If I have a gaming guilty pleasure it’s probably Mario Party. I’ve played most games in the series and even though the series is fifteen years old now I always seem to end up coming back for more. The games present a surprisingly engaging board game scenario with mini-games to break up the strategy. In multiplayer it can be an absolute hoot especially with four players all conspiring to screw each other over. The last few entries have felt a little stale and now after a fairly long hiatus the series returns with big changes to the formula. Continue reading »
Rounding out an interesting trilogy of Japanese games that formed the focus of Operation Rainfall’s localisation campaign is Pandora’s Tower, a dark fantasy action title with mild RPG elements. After the excellent The Last Story and the genre-defining Xenoblade Chronicles this game from Ganbarion feels like the underdog and arrives very late in the day in the UK with North American gamers still waiting, probably indefinitely, for its confirmation. The Wii U is mere days away and its predecessor has been limping along on its last legs for some time now but any Wii owners looking for a fix from their little white box before the new arrival might consider giving this game a go. Continue reading »
This brilliantly inventive sidescrolling platformer was released around eighteen months ago and for all that time it has been hovering in my to-buy list, jostling for attention with newer releases and other games that passed me by as I progressed through life without any money to spend on fun things. In the time since the game’s release another Wii Kirby game, Kirby’s Adventure Wii has also been released which, as yet, exists hovering in my to-buy list. When I eventually get round to playing the pink blob’s most recent escapade it will be in the knowledge that it will have to be something quite extraordinary to match the quality of Kirby’s Epic Yarn. Continue reading »
Sin and Punishment occupies a rather strange place in Nintendo’s history. Despite being idiosyncratically Japanese the N64 title, which appeared late in the console’s life cycle, was created and localized with western audiences in mind but still never saw the light of day outside of Japan until it was made available for the Wii Virtual Console. Despite this the full English voice acting and more importantly the intense on-rails shooting action made the game a cult import favourite. It wasn’t without faults though, the ugly graphics are not what you’d expect from a game appearing so late in a console’s life cycle and the controls are extremely fiddly (it’s one of the exceedingly few to use the N64 controller’s left position). Fortunately the series has now found its most natural home on Nintendo’s Wii. Continue reading »
I’m rebooting my approach to game reviews starting now. I will no longer be rating games for Presentation and Difficulty because I think the quality of a game’s presentation is covered well enough by Design, Graphics and Sound and because the challenge a game offers does not necessarily reflect its quality. I’ve also decided to be a bit harsher with overall scores as I think I have a tendency to undervalue games that previously scored over 8.0. The first game to be reviewed under the new scheme is The Last Story for the Wii. Continue reading »
The last eighteen months of software releases on Nintendo’s ailing Wii haven’t exactly been loaded with must-haves, a fact that has made what few major new titles have arrived all the more significant. If Skyward Sword was the biggest Wii game of last year (and it was) then Xenoblade Chronicles was a fairly close second. The game is the first of three originally cited for a Japan only existence that Operation Rainfall lobbied to be given a western release (the other two being The Last Story and Pandora’s Tower) and hit European shores last August with the American release coming early in April. But the hype surrounding this game before launch extended to more than its significance as a Wii game. The entire Japanese RPG genre has been in poor health for years, struggling under the weight of tired storytelling and gameplay clichés with western creations going from strength to strength, even the almighty Final Fantasy has seemingly lost its way. With near universal-acclaim from critics who have cited it as the best JRPG in the last five, many even ten years, Xenoblade Chronicles is arguably one of the most important Japanese video games of the current console generation. Continue reading »
3DS, Fire Emblem Kakusei, Kid Icarus Uprising, Luigi's Mansion 2, Mario Party 9, Mario Tennis, Metal Gear Solid Snake Eater 3D, Nintendo, Paper Mario, Professor Layton and the Mask of Miracle, Professor Layton vs Phoenix Wright, The Last Story, Wii
As we canter into another year it’s time to look at the best incoming games. As a primarily Nintendo gamer with no immediate aspirations (or necessary funds) to buy the other consoles my options for this list have been rather limited. My equivalent post last year very accurately predicted both my Game of the Year and the runner-up but I’m not expecting that this time. Nintendo’s newest home console, the Wii U is due out in the second half of the year but no first-party titles have been unveiled yet so we don’t know what’s going to be available to play at launch. My guess is we’ll get Pikmin 3, which Nintendo have confirmed they are working on for Wii U but the game hasn’t been shown off in any official capacity or been given a release date yet so for that reason isn’t eligible for the list, nor are any third-party publications confirmed for the system that have already been released on other platforms so there goes Batman Arkham City. The result is a list dominated by 3DS games and featuring a few titles I’m not 100% certain I’m going to get. So here we have the ten Nintendo games due before 2013 I’m looking forward to most even if there are other hitherto unannounced projects that might prove more appetising.
10. Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright (3DS)
I’m a massive Professor Layton fan but have never picked up a Phoenix Wright game so this crossover only half appeals to me. The story pitches the two popular characters into a strange mediaeval town rocked by strange goings on where a young woman stands accused of witchcraft while gameplay will stick to the formula of each franchise depending on which character you choose. As Layton creators Level 5 are the developers in charge of the project we know it’s going to be quality. The only question is how well the idea will work.
9. Mario Tennis (3DS)
Another title I’m not sure I’m going to get, this latest entry in the Mario Tennis series will have to make good use of the hardware to justify its existence. Mario Tennis on the N64 was a cracking sports sim and gave the world Waluigi. Mario Power Tennis on the Gamecube was pretty much the same game with better graphics and power moves that spoiled things somewhat. With any luck Camelot will judge this handheld version a bit better.
8. Mario Party 9 (Wii)
The Wii isn’t dead quite yet. Mario’s long-running party game series has been missing for a few years following the weak Mario Party 8 but I’m hopeful this second Wii entry will make more engaging use of the Wii Remote in mini games and feature better-designed boards. I’ve always been a bit of a sucker for the series but this is another entry on this list for which my decision to buy it or not will depend on reviews.
7. Luigi’s Mansion 2 (3DS)
This long-awaited sequel to the Gamecube launch game looks set to eclipse its predecessor by featuring multiple mansions for Mario’s scaredy-cat brother to explore in search of ghosts to vacuum and treasure to hoard. It’s already looking pretty sweet and with a reported stronger focus on puzzling is in with a good shout to end up as that rare thing, a superior sequel. Check out my Luigi’s Mansion review.
6. Metal Gear Solid – Snake Eater 3D (3DS)
Appearing on this list for the second year in a row Metal Gear Solid – Snake Eater 3D is finally due for release in March. This port of the PS2 classic is looking better every time we see it, features ingenious use of the handheld’s features and should be spectacular in 3D. Despite being an enhanced re-release it’s set to be one of the biggest third party games for the system this year.
5. Kid Icarus Uprising (3DS)
The first 3DS game ever revealed missed launch by a whole year but in the intervening time has caused quite a stir with its heavily action-orientated content. Pit’s first game in two decades feels like a whole new IP for Nintendo given how different the 3D experience is looking. Circle Pad Pro support has been confirmed to give lefties an easier time and the game itself looks better and better each time we see more of it.
4. Professor Layton and the Mask of Miracle (3DS)
It’s going to be a busy year for the puzzling professor especially with his first ever foray on 3DS due to arrive in Europe some time before 2013. Once again Layton Luke and Emmy are challenged to solve the mystery of a town suffering from a severe case of unexplained happenings. Quality is assured but how the game makes use of the console’s unique features will be of great interest.
3. The Last Story (Wii)
Although my early impressions of Xenoblade Chronicles haven’t been the best that hasn’t put me off wanting this other Wii exclusive JRPG, which always appealed to me more anyway. It’s been out in Japan since last January but perhaps thanks to online campaign Operation Rainfall is finally seeing the light of day in Europe in February. Could this be the last great Wii game before the Wii U arrives?
2. Paper Mario (3DS)
Another game to make successive appearances on this list is the latest instalment in the Paper Mario series from the godly Intelligent Systems. Paper Mario – The Thousand-Year Door is one of my favourite RPGs and after the franchise shifted to a more platforming focus with the Wii’s Super Paper Mario it’s great to see it returning to its roots with its first handheld instalment and a slew of new features. The paper world concept will work brilliantly in 3D and Intelligent Systems have a habit of making some addictive RPGs. That being the case…
1. Fire Emblem Kakusei (3DS)
Fire Emblem – Shin Monshō no Nazo: Hikari to Kage no Eiyū, which placed high on last year’s list never made it out of Japan so I’m desperate for this first 3DS entry to reach UK shores. It’s already looking wonderful with the new double-teaming concept proving an intriguing prospect and is rumoured to become the first Nintendo game to feature paid DLC. I can’t wait to see what other new features the game will offer, not to mention what the story will be about. If it does get greenlit for a western release it’s still possible it won’t appear this year but all the same if there’s even a chance it will that’s good enough for me to consider it the 2012 game I’m most eagerly anticipating.
And so we come to the most significant post I have created for this blog, my review for a brand new main core entry in The Legend of Zelda series.
This is going to be an extremely long post in which I will talk about every thought I’ve had about the game going into considerably more detail than I normally would. The post may contain some mild spoilers but I have taken care to signpost them so if you want a spoiler-free review be prepared to skip certain paragraphs, you shouldn’t miss any important points that don’t involve spoilers. Also since I will be making very frequent close comparisons between this game and the four previous 3D console entries in the series, Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask, Wind Waker and Twilight Princess, there may well also be spoilers for those games. Since they’re all oldies I hope this won’t matter.
So why all the fuss on my part? You should already know if you’ve read my review of Ocarina of Time 3D but the original incarnation of that game on the Nintendo 64 is my (probably permanent) all-time favourite game. After I first played it everything changed for me as a gamer, it became the benchmark by which everything else would be judged, the first game that made me feel transported, like I was the hero, the most immersive interactive experience I’ve ever known, delivered with an unparalleled level of quality in every department. The sense of magic that game created through its story, mood, soundtrack and world, the innumerable awesome moments and concepts and the overall feeling of wonder confirmed that I would anticipate each new console-based 3D game in the series more than anything else gaming will ever offer in the hope of experiencing something comparable. Reliving Ocarina of Time by replaying it again and again and combing its wondrous world for every secret is great but nothing compares to that first mind-blowing playthrough, something you only ever get once with a game. For thirteen years I’ve been waiting for a game that can rival the greatest ever made.
It was only two years after Ocarina’s release before the first pretender arrived and, incredibly, it almost lived up to the colossal expectations. Majora’s Mask was nothing like its predecessor beyond the obvious. With a different setting and vastly altered concept pioneering daring new concepts that defied series conventions and featuring some of the most varied and exhilarating gameplay not to mention the best dungeons in the franchise the game was completely and utterly enthralling in every way. The sad story, tinged with a twisted darkness and the constant threat of annihilation combined with the exceptionally deeply detailed world that provided the series’ best range of rewarding side quests and most fascinating NPCs gave the title a powerful identity and an emotional resonance that outstripped even Ocarina delivering even better graphics and a soundtrack that could stand shoulder to shoulder with the previous game.
That Nintendo didn’t bank on their other hit’s success by producing something similar is testament to just how good the game’s innovations (headed by the repeating three day cycle and transformation mask concepts) and its delivery of everything that goes into making games turned out to be. In fact it was so good that of the two games Majora’s Mask holds up the best and feels the freshest, indeed I often think that it may in fact be the better game. I reason that it isn’t simply because it just didn’t give me what Ocarina gave me – that immaculate sense of wonder that so enamoured me to the series. In truth it never tried to do that. It tried, and completely succeeded to give me an endlessly compelling experience steeped in ingenious design and melancholically bittersweet storytelling. The fact is that despite the miracles Majora’s Mask achieved nothing it does can compare to the joy of discovering Hyrule Field for the first time in Ocarina. The fact that much of the gameplay, the graphics and some of the soundtrack had already debuted in its predecessor and that it can never be the first ever 3D Zelda game also counts as critical points why it isn’t quite as good. This makes it sound like my search for a game to equal or top Ocarina is fruitless but I’ll come to that point later.
With the passing of the Nintendo 64 and the arrival of the Gamecube the prospect for a third 3D Zelda became all the more exciting in light of the improved graphical power the new console offered. The early signs were good judging by the Spaceworld 2000 tech demo that featured an FMV of Link fighting Ganondorf in more realistic visuals than ever but when the new title was actually unveiled for the first time fans of the series, myself included, and the wider gaming world were shocked at the graphical style Nintendo had chosen. It looked like a bizarrely comical 3D cartoon saturated by bright primary colours and featuring a cartoonishly stylised Link that was about as far removed from the more realistic versions seen in the N64 titles as you could imagine. There was widespread fan outrage and I confess I too was unhappy with the new look though in my defence the first footage didn’t look anything as polished as the final game. As gamers grew used to the graphical style and details began to emerge the furore died down and anticipation began to build. In another big departure for the series it was revealed that the new Hyrule was flooded by a great sea and instead of riding Epona, Link would be sailing between islands on his quest. As more gameplay footage appeared it became clear that the new cel-shaded visuals were being given expert treatment and were giving life to a vibrant and joyous universe resplendent with all sorts of imaginative and awe-inspiring touches. The final game denied everybody’s worst fears though a few naysayers remained stubborn.
My initial reaction to the new game, titled The Wind Waker was extremely positive, almost as strong as the previous two games. This was chiefly due to a newfound sense of freedom, adventure and discovery that was missing from Majora’s Mask, and a powerful feeling of wonder and magic ingrained deeply in the story which provided plenty of goosebump-raising moments for series fans. After playing in more depth it became quickly clear that the new game was not up to the standards set by its two N64 predecessors. It’s a little too short and easy, the sailing sections, while initially a breath of fresh air over time become somewhat dull and slow, the necessity of manually changing wind direction grew tiresome, a penultimate act fetch quest was uninspired and rushed and the dungeons didn’t hold a candle to those of Majora’s Mask plus the game didn’t feature anything like the same degree of depth. I score Wind Waker a 9.7 compared to 10.0 for Ocarina of Time and 9.9 for Majora’s Mask. 9.7 is still a phenomenally high score, one that so few games have ever achieved and despite all its flaws the plus points of the game are too strong to ignore. That said the massive bar of expectations set by the earlier titles indicates that in the context of the series Wind Waker was an underachiever.
It was only one year before the next game in the series was unveiled with a popular return to the realistic visuals of the N64 titles. The game which gained the subtitle Twilight Princess remained in development for an excruciatingly long period, suffering huge delays and just as it was starting to near a possible time for release it was announced the game would be held back for another year so that it could be ported for Nintendo’s new Wii console with exclusive motion controls to be released on the same day as the Gamecube version. The horribly drawn-out wait for the game built up anticipation to enormous levels. The darker style and promise of a massive adventure inspired me to predict that this might finally be the game to challenge Ocarina of Time’s supremacy. I have never looked forward to a game more but the final product couldn’t quite live up to those expectations which is not to say I was disappointed, it’s a fantastic game but even while I was playing it and thinking this I couldn’t help but dwell on the numerous faults.
