The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is a brilliant return to form for the recently lagging franchise, one that recaptures the magic of the series and corrects several glaring mistakes from the decent Twilight Princess.
If the 3D Zelda games since Ocarina of Time have been the evolution of a thesis, each following nearly the same formula but tweaking it and seeking improvement, what has that thesis been? I think we can settle on a pleasant blend of the following: Tricky puzzles, exploring a 3D world, engaging combat, and charming humor. Certainly there are other minor aspects present, but these are the big ones that any 3D Zelda has to aim for.
That said, Skyward Sword is the highest realization of this thesis to date. The puzzles are challenging without ever crossing the line to frustrating. More impressively, the puzzles are designed to make you think differently than you’ve ever had to in a Zelda game. While there are still plenty of switches and triggers, you’ll never once come across a torch puzzle; a momentous achievement for the franchise itself.
Instead of plunging into dungeon after dungeon, Skyward Sword forces you to accomplish various tasks in the over world before you can proceed. While I can understand this getting a mixed reception from long time fans, I think what Nintendo was going for here was a dense and interactive overworld instead of the void and vapid one of Twilight Princess. Never will you come across a field for the sake of having a field. Every inch of the overworld (here represented by three distinct zones) seems finely tuned and expertly crafted, and, at some point, containing a puzzle or obstacle to bar your way. While I was initially skeptical about spending more time outside of dungeons, I was eventually won over by the expert design and overall tightness.
But puzzles and exploration aside, I think the real talking point of this installment is the new motion-controlled combat. The promise of 1:1 swordplay is something that has taken Nintendo over five years to deliver on. Now that it is here, I say bravo. It works great. It is not without its flaws, however. The Motion Plus controls are not 100% perfect, and it will sometimes misread your actions if you get tired and start flicking your wrists instead of using broad, full arm sword swipes. That said, the combat is a blast and serves for a more challenging Zelda overall.
Finally, the last thing Nintendo has gotten right is the lively humor and expressive characters. Twilight Princess has always seemed to me like the Warrior Within of the Zelda franchise. With Wind Waker, we had a colorful, expressive, animated world full of life and humor. Moving on to Twilight Princess, the series lost all of its charm in search of a darker, broodier Hyrule; a search that ultimately didn’t pay off. In the “bargain” we lost the vivid character expressions and the series trademark humor.
I am happy to say that both humor and expression have returned to the painted world of Skyward Sword. The supporting cast is great, the dialogue is full of that snarky Zelda humor, and the facial expressions are back in a big way. If Twilight Princess was an expansion on the original concept of Ocarina of Time (Giving you a horse, a big empty field and only a couple things to collect) then Skyward Sword is an expansion of Wind Waker – It gives you a large overworld chock full of secrets, an impressive travel system, and more things to collect than ever before. Few series are as divisive as Zelda, and this title may hit with some and miss with others. For those of you who thought Twilight Princess was a step in the right direction: I think you will find plenty to like here, though it may be too colorful for you and it doesn’t have any horses. To those pining for the lost days of The Wind Waker, this is your game, and a splendid return to form for the Zelda franchise – one that breaths colorful life back into the series.