What Skyward Sword could have done better

After 50 hours, I finally beat the main quest of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. The much anticipated latest chapter of the Zelda series fails to disappoint, further supported by the universal acclaim.
Like A Link To The Past and The Ocarina of Time, this game finally sees a true major revision to the series, this time with [highly-approximated] 1-to-1 motion controls (Note: I consider that the intermediate games, including Wind Waker [WW] and Twilight Princess [TP], simply introduced minor revisions to the OoT engine and framework).

Rather than rave about what this game did right (you can read that just about anywhere), I thought I'd focus on what it did differently and what it could have done better. However, unlike websites that have offered trivial complaints (Really? You're upset with an adventure RPG with fetch quests?), I'll offer the perspective of a Nintendo gamer that has seen how the series has progressed, as opposed to a critical industry reviewer that expects more of a game in the high-definition age.

First, here is a recap of five complaints I don't think were well-warranted:

1. The game has too many fetch quests. That's a pretty big staple of role-playing games, and it's through this sort of exploration that you learn about the environment. True, at times it can be a bit annoying to realize 'I'm done. Oh wait, but there's more', but in the grand scheme, that's the idea behind dungeons, only through interaction with non-player characters (NPCs) and their environments.

2. Too much revisiting past areas. One of the recurring comments I've read is that the game is 'dense'. Before playing, I didn't quite get what that meant, but it gradually made sense to me. One aspect is that each area has multiple sections and requires multiple trips, but each time you learn find something new, either discovering uncharted territory or having the environment manipulated in some way (I'll get into other aspects of its 'density' in a bit)

3. Not enough open areas. Some might call that lazy; I call that genius. Instead of the sprawling, empty environments of WW or TP, you have compact, busy environments with lots to do and directions to go (compare this to, say, Final Fantasy XIII's long, linear pathways). It really takes the game into three dimensions as you explore areas vertically. Though I miss the openness of Hyrule Field, with the sky (much akin to WW's waters), I think what they did here fits the game well.

4. Motion controls aren't 1:1. Well, they aren't really meant to be true one-to-one. I've heard complaints about re-calibrating, but I never had to do more than the requisite once per session. The motion controls are spot on and even have some flexibility -- you really could play it lazily on the couch turned on your side if you wish (Would you rather stand like a foolish pretend-swordsman as if in front of a Kinect?).

5. The game doesn't have [insert feature available to other HD consoles]. These quibbles arguably have the least merit. A game can only be as good as the hardware it has to run it, and the best it can (and ought to) do is mask it, though true sticklers can see through it. So it could never have HD graphics running at 480p. With its limited processing power, it's impressive that it has as much going on as it does, especially as it is constantly determines your controller's movement. Holistically, it does very well against other games in terms of gameplay.

With that in mind, here are things I think they could have done better (or at least differently). Now bear in mind that I already consider this game a masterpiece -- I just wanted to touch upon things that could have used a bit more polish.

1. More relevant NPCs. Supporting chararacters are for the most part forgettable and don't matter to the quest. If you asked me, I couldn't name more than five Skyloftians and surface dwellers.
  • Skyloft. Seriously, besides the main characters, the only Skyloftians I remember are Gaebora and Groose. I'm not looking for side stories as gripping as Majora's Mask's Anju and Kafei, but it would be nice to think your neighbors actually mattered to your life.
  • Surface. Okay, there were races and mythical creatures. But if this is an origins story, shouldn't I find myself caring more about Gorons and the non-existent Zoras? We had a couple of communities, but I don't see why we couldn't have a few more spread out in an area, even if they were the same race. If this really is an RPG, why not have a few more "towns"?
  • Interactions. In previous games, the "little guys" did more than just stand around; they showed up and even helped out during your quest. Maybe they were freedom fighters. Maybe they were sages. But they did more than just walk a pre-defined path and offer you hints. I don't care if he is the Hero of Time; he can still have people doing more than offering an occasional hint at a temple entrance.
2. A less annoying companion. They gave your guide Fi a unique personality, but sometimes she just got in the way. I appreciate that she took a while before revealing any hints about a boss's weakness, but then other times she spelled out what and where to fetch without giving you a chance to think about it.
  • Statistics. I get that the probabilities add a bit to her "personality", but those 60-percent-really-means-100-percent scenarios got old very quickly. They could have made her seem like an automaton without spewing arbitrary greater-than-50 percentages. GlaDOS was a computer and she had spunk!
  • Hand-holding. I understand accessibility, and I don't discourage in-game hints, provided their optional. So the fortune teller and Sheikah stones are fine for when you get stumped. Then you have those times when a NPC makes a reference and Fi immediately gives you the answer. Where's the fun in that? I understand that not everybody could remember earlier interactions (I may have been at an advantage in playing the game through within a week), but it's disappointing when she immediately ruins any "a-ha!" moment. If people really get stuck, let them seek it out!
  • Growth. Part of what made TP's Midna so endearing was how she grew alongside you over the course of the game, making it said to see her go at the journey's end (Spoiler? Eh, not really -- the game had ended, the adventure was over). Toward the end, she really was your "companion". Meanwhile, Fi simply unlocks memories and reasserts her artificial nature, even at the conclusion. What gives?
3. Better sidequests. The sidequest for the Hylian shield is a worthwhile one, but everything else amounts to little more than a fetch quest for a heart container or rupees. How about hidden skills like in TP? I guess that's a Zelda standard, but it would have been nice to have integrated storytelling, exploration, or simply variety offered in Majora's Mask.