After the wonder of Wind Waker the game seemed to lack a sense of magic that had always seemed essential to the series. The new motion controls were exciting at first but eventually revealed themselves for what they were – a tacked-on afterthought that didn’t hinder the experience at all but sat slightly awkwardly in a game not designed around them. The game featured spectacular debuts for genius new items found in dungeons (namely the Spinner in Arbiter’s Grounds and the Double Clawshots in City in the Sky) and then didn’t reuse them elsewhere. Though considerably longer than Wind Waker it was only marginally more challenging and the last boss was underwhelming. But I think the biggest flaw was that Twilight Princess just didn’t have a USP. Every game in the series has a unique or original gameplay conceit or major defining feature to give it a distinct flavour and mark it out as unique in the series – Ocarina of Time was the first in 3D, Majora’s Mask had its three day cycle and transformation masks and Wind Waker had its stylised graphics and ocean based setting. Twilight Princess had nothing truly original to distinguish itself. You could argue the wolf transformation but, as mentioned, Majora’s Mask got there first with three different character transformations, all of which were better integrated in the gameplay and design. Then there’s the Twilight Realm idea but that’s just the light/dark world mechanic the series has been doing regularly since A Link to the Past. The only truly unique feature is the Wii version’s motion controls but as I said they were added later rather than used as a template for the game’s whole design and cannot be regarded as its defining feature particularly since the Gamecube version didn’t get them.
It took me a couple of repeat playthroughs to fully appreciate what Twilight Princess gets right. It is a massive, epic game full of memorable moments and stunning locations. Though it doesn’t have the same magic of Ocarina of Time or Wind Waker it does possess a melancholy mood of its own that drives an atmospheric story. The soundtrack might not be as consistently brilliant as the three previous games but still features plenty of memorable mood-setting melodies and the dungeons are superb, a clear improvement on Wind Waker. It just feels like a more complete experience than its immediate predecessor and for all its flaws offers a rich, varied and long-lasting experience that shouldn’t be underestimated. Like Wind Waker I consider it worthy of 9.7 but it’s a higher ranking 9.7. The fact remains, however, that for the second time a new game failed to live up to the legacy of Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask. It was at this point that I began to believe I would never find another game to match Ocarina. It’s head start as the first 3D game in the series is too strong to ever be matched. That said Majora’s Mask proved that if you can’t match Ocarina you can still come damn close to it so since Twilight Princess I now hope for nothing more than a game that might one day be the equal of the second N64 title.
And this is where Skyward Sword comes in and if the build-up to Twilight Princess was agonisingly slow the wait for this game was almost intolerable. It was three and a half years between Wind Waker and Twilight Princess compared to nearly five years between Twilight Princess and Skyward Sword. The difference is that we only had one year to wait for Twilight Princess to be unveiled following Wind Waker’s release whereas three and a half years, the entire duration between Wind Waker and Twilight Princess, passed before Skyward Sword was even revealed. For two years in a row in 2008 and 2009 I watched Nintendo’s E3 press conference live expecting a new Zelda announcement and was twice disappointed with only a single piece of admittedly nice concept art appearing during the 2009 show. Finally in 2010 their annual live show opened with the announcement I’d been waiting for and Skyward Sword was finally shown to the world. The debut trailer recapped the four previous games before introducing a new visual style that I hadn’t been expecting. It slightly resembled the cel-shaded visuals of Wind Waker but with the character model for Link of Twilight Princess. The trailer then went off to show off some of his new and returning toys with a glimpse of how the motion controls, now acting as a base for the gameplay design, would work. Shigeru Miyamoto then took to the stage for a live demonstration of the Wii Motion Plus aided controls only to hit on some technical problems. Doubters were pretty quick to indicate problems with the controls but I wasn’t worried by this since the game was not being designed for play on a big stage in front of lots of media types packing interfering tech and because Nintendo has always done right by its baby and had time to fix any existing issues. Nobody who played the game on the show floor reported any repeat problems there. Very little was revealed about the story but it was made known that the game would take place very early in the mythology of the series and that Link would hail from an island floating in the sky called Skyloft. The game would be taking place both there and in the land of Hyrule below.
And so the wait began. My first thoughts were not 100% positive. I hadn’t expected the visual style to return to the bright primary colours of Wind Waker and although the style itself is actually quite different, drawing its inspiration from impressionist painting, I still would have preferred a more realistic design. I gradually warmed to the style but still had my reservations about the technical quality of the graphics which didn’t seem to match that of the Super Mario Galaxy games. The gameplay however looked very exciting and I liked the way the Wii Motion Plus sword combat was being integrated. The signs were very promising and I very much liked the look of the forest themed environment seen in the demo. I began the wait eager to learn more but it would be a long time before anything of any real note appeared. We gradually received more trailers that gave us very little beyond what we’d already seen besides a rousing new theme tune but I was getting itchy for something to get really excited about. That very thing arrived in a quite unexpected way.
Several weeks after the first trailer featuring this new theme tune it was discovered that if you play it backwards the melody becomes series favourite Zelda’s Lullaby. This completely blew my mind. It wasn’t like Nintendo to include secret messages in its promotional media like this and it seemed to hint at more surprises to come. I marvelled at the length of time that it had taken for this Easter Egg to be found and my anticipation for the game had increased. When E3 2011 rolled around Nintendo kicked off their press conference in spectacular style by having a live orchestra play a dramatic and stirring medley of classic tunes form the Zelda series while a video of footage from past games played on the big screen above the stage. It concluded with the orchestra breaking into that awesome new theme tune and brand new footage of Skyward Sword that showed off Link’s floating home town of Skyloft and Zelda herself for the first time.
Most of the footage was taken from an all new trailer that emerged during the expo that proved the most revealing yet, the various elements of which only served to get me more excited. As the weeks and months passed more trailers appeared showing off more of the game along with plenty of uninterrupted gameplay footage. I could go into detail about my reaction to various nuggets revealed in these but I think it’s high time I started to talking about the finished product and so there now follows my review for The Legend of Zelda – Skyward Sword.
The Legend of Zelda – Skyward Sword is the first game chronologically in the series, set before the founding of Hyrule as a unified nation. The game opens in similar fashion to Wind Waker with a visually stylised story segment that tells of a dark army launching a brutal assault upon the peaceful inhabitants of the world in an effort to gain control of the Triforce. They are defeated by a goddess who protects the surviving humans by sending them to live on an outcrop of rock which she raises into the sky above the clouds.
The game itself begins centuries later in the time of the first incarnation of Link who lives among the descendants of the human survivors of the war on the floating island town of Skyloft, the same haven created by the goddess. In this game Link is a student at Skyloft’s Knight Academy along with his childhood friend and tentative love interest Zelda, the daughter of Headmaster Gaepora. For the first time in the series Zelda is not royalty, just a regular girl among the Skyloft residents. The Knights of Skyloft that Link is training to join are a chivalric order dedicated to protecting the people of the town and rescuing any who happen to fall over the edge of the island by riding their Loftwings, giant birds with whom the people of Skyloft possess a special bond. As students of the Knight Academy Link and Zelda have their own Loftwings, Link’s sporting striking crimson plumage, a cause of envy among some of his fellow students.
Nintendo were keen to indicate that part of the plot of the game will feel like a high school drama and the first couple of hours do play out like that. We begin in traditional fashion with Link asleep in bed, this time having a nightmare about a terrifying monster. Link wakes on the day of the important Wing Ceremony, a tradition designed to find an academy student worthy of knighthood that tests their ability as Loftwing riders. Link is one of four students competing for the honour, his opponents are Groose and his two lackeys, a trio of school bullies who pick on Link for having the coolest Loftwing and for his closeness to Zelda with whom Groose is clearly infatuated. The event in question acts as a tutorial for controlling your Loftwing, something you’ll be doing a lot during the game. Under the guidance of the player Link triumphs and returns to Skyloft where he and Zelda celebrate his success by essentially going on a date taking a flight on their Loftwings together. The romantic mood is interrupted when a mystery whirlwind strikes and sends Zelda plummeting to earth with Link unable to save her. He returns to Skyloft and vows to find her. That night he is woken to discover a mysterious and magical figure beckoning him to follow. She leads him to Skyloft’s Statue of the Goddess and through a hidden entrance in the base of the structure. The being is Fi, a messenger of the goddess who has been sent to aid Link in his quest. She presents him with the sacred Goddess Sword and the two set out in search of Zelda.
The journey takes you to three large and distinctly themed regions of the world below the clouds that can only be accessed by piloting your Loftwing to a suitable gap in the cloudbank (clearly signposted by a huge column of colourful light) and skydiving into the unknown. The paths to new regions open up as you gradually complete the Stone Tablet which depicts a map of the world and the zones themselves open up with new areas to explore with each revisit. The journey inevitably directs you towards the main events of every game in the long-running series, the dungeons, which must be conquered one by one as the story unfolds.
It’s a while before the game presents any antagonist beyond some nightmare sequences but the villain eventually shows up in the form of the Demon Lord Ghirahim, a flamboyant and unsettlingly androgynous figure responsible for the tornado that plucked Zelda from the skies whose designs require the young lady for no good purpose. When our villain does finally put in an appearance it is a towering introduction, he is a character to give the series new life and the writing, which, incidentally, is the best in the series, really comes into its own whenever he speaks. Your first encounter with this amoral, sadistic, sleazy, creepy freakshow will leave you in no doubt of the violence of his nature and his outward depravity. There are moments when his intimidation of Link borders on sexual harassment. You’ll have no trouble wanting to put him down and that is something Zelda games have never really had. Ganon is a great antagonist, no doubt, but he is simple evil described by some archetypal elements, the evil laugh, the dark colour palette of his visual design. It’s also been some time since he did anything surprising. The best villain in the series is Majora’s Mask, a feelingless, all-consuming paragon of pure evil that visits calamity on everyone from pirates to small girls and betrothed couples who ultimately desires catastrophic annihilation of all life rather than anything as merciful as world conquest. Lord Ghirahim does not eclipse that but he comes a respectable second and does it with personality but he is not the end of the villainy in this game.
As for other characters I can’t say this is my absolute favourite Link although, as a victim of bullying he is easy to sympathise with. He’s a character defined by his lack of definition so finding differences between him and past (or future) versions is difficult. Link’s deep voice in Twilight Princess gave him a toughness that I liked a lot and the underdog of Ocarina of Time is perhaps definitive while the vibrancy of the young Wind Waker incumbent spoke for himself (literally, he remains the only Link to actually speak). There’s nothing wrong with this original Link other than the fact he wears trousers instead of tights but perhaps the best part of him is Zelda.
The non-princess Zelda is arguably the best version we’ve had to date, passionate, spirited and full of personality, a reinvigoration of the character made complete by her brilliantly revamped design which harks back to concept art for A Link to the Past. She’s an adorable-looking gal but not the type to swoon at the first sign of trouble. She delivers far more than the damsel-in-distress bit, something she’s been doing ever since she helped you take down Ganondorf in Wind Waker. Her relationship with Link, a close friendship with heavily-implied romantic feelings all over it, provides our hero with the motivation that has driven his heroics since the eighties and does so more convincingly than ever. You’ll really want to save her and that’s great.
Then there is Fi, the character occupying the role previously fulfilled by Navi, Tatl, the King of Red Lions and Midna in the four previous games, and by Ezlo, Ciela and Zelda herself on handhelds. She’s a very interesting character, the spirit of the Goddess Sword, close in appearance to the Queen of the Fairies in Wind Waker but she is more like a robot than a fairy, a creature of cold, hard logic who doesn’t fully understand such trivial things as human emotions nor hesitates to lay down the odds of Link’s survival in any situation. She’s a helpful companion you can summon for advice or information about your surroundings by pressing down on the D-Pad. When targeting an enemy you can also call on her to tell you about said foe, an excellent feature not seen since Majora’s Mask that makes a very welcome return. Fi is a fun and well-conceived companion character and by the end of the game you’ll care about her but she’s not the equal of Midna, who remains the best developed such character but the game is clearly better for her presence.
But what would one of these games be without its wider cast of NPCs? Here the colourful cast of well-conceived and likeable extra characters can mostly be found in Skyloft where they will sell you much needed items, send you on side-quests and give the world some diversity and life. They’re a great bunch, the best since Majora’s Mask, the gold standard for the series in this area, and they exude a good amount of depth individually and in their relationships and societies. Standouts include Peatrice, the item check girl, bored with her job and lonely, who mistakes Link’s frequent visits for affection and clearly has on more and more makeup every time you deal with her. She’s a heart-breaking and amusing creation. Then there’s figures like Headmaster Gaepora who bears a clear resemblance to almost-namesake Kaepora Gaebora, the mentor-like owl character who recurs in the series. Best among them is Groose, the comical bully who, far from being the straightforward jerk he first seems, is actually given a satisfying arc and claims a not-insignificant place in the story.
While the story unfolds in some unexpected ways the overall feel and pacing of the plot is very familiar, shunning frequent story twists and gear changes for more leisurely progression. Three dungeons might go by between significant developments. This is perhaps a polite way of calling the story slow but although Zelda games have always been very driven by story, it has always primarily served to give context to the world you are invited to explore and the many tasks you are requested fulfil within it. This is the way it has always been in Zelda games and while more frequent shifts in focus and a deeper, more complex narrative might have been nice the formula the series continually reiterates retains a classic merit when many games these days and for years past have allowed lengthy story sequences to swallow up actual gameplay segments.
Much of what makes the Zelda experience shine is in its atmosphere and this is one area where Skyward Sword doesn’t quite excel like its predecessors. There are a number of reasons for this that are connected to other aspects of the game besides the story but I will say that this is one area that might not matter to Skyward Sword that much. It doesn’t have the mystery and irresistible sense of fantasy of Ocarina of Time or the melancholy gloom of Majora’s Mask and Twilight Princess nor even the spirit of adventure and history of Wind Waker. What it does achieve is a sense of a world in its infancy, yet to be properly settled, at once raw and innocent, and the effect vaguely recalls Link’s Awakening which is a good thing but ultimately the immersion generated by atmosphere is not that strong. There are some isolated exceptions defined by specific locations and the music that achieve a moodier effect but they don’t add up to what previous games achieved.
What we do get is the best and most modern presentation of any story in the series, embracing a cinematic scope in cut scenes without resorting to FMV that the series has always leaned towards, now achieving a highpoint. It does that despite the continuing lack of proper voice acting, the game featuring instead the usual array of grunts and cries that give you an idea of voice. It’s no problematic omission, voice acting wouldn’t quite fit the Zelda series somehow and there’s an innate likeability in the old-school way Nintendo handles the necessary text boxes and whatnot. Perhaps someday we’ll see (or rather hear) full voice acting in a Zelda game, knowing Nintendo I can imagine they could find a way to make it fit but there’s no urgent rush. Most aspects of the visual presentation are handled impeccably with only some badly judged and bewildering lip-syncing letting things down (particularly a few occasions in which a statue of the goddess sings, which, to be perfectly frank, are excruciatingly awful) but the delivery of the game and the story it tells ably aids immersion and develops the already rich mythology of the games to a new level.
