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Analysis:  Skyward Sword  proves that  Zelda  needs to evolve
Analysis: Skyward Sword proves that Zelda needs to evolve Exclusive
April 11, 2012 | By Christian Nutt

Skyward Sword got a lot of acclaim last year -- from this site, among others. For the most part, I liked it a lot, too. But it has problems...let's face it, it's a mess. The primary issue, to my mind, is that it has truly terrible pacing.

The pacing problems have their root, I think, in the fact that the developers didn't realize how long the game they were making would take gamers to complete, and they continued to pad it out. What put me onto this "they just didn't know" idea was a quote from Peter Molyneux in an interview I did with him after Fable III came out:

Just after that point, we then sat down, and, partly because of the way that we worked -- the process, the way that we designed, and the way that we crafted -- meant that the game came together very late. That is one of the things that we're changing; that is just such an old school way of working.

You have these ideas called pillars, and then you rush away and develop these pillars. About nine months before the game is due to be finished, you've got to bring that whole thing together and then -- 'Oh, wow! The game's this long!'

Every game, unbelievably, you sit down: 'Good grief! It's twice as long as I thought it was going to be!'
I have no specific insight into the game's development process, whether it was created in "pillars" or not. But at the very least, evidence of padding is in the game itself. Skyward Sword's developers time and again offer up the same content with a new coat of paint, and push things to opposite ends of the (otherwise rather empty) realm of Skyloft.

But they've also placed boring bits of navigation back-to-back with other boring bits of navigation that would never have touched if they had a clear concept of the game's overall structure. I guess it's both.

Grousing about a game being too inconvenient may be a "first world problem," but so much of playing Skyward Sword isn't even remotely interesting that it seems fair to point it out -- particularly to Nintendo. With the Wii U, the company is on the threshold of stepping into a future it has never faced, where the very foundation of its business -- the idea that dedicated game consoles are worth buying -- will face its strongest test. Convincing people to waste the limited time they have is, perhaps, not the best tactic.

A Secret to Everybody?

These flaws point to a single, simple problem. In an age of swelling team sizes and increasingly complex productions, content produced in isolation and then bolted together simply does not work -- at least not in action-adventure games and RPGs. There is no way to pace it correctly, there is no way to make it feel of a piece, and there is a very real danger of pushing the player around unnecessarily thanks to the simple awkwardness that's likely to result from being unaware yourself, as a developer, how this diverse content will be consumed once it's coalesced into a game.

Before you cry that Japanese developers aren't equipped to solve this problem, two studios released games in the West in 2011 that did fantastic yet completely different jobs of world building. Neither of them was delivered by a developer with the legacy of Nintendo's vaunted EAD, either.

Monolith Soft, which delivered Xenoblade Chronicles to Europe last August (it just came out in North America) may be owned by Nintendo, but it seems that it very much plows its own furrow. Its owner should be paying attention. The world of Xenoblade Chronicles is both imaginative -- it's situated on the frozen bodies of two massive, dead gods -- and completely seamless.

If you can see it, you can get to it, and you'll want to. Care has been put into not just filling the world full of interesting vistas, but populating them with enemies and littering them with treasure, too. No journey is wasted. It's sprawling and adventuresome, and simply engrossing to get lost in. And since you can teleport to any location you've already explored instantly, you never end up wasting your time.

On the other hand, there's the equally impressive Dark Souls, crafted by From Software. This game should really be forced into the hands of every world builder in the game industry for what it gets so right.

Dark Souls' world is just as vertical as it is horizontal: you can often choose to go up or down rather than forward or back, and if you do, you'll find entirely new areas, as well as new and clever connections to old areas, too.

More interestingly, it features enclosed dungeons that fit perfectly into the world they're in, true-to-scale, and are self-contained levels in and of themselves. The environments aren't just sprawling: they're intricate, and full of character. Despite being huge, Dark Souls has human scale. It also beats with the heart of a classic gamer's game.

I Am Error

This would be the way forward for Zelda. When you get right down to it, the two games aren't really that different, structurally. But Dark Souls pulls the player forward with promises of new and exciting things to explore, and new types of enemies to defeat, and significant new characters to meet. Some of these promises are explicit (a fortress in the distance) and some are implicit (pathways in the game never lead to a dead end).

On the other hand, Skyward Sword features a surprising lack of enemy types, a lack of interesting NPCs or subquests, and generally prods the player forward with a "do this next!" rather than letting her explore. The world, which is certainly big enough for an adventure, ends up feeling constrained and purposeless.

