Idle Observations about Japanese Pop Fiction
It’s been almost eight years since The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword released for the Nintendo Wii. When I first played the game back in 2011, it quickly established itself as my favorite Zelda game—which is something of an unpopular opinion in 2019, to put it lightly. Skyward Sword tends to get more criticism in online communities than any of the other 3D Zelda games, and it’s common to see it listed as the worst of the bunch. This is directly at odds with my experience playing the game almost a decade ago, so I decided to replay the game from start to finish to see if my opinion of the game would change, informed by both a broader base of completed Zelda games and a better understanding of games in general.
Long story short, my estimation of the game stands.
There are without question a lot of things wrong with Skyward Sword. Replaying the game has given me a better appreciation for the reasons many people dislike the game, and I could easily write a full post on the ways the game doesn’t quite measure up, but even so, it remains my favorite game in the series. The game doesn’t always work, but when it does work, it works brilliantly. It’s an ambitious game full of risky design choices, and it’s successful more often than not. I’m willing to forgive the game’s weaker moments—the repetitive Imprisoned fights, the boring sky sequences, and so on—because the elements the game gets right are the best the series has to offer.
My goal with this post is to go through the things the game does well, drawing attention to the ways Skyward Sword differentiates itself from the rest of the series. There are a number of things the game does well that other Zelda games also do well, so the focus here will be on the elements that make Skyward Sword unique—the things that put it above the other games in the series and solidify it as my favorite Zelda game.
But First, the Motion Controls
Skyward Sword is a game built around motion controls. If the motion controls don’t work for you for one reason or another, you will not like the game. This is the case for many of the game’s harshest detractors, I think, and the complaint is fair. If you can’t acclimate to the control system, you can’t enjoy the rest of what the game has to offer.
That said, in both my original playthrough of the game and my more recent one, I had no issues with the motion controls. They may not have worked perfectly, but they worked well enough for the creativity and novelty of the system to outweigh the occasional annoyance of a misplaced sword swing.
As I wrote above, Skyward Sword is a highly ambitious game, and much of its ambition comes in the form of its control scheme. Every single element of the control scheme relies on motion controls in full or in part. This could easily have been a recipe for disaster—plenty of motion-control-centric games just aren’t fun—but in this game the integration of the motion controls is natural enough that what usually plays as an annoying gimmick is actually fun.
Skyward Sword was designed around the promise of 1-to-1 swordplay. It was envisioned as a game where you could hold the Wii remote in front of you at any angle, and Link would move his sword to match. The game doesn’t offer quite that exact level of flexibility, but it does register eight directional sword swings, as well as a thrust, based on how you move the Wii remote. The game makes full use of this, and it’s full of enemies who require carefully-oriented sword strikes to defeat. Where combat in most Zelda games—most action games in general, really—fall into a pattern of “wait for an opening and then strike,” Skyward Sword challenges players to identify weak points in an opponent’s guard and target those points. Is there a hole in the center of the enemy’s armor? Go for a thrust. Is the enemy holding his sword to parry attacks from the left? Strike from the right.
The end result is a combat system that’s far more engaging and difficult than in any other Zelda game. You still have classic-style enemies and bosses, too—the “use an item to make a weakness and then slash wildly” types—but the real highlights are the direct swordfights. The three fights against Ghirahim, in particular, are a joy, as they fully make use of the motion control combat system to create the sensation of a true swordfight while also requiring the sort of pattern recognition and on-the-fly puzzle solving Zelda bosses are known for.
There’s also a duel with a robot pirate where you have to push him off the plank and into the ocean below, and it’s amazing.
The tracking isn’t perfect, and I would often attempt to swing from one direction and accidentally trigger a swing in another direction entirely, but I was very rarely frustrated with the mechanics. When it’s working—and it usually is—it’s unique, novel, and incredibly cool.
