When The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword was released, it was on the 25th anniversary of the Zelda franchise. Nintendo put a lot of effort into keeping most of the game’s details a secret up to the day of release. We were given limited teasers in the form of official art and graphics but Nintendo was strangely tight-lipped on just about everything concerning the game. Skyward Sword was released alongside the Hyrule Historia and, to the community’s surprise, the official timeline of the series. Skyward Sword was revealed to be the Genesis of the series, complete with explanations behind the re-occurring characters of Link, Zelda, and Ganon, the symbology of the royal crest, and the origin of the master sword itself. Nintendo listened to the community and gave us a game that represented their gratitude and love towards the fans of the series.
Link, a young and somewhat unambitious trainee at the Skyloft Knight Academy, is troubled by a nightmare in which a shadowy beast rises and looms over him. From the sky, a gentle voice calls out to him. His troubled sleep is disturbed when his childhood companion, Zelda, sends for him. It’s graduation day for Link’s class and the ceremony will be concluded with a competition. Link is urged by Zelda to practice but his lofting (a doggy-tailed giant bird mount) has gone missing. Link quickly finds out that his crimson companion was locked away by a handful of bullies from his class in an attempt to better their odds in the upcoming competition. Link manages to liberate his mount in time and proves himself to be the best rider in the class. He is presented with the sailcloth, a relic reproduced specifically for the ceremony to commemorate the champion, and takes part in a sacred ceremony in which he poses as the chosen hero and Zelda as the Goddess Hylia. Skyward Sword sets itself up very well in its first hour or so o in that for the first time in the series, the player is given the chance to actually care about Zelda as a person. She’s Link’s childhood friend, she has a lot of depth to her personality, and for once she’s more than a plot point. Link is also given a lot of life in this title and while he remains the silent hero, his expressions and movements are genuine and speak volumes. The friendship between Link and Zelda is enough to get the player invested. Link is a goof and a slack off but he has a lot of heart. Zelda is the daughter of the headmaster and a bit spoiled, but she’s assertive and compassionate.
This dynamic makes it all the more devastating when poor Zelda is thrown off her Loftwing and tossed down to the world beneath the clouds. Link tries desperately to save her but is unable to do so. The night after Zelda is lost, he hears the same mysterious voice from his dream and follows it to the shrine of the Goddess where he takes up the sacred blade entrusted to the people of Skyloft. The spirit of the sword, Fi, then becomes Link’s guide and companion as he ventures beyond Skyloft and down to the surface below. What began as a quest to save his childhood friend soon became a trial of his own spirit.
Link discovers that an ancient evil is beginning to break free from its seal and will once again rise to consume the world in shadow. Zelda and Link both have a role to play in stopping this evil from re-emerging, though sadly, their roles are kept separate for the majority of the game. Link must temper his spirit and awaken his blade before he is ready to face the darkness and Zelda must purify herself for her own role. Skyward Sword reveals the origin story behind the re-occurring trinity of the bearers of the Triforce of Courage, Wisdom, and Power, and sets the stage for centuries of Zelda history. It’s fresh enough to stand on its own but nostalgic enough to appeal to veterans of the series.
The Legend of Zelda‘s religion is fluid from game to game. Most games refer to gods or goddesses, some with names others without. In Skyward Sword, the beginning of the Hylian culture, their belief is centered around a single goddess—Hylia. Other gods are mentioned but they are never named or depicted. Three elemental dragons could easily be the gods that the legends and stories within Skyward Sword refer to but this is never clarified. Hylia, along with the three dragons, are very vulnerable and seem to require the protection and cooperation of the mortals in order to sustain themselves. In the short manga within the Hyrule Historia, it mentions that Hylia, even before giving up her divinity, required a hero to defend her. The dragons that Link encounters are powerful, but are each in a tight spot when the hero encounters them. Any gods within Skyward Sword are clearly far from a reflection of the Lord almighty.
Despite the belief system, The Legend of Zelda franchise has always maintained very strong Christian values and messages. The Triforce represents the trinity of wisdom, courage, and power—three of the most re-occurring spiritual gifts granted to the faithful within the Bible. Link bears the Triforce of courage through the course of the series and Skyward Sword is no exception. Courage is not something that Link automatically finds himself representing, however. The game opens with him being somewhat of a slacker, sleeping in and constantly being reprimanded for not taking his duties seriously. As with our personal walk, courage isn’t given but rather it’s revealed through hardship. Link only finds his courage when Zelda is swept away. Courage is something that he discovers within himself. God rarely gives us a virtue when we ask for it, rather the opportunity to discover the virtue is presented. In Skyward Sword, Link has to temper his spirit through trials before he is given the Triforce of courage. I find this to be a very powerful reflection of God’s nature within the game.