The absolute, hands-down, most innovative and surprising part of the game is the Lanayru Desert. It's also the biggest, most believable environment the game has to offer, and the one that has the most interesting nooks and crannies to investigate. It even has multiple mini-dungeons integrated right into it.

Even there, though, is one of the game's clunkiest bits, and the prime example of how it gets things so wrong in the very midst of getting them right. The Sand Sea is breathtakingly creative; its pure and beautiful idea (I won't spoil if you haven't seen it yet), the most appealing one I saw in a game in 2011. It elegantly builds upon what came before in a way that makes you say "Oh no -- they aren't going to do that!" right before they DO do that.

But it is also completely uninspired in implementation from a game design perspective. It's pure filler, with only a couple of small active locations. Despite the freshness of the presentation, the actual exploration is a chore.

There are other flashes of inspiration that suggest an awareness that more could have been done -- the inside of the Great Tree, the intermittent Bokoblin villages, the small temple in Faron Woods -- but these don't stand up against the bulk of the game, a collection of one-use only obstacles that get used time and again.

It's Dangerous to Go Alone

It's no accident I said "world builder" up above when talking about Dark Souls. One of the most interesting interviews I've published this year was with Colin Campbell, the lead world builder for Big Huge Games' Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, an open-world RPG.

When the studio, which had mostly worked on RTSes, was scoping the massive RPG project, it became clear that there was a need for developers at the intersection of art and design to tackle this problem, and the world building team was born.

"I think that's the real heart of it. We can't build individual parts. None of us are building our own sliver of the game, and then putting them all together expecting them to work. We're all connecting to each other. We're all building one thing collectively. It has to feel cohesive in all of its parts. That's sort of the philosophy of the whole project," Campbell told me.

That's something that all developers, but crucially those working on RPGs or adventure games, should take note of. When building worlds, the era of "slivers of the game" is over.

I Know You Can Save Hyrule!

The irony is stark for the Zelda series. From its inception, 1986's The Legend of Zelda, the series had an appealing, engrossing way of building worlds. While expanding on that template probably wasn't workable when Ocarina of Time was developed, it's not 1998 anymore. It's time for the company to really embrace that structure again.

In 2011, 1993's Link's Awakening, originally released for Game Boy, came out on Virtual Console for the 3DS, and Skyward Sword came out for the Wii. Both were new to me. Looking at the 3DS' screen, seeing that map of squares and knowing that I'd be discovering what lay on each and every one of them was so much more inspiring than the prospect of yet another goddamn trip across the empty sky on the back of that stupid bird.

At some point, the Zelda team decided it would create only what was necessary to be accepted as a Zelda game -- not that which could surprise and delight the player, to borrow Satoru Iwata's own terms.

Don't get me wrong. Skyward Sword's dungeons are brilliant examples of the kind of design that Japanese developers do best, and have been polished until they gleam. But the world they are plopped into is not a cohesive world at all, nor even an attempt at one. And for that, the game suffers.

Skyward Sword was one of the most memorable gameplay experiences I had in 2011. But it turns out, as I move on to the games of 2012 -- like the surprisingly good Wii RPG The Last Story -- it is not one that I will be remembering solely for what it did right.

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Bob Johnson
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Here's how you fix it.

Dump the bloated story. REscue the princess is enough. Replace it with exploration, randomness, more populated overworld, .....Add surprises.

Dump the excessive handholding. It is the age of the internet. We can find answers on the internets if we are stuck. Let us skip npc conversations after the first time. Let us recall conversations if we need to. Less tediousness.

IT would be nice if they also didn't do the,... oh now you need 6 of these after you collected 4 of those and 3 of that and 5 of this. This type of pacing just annoys.

Maybe money count or eliminate it. They did a better job of this in SS, but still what is the point? And why still sell crap in the store 25 hours in that you can find in adundance anywhere in the world?

Aaron Casillas
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Hell yeah! Gimme some coop too!

Joe Zachery
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Gamers are always crying for change, but once they get it they never know how to handle it. Zelda suffers from being a major franchise that has been around as long as the modern gaming industry. For each gamer Zelda is something totally different. From a game about a warrior traveling through his world. A quest to rescue a trap princess or a journey about an ancient power. That idea that you call Zelda a RPG is an example to this since I consider Zelda a Adventure game.
The problem with Skyward Sword is that the game serves too purposes. The 1st being the start of the entire Zelda franchise setting everything in motion. With gamers crying about Nintendo putting more personality into their games. You can tell that Skyward Sword was an attempt at doing that. Finally Skyward Sword was the flag ship title for Nintendo pushing motion control gameplay this generation. Maybe if they did that early in this generation the focus of making it work in Zelda wouldn't have been so important. So when you compare a game that has a history, and games that don't it's not a fail comparison. It's easy to tell Star Trek or Star Wars to be more like Battle Star Galactic. It's harder to actually accomplish that when you have history, and fanbase to deal with.

