Retrying Skyward Sword

I thought about what game I might get into after Breath of the Wild (for better or for worse, Arena still sits on the back burner). I didn’t have much of a positive experience with most other Zelda games, but my wife’s own fandom meant that there were several of those older titles stacked up, and I found that I really did want to give another Zelda game a shot. While most of the game mechanics I really loved in Breath of the Wild benefited from other open world games, I must admit to a fondness for the characters–and the character of the world itself.

So I’ve started playing Skyward Sword. It’s interesting to walk back a generation in the main console releases.

The game’s already a little over-fascinated with legacy. In its first section, there’s a cheesy reference to the knight academy existing for 25 years, and this comes after an explicit acknowledgment of the Zelda 25-year anniversary in the opening cinematic (and, for that matter, on the game’s packaging). I think where I most like the sense of legacy is in the use of certain recurrent imagery and characters (which, of course, I’m most familiar with from a later game).

I am enjoying the quirky characters and fantasy flavor of the game. There’s also a more pronounced story in this game, but maybe not better. The first chapter of the game, at the sky knight academy, left me thinking about how the story could be better. One of the first scenes between Zelda and Link, meant to showcase their close and old friendship, involves Zelda’s father lecturing the two about events, he admits, they are intimately aware of, like the importance of the bird mounts and Link’s first interaction with his bird (which Zelda witnessed). I think it would have been much better to open the game with Link as a child first encountering the bird, giving us some time to get familiar with the controls and showing rather than telling Link’s bond to his bird (and to Zelda). In contrast, I mostly like the characterization of the major and minor personalities in the game–especially Fledge and Groose and Pipit and Zelda, who have sort of stereotypical high-schooler roles but are nonetheless written fairly well. It’s especially cool to see a spunky, tough Zelda who helps Link and even saves him once early on (though it’s not so cool that she only had to save him because she pushed him off a ledge to near-death on a whim). It’s too bad she’s quickly lost and Link must go off to save her. I sort of like the sword assistant that Link meets–it’s a cool fantasy take on an AI–but bondage of a female character to serve Link is a little uncomfortable. I also want to give a special shout-out to Groose, whose infatuation with Zelda, thuggish bullying attitude, and posse of weaker hangers-on remind me of Gaston from Beauty and the Beast, but with an amazing pompadour.

I actually did try to play this game once before, shortly after I purchased it (near its original release) for my wife. We both quickly gave up on it, largely due to its frustrating motion controls. Those motion controls remain rather frustrating. Swordplay can be fun, and certain gestures, like the act of pulling Link’s sword from where it was sealed in stone, or every time you have to raise said sword skyward to power up an attack, are immersive and feel heroic (even if I probably look like an idiot). But the controls more often feel imprecise; sometimes, what I do with the controller will result in an action that is almost exactly opposite of what is intended, or will do nothing at all. A not-insignificant gameplay feature is the use of a bird mount, and this flying mechanic takes quite a bit of getting used to; it is especially prone to apparent unresponsiveness.

I’m also disinterested in the art style, which I find to be a bit bland and dated despite only premiering in 2011 (which is seven years ago now, wow!). I do like the soft colors and washed-out look, and I think trying to draw influence from impressionism is an interesting idea, but the end result seems clunky and inexact. It just doesn’t leave the strong impression of Breath of the Wild or Wind Waker.

Compared to Breath of the Wild, this game is frustratingly railroaded, something that’s burned me out on most other Zelda titles. Even where I might be more willing to forgive its environmental walls, I have the climbing/jumping/swimming/gliding openness of the newest title to compare Skyward Sword to. Even so, I made it to the first temple on the surface world, so while I’m still very early in the game, I’m almost as far along as I was the last time I quit, and I’m not burned out yet. We’ll see how far I get. The more Zelda the game is, the less I like it, perhaps, and Skyward Sword delights in the Zelda legacy. Still, I’m interested enough in the characters, quirkiness, and lore to keep playing at least for a while.

*Image at the top is from The Legend of Zelda: Art & Artifacts, Dark Horse Books 2016.*

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