The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is Good, Actually
Honest to goodness, no foolin’, Mister!
You may have heard, particularly in the wake of the latest Zelda game, Breath of the Wild, that Skyward Sword is a bad game, and worse, a bad Zelda game. While everyone is certainly entitled to their opinions, this one, I’m sorry to say, is wrong. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is good, actually, and here’s why.
Now, when I say Skyward Sword is good, understand that that doesn’t mean I think it’s perfect. It’s as flawed as any piece of media I’ve ever consumed. It feels padded, and about 15 hours too long. For having such a unique and interesting character design, Fi has all the personality of a damp cardboard box, and an obnoxious habit of repeating every piece of verbal and visual information the game gives you. The Loftwing controls are completely tied to the motion controller and can be awkward. Forced stealth sections. Backtracking.
There are some issues, is my point.
But in spite of those issues, I’ve never truly understood the hatred, or why the game has come to be known as “the bad 3D Zelda.” It may not be as iconic as Ocarina of Time, as weird as Majora’s Mask, as charming as Wind Waker, or as epic as Twilight Princess, but Skyward Sword is not without its strengths. Skyward Sword is like a well oiled machine, and when all the parts are working in concert, the game really comes alive.
Although it’s one of the more strictly guided experiences in the franchise, a lot of detractors seem to have labored under the longstanding misconception about the degree of freedom offered by previous entries in the series. There seems to exist among many of Skyward Sword’s detractors the notion that a Zelda game must be about exploration, first and foremost. While this is an interesting idea in theory, the franchise’s own history doesn’t really bear the argument out. The Zelda games hadn’t offered a truly exploration driven entry since perhaps 1987, with the NES sequel Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. Its eventual follow up, 1991’s A Link to the Past, serves as essentially the prototype for what we’ve come to know as the modern Zelda formula, and 1998’s Ocarina of Time truly cemented the formula as we know it today, particularly in the realm of 3D. For better or worse, modern Zelda games (at least until Breath of the Wild) have been less about exploration, and more about solving puzzles in a series of increasingly difficult dungeons, all connected by a carefully concealed linear pathway masquerading as a sprawling overworld (to be fair, “sprawling” looks a lot different in 2019 than it did in 1998).
Ultimately, given the physical limitations of the Wii as a console (the “two Gamecubes duct taped together” jokes were… not unwarranted), I think Skyward Sword does a pretty admirable job at creating a detailed, interesting world to explore. It isn’t empty and pointless like most of Twilight Princess’s map, for one thing, and the dungeons are frequently some of the best in the series. It was an interesting choice to divide much of the overworld into sections and develop those sections into mini-dungeons in their own right. Coming off the bland back and forth across the endless empty fields of Twilight Princess, or even Wind Waker’s enormous ocean, the focus on actual gameplay in those sections helped make Skyward Sword engaging in a way previous Zelda games hadn’t been. While this gated progression behind a series of tasks to complete, you felt more like an active participant in the world, and the game took a step towards being more about the journey than the destination, and the developers found lots of unique uses for the Wii’s more unorthodox controller.
In that respect, complaints have also been lobbied at Skyward Sword’s motion controls, but aside from some of the aforementioned awkwardness with the flight sections, I never once had trouble getting the game to do what I wanted. I understand this is really more of a “your mileage might vary” kind of deal, but I really enjoyed the various items and weapons, and the ways the Wii Remote allowed you to control them in new and interesting ways. Programming a full range of motion into the sword controls added a depth to the combat that previous entries in the series had only really begun to aspire to (think Twilight Princess’s Hidden Skills). It wasn’t always completely intuitive, but it was easy enough to learn, and once you knew what you were doing, the sword fighting in particular was a lot of fun.
In a first for the Zelda franchise, I also quite liked the story in Skyward Sword; for a franchise that’s not exactly known for its storytelling, there was a decent emotional weight to it, not to mention some of the most memorable characters Zelda has ever featured (Fi notwithstanding). Groose’s character arc from a cartoonish 80s high school bully (he seriously almost kills Link with a prank gone terribly right), into a staunch friend and ally to Link and Zelda is great fun, for one. Impa’s dual roles as both an ass-kicking royal guardian, and later mentor to Link makes for a fun twist, once the game introduces its timeshifting elements. And prior to the plot being hijacked by proto-Ganon, Ghirahim is a great antagonist; a petty pretty boy convinced of his own monstrous superiority, and prone to furious tantrums as Link and Zelda continue to foil his plans. It helps that most of the designs are imminently memorable, as well. And while there’s definitely something to be said for the Zelda franchise’s ongoing insistence on leaving its namesake character a wholly passive element, the characterization of Link and Zelda’s relationship was really sweet, and really motivated me to fight through to the end (it also has a truly excellent little leitmotif — “Romance”, in case you needed that spelled out for you).
Skyward Sword is not a perfect game by any stretch — I don’t think any game is, really — but its latter day reputation as “the bad one” is wholly undeserved. It occupies a strange place in the canon. It appeared at a strange time in Nintendo’s history, right on the cusp of the Wii’s retirement, and it’s very clearly a transitional game; one that’s not afraid to experiment with the formula. It also exists as a response to criticism of Twilight Princess, that it was too similar to Ocarina of Time, or that its color palette looked drab and washed out. Nintendo directly addressed those criticisms with Skyward Sword, and for all the crap they get for their reliance on the old standbys, Skyward Sword is proof that they aren’t afraid to tinker with the formula every now and again. In time, Twilight Princess came to be remembered as an overlooked classic of the franchise, and I think the same will eventually happen for Skyward Sword. It gets things wrong, but what it gets right far outweighs the issues. And besides, without Skyward Sword (and the subsequent backlash it received), we never would have gotten the masterpiece that is Breath of the Wild. And that would have truly been a tragedy.