By Darren Franich
December 03, 2011 at 03:00 PM EST

I. On Videogames

Why do we play videogames? For some people, the answer is easy. We know why the average smartphone user plays Angry Birds: To pass the time between subway stops, or to make dinner with the in-laws less painful, or because they’re bored in a doctor’s office. (Remember when you were a kid, and your parents took you to see a pediatrician, and all the kids in the waiting room were playing with that weird magical wooden play cube, with the geometric blocks you could push back and forth on a roller coaster wire? Angry Birds is the Magical Wooden Play Cube for adults.)

And we know why the casual gamer plays Wii Fit or Dance Central or Sports Champions: Because it’s a fun way to spend half an hour, or because the party was pretty boring before the host broke out the Kinect, or because it’s the only thing to do at the retirement home. And we know why a nation of mostly-males plays Call of Duty and World of Warcraft: Because it’s fun to compete with people you don’t know against people you don’t know in a game you enjoy, and because contemporary hobbies are only fun if they present the illusion of achievement, and because Activision Blizzard is the crack epidemic of our generation. And of course, we know why people play Kinectimals: Because they are too young to speak, and thus, they cannot complain to their parents that Kinectimals is the most annoying videogame ever made.

But why, fellow gamers, do we playthe long, intensive, single-player videogames: The 40 or 50 or 100-hour experiences that transport us to a fascinating new world, a vividly realized reality — and why does it not bother us that we are the only living person in that reality? Why do we play Final Fantasy? Why do we play Super Mario? Why do we play Gears/God of War? Heck, why do some of us still play the campaign mode of Call of Duty — and why do the makers of Call of Duty feed us with celebrity voices and bang-you’re-dead twists and characters who are just two-dimensional enough to care about? What is so lacking in our real lives that leads us to spend hours, days, months out of our lives in front of a TV set, tapping a few ridiculous buttons to explore better worlds than these?

Why, in short, did I spend 50 hours of my life over the course of two weeks — ignoring friends, family, and household chores — playing The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword? Let me try to explain.

II. On Skyward Sword‘s neverending tutorial prologue

One question dominates over the conversation about Skyward Sword, the same question that greets every new Zelda game: Can it be better then Ocarina of Time?

If you’re the kind of person who asks that question, then you have to understand one thing: You will not like the first five hours of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. It’s not because the game begins slowly. It’s because the game doesn’t even properly begin. Like all of the modern Zelda games, Skyward Sword kicks off with an extended prologue that serves as an in-game tutorial. Every action illustrates some aspect of the control scheme; every character you speak to offers you some sort of helpful instruction, in a casual-abrasive tone reminiscent of The Truman Show. “Hey, Link! Did you know you can target anything by pressing the Z button?” “Oof, Link, can you help me move these heavy boxes? You can pick up anything by pressing the A button.” “Dude, man, Link, you should be able to climb that wall if you hold A to dash, shouldn’t you? Just sayin’.”

Now, in-game tutorials are always annoying. They exist because kids today are apparently too lazy to read, because back in my day instructional manuals were just fine, grumble grumble crank crank. But Skyward Sword‘s tutorial is specifically annoying, because it seems designed for people who have never played videogames before — indeed, for people who have never conceived that it’s possible to coordinate one’s hands with one’s eyes.

So let’s assume you’re someone who has played videogames before. For that matter, let’s assume that you’ve played at least a couple of Zelda games before. To maintain your sanity, you’ll spend those first five hours focusing on everything except for the gameplay. Is the story interesting? Are the graphics compelling? How’s the music? And in those first few hours, the outlook is dire.

You play as a teenager named Link, a trainee at an Academy for knights located in a cloud-village called Skyloft. When the game begins, you wake up on the day of the Wing Ceremony. See, the citizens of Skyloft all have Loftwings, which are majestic giant birds. (Actually, with its long beak and brightly colored feather, a Loftwing looks a little bit like a gritty anime reinterpretation of Toucan Sam.) To celebrate the Wing Ceremony, there will be a big Loftwing race between the students of the Knights Academy. There’s just one problem/inciting incident: Link’s red Loftwing has gone missing.

So the first couple hours of the game play out like this: You wander around Skyloft, talking to every character — the complete population is about 20 people — on the hunt for your Loftwing. The characters that don’t have helpful controller hints all say some variation on the phrase: “Link, today is the day of the Wing Ceremony! Are you excited? Where’s your Loftwing, Link?” On your meanderings, you meet the class bully, a dude named Groose who I swear to god looks exactly like the gay mohawked biker henchman from The Road Warrior. Groose wants to win the race; he doesn’t think very much of Link; minor conflict is established. Eventually — after learning how to do important things like use a sword and run around, you wander through a cave, and emerge into a clearing, where you see a big red bird locked in a cage.

“No doubt about it!” someone says. “That’s your Loftwing, Link!” Catharsis!

Stuff happens. You get a sword. You set off on an adventure. You go to the surface. Your first destination is a forest level called Faron Woods. Now, when I first saw these woods, it seemed to me that they didn’t look much different from the woods in Ocarina of Time, a game that came out 13 years and two generations of console gameplay ago.

But even worse, as you explore Faron Woods, you start to get the sense that the Zelda games have succumbed to the creeping cuteness of modern Nintendo. The first creatures you meet are the adorable little Kikwi, who are adorably nervous and adorably resemble Disney’s adorable Mr. Mole crossed with those adorable Hello Kitty dolls. When the Kikwi talk, they make a noise that sounds kind of like an adorable British baby trying to say, “No thanks, mummy!” Readers, doesn’t that sound adorable? It was. It was so freaking adorable I wanted to tear my eyes out.

But here’s the most crucially important thing to understand about those first five hours of Skyward Sword: It just feels dreadfully unoriginal. There was a time in videogame history when the industry justified their endless sequels by a system of consistent reinvention. Look at the Super Mario series, which grew in just 11 years from the left-right progression of Super Mario Brothers to the branching paths of Super Mario World to the expansive landscape of Super Mario 64. (By comparison, imagine if cinema comedy had evolved from The Sprinkler Sprinkled to The Gold Rush to Toy Story in a decade instead of a century.)

The Zelda series had a similar evolution. One of the reasons that Ocarina of Time was such a psychic depth charge in videogame history is because the game viscerally moved the basic mechanics of the fantastic early games in the series into a vivid 3D universe. In the process, established a whole new gameplay language for the franchise.

It’s disappointing that, initially, Skyward Sword appears to add nothing new to that language. Characters still don’t talk — the game’s dialogue is presented entirely in text boxes, and text appears one letter at a time, just like in PowerPoint presentations designed by people who are bad at creating PowerPoint presentations. Every member of each species of evil creature looks exactly the same — no attempt is made to differentiate one Bokoblin from another — and they always respawn in exactly the same place. There is still no jump button.