An Actual Narrative
Zelda games aren’t known for their storytelling, and I don’t go into a Zelda game expecting narrative excellence. That said, Skyward Sword makes an attempt at storytelling beyond what’s typical of the series, and it’s largely successful. The game’s narrative isn’t anything particularly fancy, but it humanizes Link and Zelda to an extent rarely seen in the series, primarily by establishing an existing and personal connection between the two in the first hour or so of the game. The friendship between the two characters—and a desire to reunite—serves as the primary motivator for the eventual quest rather than the more abstract concept of “saving the world.” The character motivations function as a more grounded foundation for the game as a whole than most Zelda games can offer.
The game then proceeds to subvert the expectations established in the rest of the series in subtle ways. Zelda isn’t a damsel-in-distress—in fact, initially she’s the one on a quest to save the world, and Link is just trying to catch up to her. There’s a really fantastic moment early in the game where Link almost reaches her, but her escort—a woman named Impa—stops him, telling him that he’s too late. He failed to protect her early in the game and therefore lost his right to be her guardian. It’s pretty gutsy for the game to say this directly to the player, and I couldn’t help but chuckle when I reached this point on my recent playthrough.
Despite being a silent protagonist in Skyward Sword, Link retains his own personality and character arc, developed primarily through the words of the other characters. He’s not quite the blank-slate player insert Link’s other iterations are. Instead we have a more complete hero’s journey, with established and multifaceted personal goals, as well as notable setbacks. Skyward Sword Link isn’t an especially unusual or nuanced protagonist by the standards of video gaming as a whole, but he does have far more texture than most other interpretations of Link, which is cool.
The game also benefits from a major-minor side character with an actual character arc—a serious rarity in the Zelda games. Skyward Sword’s Groose is introduced as an arrogant, self-absorbed jock-type character. His antics provide the primary elements of conflict in the first hour or so of the game, and he seems like nothing more than a comic-relief nuisance.
But then, about a third of the way through the game, Groose follows Link down from their home above the clouds to the surface world. Groose is stunned by how big the world is, and by all the strange and unfamiliar things it contains. He sees Link fight off the imprisoned form of the game’s big bad, Malice, and he is struck by his own unearned arrogance and his past uselessness.
Groose then reappears later having developed a system to help keep Malice under control. His time on the surface, and his experiences meeting those who live on the world below, inspire him to reform himself. By the end of the game, he’s still the same ridiculous, haughty character he was before, but he’s much more self-aware, and he works to help others rather than just himself.
Again, this isn’t all that unusual of a character arc in the broader sense, but for Zelda it’s highly unique and quite refreshing. Skyward Sword’s story and characters wouldn’t stand on their own, but they provide a wonderful backdrop for what is primarily a gameplay-driven game. They don’t get in the way of the meat of the game, but they do make the game richer.
Ghirahim and Fi
You can’t talk about the good parts of Skyward Sword without addressing the fabulous demon sword that is Ghirahim. Ghirahim is the game’s main antagonist (even though Malice is ostensibly the real threat and also the final boss). Ghirahim is an incarnation of Malice’s sword, and his whole goal is just to revive Malice. Ghirahim could easily have been a boring character—the “revive the big bad” goal has been done to death—but Ghirahim has so much personality he gets away with having a textbook generic villain scheme.
Every element of Ghirahim’s design is fantastic. He’s visually interesting, with his odd costuming and his diamond-shaped particle effects giving him a disctint visual character. His animations are fantastic, filled with strange gestures and poses that feel like something out of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. Most importantly, though, his dialogue is phenomenal. Ghirahim’s dialogue oozes a casual flamboyance that makes him impossible to dislike even as he’s insulting Link and trying to destroy the world. He’s an unapologetically fun character, and he’s easily the most interesting villain in the series if only for that reason.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have the much-maligned Fi. Fi is the navigator character in Skyward Sword, and she’s often listed as one of the primary reasons people dislike the game, along with the motion controls. This is partially because Fi tends to interrupt the player to draw attention to things that really don’t need to be noted—I’m still not sure why she feels the need to observe that the very obvious boss doors probably have something important behind them—but her issues run deeper than that.
