Saturday, 31 December 2011

Number 1: Skyward Sword

History should have taught us to never bet against Nintendo. In the face of any doubts, they defy them. In the face of stiff competition, they better them. Whenever the whispers that Mario and Zelda might finally have been stretched too thinly start, they go and release games like Galaxy and Skyward Sword, proving once again that they remain so far ahead of the competition that it's kind of depressing. I've never been fully convinced about the Wii. Oh sure there have been some quality games; Galaxy, Metroid Prime, even Twilight Princess come to mind. Yet none of them have convinced me of the potential for motion control that Nintendo have been so desperate to sell me. Skyward Sword changes all that.

Finally a true beginning to the chronology of the series, Skyward Sword explains the origins of Link, Zelda, Ganon, and the Master Sword. Starting in a realm above the clouds called Skyloft, Link is about to go through the traditional ceremony that marks him as a man. It's a standard opening for a Zelda game, one that's been used many times before in the series. His friend Zelda is sucked down into the land of Hyrule below them, so Link sets out to save her, and defeat a growing evil that threatens the world. He'll do this as only Link knows how: by exploring temples, acquiring a legendary sword, and defeating screen-filling bosses.

For something that seems on paper to stick so closely to the established Zelda formula, it's quite surprising to find that a lot has changed. Link is now an altogether more agile protagonist, a stamina bar allowing him dashes and sprints, with nervous free-running now key to exploring the levels. Gone are many of the dungeon puzzle staples; Link's now less about torch lighting and box pushing, and more about aerial exploration with his remote-controlled bug, or pitch perfect archery. The nuanced motion control has given Nintendo the chance to experiment and refresh what was a somewhat stale formula, and nowhere is that more clear than in the swordplay.

I remember clearly the anticipation in the lead up to the Wii's launch. Twilight Princess was on its way to the Gamecube, but then we found out it was to be a Wii launch title as well. In our eyes we saw all of Nintendo's ridiculous marketing footage, showing players swinging their remotes like swords, made to feel every bit the hero they were playing as. We couldn't buy it quickly enough. How disappointing to discover that motion control meant you swung your sword with a mere flick of the wrist, that your shield wouldn't raise as you raised the nunchuck controller. Arrows weren't truly aimed and fired, instead we pointed at the sensor bar and got a jittery crosshair. It was then that my doubts about the Wii and Nintendo began to set in, and they just got worse as time went on. Skyward Sword has made up for those years of disappointment.

With the advent of the motion-plus attachment, true motion control was finally in our hands. Swordplay in Skyward Sword is everything we were promised by the Twilight Princess propaganda, and then some. Raising the remote above your head in triumph after a battle leads Link to mirror the gesture. Vicious directional swipes will dice enemies, gesturing with the sword at waiting monsters fills you with the same sense of cool that Link can now exude. Enemy design has evolved with the control. Many require specific cuts to defeat them, leaving satisfying wounds and stumps in the wake of your swipes. Sword fights with Stalfos Knights now live up to their promise, with parries and defensive lapses key to victory. Boss fights are ingenious puzzles in themselves, requiring careful timing and swordplay if you want to taste victory.

It would be nothing without a visual style that has endured more criticism and scepticism than it deserves since the very first reveal. Taking the best of Wind Waker's toon-flavoured stylishness, and Twilight Princess's Lord of the Rings influenced realism, Skyward Sword is an amazingly beautiful game. Vibrant colours leap out at every turn, animation on both friends and foes is sublime, and every character drips with... well, character. Without a doubt Skyward Sword is the best looking game on the Wii, and makes a mockery of any long-standing doubts about the power of the hardware. Skyrim is beautiful for its realism and intricate level of detail, but Skyward Sword floors it with the kind of design flair that only Nintendo is capable of.

There's so much more to be said to really do justice to why Skyward Sword is so incredible, but in a way I do it better justice by simply recommending that you go and play it for yourself. It manages to make a mockery of any doubts I had about Nintendo's ability to not only deliver, but to exceed as well. Not only that, but it's convinced me that the last five years of the Wii have been worthwhile, and that Nintendo was right when they said that motion control was the right way forward. I've yet to play a home console Zelda game that was anything less than exemplary, but this is different.  

Skyward Sword fills me with nostalgia, for long winter months playing its predecessors; The swashbuckling adventure of Twilight Princess, Wind Waker's seafaring journey and remarkable style, for Majora's Mask and its gripping storyline, filled with tragic characters and dark secrets. Ocarina of Time is clearest, because it was the one that changed everything. Still perhaps the greatest game of all time, even after all these years. Skyward Sword deserves to stand tall next to it, as it really is the most worthy successor. It brings flooding back all the memories of why I love Nintendo, and why, even after all these years, they're still the greatest. Game of the year? Without a shadow of a doubt.

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