It was here, in Faron Woods around hour four, that I began to really wonder if Skyward Sword was going to achieve the unthinkable: Become a simply mediocre Zelda game. This year, Nintendo is celebrating 25 years of The Legend of Zelda. Even in the sequel-happy world of videogames, that’s a remarkable stretch of popular and critical success. (The only series that’s lasted longer is Nintendo’s other iconic Princess-Recovery franchise.) In the meantime, whole videogame empires have risen and fallen: Sonic the Hedgehog, Doom, Crash Bandicoot, Tomb Raider, the rejuvenated Metroid (which was officially unjuvenated by Other M), the entire Guitar Hero music-game era, the whole notion of video arcades.

Like all media franchises, videogame series inevitably fall victim to bloat. The original creators leave, or stay too long. The original concept gets lost, or becomes too staid. They try to make it edgy, or they try to make it multiplayer. Zelda has survived, but in those early hours of the game, I began to feel a depressing weight. Could it be that Ocarina of Time was really the high-water mark for the series?

III. On the failure of the Nintendo Wii

Skyward Sword does feature one major new control addition: The Wii’s motion-controller functionality. Technically, this debuted in Twilight Princess. But Twilight Princess was a launch title for the console, and the motion controls felt awkward. The game was originally intended for the GameCube, and the Wii version was famously mirrored horizontally — as in, the entire game was flipped on its axis, and west became east — because people hold the Wii remote in their right hand, and Link had always held his sword with his left hand, and the confusion was creating vomit-vertigo.

Actually, the only thing I really remember about the motion controllers in Twilight Princess was that the speaker on the Wii remote would make a sword-slash sound whenever I swung Link’s sword. I played Twilight Princess for a couple frustrating hours with the Wii remote before giving up and digging my GameCube controllers out of the trashcan.

That pretty much sums up my feelings about Nintendo’s kabillions-selling, epoch-redefining, Zamyatin-referencing console. It’s interesting that Skyward Sword is coming out now, because we are fast approaching the end of the Wii era. If everything stays on schedule, Nintendo will get a jump start on the next generation of games next year with the introduction of the Wii U. The Wii U will build on the Wii’s motion-control system. It will also feature a tighter incorporation with Nintendo’s mobile-gaming platforms. Because Skyward Sword is the last major release for the Wii — and because it represents the creative powers of some of the finest minds Nintendo has — it is impossible not to look at this latest Zelda game as the Wii’s closing statement.

Now, I have always wanted to love the Wii. It represents so many wonderful notions that I fully support. The Wii initiated the cultural rejuvenation of Nintendo, rescuing the company from the Great Gamecube Misfire. The Wii is a concrete argument for a third-way choice, separate from the Sony/Microsoft high-tech Arms Race. The Wii represents a welcoming hand outstretched to demographics that the videogame industry used to ignore, like parents and women and people with lives. The Wii offers a hopeful indication that our interaction with computers will become more organic and tactile and won’t always involve using keyboards and controllers that force us to twist our wrists upstream against millions of years of evolution. Best of all, the Wii offers a retcon justification for proto-Wii ridiculousities like the Power Glove and the Virtual Boy. They weren’t shameless cash grabs; they were just failed experiments on the road to glory!

So, like a lot of gamers, I love everything about the Wii except for the actual games. Not that they aren’t fun. But there are fundamentally two types of fun you can have with Wii games, neither of which are particularly rewarding. On one hand, there are games like Wii Party or WarioWare or the satanically successful Wii Sports, which were all fundamentally made to demonstrate the Wii’s motion controls. Science has concluded that games like this are the most fun game you have ever played for exactly one hour, and then they get deathfully repetitive. To a great extent, all of these games are based on a single mechanic — swing the remote sideways like a bat, swing it upwards like a bowling ball.

Once you’ve mastered the mechanic, there’s nothing to really do anymore, except play the game with every single person in your dorm until they all agree that you are the absolute king of Wii Bowling, you douchebag. The cumulative effect of these games is seeing gameplay separated into its bare elements. Imagine if the original Super Mario had been a suite of unrelated mini-games — “Jump,” “Walk,” “Fireball,” and “Shoot the Shell” — and you’ve got Wii Sports, basically.

Now, the counterargument to this is simple: These games aren’t supposed to be particularly deep. They’re supposed to be fun…and most importantly, they’re supposed to be multiplayer. Boom Blox might be pretty boring playing alone, but with three friends, it’s a lot of fun. And that’s fair. But I think that fallback argument — “These games are more fun with other people” — takes you down a dangerous road. We all experience grade inflation when we’re in a big group — that’s why horrible comedies always seem much funnier on the big screen on opening night. Fun is fun, and fun is good, but the success of games like this makes you wonder if the motion-control is for videogames what 3-D has been in movies: A potentially interesting new dimension that quickly becomes a cash-grab populist gimmick.

But let’s say, for argument’s sake, that those games exist in their own special class: One-size-fits-all games that are supposed to be fun for everyone, games that Little Toddler Tommy can play with Ol’ Grampa Grumpy. What else does the Wii have? When you look at the console’s catalogue, you mostly just see one thing: Newer versions of old franchises awkwardly forced to incorporate motion technology. You see Mario Kart Wii, which came with a fun Wii Wheel that was kind of fun until you realized how utterly annoying it was. You see Super Smash Brothers Brawl, another excuse to fish your GameCube controller out of the trash can.

The Wii also has retro-fabulous games like New Super Mario Bros. Wii and Donkey Kong Country Returns. Playing those last two games reminded me a little bit of seeing New Order play “Love Will Tear Us Apart” on the main stage at Coachella, 2005. Now, “Love Will Tear Us Apart” is one of the greatest songs ever written, and the main dudes from New Order all helped to write it when they were in Joy Division. So that Coachella performance was a religious experience for me. But New Order is not Joy Division; they can all sing just fine, but none of them can sing like Ian Curtis.

My enjoyment of New Order’s performance was tempered by the knowledge that I was watching an aging, soon-to-dissolve rock band on a nostalgia-cash reunion tour, and they were taking prime performance real estate from some younger, better band. This is not an unusual story — we live in an era when even the most seemingly inconsequential brands can stretch on for decades.

The great exception is Super Mario Galaxy duology, a pair of indisputably great games that expand the Mario franchise in every direction. But the genius of the Mario Galaxy games only serves to underscore just how profoundly, annoyingly unnecessary the Wii’s whole purpose has become. At the core of the Mario games — when you dig underneath the candy-colored shell of semi-satirical villains and impressionistic landscapes — there is a fascinating precision. When you solve a puzzle or defeat a new enemy or beat a level, the pleasure-center of your brain fires in a way not dissimilar from solving a math problem. This is why, if you’re a particular kind of geek, watching a Super Mario speed-run is just as exciting and energizing as watching a brilliant Football play: There’s the same quality of practice-making-perfect, of geometric concepts becoming excitingly vivid.

