For some strange reason, perhaps due to Wii's struggles with hardcore image and software, there seems to be more doubt surrounding The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword than just about any other game in the franchise's history. Not since almost 10 years ago, when Nintendo unveiled a new visual styling for the game that would become The Wind Waker, have gamers been so skeptical of Zelda's handling. In the case of Skyward Sword, those questions seem to focus largely on the title's graphics. However, after spending almost nine hours with the game, I can tell you the last thing about Skyward Sword I'll doubt is its visual prowess.
In addition to Skyward's Motion Plus-required control scheme, Nintendo's visual styling for this latest Hylian adventure has attracted much discussion. Almost every time I bring up Skyward Sword in the IGN offices, the graphics are the first and (seemingly) only complaint brought up. It's a problem that seems to deter many from even considering the game in the same breath as many other major releases – like Skyrim or Uncharted.
There was a time when you could have counted me amongst the skeptics. Given Twilight Princess's arrival in 2006, my expectation was that Nintendo would continue to mature the franchise, painting a more sophisticated look for the Zelda universe upon each and every subsequent release. In hindsight I should have known that was a foolish assumption. One need only look at Wind Waker for proof that Nintendo does whatever it feels necessary to support a gameplay concept.
Skyward Sword, at first glance, appeared dull and lifeless. It seemed to strip away all detail while still not embracing a full cartoon-esque style of something like Wind Waker. In a sense, it was trying to exist in both worlds without embracing either. Wind Waker, particularly as it approached release, featured a very bold, expressive art style that felt like Nintendo had made an actual cartoon come to life. In hindsight, the GameCube-based Zelda game holds up better than many other Zelda adventures. In some ways it's arguable that the title is the best in the franchise, despite its flaws.
So Skyward Sword, based on limited E3 demos and early screenshots, wasn't going to be sophisticated like Twilight Princess or charmingly original like Wind Waker. Was it doomed to be generic? Was Wii's lack of power somehow forcing Nintendo to sacrifice detail in the name of more intricate gameplay design and a grander scope? Not necessarily.
Much like Wind Waker, Skyward Sword is deceptive. Looking at screenshots isn't nearly enough. In fact, not seeing the game in motion, particularly on a big screen before you, betrays the meticulous work of the game's developers. This Zelda adventure is packed with personality, and that starts with how it moves on your television. It's the character design. The vibrant, diverse color palette. The fluid animation. The subtle detail. The clever blur effect for objects in the distance that is both artistically clever and technically necessary.
It's all of these things that help Skyward Sword capture a feel that is very timeless. Few 3D games ever call back memories of sprite-based games, but this one does. Think back to A Link from the Past. The game's visuals hold up. They're minimalist and basic, yet colorful and expressive. Something about Skyward Sword works in that same manner, and it's unlikely I'll ever forget this adventure because of it. The first nine hours of the game are engrained in my head, each area and creature so perfectly and beautifully realized that I can't help but remember them.
If I'm going to point out one fault in Zelda's visuals, it's the blur effect. Though certainly stylish from an artistic perspective, rendering backgrounds in a minimalist, almost painterly style, the blur takes effect shockingly close to Link. You likely won't notice in wide open areas, but in certain locations the blur seems to practically be right next to Link. A small complaint that likely won't impact how you enjoy or play Skyward Sword.
Skyward Sword calls upon the best elements of all its predecessors. It has the simple, memorable design aesthetic of A Link to the Past. It has the stunning fluidity of Wind Waker, a characteristic that also greatly enhances gameplay. Yet it also still manages a level of maturity similar to Twilight Princess, featuring an older Link living in an older, darker, lonelier world. From what I've seen so far, Nintendo has managed to find a graphical style that hits a near-perfect tone. I honestly never thought the publisher would ever sort that out.
You can doubt Skyward Sword's artistic direction. You can demand it look exactly like Skyrim. But that would be missing the point. Not every game should look the same. The best games are the ones that stand out in every possible way, and the bold creations of Skyward are certainly memorable. This new Zelda adventure packs character into every inch of its display, and it's impossible to deny it's captivating.
Time – much more time – will tell where Skyward Sword will stand as a Zelda game, and whether it's only comparable to A Link to the Past and Wind Waker because of its visuals. Nine hours of a 50+ hour adventure isn't nearly enough to make any bold declarations. But know this – Skyward Sword is not lacking when it comes to graphics. In fact, the game is more artistically well-rounded than most Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 games. I'll say this much – most modern era games look the same to me, both in terms of characters and worldly design. Everything has started to blur together. Zelda, despite being on a technically inferior system, is attempting to be deliberately different – and it's paying off.