17 November 2011

Zelda: Still Crazy After All These Years

Over the past week I have hurled myself at the The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword the same way that the 747 hurled itself into the island on Lost or Chris Farley hurled his stomach at coffee tables. I have spent more time "living" in the game's fictional world lately than I have in the real world.

My sincerest apologies to friends, family, girlfriend, and cats.

How intense was my Skyward Sword obsession? While walking by a brick wall in the stairwell of my building on Beatty Street a few days ago, I noticed a suspicious-looking crack and, no kidding, thought, I'd better get a bomb on that.

I can already hear the doo-deet-doo-doo-dee song.
Skyward Sword is one of those rare, borderline-unhealthy, personal-responsibilities-shirking experiences that a person has maybe only four or five times in his or her lifetime. (You can read my A.V. Club review here. And the Reviews on the Run review aired last Monday on G4 and City TV. Check your local listings, Canada.)

At the start of the game I was 100-percent certain that I'd outgrown the Zelda series. 2003's Wind Waker bored me to tears and was a struggle to finish. I made two runs at 2006's Twilight Princess, and wound up abandoning the game both times at the same juncture. (That juncture: when you meet the man/lady person dressed in the robes/housecoat who lives in the hut with the kids at the base of the Goron-inhabited mountain.) And the DS games, Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks? They didn't jazz me much.

When I dutifully reported to the Nintendo booth last June at E3 for my demo of Skyward Sword, I dreaded having to fly a pet bird, or play a harp, or sample the one-to-one Wii MotionPlus Master Sword controls. I thought: Who on earth could possibly still be into this baloney except for the people who sh*t themselves blind whenever Nintendo announces dumb things like Luigi's Mansion 2When the well-groomed public relations person (note: Nintendo's PR people are always extremely well-groomed) bestowed upon me a Wii remote for my demo, he did so with dramatic reverence, as if he was allowing me to sip from the Holy Grail itself rather than letting me play a couple minutes of what appeared to be Ocarina of Time 9: Now With Harps. During the demo I flicked the Wii remote at the TV screen with the same brand of zoned-out disinterest that I typically reserve for flicking something I don't want off my index finger. And, yes, the thing that I don't want in question would be a booger.

Flash forward to early November. One rainy afternoon Skyward Sword arrived via Fed Ex. The game and I, not surprisingly, did not get off to a good start. The first 10 hours--yes, I said "the first 10 hours"--were almost all uphill for me. What follows are actual texts that I sent to my colleague, Victor Lucas, during that 10 hour stretch:

"Four solid hours into Zelda and I am delivering soup to some f***ing guy. Goddamn it all."

"Now I'm being told that I need to purchase a bug net. A BUG NET. Four hours in."

"No, I'm not even in a dungeon yet."

"Honestly, I think Nintendo has been smelling their own farts for too long."

"Six and a half hours in, still have only gotten through ONE DUNGEON in Z."

While still struggling through those initial 10 hours, I'd leave work each afternoon, informing Vic that I was going home to enjoy my daily "Zelda nap." I wasn't kidding. Every afternoon I'd fall sound asleep on the couch while the Zelda-branded gold controller, sitting in my lap, quietly lost communication with the Wii.

Then Skyward Sword came howling to life. From that point forward, I experienced more jaw-dropping awe in every 15 minute interval of Skyward Sword than I did in Uncharted 3 in its entirety. And I'm comparing the two, partly because doing so will further aggravate Uncharted 3's staunchest fans, and partly because both games, if you really think about it, have similar goals.

1. Both games set out to tell the story of an everyman hero on a quest.

2. Both aim to evoke a sense of curiosity and wonder.

3. Both send their heroes into the darkest, most dangerous places in the name of acquiring shiny treasure.

Despite their thematic similarities, one game is a masterpiece of design, an elegant marriage of form and function, and a legitimate work of art, while the other is a middling series of noisy set-pieces interspersed with quippy cutscenes. In summary: One game I lived; the other I observed from afar.

No, Skyward Sword isn't perfect. Things go to hell at times. What you've heard about the Wii MotionPlus controls is true: they really do malign the game. Sometimes the controls stand between you and your enjoyment, which is borderline unforgivable. No, they're not insurmountable by any means, but during any sword-centric boss battle--and there are plenty--many gamers will want to quit in frustration. Pro tip: Don't quit. Pro tip number two: Purchase the best shield in the game--the one that repairs itself during battle--as early as you can, and get accustomed to using it. This will probably shave about 10 hours off your playthrough. I didn't appreciate the importance of the shield until the very end. And when I say "the very end," I mean "the final battle." Instead of using the shield I went with a lock-on-and-jump-around-a lot approach. What a dummy I am sometimes. Pro tip number three: Don't fool with the wood or iron shields. They are rubbish. I've been finished with Skyward Sword since last Saturday and I still have an unused iron shield collecting dust in the Item Check at the Skyloft bazaar in the center of town.

Here's a text that I sent to Vic during my final 10 hours of Skyward Sword:

"I had about 500 dungeon orgasms today. No kidding. This is the most fun, most satisfaction that I've gotten from a game in years."

And my final text:

"It's over. :("

Not pictured: Me sobbing.
What an utterly stunning turn of events. If you came to me three months ago and told me that Skyward Sword was going to completely blow my toupee off, I would have backed away from you slowly while scanning my surroundings for an object I might be able to use to deliver a blow to your head. What amazes me most is that this truly beautiful game, easily one of the most artful games of 2011, comes to us courtesy of the now-dead Wii, the kick-sand-in-its-face puniest of the recent generation of consoles. A bit of perspective: the Wii has even less horsepower than the 3DS does.