The addition of motion-control to the Galaxy games is, at best, inessential. At worst, it runs counter to the entire spirit of the games. By comparison, imagine if an exciting new version of Chess came out where the game-board was floating in a big bowl of water, and you had to move your pieces using a robot claw, and if you accidentally knocked any pieces over then you had to start over with one less pawn. The Wii — and its ilk, the Kinect and the PS3 Move — were created to bring more humanity to videogames. But up until now, the exact opposite has been true: By making the actual game mechanics so frustratingly imprecise, it feels like an evolutionary dead end. Motion-control is just so annoying imprecise. Waving your arm in the air will never be as simple as just tapping the freaking A button.

At least, that’s what I thought until the sixth hour of Skyward Sword.

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IV. On Skyward Sword‘s escalating brilliance

Because right around the sixth hour, you get the Butterfly. It happens in the first major dungeon, north of Faron Woods. You’re inside of a room, and iron bars are covering the only door, and there doesn’t appear to be any way out except for a big hole in the ceiling that’s entirely too high to reach. You get a new item: the Blessed Butterfly. It’s basically a remote-control helicopter. When Link launches it from his wrist, the camera follows behind the Butterfly. You control its flight with the Wii remote, waving it back and forth. You can speed it up or slow it down. It can only fly for a little while — there are upgrades, natch. Functionally, the Butterfly lets you reach hard to reach places. More abstractly, the Butterfly gives you a new perspective on the world. It’s a concrete creation: When you run your Butterfly into a wall, it makes a shrieky-sprtz sound, and you can’t help but feel a little sorry for the thing.

The Butterfly is not the first major item that Link picks up on his journey — earlier, in Skyloft, someone handed you a bug-catching net — but it’s the first indication of what the basic gameplay structure of Skyward Sword will be. When I talked to Dan Houser, one of the main creative people behind the GTA franchise, he described the development of game narrative like this: “The missions tell the story, and the story shows off the features that the missions unlock. The combination of cutscene and action moves the story forward. The next bit of story unlocks the next core mechanic for you to play with. The experience of playing the game is also the same as going through the story.” Skyward Sword follows this formula perfectly. Every level is somehow structured around Link getting a new item…and, crucially, every one of those items incorporates the Wii’s motion controls in a distinctive, unique way. (I’m going to avoid talking about major story points in this review, but in this section, I will talk about a couple of the items, so minor spoiler alert — if you’re someone who likes being surprised about everything, then bless you, this game is awesome, go buy it and play it and check back here when you’re done.)

The Volcano level is predictably explosives-centric — it’s here that you get your bomb bag — but the bomb-throwing mechanic has been updated for the Wii era. If you want to throw a bomb, you hold the Wii remote upwards and make a “throw” movement. But you can also point the Wii remote downwards and roll the bomb. And not just roll it: You can put an angle on it, and give it a little spin. It’s the same basic mechanic that you find in Wii Bowling, but in this case, the mechanic isn’t the entire point: It’s just a small part of an organic experience.

Later in the game, you get a totally awesome whip, a reverse vacuum called a Gust Bellows, and something that’s just like the hookshot except even awesomer. To get really heavy for a second, Orson Welles’ genius in Citizen Kane was not that he recreated the cinematic art. Welles took a whole host of innovations developed over decades — deep-focus photography, high-contrast lighting, the idea of pointing the camera up at people — and brought them all together with a story to perfectly match the style. Something similar is happening in Skyward Sword: Each of the items feels like a perfected version of a mechanic you’ve seen somewhere else. Skyward Sword isn’t the first game to use two controllers to simulate the experience of stringing an arrow in a bow and firing; that was actually one of the only fun things about the PS3’s Sports Champions.

But context is everything. In Sports Champions, archery was a mini-game; in Skyward Sword, it’s one more essential piece of the game’s puzzle. And not to be overlooked: When you played the archery mode in Sports Champions, you were using two separated Move controllers. In Skyward Sword, you’re using a nunchuck that’s actually connected to your Wii remote. It feels slightly more organic to the archery experience. Especially if you happen to be playing the game standing up, which is how I played the vast majority of the last 40 hours of the game. Because, honestly man, when you swing a sword, do you want to be laying back on your couch or standing at attention ready to strike?

And speaking of that sword! Twilight Princess introduced a control scheme whereby you controlled the shield and sword in a rough approximation of how Link held those items: With your right hand, you swung the Wii remote, and Link swung the sword with his right hand; With your left hand, once you earned the Shield Attack Hidden Skill you could shake the nunchuck to reflect projectiles or just hit a dude’s face with your shield.

This system is present again in Skyward Sword, but everything about it has gotten better. For one thing, thanks to the updated Wii MotionPlus system, Link’s sword moves at a rough one-to-one ratio with your remote. If you hold it horizontal, Link’s sword rests that way. If you hold it up and point it to the sky, Link points his sword to the sky, and it charges up for a Skyward Strike. It’s fun to just pull out your sword and swing it around. More importantly, because the developers could be confident in the system, they’ve made the combat system fascinatingly intricate. You attack different villains in different ways. If they’re blocking left, you swing right. Later in the game, when you run afoul of some tall robot laser sentry, you have to cut them down to size and then stab directly into their eye. It becomes like a little dance: swipe the controller left; swipe the controller right, stab the controller towards the TV, and watch the robo-sentry explode.

But the sword is actually far less interesting than the shield. Let’s say you’re walking through Faron Woods, and a pesky octorok suddenly pops up, and fires a rock out of his mouth. (Aside: Am I the only one who thinks that octoroks probably come from the same inbred family tree as Birdo? End of aside.) Now, if you shake your nunchuck/shield at the right time, the rock gets reflected back at the Shrub, and he dies. But if you shake it at the wrong moment, your shield takes the hit and gets damaged.

And — in what I believe is a first for the series — if your shield gets damaged enough, it will break. That happened to me right in the middle of a freaking dungeon. And when I say “break,” I mean like broken, finished, gone, no-f—around, the shield is off the wig, it’s kicked the bucket, it’s shuffled off the mortal coil, it is an ex-shield. If you want a new shield, you have to go all the way back to Skyloft and get it. (You can also repair a shield that’s almost broken…by going all the way back to Skyloft and getting it repaired.) When my shield broke, I raged, I swore, I pulled a total Croyt. And then I realized I was experiencing something that is somewhat lost in videogames now: Genuine difficulty. This game was not kowtowing to me. Sure, it spent five hours on the freaking tutorial — but by god, after that, it was done holding my hand. And if I wasn’t paying attention during those five hours, then too bad. I imagined that the game developers were speaking to me, and what they were saying was: “You don’t want to lose your shield? Then learn to shake the nunchuck at the right time, like a grown-up. Or go play Call of Duty, you pansy.”