The only way Nintendo could really fix this problem is make Zelda an action game similar to God of War, of Demon Souls. Get rid of the puzzle gameplay that has become a main stay of the franchise since Link To The Past. Then their is another option that would cost more money, and add more time to the development of the games. Which currently stand at a new Zelda game once every 4 to 5 years. Nintendo could create 2 staffs one focused on the creating of dungeons, and the other focusing on creating the world. Then bring both parts together to have the Zelda game your wanting. Still the option of just changing the game for the hell of it will not work, and cause fan backlash. A game like Zelda will have to evolve into a new direction for fans to accept it.

Joe Zachery
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"Each Zelda is different? Not really. The story is always basically the same. The structure has been the same for a while now. The handhelds gave variations on it, but it's largely the same each time."

So by your reasoning every Star Trek movie is actually the same. The crew of the Enterprise is sent to save the Federation of Universe from an unstoppable threat. If your going to look at with such a plan stroke of the brush. A lot of games have been the same for a very long time. The game being the starting point" For Now" has to deal with issues with canon. As you know these things matter to people who enjoy games, movies, comics, or nerd culture.

"What is this "gamers crying about more personality" business? Not a concern I've heard from anyone before."
Nintendo has been dealing with the desire of fans to make their games feel more like movies. From adding voice acting to silent characters or even use more cut scenes to tell deeper stories. If you haven't heard any of these complains about Nintendo games , and the way they present them. You are quite lucky my friend.

"Your views about motion controls have nothing to do with the issues in the article, namely pacing and tedious fetch quests.
Removing the puzzles would kill the very best part about the Zelda games. No thanks."
Pacing has a lot to do with how you controlling the game. If Skyward Sword was more of an action game with even more enemies to fight and on screen. Nintendo would have to abandon their Motion Control plan for a more traditional control setup. No one wants to fight 8 characters on screen while having to use Motion Controls. Also there has not been a game that has even tried to use Motion Controls on a action game. Imagine playing Ninja Gaiden with Wii Motionplus? Could it be even done with out making the game a FPS. So the controls used had an affect on how the game starts off. You don't want to tire out people who are playing something during their down time. Still I was pointing out a probable issue not claiming it's the only one.
Finally the part about the 2 staff issue would work for Nintendo or most Japanese Developers. Since they tend to work together all the time anyway. Then they have the opportunity to work on a game until it's finish. Zelda, The Last Guardian, and Gran Trusimo Series to name a few examples. Where Westerner developers seem to be on a faster business cycle. The reason why is up in the air. Still just like another article that was on this site. You have people wanting Zelda to be more like something else, and less like Zelda? The main issue is no one knows what The Legend of Zelda really is.

Patrick Davis
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"The problem with Zelda is the stale gameplay, which no story can overcome."

Stale gameplay? The issue is that people want Zelda to be something more than it is. No one is complaining about recycled items and gameplay from one Mario game to the next. Skyward Sword is the best in the series in terms of gameplay with the new take on sword fighting. Yeah, there are noticibly less enemy types in the game, but each enemy is pretty engaging and actually makes you change up your strategy.

I'm completely fine with what Zelda is. It's a game about a elf looking kid who wears a dorky green outfit to go on long adventures to save a princess. It's about using items to aid in puzzle solving with some sword fighting thrown in. Why does any of this need to change?

Yes, there is a very vocal minority that wants large sweeping changes, but this just isn't needed in my opinion. There are plenty of examples out there of games that make too many changes and alienate the fans that enjoyed said series since the beginning. I'd rather not this happen to Zelda.

I don't know where they should take the series from here, but injecting artificial story ala Other M isn't it cure. Gameplay is what Zelda is about.

Mathieu MarquisBolduc
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"it became clear that there was a need for developers at the intersection of art and design to tackle this problem"

Arent those... level designers?

Cary Chichester
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" in the fact that the developers didn't realize how long the game they were making would take gamers to complete, and they continued to pad it out."

I think they were well aware, they pretty much advertised it. Miyamoto said his playtime was over 100 hours in the game ( I think Reggie said something similar), and they spoke about how the amount of content was "colossal" and more than any other previous game. Had the game been as fun as they envisioned, that length would probably not have been seen as that much of a detriment.

Faith Sarlo
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A hundred hours? How is that even possible? it took me 50 hours at the most. I thought it was one of the easist Zelda games, Fi told me everything even though it was obvious.

