One, and the rest of the game takes place from there on.

Skyward Sword’s story is one of the many reasons why it’s the best Zelda yet. By far, it tells the most engaging – and at times, even touching – storyline in the series. This is partially thanks to how well the characters are handled. Zelda is a character this time around rather than a plot device. You care about her and want to save her not just because you have to, but because you like her. Link is at his best here as well. The Wind Waker was, for a long time, the only Zelda game to give Link any sort of real personality, and it’s handled very similarly here. He’s still just as silent as ever, but his facial expressions and various grunts and cries give off a wide range of emotions and reactions. It also handles the whole “he’s your ‘link’ to the game world” thing a lot better, since you are able to choose between three options as to what Link can say at certain points. There are also plenty of great supporting characters, and Ghirahim’s dialogue and general hamminess make him a really entertaining villain. As for the partner character, Fi, while I didn’t find myself enjoying her quite as much as Midna from Twilight Princess or Tatl from Majora’s Mask, her odd obsession with statistics and seemingly random dancing fits in some cutscenes were kind of amusing. Heck, even if not for that, I’d still take her over the likes of Navi any day. But even aside from having great characters, the mythology of Skyward Sword is just incredibly well done and very interesting to learn.

When it comes to gameplay, there’s a lot of ground to cover, but I’ll start with the controls, as it is the main selling point of the game. Twilight Princess’ waggle controls may have been cool back in 2006 when motion controls were a new thing, but now that they’ve been around for a while, they come off as tiring and even a bit laggy and unresponsive. It was already hard enough to go back to, but after playing Skyward Sword, I think the Wii version of Twilight Princess would feel virtually unplayable by comparison. Skyward Sword’s controls are amazingly smooth and accurate, reading your movements incredibly well even when you’re not attacking. Not only does it feel great, but, as you would expect, it adds quite a bit to combat. Enemy encounters actually require you to find an opening and exploit it by slashing in a specific direction before you can do damage, which is easy or hard depending on what enemy you’re facing. The average Bokoblin will attempt to block your slashes with its own weapon, but it shouldn’t be too difficult to get a hit in. Lizalfos, on the other hand, are very agile and have giant gauntlets on their arms that effectively block attacks. Their cockiness will get the better of them, however, as eventually they will stop to taunt you, leaving them defenseless in at least one direction. Other enemies are different. The bloblike Chuchus will split when you cut them, but will only stay apart if you cut them vertically, and some Moblins will require you to destroy their wooden shields before you can do any frontal attacks. It’s worth noting that enemies are a lot stronger this time around as well, so you’ll have to be defensive a lot yourself. Aside from combat, the Wii Remote is used for a lot of actions, such as throwing and rolling bombs, swimming underwater, controlling your items and flying on your Loftwing, and it always works great.

While we’re on the subject of controls, the use of motion controls isn’t the only thing that’s been changed up. Even maneuvering Link around the world is much quicker and easier. For the first time ever in a Zelda game, Link is able to sprint and even do a little bit of parkour by holding the “A” button. This helps navigating the world more than you would expect. While performing these actions, as well as hanging off of ledges and vines and even doing the classic Spin Attack (done in this game by swinging the Wii Remote and nunchuk at the same time), you will have to be wary of the stamina gauge, which gradually depletes. If it drops completely, Link will be left completely defenseless until it refills. In some areas, this actually adds a new element of challenge, particularly areas that require you to run or hold onto vines for a long time.

So the controls are great, but how is everything else? Well, I’m happy to report that pretty much everything is at its prime here. First, let’s talk about the overworld. There are four main overworld areas in the game: Skyloft, Faron Woods, Eldin Volcano and Lanayru Desert. Skyloft is essentially the hub of the game. It’s where the lone town resides, although there are several satellite islands with side quests to do and treasure to find (more on that later), kind of like in Wind Waker. Going off of that idea, flying on the back of your Loftwing is your mode of “sailing” in this game. Now, I know a lot of people hated Wind Waker’s sailing, but don’t worry; flying is not a big part of the game at all. Getting from place to place in Skyward Sword is much easier and faster, and the world is smaller to boot.

Most of the action happens in the other three overworld areas, which you will be returning to exactly three times each throughout the main quest. Don’t worry, though; Skyward Sword is not intent on rehashing content. Rather, the progression is somewhat Metroidvania; the second time you return to an area, you will use the new equipment items and abilities you have gotten to access new areas. The third return trip, in two out of three cases, takes place in areas you’ve already been, but what they do with them is really clever. In any case, the overworld of Skyward Sword is actually one of the big reasons why the game represents such an incredible evolution to the series. While the overworld is smaller and a bit more linear in design than what you would expect from a modern Zelda game, there is a LOT more to it in exchange. Skyward Sword blurs the line between overworld and dungeon, packing its areas with lots of enemies to battle, puzzles to solve and even some quite creative gimmicks. My favorite area was Lanayru Desert, which required you to make the use of Timeshift Stones – stones that revert parts of the area to a past, far greener state – to power up technology and progress through the level, and there was even a rollercoaster-esque minecart sequence at one point.

