If it's not clear from my writing I'm a HUGE Zelda fan. I also consider it the best series of games hands down. As such I was hugely looking forward to Skyward Sword. From that alone you can probably already guess where this is headed.
Before you read this, while there are no spoilers, if you haven't played Skyward Sword and you plan to do so I suggest you play it first before letting the critique influence your experience. With that out of the way...
Revisiting some other Zeldas if I had to rank all console Zeldas I'd put Skyward Sword absolute last. My ranking
- Ocarina of Time (N64)
- Link to the Past (SNES)
- The Legend of Zelda (NES)
- Wind Waker (Gamecube)
- Majora's Mask (N64)
- Twilight Princess (Gamecube)
- Skyward Sword (Wii)
Why does it rank so low for me? Well, various reasons.
The nunchuck would freak out on me. It would basically start going in 1 direction constantly. The only fix was to unplug it and plug it back in. That fixed it but it was annoying as hell. It happened 20 to 30 times during boss fights!!! WTF!!! It happened 6 times in one boss fight alone. It happened in the desert and walked me into the sand to my death! Is it seriously that hard to program analog sticks? Hasn't that been a solved problem since Apple II? I even tried switching both wiimotes and nunchucks. No difference.
While it was semi fun to bounce the nuts back at those guys over all the shield was never as much fun as previous Zeldas. This was because instead of being on a button it was tied to thrusting with the Nunchuck and because it's a thrust you can't hold it out like you could in previous Zeldas. You have to thrust each time you use it or it breaks. That made it next to useless for me. I'm sure some players got into it but not me. If some how the wiimote could just sense where in 3d space the nunchuck is so I could just hold it out and pull it back that might work but until then, putting on a button would have been better IMO.
It's more than that though. You have to thrust out the shield EVERY TIME SOMETHING HITS IT. If you don't your shield takes damage and eventually breaks. In all previous Zeldas, for many enemies you could hold Z and put up your shield at which point you were safe. This gave you a chance to figure out what you want to do and take a break from the panic. That made it far more approachable by a larger range of players.
Skyward Sword on the other hand make is you always have to be on top if it and worse, when your shield breaks you get to go through the tedious process of setting up a new one.
I will say they get an A for effort. If some how magically the wiimote always registered exactly what I did all of those problems would go away. It's just not quite there yet. The advantage of older controllers is they do exactly what you tell them. If you press the wrong button you know you pressed the wrong button. Wiimotes, you swing from left to right and the game thinks you swung right to left or top to bottom or didn't swing at all.
Several times I during a boss battle no matter what I did I couldn't get the wiimote to hold the sword straight up to charge the sword. As an example this made it pretty much impossible to beat the final boss. Basically I just had to keep trying and hope the wiimote co−operated at least once.
I suspect it's because of using the Wiimote they had to do this. In all previous non−Wiimote Zeldas you press a specific button and only that button to use some item. But in Skyward Sword you press some button 🍺 to start using the item and then (A) to use it. You shake your wiimote to switch to the sword but if you're using an item shacking just shakes your aim for that item. So, often I'd want to use my sword and shaking would do would start using my item. Sometimes after using an item the game would auto switch to the sword, like when I'd pull down a dragon by the tail, but not always. Switching in the heat of battle was an excersize in frustration. That never happened to me in any previous Zelda. I don't know what the solution is but there were a lot of times I was ready to throw the controller through the TV trying to get the game to let me switch back to the sword.
For the first 80% of the game I never felt as compelled as I have in past Zeldas. Of course it's not like Zelda has ever had amazing writing but go back to Link to the Past, Wind Waker or Twilight Princess and they have far more compelling stories.
Parts were okay. In Skyward Sword I cared more about the relationship between Zelda and Link than any previous Zelda. The final set of sequences was amazing as well but for most of the scenes there was just something about the delivery that didn't work for me.
Also the whole time thing just doesn't work. They put in a time machine and never used it except to plant a single tree and send some guy back? Why even have it?