Fi was probably meant to be a foil to Ghirahim. As Ghirahim is Malice’s sword, Fi is Link’s. She is the spirit of the Master Sword, able to take human form to give Link advice and to channel messages from the goddess Hylia. Like Ghirahim, her design, animations, and dialogue are remarkably distinct. Her art is pretty good, I think, but unfortunately, her dialogue falls flat. While Ghirahim is strikingly—perhaps exaggeratedly--human, Fi is mechanical, robotic. Her dialogue is intentionally stilted, and her incessant tendency to list the odds of random things makes her feel like an off-brand C-3PO. Any time Fi speaks, the game drags.
Ghirahim acts human but ultimately behaves fully mechanically, unhesitatingly working towards Malice’s revival with no thought to personal desires or meaning. Ghirahim actually succeeds at his goal, completely and without qualification—Link ultimately beats Malice, but Ghirahim’s goal was just to summon Malice and had no real requirements beyond that—but in his moment of success Ghirahim seems dissatisfied. He loses his final duel against Link, but he manages to buy just enough time to allow Malice to be reborn. Rather than relish the fact that he succeeded at reviving his master, though, he expresses frustration and confusion at his inability to fully best Link—and then Malice rips Ghirahim’s soul out of his body.
Fi then has a scene at the very end of the game, when she is going to be sealed permanently within the Master Sword, where she basically says she followed Link not just because it was her duty but also because she wanted to, and where she indicates that she has developed a sense of emotion. This paints her as a reversal of Ghirahim. He acted out of direct obligation, while she acted out of emotional loyalty. She ends the game satisfied, while he ends the game dissatisfied—even though both technically succeeded at their stated goals.
This link isn’t developed well enough to be effective. I think if Fi’s emotional development had taken place over the course of the whole game, rather than right at the end, and if Fi and Ghirahim had actually spoken to each other about these ideas, Fi would have been a much more effective character. As it is, we’re left with one sword who’s forgettable-to-annoying, and one who’s absolutely fantastic but lacking a strong foil.
This is another situation where I’m willing to overlook the game’s weaknesses because of the height of its strengths. Fi could have been a lot better, sure, but Ghirahim is already highly entertaining, and I’ll take the strength of Ghirahim’s character over the weaker antagonists of the other Zelda games even if it means I also have to deal with Fi.
A Little Old For My Taste
One thing I noticed on my recent playthrough of the game that I thought was particularly interesting—and really liked—is the way Skyward Sword builds its world. Skyward Sword is the most linear of the 3D Zelda games, forgoing an actual overworld (unless you count the sky, and nobody counts the sky) in favor of three disconnected areas that you explore in an essentially linear fashion. While this pretty much completely eliminates any sense of exploration, it gave the developers a lot more flexibility to tell the story of the world through the elements of the places the player visits. As each element of the world will be seen in a particular order, the world-building becomes its own form of linear narrative.
Skyward Sword capitalizes on its structure to use its world as an avenue to reflect on the concepts of history and time. Skyward Sword is currently the earliest game in the Zelda series timeline—none of the other games are set earlier in the history of the world. Rather than fill the game with Easter eggs and teasers for later games, though, the developers opted to create a game that is primarily concerned with the past. Despite being set at the earliest point in the timeline, the game is filled with ancient ruins, fallen societies, old legends, and so on. The first inhabitant of the surface world Link meets is an archaeologist, and an archaeological feel pervades the whole game. The first dungeon is a temple the aforementioned archaeologist is interested in mapping. The second dungeon is an ancient ruin filled with treasure-hunting moles exploring the place—and it even has an Indiana-Jones-esque boulder segment. (The boulder then rolls into the next room, where Ghirahim animates it and turns it into the boss fight, which is pretty amusing).
The third section of the game is where this gets interesting, though. The central premise of the third area is that a civilization of robots destroyed the environment by mining a source of energy to excess. What once was a lush province turned into a scorching desert, and everyone living there died out.
To be honest, I never thought a Zelda game would include commentary on climate change, and yet here we are.