While I did just say that Skyward Sword’s overworld is smaller and more linear than the norm, that’s not to say that it's tiny. Exploration is pretty rewarding, in fact. You can find various materials in the game that can be used to upgrade Link’s equipment at the smithy in Skyloft, as well as Goddess Cubes that, when hit by a Skyward Strike from your sword, open up a treasure chest in Skyloft. The first time you go into each area, you will actually be sent on a quest requiring you to explore, usually right before that area’s first dungeon. Now, I know what you’re thinking, but would you call me crazy if I told you that the fetch quests in this game are FUN? Yes, Nintendo has taken one of the most thoroughly loathed elements of the Zelda series and made it into something that feels less like brainless padding and more like legitimately fun and interesting gameplay. This is, of course, thanks to the new style of overworld design, which makes finding the things you need fun rather than a tedious chore, although having a dowsing ability that points you in the right direction certainly helps.

There is another type of “fetch quest” – if it can even be called such - which you will be doing the first time you revisit each area. These are the Trials of the Goddesses, and they are pretty much what happens when you take the tedious and boring Tears of Light fetch quests from Twilight Princess and turn them into something that’s less “tedious and boring” and more “fun and challenging.” Actually, they’re not so much “quests” as they are a sort of mini-game. For these trials, you are dropped in the “Silent Realm” version of an overworld area and stripped of your equipment, at which point you have to seek out several Goddess Tears. If you get a Light Fruit, there will be a beacon over them so you can find them more easily. Sounds boring and fetch quest-y enough so far, but you haven’t gotten to the best part. The Silent Realm is filled with guardians – some of which that can fly and go through walls – and the second you start searching, they will be right on you. If they hit you once, you’ll have to start over. Fortunately, collecting a Goddess Tear will get you 90 seconds of peace, which can be renewed with each tear you collect, but you still have to look out for the Watchers, which will alert your presence to the Guardians once more, as well as Waking Water, which will also alert them to your presence as soon as you step in it. The trials are actually quite challenging, and I had a lot of fun completing them.

So, now that we’re finally done talking about the overworlds, what about the dungeons? Since the overworld is so dungeon-like now, you would think that they would deliver some truly phenomenal dungeon designs, and, well…they succeeded. They really succeeded. Skyward Sword’s dungeon designs are quite possibly the most clever and creative in the series thus far. The first couple are sort of basic albeit still great, but starting with the third, each one becomes an absolute joy to play through. There is so much cleverness and creativity put into the dungeons’ puzzles and gimmicks that it’s almost unbelievable, and all of them put the items you get to fun and creative uses. Said items include mainstays such as the bow, slingshot, bombs, and hookshot (or clawshots, as it would be), and the whip returns from Spirit Tracks – which is a very good thing since it’s one of my all-time favorite Zelda items – as well as really cool new items such as the Gust Bellows, which blows out a large gust of wind that can be used to power some mechanisms and clear sand; the Beetle, an extremely versatile flying weapon that can be controlled with the Wii Remote and is used for anything from cutting ropes to dropping bombs on unsuspecting enemies; and an upgrade to the Digging Mitts (an item you get early on in the game) that allows you to burrow underground. And just as great as the dungeons in Skyward Sword are the bosses that you face in them. Just like everything else, the bosses are extremely creative and enjoyable to fight, usually forcing you to make use of the new items from the dungeon or even the WiiMotion Plus swordplay.

There are a few other changes that Skyward Sword makes that, while somewhat minor, are probably worth touching on. First of all, Skyward Sword makes use of preset save points rather than allowing you to save wherever you want like in most other Zelda games. At first, I thought I would hate this. I thought disallowing you to save wherever you want worked for Majora’s Mask given its three-day system, but Skyward Sword seemed like it was going to be a mostly normal Zelda game. However, the more I played, the more I started to dig it. In previous Zeldas, saving would send you back to the start of the area or dungeon you had saved in or make you start from a specific area of the game, forcing you to trudge right back to where you had been before. Having preset save points is more of a convenience here than anything, mainly since the game is very generous with them; just about anywhere you could have accomplished something worthwhile, you will find a save point, preventing you from losing much precious game time thanks to death. Save points are also located in dungeons now, meaning you don’t have to start from the first room every time you reload your save.

Items and equipment are handled a lot differently as well. If you’re not careful, your shield could break and you’ll have to buy a new one. Fortunately, you can have your shield repaired before it does so, and even upgraded to make it more durable. Personally, I don’t think this is such a bad idea. Rather than just being there to make things more tedious, I think it’s there to make you think more about just when you should use your shield as well as encourage you to get better at shield bashes, done by shaking the nunchuk right as a blow connects to the shield, which will protect you as well as prevent your shield from taking damage. As for items, while you’ll always have your auxiliary equipment such as the bow and bombs with you, you will be limited as to the number of extra items and shields you can carry in your Adventure Pouch (although you can get more slots for it). I think this was put in place for much the same reason as the shield breaking; it’s to make you think more about just what you’re going to need before you continue your adventure, and I think it works.


The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword was an absolutely phenomenal experience for me all around. I have my nitpicks (such as the nunchuk controls being a bit oversensitive, for example), but in comparison to the amount of fun I had playing it, these were absolutely inconsequential. The storyline is fantastic, the controls are near-perfect, the overworld and dungeon designs are amazing…this is one of those games that you absolutely must experience. It is not only the greatest Zelda game, finally surpassing Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask, but it is – dare I say it? – one of the greatest games ever made. It’s definitely one of my favorite games now! Bottom line, buy it. T-Man, out.

Grade: A+

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