It’s not just that Skyward Sword uses the motion controls in an interesting way. This is the first time that the whole notion of motion-control gaming has felt as vivid as Mario’s jump, or Sonic’s spin-charge, or Ryu’s Hadouken. And it’s the first time that those motion-controls have felt absolutely essential to a big, colorful, epic videogame. Skyward Sword is also the first time that the Wii has felt necessary, that the whole notion of motion-control has felt like more than just a casual-gamer come-on; it’s the first time that motion-gaming has felt like more than a dead-end attention-grab.

In the final dungeon of Skyward Sword, you revisit all the environments of the game, and you’re forced to use all your items. It’s a classic gaming trope: “The Last Level as Greatest Hits Album,” where you bring together everything you’ve learned. The final dungeon of Skyward Sword feels like the Wii’s best argument for itself: It’s Wii Sports, if Wii Sports were an actual game and not just a million mini-games. For that reason alone, Skyward Sword is the best game the Wii has ever had.

But I don’t think that’s saying too much. When Nintendo created the Wii — heck, even before, when Nintendo created the GameCube — the company seemed to be stepping aside from the race to create better-looking, more powerful videogames. There was a time when “hardcore gamers” played Nintendo; that time has long since passed, for a number of reasons. Skyward Sword pushes the Wii to its limits, gameplay-wise. But what about the story?

V. On the evolution of videogame storytelling

Around the end of the 1990s, it became accepted doctrine among gamers (who were aging into adulthood and wanted something more) and game designers (who were understandably excited to keep pushing their medium forward) that videogames should become more like movies. Videogame characters began to look more human — or rather, they look like uncannily attractive humans, which is more movielike anyways. They began to speak in dialogue which didn’t sound filtered through an internet translator. There was a legitimate attempt to give videogame characters a genuine Character Arc.

In a sense, this puts videogames ahead of Hollywood, where popular storytelling has steadily devolved. Characters in Hollywood entertainments used to triumph over adversity. Now, most popcorn films are about total badasses who know they’re badass, briefly suspect they aren’t badass, and then realize that they are badass. In his essential tome Blockbuster, Tom Shone points to Top Gun as the starting point for this: A movie that begins by celebrating its hero, “reroutes through a decorous setback or two, and then moves on to full ego gloss.” (You might argue that superhero movies don’t follow this arc, and the good ones don’t. The problem is that superhero sequels almost always follow this arc, which is why Spider-Man 3 and Iron Man 2 and X-Men Origins: Wolverine are unwatchable.)

Quick, what was your big videogame story moment: The game that convinced you that you were experiencing something new — something you could be entirely sure that your parents had never experienced and would probably never understand? That you were actually inside of a movie? For me, it was Metal Gear Solid; for others Resident Evil. At this point, we are living in a golden age of cinematic videogame storytelling. 2011 saw new releases from Assassin’s Creed, Uncharted, and Gears of War, which all tell complicated action-adventure stories that feel vivid and alive and occasionally just bananas, but even then they’re all interesting. You can quibble with all of them: Assassin’s Creed is rife with sci-fi babble. Uncharted might be too wedded to the Indiana Jones myth, right down to the “Threequel Teenage-Flashback Origin Prologue.” Gears of War occasionally feels like Chicken Soup for the Varsity Athlete’s Soul. But just a casual look at the non-Nolan blockbusters makes you realize that, as my colleague Adam B. Vary argued, genuinely compelling escapist narrative is found much more often in videogames than at the movies.

There is another class of videogame storytelling, which could be the wave of the future: Those games that let you blaze your own trail. There are different variations of this format, each offering steadily more freedom. Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto franchise gives you a specific character — always a man — and a basically linear story foundation. But the games’ big attraction is undeniably the ability to explore. Mass Effect lets you create your own character — male or female. The games are fundamentally building to the single goal of Saving The Universe, you can decide exactly what kind of Universe-Saver you want to be: A pacifist or a war hawk, a Woodrow Wilson or a Lyndon Johnson, a Superman or a Wolverine. Fallout lets you decide pretty much everything — there are rumors that you can kill every single person in the world of Fallout: New Vegas, which sounds depressing, but we all go a little mad sometimes.

The week before Skyward Sword hit, another game about magic and medieval weaponry and dragons and noble quests and “Sky[something]” arrived in stores. But The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim is different in every conceivable way from Skyward. Skyrim is an open-world graphics showcase; by comparison, Zelda looks like a secret Lego game. Skyrim lets you create your own character, and clothe them, and personalize them; Zelda puts Link in the same green suit he’s been wearing for 25 years, and this time there’s not even the option to put on a snazzy blue outfit for the water levels. (Admittedly, in deference to tradition, you can name your protagonist anything you want to. But why wouldn’t you name him Link? Don’t be annoying.) Skyrim lets you explore everywhere, mapping your own journey; Skyward, for all the talk about how much more “open” this game would be, is really as straightforward as Zelda games always are: The main quest is very linear; the sub-quests are short and sweet, and they only open up gradually as you do the main quest, so in a sense they’re just as linear.

You could argue that Skyrim represents years of gaming evolution that Zelda has essentially ignored. The Zelda franchise predates The Elder Scrolls by eight years. It’s not impossible to imagine a Fringe universe next to ours, where Nintendo stayed in the arms race. Where, instead of the GameCube, they released a massive DVD-powered mega-console: let’s call it the MegaGameBox2000. Where the Zelda franchise integrated American-style gameplay, with branching decision paths and moral ambiguity and the ability to play as a woman and a jump button. Where Skyward is basically Skyrim.

But what if Zelda never actually had to evolve? Heck, what if everything we have come to understand about videogame evolution was a little bit more complicated. Another movie analogy: When you watch Buster Keaton’s The General, you don’t feel the lack of sound. If anything, you start to realize that something may have been lost when sound came to the movies. Keaton couldn’t fall back on sound effects to carry the viewer, the way that all modern filmmakers can. (See this great video by film analyst Jim Emerson, which notes the visual hazard of Dark Knight car chase, which is only really made sensible by a crack team of overworked sound designers. Not that I’m insulting Dark Knight, mind you. I’m just saying Buster Keaton was making better action scenes 80 years ago.)

There’s been a recent Renaissance of brilliant retro-style games which use the mythic abstraction of early NES to tell haunting stories. Look at Braid, which explicitly reconfigures Super Mario Brothers as a Freudian repression dream. (It might also be about the nuclear bomb, why not.) Limbo is a side-scrolling puzzler that is maybe 1/10th the length of Red Dead Redemption, but Limbo is exactly perfect for what it is — whereas, with Red Dead Redemption, you notice when some of the dozens of subplots are boring, or when the voice actors are hamming it up.

