The first striking aspect of the newest “Legend of Zelda” comes not from the motion controls, opening movie or anything at the forefront of the screen, but from the background. An impressionistic mash of colors defines everything in the distance. It’s as if a canvas of brush strokes replaced where you just were, and it’s also a subtle hint of what’s to come: a shining example of how Nintendo, despite encroaching pressure from a flailing 3DS system and end of the Wii, can recapture our imaginations at the slightest inclination.
“The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword” makes many such startling design decisions, some in refinements and some in refreshing, overt ways, during the latest installment of this 25-year-old franchise. Like no other Nintendo title before it, this game distills the grandest of Nintendo ideas — the Mario Galaxy-level of creativity and scale, the “Wii Sports” utility of control, and the greatest storytelling elements from games like “Zelda” and “Metroid Prime” — and fuses them into one experience.
Let’s talk a little about the main event: motion control. Anyone familiar with “Wii Sports Resort” should know how it approximately works. Utilizing the Wii MotionPlus, Link’s arm follows your own as you twist, waggle and strike. For the most part, this type of control is extremely rewarding and a huge addition to the combat. Basic strikes — horizontal, diagonal and vertical — are done with little to no lag. And none of it is just for show. Almost every enemy, including the most basic, will require thought, precision and speed to strike down in just the right way.
But when combat gets hectic, Link’s slices can quickly devolve into a frantic waggle. Smartly, Skyward Sword punishes you when that happens. Enemies react to your attack position, and at different speeds and in different ways, many will block and adjust. You’ve got to be patient, purposeful, and may even judge it easier to run away rather than fight.
Fortunately, all of these things are signs of a great combat system, and with practice, almost anything can be vanquished.
Unfortunately, a couple of baddies require another type of motion control that’s not always up for cooperating: the forward jab. Jabbing is needed not just as a sword motion, but also on the nunchuck to use the shield. Sadly, both motions feel broken. More times than not, I found myself flinging either controller toward the TV, blood pressure rising as fast as Link’s hearts were decreasing.
That’s OK, though, because there are dozens of other fun, engaging items in Link’s toolkit to help you along. This is the first “Zelda” in a long time to dramatically re-think items. For the most part, we’re looking at completely new stuff, all built reliably on motion controls. Bombs are rolled like bowling balls or tossed overhand; a slingshot aimed like a gun; a whip flung like ... well, a whip. I won’t spoil all of them here, but it’s easy to say that when your available items include a little mechanical critter that operates like an unmanned drone, raining death on all those who oppose you, there’s a lot to get excited about.
In addition, everything from bomb bags to your shield can be upgraded with a new crafting system. Link collects raw materials from felled baddies, treasure chests or while he’s exploring the various worlds he visits. It’s an inspired way to encourage going off the beaten path without mandating it. And while you’re weighing your options in combat or exploration, you have to consider another great edition to the basics of movement: a stamina meter. By holding A, Link can sprint up steep hills, jump up walls, or just flee the scene, slowly draining your meter. Special sword attacks, such as the spin move or vertical slice, also eat up this meter a bit.
You’re going to be watching that meter a lot, because Link has a ton to do.
As the name implies, “Skyward Sword” has Link taking flight (and sometimes doing a little skydiving) in his quest to restore peace to Hyrule. Instead of a horse, boat or train, this time you’ve got a bird to ferry you from place to place. Controlled much like the drone item, Link’s bird catches him as he jumps from the floating islands that make up the overworld or ascends from the three ground areas below.
It’s all very majestic, especially with the “Star Wars”-esque score the game booms out any time you’re above the clouds. But flying is actually kind of a drag on the pace of the game. Your bird is a bit of a slow flier. Anyone who wasn’t a fan of the sailing in “Wind Waker” might grow to dread it a bit. Luckily, the visuals of the overworld and those of the areas below the clouds are well worth the travel time.
As you would expect, “Skyward Sword” pushes the visuals of the Wii in ways few games do. With a silky-smooth frame rate, Link’s story unfolds in areas teeming with life and minute details. The settings are familiar, from the playful forest, the seas of sand and the latest volcanic iteration of Death Mountain, but instead of relying on dungeons to provide the game’s challenge, puzzles have spilled into the world around you. Simply navigating from one area to the next is often fraught with complications. “Skyward Sword” does a striking job of integrating puzzle solving, action and storytelling into the entire experience like no “Zelda” before it.
One of the more brilliant aspects is level and character design. This isn’t the abstract, empty world of the Nintendo 64 Zeldas, nor is it filled with the cardboard characters that plagued “Twilight Princess.” “Skyward Sword” gives us lush, exaggerated characters and worlds at once playful and lively. While most of the colorful characters are relegated to Skyloft, your home base of sorts in the sky, nearly all of them come to life and grow as Link interacts with them. As in “Majora’s Mask,” players trying to do everything will find themselves checking back with the townspeople constantly, searching for side missions and tips.
While the side character development might not quite match up with an RPG like “Skyrim,” it still goes a long way toward humanizing “Zelda” at long last, and combined with the excellent writing for the primary characters, it’s a huge leap forward in the one department that has long eluded Nintendo: smart storytelling. “Skyward Sword’s” characters show us hope, love, jealousy and contradiction throughout his adventure. It’s refreshing, for example, to hear characters acknowledge Link’s cyclical fate — that he’s been here before, and he’ll be here again.
Fittingly, two “Zelda” titles have now bookmarked the Wii’s life. The possibilities for the system and its at-the-time unique control scheme were first hinted at in “Twilight Princess;” it took us five years to see that potential realized in “Skyward Sword.” As in many Wii titles before it, your success in this game may be decided by your ability to perform the motion controls. But there’s no denying the awesomeness in reaching the altar of the Master Sword once more, at long last lifting it skyward yourself.
Bottom line: Nintendo brings all the best Wii ideas together for one last, thrilling adventure. Don’t miss it.