The area is interesting from a mechanical standpoint—it’s filled with stones you can hit to “shift” the area back to the past in order to solve puzzles—but there’s something subtly grim about speaking with the area’s residents only to watch them turn to skeletons and petrified lumps of metal when you turn off the nearby timeshift stones. The area is also filled with industrial imagery, from conveyor belts to exhaust chimneys to huge metal shipping containers. It’s nothing like anything in any other Zelda game, but it doesn’t feel out-of-place either. It’s just… a bit of a surprise. In a good way.
I’m not entirely sure why the game is so interested in history. It’s all subtle enough that it can be interpreted in a variety of ways—and I’m not confident enough in any one interpretation to expand on one here—but the fact remains that there is a consistent theme underneath all of the level design and world building, which definitely sets Skyward Sword apart.
The Spider's Thread
The biggest reason I love Skyward Sword, though, is its dungeon design. The dungeons are full of interesting environments and puzzles, and they’re definitely the highlight of the game. I wish there were more of them, but at the same time, with seven dungeons, Skyward Sword is already ahead of most of the 3D Zeldas in terms of dungeon count.
Just as the game’s overall world has unifying themes and concepts, the dungeons also share similarities. Where most Zelda games feature an eclectic mix of dungeons with varying premises and architectural styles, Skyward Sword’s all have ambiguously East-Asian architecture. This plays out in varying degrees of directness, ranging from small details in the textures lining the walls and floors to a dungeon that’s a Buddhist temple in all but name.
The Buddhist temple dungeon is called Ancient Cistern, and it happens to be my favorite dungeon in the entire series. It’s also a great example of why I enjoy Skyward Sword’s dungeon design so much. The dungeon is built around a central puzzle—a statue of the Buddha that you raise and lower to proceed through the dungeon. This is visually neat, if nothing else—and the Ancient Cistern is an exceptionally pretty dungeon—but the dungeon as a whole plays with Buddhist concepts and stories in a way that makes it an absolute joy to play through, especially if you’re familiar with what it’s based on.
The majority of the dungeon has the look of a typical-if-exaggerated Buddhist temple. The central statue is surrounded by a pond with lily pads and lotus flowers floating here and there. You progress through side hallways to open new pathways, and the dungeon’s puzzles are fairly clever. There are also some crafty details scattered about—there are silver rupees (worth 100 of the game’s currency) sitting above the Buddha’s palms, for example, but if you try to take them the statue grabs you and throws you across the room.
The dungeon really comes into its own, though, when you fall down to the basement floor. Initially you’re washed into an underground jail cell, and you have to use the dungeon’s whip item to steal a key from the jailer and escape—a clever touch in itself—but then before you climb out you see through a window into the rest of the basement floor, which is roughly inspired by interpretations of the Buddhist underworld. Neat!
It gets better, though. In the jailbreak sequence, there are spider enemies that you have to drop onto lily pads to open the way forward. The spider enemies dangle from the ceiling from a single thread, and you have to use a certain item to cut the thread. This calls to mind a short story written by Akutagawa Ryuunosuke in 1918 where the Buddha looks through a lotus-filled pond into hell, takes pity on someone he sees down there, and extends a single spider’s thread to help the person escape. The person starts climbing, but others start climbing after him, and the first climber tries to kick them off the thread—but the shaking from his kicking motion snaps the thread, sending everyone back down to the ground below.
I wasn’t familiar with this story when I first played the game, so replaying the game and discovering that Ancient Cistern was as a whole based around a short story from an author I’ve studied in my undergraduate classes made me smile.
After escaping from jail, you get access to the switch that lowers the Buddha statue, and its feet touch down in the underworld. You climb out of the statue and fight your way through the underworld, looking for yet another exit—and eventually you come to a circular room with a single spider’s thread dangling from above. True to the dungeon’s influence, when you start climbing the rope, a horde of zombies start climbing after you. The rope doesn’t break—perhaps because Link isn’t a bad person?—but the whole scene is ripped straight from Akutagawa’s classic story, and it’s absolutely brilliant.
The dungeon’s boss key is underneath the Buddha statue’s feet, so you have to lift the statue up, go back down to the underworld area via the thread, and return to the statue area to get the key. Upon retrieving the key, though, another horde of the zombie enemies appears, and the statue overhead starts to descend. For me, there was a moment of panic where I worried I would be unable to defeat all of the enemies in time—followed by a realization that the way out of the pit wasn’t barred.
