So, Link. He Comes to Town. With a Robot That I Hate.

The Best Thing about Legend of Zelda

I had actually never played a Zelda game before I picked up Twilight Princess. I was vaguely aware that there was a guy in a green suit called Link and that he always had to save Zelda from something – that there was at one point an ocarina, if you will, of time – but I didn’t know anything else about the story besides that.

My favourite thing about the Zelda games, now, is actually the over-arching mythology behind them. Link isn’t some particular pointy-eared guy who has to keep saving some particular blond-haired girl over and over again just because. He’s the spirit of a hero who’s reincarnated over several generations to fight an epic battle against evil. Every time – or at least most of the time – he’s just minding his own business, living in some shitty little village, trying to be a farmer or a fisherman and lead a quiet life. Sometimes he has a girlfriend. Sometimes he has a job. Sometimes he’s never heard of Zelda before.

And then all of a sudden, the ground starts to shake, the skies go dark, something evil crawls up out of the earth, or out from the woods, or out of thin air, and a spirit shows up to say, “Hey. Guess what. You don’t get to be a normal farmer. You have a destiny. You have to take this sword and this shield and leave behind everything you ever knew or loved and ride off into the world to fight monsters, because it’s your job to save everyone.” And he does it because he’s a hero. And because that’s how games work. But mostly because he’s a hero, and there always has to be one.

That’s a very moving way to contextualise the common videogame trope of having the hero repeat the same quest every time, with only a few variations. It also hides a multitude of sins, since you can always say, “Oh, Nintendo isn’t just recycling from the previous games – it’s a clever allusion to the adventures that Link had in his earlier lives.” Well played, eastern spirituality.

WTF are Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess and Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword?

Twilight Princess is a 2006 GameCube title that was re-configured for Wii. The internets tell me that the biggest changes between the GameCube and Wii versions are that a) you get to swing your sword with the Wii remote on Wii, and b) because of that, and because most players are right-handed, Link is also right-handed in the Wii version and everything is mirrored left to right.

The story concerns how Link’s homeland comes under siege when beings from a dimension known as Twilight invade and start to poison the land, turning everyone into ghosts, and filling the forests and riverlands with creepy monsters. Zelda is a prisoner in the castle, having been at ground zero of the attack, and Link has to beat back the Twilight in order to save her. The special twist is that, whenever he crosses over into a parcel of land controlled by the Twilight invaders, he turns into a wolf (I swear to god this wasn’t written by Stephanie Meyer). You end up playing somewhere between a third to half of the game as a wolf and the rest as a human, following the normal Zelda progression – adventure, clear dungeons, kill bosses, unlock new tools and weapons.

The other main character in Twilight Princess, and the one who adds the most depth and entertainment to the story – more on that in a bit – is Link’s sidekick, Midna. She starts out as a frenemy – a sarcastic nymph from the Twilight world who insults him all the time while coaching him to help her retrieve the McGuffins she’s chasing. Link needs her, because she can open a door to Twilight-controlled territory and help him to navigate in his wolf form, so they forge an uneasy alliance that – spoilers – turns into a beautiful friendship.

The game has dark, creepy graphics that suit the idea of Twilight slowly taking over the land, and some of the bosses are pretty intense. There’s also a secondary story about a girl from the village that Link seems to be in love with. She loses her memory and doesn’t know who he is anymore – but I don’t care at all about that.

Skyward Sword is a much lighter, cartoonier game, both in content and presentation. The cut scenes look like an animated film and the characterisation is a little more broad. Unlike Twilight Princess, it was originally made for Wii in 2011, and takes advantage of Wii Motion Plus (meaning, you either have to buy a new controller, or a peripheral to snap onto your normal controller).

