Let’s run an experiment. Take out a piece of paper and a pencil (I’ll wait…you good? Good) and write down as many words or phrases as you can that should describe a Zelda game. My list includes things like “adventurous,” “open-world exploration,” “beautiful and grand,” “colorful races and characters,” “excellently designed bosses and dungeons,” or my personal favorite, “clever use of items and tools.” Now make a list of words and phrases that should never under any circumstances describe any installment of the series. To throw out a few examples, try “fetch quests,” “overly linear,” “monotonous transportation,” “small, repetitive world,” “a species of testicle-shaped fruit creatures, “tedious puzzles lurking around every corner,” “Jar-Jar Binks” and any combination of the terms “motion controlled” and “Parkinson’s disease.” Congratulations, you now have a standard for judging Skyward Sword!
Traditional Zelda games emphasized the open-world exploration, allowing the player to tackle dungeons in virtually any order (save for the few that required specific items to access or complete). I loved this. It let me plan out my game as something unique each time. Maybe I want to get the white sword before going into the first dungeon, or pick up the power glove before any thing else so I could access any location in the Dark World. Or not. Maybe I want to pick up the bow first, or scour the land for 250 rupees to get the blue ring. Maybe I want to ignore the swords entirely and get through as much of the game as possible with just the bow. Despite limitations on graphics and memory, the early incarnations of Link made replaying the game more fun. And while I somewhat understand why they required a linear dungeon order in Ocarina of Time, I would have preferred otherwise, and at least they left plenty of overworld quests open to choice. Sort of.
Unfortunately, each progressive game has doubled down more and more on this linear progression, and in Skyward Sword you don’t seem to have any say in what you do at any given time, as though you asked Nintendo to help you with a science fair project, and three hours later they run out of things for you to hold in place, so they send you upstairs to get it coffee so they can finish the project for you. And remember when you said you liked the fact that the game made you think? Well guess what, they’ve installed plenty of puzzles! Challenging, obtuse, and tedious puzzles lurking around every corner. Convoluted puzzles that make you feel stupid. And if overestimating player intelligence didn’t go far enough, they also manage to underestimate it, too.
Seriously Nintendo…two hours of tutorials? You put a motion-controlled sword in our hands and then need to tell us how to swing it left, right, up and down (yet no tutorial for the bug net, which handles about as well as you could expect…assuming Link had an advanced case of Parkinson’s disease)? Did you think we didn’t hear the constant beeping tone denoting low health, that we needed our sidekick to remind us that we need to find hearts? Did you? Really? Because of all the game’s sins, nothing tops saddling you with a companion so obnoxious that you’ll yearn for the halcyon days of “Look!” and “Listen!” and even Jar Jar Binks seems like a step up.
Link’s companion for Skyward Sword, Fi, grated on my nerves like a a block of soft cheese shoved through a fine mesh made of razor wire. Unlike Navi, who would point out useful objects and locations, the King of Red Lions who gave interesting back story and helpful objectives, and Midna, who gave Link super powers, Fi’s main objective compels her to repeat what other characters have only just finished saying. The Chief of the Kiwkis (a species of testicle-shaped fruit creatures) tells you the other kikwis have wandered off and he needs help finding them? Enter Fi to tell you that you should go look for the kikwis. The water dragon asks you to obtain sacred water to heal her wounds? Fi shows up to tell you that you can heal the dragon’s wounds by finding sacred water. Have you encountered your fiftieth time-shift stone, which you’ve used to solve all the previous desert puzzles? Don’t worry! Fi will explains that you can use time-shift stones to solve *this* puzzle. And notice that I didn’t say “how you can use time-shift stones.” That might actually venture into the realm of useful information. Even when you ask her for hints or for mission objectives, she’ll only paraphrase what another character told you, or give you such vital information as “Find hearts to refill your health” or “Bombs help you blow stuff up!”
As the spirit of the sword and a creation of the goddess–yes, we apparently have a fourth goddess that no one will ever talk about again–she does serve a role in the plot. Namely, every time Link retrieves the MacGuffin currently in vogue with the latest dungeon, a message from the goddess will awaken in her memory banks. She then zips around the chamber like Tinkerbell on Ice because apparently she can only communicate these messages via interpretive dance. Still, for all it adds to what little story I found, I would have preferred walking up to the altar to find a note pinned to the treasure; “Dear Hero: Fire temple next. Eldin Volcano. Best Wishes. -G.” Oddly enough, though, Fi annoyed me the most when she calculated statistics. “Master, I calculate a 95% probability that this enemy guards the item you seek.” “Master, I calculate a 85% chance that you will need a sword to attack these monsters.” “Master, I calculate a 90% chance that if we go to the next dungeon, the game will progress.” Dear Nintendo, you can’t have a character rattle off probabilities like C-3PO (Yes, I just compared Fi to the two most obnoxious characters in the Star Wars universe) without that 5% chance that she gets it wrong!
But in other news, we all remember all those hours spent sailing the Great Ocean in the Wind Waker, and how Nintendo took those complaints and doubled down on them, giving us the Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks, each one delivering even more monotonous transportation than the one before. Well, fear not, as Skyward Sword offers an airborne mode of tedious travel. As a resident of Skyloft, Link flies a Crimson Loftwing, a giant bird who soars leisurely through the sky in an attempt to arrive fashionably late. The Wii motion control gives you all the precision and handling as flying a stack of Kleenex through a strong breeze, and any quests or games that require the bird rely more on you getting lucky than getting better.
The overly linear design places obstacle after obstacle in Link’s path, each one requiring something you’ll find somewhere else. None of these fetch quests progress the plot or even make game play interesting. Curiously enough, though, I clocked in at roughly 40 hours by the end, a number quite common for RPGs and adventure games. That and the four hours it took to get to the first dungeon give off a strong vibe of Nintendo having nothing to put in the game. After the first five or six hours of chasing Zelda, I got through the first dungeon and came face-to-face with an honest-to-Nayru “Your princess is in another castle” message. Well, you get honesty points for all but admitting that you have absolutely no new ideas.