Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

When a new Legend of Zelda game hits the market, the question on the minds of critics is usually not whether the game is "good" or "bad."  After fifteen major releases over twenty five years, a certain expectation of quality from Nintendo has set in.  Playing a Zelda game is something of an idealized experience, and new games are typically judged by how closely they approach that particular ideal.  Does it come with the same sense of excitement and wonder as the titles from the series' golden past?  Is it representative of an upward or downward trajectory in the series' recent history?  Is it even possible to compare it to games that aren't Zelda games, or have they become a genre unto themselves?
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
The question that's been most on my mind with regard to The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is simple: is it a better game than Twilight Princess?  The comparison comes naturally, as both are flagship titles for Nintendo's Wii console, and more or less equally representative of what Zelda is in the "modern era."  It's also a lot easier to consider than a comparison to, say, Ocarina of Time, which is separated from today by thirteen years of history and technical improvement.  Nevertheless, the golden ideal of Ocarina is difficult to escape: somehow, every conversation about Zelda comes back to "Zelda 64," and how that game transformed players' expectations for games generally, and this series in particular.

Indeed, Twilight Princess was more or less a transparent attempt at recapturing Ocarina's specific appeal.  The art direction veered toward a dark fantasy-realism; not exactly a match for the style of the 64-bit era, but widely interpreted at the time as a retreat from the cartoon approach of The Wind Waker and the various handheld games that arrived in the interim.  Originally designed for the GameCube console (and belatedly adapted for the Wii), control and game play were strongly rooted in Ocarina's precedents, as were the story structure and the geography of the overworld.  Despite the rather odd decision to flip the entire game map east-west (a quick fix to make Link right handed and increase "realism" for Wii players), this iteration of Hyrule was recognizably based upon the familiar model; its larger and more stylized appearance is representative of Twilight's overall relationship to Ocarina.
The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess
Conversely, Skyward Sword seizes more firmly on the chances for innovation afforded by the Wii, and fits more comfortably in line with Zelda's more experimental installments.  It is about as different from the traditional Ocarina model as it can comfortably get, and the controls don't quite line up with the Wii version of Twilight.  The running, rolling, and spin attack functions in particular seem to have been completely rethought, and it took me a few sessions to fully internalize the new order.  In a subtle nod of recognition that other adventure games do in fact exist, other elements like equipment upgrades and customization have been added as well.

The most noted innovation is the sword control, which now responds to the motion of the Wii remote on a more or less one to one basis.  Not everyone has agreed that this is well implemented, but in my experience the sword controls are at least adequately responsive about 95 per cent of the time, and become easier to control with greater experience and concentration.  The ability to control the sword so precisely is helpful far more often than it is disorienting or dysfunctional.  

Skyward reaffirms the visual developments of Wind Waker and its sequels by resembling them; it doesn't quite have the same Saturday morning cel-shading style, but it features much brighter colors and familiar cartoon explosion and other effects.  Combined with a realistic base provided by Twilight Princess, the end result is a look that seems to reconcile the diverging styles that have been applied to the series.  It isn't a revolutionary look; it's not even as dramatic or spectacular as Twilight Princess.  But it does feel a little more homey, and inclusive of the entire series.
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword
The biggest structural change is also the most daring aspect of Skyward Sword.  Traditionally, the world of Hyrule (or wherever the setting may be) is divided into a two-layered structure: an "underworld" consisting of separate dungeons and labyrinths, filled with monsters to fight and puzzles to solve, and an "overworld" that links them all together with various locations like towns and castles.  In Skyward, there is effectively a three-layered structure.  Dungeons are still embedded in the overworld, but the overworld itself is divided into three discrete parts.  Link cannot travel directly from one to another; instead, he must return to the hub world in the sky.  Obviously inspired by the oceanic overworld of Wind Waker, this hub is populated by a number of floating islands, and navigable by flying on the back of a large red bird.  Mercifully, the distances between islands are not nearly as intimidating as they were in Wind Waker, and the process of treasure hunting among them is not nearly as tedious.

The effect of all this is that the areas we are accustomed to thinking of as "overworld" feel more like dungeons.  The actual dungeons, meanwhile, are more simply structured than before: most labyrinths consist of only a single floor, something that hasn't been true since the first Zelda.  The creative interplay between underworld and overworld elements takes the focus off of the design of any particular level, and they combine into a more interesting whole than they ever have before.

By these measures, Skyward Sword is significantly more original and inventive than Twilight Princess.  Nostalgic fans like myself, however, may feel that a certain something has been lost.  In Twilight, it is possible to ride a horse across nearly the entire land in one unbroken path, marveling at vast plains and mountain vistas in a geography that seems natural and holistic; this was a central part of the appeal of Ocarina of Time.  The three overworld zones of Skyward might as well be different planets, as little as they have to do with one another.  As large as this game is, I often felt that the world had a kind of smallness in common with recent handheld titles, particularly The Minish Cap.  I love those games too, but if we measure Zelda games by their fidelity to the classic experience, Skyward is an anomaly that doesn't fit with familiar classifications.

But of course, a Zelda game remains a Zelda game, regardless of tweaks and alterations.  The puzzles are as inventive as ever; in fact, the "time shift" puzzles in the desert region are among the most creative that the series has ever done.  The story fills in a great deal of detail to the lore of Hyrule, without locking out the possibility of future revisions or elaborations.  The new music, while not rising to the same iconic level of previous soundtracks, sounds lovely in full orchestral arrangements.  The difficulty is extremely well balanced, offering perhaps the best contrast between challenge and enjoyment since Ocarina

Twilight Princess was a fantastic game with plenty to recommend it.  However, Skyward Sword is a much more original experience, with considerably more confidence in its own identity.  Where it changes the formula, it does so boldly, while familiar elements help tie the experience to the familiar games that fans still love.  It's set in the distant past, but it indicates the endless potential of new ideas to energize a solid foundation.  Skyward Sword comes together on just about every level as a latter-day masterpiece of design.

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