That is the critical point here. The story has its fair share of exciting moments but none of the surprises or moments of gravity in Ocarina of Time or Wind Waker and nothing like the depth of Majora’s Mask but it does offer something massively significant, an origin story for the series as a whole and as such gives context to many vital elements therein. This is the first Link, the first Zelda, and the game is set in Hyrule before there even was a Hyrule. One example, Link’s iconic green tunic that the series has previously contextualised as a mark of identity for the forever reincarnating hero is revealed to have originated as the uniform for the Knights of Skyloft, green happening to be the chosen colour for the year of Link’s graduation. Other even more important things are given similar background stories, a treat the game repeats right until the final curtain and this is what will give fans the most pleasure from the story.
And what of the world itself? The giant playground you explore may be one of the most important parts of the game. In this case Nintendo have striven to create something fresh and they’ve done that but they’ve borrowed heavily from the world structures of two previous games to do it. Skyloft plays the same role in this game world that Clock Town did in Termina, acting as a central hub base you continually return to after every significant mission to take stock, refill your depleted arms, engage in side-quests and launch your next campaign into the wild world. In Majora’s Mask, Clock Town was surrounded by four themed regions (swamp, mountain, ocean, canyon) where everything else important happened and there’s a clear similarity to that here only this time those regions number three (forest, mountain, desert).
The rest of the world is the sky and this is where the resemblance to Wind Waker comes in. That game’s Great Sea was an excitingly unrestricted and mostly empty frontier and so is the sky, the difference being that you traverse it by wing rather than sail. The puzzling thing is that while you’re free to explore at your leisure there’s very little of interest to discover. When footage first emerged of the sky I tweeted about my excitement at how much this area of the game was starting to resemble Skies of Arcadia and while it does that on a visual level the handful of tiny islands and the rather paltry offering of things to discover on them pale by comparison to that game’s vast and varied map. The sad truth is that once you get over the novelty of flying your red bird around the space there’s almost nothing to do in it. Wind Waker was criticised, not wrongly, for the emptiness of its Great Sea but, despite being smaller, Skyward Sword’s sky is worse. The only difference is that you can alter your altitude, which is necessary to access higher flying islands but other than that amounts to nothing. As the game progresses returning to the sky becomes a repetitive chore but the game makes up for it slightly by including warp gates, hollow rocks that give you a massive and lengthy speed boost if you fly through them, mercifully reducing flight time.
The world below the clouds is more important and the decision to present it as three distinct and unconnected zones is an odd one. Each area is made up of several environments not all of which will be accessible the first time you visit (a bit of the old item-based exploration restriction, Metroid style makes this possible). They’ve been designed to soften the blow of the always necessary back-tracking. Instead of large, organic areas, the environments are split into innumerable pockets with many interlinking paths. On your first visit you’ll be forced to take the long way round as you explore deeper, opening up shortcuts as you go to make retracing your steps quicker. It’s intelligent and thoughtful design but there’s a problem with it. The overworld is never less than engaging and is filled with absorbing challenges to get stuck into but the overlapping, layered design leaves no room for a sense of place. The reason Ocarina of Time’s Hyrule has gone down in history as one of the great game worlds is because it feels believable, like a real place. This Hyrule-before-the-fact, though not without its merits, does not. It feels instead like a video game world designed entirely to make the most of the gameplay and not to immerse the player. This is one way the game fails to capture a truly memorable atmosphere. On top of this it doesn’t feel like the world is quite so full of secrets as in previous games which do a better job of subtly hiding parts of itself away. One other side-effect of this structure is that it means the game doesn’t feel all that epic.
Ocarina of Time, Wind Waker and Twilight Princess all felt epic (in the traditional sense, not as a brainless synonym for ‘awesome’) because they built their quests around a continuous journey that scarcely saw you returning home. You were sent out into the world to explore and the games never let your feet touch ground. This is the structure of an epic story. Majora’s Mask, which shares the head-out-into-the-world-then-return-to-base structure of Skyward Sword does not feel epic because its adventure is somewhat more episodic rather than one continuous journey. It didn’t matter because it replaced the epic scope with outstanding depth but Skyward Sword doesn’t have the same aspirations as Majora’s Mask in its structure or atmosphere. It’s not a problem with the new game as such, just one area where it lacks.
Several recurring locales feature, such as Faron Woods, while others appear under unfamiliar names that the early placement in the timeline explains. Lake Hylia is Lake Floria here, while Death Mountain is known as Eldin Volcano, the inference perhaps being that the more familiar monikers for these places weren’t coined until after the unification of Hyrule as a country. The separation of the three regions and the use of the sky as the frontier for traversal has apparently made necessary the omission of Hyrule Field and legitimate new concepts or not, Hyrule without Hyrule Field isn’t as good. Another notable thing the world lacks is proper towns and settlements besides Skyloft. In a way this helps create a sense of Hyrule as an unsettled wilderness before its unification so in that context it makes sense but it means you have to constantly return to Skyloft to do your shopping which can be a pain. Also the various fantastical races don’t get the same sense of community. Series favourites Gorons make a return in a style reminiscent of their involvement in Wind Waker. Few and far between, you might meet a lone travelling Goron on your adventure who will help out or have something interesting to talk about but they have no proper base. There are some new creatures to get to know too. Instead of Zoras the aquatic race is the haughty Parella tribe which are a cross between jellyfish and octopuses. Eldin Volcano is home to the Mogma, a community of gangly-armed mole-like treasure-hunters and elsewhere you’ll encounter groups of amusing ancient robots but the standout addition to the Hyrule bestiary is the Kikwi tribe, cute, furry, nervous forest-dwellers you’ll quickly care about. None of these races are given a communal home as well-developed as Goron City, Zora’s Domain or the Deku Palace. Again, it’s not really an issue as such, it’s just not what I want from an immersive game world.
However, credit where credit’s due, what the design of the overworld sets out to achieve it achieves. The environments are filled with nooks and crannies, locations of interest and obstacles are handled in ways that make you think in all the right ways. More than this, though, is the wealth of variety in what you are tasked with doing as you run around. Now we’re getting to one of Skyward Sword’s key strengths. Nintendo stated before launch that the game would blur the lines between dungeon and overworld, offering deeper and more varied objectives to fulfil in the field. I’m not sure I quite buy this supposed new development of the overworld as the reinvention of the Zelda formula it’s being billed as. Having interesting, time-consuming and varied tasks to do outside of dungeons is wonderful and gives a tremendous boost to the play time and overall value of the game but is it an entirely new philosophy for the series? May I direct your attention, once again, to exhibit A, Majora’s Mask, a game that made up for having half as many dungeons as Ocarina of Time by stuffing its overworld with depth and laying long roads leading to those dungeons. If you want an indicator of this consider all you need to do to get to Ocarina of Time’s Fire Temple after leaving Forest Temple (get a Goron Tunic from your namesake Goron, the work of but a moment) then consider the elaborate saga of events leading up to Majora’s Mask’s Stone Tower Temple, a journey that takes in two minor dungeons, not to mention the acquisition of the Song of Storms, the Garo’s Mask and the Gibdo Mask. I’m not knocking Skyward Sword’s emphasis on its overworld, it’s one of the best things about the game, I’m just pointing out that it’s not entirely new for the series. The depth it affords the journey is certainly welcome.
A superb example is the recurring Silent Realm challenges, this game’s take on the light/dark world mechanic, a concept that borrows openly from previous games in the series but achieves brilliance. At a number of points as you progress you will have to enter the Silent Realm, a shadowy and sinister alternate dimension in which you must gather tears of the goddesses to prove your worth. These challenges appear identical to similar segments in Twilight Princess, even using the same design for a temporary item used to store said tears. The difference here (other than the fact that you don’t play through these sections in wolf form and that the tears are in plain sight rather than concealed by dark insects) is that you have to complete the task whilst being hunted by Guardians. The concept of these formidable aggressors was first introduced in the shape of the Phantoms in Phantom Hourglass, invincible enemies that gave the infamous Temple of the Ocean King a strong stealth flavour. As in that game you cannot defeat these enemies, not least because to enter the Silent Realm you must plant your sword in the ground, so losing it. Likewise a single strike from a Guardian will defeat you forcing you to start all over again. Upon leaving the safe zone at the entrance the Guardians will start hunting you until you gain your first tear at which point the realm will fall peaceful for ninety seconds, the Guardians will reset to their original positions, statuesque and you will be free to continue your search. With each tear acquired the timer returns to ninety seconds but will drop to zero if you stray into certain strategically positioned bodies of strange red water or wander into the searchlight of an active sentry. Being hunted by Guardians is probably the most terrifying experience the series has ever provided, an effect achieved by the oppressive visual presentation of the Silent Realm and particularly the thumping, soul-crushing musical cue. There is nothing more tense than desperately searching for the last elusive tear with a heavily armed Phantom stalking behind you out of shot. It’s awesome stuff.
It doesn’t end there. Revisiting an old area you will often find it transformed, overrun by tougher enemies or ready to give you a surprise new scenario to delay you from achieving your next main objective. One standout sequence sees you robbed of all your equipment and it’s no quick sprint to reclaim it all either. The variety on offer here is absolutely fantastic but it hides a potentially major flaw. So much of what you do boils down to fetch quests (such as gathering those tears of light in the Silent Realm), which can be a problem for many. The game finds itself in the unique situation where it gives you variety but is repetitive about it. In its defence it does its upmost to build interesting scenarios around the fetch quests but it would have been nice to have some more straight-up mini-games all the same. The best scenario, for which the game cannot be faulted, is introduced in Lanayru Desert. Not wanting to spoil anything I won’t say anything about this concept except that it is used repeatedly throughout the game both in the overworld and in dungeons, finding plenty of variety in itself. This is a gameplay device that sits high as one of the cleverest and well-used puzzle-foundations in the series. If all that sounds a bit cryptic believe me, you’ll know what I’m talking about when you come to it.
When the Wii, and more specifically, the Wii Remote, was first unveiled the first thing many people imagined the motion controller standing in for was a sword. Sword plus Nintendo equals Zelda. The potential was lost on no-one and the prospect of a new Zelda game that saw you controlling Link’s sword swings by performing the action with your own body was very tantalising and the promise of more strategic and immersive swordplay this new innovation appeared to make possible was hard to resist. It looked with Twilight Princess like we’d be getting that on day one but, as I mentioned earlier, the tacked-on motion controls in the Wii version of that game achieved nothing that couldn’t have been done with a button press. The fact is that something as complex as motion-controlled swordplay requires the game to be designed around the concept which Twilight Princess wasn’t. In the meantime Nintendo has addressed the problem of the slight delay the gesture-based interface suffers in registering on screen with its Wii Motion Plus add-on and all new Wii Remote Plus controller which takes centre-stage here as necessary to play. This is the big innovation in the gameplay, the great USP that Twilight Princess lacked and the major draw for Skyward Sword. With no option for traditional button-based controls the execution and integration of this new feature could make or break the game.
They make it. The new swordplay is quite fantastic, a perfectly realised pillar that supports the entire gameplay. A flick of the remote draws the sword and from there it tracks the position of the remote with visible fidelity. You can adjust the position and angle of the sword without actually swinging it, a quirk the game uses for some clever puzzles. In combat a wave of the remote makes Link swing his sword in the same direction at exactly the same angle, likewise if you thrust forwards Link performs a stab. The strength of your swing doesn’t really make a difference. In fact when the game registers a swing it triggers a predetermined animation described by the angle of your input. However the execution of it means it takes a trained eye to actually notice this which means that the swordplay really feels like it’s all you and it’s absolutely exhilarating, this game makes you feel empowered by your weapon like the series has never done before.
The brilliant execution of the mechanics of the swordplay are only half of it though and the game deals with the other half, the integration, in similarly superb fashion. This is where the enemy design and behavioural AI comes in. Many of the baddies in this game come at you bearing their own weapons which they use to defend as well as attack. Bokoblins, for example, square off against you blocking high, low, or from either side, switching all the time and you must attack by swinging from an angle that will not see your blow shielded. More dangerous enemies block with more weapons, thereby limiting the angle of a successful swing more. This makes the combat considerably more strategic and demands far more concentration where before fights could often be momentary distractions. Other enemies require you to attack in even more inventive ways, turning encounters into action-based puzzles. The game also introduces a new technique called the Skyward Strike. By raising the remote and conversely the sword skywards you will charge it up. Swing the remote to unleash the Skyward Strike, a projectile attack that should hit any enemy within range you are Z-Targeting. It’s essentially the return of the beam attacks that have featured in the 2-D games since the series’ inception appearing for the second time in a 3-D outing (the first was, surprise surprise, Majora’s Mask in which you could unleash a sword-beam as Fierce Deity Link) and is made good use of throughout Skyward Sword.
As brilliant as the swordplay is it still isn’t quite what I had in mind when I first imagined motion-based sword fighting on the Wii. I pictured a game in which every tiny movement of your hand would reflect on screen in a way that would allow you to wield total control over your weapon with enemies capable of parries and thrusts equal to your own and offering a challenge that would require the agility and guile of a real swordsman. Having now played Skyward Sword, which does not provide this I conclude that what I have described would be almost impossible to program and could lead to all sorts of problems, particularly with the difficulty level. As it is what we have more than makes up for the shortcomings of Twilight Princess and the gameplay is infinitely engaging. I admit that a part of me yearns for for the old-school simplicity of buttons but I can’t stand in the way of progress and Eiji Auonuma has indicated that future games in the series will continue to use the new method of control. Good.
As iconic as Link’s sword is it’s difficult to imagine him without a shield too and the shield controls have been shaken up though it is still mapped to the nunchuck. To raise your shield you must shake the nunchuck and thrust it forwards to perform a shield bash which can stun foes. To be honest having to shake the nunchuck to assume a defensive position is not that natural where previously in Twilight Princess all you had to do was target your enemy. The timing for shield bashes is quite strict which actually makes the technique quite a thrill to pull off. In addition to this the various shields you defend yourself with throughout the game will have a limited durability. Every time you defend a blow a meter will decrease and your shield will break if it empties. It is possible to get your shield fixed at the Bazaar and there are various ways to replenish a depleted Durability Meter. It’s worth noting that Shield Bashes won’t see the gauge reduced. This is a nice development and one more way in which the game becomes more strategic. Having said that I found myself using Link’s shield less than in previous games but that’s just me, other people might find differently. If there is an issue with the defensive gameplay it’s not anything that spoils the overall experience.
