How do you start a review of the latest game in the quintessential Nintendo series, The Legend of Zelda?
It's 25 years since the first Zelda game made its debut on the Famicom Disk System back in 1986. How is it that a game series can remain so popular? Based on the adventures of a chap called Link and his love interest Zelda, the formula has largely remained the same:
Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy embarks on an adventure to get girl back.
At its heart, it is a story of love, hope, and good triumphing over evil. Whatever the reason, after 18 games in the series, fans never seem to tire of the formula and look forward to each and every one.
The 25th anniversary release, then, had to be something special, and there is no doubt in our minds it is that - and much more. If Zelda and Link are a love story, then the Zelda franchise and the Nintendo Wii are the burning affair that has added a lot of spice to the relationship.
The Legend of Zelda Skyward Sword is a prequel to the Ocarina of Time, and takes the Zelda story back to the beginning. It is a time when Zelda's people live in the Skyloft, a magical land floating above the clouds. It is a land oblivious to the earth below; nothing can penetrate the cloud layer. Skyloft's people care little for the world outside of their land in the skies until...
It's OK, we're not going to spoil the story for you; but let's just say, it's a good one - but one that does not stray far from the tried and true formula.
The early part of the story, other than setting the scene, is also cleverly crafted to introduce the key elements of the game play. It should be noted at this point that the game requires a motion plus controller. This game leverages every ounce of the Nintendo control system and arguably is amongst the best melding of game and control system on the console so far.
It is the combat system where this is most evident. Link enters into combat by waving the controller to draw his sword. Sweep the controller vertically down, you make a an overhead sword blow. Swish it left or right your sword makes a horizontal slash. Again, make a swipe on the diagonal and your sword will do the same. Thrust the controller forward and you stab with the sword. It is a very responsive and natural control scheme that opens a new dynamic for combat.
These sword blows are not just for show, as your opponents block and weave - exposing only certain parts of their bodies to an attack. This is apparent in early combat, where you fight a plant that is intent on making a meal out of our hero. The plant opens up its mouth either horizontally or vertically; only when it's mouth is open is it vulnerable, and only to the corresponding sword slash.
It becomes more complex the further you get into the game, where a quick eye and a quicker strike is required to take advantage of the briefest of openings as monsters duck, weave, and block.
Not content with just the standard blows, combinations of nunchuck and controller together allow for spinning blows and the master sword stroke, utilising the power of the Skyward Sword itself. You can also use your shield to block incoming blows, by thrusting the nunchuck forward.
It all works brilliantly. You will find yourself standing in front the screen, hacking, slashing, and stabbing your way through the game in one of the most immersive combat experiences available - on any platform. It feels very much like the Wii was made for this game, and not the other way around.
It doesn't stop there, however, as the controller plays an essential part in how you control your mount while flying around in the skies above the cloud layer. Tilt up, and your bird powerfully flaps higher, while pointing down puts you into a speed-gaining power dive. Tilting left and right steers, while one button is used to send you into a short burst of charging speed.
Unlike the sword play, this aspect is not as smooth, and it requires quite positive movements to achieve the desired effect. There is also a noticeable delay between controller movement and on-screen movement. This may be intentional - to simulate the delay in response from your pet bird - but regardless, you will find yourself wanting a set of spurs to give it a bit of a nudge.
There is a comprehensive vendor system where you can spend your rupees to purchase potions, ammo, and shields. Sometimes killing monsters will yield items that, when bought to a vendor with some cash inducement, can result in improvements to your weapons and items.
The inventory system that supports this activity is one of the only real gripes we have with the game. Ambiguous would be the best way to describe it; it is not very intuitive - particularly when it comes to equipping items. Pressing the "1" key on the controller brings up the inventory, however no matter what you do you can not directly equip from this menu. Instead, in normal play mode, you press an hold the "-" key to bring up an "equip" specific menu. Quick reference to the internet will show you how many players have struggled with this.
Moving around in the game is a breeze with an auto jump system. You have ladders to climb, ledges to circumvent, and a nifty charging forward roll to bash into trees and object to relieve them of their rupees. The only quibble is that sometimes the camera angles don't play out how you want them to, but this is compensated for with a look-centering function.
The story is surprisingly deep for a Zelda game. It has twists, turns, and multiple layers. It's interesting and serves as more than just a backdrop for the action, with a whopping 18 chapters to play through. They're not small, either, with one taking a full three hours to complete (admittedly we did dawdle to admire the flowers, and fauna. Then slash and hack them to relieve them of their rupees).
There are save points dotted about each chapter, as well as travel statues that will open up a link back to the Skyloft, so you can store loot with the bank or buy more goodies.
With such big chapters, it's easy to get lost - however this is catered for by the ability to set a target point on the map which, back in normal play, shows up as a large pillar of light in the sky. There is also a detecting system called dousing, where you can be guided to targets through sound effects and an on-screen arrow system.
As you would expect, the music is fantastic. So good, in fact, that the game package includes a separate audio CD filled with fully orchestrated music from the game. More than just a gimmick, it makes for some great listening.
Also remarkable are the visuals. There are limits to the capabilities of the Nintendo Wii, and it will never technically match the other consoles, however in this game Nintendo have certainly been able to eke every ounce of power out of the thing to deliver some delightful and enthralling detail. The water effects are fantastic and the characterisations, although simple, are surprisingly expressive.
Skyward Sword is not only a fitting tribute to the long running series, but also a milestone in the life of the Nintendo Wii itself, as it finally delivers a game that shows the true power of the control system. Besides, it is fun and challenging to play in its own right.
Very highly recommended.