Way more then any previous Zelda game, Skyward Sword, through the character Fi, tells you exactly what to do next. Sometimes that's probably a good thing but many times it's blatantly obvious what to do next and yet Fi pops up and tell you anyway. I'm sure there are some players out there that needed that but I'm sure there are just as many that find it as annoying as a parent telling you something you already know. You feel good that you know it and when your parent points out the obvious you just feel frustrated because it's like your parent thought you were too stupid to figure it out. They end up snatching your pride and enjoyment out from under you. I'm sure Nintendo could have figured out some other way. Let you choose Fi for advice only when you want it like every other Zelda to date maybe?
The best music as gameplay device was in Ocarina of Time. You played the song by pressing the correct notes and so you were actually doing something related to the song. Twilight Princess also was not too bad with the Wolf's songs. But Skyward Sword is just a joke gimmick. You just wave the wiimote left and right to pretend to strum a harp. It doesn't change per song. Worse, since the Wiimote sucks so much it doesn't always register. There are certain times you need to strum the harp perfectly 10 or 12 times but often, because the wiimote's crappyness it would take me 50−60 strums before it decided I did it correctly 10−12 times. It wasn't fun and given that it's just a gimmick it didn't add to the game like it did in Ocarina of Time.
You also couldn't use it for anything. It was just a part of the story, not really part of your set of abilities like in Ocarina of Time or Twilight Princess. The stones and wall marks hardly count as interesting as they are basically just side distractions.
One of the biggest things about most Zelda games is how they are "open world" games. Link to the Past, Ocarina of Time, Twilight Princes and Wind Walker all have huge worlds you can walk all over. They have stuff to discover and in fact you are meant to explore them. They are fairly non−linear and there are multiple ways to go at any time. Certain parts might be blocked off but there are usually various side quests available or places to explore.
All of that is missing in Skyward Sword. It's pretty much a straight walkthrough. Fi keeps telling you exactly what to do next and there isn't much point in exploring. Sure there is a stuff to explore, especially in the sky. That's not the point. The point is you have to go out of your way to find it. Unlike other Zelda's you don't run into things to do or see things you might want to explore later if you are following the path set out for you Fi. That in turn makes exploring a chore. Instead of being lead by curiosity of things you see along the way you just have to go explore the various islands in the sky when you realize maybe you'd like an upgrade. That curiosity building is a HUGE part of what makes a Zelda game a Zelda game.
If you go back to any of the other games, you might be given a direction but you pass so much stuff on the way that begs for your attention that you just want to explore. Not in Skyward Sword though. Pretty much you're given a mission and you go directly there, no distractions.
That's a big reason why this one ranks so low IMO. If I wanted a walk through through type game I'd play one of the other zillon games out there. Zelda has always been about Open World and yet this Zelda is not. Sigh
Trying to use the clawhooks I often struggled to get the camera to look at what I needed it to look at. There was something I clearly needed to connect to but no matter what I pressed it was just slightly off screen. After 5 or 6 tries it would finally target the object. I never had that problem in a previous Zelda.
Seriously? This is mainstay of Zelda. Switching to a bottle in the heat of battle so you can replenish your strength has always paused the game. You may have to un pause for a moment to use that bottle but it was pretty much a safe operation. Skyward Sword on the other hand does not pause so you basically take hits while trying to save yourself by drinking a potion, then you take more hits while you try to re−equip your shield.
I'm sure some will argue that's more realistic. I don't play Zelda for realism though I play it for enjoyment. On top of that, dealing with controls, wiimote or joypad is not realistic in the first place. The whole point of freezing the game is as a concession to that fact that translating what you want to do, which would be second nature in real life, is frustrating and imprecise through a controller. One of Nintendo's hallmarks has been design that emphasizes fun over frustration. Well they got it wrong in Skyward Sword.
Skyward Sword makes you revisit several dungeons and areas. Some of it was okay because you'd discover places you couldn't get to before but can now that you have new abilities. But mostly it felt like backtracking and cheapness as in "how can we save money making this game? I know, reuse the same areas 2 or 3 times each." Fighting the many of the same monsters again which just felt annoying.
One of my most hated game design ideas is any game that forces you to take hits. I've worked with designers that would design an area where you are required to have 6 hearts because they are going to guarantee you'll get hit 5 times so if you have less than 6 hearts you fail. That's just awful awful design.
