A friend of mine once asked me at a party why so many people consider Ocarina of Time so great. While this was not a party of nerds per se, my circle of friends is sufficiently nerdy that such a question can be asked without preamble, or without any apparent context. Ocarina of Time’s greatness is usually taken for granted, being the ur-Zelda against which all others must compare. As I agree that Ocarina of Time is “great,” and as I derive a lot of pleasure from bloviating about video games (obviously), I took on this challenge. I was also in the middle of a party with a red cup in my hand and probably a little drunk, and so couldn’t articulate an answer to either of our satisfaction.
If only I had known the the answer would arrive 14 years later in the form of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword.
Skyward Sword arrived in 2011, just in time for the series’ 25th anniversary. It is the 15th game in the series (excluding spin-offs), which may tell you how much gamers love Zelda, but more importantly, it tells you how much Nintendo loves Zelda. My own love for Zelda doesn’t even compare. I count multiple Zelda games among my all-time favorites. The Wind Waker might have made me cry a little. None of this compares to the love Nintendo feels for this series. Depending on how you count them, there are more core Zelda games than there are core Mario games, despite Mario predating Zelda, and despite all Zelda games being pretty much the same.
I am not only referring to the superficial aspects. Yes, we could rattle off the common items – the Master Sword, the Triforce, the rupees, the bows and arrows and all of the Zelda knick-knacks. We could compare the general structure of the games – the dungeons, the keys, the bosses, the Ganondorfs. (Ganondorves?) Those are all important too, but I mean that Zelda games deliver the same experience in a more fundamental way – the same sense of action and adventure, the same narratives, the same emotional arcs.
How do I know Nintendo loves Zelda so much? I guess I don’t, but how else could you explain the company making the same game 15 times in a row? I have never finished a Zelda game and thought, “Now that was a fresh take on Zelda.” Rarely am I surprised or thrilled or excited because I don’t really think Nintendo wants me to be. I never think Nintendo has taken a risk because Nintendo isn’t in the business of taking risks.
We come to Skyward Sword, a game we might consider more a retrospective on the franchise than as a singular installment, and what might be the least risky entry in a series that defines “safe bet.” If you are one of the few people in existence reading a video game blog who hasn’t played a Zelda game, start with this one. Skyward Sword contains everything you could want in a Zelda game. You follow the path of a neophyte swordsman swiftly thrust into a world-shaking magical conspiracy, exploring new lands, slaying new monsters, and finding new items.
The new lands adhere to the fantasy traditions of enchanted forests and smoldering volcanoes. Sometimes the game indulges in stereotype, populating magical glades with gnarled trees and pixie-dusted flora. Other times – but not too often – Skyward Sword offers an enjoyable twist, such as time-altering stones that temporarily return an ancient mine to full operation.
The items you find are not strictly new. Some are quite familiar, such as your trusty slingshot and bow. Others are new enough to delight but never surprise. A remote-controlled mechanical beetle may sound strange, but fits naturally in the world of Zelda the second time you use it. A divine harp is your requisite magical instrument for this game. Skyward Sword mixes the new and the old enough to keep you engaged, but has no intention of throwing you for a loop or introducing something truly radical. Which is great, because Zelda games aren’t supposed to be radical.
Link still relies on his sword, after all, now controlled with real-life swings of the Wii remote. After shoehorning motion controls into the Wii port of Twilight Princess, Nintendo implemented more sophisticated controls in Skyward Sword, requiring precise motions from the player. Swing left, and Link swings left. Swing up, Link swings up. The motion controls are fun and intuitive and inspire some challenging battles, but are less revolutionary than they sound. Once you get used to them, you’re just playing Zelda again, fighting off bats and oozes, moving boxes, opening chests. The feel of sword fighting is the same, even if the inputs are different. Which is great, because Zelda games aren’t supposed to feel different.
And finally, there is a great amount of content, measured according to the series’ well-established metrics. How many dungeons are there? Plenty. How many items are there? Plenty. How many sidequests are there? Plenty. Is there a horse, or something like a horse? You betcha. Is there an overworld to explore? Yep. Can you catch fairies in bottles? Check check check check check.
So thoroughly does Skyward Sword run through the great checklist of Zelda content that I believe Nintendo made a deliberate attempt to create the Zelda for everyone, something which could only be criticized by the Scroogiest, fun-hating-est curmudgeons. Visually, Skyward Sword mixes the cartoonish style of Wind Waker and early 2D games with the darker style of Ocarina, Majora’s Mask, and Twilight Princess. Skyloft, Link’s homeland in this game, sits on a floating island in the clouds, recalling the adventurous spirit of the sea from Wind Waker without the tedious sailing that game was known for. Your animal companion, a giant red-winged bird, is a sort of horse-boat. At times the bird feels like an animal you must command and other times more like a vessel you steer through the sky, recalling both Ocarina’s horse Epona and Wind Waker‘s King of Red Lions. Below the clouds we find more traditional expanses of landscapes, satisfying those players who prefer the overland travel the series began with.
The game plays with, but does not focus on, time travel, a nod to the themes developed in Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask. Later in the game, you pilot an actual boat in a sequence which could not beat you over the head more with throwbacks to Wind Waker and Phantom Hourglass. One characer, a wise old woman, is plucked from the caves of the original NES game. The bestiary of Skyward Sword includes monsters from, as far as I can tell, every previous Zelda. Perhaps Skyward Sword’s most truly unusual element is its focus on technology: on robots and gadgets and other mechanical wizardry. But even this was presaged in Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks – the latter demonstrating Link’s skills as a train conductor. To play Skyward Sword is to experience the whole breadth of the Zelda experience, to be familiar with 25 years’ worth of history.
None of this means Skyward Sword is the best Zelda, but this dogged adherence to the franchises’ roots means it is at least a good Zelda. Nintendo discovered such a bedrock of game design that they could release formulaic Zelda games for the rest of time and, I promise you, they will always be pretty fun. I might as well write reviews of my weekly session of Dungeons & Dragons.
Each installment is not so important as the underlying structure of the game, and this is why I couldn’t explain why Ocarina of Time was so great. We weren’t talking about a single game’s achievement. We were talking about the zenith of a form. To understand why Ocarina of Time is so great, you have to understand why the Zelda formula is so great, and there’s no better demonstration of that formula that Skyward Sword. When you finish Skyward Sword you will understand everything that happens in a Zelda game. The game isn’t always as fun or challenging or as inspiring as it could be, but you get glimpses of that potential. When you finish Ocarina of Time, you will have experienced less of the series, but you will have experienced the very best of the series – when the music is its most touching, when characters are their most memorable, when Ganondorf is at his scariest, and when everything comes into place just so.
Nintendo is notoriously tight-lipped about their design process. They work very hard to cultivate an image of a magical factory, a place where video games emerge as fully-formed, holistic entities. Shigeru Miyamoto has, however, likened game design to cooking. Anybody can salvage a mediocre meal with the right seasoning, but the best meals come from something more truly enjoyable. “There are certain elements of cooking,” he said, “where if you’re able to find a very delicious ingredient, all you have to do is put a little bit of salt on it. Then you cook it and it tastes amazing.”
The Zelda formula is one such ingredient, and to play the Zelda games is to enjoy the same meal over and over, prepared by someone who improvises a little bit each time. It’s never bad, and is usually very good. Sometimes that recipe will come together in perfect and surprising ways, in ways you’ll never be able to precisely measure or even describe. And sometimes the recipe is only an old recipe: familiar, satisfying, and impossible to screw up. No wonder Nintendo loves it so much.