Skyward Sword is the best sum of all of the Zelda parts to-date: It takes advantage of the hardware in unique and interesting ways without feeling tacked on, it features a host of gadgets new and old that all feel awesome to wield, it's story is a grand epic that manages to tie-in with the franchise more directly than most, and the mount (bird) in the game is the best way to get around since Epona. The game features numerous nods and allusions to previous outings in the franchise, and by the end of the game you've had a full-on Zelda experience that brings forwards memories of all your favorites from the franchises long history, while providing an altogether new experience.
+The Wiimote Plus controller is taken full advantage of, allowing unparalleled percision with the controller.
+The game is one of the biggest ever, taking a minimum of 30 hours just to clear the main-story.
+Traversing the world with the game's primary transportation system, a giant bird, feels like it rewards a bit of skill beyond "pointing in the direction you want to go."
+The library of 'gadgets' that Link has this time out is potentially the greatest to date.
+The story connects directly with over-all Zelda series, specifically Ocarina of Time, and it a rarity for the franchise that gives all kinds of nerd-happiness.
+The game adheres to the Zelda formula, but provides the best presentation of each to date.
-The ability to swing a sword in ANY direction still isn't quite there, and instead the game relies on an eight-way axis for the swinging mechanic of the sword's slashes.
While playing through the most recent incarnation of the Zelda franchise, Skyward Sword, I've stumbled upon somewhat of a personal revolution. Zelda, to me, is to video gaming what James Bond is to movies. To be clear, I'm a big fan of the James Bond franchise, and it has several key features that keep me coming back every time there's a new one launched: One-liners, cars, women and gadgets. Zelda works within a similar 'formula' that repeats ad-nauseam, but somehow never gets stale. Where Zelda is concerned though: it's a mount, rather than a vehicle. It's the same girl every game (Zelda). James Bong as a unique title/theme and Zelda games have a new musical instrument each time. And then there are the gadgets in place of... Well okay, that one is a focal point of both franchises.
The point is that the games feature this formula in such a way that it becomes a big part of the way that we rate them as an experience. The howling an instrument of Zelda: Twilight Princess was a big part of the reason that I personally disliked the game. So, with that in mind, it's easy for me to say that Zelda: Skyward Sword is one of the best titles in the series, for the simple reason that, while it adheres to the same formula rehashed over a dozen times already, in that it provides the formula in such a way that it feels shiny and new again.
The story of Skyward Sword is one that provides backstory to the primary focal points of Ocarina of Time, which in of itself is a strong start, considering it's universally held as one of the best of the franchise. The story features the standardized capture of Zelda, though it's used more as an excuse this time out for a reason for Link to be thrust out into the world and develop the abilities of his sword. It's an interesting little twist that, because of its prequel nature, helps develop the history/origin of not only the Master Sword but, as you progress, Gannondorf as well.
While the story of the game is a bright shining spot of the game that fans of the series will thoroughly enjoy, as it ties in better with the franchise that than the series has done in a long time, it's not the primary factor that makes this title a great one.
What makes Skyward Sword a contender (at least on my personal list) for one of the all-time greats of the franchise is something that pushed Phantom Hourglass into my Top Three: The game utilizes the hardware in an appropriate way instead of shoehorning a list of features that the console is capable of "just 'cause." The use of the Wiimotion plus allows Skyward Sword the first real opportunity to allow you to manipulate a sword in full 3D motion. Don't get me wrong, it does still only seem to register the actual strike of the sword on an eight-way axis, but you can move it freely in any direction (even rotating the hilt to change the angle of the blade), a feature that helps to connect the player with Link in a way that was promised by Twilight Princess but never delivered upon.
I mentioned during the introduction the parallel between Bond and Zelda, and it's fair to say that the bulk of that comparison is in that I love watching a Bond film to see what kinds of gadgets he's supplied and I love playing Zelda to see what new tools they develop to traverse the world and solve the puzzles through-out. In that case specifically, this game has one of the best tool-sets of the franchise history; I would actually go so far to say it is THE BEST tool-set of any of the games.
