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Screenshots and artwork courtesy of nintendo; source: Nintendo e3 2011 online press kit
The boss battles in Skyward Sword are epic and require you to fight with strategy. Here Link faces off against Scaldera, the Earth Temple’s flaming boss.
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The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword

Nintendo Wii, single player

Skyward Sword might just be the best Zelda game ever made.

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword was released last Sunday to great critical acclaim. It is the fastest selling Zelda game of all time — since its release last week it has sold over 535,000 copies in the U.S. alone. The game comes five years after its predecessor, The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, which launched with the Wii console in 2006. It’s been a long wait for devout Zelda fans, and it’s been worth it. I spent many, many hours over about five days completing this game, and I can’t wait until Christmas break to do it all again.

Gameplay-wise, Skyward Sword is phenomenal. You can be engrossed from one to twelve hours depending on your commitment, and the new save point system makes it easy to stop and start playing: instead of saving any time and being reset to a default location when you boot up the game, you now save at specific statues, and you are spawned there when you begin again.

Skyward Sword mixes it up from previous Zelda games, adding a diversity of necessary tasks to complete the game — it’s not just about dungeon-hopping anymore. The worlds themselves are fully utilized, and the journeys to get to the dungeons can sometimes be just as challenging and time consuming as the dungeons themselves. You’ll have to return to the same areas multiple times throughout the game, but the experience is kept fresh with a variety of twists and environmental changes that can be rather difficult to overcome. There are also plenty of humorous side-quests to keep you occupied when you don’t feel like focusing on the lengthy main quest. Skyloft, the main overworld from which you access every other region in the game, is a safe place to wander and hunt for treasure. It’s much like the ocean in Wind Waker, but flying around using the Wiimote is much more fun than sailing.

While using the Wiimote as a sword and for other activities is mostly fun and intuitive, the most obvious problems in the game stem from the sometimes-annoying controls. The constant use of motion control can be tedious. Swimming, which is controlled by motions of the Wiimote, can be very frustrating. It’s easy to overshoot the direction you want, and if you move the Wiimote too far to one side it sometimes launches you in a different direction. Nintendo has also done away with the three item/three button assignment that’s been the norm for Zelda games since Ocarina of Time. Now, a real-time item selection screen is permanently on B. Hit B quickly to equip your current item, and hold it down to view the item screen. This is the single worst part of the game — you can find yourself mid battle staring at the item selection screen while enemies pummel you or, better yet, you’ll suddenly be fighting a boss holding your bug net.

But besides swimming and item selection, the game is nearly perfect. The 1:1 sword control introduced in this game is what Wii users have been waiting for since the console’s release five years ago. The fighting can initially be challenging — if you are not careful, you might find yourself waggling your Wiimote to no avail. Enemies are designed to take advantage of poor swordplay, and you must aim your strikes with precision if you want to win. Once you get over the learning curve, however, it becomes quite satisfying to strategically slash at enemies. Bosses are especially focused on keeping you aware of your motions, and each win becomes more rewarding. Also adding a new strategic element to the game is the stamina gauge­ — a meter that allows Link to dash for a short time. The meter also drains with sword spin moves, making battles somewhat tougher.

The dungeons themselves, which spotlight several new, unique designs, are some of the best I have seen in an adventure game. They showcase a variety of different puzzles that will keep you on your toes and, departing from typical Zelda fashion, you won’t have to light a single torch to complete the game. Skyward Sword forces you to compile techniques you learn throughout the game — you can’t just rely on one item anymore and must instead creatively use many of your items to get through a level. The bosses are cleverly designed and provide many epic showdowns throughout the game.

The graphics are absolutely gorgeous. When the “watercolor” approach was initially announced, I was hesitant we were going to see a departure from the realism of Twilight Princess for a more cel-shaded, Wind Waker-type feel. I was wrong. Though the graphics are more cartoon-y than some other games, these watercolor graphics are an excellent fit for the Zelda series. The characters remain realistically proportioned, but the animation allows for fantastical creatures like Gorons and other races to still look smooth and in place. Backgrounds in the game are cleverly blurred with an impressionistic effect, both compensating for the Wii’s lack of processing power and providing a lovely backdrop for each world.

Keeping with past Zelda games, Nintendo has paid close attention to the music in Skyward Sword. Dramatic scenes are scored with fully orchestrated music, and you’ll be whistling the main theme of the game long after you finish it. Though music isn’t as heavily emphasized in Skyward Sword as it was in Ocarina of Time, the game is still an aural pleasure. Fans of the series’ music should consider purchasing the special edition of the game, which comes bundled with an orchestrated soundtrack of Zelda’s most memorable themes and a gold Wiimote Plus featuring the Hylian Crest.

What really makes this game shine above its predecessors is the excellent storytelling. Nintendo has pinned down its characters better than it ever has before. The characters are far more expressive than they have been in any prior Zelda game, and even NPCs who don’t matter to the central storyline will charm you with their personality and humor. Greater use of cinematic sequences lends a grander scale to this story — each shot is perfectly framed, and the interactions between Link and Zelda are priceless. You won’t find any voice acting in this game — Nintendo correctly shuns the often awful voice acting of RPGs and adventure games to keep the characters dialogue subtitled. The choice is the right one, as it allows the game to progress smoothly, and no jarring voices interrupt your playing experience.

Skyward Sword had me more invested in a video game than any other game in a long time. I felt my pulse quicken at boss battles and I truly came to like all the characters. The ending, along with a few choice cut-scenes throughout the game, had me in tears. I won’t spoil anything for you, but I will tell you that the story is definitely the most touching Zelda to date.

This 40+ hour game is well worth your time. With excellent graphics, a beautifully crafted storyline, and intriguing level design, you won’t find a better adventure game out there this holiday season. It is a solid candidate for the best Zelda game ever created; even better than, dare I say it, Ocarina of Time. It is a stronger game in nearly every way, though I admit OoT’s nostalgia give it a serious edge with most college-age gamers. Even if you think Ocarina of Time is the pinnacle of all gaming, you should put down your p-sets and pick up your Wiimote-swords to try out Nintendo’s newest Zelda — you might be pleasantly surprised.