IV. On Skyward Sword‘s escalating brilliance
Because right around the sixth hour, you get the Butterfly. It happens in the first major dungeon, north of Faron Woods. You’re inside of a room, and iron bars are covering the only door, and there doesn’t appear to be any way out except for a big hole in the ceiling that’s entirely too high to reach. You get a new item: the Blessed Butterfly. It’s basically a remote-control helicopter. When Link launches it from his wrist, the camera follows behind the Butterfly. You control its flight with the Wii remote, waving it back and forth. You can speed it up or slow it down. It can only fly for a little while — there are upgrades, natch. Functionally, the Butterfly lets you reach hard to reach places. More abstractly, the Butterfly gives you a new perspective on the world. It’s a concrete creation: When you run your Butterfly into a wall, it makes a shrieky-sprtz sound, and you can’t help but feel a little sorry for the thing.
The Butterfly is not the first major item that Link picks up on his journey — earlier, in Skyloft, someone handed you a bug-catching net — but it’s the first indication of what the basic gameplay structure of Skyward Sword will be. When I talked to Dan Houser, one of the main creative people behind the GTA franchise, he described the development of game narrative like this: “The missions tell the story, and the story shows off the features that the missions unlock. The combination of cutscene and action moves the story forward. The next bit of story unlocks the next core mechanic for you to play with. The experience of playing the game is also the same as going through the story.” Skyward Sword follows this formula perfectly. Every level is somehow structured around Link getting a new item…and, crucially, every one of those items incorporates the Wii’s motion controls in a distinctive, unique way. (I’m going to avoid talking about major story points in this review, but in this section, I will talk about a couple of the items, so minor spoiler alert — if you’re someone who likes being surprised about everything, then bless you, this game is awesome, go buy it and play it and check back here when you’re done.)
The Volcano level is predictably explosives-centric — it’s here that you get your bomb bag — but the bomb-throwing mechanic has been updated for the Wii era. If you want to throw a bomb, you hold the Wii remote upwards and make a “throw” movement. But you can also point the Wii remote downwards and roll the bomb. And not just roll it: You can put an angle on it, and give it a little spin. It’s the same basic mechanic that you find in Wii Bowling, but in this case, the mechanic isn’t the entire point: It’s just a small part of an organic experience.
Later in the game, you get a totally awesome whip, a reverse vacuum called a Gust Bellows, and something that’s just like the hookshot except even awesomer. To get really heavy for a second, Orson Welles’ genius in Citizen Kane was not that he recreated the cinematic art. Welles took a whole host of innovations developed over decades — deep-focus photography, high-contrast lighting, the idea of pointing the camera up at people — and brought them all together with a story to perfectly match the style. Something similar is happening in Skyward Sword: Each of the items feels like a perfected version of a mechanic you’ve seen somewhere else. Skyward Sword isn’t the first game to use two controllers to simulate the experience of stringing an arrow in a bow and firing; that was actually one of the only fun things about the PS3′s Sports Champions.
But context is everything. In Sports Champions, archery was a mini-game; in Skyward Sword, it’s one more essential piece of the game’s puzzle. And not to be overlooked: When you played the archery mode in Sports Champions, you were using two separated Move controllers. In Skyward Sword, you’re using a nunchuck that’s actually connected to your Wii remote. It feels slightly more organic to the archery experience. Especially if you happen to be playing the game standing up, which is how I played the vast majority of the last 40 hours of the game. Because, honestly man, when you swing a sword, do you want to be laying back on your couch or standing at attention ready to strike?
And speaking of that sword! Twilight Princess introduced a control scheme whereby you controlled the shield and sword in a rough approximation of how Link held those items: With your right hand, you swung the Wii remote, and Link swung the sword with his right hand; With your left hand, once you earned the Shield Attack Hidden Skill you could shake the nunchuck to reflect projectiles or just hit a dude’s face with your shield.
This system is present again in Skyward Sword, but everything about it has gotten better. For one thing, thanks to the updated Wii MotionPlus system, Link’s sword moves at a rough one-to-one ratio with your remote. If you hold it horizontal, Link’s sword rests that way. If you hold it up and point it to the sky, Link points his sword to the sky, and it charges up for a Skyward Strike. It’s fun to just pull out your sword and swing it around. More importantly, because the developers could be confident in the system, they’ve made the combat system fascinatingly intricate. You attack different villains in different ways. If they’re blocking left, you swing right. Later in the game, when you run afoul of some tall robot laser sentry, you have to cut them down to size and then stab directly into their eye. It becomes like a little dance: swipe the controller left; swipe the controller right, stab the controller towards the TV, and watch the robo-sentry explode.
But the sword is actually far less interesting than the shield. Let’s say you’re walking through Faron Woods, and a pesky octorok suddenly pops up, and fires a rock out of his mouth. (Aside: Am I the only one who thinks that octoroks probably come from the same inbred family tree as Birdo? End of aside.) Now, if you shake your nunchuck/shield at the right time, the rock gets reflected back at the Shrub, and he dies. But if you shake it at the wrong moment, your shield takes the hit and gets damaged.
And — in what I believe is a first for the series — if your shield gets damaged enough, it will break. That happened to me right in the middle of a freaking dungeon. And when I say “break,” I mean like broken, finished, gone, no-f—around, the shield is off the wig, it’s kicked the bucket, it’s shuffled off the mortal coil, it is an ex-shield. If you want a new shield, you have to go all the way back to Skyloft and get it. (You can also repair a shield that’s almost broken…by going all the way back to Skyloft and getting it repaired.) When my shield broke, I raged, I swore, I pulled a total Croyt. And then I realized I was experiencing something that is somewhat lost in videogames now: Genuine difficulty. This game was not kowtowing to me. Sure, it spent five hours on the freaking tutorial — but by god, after that, it was done holding my hand. And if I wasn’t paying attention during those five hours, then too bad. I imagined that the game developers were speaking to me, and what they were saying was: “You don’t want to lose your shield? Then learn to shake the nunchuck at the right time, like a grown-up. Or go play Call of Duty, you pansy.”
It’s not just that Skyward Sword uses the motion controls in an interesting way. This is the first time that the whole notion of motion-control gaming has felt as vivid as Mario’s jump, or Sonic’s spin-charge, or Ryu’s Hadouken. And it’s the first time that those motion-controls have felt absolutely essential to a big, colorful, epic videogame. Skyward Sword is also the first time that the Wii has felt necessary, that the whole notion of motion-control has felt like more than just a casual-gamer come-on; it’s the first time that motion-gaming has felt like more than a dead-end attention-grab.
In the final dungeon of Skyward Sword, you revisit all the environments of the game, and you’re forced to use all your items. It’s a classic gaming trope: “The Last Level as Greatest Hits Album,” where you bring together everything you’ve learned. The final dungeon of Skyward Sword feels like the Wii’s best argument for itself: It’s Wii Sports, if Wii Sports were an actual game and not just a million mini-games. For that reason alone, Skyward Sword is the best game the Wii has ever had.
But I don’t think that’s saying too much. When Nintendo created the Wii — heck, even before, when Nintendo created the GameCube — the company seemed to be stepping aside from the race to create better-looking, more powerful videogames. There was a time when “hardcore gamers” played Nintendo; that time has long since passed, for a number of reasons. Skyward Sword pushes the Wii to its limits, gameplay-wise. But what about the story?