Of course, the game has demonic characters within it, but they are clearly evil. There is an exception in a minor side-quest but it’s no worse than a friendly boogy man.
Skyward Sword is hardly a graphic game in terms of violence. You do kill foes with a sword and there are bosses where limbs are severed, but this is extremely animated and stylized. Enemies that are killed vanish into puffs of clouds. The bosses are beastly and their limbs either fall off screen or they vanish in the same way that fallen enemies do. There’s no blood, no gore, and nothing is ever overly graphic. In short, there’s more gruesome content in any given Loony Toons episode than Skyward Sword.
Nintendo has always been very good as a company to ensure that their games are (mostly) family friendly. There’s no swearing or overly colorful language in the game. “D—n” is the worst that’s ever said. The extent of crude humor is a ghostly hand rising out of a toilet during a side-quest on Skyloft. Let’s…just not think about how the ghost ended up down there.
There is implied Alcohol here and there but it’s so vague that it’s easily missed. Drugs are never even mentioned.
Skyward Sword is perhaps the most powerful of the series when addressing the struggle between good and evil. Link has been fleshed out to be more than the “insert yourself here” character. He expresses emotions, he shows motivation, he has connections to the characters and the community around him. Skyward Sword is the first game where I felt that Link had grown as a person, and not just into an adult. He started off lazy and unmotivated, content with his lot in life, and he was sadly a doormat for the local bullies. As the story progresses, Link is forced to take charge of the chaos around him and to become a better person than he was. He not only stepped up to responsibility, but he faced his own personal demons.
Skyward Sword also illustrates several levels of love. Romance, of course, is something that slowly develops into a powerful driving force but the game does not limit itself to just that. As Link grows as a person he learns to befriend and love those who he once called enemies. He shows unwavering trust in his loftwing and shares a deep, loving relationship with his bird. He has the heart of a servant and illustrates a Christ-like desire to serve those around him through works. These tasks can be very small, like cleaning someone’s home, to dispelling a curse. In the end, Link’s willingness to put himself last and to reach out to those around him strengthens his entire community and in turn, his community then reaches out to assist Link in what small ways they can.
Nintendo kept a lot of the mechanics from previous entries, such as Twilight Princess and Ocarina of Time, while expanding on the gameplay in the form of the WiiMotion Plus. The targeting system from OOT makes a return to allow the player to target an opponent and engage in combat without having to also manipulate the camera angle in order to keep a foe in their scope. Twilight Princess was the first Zelda to use the Wiimote, but Skyward Sword perfected it. Enemies present unique challenges in how they defend themselves or attack and the player has mere seconds to react accordingly. If an enemy holds its blade horizontally, for example, the WiiMote must be swung horizontally to strike the opponent. A vertical swing would clash with the enemy and the enemy would go unscathed while Link is left recovering from recoil, giving the enemy an opening to strike. The nunchuck is responsible for Link’s shield and comes into play as combat grows more and more difficult. The shield can be used to deflect attacks and to knock an opponent back when they strike it. The player must learn to time their responses and reactions just right in order to gain the upper-hand. While the combat was not without its flaws, mostly due to syncing problems with the Wiimote, it added fair difficulty to the game and forced the player to think on their toes rather than mash the “A” button to take down an opponent.
Old weapons make a return and function much the way they did in previous installments. Several new weapons, such as the beetle, introduce new mechanics and uses. The beetle is launched off of Link’s wrist and controlled by tilting the WiiMote in the direction that it is to fly. It allows the player to scout the area, to grab items that are out of reach such as rupees, and to hit triggers that are outside of Link’s reach. Several new items are introduced to utilize the WiiMote and while there is a learning curve, they allow the player new and unique ways to solve puzzles. Most can be upgraded to strengthen them or extend the time in which they can be used but doing so requires a lot of treasure hunting and frequent trips back to Skyloft.
Exploration is sadly limited. In the sky, Link is transported by his faithful loftwing who is controlled much the same way as the beetle item. The WiiMote is used instead of the nunchuck’s analog stick and, again, this takes a bit of getting used to. The bird can fly higher, lower, it can hover, dive, and even power forward in an aggressive charge. Sadly, there isn’t a lot of combat on the loftwing and there aren’t many locations in which to travel while flying through the sky. Exploration on the surface isn’t much better. Your world is limited to a few zones with impassible boundaries and no way to traverse from one location to the next without returning to the surface, flying to their portal, and diving from the loftwing. Unfortunately, if you wish to upgrade all your equipment you have to travel back to every location several times to acquire their unique materials. Sometimes this can seem more of a chore than anything and because the areas are so limited, it gets old quickly.