Maybe Red Dead Redemption is a bad example. Videogames of that size are less like movies than like TV shows, and no TV show is perfect. (And very, very few TV shows have endings as good and tough and weird as Red Dead Redemption.) So let’s take another example from Rockstar Games: L.A. Noire. Here’s a game that is, in many ways, the absolute pinnacle of what we think we want from videogame storytelling. High-tech graphics that made the game’s characters look more realistic than ever; decision-tree storytelling that forces you to make decisions and stick with them; a big open world to drive around in. And yet, the experience of playing L.A. Noire is complicated: Waves of awe and frustration pass over you constantly.

You have to credit the game for attempting to push the boundaries of storytelling. But what if videogame storytelling doesn’t need to push the boundaries? What if videogame storytelling doesn’t need emotional complexity — or rather, what if the emotional complexity is provided not by the game’s developer, but by the player?

What if — as in Braid, and Limbo — all you really need in a videogame is someone to chase after?

VI. On Zelda and Zelda

I lied just a little bit when I said there was nothing interesting about Skyward‘s first five hours. There is one single saving grace in that early period: One thing that kept me going through interminable swing-your-remote study sessions. Or rather, one person.

All of the main games in the Zelda tell roughly the same story. Zelda is a princess who is somehow involved in a horrible potentially world-ending catastrophe; Link is the hero who has to solve her problem. This might seem old-fashioned, and in the early games, Zelda is really just a damsel in distress. In the first game, she’s basically Princess Leia figure kidnapped by a Darth Vader figure who needs a Luke Skywalker to rescue her — except that implies that she has some spunk, or verve, or indeed any character traits whatsoever. (Hey, it was the freaking primordial era.) In Zelda 2: The Adventure of Link, the Link from the first game rescues a different Zelda (don’t ask) from a “Sleeping Beauty” coma. Again, she’s a non-character. In A Link to the Past, she’s kidnapped, saved, and kidnapped again.

Ocarina of Time changed everything. When you meet Zelda in Ocarina, she’s the only person in Hyrule who’s suspicious of that evil-looking Ganondorf guy. She’s smart. She’s interesting. She’s the first person you meet outside of your fairy-village home that trusts you. So she sends you on a quest. Later, Ocarina famously shifts forward seven years. Zelda is nowhere to be seen. But, in this dystopian future, you meet a dude named Sheik, a total badass who kind of looks like a Bedouin ninja cyborg, the kind of character who you imagine was only left out of Super Street Fighter 2 because Dee Jay had a good agent. Sheik appears to know everything: he is constantly appearing places before Link arrives, and teaching Link songs, and then pulling a Batman and disappearing. Sheik is so much obviously cooler than Link.

I wouldn’t say that it was really a shock when you found out that Sheik was actually Zelda in disguise. But that double role complicates our understanding of Zelda: She’s no longer the delicate damsel flower. (Aside: There is an enjoyably active debate in online forums about whether Zelda is merely pretending to be a man or actually transforming into a man using magic, which is boundless fodder for gamer feminists and slash-fiction enthusiasts. End of aside.)

Sheik has never reappeared in the Zelda franchise — although he/she is a freaking beast in Smash Brothers — but that alter ego informs Zelda’s appearance in Wind Waker, where she’s incarnated as a cool pirate girl. The Zelda of Twilight Princess is less interesting — that game’s other princess steals the show. But all the Zeldas of the later games are united in one key way: They all appear to have their own mission, and they are all considerably smarter and more aware than Link is. You get the sense that there is a great game to be made about all these Zeldas…

The great invention of Skyward Sword is that Zelda is not a princess. And she’s not a badass ninja. When you first meet her, she is just a normal girl. But that makes her sound boring. She’s a genuine character. The whole Skyloft sequence is designed around by Link’s interaction with his best friend: Zelda. You have a nightmare about her in the prologue; she sends her big bird to wake you up; she helps you look for your lost Loftwing. For the first time ever, the two of them aren’t united by a common threat. They’re united by the fact that they grew up together. They’re united by the fact that they’re friends.

Except — and here’s the brilliance — Zelda is much more interesting than Link. From the ambient talk, you get the sense that this version of Link is a bit lazy — a kid who never tries very hard, who oversleeps, who doesn’t have any dreams. (Even the class bully, Groose, sound oddly paternal when he’s making fun of Link: “Would you wake up, straighten up, and grow a backbone already?”)

Zelda is all drive, all dreams. (At one point, she asks you: “Have you ever wondered…what’s beneath the clouds?”) She keeps on insisting that you win the Wing Ceremony, and her insistence is pretty much the only thing that makes the freaking Wing Ceremony actually seem worthwhile. She has a big part to play in the Wing Ceremony, you see. She will take the role of the Goddess, according to ritual, and bestow the blessing of the Goddess upon the winner of the Loftwing race, as is tradition, and receiving the blessing means you get to spend some time alone with Zelda. And she wants to be alone with you.

Now, the earlier Zelda games had the barest hint of romance, if only because the fantasy genre was inherently romantic before George R.R. Martin smeared beautiful bloody mud all over it. Here, though, the hints are so clear that no one could possibly miss the signals except for every single teenaged boy. Zelda badly wants you to win the Wing Ceremony, because you’ll get to hang out alone. When she reacts angrily on the search for the Loftwing, someone tells her: “Honestly, it’s like you become a completely different person when Link is around!”

Later, after you win the ceremony, you and Zelda stand together on top of the statue of the goddess. “Now, we really should finish up this ritual,” she says, moving closer to you — and here, the camera is looking right at her, so she’s looking at you — you-you, not Link-you, if you get what I’m saying. She half-smiles, and says: “You…you do know what happens at the end…right?” You can select one of three responses: “Sort of…” “Nope” or “Uh-oh.” No matter what you say, she takes one step closer to you. There is a long moment where Link and Zelda look into each other’s eyes.

Then she laughs and says, “You have to jump!” And then she teaches you how to use your Sailcoth (“Press B!”), and soon she’s fallen to the world below and you spend the next few dozen hours chasing her, but it’s hard to forget that moment. It’s about as close to genuine romantic heat as Nintendo has ever gotten. It’s kind of lovely.

 

You could argue that Zelda is just another technical contrivance — another character telling you how to use your controller. Other videogames have done their best to create genuine adult romances. The Mass Effect franchise is particularly good at this — in Mass Effect 2, you can start a romance with practically anyone on your crew. Here’s how you start a romance: After every mission, just go and talk to every character on your crew, and don’t say anything that will completely piss them off, and by the last level you have your pick of women/men/asexual creatures. It’s a system. Tap A to flirt. Tap B to ask him about his daddy issues. Rotate the controller to play hard-to-get.