Boy, is this game ever a thumb in the eye to every developer and publisher out there who practically trips over himself to make boasts about their cutting-edge tech. For the last time, people, tech does not matter. I'm so sick of hearing about how your new game uses the Bink Video (no way!), or what the 4.2 version of your engine (codename: Pterodactyl v. 4.2) can do, or how many mega-polygons were used to build such and such character's dumb hat. We spend far too much time in this industry talking about tech. New Year's resolution, everyone: Let's try to talk about tech less in 2012.

As we stare down the barrel of the new console launches in 2012--and the rumor is that Microsoft will reveal their new Xbox thing at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in a few short weeks--as we find ourselves tempted to celebrate the "specs" of this console or that upcoming game, remember to center yourself by recalling 2011's Skyward Sword, i.e. a game that is most definitely not in high-definition (not even remotely); a game that is so far behind the damn times tech-wise that it's practically archaic (it looks like a game that the characters in Modern Warfare 3 would point and laugh at); a game that, despite these woeful shortcomings, features as much heart as, if not more heart, than any game released this year.

So find a way to play it. Find a way to cope with the control scheme. Find a way to get through those opening 10 hours, even if you have to hire a neighbor kid to do it for you. Because there are things in this game, bona fide wonders, that every gamer has to see.


  1. 10 hours of boredom is a lot to ask of a gamer. I've heard both you and vic complain about other games that force you to be bored for a lot less time than that... So I'm not exactly calling you a hypocrite for giving this game a 10, but based off both your's and vic's review I was very surprised to hear it was getting double 10's since both of you had serious complaints about the beginning and the controls. Isn't 10 perfect? Shouldn't a holy 10 be practically unreachable? Giving a game 100% means that there could not be any improvements made, ever. Just struck me as odd. Also Luigi's Mansion 2 is going to be a revelation.

  2. I take issue with the notion that a "10" is a "perfect" game, because such a game will never exist. There will never be a game that is immune to all faults. That's actually why I'm an advocate of abandoning numbered scores altogether, but be that as it may: both Scott and Vic have a history of taking that sort of period of listlessness in a game seriously. If they're BOTH willing to give a game a 10 in spite of those flaws, what does that say about the game? Quite a lot, I'd imagine.

    That said, I haven't played the game myself, so I'll have to wait and see. But I don't think a "10" should be synonymous with "flawless."

  3. It is hard to wrap my head around hating the first 10 hours of a game with poor controls and than giving it a 10 out of 10. I've often seen points taken off a game for much lesser sins. That's a hell of a slog to get to the good stuff. To each his own I guess.

  4. i am on the second to last dungeon and anyone who can't play through the first 2 (which is the boring part of which he says) i pity that foo.

  5. I get what people are saying about the beginning being slow. I'd only say it's slow up until the first dungeon, which certainly wasn't 10 hours in for me. It was about 4-5 hours. Still, it does start a little slow, but I knew that going in and just let myself appreciate the world and characters. The first two dungeons didn't bore me at all. They were a little short, but they had some excellent designs and cool boss fights.

    As for the sword controls, yeah they can be frustrating sometimes. But here's the thing: it's not because they don't work. They do. It's because my (and presumably your) arm is not being as accurate as I want it to. You really have to pay attention to how you're swiping the remote.

    A horizontal stroke has to be mostly horizontal. Usually, if I'm not paying close attention, I end up doing a diagonal stroke and that doesn't always work. The other common situation is trying to strike from left to right (I'm right handed). I end up moving the remote to the left, then back to the right to slash. However, if you do this too quickly, the game registers this as a slash from right to left first, which is probably not going to work if an enemy is blocking the right. You need to be really precise with your sword movements, but it does indeed work.

  6. The more I read/ hear from Scott C Jones the more I'm convinced he has the mind of a decrepit senior in a young mans body. How dare games have cut scenes! Back in my day we didn't need any stinking cut scenes. Trying to be like a movie, proposterous! The less story a game has the better. Zelda has no voice actors but I like that better than real voice actors. The graphics are terrible, who cares old school gamers know graphics don't matter. On and on with his misguided rants. If the game industry catered purely to Scott Jones types we would be playing rehashed SNES games still, don't get me wrong those were great games but I think a focus on innovation and bringing something new to the table should be more important. My main gripe though would be how anti cut scene you've become. I love that games actually have fleshed out characters and complex plots. Not once during Gears 3 or Uncharted 3 did I think ugh this cut scene I wish they took all this story out and just let me play. I think games becoming more "Hollywood" is a good thing. What you consider just killing bad guys over and over to be the plot (see Gears 3 and Uncharted 3 reviews) i think of some of my favorite genres of movie, the 80's action movie. Or in the case of Ucharted 3, Indiana Jones and the last crusade. I love it and hope the industry keeps going bigger and better with cutscenes, facial animation, motion capture and all that good stuff. To me, every blockbuster game release should be trying to push the technical envelope as far as they can, adding as much to the visuals and sound as they can, as well as improving gameplay. I genuinely feel it adds to the depth and the immersive-ness of the game. I guess most likely agree to disagree on the future of games from our individual perspectives.

  7. Awesome another good read. What game's are you playing for da fun of it this past month(that you have pick out)? Or looking forward too when there's less New reviews?
    ~Myself LoZ 1ST&2ND quest(GBA), Major's Mask,& Link's AwakeningDX(all on Gcube). Thx for the heads up LoZ:SS I was expecting the beginning to be slow on the action N thick on the story and nods to past(older) games. dam 10hours thought!
    Looking more & More forward to the Holiday break. Cheers...

  8. Yes. Though I am not yet finished Skyward Sword, I agree completely with your assessment of the game, and I also shared your initial trepidation. And so to every word in your article, I say: Yes. I agree. This is why I play videogames. This is why I don't favor one console over another, because you never know when or where such a rich, masterful experience like this will come from.