The previous favorite, for me, was the set provided in Phantom Hourglass and was pretty much the sole reason that the game was bumped into my Top Three. Skyward Sword brings back all the classics: sling-shot, bow and arrow, claw-shot; then goes one further into the vault to dig out a classic from the Minish Cap: a jug capable of blowing wind endlessly. And the best part of bringing all the classic tools back? Everything is improved, greatly. The feel of the bow was the most remarkable. As a fan of archery in general, I was waiting eagerly for the bow all through my play through, when I did eventually get it was thrilled by how it felt. It might be not much more than a 'point and shoot' mechanic, but with the build of the draw, the subtle 'zoom in' as you ready your shot, and the way that the arrow achieves 'spin' in the form of small vortex of wind around the arrow as it sails on to its target, combined with the firm impact of the blow (killing most mobs instantly, even before the upgrade) it's remarkably easy to fall in love with.
Of course there's no way that Nintendo would have gotten away with just rehashing the old tools/puzzles, so several new items were brought forwards; most notably the RC Beetle. This is a gadget that allows you to survey the immediate area from the sky, cut ropes at a distance and, when upgraded, allows you to carry objects (in particular bombs) through the air and bombard enemies/objects from the sky. It's easily my favorite tool from the game, though the 'whip' holds a special place for its unique use of the Wiimote, and wound up becoming one of the primary reasons that I would push this game into my 'top tier' of Zelda titles.
In speaking of the tools, and in specific the upgrade of the RC Beetle, it's important to note the upgrade system. Nintendo has introduced a shop within your 'hub world' that allows you to bring in your weapons, tools and containers and upgrade them with materials you find in the world as you progress. It's an interesting divergence that allows for a reason behind the traditional 'hunt and find' side-quest system of the Zelda franchise. The items that you collect through the game now have purpose as they can be combined, with a relatively small fee, to increase the abilities of your defense (shields) and potency of your gadgets.
A number of sites have already boldly claimed Skyward Sword as the single best Zelda game of all time. It's a bold claim, and while I may not personally agree with the statement, it is one that has some legitimacy.
If you consider the parts that make up Zelda games; the music, the story, the gadgets, the locales, the puzzles, the instruments, the weapons and the 'evolution' of the character and his abilities; it's very easy to see why people would hold this game with such lofty regard. If you were looking at the series from a 'clinical' perspective, analyzing each of the games on their parts alone then yes, I could see this one being the best of the best. My personal list is one developed on memory and the experiences in the time-frame the occurred, and to that end there's no way that anything will ever usurp Link to the Past but I can certainly respect anyone that claims Skyward Sword to be a favorite moving forwards.
Everything about this game is refined and polished. The parts of the whole are each individually crafted and perfected in such a way that when they come together through the story, which helps to truly build on the established history of the franchise, rather than just adding "another chapter" feels like something truly special and unique. The romance of the game is one that is hard to describe, but when you're soaring through the skies on a giant bird on your way towards a shiny pillar of light in the hopes of forging/improving upon your trusty sword in the flames of the gods... Well, you'll see when you get there. And it's my hope that you do.
Skyward Sword may get looked over, unfortunately, at the end of the year on a lot of GOTY lists because the focus will be on PC gaming and the more 'powerful' home consoles but it servers a golden feather in the cap of Nintendo on one of their most impressive years ever. Nintendo has knocked, out of the pack, the current installments of each of their titles this year (Kirby's return to Dreamland, Mario 3D, etc.) and Skyward Sword takes advantage of that to produce the proverbial 'icing on the cake.' It's my personal hope that this game takes home some of the 'best of the year' titles as we draw near to the end of 2011, and that we all take a moment to recognize 2011 as one of the best years in gaming in general.
I hinted at it enough in this review, I might as well give you the full list. My top three Zelda titles, in order were: A Link to The Past, Ocarina of Time and Phantom Hourglass. After wrapping up Skyward Sword though... it's likely that I bump Phantom Hourglass for Skyward Sword
This review is based on a Retail Copy for 3DS supplied by the Publisher.