Article by ZU forum member Jeff
All forms of art go through periods of time where one style becomes king, video games being no exception. The era of Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and Nintendo Wii has been marked by a predominately Western influence on software. Western-preferred attributes of realism, blockbuster production values, grit and seriousness have become the norm.
One force in the gaming industry that has chosen not to follow suit is Nintendo, who provided an emphatic example of what their priorities are regarding style just a few short months ago in the form of Skyward Sword.
Prior to its release, Skyward Sword was heralded by its maker as the start of a new path for the Legend of Zelda franchise. New game design, new forms of gameplay, and the highly-touted 1:1 sword combat through Wii MotionPlus was poised to change the way that the series—the entire action-adventure genre—was experienced by gamers.
Skyward Sword did just that, but its greatest accomplishment was not in bringing change to the series or to games like it. Skyward Sword’s biggest claim to fame was simply that it brought back to the gaming industry the Legend of Zelda and everything it stands for.
When first unveiled at E3 2010, Skyward Sword was viewed as a blending of the visuals found in such entries like Ocarina of Time and Twilight Princess, with the extremely bright and colorful cel-shading as found in The Wind Waker. As it turned out, Skyward Sword’s imagery did not feel like much of a middle ground as its style stood out glaringly from the competition.
In an era where photorealism is prized by the video game industry, Skyward Sword’s vibrant array of colors was more welcome than any other time when the franchise has employed one of its imaginative artstyles. A lack of minute detail in the textures was nothing of an offense when a display of brilliant tones and hues lit up the fantastical landscapes: the vast, immaculate realm in the clouds known as Skyloft, the whimsical and serene Faron Woods, or the ancient, dusty, yet secret-laden province of Lanayru. We saw sights and explored locales we could never find in our own world, or any other video game, for that matter.
Who we encountered throughout the journey was just as much of a welcome change of pace as what we traversed across. Skyward Sword’s colorful style gave a unique identity to even its most normal members of the cast. It says a lot that the game’s renditions of the franchise’s two most common characters, Link and Zelda, are still incredibly distinct from all of their previous iterations.
They were complimented by an equally unique antagonist, although “unique” only begins to describe the self-proclaimed “Demon Lord”, Ghirahim. For the second 3D entry in a row, Nintendo opted for a thoroughly strange, off-putting villain. But while Zant was revealed as merely a puppet to Ganondorf as early as midway through Twilight Princess, Ghirahim took the center stage early on, and did not relinquish his position in the spotlight until the very end once Demise was resurrected. Ghirahim was also taken a step further in that his quirks did not end with mere insanity as Zant’s had; just about everything with Ghirahim was out of the ordinary.
Despite a very unusual character design, especially for a primary villain, Nintendo was not the least bit reluctant to show him off to fans. After being revealed in one of Skyward Sword’s earliest promotional trailers, Ghirahim garnered from the fans the good-humored nickname “Debbie”, but also some detraction from select fans. With a flamboyant appearance consisting of rather revealing attire for battle and glitzy colors all around, even in the animation for his teleportation, and an extremely bizarre personality with hints of sadism, Ghirahim was a far cry from the popular notion of a “bad[butt]” villain.
It was only fitting that Ghirahim was then joined by an army of imaginative baddies. Although Zelda has long maintained a tradition of crafting its own creatures rather than pulling from established myths and legends, Skyward Sword featured one of the most unorthodox bestiaries ever.
From the minor enemies: Staldra, Froaks, Spumes, Ampilus, Craniocs etc, to the bosses: The Imprisoned, Scaldera, Koloktos, Tentalus, Bilocyte, the creatures in Skyward Sword were anything but ordinary. It even managed to make a giant scorpion in Moldarach more expressive than a lot of speaking characters from other video games!
Similarly, Skyward Sword chose to follow the nature of Zelda and devise its own races rather than use those that are already a staple in fantasy. Painfully few high fantasy series in any entertainment genre bother to give birth to their own races, with video games of this generation being a repeat offender. Time and time again we have seen the same generic Elves, Dwarves, Orcs, Goblins, with the occasional, yet equally uninspired use of Dark Elves, were-creatures or vampires.
