The wait for Breath of the Wild 2 continues and, in the meantime, Nintendo has given us a piecemeal offering in the form of Skyward Sword HD. I don’t have a review of that, but if I had to give it a quick-and-dirty summation it would be:
Breath of the Wild was such a breath of fresh air and total reimagining of the 3D Zelda experience that it was a bizarre choice to revisit Skyward Sword, especially since the biggest problem with that game was how it tried to shake up the tired Zelda formula but wasn’t brave enough to go all the way. The result was a series of half-measures that never came together. If anything, Skyward Sword HD is a reminder of how stark the difference is between the Zelda that was and the Zelda that now is.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be too hard on Skyward Sword since it, like other Zelda games before it, had the unfortunate challenge of merely existing in the enormous shadow of Ocarina of Time. The first 3D Zelda game was released back in the Autumn of 1998 and, in the years that followed, no 3D Zelda game—until Breath of the Wild—was able to escape from that game’s legacy. Unlike the 2D Zelda games, which took a few entries before (with A Link to the Past) it found a style that worked, the 3D games clicked immediately.
Ocarina of Time was regarded as “the perfect game” when it first launched and that moniker is still applied to it today, despite the clear and obvious flaws that are present and the antiquated ideas that have been improved upon ten-fold in the twenty+ years since its release. And yet, no 3D Zelda game that followed was able to best it because every one that managed to meet or surpass one aspect of Ocarina’s greatness, failed in some other avenue.
First, there was Wind Waker…
Technically, first, there was Majora’s Mask, but since that game was made to be a side-story/attachment to Ocarina of Time, let’s jump straight to the next proper iteration of the series. Wind Waker was instantly divisive upon reveal, due to its cell-shaded look. In time, that animated style has won over nearly every initial critic, and it has stood the test of time in ways no other 3D Zelda title has, visually.
Like Ocarina of Time, there is a simple but engaging story at the heart of Wind Waker, and it features gameplay mechanics that make it a joy to play. Where it faltered, however, was in the dungeons. Ocarina of Time offered eight full-sized labyrinths, plus multiple mini-dungeons. Wind Waker, on the other hand, offered only six dungeons, and a couple of mini-dungeons to compliment them. It had the feel of something rarely ever experienced in a major Nintendo release: Half-baked. The game felt rushed and unfinished, especially when one entire collectible was just handed over where previous games would have had some kind of quest or labyrinth to complete. Compared to Ocarina of Time, the next big 3D Zelda game felt like it fell just short of besting it.
Next came Twilight Princess…
Epic is the word best used to describe this one. Developed in response to the initial backlash to “Toon Link,” and western fans’ desire for a more mature, more Ocarina-feeling Zelda game, Twilight Princess instantly became many Zelda fans’ favorite entry in the series, a distinction it still holds with many today. The game is not perfect, however, and the more time that passes the more its shortcomings are made apparent in comparison to Ocarina of Time.
Naturally, Twilight Princess offers better visuals and a larger world to explore, thanks to the increased power of the Gamecube/Wii, and like Ocarina of Time, it has a rich and engaging story. Also, it has eight fully-realized dungeons, bringing it up to the level of Ocarina of Time. Where it faltered, however, was in the gameplay. The dungeons and overworld-adventuring felt tired and devoid of fresh ideas. Fans wanted a new Ocarina and they got it, but not much else. The “Wolf Mechanic” was more of a gimmick that padded the runtime than a series-evolving innovation. Twilight Princess packs many memorable and epic moments, just as Wind Waker did in its own way, but it’s also the first game in the series that started to make the “3D Zelda Formula” show its age.
That brings us to Skyward Sword…
You gotta hand it to Eiji Aonuma and his Zelda team; they listen to criticism and respond accordingly. After hearing the complaints that Twilight Princess was too safe, too stale, and too formulaic, they set out with Skyward Sword to shake up many of the 3D Zelda conventions on which they had, too heavily, come to rely. But, as said, the result is a game full of half-measures.
Skyward Sword boasts a great story and has fabulous dungeon ideas. Unlike Twilight Princess, the seven major dungeons in Skyward Sword are bursting with clever puzzles and gameplay mechanics, and many of them make good use of the Wii Motion Plus attachment. The trouble is literally everything else about the gameplay. If Twilight Princess’ biggest problem is that it’s a bit too boring to play, Skyward Sword is too obnoxious. The Motion Plus attachment that works so great as a “short-use” gimmick in dungeons absolutely fails as an “all the time” requirement for swordplay. Since swinging a sword at bad guys is maybe 90% of the Zelda action experience, it’s critical that this mechanic work flawlessly. Not only does it not, but it also doesn’t even work adequately. Frequent disconnections, the need for resyncing, and the clunky “swing this way” rules required to take down most basic enemies, bring out the absolute worst in Nintendo’s sometimes overzealous love for gameplay innovation.
What Ocarina of Time did right was in its combination of a simple but exciting story, its many memorable and unique dungeons, and its seamless controls that were fresh at the time and effortless to use. None of the three major 3D releases that followed were able to strike that perfect balance of story, content, and gameplay and by the time Skyward Sword was released, Zelda fans were practically begging for a fresh take on the formula.
Fortunately, with Breath of the Wild we got just that.
Breath of the Wild can’t be compared to Ocarina of Time; it’s too radically different. Can you weigh its 120 shrines and four Divine Beasts against eight primary labyrinths of Ocarina? No; it’s apples and oranges. Can you compare the engrossing but linear tale told in Ocarina with the sparse, non-linear, memory-driven tale in BOTW? No again; you might as well compare The Beatles with Lorde. Can you compare the now-primitive gameplay mechanics of OOT with the “choose your own adventure” take on world map exploration found in Breath of the Wild? No. For the first time since Ocarina of Time, there is a Zelda game that doesn’t feel like a derivative of Ocarina of Time.
So as we eagerly await the sequel to the first new Zelda game of its kind in over twenty years, it’s safe to assume that—based on the little info we’ve been given—BOTW 2 will not shake up the formula that the first game laid down. Why should it? Nintendo is just getting started and we’ve got another twenty years before we have to worry about anything new.