It would be entirely fair to say to say that Nintendo “made” video games. There was a time not long ago that playing Nintendo was synonymous with playing any type of video game. Suffice to say, they’ve had a storied history centered around just handful of intellectual properties that have been cycling through their consoles every year for the last two and a half decades. The Legend of Zelda is second only to Mario in importance and notoriety, and the latest title, Skyward Sword, really shows where the franchise sits after 25 years and 16 games in the official canon. Skyward Sword marks an important milestone for the series. It’s achieved a new ceiling for the form.
The “legend” of The Legend of Zelda has been fairly uniform throughout its history. There isn’t anything particularly wrong with it staying the same either; reusing a story isn’t the sacrilege that Nintendo’s harsher critics may claim it is. After all, the stories of Troilus and Criseyde and King Arthur have been retold across centuries with each retelling offering something that the original couldn’t. So it has been with the Zelda series, each sequel built on what came before. Skyward Sword, according to the official Zelda timeline, is the prequel to everything and appropriately shows just how backward it’s getting.
Zelda games have always kept a number of consistencies between titles. The hero, the land, the princess, the villain, the tools, temples, MacGuffins, and plots have been loyal to a template since the first game in 1986. But there was an ineffable something tying it all together and creating a series that was constantly evolving yet always feeling comfortably familiar. But Skyward Sword marks the point where the evolution ends and the familiarity stops being comfortable.
For one, the game environment is surprisingly small. There are four locations in the game: the island in the clouds that serves as the hub, a forest, a volcano and a desert. These areas get a small expansion halfway through, but even so, Skyward Sword is probably the smallest in the series. Even Ocarina of Time’s clumsy landscape felt bigger and more expansive than Skyward Sword’s. Unlike in Zelda’s past, the world is too small to give the sense that Hyrule is an entire kingdom with different peoples and locations. The basic Zelda geography has been pasted into the game with little context and the disparate provinces revisited ad nauseam don’t give any feeling of place.
Similarly, the game copies enemies, bosses and puzzles from earlier titles, even from earlier points in the same game. There are many fights and traps that feel more like arbitrary time-wasters than actual content. After the first third of the game, almost every minute can be tied to another minute already played somewhere else. There are a number of high points but the moments of brilliance are drowned out by the banality offered by the rest of the game.
In spite of itself, there is a lot to be enjoyed in Skyward Sword. The music has never sounded better (even most of the songs have been heard a dozen times before) and the colorful, not quite cartoonish aesthetic matches the tone of the game. In fact, Link has never looked so expressive and the secondary characters have never interacted with him in so lively a way. But that just makes his silence feel all the more out of place. More effort went into making the town of Skyloft feel like a community rather than the game’s shopping district and the change comes with mixed results. Even if the townspeople have their own quirks and personalities, Link can never really interact with anyone, so conversations feel flat and unnatural. By now, tradition alone is the only reason for Link’s silent protagonism.
The game—and the series—is at its best when it doesn’t try to repeat what Ocarina of Time was. In the few times that the next step can’t be predicted or the puzzle is unrecognizable, Skyward Sword is a lot of fun, it plays smoothly and the potential for a new direction shines through. But The Legend of Zelda is held back by its heritage though, and regurgitating old tropes is starting to hurt the series. At one time, Zelda was an ineffectual despot that had to be captured, but she doesn’t have to stay that way; at one time, there had to be an obnoxious side character to serve as Link’s mouthpiece, but there doesn’t need to be another one. Most of the Ocarina formula has been perfected long ago, and by now, it’s time for the series to reinvent itself.
Ultimately, when it comes down to whether or not Skyward Sword is worth playing, it depends on one’s familiarity with the series. For those that have never played a Zelda before, it’s as good a starting point as any; but those familiar with the series will probably be frustrated with the repetition. It’s caught halfway between what it was and what it apparently wants to be. Skyward Sword is so reminiscent of earlier games that it almost cheapens the experiences in their original glory and is so hesitant in taking a new direction that it cuts its best qualities short.