Well, this might show my lameness as a gamer but the whole sequence when you have to escort the robot up the volcano seemed along those lines. Maybe there is a way to do it the first time through but as far as could tell you needed lots of arrows and you were pretty much guaranteed to run out so that you'd eventually get the robot killed and have to start over but this time the area you'd cleared before would still be cleared so you could take your supply of arrows, go up to where you left off last time and continue. It just seemed like it was required to fail several times to get through it.
I know these kinds of games existed in previous Zeldas but, and maybe my memory is bad, I don't remember them feeling so arbitrary and lame. I also remember many of them being side quests so you didn't have to do them. A fetch quest is fine. A fetch quest where things hunt you and if they catch you you have to start the entire thing over = frustrating. You'd also think Fi's damn 4 screen speech could have used a little focus testing. There's nothing more infuriating then failing in a game and then it taking long pointless time to get to the point you can try again. Even worse, they almost seem like they were designed to make you fail several times, certainly the last trial. That's bad design by any measure.
On top of that, It felt just like filler. If you go back to Ocarina of Time or Wind Waker I'm pretty sure each task you are given is unique. Here though it was the same mini game repeated 4 times. It just felt lazy and un−zelda like.
WTF! Nuff said.
They were fun but only once. After that it just got boring. It felt to me like they intended to do lots more with them but failed and needed to ship so they just made them a take you from point A to point B and that's about it. I know lots of people hated sailing in Wind Waker. I loved it though and I loved that YOU navigated. I felt like I was exploring in that game. In Skyward Sword though there is never any ambiguity about where to go so the birds don't really have much of a point. There was almost never a reason not to go directly to where you were told to go next which just mean the birds were padding making it tedious to get from point A to point B.
One of the main formulas of Zelda is that transportation gets progressively easier. The best example is to think back to Link to the Past. At the start all you can do is walk from place to place. It takes a while but the amount of area that's available to you isn't all that big. At some point you get the flippers and you can use the whirlpools to quickly get from one side of the world you first have to walk to the a whirlpool and each one goes to a specific place. Finally you get the Flute which you can use almost anywhere and it will quickly whisk you to one of many destinations. As examples in other Zelda's Wind Waker had the Tornado, Twilight Princess had the wolf form teleportation.
The point of this awesome design mechanic is it's fun to explore the world but at some point you've seen it and you just want to get to your objective as quick as possible. It removes what would otherwise be tedious. Skyward Sword though never makes transportation easier. You always have to walk to a statue, teleport to the sky, fly to another hole in the clouds, dive in, then finally you can choose a destination in which is a small concession compared to previous Zeldas. In other words, unlike previous Zeldas Skyward Sword LEFT THE TEDIUM IN!
Some people will probably like that. I don't mind a challenge but it has to feel fair. All of the control issues above make it feel unfair.
On the good side ...
It's the Wiimote that sucks, not the control design. Swinging the sword in 6 ways (left, right, up, down, forward, spin) was pretty good. Still, probably because of the wiimote issue, it didn't feel nearly as solid as Wind Waker or Twilight Princess on Gamecube.
Fighting the Stalmaster, Scervo, felt pretty awesome when the controls worked. Smashing the pillar up into or down into The Imprisoned felt pretty good to. Maybe the next version of a Wiimote will make this style more solid.
I don't know how else to put it. It's possibly I've just out grown Zelda games. I can still go back and play the old ones and enjoy them. I've played Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time through several times. I've played Twilight Princess nearly twice thought the second time was helping a friend. My point is I'm familiar with the details of those games and I still enjoy them.
Skyward Sword is still an amazing game and for me it's arguably better in so many ways then just about every other game out there right now. Nintendo's attention to detail in Skyward Sword is missing from almost every other game. I'm not talking about graphic detail of something like Uncharted. I'm talking about design and aesthetic detail. Zelda has always been a choice of gameplay over everything and Skyward Sword is no exception. Every item is unique and provides unique game play. The puzzles are amazing, often unique and fun to solve. Carrying the time orb or the using the time stones was really neat.
It's just that in the company of previous Zeldas Skyward Sword arguably falls short.