Jonathan Jou
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I think there aren't enough articles that go through the game and talk about everything Skyward Sword does right. It's probably a harder article to write, since the areas are undeniably repetitive and the tasks are not well motivated, but I've seen enough of the negative reviews to see where the game sours for those who didn't find the swordplay to be exciting enough.

I also think it's disingenuous whenever game journalism finds itself trying to tap into the minds of the developer--it's rather belittling as a programmer to hear a journalist make uninformed generalizations about the development process of a game without actual evidence. I don't think any developer actively decides to try and make their game longer than it needs to be, and I'm not sure journalists should feel so comfortable speaking from a developer's perspective.

I completely agree that the game exposes the mechanical nature of a Zelda game: fetch quest, dungeon, boss fight, repeat. On the other hand, all games are repetitive, because that's what any game that's not Calvinball is about. So as Cary says, the problem isn't that the game was "padded," because I'm convinced that at no point did Nintendo play the game, conclude it was "too fun," and decide to "pad" it. Instead, the core actions simply weren't enough to sustain the length of the game.

Which is probably true. Zelda games have never really been about a central game mechanic and for the Zelda team to base their game off of the admittedly impressive sword fighting may have been a bigger gamble than they anticipated.

Joe McGinn
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Good analysis, I love Zelda games but the pacing problems killed this one for me.

Bart Heijltjes
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So what exactly about this game's 93 on metacritic from professional reviewers warrants 'sweeping changes' to its structure and content? (next to numerous claims of 'best Zelda ever'!)

I don't really see how you can extrapolate from a quote of Peter Molyneux to Zelda's design process... that just seems like wild guessing to me.

I didn't really experience these pacing problems as very acute, so perhaps you have some insight that I don't have. Yes, it's a Zelda game and we know how those work. But for that it's still interesting enough to be very very popular. Why do you want to change Zelda to something that wouldn't be Zelda, but rather God of War or Xenoblade Chronicles? Those games already exist, after all!

Jim Snyder
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"It's the first Zelda game I've ever stopped playing."

that's funny, I was thinking about that the other week, and yeah, same thing for me. I couldn't put my finger on way it was the only Zelda game I hadn't felt compelled to just jam straight through, but pacing seems as good of an explanation as any. I think I'm about two thirds of the way through and haven't even considered picking it back up in months...

Patrick Davis
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There is definitely a wide range of opinions on this.

I found this Zelda to be one of the best in the series next to LTTP and OOT.

Russell Carroll
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Agreed.I really like the game. The art direction is brilliant and the fully orchestrated sound is wonderful.It's maybe a little too 'fetchy,' but I play things slowly and have enjoyed the pace for the most part (I bought it on release day in November and am about 30 hours in...that's the realities of being an adult gamer with responsibilities ;).I loved the time-shift ship in the desert that turned the sand to water as you moved and Ancient Cistern, with it's vertical play, India theme, and underground zombies is probably my favorite Zelda dungeon to date. The beetle may be my favorite Zelda item.There's some things I'd like to be better in the game, but I feel that way about every game. Calling the game a 'mess' seems baiting in my opinion. SS is up there with my favorite Zelda games. It's more mature in art style and music (both more museum-like than just about any game I've ever played) while keeping the sense of adventure and discovery of a new land filled with interesting puzzles and fun gameplay moments (like the mine-cart riding). Definitely not for everyone, but then no game is. Regardless, Skyward Sword is definitely for me and I love what Nintendo has done to continue to evolve the series. I know some people feel it hasn't evolved enough, for me it has been a perfect evolution both in location and gameplay (the sword-play in particular doesn't get nearly enough credit for how risky and different it was to do).

Jim Snyder
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I won't speak for anyone else, but I didn't mean to say it was a bad game. I think It'd be tough to argue that. And I can't say I haven't enjoyed however many hours I've sunk into it (probably around 30 like you, since I got it in december) either.

But I do find it odd that it's the only game in the series I haven't found myself so thoroughly engrossed in that I could not possibly put it down before completing it and it's definitely curious to think about why that might be, when it admittedly does so many things (the sword play and the flying beetle, to name just a few) right.

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I think I said this before in another post about LoZ SS. I'll relay it again. Skyward Sword is like more like Metroid Prime in that it really has no dungeon levels to hold on to. Rather it is just a series of events that lead to a final conclusion of a complete story. The old Zeldas are not like that, and that is why this one has garnished attention in it's design change; for better or worst. Each area is treated like a location arcing back to the lore that the rest of the LoZ games branch from loosely. If you really want to say this is a dungeon, or that is a dungeon by following the "kill the boss and find the piece to complete your journey" model then you will have to say the main three areas you explore in the game are in and of themselves separate dungeons each, and that each dungeon area has within it mini dungeons that connect asymmetrically to the different acts of the story arc. Exploration was not a driving point in this Zelda Design. Finding something out about the attachment between Link and Zelda was. Whether that was good design or not is debatable.