In Skyward Sword Link and Zelda are best friends who attend the same knight-training academy on an island in the sky. When Zelda is mysteriously kidnapped, Link has to journey below the clouds to a fabled land called “the surface” in order to find her. Gameplay alternates between three different areas on the surface and the city in the clouds. Unlike Twilight Princess, which follows the Clear Dungeon –> Travel to Next Dungeon By Overcoming Rudimentary Obstacles –> Clear Dungeon model, the gameplay in Skyward Sword is a little more varied. In addition to clearing dungeons (which you do a lot) there are a lot of organic, environmental puzzles. The Travel Between Points A and B tasks are much meatier and more time-consuming, and a sizeable number of quests are unique puzzles that don’t involve either travelling or dungeon-clearing at all.

The sidekick character in this game is a spirit that lives inside of and represents Link’s special sword. Her name is Fi and she sings some songs, and acts like a robot. I hate her so much. I hate her like people hate Cedric. Um… I mean, more on that in a sec. SO MUCH.

The Wii Motion Plus controls mean that there are a bunch of puzzles and interactions that use Wii Motion Plus. You can pull back your nunchuck to ready your bow, and your sword will do its best to follow the angle that you swing your controller at. That means enemies will now block you from specific angles, and leave themselves open from others. There are also tasks where you have to grab and rotate things, and tasks where you have to fly around on top of a giant bird that banks when you twist the remote.

Both of the games are pretty epic, and they take a long time to play. Skyward Sword is the only one with a built-in second playthrough, which they call Hero Mode. The monsters hit harder in Hero Mode and there are fewer hearts lying around, so it adds an extra level of challenge.

The Interface

Skyward Sword has a much better interface than Twilight Princess. The game designers are pushing Wii Motion Plus a little harder than it can go – there were some battles that became really tedious and difficult for me because my sword didn’t quite work reliably, especially when doing a move called Skyward Strike – but Motion Plus adds a lot to the game. It’s really fun to do sword combat where it actually matters which way you swing the sword, and it’s fun to pull back the nunchuck to fire the bow.

Even without Motion Plus, though, Skyward Sword would have had the better interface. The interface in Twilight Princess, translated from GameCube, uses a system called Press A To Do Absolutely Everything. You have to Press A to get on and off your horse, draw your sword, put it away, roll, dodge, jump, pick things up, put things down… as you can imagine, there were a lot of situations where I climbed off my horse when I was trying to draw my sword, or rolled into a chicken when I was trying to pick it up.

While you don’t pull back the nunchuck to fire your bow in Twilight Princess, the game does use a pretty intuitive press-release system for firing projectiles (including the bow, the clawshoot, and the slingshot). In this case, you’re pressing and holding B, aiming, and then releasing to fire.

The general layout of your items, and the way that you access them in Skyward Sword is also much, much better. In Skyward Sword, you can run and simultaneously hold down either B or the minus key to sort through the items you’re carrying and select the one you want. In Twilight Princess you have to pre-load the items into the arrow pad and then hit the arrow for the one you want to use, which means – you guessed it – I sometimes hit the wrong arrow at crucial moments.

Skyward Sword also offers little niceties, like identifiable save points, and the ability to travel to specific destinations on your map without walking the whole way there (both of these are accomplished through a series of bird statues that let you save and leave the area).

Clarity

Both games do a pretty good job of queuing you as far as what your next steps should be and how you can go about jumping the hurdles they set out in front of you. Skyward Sword goes apeshit overkill in this direction, though. It holds your hand every step of the way. Sometimes infuriatingly so.

There are two sides to the clarity question. I confess, there were a couple of moments in Twilight Princess where I got angry because I couldn’t figure out what the fuck I was supposed to do, and I was running around pointlessly in circles for over an hour, because I missed some tiny little detail, or didn’t understand that the tools I was carrying could be used in a certain way. There were none of those moments in Skyward Sword, but there were a lot of moments where I felt like I’d been cheated out of the opportunity to solve a puzzle I probably could have solved, by having the annoying sidekick coach me through it. MORE ON THAT IN A MINUTE.