It’s a testament to the greatness of Mass Effect that the “romance” game is fun. But at times, it also feels reductive. By comparison, the romance of Skyward Sword feels all-encompassing precisely because — at a certain point — Zelda is a little unknowable. She isn’t in the game very much. You’re constantly just missing her. But her presence is everywhere. She is never far from your thoughts. She is Link’s entire reason for being.

Now, this might all sound mawkish — and it kind of is. Maybe the Zelda games don’t need Zelda. As a counterargument, I would point you to The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, the second game in the series released on the N64. If Ocarina of Time moved the series into the 3D universe, Majora’s Mask pushed that universe to the brink. In Ocarina, Link met different creatures; in Majora’s, Link could become those creatures. In Ocarina, Link could control the passage of time; in Majora’s, Link was controlled by time, because every three days the moon would destroy the world and Link would have to flash back to the beginning. Majora’s was one of the few games to require the N64 Expansion Pak, along with Perfect Dark — and if you’re a hardcore gamer, those two games represent the final pinnacle of Nintendo’s pre-GameCube success.

In almost every way, Majora’s was a better game than Ocarina. Except that I don’t know anyone who loves the game, and I think that — when you get by complaints about the time limit — there’s one simple reason: It’s the only modern Zelda game that doesn’t actually feature Zelda. The stakes should be higher than ever: Link is literally saving the world! But nothing and no one in Majora’s Mask captivates you the way that Zelda can captivate you.

There’s a big payoff with Zelda which I’ll leave you to find out — I cried, though in my defense it was 3 a.m. and I’m only a little older than the Zelda franchise so a lot of my life was wrapped up in this game. I realize that I’m making the game sound almost unbearably masculine, and it kind of is. Thematically speaking, Skyward Sword is the story of a boy and a girl who are friends. The girl is called away on a great mission, and from the start is more aware of the boy — recall that girls go through puberty earlier than boys do. The rest of the game, then, is about the boy playing catch-up. Skyward Sword is about nothing less than the journey to manhood.

VII. On the Spirit World and Skyloft

I’m focusing so much on the early part of the game for three reasons: because the early part establishes everything great about Skyward Sword; because I’d prefer not to spoil the surprises for you; and because this review is already a freaking tome. But I do want to talk about a brilliant aspect of Skyward Sword that only really becomes clear late in the game: the incredible density of the game’s world. Now, everything I was saying earlier about Faron Woods was true. The graphics are not particularly interesting. The dialogue is mostly functional. If the characters have a problem, Link can always solve it. And there’s the cuteness: The horrible, horrible cuteness.

And yet…and yet…the world of Skyward Sword gradually begins to feel unexpectedly vibrant, and lush, and alive, and even emotionally complicated. For me, the real A-Ha moment came in Lanayru desert: The third major location of the game. The desert is an empty wasteland, filled with ruins and quicksand and oddly-shaped skulls and curious rotting statues that almost seem to talk. It is patrolled by giant sand crabs who live inside of electrified shells — they are kind of funny and yet utterly terrifying. The music is haunting, ancient, with a mournful woodwind.

But as you wander through the desert, you find glowing diamonds called Timeshift stones. And when you activate those stones, the area immediately around them is transformed. The ruins become colorful, spotless works of high-tech architecture; the sand becomes a lush green; the oddly-shaped skulls become enemy attackers; the curious rotting statues become chirpy little robots. You are standing in the distant past. When you’re inside a past-zone, the music changes, becoming faster, peppier, more like Conan the Barbarian and less like Lord of the Rings — it suddenly sprouts a percussion section. (Aside: The fact that the distant past is apparently more high-tech than the present is strange, and terrifying. It’s reminiscent of the ruins in Shadow of the Colossus, or the occasional hint that the fun-fun world in Cartoon Network’s Adventure Time is actually a post-apocalyptic environment. Both of those works, masterpieces of their form, are indebted to Zelda. End of Aside.)

The sense of worlds lurking within the apparently simple world permeates the game. In Skyward Sword, you will constantly revisit old areas and discover new things. Each of the main maps — Faron Woods, Eldin Volcano, and Lanayru Desert — actually has to serve three purposes. There is the Initial Exploration: Walk around, meet the locals, find the temple. There is the Intensive Investigation: Find a secret passageway, use the tools you’ve acquired to find places you couldn’t reach before, circle back around to the locals for more sub-quest fun. And then there are the Spirit Trials: A series of mini-games that send you into a dark-world version of each of the maps. In the Spirit Trials, you are stripped of your weapons, and you’re given a time limit to pick up a smattering of magical glowing things. Twist: Inside of the dark world, there are horrifying invincible monsters that will attack you…and if they hit you even a little bit, you have to start the trial all over.

These time trials occupy a relatively small part of the game. If you’re a stud like me, you’ll finish them on their first or second try. (Okay, I got the last Spirit Trial on my fifth attempt.) But they are probably the most thrilling and most terrifying portions of Skyward Sword. Here again, you can almost here the videogame developers whispering in your ear: “Oh, you don’t think it’s fair that you have to start from the beginning? Well, maybe you should go play a flashy cool PlayStation game that autosaves. You pansy.”

In a sense, Skyward Sword is constructed to be one big sneak attack: Just when you think you’ve explored everything, it shifts your perspective. Nowhere is this more evident than in the tiny town where you begin the game. Now, Skyloft does not initially seem like much of a village. There are perhaps two dozen characters who inhabit the place. Compare that to the massive city environments that have become de rigueur in other games: The hundreds of non-playables who inhabit open-world games, with thousands of pages of unique dialogue voiced by a battalion of actors.

Here’s the funny thing, though. I love open-world games. I love exploring them. I love how the best ones steadily guide you, so that you simultaneously have the feeling of a post-modern sense of discovery and a classical sense of narrative. And yet, with every open-world game, there is a point — usually around the 30th hour — when it all starts to feel a bit exhausting. I loved playing Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. In some ways, that may be the game that most influenced my personality, since it introduced me to ’80s music. (Certainly, it’s the game that most influenced my high school Physics grade, which was not good.) I’m not sure if I’ve ever had more pure fun in a videogame than I did driving down the boardwalk in a Cheetah with “Your Love” by the Outfield blasting out of my fake speakers.

But there is something about open-world games that feel a little bit like an intense relationship: You love them, and then things begin to go south, and there comes a point when it just starts to feel enervating. I remember the feeling of driving around Vice City after I ran out of story, and feeling drained. There were no more surprises. The same errant street dialogue kept repeating. Vice City was huge, but it felt empty.

Skyloft is very small. I would imagine that, in gamespace, it is roughly 1/100000th the size of your average open-world city. But by the end of the game, you feel like you know every corner of Skyloft: Every person, every tree, every distinctive musical note.