It’s not just the swordplay that has been enhanced by Wii Motion Plus, Link’s entire arsenal also makes use of the peripheral. I’m now going to give the lowdown on all of them, one by one. If you consider learning about Link’s new toys to be a spoiler skip this paragraph as well as the four that follow. The fact is every one of these weapons has been shown in pre-release gameplay footage so I don’t how much of what I’m going to say is spoiler anyway. First up the old classics. Bombs play the same role they always have, as weapons and a means to blast your way through obstacles. The way you use them has changed a little. When you take one out you can place it down by pressing A or throw it by first raising the Wii Remote up at which point a trajectory indicator will appear. By affecting a throwing motion Link will throw the bomb to where the guide shows. Alternatively you can lower the Wii Remote and bowl the explosive, guided by another visual cue, a method that allows you to precisely propel bombs into small gaps. These are thoughtful enhancements but they offer no great advantage over the old method.
Another Zelda staple the bow also features with enhancements. The equivalent in Twilight Princess made rather good use of the Wii Remote’s pointer but this new game eschews the feature completely (I’ll get to that in a minute). Instead you aim the bow with gestures and can fire in two different ways. Either you can press A, holding to zoom the camera in slightly and increase the power of your shot, or you can employ a method similar to Wii Sports Resort’s archery game by bringing the nunchuck into play and miming the act of drawing back a bowstring. This approach increases the speed of the zoom and the build-up of strength in your shot, which is advantageous in a heated situation. It’s nice to have the choice and the accuracy the motion controls give you is unprecedented.
Unusually Skyward Sword does not feature any boomerang, an item that has been a mainstay of the series since the beginning and has only been absent once before (in Zelda II). All the same a handful of classic inventory items make a return, such as the Slingshot, which acts as a weak projectile weapon that does until you can get your hands on the bow. It’s aimed the same way as the bow and fired with A but does nothing more than usual (at least to begin with, details to follow). The Whip, which debuted in Spirit Tracks makes an appearance and is swung with a flick of the Wii Remote, the direction of your swing describing the trajectory of the weapon. You can use it to stun enemies or to latch on to overhead posts and whatnot to swing over gaps Indiana Jones style, and also to manipulate objects you encounter for a spot of puzzle solving. It’s fun to use and, like the sword, the motion controls are very empowering.
Then there’s the Bug Net, an item not seen since A Link to the Past and it serves a similar purpose here. Like in Twilight Princess the world is full of various bugs but you need a tool to catch them this time. Wii Motion Plus is necessary to control the net which requires precision for the tricky task of snagging the evasive insects and brings some challenge and skill to an otherwise mundane task. One of the best items to feature in Twilight Princess was the Double Clawshots, returning here as the Clawshots. Like before they can be used to latch onto appropriate attachment points and pull you towards them in the age-old tradition of the Hookshot. By using both you can cling to one such point while aiming at another (using the same method as the Bow and Slingshot) allowing you to traverse huge chasms and negotiate your way around complex rooms without ever letting your feet touch ground. As before it’s great fun and although the Clawshots are required throughout the game following your acquisition of them it never quite feels like they’re made as showboating use of as they were in City in the Sky in Twilight Princess. All the same, a very welcome inclusion.
Skyward Sword also features an item that resembles the Gust Jar from Minish Cap, here called the Gust Bellows. This weapon expels a continuous gust of wind that you can use to bamboozle enemies, clear rooms of dust and sand and solve puzzles. It’s a decent inclusion that is made imaginative use of, particularly inside dungeons but it doesn’t set the world alight. The only main weapon that can be called completely new is the Beetle, a flying bug-like contraption you control directly in similar fashion to the seagulls that you could command after tempting them with a Hyoi Pear in Wind Waker. You tilt the Wii Remote to steer the Beetle, using its pincers to cut through ropes and other objects in need of severing, or you can strike switches, pick up Rupees and explore narrow tunnels and high places Link cannot otherwise access but it will not fly indefinitely, operating on a timer. It’s an excellent invention for the series, not useful offensively but is at the centre of some great puzzles. More than this it is extremely useful as a tool for exploration allowing you to scout ahead or spy on areas you can’t yet access.
That does it for the main weapons to grace your arsenal. The fact that they’ve all been designed for motion controls does limit the quantity rather like the touch screen interface restricted the number of weapons Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks could include. It’s not a major problem, far from it but I do miss the days of A Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time when Link’s inventory was bigger. There are a number of other tools that don’t make use of the motion controls such as the Digging Mitts, which resemble Minish Cap’s Mole Mitts and are used to dig in distinctive patches of earth. Then there’s the Sailcloth which is needed to act like a parachute after throwing yourself from the back of your Loftwing. As usual you will be able to hoard a collection of bottles in which you can keep a wide variety of potions and other beneficial things such as life-saving fairies. There are more things than this but I’ll leave you to discover them for yourself.
The last really important item is your instrument, the Goddess’s Harp, which bears a resemblance to the harp that Sheik played in Ocarina of Time. The Goddess’s Harp’s integration into the gameplay is less like that of the instruments in Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask and Wind Waker in which you learned different songs and played them manually as circumstances demanded and closer to the howling concept from Twilight Princess. Like in that game playing your harp is only necessary to progress in a handful of situations although you can take it out (it’s permanently mapped to the up direction on the D-Pad) and start strumming but there are few reasons to ever do this. Playing the Harp requires you to hold the A button and wave the Remote from side to side in a vague strumming motion, the speed of your swing affecting the tempo of the music. There’s no refinement to it and no licence for creativity. A circle of light grows and shrinks around you to guide the tempo but it’s still tricky to get the hang of and the whole concept ultimately falls flat but it doesn’t break anything.
One way in which Skyward Sword does shake things up for the series is in its interface. As I mentioned earlier the game does away with pointer controls. There’s still an on-screen pointer used for the menus but you move it by angling the Wii Remote in the desired direction instead of pointing at the screen. Since most Wii games, as well as the Wii Menu use the pointer controls this new setup takes some getting used to but it eventually clicks and becomes intuitive requiring less precision and not such a steady hand. These controls apply to the aiming of weapons such as the Bow and the Slingshot and work very well in that sense too. It’s a smart idea, well placed.
Nintendo have also streamlined the menu interface for item selection. Gone are the days of having to pause the game to swap out your weapons. Instead you can press and hold B to bring up a wheel menu on which the eight main weapons described above will be located, angle the pointer over the desired choice and release B to equip the weapon, all in real time without pausing the game. Again this takes getting used to but eventually muscle memory will guide you to the right menu spot for your desired choice. With the weapon equipped you can use it with A and tap B to put it away where it will remain in reserve. A tap of B will bring it out again, you will have to hold B to open the menu and make a different selection. Happily this innovation has fixed one of the last remaining criticisms of the Zelda gameplay (having to pause the game to swap weapons) but it’s worth noting that those used to Twilight Princess’s method of item selection might find the button inputs confusing for a while at first as it differs from that game but it’s not a big problem. There’s a separate menu wheel for your Adventure Bag in which you store items such as bottles and a number of automatic power-ups and can be accessed with the minus button. Taking potions in real time is another welcome improvement. Finally a third menu wheel is mapped to the C button on the nunchuck and is connected to your new dowsing ability.
Dowsing is an all new ability designed to aid you with searching for the various treasure hunting you’ll be doing in the game and as such makes the fetch quests that bit more manageable. A tap of C puts you into the usual first person mode for looking around but by holding it to bring up the menu wheel and selecting something to dowse for you will go into dowsing mode, also in the first person. In this mode Link will hold out his sword in front of himself with you guiding the sword with the Wii Remote. Visual and audio cues will tell you when you are pointing the sword in the right direction. You can move around in this view while you track down your target. Dowsing has proven controversial among purists who claim that it’s cheating, removing the challenge of treasure hunting which is a fair comment but I don’t think it ruins anything. Since the game is so reliant on fetch quests dowsing goes a long way to keeping that from becoming tiresome. The objects you can dowse for vary from Zelda herself when searching for her as part of the main quest to common treasures and items including things like recovery hearts, making the ability useful in a variety of situations.
One new thing that definitely enriches the experience is the stamina meter, something I was sceptical about at first. By holding A during normal play Link will start to sprint and a green circular meter will start to empty. If it runs out completely Link will stop running, exhausted and you will be unable to do anything for a few seconds while he gets his breath back. This is an evolution of the Pegasus Boots and Bunny Hood from previous games that injects an extra layer of strategy into proceedings, particularly in the Silent Realm and combat situations. The inclusion of the stamina meter makes this Link the most athletic to date and whilst sprinting he will automatically run up walls a little way and grab for higher ledges than ever before. The meter also comes into play when climbing forcing you to think ahead in those situations. There are pickups available that replenish your meter located throughout the world particularly in locations where the stamina meter is likely to come into play. A similar air meter pops up whilst swimming underwater. Both add a welcome extra layer of strategy to the game without ever detracting from anything.
Flight is an important and necessary part of the game, replacing horse-riding as the premier mode of transportation across the world with mixed results. To take to the wing you must sprint and leap off the edge of Skyloft to begin skydiving and tap a button to call your Loftwing who will swoop in to catch you. To control the bird you angle the Wii Remote to steer left and right or dive. To gain altitude you must swing the Remote downwards to flap, which is intuitive enough. You can also perform a charge attack by pressing A. Flying is a lot of fun at first but it’s very difficult to gain any sort of precision from the extremely sensitive controls which can eventually become wearing. To return to terra firma is just another button press away and you will need to employ your Sailcloth to prevent a painful landing. To return to the sky from the land below the clouds you must find a Bird Statue which can conjure a powerful upward gust of wind that catches in your Sailcloth and propels you upwards to where you Loftwing will be waiting for you. Although fresh the flight sequences don’t amount to an improvement over riding Epona. It’s also harder to form an emotional connection with your Loftwing partly because birds just aren’t as loveable as horses and partly because no name for it is ever mentioned which makes a difference. It’s also worth noting at this point that Bird Statues serve a dual purpose as save points and are reminiscent of Majora’s Mask’s Owl Statues in this way. Not being able to save whenever you want might have been a problem but the Bird Statues are numerous enough that this isn’t the case.
There are some other little things worth noting. The day/night cycle doesn’t really apply any more. You can manually change day to night or vice versa by finding any bed and taking a snooze, choosing to sleep either until morning or nightfall, doing so will also heal you. You can only find a bed in Skyloft and on one other floating island and you can’t go flying at night which means you will never see any of the world below the clouds after dark. I don’t know why Nintendo have done this, the natural day/night cycle was one of the innovations of Ocarina of Time that was praised and removing it limits the game’s immersion.
Whenever you return to one of the three main earthbound areas you can choose any Bird Statue you’ve discovered to make landing at (as long as it’s not inside a dungeon), which is great but all the good steps the game takes to eliminate tiresome backtracking makes it all the stranger that there’s no way to instantly warp between locations like in most previous games. There’s also no magic meter again which many won’t find a major issue but I was disappointed by its omission from Twilight Princess as I think having certain abilities restricted by possessing limited magic power needed to use them always added another layer of strategy to the game and I’m sorry it doesn’t reappear.
Part of the vibrancy and richness of the Zelda universe comes from its optional extra content, aka side quests. These additional missions which range from quick little errands to some pretty in-depth sub-stories are what bring diversity to the structure of play and create a sense of discovery in the game world. The Zelda game with the best side quest content is, you’ve guessed it, Majora’s Mask, which needed to nail this aspect of its design to account for the small number of dungeons it offered. The game’s side quests made great use of its three-day cycle concept and the schedules of its NPCs which you could keep track of through the Bomber’s Notebook which acted as a log to organise all your jobs. The structure of the game allowed for a greater scope in the side quests because fewer dungeons meant fewer Heart Containers as reward for finishing them which meant many more Heart Pieces, common rewards for completing side quests in the series, needed to be hidden away in Termina. Then there were the many masks in the game which were involved both as rewards and as tools for completing the numerous tasks. Some such missions were quite elaborate in design and length and gave several gifts as you went, such as the exciting sequence of events that took place in Romani Ranch or the hugely fulfilling quest to reunite the estranged lovers Anju and Kafei, my favourite side quest in any game. One way in which Skyward Sword could elevate itself above other games in the series would be by applying a similar philosophy of involving and complex optional missions.
Although Skyward Sword never comes close to Majora’s Mask in this regard it does have a decent amount of extras to explore along the main quest. One recurring idea is the Goddess Cubes which are literally grey cubes located throughout the world below the clouds. You must hit these Goddess Cubes with a Skyward Strike to send them shooting up into the air. Later when you return to the sky you will be able to see treasure chests marked on your map for each cube you have activated. These chests can only be opened after you have found its corresponding Goddess Cube and invariably contain the usual goodies. It’s not the most in-depth idea but it works. Better is the search for Gratitude Crystals which work in a similar way Ocarina of Time’s addictive Gold Skulltula hunt. There is a character in the game who seeks these Gratitude Crystals which can be obtained either by finding them hidden in the world or by helping NPCs. You can gain useful presents for passing frequent milestones in your Gratitude Crystal count. It’s a good concept I look forward to exploring in more detail the next time I play the game.
Among the traditional rewards given for completing side quests are expansions for Link’s resources such as his wallet, quiver and bomb bag. These have always made for satisfying and empowering moments in previous games but Skyward Sword does things a bit differently. Basically all of the expansions you might need can be bought either from Skyloft’s well-equipped Bazaar or from Beedle’s Airshop, also in Skyloft. This shift is a double-edged sword, on the one hand it gives you something worthwhile to spend your rupees on which the series has been crying out for for years but on the other it takes away the necessity to attach an interesting side quest to such acquisitions. It’s not as fun to upgrade the capacity of your quiver by simply buying another pocket for it than it is to succeed in a test of archery. It’s a shame because this is an example of where the game robs from itself to give itself a gift.
This brings me to the wider upgrade system, a completely new feature to the series and a significant one. If you go to see Gondo in Skyloft’s Bazaar he will offer to upgrade most of your weapons in exchange for some rupees and the materials necessary to do the job (get to that in a sec). These upgrades include things like extra durability for your shield, a larger size for your Bug Net or the Scattershot, a better Slingshot that fires several projectiles at once over a wider area. Getting these upgrades are quite compulsive pursuits and they provide another welcome outlet for spending money but none of them are necessary to complete the game. While this means you’re not forced to divert your attention from the main quest it also means that many of the upgrades are more worthwhile than others. To be able to upgrade your things you must gather treasure from around the world to use as materials. These treasures act rather like the items you kept in your Spoils Bag in Wind Waker and can be found all over the place, inside treasure chests, dropped by monsters and in other contextual situations. Some treasures are commonly found in the same way, Jelly Blobs for example are typically dropped by Chu Chus. It’s a good and engaging system but it would have been nice for all this gear to be useful for something more than weapons upgrades. In a welcome touch you can sell any unwanted treasure to a specific NPC.