Sure, Skyward Sword’s human characters bear some similar features to the classic fantasy Elves as penned by J.R.R. Tolkien, but the Skyloftians as a race, like their Hylian descendants, are nothing alike.
Skyward Sword proceeded to introduce us to the peculiar Kikwis, who were apparently mammals bearing plant features, and looked like anthropomorphic pears. Later, we met the sly Mogma, who can best be described as a mole, badger and jack-rabbit combination. The wide-range of colorful Loftwings was a pleasant new form of the mounts of the human race, and we even saw a few our old friends, the Gorons.
It is hard to imagine any high fantasy setting where robotics would not feel jarring and out of place—but Skyward Sword managed that. Robots existed in previous games, but never in such numbers as the expressive machines found in Lanayru’s past, or the enemies littering the Mining Facility and Sandship dungeons.
The seamless blending of the natural and magical elements with technology felt like something out of Star Wars, and the remnants of a once-scientifically advanced civilization overtaken by age, nature and magic harkened to the premise of the Shannara book series by Terry Brooks.
The Lanayru sequences were the best out of game filled to the brim with great ideas. The Timeshift Stones provided incredibly creative puzzle solving both inside the dungeons and outside across the overworld, along with some of the most wondrous sights in any fantasy adventure, most memorable being the journey across the Lanayru Sand Sea.
Just as seamless was the heavy influence of Asian culture in the visual design, specifically the temples. Imagery of Asiatic dragons, elephants and monkeys filled the interiors of such dungeons like the Earth Temple and the Fire Sanctuary, while those two featured interior and exterior architecture straight out of feudal Japan and China. The three Dragons that Link encounters throughout the journey are clearly Asiatic in their appearance, complete with serpentine bodies, whiskers, human-like faces and, at least in the case of the Thunder Dragon, a beard!
The inspiration behind the design was not always Eastern Asian culture, as is commonplace in fantasy when an Asiatic vibe is used. There were several hints of Southeastern and Central Asian culture to be found, the use of elephant and baboon imagery being one such example. The large statue in the center of the Ancient Cistern was clearly inspired by Buddha, while the dungeon’s boss, Koloktos, appeared to be a combination of Buddha and Kali, the multi-armed goddess of the Hindu faith.
Aside from all of its visual flair, Skyward Sword was also refreshing just for the gameplay it brought back to the industry. The action-adventure genre has decayed this generation: once-revered franchises such as Prince of Persia, Tomb Raider and even Grand Theft Auto no longer command the same attention they used to, many of the high quality titles are destined to be flashes in the pan only apparent in this generation (Batman, InFamous etc.), while most seem to have forgotten that there is more to action-adventure gameplay than just pure action.
Skyward Sword gave life to the ideas of that the Zelda franchise, and other more imaginative action-adventure titles—Okami, Ico, Shadow of the Colossus—thrive on. By simply bringing back the gameplay that the Legend of Zelda franchise is esteemed for, Skyward Sword provided the industry with an injection of varied platforming, clever puzzle solving which traveled beyond the dungeons into the overworld, and whole cast of intricate boss fights—all ideas sorely missing from gaming nowadays.
Yes, the 1:1 motion control was brilliantly executed, and the swordplay set a new standard for what can be accomplished in the Legend of Zelda and its competitors. Coupled with the new formats for puzzle solving and all of the other tweaks to the structure, it created amazing content which absolutely must be commended in an entertainment field based around the interactive experience.
But it just was not as satisfying as it was to simply play a Legend of Zelda game again, during a time when video games needed the Legend of Zelda and all that it values, most.
Nintendo deserves a lot of credit for the arguably risky route they took in creating Skyward Sword. While an artstyle more akin to Ocarina of Time and Twilight would have had a much wider appeal, and is still able to have its own hints of originality, Nintendo stepped just a tad forward when giving Skyward Sword its own unique identity. They created a game that looks like nothing else in the world of video games today, and plays like nothing else in the world of video games today.
There is no better way to describe Skyward Sword, and the Legend of Zelda.