The Legend Of Zelda: Skyward Sword has only been in release just over a month, but I feel that it very well may be one of my top three Zelda games now, if not top two. Only the black sheep Majora's Mask puts up any real competition for a spot in my daydreaming queue anymore.
It's not too often that you see a franchise deliberately take a step back on graphics in favor of gameplay. In fact, I don't know if it's ever been done. Some might say that Wind Waker did it, but that was really more of a change in art style. The sharpness of the Gamecube graphics as well as the smoother frame rate were distinct improvements over the N64 titles. Despite being a cartoony looking game, heck if it wasn't one of the most realistic cartoons you'd ever seen. Skyward Sword is not nearly as "sharp" as its predecessor Twilight Princess or even Wind Waker for that matter. For lack of a better word, I find that a lot of it looks watercolored. Except without the inconsistency in the boldness of color that accompanies most watercolor painting (not to mention the bumpy paper).
Which is not to say that everything is blurry now. Just that visibility is lower than you might be accustomed to, especially when flying over your home town of Skyloft. Characters and items and other things up close, however, look as great as ever. Link's MC Hammer pants may take some getting used to, but we had plenty of time to do that in the year or so before the game was released. Besides, the "fluffiness" of some parts of his outfit are inevitable considering all the time Link spends diving headlong into nothingness and feeling 9.2 meters per second squared of air resistance. Yet again we continue to wonder how he keeps his hat on.
Link is joined by a whole new cast of characters, many of whom have their own stories a la Majora's Mask. Obviously, Zelda is one of them (and she looks more adorable than ever), but there is at least one other familiar face who turns up later. Other characters include some of the usual suspects/stereotypes: The fortune teller, the cute "farm" girl, the big bully, the couple who might be in love but who knows for sure, the overzealous shop keeper. But this short list doesn't even cover a fifth of the Skyloft population, and if you stick around and explore for long enough, you'll find that they all have unique lives of their own, and ways in which you might go about earning their gratitude.
That crazy sword chick that joins you, Fi, is quite a bit more stoic than Midna or Navi, but she can dance like nothing you've ever seen. You can call upon her for advice, but the cool thing now is that you can actually choose what kind of advice you want, whether it's a hint, rumors, or your current objective. Just incase you saved and didn't come back for three days or something. But as per usual, she can't help you progress in a temple. She does come with a unique ability called "dowsing" which can sometimes be used to zero in on the locations of things for which you would normally just have to search all day long.
As Link accrues more items in his inventory, more side quests gradually become available, but one of the things that surprised me the most was how rarely Heart Pieces turned up. In previous Zelda games, they practically threw the things at you. Here, I think I had found a grand total of two by the time I finished the third temple. Which of course doesn't mean anything since I suck. But it's worth noting that you won't have to find nearly as many Heart Pieces this time around to max yourself out. There are numerous reasons for this, the first being that the game starts you with six hearts instead of the standard three. So that's 12 Heart Pieces, bam, gone just like that (or 15 in the case of Twilight Princess). The other reason is that you technically max out at 18 hearts in this game. However, there are two Heart Medals in the game that, which equipped in your pouch, add an extra Heart to your life gauge, so the max is still 20. Sort of.
All your dungeon items, the ones you most frequently will use (bow, etc.) will be in the B menu, which is easy to access at any time, heck, you can even walk around while changing your item. Then there is the Plus menu which is your "pouch" menu. In there you keep bottles, extra quivers/bags, and medals that will cause something to drop more frequently (rupees, hearts, etc.) I don't know yet if I am really too crazy about the pouch system; it starts you off with four slots and you can buy it up to eight, but it's very expensive. The last two slots will run you over 1,000 rupees each. Plus I really don't like the idea of keeping around two of something to store consumables. Your standard quiver, for example, the one that comes with the bow holds 20 arrows, but if you want to hold more than that, you have to equip a second quiver in the pouch. Same with the bomb bags.
However, I completely love what they have done with the bazaar. There are so many crazy things you can do now, I don't even know where to start. Throughout the game, you will constantly want to be on the lookout for bugs to catch, and monsters will often drop "collectibles". Using different combinations of each, you can buy upgrades to your items. Each shield in the game has two levels of upgrading you can do to it; between that and the fact that there are three different shields available fairly early on, this can keep you busy for quite a while. Potions can also be upgraded so that they either last longer, restore more hearts, or can be used twice. The first time I saw what all you could do, I thought "There's no way I'm ever gonna actually do all this." But after a couple days, you'd be surprised.