Then there’s your bug collection. Catching bugs in Twilight Princess was one of the main continuous side quests but were only useful to sell to Princess Agitha for huge amounts of useless rupees. While you can still sell any bugs you don’t need to another particular NPC this time round their principal use is as ingredients to improve your potions. There’s a good variety of potions to buy from the usual life-restoring red potions to new mixes that improve your stamina or the durability of your shield. By imbuing any of these potions with the correct bugs (and spending a little money) you can improve their effects are add new ones. This is a really worthwhile addition to the game particularly since the basic red potion only heals you a limited amount and must be upgraded to be of real use later in the game. Like treasures, bugs tend to be found in specific parts of the world and some are easier to catch than others. You’ll definitely feel compelled to catch any insects you see on your travels for later use.
Almost every review I’ve read (or watched in the case of video reviews) has used the word ‘painterly’ to describe the graphics of Skyward Sword. Seriously going through the different verdicts on the game it became such a cliché to see the word every time that I can’t use it myself without acknowledging it but the fact is it’s a spot-on observation. On the surface the game appears to employ a very similar graphical style to that of Wind Waker with its bold primary colours and heavy saturation but it goes deeper than that. Nintendo have taken inspiration from impressionist painters such as Renoir to give the game’s vistas that stylised ‘painterly’ look and it’s a lovely effect. The foreground is awash with vibrant colours while the backgrounds appear in soft focus giving the world an artistic sense of depth. The technique also serves the purpose of masking the technical limitations of the Wii but does it in a subtle way that is satisfying and original.
It’s a beautiful looking game to be sure but still doesn’t reach the technical achievement of the Super Mario Galaxy games. There are moments of blurry textures and jagged edges that can look on the ugly side and some of the polygons aren’t as smooth as they perhaps should be. Having said that there are some breath-taking moments, often that use some fantastically striking lighting effects that really make the colourful style shine and sell the sense of fantasy. This doesn’t apply throughout the game though and some locales are certainly prettier than others. Highlights include Faron Woods which is awash with enhanced natural shades and healthy greens to give a sense of the flourishing forest, or there’s the smoky, red hues that give Eldin Volcano its oppressive aura. Other places look like what they are and little more and can’t convey the same sense of place and immersion. Lanayru desert is full of sandy and earthy tones, clearly a desert but nothing very special.
I’ve already mentioned the world design fails to provide a strong atmosphere and sense of place and I think to a certain extent the graphics do the same. As much as I like the style the series has always felt more atmospheric when striving for a more realistic look. Wind Waker too had atmospheric moments, often defined by its music, but it didn’t have the same powerful mood the graphics of Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask and Twilight Princess all achieved. It made up for this with a strong sense of adventure and discovery that is missing from Skyward Sword. I definitely like the new style and how it’s employed but I still hope the next game returns to the more life-like approach.
The character design is very strong on the whole, NPCs all look unique and their personalities are conveyed strongly by their design. Some of the enemies don’t look so great particularly the rather dull Bokoblins but most of the art direction is as strong and consistent as the series has always been. One way in which it feels like a relic of a bygone age is in some of the character animations. Like Twilight Princess Nintendo have used motion capture for many of the cut scenes and this succeeds in bringing natural motion to such occasions but some of the in-game animation are well behind the times. Many of Link’s movements are jerky and jagged, even his basic running and sprinting animations look a bit silly. The Wii might not have the technical grunt to keep up with the best examples of character animation in games for the HD consoles but I don’t think that’s a legitimate excuse here.
One thing I always look forward to in a new Zelda game is its music, and the new game has been cause for particular anticipation since much of it is orchestrated for the first time. I’ve listened to every piece of music in the soundtrack both in-game and separately and the conclusion that I’ve drawn is that despite being to a very high general standard this is not equal to the consistent quality of musical arrangements in the best previous entries, Ocarina of Time, Majora’s Mask and Wind Waker but more in line with Twilight Princess. The orchestral pieces are uniformly the best tunes in the game but their deployment in the game is a little bemusing as they’re mostly reserved for important moments in the story as opposed to in-game background melodies which means that most of the best tunes turn up once and are never heard again.
The MIDI arrangements used during gameplay are never less than good quality but they’ve been composed to suggest mood and serve as background ambiance rather than the catchy melodies the series is famous for. The result is that many of the most commonly-heard tunes in the game are fairly forgetable. Take the average piece if in-game music from Skyward Sword and compare it to any such you care to recall from Ocarina of Time and the difference between them should be pretty clear. The earlier game produced iconic music at every turn while this new title seems content with adequacy in this area. There are exceptions such as the breezy, mellow ditty heard in Skyloft and the peppy Bazaar theme which alters depending on which shop you’re near. The main travelling anthem that accompanies your flight, one of the few examples of an orchestrated in-game melody, is fairly rousing but not a patch on the stirring equivalent tunes for Hyrule Field and the Great Sea in Ocarina of Time, Wind Waker and Twilight Princess.
As music is such a hugely important element in the creation of atmosphere the relatively gentle and unambitious use of it in the game is a major factor in the relative lack of atmosphere in Skyward Sword. It might have been different if the developers had chosen to distribute the orchestral tracks a little more evenly because they provide not only the best musical moments in the game but also the most atmospheric. From the dramatic piece that accompanies the opening story segment onwards these arrangements are consistently stirring, evocative and moody. The best examples include the wonderfully sweet and earnest romance themes, and there are a few variations on that superb theme tune that was used in all the trailers that prove just as effective in the finished product but for my money the pick of the soundtrack is the haunting tune that plays while you are following Fi to the Statue of the Goddess early on, an echoey flute melody loaded with mysterious atmosphere.
As for the rest of the sound design we get pretty much what we’d expect, limited voice cues for characters and sound effects that get the job done, some recycled from Twilight Princess. The dramatic notes that accompanied every successful sword strike from Wind Waker return in half measure, which is nice and fits with the graphical style. Other than that I don’t imagine anyone will want to heap unprecedented plaudits on the sound effects but nor will they draw significant criticism.
One thing I’ve yet to make detailed mention of is the dungeons of Skyward Sword. Dungeons are the life blood of Zelda games, the main events that showcase the best of the game’s puzzles. But more than that Zelda dungeons are like another world within a world, the most immersive and absorbing parts of some incredibly immersive and absorbing games, great bases of invention and excitement. I had hoped at this point in the review to be expressing my regret at having already posted my Top Ten Zelda Dungeons, that Skyward Sword might have produced one or two dungeons worthy of the list. Sadly that isn’t quite the case. The dungeons of Skyward Sword vary greatly in quality and the best are very good but none of them are up to the series’ highest standards. I’ll go into some more detail in a minute but first I have to address the number of dungeons. Obviously quality is more important than quantity but having both, as Twilight Princess did, is better again. Majora’s Mask lacked quantity with only four but made up for this with the extremely high quality of its few dungeons. If you consider being told the number of dungeons in a new Zelda game to be a spoiler skip to the next paragraph because I’m going to give it away in the next sentence. There are a total of six main dungeons in Skyward Sword, the exact number I had predicted there would be, two for each region. Six isn’t a bad number but by the time I had conquered the sixth I wasn’t completely satisfied and wanted more.
Skyward Sword’s dungeons start on a low point with Skyview Temple which has to be the weakest in the 3D home console series, featuring very little to make it stand out and nothing resembling a central conceit around which to base the puzzles like many of the best Zelda dungeons do. More than this there’s just nothing to it, it’s over quickly and despite featuring a fairly moody background theme, decent use of the item it introduces and a couple of good scraps it doesn’t live up to the series tradition of making you feel like you’re in a different world. It does have one saving grace, a spectacular boss encounter, but I’ll cover bosses a little later. The small size of this dungeon is a symptom of Nintendo’s focus on a wider variety of content to get through in the overworld. This is a mistake as it comes at the expense of what should be the best parts of the game. A Zelda dungeon should not be a flash in the pan, it should take time to get through and leave you feeling like you’ve accomplished something by beating its gauntlet of puzzles and enemies. That doesn’t happen in Skyview Temple but the dungeons do improve after that.
Two such clearly stand out the most by making superb use of that gameplay concept that debuts in Lanayru Desert that I praised earlier but even these are overshadowed by the best offerings in Twilight Princess and especially Majora’s Mask. The best Zelda dungeons make you feel like you’re in a lion’s den, a hostile fortress far from any place of safety in the depths of some wilderness. Some, such as Ocarina of Time’s Shadow Temple send you descending deep into the dark earth, building up a real feeling of isolation and dread while others convey a sense of place and context within the world such as Twilight Princess’s Snowpeak Ruins. Only one of Skyward Sword’s dungeons do any of these but I won’t go into details except to say that its design goes for a deeper context beyond just being a dungeon but it’s actually a concept that’s been done before and probably done better. The rest are mostly just pure, concentrated dungeons featuring imaginative and clever puzzles many of which make excellent use of the new Wii Motion Plus controlled weapons, they just never go above and beyond to truly enthral you. The best moments include balancing on a great stone ball and rolling through pools of lava in a fire-themed dungeon, descending into the basement of a water-themed dungeon to find it full of zombie Bokoblins and a breath-taking sequence in which you must escape a disintegrating dungeon while the boss destroys it from the outside. As great as the dungeons are none of them are as unforgettable as the likes of Stone Tower Temple, City in the Sky or Forest Temple.
However there’s one dungeon that brings the house down. I haven’t counted it in my considerations of the main body of dungeons for a good reason. Most games in the series offer up what I like to call a ‘Final Dungeon’, a concluding fortress that builds up to the final boss, for example Ganon’s Castle in Ocarina of Time or Hyrule Castle itself in Twilight Princess. The equivalent in Skyward Sword doesn’t actually house the final boss (nor does that of A Link to the Past) but it can’t be deemed a regular dungeon because it does not follow the clear formula of one. I deliberately didn’t consider these ‘Final Dungeons’ whilst compiling my Top Ten Zelda Dungeons post because I wanted it to be a level playing field and those dungeons might have advantages or disadvantages compared to the regular ones. If I hadn’t done that and if I had waited for Skyward Sword to make the list, this game’s Final Dungeon, Sky Keep, would have easily made it, maybe even as high as the number two spot. At its heart is a design concept that is nothing less than a stroke of genius, one that really makes you think hard without ever leaving you completely baffled. I won’t give away any details (because that really would be a major spoiler) except to say that it’s an idea that has scope to make your journey through the dungeon different every time, which is awesome. Sky Keep may well be the best part of Skyward Sword and if the same philosophy of imagination had been applied to every regular dungeon the game might have ended up with a higher score.
One other area in which the game excels is its bosses which surprise all the way through both in terms of their design and their placement in the game. The first goes a long way to making up for the underwhelming Skyview Temple by pitting you against Lord Ghirahim in a thrilling encounter. The battle does nothing fancy, you’re not even required to use the item found in the dungeon, it’s just a straight-up test of skill and swordsmanship and it’s a showstopper that sets the scene for the rest of the game. It’s a bit difficult to talk about the bosses and avoid spoilers so I won’t go into detail about the others but I will mention one surprising encounter with a boss called The Imprisoned (boss names are announced on screen again and are mostly dramatic and cool). This battle really stands out for the sheer drama of it. For the first time in the series I actually found myself slightly scared, not in a survival-horror way but the presentation of this boss was so nightmarish that I got a powerful sense of the fear Link would surely feel when attempting to take it down. It achieves this without even being a particularly challenging fight.
But it’s one of the few that isn’t. It’s been some time since we had a Zelda game that was hard, Majora’s Mask was the last that took more for a Zelda veteran working on autopilot to complete thanks to its mind-bending dungeons. On handhelds Oracle of Seasons’ unforgiving combat provided something meaty too but since then most games in the series haven’t been anything a seasoned player can’t breeze through (although newbies and kids might still have found them tough). That trend ends with Skyward Sword. We’re not talking difficulty levels to rival Zelda II, the only game in the series I’ve never completed (because it’s so damn hard) but for the first time in years I actually died, several times at that. Most enemy attacks do a full heart of damage while health pickups and particularly life-saving recovery fairies are few and far between, plus you can only get health potions from one location and they only heal eight hearts unless you upgrade them. So despite the fact that you start the game with six hearts instead of the usual three you’ll find yourself in danger more frequently than before. But it’s the bosses that will really give you trouble and I was defeated by several of them, sometimes more than once right up to the final fight. This is great because games are always more worthwhile if you have to work hard for your victory. Puzzles are less likely to impede your progress but there are still a few head-scratching moments, namely Sky Keep. If you still find this isn’t enough to satisfy then never fear because the game has something else up its sleeve that I’ll get to later. On the other hand if you find yourself stuck there is a Sheikah Stone in Skyloft similar to those from Ocarina of Time 3D which can give you hints.
The difficulty does have a bearing on the playtime if you get stuck for a significant amount of time but even if you blitz through Skyward Sword it’s a long haul. None of the puzzles left me stumped for very long although a few of the bosses delayed progress a little, I sought to complete some of the side quests but didn’t pursue them in tremendous depth and the game still took me close to fifty hours to complete, nearly ten hours more than my first playthrough of Twilight Princess, the hitherto longest game in the series. Obviously aiming for perfection by besting all the side quests would have increased that playtime even further but strangely the game somehow doesn’t feel as long as it is and I think this goes back to the issue of its structure. It takes a long time to complete but it’s not epic in its design so Twilight Princess actually seemed longer. All the same the value for money you get from the time you’ll spend with it until completion is extremely satisfying. I’m going to have to issue another spoiler warning now so jump to the next paragraph (where you’ll get another spoiler warning) if you don’t want to know what the game offers to those who complete it. After beating the game once you will unlock a Second Quest in the age-old tradition started by The Legend of Zelda. This Second Quest is a much harder affair in which enemy attacks do more damage and there are no health pickups at all. I haven’t actually tried it but I know from playing the normal game that this would be a colossal challenge, probably the toughest thing a Zelda game has asked of players since Zelda II. This Second Quest will please hardcore fans and greatly increase the game’s longevity for many. Skyward Sword is more than good enough to warrant numerous repeat plays but the Second Quest gives you that much more incentive.
I’m now going to talk a bit about the ending. I won’t go into too much detail but by talking about it at all however vaguely there are bound to be spoilers on some level so if you don’t want to know the result look away now, by which I mean skip the paragraph that follows this one (this paragraph doesn’t contain any spoilers for Skyward Sword but it does for all four previous games). It goes without saying that the ending is important since this is what we’ve been building to for many many hours and as such it needs to be satisfying. The series has a very good track record in this department. Ocarina of Time built up great tension as you ascend Ganon’s Keep, with Ganondorf’s organ music growing louder and clearer the higher you climb. After defeating the Great King of Evil the game then staged a thrilling escape from the collapsing tower before Ganon’s fantastic reveal and the amazingly climactic final battle. Majora’s Mask was characteristically surprising by sending you to the moon where you found a peaceful green field broken by a single tree and a number of children wearing the masks of the four defeated guardians who gave you optional challenges that could help you gain the Fierce Deity Mask, the game’s ultimate weapon. The final trio of bosses themselves were extraordinarily freaky and live long in the memory. Wind Waker’s final encounter with Ganondorf was staged in spectacular fashion with the Great Sea raining down on Hyrule to flood it out completely. The fight itself was frantic and exciting and featured a first in that Zelda fought alongside you. And let’s not forget that legendary finishing blow as Link buried the Mater Sword deep in the antagonist’s cranium or the emotional farewell to Hyrule’s King that follow the battle. By comparison Twilight Princess was a bit of a let-down, plodding through Hyrule Castle wasn’t the strongest build-up and although the fight with the possessed Zelda and the horseback pursuit that followed later were both good the struggle against Dark Beast Ganon was nothing special and the final showdown with Ganondorf was too easy, but at least elements of the final scenes were well done, especially Midna’s reveal having been turned back into a Twili.