John Flush
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"Skyward Sword's developers time and again offer up the same content with a new coat of paint, and push things to opposite ends of the (otherwise rather empty) realm of Skyloft."

This is the best description of why I can't stand 3D zelda that I have ever read. There just isn't enough content in that 3D world to distract me sufficiently as I walk from one end to the other to finish yet another fetch quest or such. I have played OoT, MM, WW, and now SS and all of them bore me to tears. It is because I spend more time going from place to place doing nothing than in 2D Zelda.

In 2D it just seems there were more enemies or things to avoid (and ways to avoid them I suppose) than in its 3D counterpart. Or quick warps that got me "close enough" to never feel bored.

In an age where Elder Scrolls let you wander when you want and revisit quickly when you don't (which is a huge time saver for those of us trying to get into a game and out quick enough) Zelda just doesn't have a spot anymore. Or is that just for me? But by all means make another one Nintendo, unless it provides something different like this I'm done with 3D Zelda.

Kevin Kerbleski
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Terrific article. After playing through Skyward Sword twice, I still couldn't shake the feeling that there was something off with the game, especially the pacing and overworld design. As much as I wanted to praise the game like so many others, I just couldn't; the roller-coaster experience had me loving the highs and hating the lows. Some of those lows, though, came too often.

Honestly, almost every aspect of the game felt both great and terrible for me. The soundtrack, which contained some of the best tunes from the Zelda series, didn't stay consistent throughout. Some of the songs Link learned had me scratching my head. Likewise, there were bits here and there where the graphics looked pretty good, but I spent the majority of the game despising the grainy textures. Finally, though the story had some truly brilliant moments, especially some of the scenes between Link and Zelda, all too often Skyward Sword lapsed into predictable plots, accompanied by a villain (Ghirahim) whose purpose seemed solely for shock value.

ray G
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I felt this since Twilight Princess. I think the motifs and music and some throwbacks but everything else NEW! like what if the main protagonist was a girl this time?? 70/30 rule is always good IMO. You have 70% room to ACTUALLY innovate and GROW and 30% for the nostalgia factor. And honestly, I mean honestly! motion controls were not necessary for the MOST part! Even if they were flawless, I still like holding the game pad steady and just activating a button. Here is why:

When we hit strike at something, we don't get the satisfaction of the swing, << we get it off the"POP!" we get at the end. Swinging the motion controls to emulate a strike in Skyward Sword is like having a spoon going inside your mouth with no food.
Nintendo did this to deliver a "deeper" game experience but it just wasn't that satisfying.

Yes I am aware that you get this type of Punch-Out type of fighting with deciding where you may hit and block and that's nice but that could still be handled on a standard controller(Ps2/Ps3) (Yes Nintendo we are spoiled by Sony's layout, but the D-Pad) Move with left analog, use right analog to determine blow by clock layout, 12 O'clock up, 1,2 O'clock diagonal, etc etc...yes motion controls were not necessary and did feel tacked on for combat.

Thats not the innovation we are looking for...well, at least me anyway.

ray G
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Its so simple....people want that fresh feeling they got with Ocarina..that's what it boils down to.. The fan boys don't want to let go and the N wont risk to much..Want Zelda to be more, sack 70% of what you knew as Zelda, bamn.

George Menhal III
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Now that we've seen with A Link Between Worlds the ways Nintendo plans to evolve the series, I think it would be worth it to simply appreciate Skyward Sword for what it is. I actually didn't mind the linearity in this game, because normally it was still better than most other games out there. Skyward Sword is one of the most tightly constructed Zelda games, and one of the most demanding of the player, which I love. The game also features some amazing game design in the dungeons, and the combat of course is completely original.

Skyward Sword was released at the wrong time for both the series and Nintendo. The game will be remembered in a different light years down the line. It will probably gain a cult following--which it most definitely deserves--in the same way Majora's Mask did. It is by the numbers Zelda but it gave us so much that was new as well. Overall I felt the game was balanced and the motion controls worked, which in and of itself is a miracle that only a 5-year Nintendo development cycle could furnish.

It's another example, in my opinion, of gaming's biggest 1st party developer making the subtlest refinements that were critical but nevertheless overlooked. Skyward Sword is a great game.