Since 1998, each Legend Of Zelda game has felt like a cockeyed do-over of the best Zelda of them all: Ocarina Of Time, a game so great, with such a vaunted legacy, that Nintendo seemed like it might have doomed itself to repaint its Mona Lisa again and again in perpetuity.
Initially, The Legend Of Zelda: Skyward Sword seems destined to become another Ocarina facsimile. Instead of riding a horse, series protagonist Link gets around on a goony bird called a Loftwing; instead of an ocarina, the magical musical instrument is a harp; instead of the buzzing Navi, Link’s fairy friend is Fi, a shawl-wearing woman with a blue face. During the game’s painfully slow opening hours, jaded gamers will probably be thinking, “All right, let’s meet some Zoras and Gorons, hand over the boomerang and slingshot, and show me where Zelda is being held. Let’s get this thing over with already.”
The game begins on Skyloft, an airborne island featuring a neighborhood of Shire-like houses, a bazaar in the center of town, and a school where Link resides. Zelda somehow topples from the island, plummeting into the layer of cloud cover below. It’s up to Link to saddle up his bird and go after her.
As with all Zelda games, there’s an overworld and an underworld to explore, though even seasoned Zelda veterans would be hard-pressed to distinguish between the two in Skyward Sword. That’s because the two traditionally discrete worlds fit together so organically that most gamers won’t realize they’re in the dungeon they thought they were searching for until they’re already halfway through it. The game world never stops unfolding around Link in new, more interesting ways, and more importantly, it’s all logical and credible.
Skyward Sword also happens to be genuinely funny. Before a battle, a chatty robot advises Link, “Tighten up whatever it is you humans have instead of bolts.” And it’s crowded with so many carefully observed human moments—the insecurities of the island bully, the faded dreams of the pot-bellied swordsman—that it makes other games seem icy and lifeless by comparison. During an era where game-makers busily tout their impressive technology (Battlefield 3’s Frostbite 2 engine), or extensive spoken dialogue (The Old Republic), Nintendo wisely lets the technology disappear into the background, allowing the game’s soul to surface.
Skyward Sword features exactly zero lines of spoken dialogue: Nintendo employs old-fashioned word-boxes. Rabid fans anxious to finally learn what Link really sounds like will perceive this as archaic and lazy. But at a time when endless, and largely pointless, cutscenes reign supreme in videogames, this surprisingly quiet, voice-acting-free experience instead comes off as restrained and refreshing.
The only blight—and it’s so significant that it threatens to derail the game—comes in the form of the Wii MotionPlus control scheme. Carving up the air with a Wii remote supposedly results in tense, Errol Flynn-like sword battles against the game’s skilled opponents. Yet these moments, which are the foundation on which the entire game is built, devolve into shameful exercises in arm-flailing. How good is Skyward Sword? Good enough to overcome this wholly unnecessary handicap.
No, Skyward Sword isn’t better than Ocarina Of Time. But of all the Zeldas to be released over the last 13 years, it comes closest. The game’s greatest achievement is that it never stops aspiring to be more than it is. It never stops reaching for emotional moments, going full-tilt for players’ hearts. Before Skyward Sword’s final battle, Zelda turns to Link and says “You’ve come so far.” Those four words may not sound like much out of context, but within the game, they’re enough to make even the most jaded gamers reach for the Kleenex.