Five years ago, Nintendo launched the Wii, and with it came The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess.
Well, kinda. Twilight Princess was “on” the Wii but not really “for” it, a bastardized semi-upgrade of the Gamecube version of the same game. The world map was flipped and a few new control gimmicks were introduced, but even then, the Wii version was basically the game’s Gamecube sibling, only wagglier.
Ever since then, Nintendo fans have clamored for something more. The idea of a sword-wielding hero vanquishing the forces of darkness in which players have actual control over the sword in question never lost its allure, even after five years of developers just not getting the hint. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is Nintendo’s answer to its fans’ long-ignored prayers, but, like so many prayers, the response from on high is insufficient.
Skyward Sword is exactly the game that should have accompanied the Wii’s launch in 2006. Before you rush off to buy it, though, let me help you understand where the emphasis goes: Skyward Sword is exactly the game that should have accompanied the Wii’s launch—in 2006.
It’s pretty much the best that the Wii can do, and as such it highlights all the console’s strong points. But in an era in which the Wii is just so underpowered and its merits are just so marginal, Skyward Sword does much more to highlight the Wii’s shortcomings.
Much of this is hardware-based. On its own, the game is definitely among the most lush, lively offerings of the Legend of Zelda series, and equally a standout among Wii titles. It’s big, it’s bright, it’s ornate, and it delves deeper into (and higher above) Hyrule than any previous game.
But as a modern game, it is dated, clunky, and lifeless. In a vacuum, it does more and goes further than its Wii contemporaries, but when compared to the vast worldscapes of Skyrim or the sheer amount of moving virtualized biomass in Assassin’s Creed, Skyward Sword just feels old.
Old, and rehashed, too. Skyward Sword’s plot—a little ditty about the children of a post-cataclysmic floating haven descending to the world below and setting into motion the events of the N64’s Ocarina of Time—expands somewhat on the storytelling methods of earlier Zelda games but doesn’t really do anything more than they did. It hits all the notes of a classic Zelda, but only those notes, and then only at their appointed times.
Again, this would have been great for a launch title. Start out on the right foot, remind players why they keep coming back, get them optimistic about what the console can do, sure. These are all reasonable goals when you’re carving out a foothold for your new machine. But going back to basics during the Wii’s sunset years—or worse yet, only covering those basics now—indicates a critical weakness in Nintendo’s strategy. This is when Nintendo should be experimenting with new ideas, not falling back into a defensive position and hoping against hope that the Wii can finish strong.
And even the motion controls, which Nintendo should be hitting out of the park by now, are only “right” by comparison. They’re better than those on much of the console’s library, but only marginally, and only to a level that should have been reached years ago. Nintendo (and Sony, and Microsoft) have yet to put out a product that shows that motion controls are a viable alternative to traditional methods, let alone a replacement for them. Skyward Sword might be the Wii’s last great argument for motion controls, and if it is, it fails.
This is the launch title that the Wii never got. It shows both what the system can do and where its weak points lie, a critical roadmap early in a console’s life. But it smacks of hubris coming from a first party this late in a console’s life cycle. Skyward Sword proves that, even now, Nintendo doesn’t quite understand what to do with the Wii. With a new console on the horizon and a new handheld that is only now finding its place in the market, Nintendo needs to better show that it knows how to exploit its major franchises.