Saturday, November 26, 2011

Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword has issues. I won’t deny that. Anyone that does is a liar. Whether or not it is the best Legend of Zelda is also up for debate. However, there is no denying that it is one of the best and most unique experiences in gaming in the past decade. This is the first game that I have ever played that has fully delivered on the potential of motion control. The only other one that comes close is Metroid Prime 3, and that pales in comparison.

The motion control isn’t perfect. As I mentioned, this game has issues. Occassionally, you’ll get weird decalibrations where when you swing your sword down, it will swing up. It largely has to do with how you are playing the game. Swift jerky movements, aka waggling, will totally decalibrate your controller. Additionally, each movement is a certain amount of frames. So, for example, when you thrust, you activate the thrust animation. If you’re thrusting wildly, faster than that animation can go, then the 1 to 1 sync gets a little off. Oh the game tries to keep up, and makes a valiant effort, but eventually it seems as though your movements aren’t registering.

Basically, every movement should be slow and deliberate. The movement should be from your shoulder, not your wrist. Unfortunately that goes against human instinct. It feels easier to swing from the wrist, and people (gamers especially) tend to favor the easier experience. Moreover, when you miss that thrust, it’s only instinct to thrust again, and thrust faster. You’ll occasionally have opportunities during boss fights which practically invite waggling and after your done, your control will feel screwed up. However, there is a menu option which allows you to recalibrate. The process takes all of 30 seconds.

The enemies are designed around this slow and steady philosophy. You will do better throughout the game if you pay attention to what you’re fighting and fight accordingly instead of just “waggling your way to victory.” Case in point; there are these blobs that are littered through out the game. At first, they don’t seem like much, and you can just flick your wrist a few times to get rid of them. If you cut a large one horizontally, the blob will divide vertically with one “jumping” in to the air and then recombining with its other half as it lands. I had been waggling left and right to just kill those things mid air. I hadn’t noticed that if you cut it vertically, the blob will divide horizontally and not automatically recombine. That way you are able to wittle down a blob to nothing. I had been killing blobs by waggling until I met yellow blobs. Yellow blobs would electrify after a split, so waggling usually led to electrocution. One almost outright killed me because I trying to waggle it to death. Then I slowly and deliberately cut it vertically in to its smallest parts, avoiding electrocution. Suddenly, killing a blob became more than a waggle. It’s like that with almost every enemy in the game. Some enemies will flat out mess you up if you try to waggle.

However, even with that design philosophy in the enemies, the fact of the matter is the motion controls aren’t as reliable as a button press. They simply aren’t. But reliability isn’t what matters. I know that sounds odd, but bear with me. Miyamoto has stated that the reason why the main character is named Link is to suggest a “link” with the player. Here, there actually is a measurable physical link between the player and the main character of the game. You move. Link moves. It’s astounding because movement is psychology. If you move as though you were sad, it’s very likely that you’ll become depressed. That notion is very important to what makes the trade off of reliability for motion control worth it. This game does it so well that you aren’t trading reliability for a gimmick, you’re trading reliability for the opportunity to inhabit the role of link psychologically. This is what games should be doing. This is the power of the medium. The fact that very few reviewers seem to be picking up on this is disconcerting.

It isn’t just the motion controls that make this game feel unique in comparison to Zelda games and games in general. The way the game is set up feels like a massive departure from the 3D Zeldas up to this point. There is an overworld in the sky, but that overworld is largely irrelevant and barren. The majority of the game takes place on the ground. The ground is split in to three sections; desert/time, fire, and forest/water. The entirety of each section is essentially a dungeon, an area that you explore to get upgrades that is full of enemies. In this way, this feels less like Zelda and more like Metroid. And Zelda is better for it.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m very reluctant to suggest that Zelda needs to change all that much. One could argue that the Metroid feel is actually more accurate given the content of original Zelda games. I don’t think it needs the game needs to change. Despite having common elements in each game; hearts, bosses, items, etc each Zelda is an intensely unique experience. The common elements are pretty superficial in comparison to the gestalt of the experience. Right now, even with 25 years of history, and those common elements there is nothing quite like Skyward Sword. Likewise there is nothing like Majora's Mask. There is nothing like Windwaker.

In fact some of these “archaic” features are what make Skyward Sword so great. The boss fights are some of the best ever in a Zelda game. As I was fighting Koloktos I said out loud, “Now this is a !@#$ing boss fight.”

Ultimately, because each Zelda is unique, most Zelda fans wonder where it stands in the "heirarchy" of Zelda games. I’ve been playing Zelda games for a long… long…loooong time. And one thing I’ve gotten used to is people suggesting that each new Zelda is “the best Zelda ever.” The fact of the matter is, there is no such animal. Every single Zelda I’ve played has done many things right, and a few things wrong. For example, I think Twilight Princess' Midna is a far more interesting companion than Skyward Sword's Fi. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that Midna outclassed Navi as well. You see, each Zelda game has a few things that it really nails, and a few things that it misses. Each Zelda is its own thing and nowhere is that more apparent than in fan reaction. I’ve seen people online make their own personal lists, and those lists vary from individual to individual. The only thing that there seems to be a general consensus on is that OOT set up the 3D Zelda as viable. Even with that acknowledgement some say Majora’s Mask is the best. For the longest time I said Link to the Past was the best. To be honest, I didn’t really like any of the 3D Zeldas until Twilight Princess.

All of this being said, I now consider Skyward Sword to be the best Zelda game ever made. The control method connects you to link in a definable and measureable way that goes beyond a mere button press. The story is one of the most coherent, well written, and character focused of the entire series. I’m not ashamed to admit that at one point, I actually started to cry a little bit. You give a damn about these characters. I loved that the relationship between Link and Zelda was established from the very beginning, and felt very strong. Oh, and how could I forget Groose. He has one of the best story arcs in the entire game. He goes from being obnoxious to being so endearing that you genuinely adore the guy. It isn’t just on the character level where the story excels. By the end of the game the mythology of the ENTIRE series is set up, and you’ll go “ooooh… ok.” How it does this may seem good or bad, depending on your tastes, but I loved it. It gives an explanation for something that has been bugging me about this series for years.

I cannot recommend this enough to Zelda fans. I cannot recommend this enough to non-Zelda fans. If you’ve never played a Zelda game, this is the perfect game to pop your cherry on. Unless a developer pulls out a jewel in the next month, this is my game of the year.

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