Motion turns combat into a thrilling real-time puzzle. Smaller enemies in past Zeldas were often little more than an annoyance, something to slow your progress to the really good bits. Here they’re an opportunity to show off your skill, to toy with your foes. Some need a simple swipe to dispatch, but Bokoblins are more of a challenge, demanding that you open them up before you take them down. Dodge back, leap forward and slash, spin, or simply wait for an opening and strike: MotionPlus reads your intentions perfectly with a subtle twist on one-to-one motion, as your swipes are smartly translated to bold horizontal, vertical or diagonal strikes. It’s more direct and aggressive than its WuHu equivalent, that’s for sure. There’s a concession to simple gestures in a move designed to finish off grounded foes, but as a flourish to end an encounter it never stops being satisfying.
Even the menu system is ingenious, eschewing pointer controls for simple movements that allow quick and easy access to the items and objects in Link’s pouch. Around a dozen hours in, muscle memory sees you flicking the remote casually to instantly switch between weapons, a boon for a few of the boss battles where the challenge spikes, even as the plentiful recovery items allow you to make a few mistakes.
It’s all bolstered by a storyline that is at once sweetly old-fashioned yet brilliantly written. NPCs might only have a few lines each but they’re rarely wasted, while simple AI routines and looped animations colour in the personalities sketched by their dialogue. There’s more of a romantic flavour in the relationship between Link and Zelda, and their early scenes together in particular are disarmingly sweet. Yet she’s no sappy love-interest. Instead, she’s a girl who has to fulfil her destiny just as Link does. It’s telling that for much of the game you’re not saving her, but simply trying to catch up.
And then there’s Fi, Skyward Sword’s Navi replacement, who represents all that is good about Skyward Sword. She’s both advisor and statistician, coldly reading out Link’s probabilities of success in a voice that imagines the crazy idea of Skip making Portal. This gobbledygook GlaDOS initially feels like an interloper, a sci-fi AI with a robotic aura that is far from Zelda’s origins in medieval fantasy. Then, as Link begins to fulfil his role in shaping Hyrule’s future, she’s suddenly transformed, slipping elegantly into sweet song or skating and pirouetting across the water’s surface. These are moments of poetic beauty, of technology imbued with magic: the kind of equation that adds up to that indefinable something this publisher sprinkles on its very best games. The Nintendo difference.
This isn’t, of course, the most technically impressive of this season’s releases, but it is a beautiful Wii game, its worlds daubed in a painterly art style that gives distant landmarks an Impressionistic look rather than shrouding them in draw distance-obscuring fog. The soundtrack, meanwhile, expertly re-imagines a handful of Zelda favourites with some subtler work that underscores the dungeon and overworld exploration, adding atmosphere without ever being particularly hummable. That, however, just makes it more enchanting when the score does soar: the title theme, whether plucked on the strings of a harp or played with an orchestra, is stirring stuff, while the in-flight music feels like a great lost Star Wars theme, its sweeping strings and bombastic brass raising the spirits as you lift off.
And lift you it will. Skyward Sword is Nintendo’s most time- and workforce-intensive project yet, and it shows in every hour you spend with it. It’s a masterful blend of taut design and boldly non-traditional controls, an adventure liberally studded with memorable moments it would be remiss to spoil. Your favourite Zelda is usually your first. For many, come November 18, that won’t be the case any longer.