Skyward Sword got me thrown out of the art gallery


The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (2011)

It’s crazy how the littlest things in life can be the ones that get on top of you the most. As I write, I already know that there’s a plucky wee spider spinning a devil of a web in an unreachable part of my room. My back hair growth shows no signs of letting up despite all the formula I’ve been throwing on it. The peasant-wagon fares are going up again. And it’s gotten to the stage where I don’t think I own a pair of shoes anymore that don’t have at least 2 holes in them, and a crack in the soles for good measure.

With some of these, you can always make the crucial distinction between minor, inconsequential annoyance and potentially life-ruining irritant. Unfortunately, my opinion of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, and how my own views severely contrasted with those of seemingly everybody else, fell into the latter category.

It was one of those ones that just nags at you, day and night. Nags and nags and nags. I was actually losing sleep over the fact that I seemed to be an ignorant leper when it came to this latest console iteration of Zelda. All of the mainstream outlets had been bought off, of course, I was sure of that. Giving perfect scores left, right and centre when such a score can never exist. Special mention to Famitsu who threw a perfect 40/40 at this, just another of the once-prestigious 40/40s that they throw about like confetti these days. But another special mention to brave Gamespot, who stood firmly in the face of the inbound truck convoys full of Japanese Yen, raised a defiant hand and bellowed “Iie!

I felt like I was the only one not let into the exclusive club. There was something to get about Skyward Sword and I plainly was not getting it. I must have been wrong to pick on the ten-minute-job overworld; the complete lack of explorable areas and the disconnect between them; the horrible linearity; the hateful controls that actively want you to suffer; the non-starter of a story; the relative lack of dungeons; the sheer amount of padding, repetition and backtracking; the socially deranged robosword helper that constantly pesters you; the low quantity of enemy and boss types and their fairly poor designs…

Yeah, I was easily able to reel off a veritable mountain of this game’s problems on command, and with a mind as scatterbrained as mine that’s no joke. But still I felt very worried that I was missing that one piece of the puzzle. You know, the one little intangible element that would somehow make all of these aforementioned problems go away and give me the sudden realisation that, hang on, this game is actually great. It was a game of Tetris and I had glaring gaps all over the map, but all I needed was a crafty double or triple and I’d be right back in business.

I always want to try to complete a game or at least play it extensively before I adopt the wolfish position and wait for the game to be thrown to my bloodsoaked fangs. Yes, it’s true and you’ll not believe it, but I really can take off my Nazi gear at times and be a fair, non-bigoted judge. So you should know that I’d previously played about 75% of Skyward Sword before the clag all got too much for me.

But that certainly wouldn’t do. It’s a Zelda game, and it garnered the all-important critical acclaim, whether by hook or by crook. Even the fans lapped it up, and Zelda fans in my experience hate just about everything. I’d written Skyward Sword off as an unutterably awful experience for almost its entirety, but what harm would another attempted playthrough be? Thus my task, highly unenviable I think you’ll agree, was to restart and finish Skyward Sword, 3 years on.

Now, I have to start off by stating something that could possibly render the entirety of our little adventure useless as an attempt at giving an impartial view, but here goes: I was very, very unsure about the look of Skyward Sword from the moment I saw footage of it at E3 2010. It looked like it would be doing its own thing, taking all kinds of strange risks. I’ve talked about it before, but I fear change. I can’t help it.

The game’s console predecessor, Twilight Princess (actually, Link’s Crossbow Training was the true predecessor – remember that one?) was frequently pilloried and mocked for being a formulaic Ocarina of Time wannabe.  Talk about grossly unfair – erm, so it took an awful lot of cues from an absolute barnstormer of a game, and pulled them off properly? What’s wrong with that? Were we only supposed to clap a game where Salvador Dali designed the graphics and Tingle came to the rescue in the decisive final battle?

Anyway, the fans complained about Twilight Princess, probably the same ones who swear blind that Majora’s Mask, The Wind Waker or even Adventure of Link are the best of the Zeldas. These are the fans who enjoy the unexpected, a touch of quirkiness. And that’s absolutely fine, because I’m much the same, underneath all the dogma.

But the Legend of Zelda boasts two of the greatest games of all time in its series (indeed, A Link to the Past is probably the best a man can get) and a few others right up there in the higher echelons. We don’t want Zelda going stale on us, if the old girl hasn’t done so already, but it’s difficult to grow tired of clever dungeon design mixed with a sprawling overworld that’s packed with secrets. Throw in wonderful music (a foundation of old motifs with new tunes sprinkled on top), increasingly more impressive graphics and a compelling story for those looking for one and you have a winner.

Immediately, Skyward Sword eschewed realistic graphics in favour of an impressionist, colourful style. Now that’s a change that can divide fans, particularly when Twilight Princess had gone for a more realistic style. Even I can’t deny it: Twilight Princess’s graphics are already ageing pretty badly. But I do prefer the realistic look. Still, it wouldn’t be much fair for me to attack the game’s graphics for not trying to look photorealistic.

