Monday, 2 January 2012

Game Of 2011 - Skyward Sword

Moon Witch Cartridge extensively covered the release of Skyward Sword back in November 2011, including a 24-hour liveblog on launch day from which we're still recovering. It's probably not a surprise then to see that Skyward Sword is our game of 2011. Here's to the next twelve months, happy new year!

Skyward Sword, apparently the biggest undertaking in Nintendo’s illustrious history, was first unveiled in E3 2009 with one piece of tantalising concept art: that of Link viewed from behind, looking over his shoulder, a ghostly apparition standing mournfully in the foreground. The softly textured, painterly quality of the artwork eventually carried over into the completed game’s aesthetic, giving Skyward Sword as distinctive a look as the console-based Zelda games that came immediately before, Twilight Princess and The Wind Waker. The former is perhaps the most important reference when discussing what elevates Skyward Sword into the year’s finest gaming experience. In 2006, Twilight Princess was adapted for the Wii’s launch, after several years of Gamecube-based development.

The motion controls for the Wii version were sufficient, but were lacking in the nuance it was hoped that the Wii remote would usher in, while the game’s design rested a little too much on the familiar Zelda structure. There were many calls for the franchise to get a shake-up, one that was heeded by producer Eiji Aonuma when, prior to E3 2010 he told journalists:

“It is something we used to talk about with Mr. Miyamoto, and he and I agree that if we are following the same structure again and again, we might not be able to give longtime Zelda fans a fresh surprise. So we have been trying something new in terms of the structure of the Wii version of the new Zelda game this time. I am really hopeful that people will be surprised with the changes we have implemented for this Wii version.”

Aonuma’s gamble has paid off spectacularly, as Skyward Sword feels like such a fresh and revitalized experience that it’s hard to believe that this is a series celebrating its 25th Anniversary this year. Made with one eye on legacy, one eye on the future, Skyward Sword was the Zelda game that people had been nervously hoping for ever since words like “reinvention” started to be thrown around following those early Nintendo briefings.

As moving as it was witty, its story weaved together childhood romance and apocalyptic danger, while the environments were a reminder that (with the exception of this year’s Skyrim and Dark Souls) nobody weaves together a game-world as convincingly, as richly, as Zelda’s designers. The sad irony is that it’s taken what looks likely to be the last significant Nintendo-published Wii game to really show how motion controls could be used to create a richer, more involving game. The subtlety of the mapping, the ability to change your style of swordplay with such natural movement, is the single biggest change to the Zelda gameplay; it’s a transformative addition that makes what was already a beautiful, impossibly refined game a generation-defining one. Entering a new Zelda universe is one of the great gaming traditions, and one that Skyward Sword held up magnificently.

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