Critical View is a new blog series in which I take a second look at some of the most beloved games of our cherished past time. With each blog I will focus on one game, either old or new, and examine whether they are worthy of the praise they receive, or whether they are in fact overrated. Sometimes I will even focus my attention on to not only a single game, but also an entire franchise.
Now naturally, seen as though we are all individuals, I will obviously have differing opinions to other people. With Critical View I am in no way stating my opinion as factual; I'm merely expressing my own views on the games I've selected. I would actually welcome positive and negative feedback, and some differing opinions to mine, so feel free to say if you agree or disagree with what I've written.
All I can hope is that you have enjoyed what I've written here regardless of your own opinion.
To start the series off I'll be taking a look at a game that was released this time last year. A game that, lets be frank, I couldn't wait to get my hands on. It was a game I waited five agonizing years to play. Yes, this time I'll be taking a look at The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword.
The hype leading up to the release of Skyward Sword wasn't as fuelled as that of Twilight Princess. While Twilight Princess was certainly reviewed well (really well actually, the GameCube version averages 96% on Game Rankings and the Wii version 94%) it proved to split the opinions of fans. I can't imagine any Zelda fan thinking it was a complete disaster, but it certainly didn't live up to the expectations. Maybe we heaped too much expectation on it? Anyway, maybe our experiences with Twilight Princess lead us to keep a more level head with Skyward Sword. All I know is that while fans were excited the general gaming media wasn't so (especially when you consider the hype across the board for Twilight Princess... remember E3 2004?).
Skyward Sword matched the expectations set by many fans. Many publications, such as IGN and Official Nintendo Magazine, even went as far as labelling the title as the greatest Zelda game ever made. I savoured every single moment of the 52 hours I poured into it, because I knew once I was finished another long wait would befall me before the next console Zelda title for the Wii U. And if anyone read the review I posted for Skyward Sword my initial opinion of the game will already be known.
Yet now, nearly a year later, I'm looking back on Skyward Sword in a similar vein to that of Twilight Princess. I don't think Skyward Sword ranks as lowly in my personal list of the Zelda games as Twilight Princess, but I can't help but feel that, despite trying on the contrary, I was caught up in the hype. Much like I was when Twilight Princess was released. Back in 2006, for the briefest moments after beating Ganondorf, my 15 year old mind contemplated the thought that Twilight Princess was possibly the best Zelda game I had ever played. The notion lasted no longer than a couple of minutes, but even afterwards it was still in my personal top three for a while. Yet back then I had only played seven of the Zelda games, and the likes of A Link to the Past, Link's Awakening and the Oracle duo weren't any of them. Once I played them all, I realised how far behind Twilight Princess lagged in comparison. By the time Skyward Sword was released I had played and completed every single Zelda game ever made (excluding the Philips CDi games, I try to forget those atrocities even exist), so I felt I had an extremely strong understanding of exactly what makes a good Zelda experience.
I went in to Skyward Sword with a wealth of knowledge and know-how, and years of Zelda experience behind me. Yet the first 30 minutes or so had me worrying. I was wandering around Skyloft and, I don't know, it just felt like there was no atmosphere. All the 3D Zelda games have traditionally started rather slowly, but their opening sequences always felt quite charming. Skyward Sword felt odd. Once I got the sword and went to rescue Links Loftwing it did pick up though. At its best Skyward Sword is possibly the best the series has ever been. It's a roaring success.
But the problem with Skyward Sword is that it isn't always at its best. The new sword combat, thanks to motion plus, feels fresh and inventive. For the first time in years I entered combat in a Zelda game in a rather cautious manner. Training with the sword felt great, but training is only one thing. A lot of the early enemies didn't really require any form of strategy, but once you got to Hyrule for the first time the enemies threw new challenges. The combat was extremely fun, and despite the few criticisms that certain reviewers threw at Skyward Sword its controls work like a dream 99% of the time (come on, they're not 100% perfect). If you're not a fan of motion controls you'll likely want to stay far away from this, but for those who are inquisitive and look for new ways to play video games you really should have a pop. Skyward Sword has the best combat the series has ever seen.
Yet outside the combat, a lot of the time, I felt the Skyward Sword wasn't really pushing the series forward. In Twilight Princess Hyrule was gorgeous and huge, it was a great place to explore. Yet the problem was that it was fairly empty. There were some things to find, but not many enemies to keep you on your toes. To try and correct this Nintendo went at Skyward Sword with a different approach. Instead of having one huge world Nintendo split the world of Skyward Sword in to sections. You had the Sky World, where Skyloft is located. It acts as a hub world for the other areas and Link flies across it on his Loftwing. And underneath, on the ground, you had Hyrule. Hyrule itself was split in to three distinctive areas. One area was forested, one was volcanic and the last was a desert and each area was generous in scale. Although not as big as Hyrule from Twilight Princess overall it was big enough to explore. But I personally had a problem with the way the world was laid out. While each looks great and is well designed, the only way to get from one to another was to find a bird statue (the same ones used to save game data) and travel back up to the Sky World. Then once in the Sky World you had to fly to the other area from there. For many this wouldn't have been a problem, but I felt this caused the world to not have a natural flow.