Skyward Sword will swivel the camera around to show you exactly where you need to go. It will mark the location on your map. There are little stones you can talk to that will give you a hint about what to do, there are little messages carved into rocks explaining the answers to riddles… The characters explain to you in straightforward, painstaking detail, exactly what you need to do, and then they ask if you want them to repeat it. And then, even if you say no, they probably tell you again. Then the robot pops up and recaps it for you, like you can’t even read. This is on top of all the subtle (and much more welcome) cues in the environment telling you to climb or sprint or fly in a certain direction.

You don’t want a game that’s so open-ended and confusing that nobody knows WTF’s going on, Nancy Drew: Ransom of the Seven Ships, but you can go too far in the other direction, too.

That said, both games have a really good system where, when new tools or abilities are introduced, you get explicit instructions about how to use the controls, and you’re almost immediately placed in a situation that tests your learning (a common example of this is that you get a new item and then have to use it in order to leave the room you picked it up in). That’s good design, and it suits a world where nobody reads the instruction booklet anymore.

Effort:Reward Ratio

Skyward Sword has a better effort:reward ratio than Twilight Princess. Most of the side quests in the game relate to a single omi-side-quest in which you’re trying to find a series of crystals for a demon who lives underground. He rewards you at regular intervals as you bring the crystals back to him, and it helps you progress in the game. There’s also an arena where you can win a super good shield that isn’t otherwise available.

Twilight Princess has stupidly hard side quests that consume hours, and hours of your life, and barely help you at all in the game. For example, there’s one where you have to retrieve 60 pieces of this random townie’s soul and he rewards you once at the start and once at the end. In order to get all 60 pieces, you have to hunt them at night in your wolf form (the game is on an auto-clock, so you have to wait for nightfall each time you want to go look), you have to track them down across the whole entire map where they’re hidden without any pattern or sense, you have to open secret passages, and you have to fight your way down to the bottom of an optional area called The Cave of Ordeals where you have to kill wave after wave of monsters with only the stuff you brought in on your back. By the time you’ve secured access to all 60 of the pieces and collected them, it’s almost the end of the game, and your reward is some extra cash.

Like, let’s be clear – unless you’ve done something very wrong, not only have you already got cash by the end of the game, you’ve also already made all of the major purchases you’re going to make. They may as well give you a singing fish.

The Cave of Ordeals is, itself, an exercise in poor reward relative to effort. It’s hard to fight your way down to the final level, and the levels are sealed based on how far you’ve progressed in the game. So it’s not like you can do it early on. You have to wait until almost the end. Your reward, then, at almost the end of the game, is to have some lakes, which already healed you, turn into wells of free healing potion. An awesome thing to use once as you head for the final boss battle.

There’s also a tedious side quest where a tertiary character named Marlo is trying to open a store. You have to do a whole bunch of random shit to get the store open, including bringing him a tremendous amount of money. It’s mildly convenient to have the store, because you can buy all your shit in one place, but the major reward is that you have the opportunity to buy a really expensive set of armour that eats money. This is a really clever commentary on capitalism, I’m sure, but the only time I had use for the armour in the game was in the Cave of Ordeals which was basically useless as well.

In fairness to Twilight Princess, there is another set of optional quests in which you can unlock special sword-fighting skills, and those are legitimately useful. But, still.

The Characters

Link is a taciturn creature. That’s actually on purpose – Nintendo wants you to imagine his personality instead of having him display one. In Skyward Sword, you can sometimes choose his response to certain situations (I chose to be quite quippy) but mostly he’s just a good guy whose face hardens in determination, and you can read what you want into the rest.

Both games are filled with goofy tertiary characters who are sometimes funny and sometimes a little bit uncomfortable to deal with – that means that the question of characterisation really falls on the secondary characters, including the sidekick. And this is where Twilight Princess is going to start to pull ahead.