Skyward Sword is a clear return to form. The build-up is handled well, especially one incredible action sequence that precedes the final encounters. Like many previous games there isn’t just one lone final boss but a succession. The final boss itself is an excellent test of speed, skill, strategy and reactions in a dramatic setting and it’s easily the hardest the series has had in years (it took me three attempts) but more memorable than the battle is the character himself. This antagonist is by far the most terrifying such in the series and the game takes a seriously dark turn upon his appearance. No incarnation of Ganon or Ganondorf has ever been anywhere near as threatening as this guy, in fact his sinister presentation almost feels out of place for the series in this way. Ganondorf regularly brings an ample level of brawn and menace to his role but this antagonist is a towering bastion of deep evil and hate that makes Link look insignificant and his contribution helps make the last few hours of the game very memorable indeed. All in all it’s a very satisfying conclusion.
I realise that throughout this review I’ve been quite negative but you shouldn’t take that as an indication of the game’s quality. The Legend of Zelda – Skyward Sword is an outstanding videogame with a huge amount of content and innovation to recommend it. The reason this review has read at times less like a review than a fan rant is because I am so much more attuned to every little detail in a Zelda game than anything else so I’m inclined to dwell on faults more than with other games. Also because the standards set by Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask were so high that it feels to me like anything that doesn’t match their quality is not fulfilling the series’ potential.
There are many things I would have done differently with Skyward Sword but some of the things that I consider faults other people might not. For example this new game has been created with a similar mentality to Super Mario Galaxy, as a pure videogame in which gameplay takes precedence over pretty much everything else. You may prefer it this way but when it comes to Zelda I think the sense of immersion and adventure and the world you play in is just as important if not more so. Another crucial point I should make, not for the first time, is that a single playthrough of a game is not always enough to judge it fairly. As it was with Twilight Princess it is quite possible that I may like Skyward Sword more after two of three completions. However the bottom line is that Skyward Sword does have its drawbacks and as such it does not stand with the best of the series. Instead it’s closer to Wind Waker and Twilight Princess. That being the case it strikes me that if the best features of each of those titles existed together in a different game we’d be onto something far superior. Imagine the freedom, the sense of adventure and mystery, the glorious soundtrack and the moments of gravity in the story of Wind Waker combined with the moody graphics, the melancholy atmosphere, the extraordinary weapons, dungeons and overworld of Twilight Princess added to the brilliant motion controlled gameplay, the overworld challenges, writing, character development and orchestrated music of Skyward Sword. That game would be worthy of a 9.8, maybe even a 9.9, but alone, none of them are.
If you’ve scrolled down to the score you’ll know that I’ve still given Skyward Sword the phenomenally high score of 9.7 so it should be considered a clear mark of the massive quality of the series that a game worthy of such a score can be considered slightly disappointing. Since Majora’s Mask I’ve only played two games that I feel are worthy of 9.8, both of which appeared on the Gamecube in 2003 (in my opinion the greatest year ever for Nintendo software releases), Skies of Arcadia – Legends and Metroid Prime (check out my Metroid Prime Review) both of which, as far as I’m concerned, far exceeded reasonable expectations for any videogame, which Skyward Sword didn’t. The only trouble I’m having is figuring out exactly how good it is compared to games with the same score of 9.7. It’s better than Wind Waker but I’m not certain it’s superior to Twilight Princess. It fixed a lot of things that game got wrong especially the motion controls and the integration of the inventory but it lacks in areas where that game thrived, such as the quality of the dungeons, atmosphere and immersion. I’ll be posting my annual Top 100 Games list soon so check that to see my decision. I can say that I think that both Super Mario Galaxy games are better so I can’t call it the best game on the Wii and despite what some people have said it is definitely not the best Zelda game.
But it is unquestionably a wonderful, unique and hugely entertaining game. The gameplay is utterly fantastic, the story a treat and everything else that makes up the game that it is is to a very high standard. The Zelda formula is invincible as long as each new game introduces new concepts and Skyward Sword has done that which makes it wrong to mark it down for a few quibbles. If you’ve yet to make up your mind to buy the game deliberate no longer, buy it and cherish it especially if you’re a Zelda fan (but I suspect most Zelda fans have already done that). If you’re new to the series this is a good place to start that shouldn’t be too daunting. Either way you’d have to have an aversion to variety, puzzles or action not to thoroughly enjoy the experience. If you have doubts about the motion controls you can lay them to rest, those technical issues that marred the 2010 E3 demonstration are nowhere near the final product and if you’re not sure this is the type of game for you I heartily recommend you take the plunge. In my youth I was more interested in futuristic science-fiction than this style of historical fantasy. Zelda changed that. Forever.
So what’s next for The Legend of Zelda? It’s anyone’s guess as to which machine the seventeenth (I’m counting Four Swords now) game in the series will appear on. The big question with the 3DS is whether or not we’ll get an enhanced port of Majora’s Mask to compliment Ocarina of Time 3D. I very much hope that we will (you can support the fan campaign endorsing the creation of that game, Operation Moonfall by clicking the link) but Nintendo have said they’re working on something new. We won’t be getting anything in the style of Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks, as great as those games are the touch-screen only interface is a little restrictive and I’ve had my fill of it so that’s good news. I think it’s extremely unlikely that we’ll get the old-school 2D top-down presentation the series was built on which makes me sad because those games do give you something the 3D titles don’t. I had hoped we might get some new such games developed as download titles but that hasn’t happened (the closest we’ve come is Four Swords – Anniversary Edition). Much more likely is a brand new 3D adventure in the style of Ocarina of Time which is an exciting enough possibility anyway.
Far more tantalising though, is the prospect of the first Wii U Zelda game. That the Wii was not made as an HD console is rather frustrating because a series as cinematic and visual as Zelda will surely benefit greatly from the high level of graphical detail and performance an HD console could provide. We’ve had a glimpse with The Legend of Zelda HD Experience tech demo shown off at E3 last year which was fine, looking like an HD Twilight Princess but I’d prefer the game to do something a bit more original with its art direction. I don’t want a repeat of the bright colours of Wind Waker or Skyward Sword, not because I’m not a fan but because I think the series it at its best when aiming for a more realistic look as long as Nintendo don’t go for photorealism because that just wouldn’t work (I don’t think they will).
Eiji Auonuma has promised more shake-ups for the formula in the next title which is fine as long as it’s the right kind of different. Changing the formula up isn’t really that necessary, it just needs more layers and more ideas to give the experience more breadth. I don’t want to see good traditions make way entirely and unnecessarily to accommodate new concepts, something Skyward Sword was guilty of at times. One area I do think deserves attention is the story and its presentation. I want something more in-depth with frequent twists and developments. I wouldn’t object to the use of FMV to tell the story in places and if Nintendo can make voice acting work so be it but in an age in which storytelling in games is becoming more and more sophisticated, Zelda games, as charming and magical as their stories are, are kind of getting left behind. I’d also like a stronger focus on character and Link’s relationships. Skyward Sword is the most romantic game yet but Link still didn’t get so much as a kiss for his trouble come the end credits. I’d welcome a full-fledged love story as long as it’s measured and not the kind of angsty nonsense we get from some Japanese games. More than anything I want the story to surprise me like Majora’s Mask’s did.
It’s worth mentioning that the game’s placement in the timeline would be particularly interesting given the recent publication of Hyrule Historia, a Japanese book filled with concept art from the whole series that contained a version of the timeline that Nintendo has confirmed is canon (check out GlitterBerri’s fan translation of the book). While it had been previously theorised that the Zelda timeline splits after the two endings of Ocarina of Time (spoiler alert: Link defeats Ganon as an adult thereby creating one future then travels back seven years and prevents Ganondorf’s rise to power as a child so creating a second), this official chronology confirms a third timeline in which Link is actually killed in that game. That the protagonist’s death and failure to save the world should form the basis of a whole series of games (there are some heavyweights in that branch too, A Link to the Past, Link’s Awakening, The Legend of Zelda) is an unprecedented and fascinating concept and it will be of great interest to see which timeline any new games fall into.
I want the world for the new game to be much bigger, perhaps the kind of size and scope of something like Skyrim, and for it to feel more like an organic world filled with flora and fauna, believable landscapes and more settlements to maximise the sense of immersion, and more than anything I want it to be beautiful like the Hyrule of Ocarina of Time. As for the gameplay I’ll leave that up to Nintendo. It’s already been hinted that the motion-controls for swordplay will be staying which is great, especially if Nintendo can find a way to make the experience even better. The new Wii U controller has loads of potential and I expect to see some ingenious new ideas and clever reimagining of old ones. One possibility might be to bring back the Lens of Truth and use it by holding the controller up in front of the TV screen to reveal hidden things on the smaller screen. I’m sure they’ll come up with plenty of ideas for the interface, storing your inventory on the touch screen as shown in the demo is an obvious one but we need it to be used to interact with your surroundings in interesting ways too. And again I want to be surprised. Some new central to concept to rival the three-day cycle and transformation masks of Majora’s Mask would be fantastic.
One suggestion that has been circulating on the internet is the notion of a female Link. It’s an interesting concept, one that’s been explored with fanart (not all of it savoury I might add) but it would just be weird and there’s a much better alternative. How about making Zelda a playable character in her own series for once? It would be a great way to bring the series some more freshness and allow amazing scope to develop her as a character, not to mention her relationship with Link. Perhaps her alter ego Sheik could come into play too. I’d love to see this done but there’s no need to side-line Link completely and the two could both be playable at different points in the same adventure or be given entirely separate stories in the same release. It would be very interesting to see their roles reversed and have the princess rescuing the hero for a change.
Whatever direction Nintendo decides to take its next main entry in the series you can bet it will be of the highest quality as always but whether they’ll be able to pull off something to match the greatest the illustrious series has produced is not guaranteed. Nor is the timescale for its release. There’s no telling when another game will be released or even announced but I think we can be safe in assuming it won’t be a Wii U launch game. I don’t really mind waiting a long time for a new title, I’d rather Nintendo take their time and get it just right than rush something out. Mind you I’m not sure I can stand another five-year wait but a new Zelda title will be a system seller for the Wii U so I doubt Nintendo will dawdle that much. Until the next adventure Skyward Sword should give us more than enough value to last out the time and with the series’ back catalogue more accessible than ever there’s no shortage of classic titles available to provide that Zelda fix.
Presentation – 9
This is Zelda, there’s a standard the series never falls below. Despite featuring the most significant changes to the formula since Majora’s Mask it’s a familiarly balanced package not to mention an enjoyable story well told.
Design – 9
Featuring as brilliant art direction as ever, only some slightly less than inspired level design in the overworld and dungeons let the side down but it’s still a wonderfully designed fantasy world.
Gameplay – 10
The traditionally rich, varied and highly polished series gameplay conventions are offset by the best, deepest and most involving motion controls of any game ever made. This game singlehandedly vindicates motion controlled videogame design.
Graphics – 9
It might not be a match for the Super Mario Galaxy titles but the beautifully stylised and vibrant visuals still make this one of the prettiest games available for the Wii. Deep into the HD age the graphics of this game more than hold their own.
Sound – 9
With orchestrated tunes gracing the soundtrack for the first time the game is a delight to listen to. Only the distribution of the best tunes and some so-so unmelodious MIDI arrangements hold it back.
Difficulty – 8
The toughest challenge the series has given gamers for years but a seasoned player should still be able to conquer it without breaking a sweat. But after completion…
Longevity – 10
Probably the lengthiest game to date in a series known for its robust adventures and packing mountains of replay value and side quests.
The Legend of Zelda – Skyward Sword is not quite the euphoric triumph in videogame history it might have been but it is an extraordinary achievement in interactive entertainment nonetheless. With unprecedented gameplay made possible by Wii Motion Plus, innumerable brilliant new concepts and a beautifully presented story loaded with treats for fans the game makes a fitting swansong for the Wii and takes its rightful place as yet another absolute classic in one of the most consistent and prestigious series in the industry.
I mentioned in my Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy review that a single experience of a film or game isn’t always enough to judge fairly how good it is. So it has proven with Super Mario Galaxy 2, last year’s sequel to Nintendo’s critically acclaimed Wii platformer. Replaying my 2010 Game of the Year for the first time has brought me to the decision that it is not superior to the original after all, not that it is anything other than utter brilliance.
After the relative disappointment of the Gamecube’s Super Mario Sunshine, a game that still has great merit, Nintendo recaptured the faith and admiration of fans and critics with Super Mario Galaxy which sent their mascot to a number of ingeniously designed ‘galaxies’ in search of power stars, repeating the structure of the classic Super Mario 64. Along the way gamers were treated to an endless array of superbly realised gimmicks and gameplay concepts that had them constantly changing gear in a title that never repeated itself. Variety and quality made the game great and the sequel didn’t mess with the formula.
The story, however, is just a tad confusing as it plays out as though the events of Super Mario Galaxy never happened. Bowser’s huge and has kidnapped Princess Peach again and it’s up to Mario to pursue his arch-nemesis through the universe to save her. Princess Rosalina returns from the first game in lesser role but the game makes out that Mario has never met her before. Why Nintendo went with this approach is a mystery but no-one ever played a Mario game for the story.
This is all about tracking down stars and the good news is that Super Mario Galaxy 2 is right up there with its predecessor in terms of crafting engaging and imaginative gauntlets for you to get through in pursuit of them. One notable change in the structure is the presence of world map in the style of Super Mario Bros. 3. You must pilot your starship (which looks like Mario’s head) through the various worlds and choose a galaxy to visit. By finding one star in a galaxy you will be free to proceed but there are frequent checkpoints that you can only get past if you’ve gathered a specified number of stars which necessitates revisiting old locales for new challenges. At the end of each world you will face off against either Bowser or Bowser Jr. for a Grand Star before proceeding to the next map. This approach is designed to streamline the experience allowing speedy access to the galaxies and avoiding the need to run around a hub world and it certainly succeeds.