In Ocarina of Time, as an example, you discover more of the world as you adventure and open new paths with new items. Hyrule field is laid out as the hub, similarly to the Sky World, and initially you need to go back and forth through Hyrule field to reach new areas. But once you reached new areas you could travel from one to another without touching Hyrule field. For example, you can reach the Goron Village or Zoras River through the Lost Woods, and the Lost Woods itself can be reached through Kokiri Forest. Some areas, such as Gerudo Valley, can't be reached at all unless you go through Hyrule field, but for the most part the world feels natural. While it doesn't sound like much the more natural flow of the world in Ocarina of Time really streamlined the game play. Skyward Sword doesn't have this, and in my mind that breaks the game play. Going back to the sky to reach a different area was completely unnecessary. I feel that you should have at least have had the option to travel from one area to the next without doing this. At the very least, even if they still wanted to keep each area separate, they could have allowed us to fast travel between them and save time.
But maybe I'm being too critical?
Many feel the tried and true Zelda formula, which has remained relatively unchanged since A Link to the Past 21 years ago, is starting to age. Having played all the zelda games I can see why people feel this way. Nintendo promised us that with Skyward Sword they would change this.
But did they?
Well no, they didn't. Not really. Not to say they didn't try, but Skyward Sword is worlds away from the drastic change in formula Nintendo told us it would be. And it's also far from the change the series really needed. What Nintendo tried to do was mask the lines between the field and dungeon sequences by introducing puzzles and more enemies to the field. In Skyward Sword there's certainly a lot more to do outside in order to even gain entrance to a dungeon, but you still clearly know when you're in the field or a dungeon. And the dungeons themselves come at you in a rather similar manner. You battle through three dungeons, the first being (surprise, surprise) forest themed the second one fire themed. Once you've done those first three a major story event unfolds then you set out to explore another set of dungeons. It's the same formula that A Link to the Past introduced, only it has been tweaked a little to give the illusion that it may be somewhat different. And this was really disappointing. None of the Zelda games are truly bad titles, but their progression has become repetitive.
Then there were other things. Skyward Sword did many other first for the Zelda franchise outside of linking motion controls to Link's sword and items. Some of these changes were minor, such as giving Link the ability to sprint without the aide of the Pegasus Shoes for instance. When sprinting Link could momentarily run up walls to reach higher platforms, which makes him more agile than in the past. Other changes were much bigger. One aspect I was most looking forward to was crafting weapons. In past Zelda games you could gain more powerful versions of certain weapons, such as the way you gained new swords, or the way you swapped your Hookshot for a Longshot in Ocarina of Time. But Skyward Sword was the first where you could take raw materials that enemies dropped to a blacksmith so he could upgrade your weapons. Upgrading your Bow would make it more powerful and give it a greater range, or upgrading your shield resulted in it being more durable (Skyward Sword is the first game in the series where shields have a health bar, when it reaches zero the shield breaks). But in practice I felt this new feature to the Zelda formula could have been greatly improved. For starters you can't make anything from scratch. You can't take some materials to the blacksmith and have him make a shield from them, you had to buy a basic shield first and simply upgrade it. And the mechanic itself overall wasn't as in depth as in other games I've played and felt lacking at times. It felt like Nintendo was on the right path but didn't walk down it far enough.
Then of course there were was the voice acting, or at least the lack of it. Don't get me wrong, I personally don't really care for voice acting in Zelda. Reading text has never bothered me and I feel it retains the charm of the series. But not everyone feels like this. I felt Nintendo should have had it voiced, and for those who didn't care for it give them the option to turn it off. There was the dousing mechanic, which helped the player to find people or specific items. In theory it was a good idea, but in action it was fairly weak and annoying at times. Also, despite using an orchestra for the first time in the series history, the music was poor. I was surprised at first, only to notice later that Koji Kondo only composed one song (which coincidentally is the best on the soundtrack). Outside of that one song he concentrated mainly on sound effects. Not to say Nintendo HAD to use Kondo, but if they aren't going to at least get someone else that can fill his boots. I would have loved to hear what Yoko Shimomura could have done for the game, especially after playing Xenoblade Chronicles and hearing her beautiful work there.
But it's not all doom and gloom. On the plus side Skyward Sword was a leap forward for the series in terms of story telling. Nintendo themselves have never been known for telling grand stories in their titles. They usually let their game play do the talking (and lets be fair, they are the pros at this), but Skyward Sword saw a huge narrative improvement. Its story was better than any past Zelda game without question in terms of context. It wasn't quite at the level of Final Fantasy, or anything by BioWare, but I digress simply because RPGs tend to have grander stories than any other genre. And another area where Skyward Sword excelled was with its side quests. After the rather lacklustre and disappointing side quests of Twilight Princess it's nice to see Nintendo realised they dropped the ball. Outside of Ocarina of Time and Majora's Mask no other Zelda game can match Skyward Sword for overall content. And the fact that the side quests were actually enjoyable this time around was an added bonus.
There's no doubt that Skyward Sword is a good game. The whole point of Critical View though isn't to determine whether it's a good game or not, but to determine whether it's deserving of the praise it received. In terms of its motion controls Skyward Sword does indeed deserve all the praise it gets. But I certainly feel those who called it the 'Best Zelda Ever' are certainly overselling it. To call Skyward Sword the best Zelda game ever would be to cast aside the likes of A Link to the Past, Ocarina of Time or Majoras Mask, and when you consider that those games have less flaws that's hard to do.
At its best Skyward Sword is a great Zelda experience, but many aspects of the game fall short of what we've seen in other titles, either in the series or unrelated.
I hope you liked my first Critical View blog. I don't know how often I will be posting these, but I will certainly be posting more in the future. Thanks for reading.