The bosses in Skyward Sword are diverse and engaging. Most require a good deal of strategy but the method of “stun, hit, repeat” is still very present. That said, I found the boss battles to be a lot of fun and forced me to really focus and time my attacks more than most bosses in previous Zelda games. The final boss was as physically demanding as it was mentally and it took me several days to beat it. Many of the other bosses required several tries to figure out how to time my strikes. The battle arenas often pose their own additional challenges so you are not able to focus entirely on fighting the boss. In one case you have to fight on a ship while the monster is ripping the deck apart. You have to drive it back, avoid rolling debris, and prepare your bow for when the boss’s weak point emerged. You always use the weapon from the dungeon in which the boss resides, but in some cases it takes a few tries to figure out just how you’re supposed to go about it.
Another mechanic that is introduced to Skyward Sword is the stamina bar. Link can grow tired if his stamina depletes and he becomes sluggish and vulnerable. Everything from attacking to retreating costs stamina so the player has to be mindful of how they react to any given situation. You can’t make a mad dash across a pit of sinking sand without taking short breaks for Link to catch his breath or he’ll weaken and you’ll have to try again. You cannot continuously slash at an opponent until you kill them; you have to time your strikes so that you don’t waste your energy. Even defending takes stamina so a lot of the cheaper methods of combat have been removed, forcing the player to think about tactics in nearly every situation. It adds tension and some stress but it keeps the player actively engaged.
Overall, the mechanics that worked well in OOT and TP are brought back and improved upon in Skyward Sword. Mechanics that fell short were scrapped or re-worked. The exploration definitely takes a hit and if there can be any complaint about the gameplay, it’s that it’s easy to feel boxed in. Skyward Sword looks to be a game that would be more open with twice the amount of exploration available between sky and land but I feel it is more limited than even some of the handheld Zelda games. The combat is fun and fairly challenging, the new weapons are a lot of fun to learn and use, and while the upgrading side quests are an absolute chore, they do pay off.
When Windwaker was released, fans had one major complaint: the graphics. The gritty, realistic direction that Ocarina of Time was taking the series toward was replaced with colorful and cute. When Twilight Princess was released, fans were a little more satisfied but the attempt to make the game look dark and gritty made it look too dark and gritty. Skyward Sword‘s style is a perfected fusion of the two games’ styles. Twilight Princess‘ more realistic character models and backgrounds were given a bright, colorful appearance. The overall style of Skyward Sword is inspired by oil paintings and in the game there is a genuine painterly look to the world. Visually, the game is beautiful. The characters are expressive and interesting to look at, the backgrounds are given just enough detail, and the enemies are a safe middle-ground between too silly and too scary.
The soundtrack to Skyward Sword is absolutely beautiful. The songs are orchestrated and the quality of sound is amazing. The composition of the songs helps to give voices to the otherwise silent cast. Sad moments are all the more devastating, romantic scenes are all the more touching, and powerful scenes are given a dynamic dimension. The sound effects are polished up; even the classic sounds such as those that play when a rupee is found or a treasure box is opened sounds better. Overall, Skyward Sword is a work of art. Nintendo out-did themselves in bringing the land of Hyrule to life.
Nintendo wanted to show their genuine appreciation for all the love and support for The Legend of Zelda over the years through Skyward Sword. Their attention to detail from the orchestrated soundtrack, the artistic visuals, and the heartfelt story line all come together in the perfect tribute to the franchise and the perfect thank you to their fans. Skyward Sword’s story is the legend that all other games in the Zelda Timeline find their foundation in and sets the tone for the descendants of the bearers of the triforce. Many questions that had plagued the franchise for decades are answered while new mysteries are provided to keep the discussion and debate alive. The game gives Link a personality beyond whatever fans might have impressed upon him and allows players to really care about the dynamic between characters. For what flaws it has, Skyward Sword is nothing short of a masterpiece.
The Bottom Line
Skyward Sword is Nintendo's love letter to the Zelda fanbase, bundled nicely with the Hyrule Historia and the Official Zelda Timeline. The game has so much heart wrapped into every aspect that it's hard not to fall in love with it. The character's relationships and interacts feel genuine and heartfelt, the story is well-thought out and provides a solid foundation for the lore of the games, and the gameplay is both familiar and fresh at the same time. Fans of exploration may find its linerarity disappointing, but the game's lore and history will not be disappoint. i