These days, it's generally inadvisable to purchase a game sight unseen without checking reviews first, but if there's any series that merits complete trust based on its track record, it's Zelda. So it's no surprise that The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is a must-play not only for all Zelda fans, but all Wii owners in general. In nearly every way, it upholds the high standard of the series and is a worthy entry to mark Zelda's 25th anniversary.
For many people, that's all that needs to be said – the rest is like a giant present that takes upwards of 50 hours to unwrap, and discussing what's under each new layer only spoils the fun. With that said, we'll keep this review spoiler-free and hit the main points of interest without ruining too much of the magic of discovery.
Skyward Sword subverts the typical Zelda paradigm in ways that aren't immediately obvious just by looking at screens and gameplay snippets. The world itself is structured unlike any other Zelda world – it's definitely not Hyrule as usual. It's divided into two sections: Skyloft and the "surface" world below it. The bulk of the story takes place on the surface, and Skyloft acts more as a homebase where you go to recuperate and explore more leisurely.
The biggest departure from the typical Zelda formula is the lack of the usual separation between overworld and dungeons. Instead, the entire surface world is like a giant series of smaller outdoor dungeons. Navigating through each new area to find the temple takes just as long – if not longer – than completing the temple itself, and the road is paved with a similar type of exploration and puzzles you'd expect from a temple, if slightly more spread out.
On one hand, this means there's much more of the type of classic Zelda environmental puzzles that we love, which is obviously a good thing. The increase in quantity doesn't mean a decrease in quality either – there's never a lull or a dip in the meticulous environmental design throughout the entire game. Plus, it's always clear where you're supposed to go at any given point – we never found ourselves aimlessly wandering in search of what to do.
The tradeoff is that, while there's still plenty of exploration, there's no breathing room on the surface world like you'd find in an expansive area like Hyrule Field in Ocarina of Time or Twilight Princess. The lack of space on the surface though is mitigated by the openness of the sky world, and flying around exploring its various floating islands feels reminiscent of the sailing in Wind Waker, albeit on a smaller scale.
Temples still follow the classic formula, where you explore around to find treasure chests with small keys to open locked doors, which lead to the map, the temple's item (the slingshot, the flying beetle, the whip and so on), and finally the big key that leads to the temple's boss battle. Each temple is smaller and more manageable compared to some of the gargantuan dungeons of Zeldas past, so the dreaded "temple fatigue" never has a chance to set in. Despite this, they still feel like full dungeons, and the bosses all live up to what we expect from proper Zelda bosses – each requires inventive use of your newfound items combined with expert swordsmanship.
In breaking the game up into smaller chunks, it feels more accessible (especially for newcomers to the series, which Nintendo undoubtedly had in mind), but at the same time still maintains everything about classic Zelda that fans are looking for. Adding to the accessibility, each save point (which are plentiful, by the way) also doubles as a teleport spot, and from Skyloft you can conveniently teleport to any point on the surface by choosing your desired destination on the world map.
Together, the structure of the world and the flow of the gameplay feel like a pretty big shake up for the series, but it's one that definitely works. And speaking of shaking things…
True to the title, the star of the Wii MotionPlus controls in Skyward Sword is definitely the swordplay. Link's sword moves accurately based on how you move the Wii Remote – swing it diagonally up and to the right and Link swings along with you. We found that even when we used fairly limited movements, the sword always did exactly as we wanted. Using the sword, especially against enemies designed to block you at certain angles, is satisfying in a very tactile way.
Even the flight controls, which we were initially skeptical about, work well despite not being as literal as the sword controls. The beetle item in particular proved to be the most reached-for item in our adventure bag, and we used its behind-the-beetle aerial point of view to fly over inaccessible terrain and scope out the situation ahead many times, often using it even when it wasn't required to solve a puzzle.
Motion control still isn't without its setbacks though. Every time you obtain a new item that uses motion controls, your companion Fi pops up to remind you of how to recalibrate the controls should they slip out of alignment. Recalibrating only takes a second though – just pull up a menu, point the remote at the center of the screen and hit the down on the d-pad to re-center the cursor.
Not too big of a deal in and of itself, but it happens a lot. At times we found ourselves needing to re-align the cursor what felt like every few minutes. No matter how much some might poo-poo traditional controls in favor of motion controls, we never remember having to troubleshoot our GameCube controllers like that – just saying. Though we still prefer traditional button inputs, we have to admit that the Wii MotionPlus really does work well here overall, and while the detractions are there, they're relatively small.
The story bits are best left to discover for yourself. Suffice it to say that seeing what's obviously meant to be the first game in the Zelda timeline feels quite special at times. We won't say much more, but one of the highlights is definitely the beginning of the relationship between Link and Zelda.
Learning about their history together during what might possibly be their very first incarnations retroactively gives new meaning to why Link is always willing to fight for her despite her character not being well-established in early Zelda games. It's also refreshing to see another Zelda game where Zelda doesn't really need rescuing in the traditional sense. Although we don't see her very much, it's clear she's playing her part in the quest just as much as Link is.
Undoubtedly, Skyward Sword will be many people's new favorite Zelda, so it's understandable that some will honestly feel that it's the best Zelda ever – it's not an unreasonable position to take. The thing is, Zelda is a rare example of a series that has never had a serious misstep to tarnish its record. Every Zelda is someone's favorite Zelda, and there's a legitimate argument for why each Zelda is the "best" Zelda.
The question is: is Skyward Sword objectively superior to its predecessors? No, it isn't. But it does live up to the Zelda legacy, and that's enough to make it superior to most other non-Zelda games.
The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess? No, but it’s right up there with it and both have their own strengths. Twilight Princess is more traditional gameplay-wise than Skyward Sword, but more creative story-wise, and Fi pales in comparison to Midna. Skyward Sword's gameplay takes more risks and the Wii MotionPlus definitely adds to it, but its story feels safer. Diehard Ocarina fans may still prefer Twilight Princess, but most others will enjoy the the wealth of newness that Skyward Sword contains.
The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker? No – how dare you even ask. It's debatable (see section above), but we still believe that Wind Waker is the best 3D Zelda overall. The art style is timeless, and Wind Waker still looks better than Skyward Sword despite almost a decade separating the two. Its controls are perfection, it introduced Tetra, and the underwater Hyrule Castle reveal is still one of the most impactful moments in the entire series.
Darksiders? Yes. Darksiders is a great take on an M-rated, Zelda-inspired game, but nothing beats the real thing. Darksiders is still worth playing if you're a Zelda fan who'd like to see something a little darker and more Zelda-meets-God-of-War, but it's not in the same league.
A perfectly balanced mix of innovation and classic Zelda gameplay, Skyward Sword truly lives up to the Zelda legacy of excellence and offers the most variety of any Zelda game to date. Its swordplay and puzzles are some of the best in the series, and seeing Link and Zelda's first story chronologically is a treat for longtime fans.