Each galaxy offers a number of challenges with stars as a reward, many of which play out like a simple linear race to the finish but you’ll often have to beat a minigame and will very frequently make use of a number of new and returning power ups. You will also have to keep a lookout for a Comet Medal in each galaxy. These are big collectible coins usually located somewhere semi-hidden that will prompt a prankster comet to come into orbit around the galaxy. If you visit a galaxy when a prankster comet is in orbit a new star challenge will appear. This might require you to repeat a previous star in a time limit, set you up against a boss with only one unit of life energy or make you gather one hundred purple coins. Keeping your eyes peeled for Comet Medals adds a layer of depth to the game but if you miss one it can be a pain to have to redo the star as you have to collect the star as well as the medal for it to count.
As you’d probably expect the ideas and innovations in Super Mario Galaxy 2 never stop coming. The delightful moments were the game messes with gravity or puts you on little planetoids that were so popular from the first game make a welcome return and are accompanied by no shortage of new concepts. A few galaxies play on rhythm with platforms appearing and disappearing in time with the music. Elsewhere many of the best moments come with the power ups. Mario’s new upgrades include a drill which lets him burrow straight downwards through planets and out of the other side making for some brain bending puzzles. There’s also a cloud suit with which you can make three cloud platforms to stand on giving you great freedom to traverse seemingly impossible gaps and the boulder suit turns the plumber into a rocky bowling ball to mow down enemies.
The most significant new inclusion is Yoshi who actually made his 3D debut in Super Mario Sunshine but he’s been handled much better here. In some galaxies you can hitch a ride on the green dinosaur and gobble enemies by targeting them with the Wii Remote pointer or use his tongue to swing from floating flowers. Better still Yoshi even has his own power ups that make him float upwards, run fast or illuminate hidden platforms that don’t exist when unlit. Every single Yoshi level stands out and although its perhaps a shame that you can’t keep him after grabbing a star the game would be in danger of becoming repetitive if it let you use him all the time.
Of course the level design is crucially important to compliment the varied gameplay mechanics and by and large Super Mario Galaxy 2 does not disappoint. Standout galaxies include the crumbling Clockwork Ruins Galaxy and the hot and fiery Melty Monster Galaxy which offer linear challenges but some of the more open world levels are a little underwhelming. The visual direction however is flawless utilising the same colourful art style and graphical quality the first game was praised for. Character and enemy designs are strong throughout and absolutely every part of the game looks as pretty as anything the Wii has done.
Once again the soundtrack is top notch with sweeping orchestral tunes accompanying some high quality MIDI arrangements. Music highlights include the bouncy theme of the Puzzle Plank Galaxy and the tense, stirring tune that spurs you on during time limited stars. A number of classic tunes from the first game also return and the comical sound effects are top quality throughout. It’s an audio package that can proudly be considered the equal of that of the game’s predecessor.
One important improvement over Super Mario Galaxy is the difficulty level. One mild complaint of the first game was that it didn’t offer veteran players much of a challenge. The sequel has clearly made things tougher without going overboard and many of the later stars will cause some headaches. On the other hand the game features a Super Guide feature the like of which was first introduced in New Super Mario Bros. Wii. If you are struggling to reach a star and find yourself frequently losing lives a ghostly Rosalina will appear and offer to show you what to do. It’s possible to let the game play out for even to the point of collecting the star although any stars gained in such a manner will be an unattractive brown colour and a constant reminder that you didn’t get it yourself although it is possible to try again and earn the proper gold coloured star. This controversial feature has led to purists claiming it makes the game too easy but it is entirely optional and gives less able players a better chance of seeing the end credits. The reward for collecting all 120 stars is the best the series has ever produced and needless to say the game is huge and will keep you going for an extremely long time.
But as I said this is not a superior sequel. In fact it’s about shoulder to shoulder with its older brother but if I had to pick one I would go for the original. The reason for this is a question of heart. I understand why Nintendo brought in the map screen concept but I have to confess that I miss the Comet Observatory from the first game. The hub of Super Mario Galaxy was a much larger world than Starship Mario and although there was nothing really to do there it was a delight to return to again and again. The mysterious and somehow serene observatory, populated by adorable Lumas, and, of course, Princess Rosalina, floating through the soothing darkness of starlit space was an extremely pretty base for accessing galaxies that grounded the game in a satisfyingly homely way. It felt like the most wonderful haven and a nice change of pace from the frantic platforming, not to mention serving as the venue for the melancholy story Rosalina reads to the lumas but most important was the absolutely enchanting music. Nothing equivalent appears in the sequel. It might seem like a minor point and no doubt many will prefer the speedier setup and the Comet Observatory doesn’t have the sense of mystery about Princess Peach’s Castle in Super Mario 64 but for me the absence of such a wonderful hub world lessens the soul of the sequel somewhat. The efficient, lightning fast service the map screen offers seems strangely impersonal and does nothing for immersion.
This is somehow a slight problem throughout the game. Perhaps it’s because it came first but Super Mario Galaxy just feels better, more immersive, more rounded and more heartfelt and that really is the only difference between the two games. The sequel, to its credit, improves on many areas of the first but it doesn’t quite do enough to surpass it. What it does it does so well that on first view it might seem that it is the better of the two but examining it over time makes it apparent otherwise. But this is all a rather unimportant matter of comparison that doesn’t change the fact that Super Mario Galaxy 2 is an absolutely superlative platformer, the latest in the series’ proud tradition and one of the two best games available for the Nintendo Wii.
Presentation – 10
Design – 9
Gameplay – 10
Graphics – 10
Sound – 10
Difficulty – 8
Longevity – 9
The same brilliance of the first game with a million and one new ideas. More of the same is not always a bad thing and this is so much more than that. Another top drawer title for the most recognisable character in video games.
Another E3 has come and gone and as usual the video game industry’s foremost event where developers and journalists gather to show off and play the newest hardware and software was not short of talking points.
Being a massive Nintendo fanboy I will, of course, be focusing on Nintendo’s showing but it would be remiss of me not to give some mention to Microsoft and Sony so here goes. Microsoft was the first hardware manufacturer to take to the big stage and although their press conference featured the news that the Halo franchise is returning with a remake of the original game and an all new trilogy including a teaser trailer for Halo 4 a lot of the online reaction to the company’s performance was pretty negative. I didn’t see the conference but it seems the company disappointed its fans by concentrating on casual games for its Kinect hardware. I did, however, watch Sony’s press conference live and the PlayStation manufacturers seemed to do rather better. The president of Sony Computer Entertainment of America, Jack Tretton opened the brief with a sincere and admirable apology to Sony fans for the PlayStation Network’s well-publicised outage. With that necessary issue neatly handled the focus shifted to the company’s upcoming handheld hardware and successor to the PSP. The handheld’s new name PlayStation Vita was announced and a number of games that exploit its nifty technology were demonstrated. The revelation that AT&T would handle the machine’s telecommunications was met with an amusing smattering of boos but when the competitive price of $249 was greeted warmly when it was announced. What the conference lacked was big announcements. With the exception of Sly 4 the conference had little for the hardcore gamer to get excited about in an E3 uncharacteristically devoid of big surprises.
Nintendo’s was the last big press conference taking place on the Tuesday morning in LA. It was known long before the show that the company would be unveiling its new console to replace the Wii and rumours had been swimming around the net for weeks speculating what it could do, the most convincing of which suggested the new controller would feature a sizeable touch screen making it vaguely reminiscent of the Dreamcast controller.
The conference opened with a great musical tribute to the Zelda series for its 25th anniversary. A live orchestra played a medley of classic tunes from the series while a montage of clips from the games played on the big screen culminating in the first showing of the newest trailer of Skyward Sword. Zelda remained the focus of the show and we were told of Nintendo’s plans to celebrate the anniversary detailing plans for a series of concerts dedicated to the series and revealing that The Legend of Zelda – Four Swords will be made available as a free download for the 3DS. Nintendo’s new handheld took centre stage after that and we were given a taste of the big first party franchises upcoming for the system including Star Fox 64 3D, Kid Icarus Uprising, Mario Kart 3D and most importantly Super Mario 3D as well as revealing Luigi’s Mansion 2 for the first time.
Nintendo saved their biggest news for the end and their new HD console, dubbed Wii U was finally showcased. As rumoured the console does feature a large touch screen in a design that resembles an iPad. The new controller also features forward facing cameras, a gyroscope, a microphone and a traditional button setup including two circle pads, D-Pad, four face buttons, two shoulder buttons and two triggers. We were given a fair amount of detail regarding what can be achieved with this system such as the possibility of switching gameplay from the TV to the controller screen, a feature useful for when someone wants to use the TV for something else whilst you’re playing. We were given a few tech demos and a promising list of big third party titles in development for the system including Batman Arkham City, Assassin’s Creed and Dirt but there was nothing on any first party titles except that Masahiro Sakurai’s team will soon begin work on a pair of new Smash Bros. games for both Wii U and 3DS. We didn’t get a clear idea of the machine’s specs either. There was some confusion among the watching public regarding the showing as Nintendo showed nothing of the actual console during its briefing leading many to mistakenly believe that the Wii U was nothing but a new controller but Nintendo officially released shots of the console itself after the show to allay these fears.
It was a good show, maybe the strongest of the three but it wasn’t as good as last year, nowhere near. I was hoping for more big game announcements for new and existing consoles but Nintendo chose to leave its announcements until after the show. The promise of new Kirby games for both Wii and DS were quietly shown alongside Mario Party 9 and a similar looking game called Fortune Street that matches Mario characters with Square Enix ones. The best news was the confirmation of Pikmin 3 for the Wii U but I was hoping to see a new Star Fox or Fire Emblem or at least news that the newest Fire Emblem game for the DS will see release outside of Japan. Most frustratingly though we still don’t have any news on a new F-Zero game. Nintendo’s futuristic racer is one of their best and most consistently excellent franchises, my favourite after Mario, Zelda, Metroid and Fire Emblem and we haven’t seen a new entry in the series in ages.
So what about the Wii U? I’m cautiously excited. The name is pretty bad but the tech is highly intriguing. Nintendo’s demos caused quite a stir by showcasing some of the possibilities for the new controller. Since the show we’ve gained a bit more information about the console. It seems each one will probably only support one of the new controllers with existing Wii controllers necessary for multiplayer games. The console won’t play DVDs or BluRays but, we’re promised, will feature a much more robust online setup. There are some concerns regarding the timing of the console since rumours regarding the specs suggest it will be roughly on a par with the PS3 and Xbox 360 although some sources claim it will outstrip them a fair amount. Either way Nintendo could still find themselves lagging behind in the hardware stakes if either Sony or Microsoft decide to one-up them in the near future. Still, the prospect of Nintendo franchises in HD is too good to ignore, a point most obviously shown by an HD Zelda demo. The demo is not that of a new game in development but an example of what the series might look like in HD. It featured an interactive movie of Link fighting a giant spider that allowed the player to alter things like lighting in real time. We’ll have to keep our eyes on the Wii U as we near its release next year.
In terms of software the 3DS was at the centre of attention for Nintendo with its big names attracting plenty of praise. Super Mario 3D is looking great mixing some of the conventions of Super Mario Bros. 3 with the design ethic of Super Mario Galaxy. The fixed camera limits the sense of freedom found in Mario’s non-stereoscopic 3D games so far but Nintendo have always put plenty of effort into their mascot’s games so it should be great. Mario Kart 3D looks like a fairly typical game for the series except for a few additions. Your kart will become a glider when making big jumps and gains a propeller when underwater as well as featuring the option to swap different machine parts. Let’s hope Nintendo gives the title a deeper one-player mode than the series is known for too. Star Fox 64 3D is looking great as the second big N64 remake to hit the system and the announcement of Luigi’s Mansion 2, though not what I most wanted still looks like a fun follow-up to a fine title.
The star of the show for me was undoubtedly The Legend of Zelda – Skyward Sword. The Wii was given very little attention at the show but this last big release still yielded plenty of praise and has me very excited. The new trailer is great, finally giving us a look at Link’s world above the clouds. Skyloft is a fair bit smaller than I was hoping but it looks like an interesting community and the bird riding gameplay looks a lot more fun than Wind Waker‘s sailing. At the this stage it bears a striking resemblance to Skies of Arcadia. I can’t tell you how happy this makes me. The new trailer featured the same theme tune as before, the same music from the last trailer, which, it was discovered a few weeks ago, is actually Zelda’s lullaby backwards. Zelda herself features in the trailer, playing the part of Link’s childhood friend as she did in Minish Cap. Her new design resembles her character art for A Link to the Past and I have to say she’s adorable. We also were given a first proper look at the new villain, Lord Ghihiram who featured in a gameplay demo on the show floor. He seems an interesting baddie at this point perhaps filling the same role as Zant in Twilight Princess. We were also given an idea of the game’s structure. It seems the line between dungeon and overworld will be blurred in this game and the story will see you revisiting dungeons (which I called). It’s looking brilliant, the stylised graphics may lack technical greatness but they’re lovely to look at nonetheless and by all accounts the Motion Plus swordplay is fantastic. The game looks set to eclipse Twilight Princess which suffered from a lack of defining features. Hopefully Nintendo will give it the same depth and originality of Majora’s Mask. We can only wait and see.
So that’s how E3 2011 panned out. It wasn’t the best show we’ve seen down the years but it certainly had its moments. We’ll wait and see what Nintendo does with its new hardware and keep a close eye on its games until we return to LA next year.
As a writer of fantasy fiction I draw inspiration for my writing from all kinds of sources but chief among these, strangely enough, isn’t novels but video games, something the literary snobs would no doubt snort at which makes me all the more happy about it. I’ve been given ideas for my long-running fantasy saga by all sorts of game publications down the years but three titles stand out over everything else as my biggest influences, Nintendo’s beautiful action adventure series The Legend of Zelda, Skies of Arcadia – Legends, a Dreamcast RPG ported to the Gamecube and the Intelligent Systems developed strategy RPG series Fire Emblem.
This is the third Fire Emblem game I’ve reviewed and the 2008 sequel to the Gamecube’s Path of Radiance. It was also my first ever foray into the series. I explained in my Shadow Dragon review how I ignored the series for years and regretted it after playing this game but my experience with the game during my first playthrough wasn’t one that saw me instantly hooked. Strategy RPGs were a relatively new thing for me at that time, the first two games in the Disciples series for the PC being my only prior entries into it. I had been keen on turn based JRPGs for years and before really examining the structure of the Fire Emblem series had imagined that it would work similarly to one of them. Like many western gamers my first taste of the series was with the appearence of Marth and Roy in Super Smash Bros. Melee and then later Ike, this game’s star, in Super Smash Bros. Brawl and it was this that first piqued my curiosity. I already liked the colourful art style and in 2008 I finally decided to take the plunge and bought a copy of Radiant Dawn with birthday money. I knew a little about the map-based structure prior to purchase but not much about the game’s linearity or subtle complexity.
