Pity the Deku Baba, Hyrule’s answer to the Venus Flytrap. Encountered early in the majority of 3D Zeldas, it has become a guinea pig for Nintendo’s keenest innovators. Slicing its stalk in Ocarina Of Time proved Nintendo’s Z-targeting had successfully tamed the wild frontier of 3D thirdperson combat. Thirteen years later, cold steel cleaves its head right along a slobbering jawline and you learn – with a slowly widening grin – that Nintendo has repeated the trick with motion controls. We’d salute the troubled flora if it wouldn’t result in Link chopping his own ear off. Such are the risks of one-to-one motion tracking.
Link’s blade mimics every nuance of the wrist. It points as you sound the charge, rises above the head in Braveheart defiance or rotates in the hand for quiet observation. Fidelity invites theatricality; pointing at Bokoblins in the order Link’s going to gut them is a meaningless gesture, but one loaded with samurai cool. In combat, which needs samurai skill, Nintendo weighs the fantasy of one-to-one freedom against its strict standards of usability. Too far one way and you’ve got Twilight Princess’ humourless Remote shaking; too far the other, and Trespasser’s flailing hands come to mind. Nintendo hits the sweet spot by massaging directional swipes into preset horizontal, vertical and diagonal attacks.
In the wake of the one-to-one tomfoolery, limiting actual cuts to eight compass points may sound robotic. In action, it is nothing short of revelatory. MotionPlus ably registers your play-acting – its unfaltering fidelity never once let us down – which Skyward Sword translates into the clean strikes you imagine. Delivering a deathblow with an opportune swipe is roleplaying of the purest kind, Link’s hand and yours outstretched in unison as a three-necked beast writhes on the floor. This is not the first time Link has lopped tentacles left, right and centre, but it is the first time hands have been left, right and centre with him. The victories are ours in a way they could never be with a traditional controller.
MotionPlus permeates Link’s kitbag from items to interface. A simple thing like bombs differentiating between underarm bowls and overarm lobs rejuvenates an item long thought exhausted. Projectile weapons demonstrate a true breakthrough, rejecting Wii’s sensor bar for purely gyroscopic aiming. Tilting the Remote grants control finesse to rival Metroid Prime 3, untainted by the jitteriness of a hand held aloft. Comparing gliding archery here to Twilight Princess’ flighty bow cursor, we wonder why Nintendo didn’t pursue this avenue of control to begin with. The technology powers all in-game menus, picking between dialogue choices or navigating item wheels with the smoothest of gestures.
Since the ill-starred Skyward Sword E3 reveal, a din of control concerns drowned the dialogue around the game. As satiated dissenters descend into a revered hush they will discover what simmers beneath: this is a radical departure for Zelda. Before a sword even enters his hand we’ve met a uniquely athletic Link. A stamina meter governs climbing and dashing, turning steep inclines and vine-clad cliffs into nervous clambers between ledges and restorative fruits. Regions built around volcano ascents and sucking quicksand help rediscover a platforming challenge diminished in Zelda since the addition of auto jump.
And what a strange overworld to dash about in. Skyloft is over the world, yes, but the cloudy realm acts more as a hub to regions below. Imagine a halfway house between Majora’s Clock Town and Wind Waker’s ocean: a community of oddballs scattered across a sky archipelago. Considerably smaller than the sea, it makes up for it in a density of character. Islands hide bug collectors, sword enthusiasts and deranged clowns, many with minigames and most feeding into an overarching side-quest to rival Ocarina’s Skulltula hunt. And Skyloft’s small area is remedied in volume – flying high and disembarking into a tunic-rippling freefall is both totally unnecessary and absolutely essential.
Diving below reveals further rebellion against the old ways. Three self-contained regions – forest, volcano and desert – reject the conventional field/dungeon cycle by dragging Zelda’s legendary temple architects into the light. Before even reaching a dungeon’s doors Link is riding monster corpses across deadly sands, excavating keys from pillars of dirt and shuffling up vines in search of a tribe of paranoid birds. A newfound sense of purpose arises largely thanks to Link’s dowsing ability. Following a bleeping sword places clear objectives in the adventurous sprawl, imposing the artificial boundaries in which Zelda’s locked room-puzzle mentality can flourish.
As for those puzzles? How’s this for a statement of intent: not a single torch-lighting number, and only one push-the-box-on-the-button incident. How does it have the nerve to call itself a celebration of 25 years of Zelda? Blame Link’s unusual toys. A flying beetle pulls players up into the rafters as digging claws bury deep into foundations. Add other tools that blow, yank, glide and drag, and designers have a juicy verb sheet with which to concoct fiendish head-scratchers. Where Twilight Princess’ gizmos gathered dust after glorious debut dungeons, Skyward Sword keeps its kitbag tight and in constant circulation with ingenious multitasking and surprise upgrades along the way.
A new user-led upgrade system, on the other hand, strikes Skyward Sword’s single dull note. Resembling a My First Monster Hunter, globs of goo and ornamental skulls are swapped for tougher shields, bigger ammo pouches and deadlier arrows. Scooping insects with a butterfly net lets you supercharge potions, too. But such avenues jar with an adventure balanced for the base items. Odds don’t need swinging in Link’s favour; they’re just right. If Nintendo had Zelda virgins in mind – with the upgrades as edge softeners – it seems strange to bury advantages in a collectibles system that speaks loudest to obsessive old hands. That said, the idea gains traction once the end credits have rolled.
Having broken moulds, Skyward Sword refuses to set others. No two hours are the same. Pirate ship chases become mine-cart rollercoasters become stronghold raids all in the course of one afternoon. Elsewhere, in a beautiful nod to Zelda’s dual-world tradition, one new gimmick causes two worlds to collide in a single space. When later acts see entire regions double back on themselves – either reinvented as terrifying stealth scrambles or disrupted by ill-tempered deities – you wonder if Nintendo has found the secret to infinite level design. Cézanne inspired the style, but it’s Magic Eye stereograms these levels within levels most resemble.
Unsurprisingly for a game with a key mechanic that involves flinging Link into tumbling freefall, a glint of matinee idol derring-do is never far from its eye. Its 35 hours – that’s ignoring a wealth of trinkets – fly by in a heroic blur of pirates, dragons and zombie-filled crypts. A reliance on riddles and cranking up ancient machines finds its treasure-hunting roots not in Wind Waker, but Indiana Jones. As cracked tablets lead to forgotten sanctums and mystic hymns stir memories in Link’s otherworldly aide, the hairs on the back of the neck bristle to salute a quest unique in its unabashed lack of irony. This is a game made for Christmas Day, released an agonising six weeks before.
Nintendo has been so busy elaborating on Ocarina’s heroic ideal that it’s forgotten to embrace it for itself. So what better way to honour 25 years of bravery than courageously striving for something new? And what opportune hardware to cut those ties. After all, hasn’t the Wii hardware spent the past five years searching for the hero inside itself? Firstparty experiments have tested Wii’s boundaries, deducing what does and doesn’t work. Their findings resonate throughout Skyward Sword. In Wii Sports-powered bomb bowling. In skydiving and swordplay learnt on a Wuhu holiday. In the surreal beauty and orchestral bombast beamed down from Super Mario Galaxy. In the metallic Metroid chu-chunk of a door lock. Even the opinion-dividing Wii Music is vindicated in subtle moments of auto-tuning cleverness. How apt that this ultimate tale of hero-making should see Nintendo’s hardware become the console it was always meant to be.
Skyward Sword is one of very few games awarded an Edge 10. You can find the rest here.