As soon as you run out of the shadow of the statue, the Buddha statue finishes its descent, crushing all the undead creatures underfoot. It’s simultaneously a clever timed puzzle, a neat play on Buddhist thought, and a hilarious visual gag. There would be no better way to end the dungeon.
In some ways it’s a little odd to see a section of the game that’s based so directly on Buddhism and on a real-world work of Japanese fiction, given Zelda’s general lack of references to real-world literature, but I would say this speaks more to a relative lack of creativity elsewhere in the series than to a weakness of Skyward Sword. While Ancient Cistern is the top of the pack, all of Skyward Sword’s dungeons have some sort of story or unusual concept to them. They aren’t just a set of trials leading up to a MacGuffin, which makes them considerably more interesting than your typical Zelda fare.
A Few Closing Remarks
This is far from an exhaustive list of the things that make Skyward Sword great. I could go into detail about its pseudo-impressionist art style, or about how it’s the first Zelda game to record its music live, or about its clever sidequests—but this post has gone on for long enough already, and you probably get the idea by now.
The long and short of it is the game tries to do a whole bunch of really interesting and unusual things, and they mostly work. The motion controls can be clunky at times, but for the most part they’re novel, distinct, and fun. Fi is a weak character, but in exchange we get Ghirahim, Groose, and so on. The lack of an overworld means the game loses the fun of exploration, but as a result the experience is much more focused and faster-paced than most other Zelda games.
Skyward Sword is a game of trade-offs, and I can understand not liking it, especially if you’re a longtime Zelda fan. Skyward Sword followed what was probably the “safest” and least-ambitious game in the series--Twilight Princess could easily have been billed as a re-imagining of Ocarina of Time—and if you went into Skyward Sword expecting another game in that vein, you would have been disappointed. But for everything the game removes, or skips, or messes up, there’s twice as much that’s been added, or expanded, or improved. Skyward Sword is not trying to do “everything a Zelda game should do” in the way a game like Twilight Princess does, but in exchange it expands upon its elements of focus—its combat, its world, and its dungeon design—in ways that make for an exceptionally strong overall experience.
It is, in some ways, similar in philosophy to its immediate successor, Breath of the Wild. Skyward Sword and Breath of the Wild are ostensibly opposite games. Skyward Sword is a highly linear game with barely any exploration. It’s built around direct, controlled, and continuous development of its narrative and mechanical concepts. Breath of the Wild, on the other hand, is focused on exploration and experimentation at the expense of everything else. The two games are unified, though, in the way they eschew series conventions and focus intensely on specific aspects of the Zelda experience, polishing those elements as much as possible even as other facets of the game fall by the wayside.
This approach is neither “right” nor “wrong.” A game that tries to do everything well can be great—just look at Skyrim, which released a mere seven days before Skyward Sword did—and games that ostensibly take a focus strategy can end up backing into all-around excellence through strong teamwork and a unified thematic vision--The World Ends With You is my favored example of this.
That said, I think it’s good for a long-running franchise to vary its approach from time to time. It’s good that Zelda has both styles. Ocarina of Time, The Wind Waker, and Twilight Princess, take a primarily generalist approach, while Majora’s Mask, Skyward Sword, and Breath of the Wild each focus on a particular aspect of the overall experience. If Nintendo were to take the same approach with each game, the series would quickly grow stale—which is interesting considering Nintendo had that exact problem with the Mario games in the years leading up to Super Mario Odyssey.
Dungeon-crawling and puzzle-solving tend to be my favorite parts of Zelda games, and Skyward Sword’s focus on those elements is a large part of why I like the game so much. I also continue to appreciate the novelty of the motion controls, and I love the game’s aesthetic. Contrary to what some might say, it is a good game. It’s just different from its direct competitors, and that can be off-putting.
I, for one, am all for experimentation. Keep it up, Nintendo.
A Japanese Lit major and aspiring game designer with a passion for storytelling and music composition