Of course I couldn't possibly not talk about the controls. I remember hearing someone say that after playing Skyward Sword, they couldn't possibly imagine going back to pressing B to swing the sword ever again. Now that I've completed the game myself, I must say I can't imagine it either. I won't lie, this thing takes some getting used to. My first several encounters with moblins didn't go very well. I often ended up hitting them six or seven times in a row, getting blocked every single time. And at first I wasn't sure, it felt like the game was deliberately having them move their swords to wherever I was holding the Wiimote so that I couldn't possibly score a hit. As time went on and I got later into the game, I noticed that that was happening less and less. And I honestly could not tell you why. There is a certain "sense" that you start to build up while playing. I'd like it better if I could actually explain that, but who knows. Maybe the game just really is that brilliant. Or maybe it's just that you get more aggressive as you grow more confident, and being aggressive really is the key. It's about getting the first hit in, and then not stopping once you got it. I can't tell you how much fun it is when you're in a boss fight and you have him stunned, and you just start swinging like a madman. There's something so much more gratifying about that than repeatedly mashing B. It doesn't hurt that each blow is accompanied by a loud blast of light, a few notes (a la Wind Waker) and the tearing, squelching sound of the sword just eating through their flesh. Yum.
The Wiimote controls are not merely specialized just to the sword, though. There are other items and/or situations in the game that require different types of movements of the Wiimote. I couldn't get enough of a certain one which it's killing me not to spoil it. Getting stuck in a spiderweb or a slime and having to shake yourself out is pretty annoying though, and trust me that's going to happen a LOT.
Music is one of those things you have to absorb over time, especially in this day and age when it is set so far back in the mix on most video games. I have even found myself taking a liking to songs in Twilight Princess years after the first time playing it. Which I guess it sounds like I'm trying to make excuses for why Skyward Sword's music didn't necessarily grab me in that magical way, but even that would be a lie. There is a certain boss late in the game (He starts with an "L") whose accompanying score is right on the level of Shadow Of The Colossus. I mean it's just that freakin' crazy. The first time I heard the music for this game's "water temple", I knew right away I loved it. The music alone just sounds like it's saying "Will this never end?" But surprisingly, the temple itself is not as excruciating as the Water or Lakebed temples. I think I spent more time marveling at the cleverness of the puzzles and the temple design than I ever did wondering what the heck I was supposed to do next. That goes for almost all of the dungeons here, not just that one. And though this might be my imagination, I noticed that overall the temples felt shorter than usual. Which I liked a lot. Anything over an hour gets to be a bit much.
Weaknesses are pretty hard to come by in what many are claiming to be the Game Of The Year (except for the ones that took an arrow... never mind). My only pet peeves are relatively small ones. The first being that every time you load a save file, it assumes that you haven't gathered any bugs or collectibles, and stops to have Link hold each kind up in the air the first time you get one. Kind of like Twilight Princess did with the rupees. I mean you'll still have all the ones you left off with, it'll just add them to the inventory. The other really small thing is probably not even worth pointing out, just something I noticed. In previous games, when you would go to use the bow or the hookshot or anything in first-person, the camera would automatically point in the direction Link was facing to use it. Now, the camera faces the same way it was before. So if you have Link facing toward the screen, and he's also facing an enemy, and you go to use the bow, you'll start off pointing away from the enemy since that's where the camera was pointing when you used it. Now that I think about it, there might be something in the options to change that, I'd have to take a closer look.
The last thing is the day/night system. To those who enjoyed the real-time aspect of previous Zelda titles, watching the sun rise and set, they might not take so kindly to this. Here, the only way to see night is to sleep in a bed, and even then, you can only do it at Skyloft and one other small island. Everywhere else, it's perpetually day all the time. The "night" side of Skyloft more to do in the way of side quests, sure, but it feels a lot less like an actual part of the game or even a threat (as it did before) and more like just an extra place you can go explore whenever.
That being said, though, if you're a Zelda fan, there is no reason (aside from lack of fundage) not to get your hands on Skyward Sword. It has forever changed the way we play Zelda. Not since Ocarina Of Time has Zelda taken a leap this long (haha, a leap), I'm just grateful to have been here to see it for myself. I always knew virtual reality was creeping up on us, but Skyward Sword almost makes me feel as though it's already here.
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