Midna is the best character in Twilight Princess. She’s funny, she’s interesting and, as a sidekick, she’s actually helpful. She can give Link some oblique hints, but she can also do an energy attack, and help him to make longer jumps in his wolf form. As the story goes on, we learn more about her, and there are some twists along the way. She develops the most, out of any of the characters – she begins as bitter and selfish and ends as a hero whose friendship with Link has allowed her to reclaim the better parts of herself.

The other secondary characters in Twilight Princess are a bunch of random kids from Link’s village, whom I don’t like, and a pretty rad but often off-screen version of Zelda who’s mature and composed and doesn’t fall in love with Link.

The best character in Skyward Sword is Link’s frenemy, Groose. Groose is a bully from the academy who starts off the game by trying to sabotage Link on the day of his exams, but who develops in surprising ways at each act break in the story. Although he’s initially envious of Link, when he finds out Link has a special destiny, Groose gradually discovers that he also has things he can offer, just as a normal guy, and he grows as a person because of it. The next best character is the old woman who guards an area called The Sealed Temple, and coaches Link on how to fulfill his destiny. There are some “surprises” with her character that are telegraphed pretty early on, but she’s still an interesting figure in the story.

The worst character is the goddamn sidekick. And that’s what pushes Skyward Sword below Twilight Princess in terms of character, even forgetting everything else. Fi is some kind of spirit that lives in Link’s sword, and she follows you around and talks to you all the goddamn time. I can’t count the number of times I was right in the middle of trying to do something and she popped up to talk to me, causing me to drop whatever I was carrying, or put my sword away, or otherwise freeze and do nothing but listen to her. 99% of the time when she did that, even on my first playthrough, I already knew whatever she was telling me, because I have basic reading comprehension skills. Like, literally, a character would tell you, “You need to go to the top of this hill” and you’d start to walk and she would pop up and say, “Master, just to confirm, it appears that you should journey to the top of this hill in order to find what you’re looking for.” And you would go, “Fuck you. I know. Shut up,” with the imaginary personality you projected onto Link.

There are some really difficult challenges in the game where you have to enter a spirit realm and search for a bunch of sparkly things that will make you grow as a warrior or something. You’re on a timer, and you have to hunt for all the sparklies without letting spirit guardians see you, and it’s really a process of trial and error the first time you play – I don’t think I cleared any of these challenges on the first attempt; I just accepted that it was going to take a couple of tries to figure out where the sparklies were so I could pick them up in a timely manner. But Fi didn’t believe in me at all. Every time I failed, she would pop up and give me this really didactic, condescending speech about the best strategies for completing the challenge, like she thought the reason I was failing was that I was too stupid to understand the objective. I wanted to punch her, but that wasn’t an option.

The other problem with Fi talking to you all the time – aside from how she just tells you a bunch of shit you already know – is that she has no personality. Midna was funny about it, at least. Fi just straight-up tells you stuff without any trace of irony or amusement. There’s a minor character in the game called Scrapper, who’s also kind of a robot, but is much more useful because he performs a task for you by carrying things around. He also hates Link and calls him “Master Shortpants” and yells at him to move out of the way and stuff. I wish he was the sidekick instead.

And I’m not even done yet – maybe the second worst thing about Fi, besides how she pops up to freeze you and give you unsolicited advice about things you already know how to do, is how she responds when you actually do ask her for advice. If you’ve been away from the game for a while and don’t remember your objective, then, yes, she can recap it for you and that is legitimately helpful. But that’s the only helpful thing she does. She has a function where you can target an enemy and then call on her to get tactical information. I tried it so many times on my first playthrough, hoping that she would tell me something helpful. No. She tells you what you can plainly see for yourself – i.e., “it appears that this is a giant lizard” – and then she says a whole bunch of words to say nothing – like, recommending to you that you don’t let the lizard kill you and stuff. She’s like fucking Azeem or something. Then she asks if you want more info, and you say yes, and she says she doesn’t have any.

