In a way The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword has very little riding on it: the Wii has already enjoyed huge success, with a library of critically acclaimed Nintendo games selling millions around the world. Its motion controls — dubbed a 'revolution' back in 2005 — have arguably inspired competitor formats to adopt their own kinetic controllers, yet no title on Kinect or PlayStation Move can hold a candle to the artistry of Skyward Sword.
So much of the pre-release discussion centred on the MotionPlus-powered combat, and it doesn't disappoint: the add-on lets you slash in eight cardinal directions and stab with a forward lunge, but it's Nintendo's manipulation of these attack options that most impresses. At first you'll easily overcome a Bokoblin's weak parries; later its defences are electrified, upping the risk and slowing the pace of combat. Enemies grow in size, strength and attack pattern complexity, but each succumbs to a keen eye and articulate wrist: opponents are small physical puzzles to conquer, transforming combat into a more calculated pursuit than ever before.
MotionPlus isn't just a way to make the sword fights more engaging though: it informs the game's entire design, from transportation to inventory management. Real-time item selection is intuitive, with no need for the Remote's infra-red pointer, and using them is just as satisfying: Wii Sports Resort fans will relish the opportunity to put their archery skills to a real challenge, and rolling bombs, twisting your wrist to curl the shot, is a small but joyful touch. Other items call to mind past Nintendo titles — not necessarily Zelda — as if the game is a culmination of years of Nintendo design and ideas, all brought to new life by motion controls.
Link himself is revitalised too: newly athletic, he dashes up steep inclines and scrabbles up walls to grab switches, a stamina gauge limiting his exertions. He's also more expressive than many of his other incarnations, except perhaps his Wind Waker interpretation: ever silent, his facial expressions and gestures lend him personality, and facial close-ups when entering a dungeon find perfect moments of courage that sum up Link over the ages.
Skyward Sword also superbly stirs the spirit of adventure and heroism that defines the series: in and out of combat, no other series makes you feel as heroic. Forget whistling for a horse or sailing the sea in a big red boat: leaping off an airborne island and being whisked off by a giant red bird is the only way to get around. Skyloft is a compact set of floating islands that smartly uses the extra vertical space to give a sense of exploration without ever feeling vast and empty, a problem that's sometimes blighted previous series entries. Most brilliant is the treasure system: in a smart inversion of Wind Waker's aquatic chests, artefacts found on the surface send treasure up to Skyloft, often on islands where smaller puzzles stand between you and the prize.
This meshing of sky and surface extends to the three main areas on solid land: Eldin Volcano, Lanayru Desert and Faron Woods. Whereas previous Zelda titles send you to each area once or perhaps twice, you'll continually revisit these locales with a new objective or item, keeping exploration focused and concise. The boundaries between field and dungeon are more blurred too: fields aren't just areas to travel across, but often provide as many challenges and as much combat as any temple. It would have been easy to produce a wide world of places you only visit once, but instead there’s content stacked up high, letting you drill down through the layers to reveal something new each time.
The areas justify repeat visits, too: Lanayru Desert is one of the most stunning landscapes the series has ever produced, an audacious concept at its centre providing breathtaking moments of creativity, themes that unite the series coming together in a series of stunning puzzles. That's to say nothing of the final dungeon, an incredible piece of ingenuity even by Nintendo standards.
The smaller number of areas and the ease with which you travel sews everything together tightly. New to Skyward Sword is the addition of save points in the form of bird statues which also function as warp points of sorts; find one in a field and you can head straight back to the sky, but most pleasing is the ability to do the opposite. When you dive into an area you can select a previously accessed statue as your starting point, whittling away unnecessary legwork and repetition: a seemingly small change, but one that makes a huge improvement. This approach to dungeons sums the game up perfectly: each return visit reveals something different to do, putting a new spin on familiar territory.
It's not just the refined structure and motion controls that freshen the experience: the new graphical style makes Twilight Princess look drab and dingy by comparison, and rarely has the Wii performed better. Using a brush stroke effect to dapple distant objects and areas isn't just a smart way to work around the Wii's limitations: it's a subtly beautiful effect that shows high definition isn't the be-all and end-all. Flying towards Skyloft to see its mottled landmarks come into clear detail is a breathtaking moment, and the texture work, palette and use of light and shade throughout is second to none: liquids glisten like in Super Mario Galaxy, and there are even spots for you to take a seat and admire the view.
Accompanying the visuals is a rich and expressive score, the central melody rousing and versatile enough to rival the series' famous theme. Composition has always been a Zelda strong point, but as with the visuals it's the way music is deconstructed and deployed that impresses: arrangements subtly change as you explore Skyloft's gardens and bazaar, for instance. Use of a real orchestra for the first time in the series elevates the audio to another level; a better expression of Hajime Wakai and team's audio compositions, just as the graphical style enhances the game's visual design.
Most importantly, though, Skyward Sword feels new: as the very beginning of the official timeline it's got scope to introduce or ignore elements that later games rely on. This is no retread of past glories: familiar species are limited to one or two, augmented by a cast of new characters that create new memories instead of playing on old ones. Similarly, puzzles mostly escape the series' fondness for repetition: there's no torch-lighting, no statue-pushing and absolutely no sliding blocks over ice. There are still familiar elements, of course — when you see an eye in Zelda, it can only mean one thing — but they're repurposed and refined, maintaining the ability to surprise.
Bosses reflect this approach too: the second blends Gohma and Dodongo but comes up with something new and genuinely exciting. Repeated battles against the demonic Lord Ghirahim also switch up the formula each time, but each maintains its focus on sword fighting skill, with the final match-up as intense and demanding as any in the series. The end boss — while doing our best to remain spoiler-free — is a fitting climax for the game and start to the rest of the series.
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is a game of stunning creativity: the work of master craftsmen and women, it's a breathtaking technical achievement in many ways, with subtly beautiful visuals and audio blending with rampantly imaginative design. It's as good a Zelda game as we've ever played, and one that fully delivers on the revolution Nintendo promised back in 2005.