Let me explain. At a certain point of the game, you hear some disturbing news: Kukiel, a local annoying child, has gone missing. No one knows where he is. You ask around. You hear that the kid was playing by the graveyard. At the local pub, an old drunk tells you that he once saw a monster by that graveyard. You do some digging around. You find a secret entrance that takes you down to a curious house at the bottom of Skyloft. You hear a scream, and run inside…and a horrible bat creature that looks like ‘Night on Bald Mountain’ is attacking Kukiel, AHHHHH!

Except that the creature is actually not a monster at all. Well, he is French — the guy’s name is “Batreaux” —  and he does have horrible wings and a freaky face. But he doesn’t want to scare people. He just wants to be normal. He asks you to help him. He tells you that the only thing that can transform him is a collection of Gratitude Crystals, which will only appear if you help out the people of Skyloft.

This is ridiculously silly. It also becomes one of the best parts of the game. Over the course of the game, you keep on returning to Skyloft to talk to people. Every person in the village has a problem to solve. A henpecked father can’t sleep, because he lost his baby’s toy and now the kid won’t get to sleep. A local guy hasn’t seen his sister in awhile, and he’s worried. One of your classmates has written a love poem to another classmate, but he’s too nervous to deliver it. A local swordsman wants you to find out who is daughter is in love with…which is problematic, because the daughter is in love with you.

A few of these mini-quests actually feature genuine decision trees. I especially enjoyed the one about the lovesick classmate: It turns out that the object of his affection actually loves another guy. To complicate matters further, there’s a weird hand in the toilet asking you for a piece of paper, and the only paper you have is the love-poem note. Decisions, decisions! (I recommend saving frequently on Skyloft.)

But even the more binary quests — find this, do that, rescue her — are surprisingly resonant. When I earlier accused Skyward Sword of cuteness, I was only judging the very early part of the game. Every character in Skyloft experiences a state of chaos at some point, and your job as Link is to bring order to their lives. That might sound simple. It also sounds a little bit like the million side-quests in Majora’s Mask, where every freaking person in Termina seemed to have an important mask that they’d give you if you could just do that one little thing for them.

But something in the whole equation of the Skyloft quest — because that’s what it is, not just a million mini-games but a genuine complete narrative — feels more slyly profound. At a certain point, Link’s role in Skyloft is similar to Bill Murray’s in Groundhog Day. In that movie, Murray’s character does not achieve something great; instead, his achievement comes from making the lives of his fellow people a little bit better, in a million different ways.

Again, I refer to Houser: “There’s no intrinsic reason why pressing a button to make someone sweep a floor should be more or less boring than pressing a button to make someone fly a helicopter. It’s still a mechanic. We look upon it as: If you make the peripheral stuff — the characterization, the dialogue — interesting, you can make seemingly the most boring mechanic fun.” There is a mini-game in Skyloft where you’re literally cleaning up a floor — using your gust bellows to blow away dust — and it’s incredibly fun. (Aside: You’re cleaning the floor for a local woman, a lonely housewife who doesn’t like doing household chores, the mother of one of your schoolmates, who is always happy to see you. If, by some chance, you happen to point your gust bellows at the mom, she makes an orgasmic sound. It is undeniably the weirdest moment in a videogame this year. End of Aside.)

The Skyloft/Batreaux quest represents an attempt to gameify small town life. It’s as fun as the more action-packed parts of Skyward Sword, and arguably more rewarding. Unmotivated cuteness is horrifying; cuteness that’s backed by genuine emotion looks a lot like quiet human grace. (Compare Care Bears to Toy Story 3 — see what I mean?) Late in the game, I happened to talk to those cute little forest creatures, the Kikwi. One of them told me, anxiously, that he was scared of the monsters in the forest…that he was scared of everything, really.

He said: “One day it would be nice to go for a relaxing walk.”

Most games are about a hero’s rise to glory; Skyward Sword is about a guy who makes the world a safe place for relaxing walks. So okay, you stupid Kikwi. You’ve won me over.

VIII. Miscellany

There are so many other wonders in Skyward Sword. The music is a boundless pleasure. I recently got into an argument with fellow gamer Keith Staskiewicz about what constitutes great game music: He prefers the more instrumental tunes of the post-1995 era, while I love the steady syncopated repetition of classic game music. (I could listen to the Mega Man II Game Boy soundtrack on repeat for hours. I have. I am right now.) Skyward Sword splits the difference: Philip Glassian rhythms like the Lanayru Mining Facility mix with big instrumentals like the Sky Theme, which is as energetic as anything in Shadow of the Colossus. (There are also audio references to other iconic Zelda tracks. You will get emotional.)

And the dialogue, which initially seems so simple, seems to become more wry as the game progresses. When your fairy-robot companion is telling you about a new enemy, a zombie goblin thing, she says: “It’s able to reanimate purely through its hatred of this world…and its attachment to outlandish underpants.” (Terry Pratchett would be so proud.) When you enter an undersea world, if you happen to talk to one of the weird little squid-topus creatures, he’ll mumble about how another squid-topus creature is always brown-nosing the local squid-topus queen. He advises you not to associate with yes-men, but this is how he says it: “Nothing good comes of hanging out with a fin-kissing Parella.” What?

And there are in-jokes for the Zelda crowd. At the Wing Ceremony, the principal of the Knights’ Academy says they’re celebrating the school’s 25th year. Much later, a dragon who doesn’t like your name will offer you a new one: “LD-Link-16.” (Skyward Sword is the 16th Zelda title, if you count all the various mobile-games — Oracle of Seasons, The Minish Cap, Spirit Tracks, etc. I didn’t play any of those games, because I don’t own any portable game consoles, because I’m a grown-up person with big-kid games to play. No, no, I kid. But seriously, turn six.)

There is a lot about Skyward Sword that is great, but there’s one final moment I want to share with you. Late in the game, you’re back in the desert, and you come across a massive landscape. It used to be an ocean; now it’s a barren waste. But you find a boat with a Timeshift stone, and when you activate it, the boat’s robot captain comes back to life. He asks you to help him find his ship.

So you set off into the wasteland. But because the boat has a timeshift stone, the area immediately around the ship is always water. As you approach a dead rock, it suddenly becomes a lush little island, with flowers and butterflies. As you ride away, it becomes a dead rock again. All around you, as far as you can see, is death and rotting; but for a tiny circumference around your boat, it’s a lovely ocean. I don’t think I’ve experienced a more serene moment in a videogame in years.

Boys Don't Cry: The Kobal Collection

IX. On the Ocarina thing.

So we return to the question: Can a Zelda game be better than Ocarina of Time? And is Skyward Sword that game?

I have two major gripes with Skyward Sword, both of which are informed by Ocarina. First, there is the matter of the Goddess’ Harp, the only item in Skyward Sword that strikes me as an outright failure. The Harp initially seems like a grand-nephew of the Ocarina: It’s another musical instrument, and pivotal moments involve Link learning new songs to play on the Harp.