If you target an enemy you’ve faced multiple times and been horrible at fighting, hoping to get some analysis, she tells you all the same stuff and then adds that the data shows you’re horrible at fighting it. THANKS I KNOW.

I hate her so much.

Story

Neither story is especially deep, but I’ll give the edge to Twilight Princess, again, mostly because of the character development with Midna, but also because the events in the game are more character-driven and, as we all know by now, I happen to prefer character-driven stories.

In Twilight Princess, Link doesn’t know Zelda, but he has personal reasons for doing most of what he does. At first, he wants to find the kids who were snatched from his village (one of whom he seems to be dating – I don’t understand how old he is). Then, once he becomes friends with Midna, he’s more personally invested in helping her find the stuff she’s looking for. Midna becomes personally invested in his quest too, and in saving Link’s homeland from Twilight (would that we could all be saved from Twilight).

I cried actual, real tears at the end of Twilight Princess, I have to tell you. It wasn’t as bad as when I played The Last Story, and my glasses got all wet, and I ran the hero straight into a wall, but these were honest tears of emotion. The ending of Skyward Sword tries to pull a similar trick, but a) I guessed the surprise that’s revealed at the end and b) um… spoiler, but one of the characters dies and all I can say is GOOD RIDDANCE.

The rest of the story is not bad, but it’s very plotty. The Goddess, like the cylons, has a plan and everyone has their part to play in the plan, and you just have to do what you’re told, because it’s destiny. Link’s main motivation at the start is to save Zelda because she’s his best friend (and they are obliquely in love), but there’s a lot of “You need to find the three sacred flames because I said so.”

The latter is also a huge and aggravating missed opportunity for character development – the point of finding the sacred flames is for Link and his sword to “grow” together so that they can face the battles ahead, in the final act of the story. As the spirit that inhabits his sword, you might expect that this would mean that Fi would grow in some way while Link’s seeking the flames – that she would act differently, or show some evidence of having changed in some way – but she doesn’t. His sword literally gets longer instead.

Conclusion

Upon writing this rant, it seems clear to me that Skyward Sword is actually the better Wii game, if for no other reason than that it was designed for Wii, and therefore it works better with the Wii controls. It also has the edge because there’s more variation in the format, and I didn’t have to travel to the ends of the earth and snatch souls from 60 ghosts just so I could earn some extra cash.

Yet I still fucking hate Fi. I hate her not just as a character, but as a game mechanic. I can’t count the number of times I have sworn out loud when the game freezes so that she can repeat what somebody else just said. Skyward Sword seems so focussed on making sure that you enjoy yourself – that you have no cause to be confused or frustrated or in any way unsure of how to proceed onto the next bit of fighting – that it’s like an anxious host who hovers over your shoulder constantly asking if you want more chips and making you hate chips forever.

Yes, it was a big let-down to hand in my 60 pieces of soul in Twilight Princess, but I fucking well found them, didn’t I? I fucking well beat the Cave of Ordeals without someone hovering over my shoulder the whole time and saying, “Master, I think you should swing your sword at the monsters attacking you – flash, flash, flash; in case you’re not aware, your shield is broken.”

You gain a sense of accomplishment sometimes from figuring things out yourself. And, while I applaud any game that has a useful hint system for situations where the player gets frustrated, it should be an opt-in component. If I recall correctly, in Twilight Princess, there were at least a few scenes where Midna would ping you if she had something to say, and you could choose to ignore her or not. Something just that simple – as simple as having the option to not talk to Fi (especially in Hero Mode where, come on, you’ve already beat the game) – would have improved my experience of Skyward Sword a hundredfold.

I would take Midna or Cedric or the paperclip from Microsoft Word over Fi any day.

I’m not the only one who feels this way.

This concludes my thoughtful review.

Image: Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess; Nintendo | November 1, 2013