THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: SKYWARD SWORD
Platform: Nintendo Wii
Let me "establish cred" for a moment: I first played the original The Legend of Zelda in 1987, the year of its North American release. I was four. My grandmother, who was living in the house next door to ours at the time, had purchased a Nintendo Entertainment System and copies of The Legend of Zelda and a Super Mario Bros./Duck Hunt dual cartridge. She fiddled with the game system for maybe half an hour, then stopped, put it down, and called every member of the family who lived within driving distance over to her house. "Everyone has to come see this. This is the future." It was the first home video game system I was aware existed.
I hear people say things like "I've always had a soft spot for Zelda games" and I can only boggle. I've never had a soft spot for Zelda games. How could I? I don't think of them fondly; I don't think of them at all; no more than I think of air. They're ubiquitous! I hear people call Ocarina of Time the best video game ever and I think "What, really? A Link to the Past was much more well-constructed for its time."
What I'm saying here, to a certain degree of horrible and embarrassed self-awareness, is that I was a Zelda fan before Zelda was cool. Certainly I was a Zelda fan long before I was cool. (Am I cool now? I can never tell. I'm sure my commentors will be quick to tell me I suck, but that's just internet comments.)
The second article I ever submitted to VICE, shortly after they'd asked me to write game reviews, was a long, profoundly negative review of Twilight Princess. (The first was a review of a tabletop RPG called Reign.) They did not publish it. This is probably for the best; it lacked polish. Nevertheless I stand by my opinion that Twilight Princess was one of the weakest entries in the series. I also stand by an opinion that Wind Waker is one of the best; also one of the darkest and most mature (no, it's not one of the best because it's one of the darkest and most mature). Remember the intro to Wind Waker? "Once upon a time, a great evil fell across the land of Hyrule, but a hero rose to defeat it. Some time later, the evil rose again. The people of Hyrule waited for the hero's return, but he never did, and then the evil won and everybody fucking drowned." Wind Waker also had a Zelda who had no interest whatsoever in being a damsel in distress or even a princess, and it ended with your adorable cel-shaded child protagonist sticking a sword down through the villain's ribcage by way of his forehead.
So, with all that prelude, I can say that Skyward Sword is a pretty good Zelda game.
First, my favorite thing about Skyward Sword is that the Town Bullshit is short. You know what I mean about Town Bullshit if you've played a lot of post-Ocarina Zelda games—it's the part at the beginning of the game before Link has his sword, where you get/have to run around meeting all the people of your home community, doing fetch quests, learning the fishing minigame (if there is one of those), being introduced to the love triangle, getting your first red rupee, etc. etc.. The Town Bullshit in Skyward Sword is: 1) Find a lost cat, and 2) there is no 2, proceed straight to monster-slicing. This is still one worse than Wind Waker, which had no Town Bullshit at all, but oh well.
I have very little tolerance for Town Bullshit—my ideal Zelda game would be an easier Dark Souls crossed with (and using the visual aesthetic of) Shadow of the Colossus. For those of you who like Town Bullshit, rest assured, it's there, but it's entirely optional.
The combat is based around the Wii Motion Plus, which you'll need to play this one—thankfully the game comes with one of the new Wii remotes that has a Wii Motion Plus built into it. It's basically the sword fighting from Wii Sports Resort—Link swings his sword the way you swing your remote. Generally speaking, enemies will block all sword strikes except from a specific angle and you need to pay attention to how they're holding themselves to figure out how to kill them. It's not deep, and in fact I think the focus on directional slicing has made it even more shallow than Zelda combat normally is, because the enemies can't be very aggressive, but whatever, I'll take what I can get here. The point of Zelda games is exploration, right?
…well, the exploration isn't very good. The problem is that the game tries to merge the dungeons and the overworld, which would be cool except they did it by dividing the overworld into distinct chunks, each of which is associated with a particular dungeon. You navigate between them by flying above the clouds, the framing device of the game being that every human lives above the clouds on a flying island and impenetrable cloud cover keeps them away from the surface, which is a divine battleground. The flying feels quite good, but it's pretty empty, like Wind Waker's ocean but even more barren and with even fewer places to check out just for the heck of it. Still, the self-contained landscape bits are decently designed, I guess?
The story suffers from not having any NPCs as cool as Midna, but at least Zelda herself is proactive this time around and the game acknowledges romance between Zelda and Link. That's pretty rare!
My long perspective on the Zelda series is this: There are hits and there are misses, and just because the latest installment is the latest doesn't mean it's the best one yet. The Legend of Zelda II: The Adventures of Link was a side-scroller, and while a few people think it's underrated, I'm not one of them. Right off the bat we had a great game followed by an OK sequel. A Link to the Past was super-great. Ocarina of Time suffers from someone deciding that in order to justify having a horse, they needed to make the world big enough that it would require a horse to traverse it, and then they accomplished this by putting Hyrule Field in the middle of the world, a giant, empty space that's completely boring to walk across unless you're using the horse to do so quickly. That's not good design! Like all long-running franchises, some Zelda games are better than others.
If you're a dedicated Zelda fan, of course Skyward Sword is worth your time. If you're an occasional fan of the series and want to avoid its low points, Skyward Sword is not a low point. Only if you actively dislike the series or can't stand waggle combat at all should you avoid this one; otherwise it's worth a look if only to keep up with the current state of Zelda. It's a good game and you should play it, but I'm not going to call it fantastic.
PS: Nintendo, can we please have a Zelda game where we play as Zelda and shoot arrows at things?