The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword currently holds that place in the series of disappointing recent game. Every game that has come out since Ocarina of Time has been there at one point or another and the only one likely to avoid it is A Link Between Worlds, unless there is a sudden flood of backlash for it being too like A Link to the Past, a truly crazy complaint. Playing it recently and thinking about in the context of the rest of the series, maybe Skyward Sword does deserve to be where it is. Wind Waker didn’t when it was hated for its beautiful cartoony graphics. Twilight Princess didn’t when it was hated for being too like Ocarina and having half-baked Wii remote waggle features. But Skyward Sword kind of does. That is not to say that I think Skyward Sword is a bad game, though I know many who would make that argument. I actually enjoy it more than the majority of the series 3D entries and more than all but one of the handheld games. However, looking strictly at how Skyward Sword plays it is hard to get around that fact that while it may be a very good game, it is not a very good Zelda game.
Skyward Sword undoubtedly does some things badly or perhaps more accurately doesn’t do them at all. Unlike most of the rest of the series, Skyward Sword’s world is not connected. There is the Sky, where Link lives. It covers the whole of the area, but it is also completely separate from the rest of the game. Then there are the three areas beneath the clouds, which are again completely separate zones. In practice, this isn’t much different from most of the 3D Zeldas. Most of those games’ areas are discreet from each other as well. They, though, have the illusion of being connected. The hub of Hyrule field in Ocarina of Time really helps make the rest of the world feel as though it is all one place, but really it is not much more connected than Skyward’s Sword over world. That illusion, though, matters. That the world of Ocarina feels whole matters, as does the fact that Skyward Sword’s doesn’t.
It is also stiflingly linear. It is a timid game, afraid that the player will go the wrong way or get lost and is absolutely desperate to prevent that. That is how the game ends up with Fi, a good idea of a character that is completely tiresome in practice. She constantly interrupts play to remind players of every simple thing. Constant, unhelpful interruptions. The one time that the game allows the player to choose their path it is hampered by the only game breaking bug in a Nintendo game that I can recall. Linearity is not itself a bad thing, but it flies in the face of pretty much every other game in the series.
Those are problems, especially for a Zelda game. Fortunately, the game does pretty much everything else excellently. Skyloft, Link and Zelda’s floating home, is the most alive Zelda town in the series to date. It is not a particularly big town, but the characters are all pretty well drawn. Zelda side characters vary from fun but underutilized to horrifying monstrosities, but the residents of Skyloft manage to avoid those pitfalls. They can certainly be weird, it wouldn’t be Zelda if they weren’t, but almost all of them have little quests that fill out their characters. The supporting character highlight is Groose, the single best such character in the series. Yes, better than Midna or Impa or King of Red Lions. Groose is amazing. NAd while he initially feels like a villain, he actually goes through some true character growth by the end of the game. All around, Skyward Sword has the best storytelling in the series. Maybe it is because Twilight Princess, which also had a cinematic feel, hewed so closely to Zelda traditions while Skyward Sword is something more original. While it feels less real than most worlds in the series, Skyloft does feel more alive; it is a strange combination.
The dungeons are excellent as well. That is the part of the game where Fi actually shuts up, not constantly reminding players of their goals or repeating instructions on how to use the delving skill. The dungeons are both inventive and really well designed. They are generally challenging, even the first one is no cakewalk. What really adds to the great dungeons are the dense outside areas. The almost feel like dungeons themselves. Of course, that creates its own problem. It all the areas are like dungeons then the whole game is work. There are no cushy areas to just charge through, ignoring your surroundings. Every step through the world is a fight. It is often fun, but it can be tiresome. It throws off the rhythm of the game. Instead of more adventurey areas followed by intense dungeons, it is all intensity. The outside areas are more adventurey, but they are still difficult. I can’t say any part of the game is a breeze.
The biggest reason for that is the game’s crowning, though often derided, achievement: the sword fighting. It is not quite perfect; there are some kinks in the system. For the most part, however, it works wonderfully if the player takes the time to learn how it works. Flailing quickly and wildly about the screen is not the answer. The combat is more deliberately paced. You must read the opponents cues, much like something out of Punch Out!!, and attack at the open areas. Every enemy is now an obstacle, not something that a quick flick of Link’s sword can eliminate. Again, it makes even the easier areas a bit of a chore at times, but the when facing one of the more in depth fights, like those with Ghirahim, the sword fighting absolutely sings. It makes the game.
I haven’t yet mentioned the graphics and sound, which are amazing. There are lots of alternate uses for items, including fun stuff like bomb bowling. The upgrade system is not exactly an achievement, but it is inessential and harmless. The Legend of Zelda Skyward Sword does a lot of things well, but those are not things that the series traditionally focuses on. It is just a kind of weird game. The freedom of exploration or at least the illusion of freedom, which best games in the series excel at, is not a part of this game. It is a fairly linear string of puzzles and dungeons to clear. Skyward Sword is a great game; I can say that without reservation. But it really isn’t a good Zelda game. It feels like a strange offshoot, not a main entry. Maybe it is a misstep for the series, but it is still an excellent game in its own right.