4. Fleshed-out backstory for the demon lord and his master. You only start to learn about the big bads at the tail-end of the quest, prior to which Ghirahim is mainly absent, save for a few cameos. It would have been nice to have Ghirahim (or background details) show up throughout (instead of in large chunks at the beginning, middle, and end of the adventure), and for variety, I would have preferred to gradually learn about his master through other ways (perhaps stumbling upon ancient artifacts or other cutscenes). See, with a last battle as epic as it was, it would have been nice to build up to it, and I felt a bit robbed with how it just came out of nowhere with explanation after explanation at the very end. In general, a lot of backstory was force-fed to you with little 'discovery' by the player.

5. More items and usage. OoT had tons of items you could use throughout, and TP had several items, though meant for specific areas. SS basically had eight critical items and a nice (but inconsequential) upgrade system. With environments as dense as they offered, why not incorporate new ways to integrate other items to allow for further exploration? Or even if the essential eight remain, having them more than a one-trick pony would have been amazing. Remember the magnetic properties of TP's iron boots? Or the joy of discovering the double-clawshots? I miss that extra bit of creativity.

6. More aggressive enemies. I get that this is the first 'real' motion-control game, so they didn't want to make it too difficult. But enemies do a lot of defense and not a lot of offense, even toward the end of the game when they strike in numbers. This is further supported by my lack of use of the shield. I never had a shield break because I barely had to use it, and I barely had to use it because enemies didn't really attack me.

7. Less redundant messages. So many messages recur in the game. Over and over. And without the quick-scrolling (i.e. holding 'A') that we just had in Twilight Princess.
  • Item collection. You'd think after my 50th Blessed Butterfly, I wouldn't need an explanation. The same goes for return visits to shop owners -- I know what I want, so stop telling me the same programmed message. In the same way that you could use the '2' button for explanations of controls, it would have done wonders to relegate repeat messages to an on-demand button press.
  • Fi's reminders. Besides what I mentioned earlier, you have to admit that it gets annoying when Fi nags you about low health. You know, in case the constant beeping and flashing red didn't already tip you off. The same goes for low batteries. You can get a surprising amount of remaining play time from you current batteries from the first time she reminds you to change them out.
  • Mini-game recaps. You complete a mini-game in a certain amount of time. The screen fades out with your time in the top-center. You return to a screen with your time in place. Now, the NPC reminds you -- as the text slowly scrolls by -- what time you scored. Of course, when you don't successfully complete the mini-game, you have to rinse and repeat. Come on, now.
8. On-screen map. While I appreciated the self-assigned beacons, there were so many times that I wish I had an optional map in a bottom corner (like in OoT), as I spent many a time pressing '+' to re-visit the map. Another alternative would have been faster loading times for the map (it didn't seem like that much to render).

9. More memorable tunes. Maybe it's too much to ask in an age of atmospheric music, but I'd even settle for nods to past Zelda themes, in the same way that later games had clips or remixes of their age-old music. Now, it says something that I was able to recognize the sand and fire dungeons in that final dungeon, so I guess that says something, but those were purely atmopsheric, now weren't they? Overall, the music was good and fitting, but not particularly memorable. Frankly, if it wasn't orchestrated, I don't think it would have had much to it.

[Edit, 12/23] Having listened closely to the entire soundtrack, I realized that the music was fairly referential, not just to itself but past games in the series. Characters did have their own music, much like the prevalent leitmotifs of Final Fantasy VI, but I still don't think the music was strong enough. Honestly, as I was listening the non-atmospheric music, usually I'd think 'That sounds familiar', as opposed to, say, 'Oh, that's Fi's theme'. A minor quibble, but I feel they could have done better.

10. Better integration of the harp. The harp was basically OoT's ocarina, except underutilized, not just in purpose but in execution. I remember a Nintendo official raving about how the harp was the perfect instrument for the game because you could pluck or strum. However, as I played the game, all I could ever do was juvenile strumming, so I consider that a missed opportunity. What made the ocarina from OoT so enchanting was that you could play tunes whenever you wanted and just for fun. Yes, it was nice to play along the background music but maybe it would have had a bigger impact if related more to your quest.

In closing, these aren't particularly major gripes, and for what they did, they did a magnificent job. As the Zelda series progresses forward (particularly if it decides to continue building upon its origin stories), it would be nice to see actions b the acclaimed Hero of Time (i.e. you) actually shape the world. I recall games such as Chrono Trigger and Terranigma, which show the progression of time and the change in environment. I'm not looking for some sort of sci-fi time travel scheme, but it would be nice to demonstrate true progression in your (and the world's) growth besides characters simply asserting how much you've grown.
Regardless, this iteration in the series is the biggest leap forward since The Ocarina of Time, and I look forward to seeing how this series progresses.

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