Now, the Ocarina tunes from Ocarina of Time are maybe the most fondly-remembered music tracks in videogame history. At least once in your life, you or someone you know will randomly walk up to a piano and start playing Zelda’s Lullaby, or Epona’s song, or the Song of Storms. In some ways, the medium most similar to videogames is music: In both cases, “playing” involves learning the basic mechanics, until you can excel at them, and then moving on to something harder.

Now, someone desperately needs to make an awesome motion-control game out of music, if only to rescue us from the horrors of Wii Music. (Child of Eden came close, but here again we come across the great motion-control problem: A product that’s not so much a videogame as an interesting gameplay mechanic in search of a videogame.) Unfortunately, playing your Harp basically comes down to waving your Wii controller in the air back and forth, trying to keep time with an undulating circle onscreen. You would have imagined that the nunchuck would have come into play, or that part of playing the Harp would have involved pointing at notes onscreen, or Jesus, that playing the harp would have been interesting in any way. After you stumble your way through each new song, there’s a big exciting moment: “You learned the song of the forest/the mountain/the goddess!” All you can do is stare exasperatedly at the screen and say, “No I didn’t!”

(Aside: That being said, there is one great moment with the Harp in the game. It comes in one of those Skyloft side-quests, and it’s such a fascinating one-off that I can only assume that a group of Nintendo interns were thrown the job of constructing the side-quest as a bit of Charlie Work and decided to make it freaking awesome. You’ve been doing some work for the owner of the Lumpy Pumpkin, a sky-pub that makes great Pumpkin soup — you owe him money, because you rolled into his walls so hard that you made his chandelier fall over. It’s tough being a small-business owner in this economy. As your last bit of work, he asks you to play the Harp while his daughter sings. The twist: He basically tells you to just improvise, go with the flow, play to the audience, like they do in Treme. So, while his lovely daughter sings a lovely song, you stare at the two bar patrons, and as they sway back and forth, you follow them with the Wii remote. It’s hard to explain and it’s kind of goofy — here’s video — but it’s also really fun, and it suggests that, if nothing else, the Zelda team is onto something that might get awesome when the next Zelda game hits. End of aside.)

My other gripe with Skyward Sword is the final boss. (Minor spoilers only relating to non-narrative gameplay in this paragraph, but didn’t I tell you not to keep reading earlier if you don’t like spoilers?) Ocarina ended with one of the great boss fights. You began fighting the human-sized-but-incredibly-powerful Ganondorf in his castle; once you defeated him, Ganondorf transformed into the massive dinosaur-sized Ganon. You had to use all the skills you’d accrued: Your shield, your sword, your bow and arrow.

The final boss in Skyward Sword is, by comparison, a bit of a letdown. He looks terrifying — he’s essentially the embodiment of everything that is evil — but the setting is bland. And given how steadily layered the gameplay in Skyward Sword is — how everything in the rest of the game seems to accumulate — it’s not hard to imagine a more epic showdown, a fight that would have involved all those items. Instead, the final fight basically comes down to shaking your shield-nunchuck at just the right moments.

And yet, the fight is hard. I died several times and had to reload my last save several times, and I finally only defeated the guy with a couple hearts left. I will give the developers credit for sticking to their guns about the motion control: The final battle may be simple, but it’s entirely based on the rhythms of the Wii Remote and the nunchuck. It’s a stripped-down battle.

Here’s what I will say: Ocarina of Time has one of the great videogame endings. After you’ve rescued the future, Zelda sends you back to the past. The credits roll; you see everyone from the game celebrating. But after the credits, there’s more. Link appears in the Temple of Time, young again, looking dazed. He runs away from the Master Sword. He runs back to the Castle — back to the courtyard, where he first saw Zelda. She turns around, looks at him. Does she recognize him? Or has the entire timeline been erased? Is this them meeting again for the first time? The camera cuts out to a long shot, with Zelda on one side and Link on the other. They stand there motionless. And the shot suddenly freezes, fades to sepia, fades to legend. “The End.”

Readers, Skyward Sword‘s ending is better.

X. On Videogames, Redux

Why do we play videogames? For me, the answer has changed. When I played Ocarina of Time for 40 hours or so in the late ’90s, I was just a kid, and like so many suburban kids who grew up comfortable, I had no real sense of struggle. I was not skeptical or even particularly thoughtful about the culture that I experienced — every movie or TV show or videogame was either the absolute best or the complete worst. I had never fought for anything, unless you count fighting boredom at school. I did not know what it was like to fall in love. I did not know what it was like to have facial hair. The most dangerous thing I had ever done was buy a ticket for a PG-13 movie (Forces of Nature) so I could sneak into an R movie (The Mod Squad.) Besides school and sports, I didn’t have anything to do — and I was quiet in school and bad at sports, so I guess in a funny way, Ocarina of Time sometimes felt a bit more vivid for me than my own life. It was an escape.

When I played Skyward Sword for 50 hours or so in November 2011, I was an adult — cynical, old enough to have started forgetting some of the best experiences of my life, troubled by the same things that are troubling everyone in these miserable days, and also troubled by unique things in the same way that we are all troubled by things we can never entirely explain to anyone else. As much as I love videogames, I sometimes feel that I don’t have the time for them — that I’d be better served spending 50 hours watching 10 great movies, reading a couple good books, or just going outside and living life. I look at the real world now the way that I used to look at Hyrule in Ocarina of Time: As a place full of wonder, a map to be explored.

Maybe “escape” is still the essential appeal of very long, single-player videogames. The real world is so confusing. But the very best videogames offer the player the same thing that all great works of art conjure: A sense of seeing the world in a new way, a renewed perspective on your own life. They make real life less confusing.

When we played Ocarina of Time a decade ago, we were like little Link, the boy from the forest setting off on a big adventure. Now, playing Skyward Sword, we’ve become the older Link, set adrift in a mad world. All the Zelda games are about personal growth, the move from innocence to experience. Skyward Sword makes that arc more vivid than any game in the series before it. Like the Harry Potter books or the Before Sunrise movies, this is a franchise that is aging right along with its audience, becoming more profound and more melancholy and tougher with every new installment.

After the ending, a message popped up. The game asked me if I wanted to replay Skyward Sword in Hero Mode. I said “Yes.” The game asked me if I was sure. It was going to overwrite everything I had done. All the bosses would come back to life; all the found items would become lost again; all problems I’d solved in Skyloft would be unsolved. I had spent 50 hours bringing order to the world of Skyward Sword. Now it would descend back into chaos.

I said “Yes.” In a year or so, I’ll play Hero Mode. The game will be harder. As you get older, everything gets harder. And isn’t that part of the fun?

Grade: A

Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich

Read more:

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