After all, what do I know about art? I once gave a well-rehearsed, overloud derisive snort at what looked like a dismal caricature in London’s Tate Modern Gallery – shapes and blobs and heads all over the place, it looked like it had gone all wrong for the poor painter, but he’d managed to get it on display thanks to being the curator’s “troubled” nephew. I was hurriedly informed that the painting in question was a Pablo Picasso, that it was in fact his famous ‘Nude, Green Leaves and Bust’, that it originally sold for over seventy million pounds and could I please leave the gallery quickly and quietly and not cause any trouble or consternation to the other viewers.

As Clive the well-spoken security man politely dragged me out, I still tried to shoot a look of derision at all around me. But the other viewers all closed ranks and struck me with hoity-toity looks of their own, and I had to admit defeat – I’m just not highfalutin enough. So I’m hardly well placed to critique Skyward Sword’s graphics. If anything, the game is perfectly within its rights to protest that I actually refrain from doing so. But even despite the Wii’s limitations, they haven’t looked like ageing much yet, which is positive.

But let’s get right into it: the first and foremost thing that holds this game back like a rugby tackle from a Maori behemoth is its control scheme. Predictably, with Nintendo peddling their wearisome “motion control” to us as much as they could during the Wii’s run, they simply could not let the console’s swansong escape without being tainted – doubly so with it being a Zelda title.

You might remember the Wii MotionPlus that Nintendo came out with? That little box of wonders that would make our Wii Remotes do what we thought they could back in 2006? The one that saw use in Wii Sports Resort and… Red Steel 2, maybe? You’ll need one just to control Link this time. “Realistic 1-to-1 sword control” they claimed!

Of course, even this was a lie, with Link only able to swing his sword in 16 compass directions. To be fair, 1-to-1 sword control would probably lead to players making Link commit harry-karry all the time, either accidentally or deliberately, and I reckon the ESRB or PEGI or whichever group of soccer-moms applies to your area would take rather a dim view of that. Either way, you’ll probably get Link to swing his sword in the direction you requested about 70% of the time – simply not good enough.

You surely have a fair idea of the typical Zelda flow, so I’ll be brief with the details. A couple of new items, including the nifty Beetle. 6 dungeons plus a final one, which is a bit lower-end for the series. But worse than that, the overworld is just about non-existent: The Sky is even more sparse than Wind Waker’s Great Sea, and below the clouds there are only three themed areas. These areas aren’t exactly small, but Christ do they get repetitive.

The development team made so many missteps and errors that it’s almost boggling. Treasure and bug descriptions every time. Fi telling you your batteries are low with glacial speed text, wasting them even more. Waggle to get your bird’s arse in gear. They even took the very worst element of the otherwise excellent Twilight Princess, the tear collecting, and thought it’d be a good idea to combine this concept with a timed stealth section. That’s the sort of development lunacy we’re talking about here. And you’ll do that four times as well, flawlessly, if you want to get to the end.

This is in addition to all of the padding, such as fighting one particular boss three times, as well as gimmicks that are used again and again. Yes, those Timeshift Stone sections, where you simultaneously combine elements of the past and present, were really interesting – the first couple of times round. By the time you get to the end of the game, it’s been rammed down your throat, you’re desperately gagging on it and Eiji Aonuma himself stamps it further down for good measure. The result isn’t pretty.

I had been looking forward to the very last leg of the game, because I’d heard that things really looked up then. Like a mouthbreathing moviegoer, I was waiting for the Hollywood ending. Naive until the end. Obviously they messed that up too, with a decent sequence to take down the camp villain Ghirahim ruined by a terribly wonky final battle that misses by miles the (sigh) epic feel it’s going for. But at least the credits finally rolled and I was able to consign that infuriating Fi creature to an infinite sleep.

But on a positive note, I listened out to the music a lot more this time round. And to be fair, it wasn’t the wallflowery, ambient waste of an orchestra that I’d previously decried it as. In fact, some of its tunes easily rank among the best in the series. All the same, it’s not in the top 3 of Zelda soundtracks – probably not the top 5 either. But that’s OK, there’s some stiff competition to deal with. How they ever thought the Eldin Volcano would be palatable to anyone’s lugholes is beyond me, but at least the Ancient Cistern and the Miniboss theme make up for it.

Really, Skyward Sword is definitely not as bad as I’d previously convinced myself. But it definitely doesn’t break into the Top 5 of Zelda games, and you have to remember that the series hasn’t got THAT many incredible games despite its big name. And I’ll never not believe that most of the mainstream media outlet 9/10 and even 10/10 reviews were bought or at least coerced.

I enjoyed my second run through the game a little bit more, in spite of the slow text-speed, the padding, the backtracking and even the controls. But please, Nintendo, don’t ever try to do anything like this ever again.

09 November 2014

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