And it took a very long time to get into it. Radiant Dawn isn’t the best place to start with Fire Emblem as it doesn’t offer the same kind of gentle tutorials in its early moments as other games in the series and the fact that it’s a direct sequel to an already complex story doesn’t really help in narrative terms although the writers have done a good job of recapping the events of the previous game for newbies. Early on in the game I had real trouble working out how to play in a way that was satisfying. For the most part I was just about suceeding and making steady progress but it didn’t feel like I was doing it properly. I kept feeling like I was missing something, some major quirk of gameplay that, once mastered, will make it all make sense. The truth was it was lots of little things I hadn’t quite grapsed, like attacking with mages from two spaces away from an enemy to avoid counterattacks instead of from adjacent spaces. That’s what Fire Emblem is all about, a whole world of miniature strategic decisions many of which seem innocuous but make all the difference. Whenever I review a game I always have a rough score in mind based on how much I’m enjoying it. During the first few hours of Fire Emblem I thought it deserved no more than about 7.8 out of 10.
Which is funny because that’s pretty much exactly this game’s average percentage ratio on Gamerankings.com. I thought I’d picked up a game that punched below its weight and offered a diverting but frustrating experience. The relatively last gen presentation and middle-of-the-road production values assisted this view. To begin with I thought Radiant Dawn might be my first and last Fire Emblem game. For a while I stopped playing so I could concentrate on another big game I had that birthday, the Wii version of Okami, a much more obviously brilliant experience.
Thank goodness I went back to Radiant Dawn though. Upon reloading the game and trying again from the beginning I found myself correcting mistakes I’d already made. Where previously I had lost characters to the series’ trademark permanent death quirk I was managing to keep them all alive. One by one the the myriad little nuggets of gameplay clicked, battles started flowing more smoothly, I started to really quite enjoy it and that predicted score steadily rose. As I progressed through the lengthy quest and began to accept its linearity and storytelling methods which I had previously been underwhelemed by I found myself really getting into the story. As it rolled on I found real satisfaction in building up a strong team and kitting them out with exciting weapons. Eventually it reached the point where I was putting in all-nighters, I was that addicted. After no fewer than four of these in a row I completed the game and settled on a score of 9.1.
But the story of my experience with this game doesn’t end there. A few months later, not wanting to miss out on any more of the series I bought the DS title Shadow Dragon which inspired me to play Radiant Dawn again. It was the first time in quite a while that I’d found myself replaying a game that wasn’t Mario or Zelda within one year of purchase and I certainly hadn’t expected to replay this game before I did Okami but its lure was too strong to resist. Totally enthralled this time I promoted the game to the monster score of 9.4 putting it on a par with games like Lylat Wars, F-Zero GX and Metroid Fusion and soon endeavoured to track down the games I’d missed. Foremost among these was Radiant Dawn’s prequel, Path of Radiance for the Gamecube. With a foreknowledge of the series mechanics I was much better able to appreciate the earlier game’s brilliance but nonetheless didn’t enjoy it as much as Radiant Dawn and so awarded it a still-fantastic score of 9.3. My recent replay of that title opened my eyes more to how much I love the series and I was inspired to lift it to the lofty heights of 9.5. Radiant Dawn was automatically promoted to the same score as I still preferred the later title. Now that I’ve played through it a third time I feel so much better able to truly appreciate the greatness of this game and the whole incredibly immersive and relentlessly addictive experience it has to offer.
The story of Radiant Dawn picks up three years after the events of Path of Radiance by which time Crimea has passed control over the conquered Daein to the Begnion Empire whose Occupation Army, commanded by General Jarod under the supervision of Senator Numida, abuse their power and oppress the Daein citizens. But the Dawn Brigade, a small group of freedom fighters lead by Micaiah, a young woman with miraculous powers fights against the army’s brutality. It is with the Dawn Brigade that the story starts. This is the first place in which Radiant Dawn shakes things up a bit for the series. Whereas Path of Radiance was a fairly simple linear succession of maps with Ike as the commander in each, Radiant Dawn is split into four distinct parts. Part one deals with the Dawn Brigade’s campaign to overcome the Imperial Occupation Army, part two moves the narrative to Crimea where Queen Elincia and her Imperial Knights face a rebellion among the ruling classes. Ike and the Greil Mercenaries don’t turn up until part three where they are hired by the laguz alliance to assist their invasion of Begnion whose senate murdered their messenger upon delivery of an offer of diplomacy. It is in this part that the three story strands collide and build up to a heart-poundingly tense endgame. The arch-villains this time around are the senators of the Begnion Empire whose ambition and corruption sees them controlling Daein like puppeteers essentially forcing them to needlessly engage the advancing laguz alliance in seriously evil ways I won’t spoil. It’s a dramatic and layered way of presenting the much more complex story but it has interesting implications for the gameplay. Instead of just one army you spend the game building up several, which gives a far larger range of characters opportunity to train. Every playable character from the original game bar one returns at some point with a handful of likeable newbies thrown in with the Dawn Brigade. As the story progresses in part three there are even a few maps where the story throws the Greil Mercenaries and the Dawn Brigade against each other with you in command of one or the other. Fortunately any character units you defeat don’t suffer the permanent death problem but it doesn’t change the fact that you’ve essentially spent hours building up an army to oppose you. This is where Radiant Dawn’s story really excels. The line betweeen good and evil is blurred and not as black and white as the first game with people on both sides fighting for what they believe is right, a theme that continues right into the climactic fourth part. The writing is, again, absolutely superb, exploring the themes of prejudice and human nature first presented by Path of Radiance.
It’s a shame then that certain aspects of the game’s presentation underwhelm. This is a Wii game but it looks almost identical to the Gamecube title and in some cases, such as charcter stat screens actually look a bit worse. There are a few subtle improvements in places, characters no longer move around the map in rigid right angles and battle animations are slightly better and everything is still very clear, colourful and crisp but it doesn’t feel like we’ve advanced much. The graphics likewise have improved only marginally and most of the sound effects have returned unaltered and sound a bit outdated now. The music however is absolutely superb as ever with stirring, bouncy tunes envigorating battle situations and a range of atmospheric melodies driving the drama in story sequences. None of it is orchestrated but the arrangements are of such quality that it doesn’t matter. There still isn’t full voice acting but with a script this massive that’s no surprise although the brilliantly animated FMV scenes feature some half decent voice work.
I described in a fair amount of detail how you play Fire Emblem games in my reviews of Shadow Dragon and Pasth of Radiance so I won’t do the same here except to say you order a handful of units with varying stats, weapons and abilities around a grid-based map to engage in turn based battles with opponents utilising tight strategy regarding positioning your units and selecting weapons. Micromanagement of units takes place in the base menu which you see between maps. It’s absurdly addictive, a process smothered in satisfaction. Lose a unit and they’re gone forever unless you reload your last save, which brings me to the biggest and most important improvement Radiant Dawn brings to the series. In easy and normal difficulties you are able to use the battle save feature at any time so eliminating the need to restart entire maps when you lose an important unit which will happen. The difficulty level is huge if you’re aiming to complete the game without losing anyone. This last playthrough was the first time I had attempted the game on normal and I had to reset and use the battle save feature on nearly every map. It really, really helps.
Other things done differently here includes the class system which now has three tiers instead of two. In the case of swordsmen for example they go from myrmidon to swordmaster to trueblade giving plenty of scope for training and advancement. You are no longer restricted by how many weapons you can give a character against items. Each unit has seven slots in their inventory and you can give them seven weapons if you want. The support feature too has been tweaked. Instead of choosing a number of support relationships for each charcter you have to focus on pairs. Support converstaions now take place on the battlefield instead of the base menu but they’re sadly nowhere near as well written, interesting or long as they were in Path of Radiance. Converse enough and you can manually increase the level of support and the effect of support bonuses. The best part is that you are given a visual indication of when support bonuses are in effect this time round.
Of course one of the most important aspects of the design of a Fire Emblem game is its maps and Radiant Dawn represents the best the series has to offer. Early chapters have you moving the Dawn Brigade through the narrow streets of Nevassa, Daein’s capital taking on Occupation Army aggressors in 3D environments that are much more detailed and believable than the first few maps of Path of Radiance. Other standout scenarios include an escape through lava filled caves where frequent eruptions damage your party, a chapter featuring only flying units that engage in a kind of arial dogfight thousands of feet up in the sky and a number of brilliantly heart-pounding defense missions including part two’s excellent endgame. It’s a varied and consistently engaging selection of maps and there’s scarcely a dull chapter among the three dozen or so in the game.
Story and gameplay combine in Fire Emblem – Radiant Dawn to spectacular effect. If your reaction to the game is anything like mine you will be totally absorbed all the way through to the big finish which makes Path of Radiance’s endgame look like an anticlimax. That will take a long time too. This playthrough lasted over seventy hours and took a whole month although my other two playthroughs on easy both lasted forty-seven. If you turn off battle animations it will save time and the figure does include all the story and preparations but even so it’s one of the most uncommonly vast games I’ve ever played and I don’t think I’ll ever get bored of it.
So why that Gamerankings average of 78%? I think most of the reviews underrated it because of an overemphasis on fancy graphics and presentation in their considerations. This game does what it does better than any other I’ve played remotely like it. As a seasoned gamer there’s no way I can be this enthralled by an undeserving game and I’m heartened by the fact that among the disappointing reviews there is the odd source that reveres it. If you have any interest or previous experience in the Fire Emblem series I urge you to play this game but this very high recommendation comes with a word of caution, play Path of Radiance first if you can. It took me two and a half years and three playthroughs to fully appreciate how much I love this game which has risen in my esteem higher even than Okami, the game that so overshadowed it on that birthday in 2008. Fire Emblem – Radiant Dawn now takes its place as one of the finest video game experiences I have had in this, or any, console generation.
Presentation – 7
Disappointing from a visual point of view but the storytelling and creation of mood is absolutely superlative.
Gameplay – 10
Quite simply the most addictive game I have ever had the pleasure of playing. If you can get into it this game will completely absorb you.
Graphics – 7
Barely an improvement over the Path of Radiance from a technical standpoint but the use of colour and animations are once again very nice.
Sound – 8
A quite wonderful soundtrack full of memorable tunes. The sound effects aren’t bad but haven’t improved.
Difficulty – 10
A vast challenge on the harder difficulty levels. Strategy masochists will be in Nirvana.
Longevity – 10
One of the longest games I’ve ever played and absolutely loaded with replay value.
The complete Fire Emblem experience with a deeply involving, multifaceted story and the best balance of gameplay and content in the series to date. This is the kind of game that could make you neglect your social life and family. Despite a couple of fairly minor quibbles it’s an utterly magical slice of interactive entertainment.
out of 10
After one whole month it’s time to review the last of the three games I got for Christmas and if you think the review has been a long time coming that’s nothing compared to how long it took me to get round to getting the game. This hack and slash sidescroller was released way back in 2009 and I had planned to get it right from the start but it was always low on my list of priorites and other games took precedence. Now, though, the time has come for this slice of Japanese interactive culture to have its moment.
The first thing anyone would notice about Muramasa is its graphics. Graphics are something I tend not to focus on when reviewing games bacuase they don’t necessarily make a game great. It’s nice to have pretty pictures to look at whilst playing but gameplay is the really critical thing. I can’t stand these kids that bang on about graphics like it’s the only thing that matters and I’ve even less time for people who regard anything that isn’t realistic as beneath their notice. Muramasa – The Demon Blade has stunning graphics and it’s not very often we say that about Wii exclusives but they’re not realistic. They are, however, absolutely beautiful hand drawn vistas of colour and mood that paint vivid scenes of forests and temples, coast and mountains. The characters move with fluidity and grace and the attacks flash blindingly as the screen fills with enemies and action. The game’s graphics elevate it from an otherwise repetitive and somewhat one-trick slasher into something more significant and worthwhile.
We’re in ancient Japan a place of ninjas and samurai and quite a lot of wiers people and we follow two stories. The Story of Momohime involves a demure princess who is possessed by the crafty spirit of swordsman Jinkuro as he searches for the ultimate blade. The Story of Kisuke sees an amnaesiac ninja striving to save the life of the girl he loves. The stories don’t really coincide but they take place in the same world and see you visiting a lot of the same locations. The storytelling is very vague and difficult to follow unfolding in dialogue sequences either side of boss battles. They’re not scintillating exactly but feature full voice acting (Japanese but well acted) and the translation is actually rather good. Momohime and Kisuke travel through an open-ended side-scrolling world Metroid style on their way to objectives involving bosses getting into a lot of scraps along the way.
It’s all about blades in this game and there are a-hundred to collect. There are two blade types, standard and long. Long blades being heavier take time to swing but are more powerful whereas the standard blades let you rack up quick combos. The combat is mostly a one button affair with basic combos easy to pull off with more powerful moves bringing requiring pushing the control stick in a direction. Fighting is easy enough to master but there’s not a whole lot of variety in it. Each blade has a unique secret art , a powerful move that can be unleashed with the B button. These secret arts deplete your blade’s soul gague, which is also reduced by blocking enemy attacks. If the gague runs out the blade breaks leaving you open to attacks and massively weakened. You can carry three blades at once though and tapping C activates the quick draw technique which does damage to every enemy on the screen as you draw a backup weapon.
Before long you’ll be plowing through enemies and it’s possible to build up huge combos. The game flatters you in this way and the impressive, bold attack animations will make you look and feel awesome while you play. There are some RPG elements involved as the characters gain experience and level up. You can’t stick with the same blades the whole time either. New blades are acquired upon beating bosses or by forging. To forge blades you must have the prerequisite amount of spirit, which is gained by eating at restaraunts along the road or your own cooking and also souls which are gained from battle or picked up in the environments. The blades for forging are presented in a complex table and require you to have the right blades already forged before you forge a new one. You need to plan your forging for the best results.
The two campaigns last about seven hours apiece and while the imaginative and intense boss battles prove a workout it’s not the toughest game ever made. Most importantly it’s fun and it keeps you going. Yes the style hides the fact that the gameplay is teensy bit shallow, button bashing gets you through most fights but that’s not the point here. It’s more enjoyable if you play it properly and for once the gorgeous art makes for a legitimate distraction and passes the time during the extensive back-tracking.
Presentation – 9
Everything from the menus to the art style oozes the best of Japanese artistic culture. Real attention has been paid to the details.
Gameplay – 7
Fun and frantic but not extensive in its depth. It’s the kind of game that suits discerning action junkies.
Graphics – 10
Simply beautiful with gorgeous scrolling environments, lovely character design and stunning effects. The undeniable highlight of the package.
Sound – 8
Features a rousing, atmospheric soundtrack that fits the setting well and good voice acting and sound effects.
Difficulty – 7
The lengthy boss fights require persistence and a strong grasp of the gameplay but although the normal battles are fast and busy you’re powered up enough that the challenge is limited.
Longevity – 7
A good fourteen hours of gameplay and more if you want to gather all the blades but the replay value is pretty low.
A sleeper hit, this side-scroller thrills in more ways than one and while it has its faults discerning gamers will get a lot out of this beautifully presented title. It helps to have an appreciation for Japanese culture and storytelling to get the most out of it but all in all this is a worthy title.
out of 10