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The Legend of Zelda: The Skyward Sword

15:3120/12/2011Posted by Zoheir BeigOne Comment

Skyward Sword, apparently the biggest undertaking in Nintendo’s illustrious history, was first unveiled in E3 2009 with one piece of tantalising concept art: that of Link viewed from behind, looking over his shoulder, a ghostly apparition standing mournfully in the foreground. The softly textured, painterly quality of the artwork eventually carried over into the completed game’s aesthetic, giving Skyward Sword as distinctive a look as the console-based Zelda games that came immediately before, Twilight Princess and The Wind Waker. The former is perhaps the most important reference when discussing what elevates Skyward Sword into one of the year’s finest gaming experiences. In 2006, Twilight Princess was adapted for the Wii’s launch, after several years of Gamecube-based development.

The motion controls for the Wii version were sufficient, but were lacking in the nuance it was hoped that the Wii remote would usher in, while the game’s design rested a little too much on the familiar Zelda structure. There were many calls for the franchise to get a shake-up, one that was heeded by producer Eiji Aonuma when, prior to E3 2010 he told journalists: “It is something we used to talk about with Mr. Miyamoto, and he and I agree that if we are following the same structure again and again, we might not be able to give longtime Zelda fans a fresh surprise. So we have been trying something new in terms of the structure of the Wii version of the new Zelda game this time. I am really hopeful that people will be surprised with the changes we have implemented for this Wii version.” Aonuma’s gamble has paid off spectacularly, as Skyward Sword feels like such a fresh and revitalized experience that it’s hard to believe that this is a series celebrating its 25th Anniversary this year.

Such is the quality, breadth and depth of The Legend of Zelda: The Skyward Sword, a different review-approach seemed like an excellent idea, so rather than dissect the game is the usual way, I’d like to give you flavour of my experiences. To mark the release of Skyward Sword I documented my first 24-hours with the game in a liveblog over at Moon Witch Cartridge, my gaming blog. Starting at 7:00am on launch day (November 18th), the intention was to play for a full 24-hours, finishing up at 7:00am the following day. While it’s something I would never recommend to anyone – I spent the subsequent days in a dazed stupor somewhat akin to a really bad hangover – it was a memorable way of experiencing this supposed ‘new’ Zelda format. The great irony is that the radical changes in Skyward Sword only unveil themselves a bit later in the game – the first third at least is an acknowledgment of classic Zelda’s of the past, albeit an emphasis on convention livened by the excellent MotionPlus-enhanced controls.

The second irony is that it’s taken what looks likely to be the last significant Nintendo-published Wii game to really show how motion controls could be used to create a richer, more involving game. The subtlety of the mapping, the ability to change your style of swordplay with such natural movement, is the single biggest change to the Zelda gameplay; it’s a transformative addition that makes what was already a beautiful, impossibly refined game a generation-defining one. Here follows the highlights of my 24-hour marathon. Entering a new Zelda universe is one of the great gaming traditions, and hopefully these excerpts carry across the wonder and period of adaptation that such a foray brings. There may of course be spoilers.

07:00am - About to turn the Wii on…

07:11am – Exciting huh? I’m staring at the disc start screen, listening to the swishing sounds of the sky.

07:22am – “A legend that will be forged by your own hands” is the last line of the dramatic pre-title intro. The characters are depicted by nightmarish ink stains that appear to soak into the screen. It sets up the game superbly.

07:43am – So I’ve just spent the last fifteen minutes exploring the Knight Academy, where the game begins. A few ceremonial Zelda moments have already been ticked off: found a blue rupee in Link’s wardrobe, and rolled into some vases and promptly smashed them. I also helped Fledge, a fellow classmate, carry a barrel into the nearby kitchen. The old lady was very grateful, until I started to pick up and smash her china, at which point she called me “a little brat”. I suppose it was a bit unnecessary. The controls so far are excellent. Z centres the camera behind Link instantly, while pressing 2 at anytime will show you the various interactions available to Link at that particular time.

07:54am – Still exploring the Knight Academy. Found Zelda’s bedroom on the floor above Link’s, but unfortunately it’s locked. Still, that’s a delightful twist on the traditional series convention.

08:52am - First meeting between Link and Zelda. I’m not the best reader of body language, but I think they fancy each other. Link is about to enter the Wing Ceremony, but his Loftwing bird has gone missing. In a dramatic moment Zelda throws Link from the edge of Skyloft, only to dive down and rescue him when it’s clear that Link’s rare Crimson Loftwing won’t be coming to save him. Now Link has to try and get the race delayed so he can find his missing bird, win the race and get the girl. Or something.

09:56am – First treasure chest and that sound effect! And inside is a practice sword. Time for some sparring…

10:25am – Zelda has just mentioned that she wonders what is below the clouds of Skyloft, and how she is convinced that there is a world even bigger than the one they live in at the moment. She may well be right. Apparently the Loftwings won’t travel under the clouds though. Oh and we’ve rescued Link’s Crimson Loftwing after venturing into a dank cave. The sword controls are great, but I’m looking forward to putting them to use against a combative enemy. But they’re intuitive and responsive; thanks to MotionPlus there’s a grace to movement that was perhaps lacking in Twilight Princess.

11:05am - Shit just got real.

12:33pm – I was just about to come on here to complain about the cluttered interface when out pops Fi again to tell me that, now I’ve got used to the controls, I can clear some of the unnecessary information on-screen. There are three stages of interface design: Pro, Light and Standard. You start the game with the silhouette of the remote and nunchuk at either corners of the screen (Standard), but thankfully I’m now playing on Pro, with just the classic hearts and rupee counter in the top left. I am clearly a pro.

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