'The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword' review: The best Wii game, period. The best 'Zelda' game, question mark?

I. On Videogames
Why do we play videogames? For some people, the answer is easy. We know why the average smartphone user plays Angry Birds: To pass the time between subway stops, or to make dinner with the in-laws less painful, or because they’re bored in a doctor’s office. (Remember when you were a kid, and your parents took you to see a pediatrician, and all the kids in the waiting room were playing with that weird magical wooden play cube, with the geometric blocks you could push back and forth on a roller coaster wire? Angry Birds is the Magical Wooden Play Cube for adults.)

And we know why the casual gamer plays Wii Fit or Dance Central or Sports Champions: Because it’s a fun way to spend half an hour, or because the party was pretty boring before the host broke out the Kinect, or because it’s the only thing to do at the retirement home. And we know why a nation of mostly-males plays Call of Duty and World of Warcraft: Because it’s fun to compete with people you don’t know against people you don’t know in a game you enjoy, and because contemporary hobbies are only fun if they present the illusion of achievement, and because Activision Blizzard is the crack epidemic of our generation. And of course, we know why people play Kinectimals: Because they are too young to speak, and thus, they cannot complain to their parents that Kinectimals is the most annoying videogame ever made.

But why, fellow gamers, do we playthe long, intensive, single-player videogames: The 40 or 50 or 100-hour experiences that transport us to a fascinating new world, a vividly realized reality — and why does it not bother us that we are the only living person in that reality? Why do we play Final Fantasy? Why do we play Super Mario? Why do we play Gears/God of War? Heck, why do some of us still play the campaign mode of Call of Duty — and why do the makers of Call of Duty feed us with celebrity voices and bang-you’re-dead twists and characters who are just two-dimensional enough to care about? What is so lacking in our real lives that leads us to spend hours, days, months out of our lives in front of a TV set, tapping a few ridiculous buttons to explore better worlds than these?

Why, in short, did I spend 50 hours of my life over the course of two weeks — ignoring friends, family, and household chores — playing The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword? Let me try to explain.

II. On Skyward Sword‘s neverending tutorial prologue
One question dominates over the conversation about Skyward Sword, the same question that greets every new Zelda game: Can it be better then Ocarina of Time?

If you’re the kind of person who asks that question, then you have to understand one thing: You will not like the first five hours of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. It’s not because the game begins slowly. It’s because the game doesn’t even properly begin. Like all of the modern Zelda games, Skyward Sword kicks off with an extended prologue that serves as an in-game tutorial. Every action illustrates some aspect of the control scheme; every character you speak to offers you some sort of helpful instruction, in a casual-abrasive tone reminiscent of The Truman Show. “Hey, Link! Did you know you can target anything by pressing the Z button?” “Oof, Link, can you help me move these heavy boxes? You can pick up anything by pressing the A button.” “Dude, man, Link, you should be able to climb that wall if you hold A to dash, shouldn’t you? Just sayin’.”

Now, in-game tutorials are always annoying. They exist because kids today are apparently too lazy to read, because back in my day instructional manuals were just fine, grumble grumble crank crank. But Skyward Sword‘s tutorial is specifically annoying, because it seems designed for people who have never played videogames before — indeed, for people who have never conceived that it’s possible to coordinate one’s hands with one’s eyes.

So let’s assume you’re someone who has played videogames before. For that matter, let’s assume that you’ve played at least a couple of Zelda games before. To maintain your sanity, you’ll spend those first five hours focusing on everything except for the gameplay. Is the story interesting? Are the graphics compelling? How’s the music? And in those first few hours, the outlook is dire.

You play as a teenager named Link, a trainee at an Academy for knights located in a cloud-village called Skyloft. When the game begins, you wake up on the day of the Wing Ceremony. See, the citizens of Skyloft all have Loftwings, which are majestic giant birds. (Actually, with its long beak and brightly colored feather, a Loftwing looks a little bit like a gritty anime reinterpretation of Toucan Sam.) To celebrate the Wing Ceremony, there will be a big Loftwing race between the students of the Knights Academy. There’s just one problem/inciting incident: Link’s red Loftwing has gone missing.


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