Skyward Sword’s biggest fans and many members of the press believe that the motion controls make the game what it is – you have to put extra thought into every sword swipe and the 1:1 connection makes it feel more personal than any Zelda game before it. I have a very different opinion. I really wanted to like it, but Skyward Sword will be the first Zelda game I don’t finish. Here’s my attempt to articulate my problems with the game.
Good implementations of motion controls make you feel more connected to the activity you’re doing through a series of smoke and mirrors. Dance Central, for instance, is really just a game of Simon Says that makes you feel awesome. You see the dancers on stage doing crazy routines, and when the game says you did well, you think you look as cool as the dancers. In reality, the game was just looking at an approximation of your movements, and if you were close, it’ll give you positive feedback. Anyone who has played Dance Central in a party setting knows that the game usually tells people they look better than they actually do. That’s part of the fun, though, and it isn’t a bad design. It is distinctly different from other dancing games before it and shows the promise of its platform.
Wii Sports before it was even a well-designed game. Even if it was mostly waggle, it enabled players to mimic real bowling or boxing motions and get better results than they would in real life. They weren’t accurate, but they offered a very different experience compared to everything in the genre before it.
Guitar Hero didn’t make its name with motion controllers, but still achieved success by offering a new way to play music games that allowed players to feel like they were living out a fantasy.
All of these games had their critics. Some professional musicians hated Guitar Hero. I recall Pearl Jam’s singer performing one of his songs in Rock Band on a talk show and getting a failing grade. Some people felt like it trivialized learning an actual instrument, while others embraced it as a fun alternative. Wii Sports is slammed by people who really do play tennis, golf, and baseball all the time as being a completely inaccurate simulation. Even Dance Central is criticized by really good dancers – it requires you to follow a really rigid set of movements if you’re going to get the best scores on harder difficulties, but being rigid makes you look like an idiot if you’re actually dancing. People who have precedents for an experience judge motion controls that attempt to recreate those experiences by those precedents.
Skyward Sword has a precedent – every Zelda game before it – so when motion controls make it harder for me to kill enemies that I’ve encountered throughout Zelda games my entire life, I’m going to react negatively. I’ve heard that “every enemy is like a puzzle” – well, yes, it certainly is. It’s a puzzle to figure out how to make the controller do what you want it to do so that you can get on to the actual puzzles in the dungeons. I’ve managed to beat two of the dungeons and a couple sidequests, and the hardest enemy I’ve faced so far is the Skulltula – the spiders that I’ve been fighting with lock-on controls since Ocarina of Time. In Skyward Sword, you have to perform a stabbing motion to damage them after performing a side-to-side slash to flip them around. The chances of getting two actions with the motion controls correct in sequence are slim to none for me, and I’ve invested 5-6 hours in the game.
Skyward Sword isn’t the first game on the Wii to feature these controls. Red Steel 2 used Wii MotionPlus to track 1:1 sword motions, and while it was praised as being kind of cool, it was frustrating after ten minutes there too.
But perhaps the bigger failure is what they sacrificed to bring us these broken controls – in a game that rewards precise aim over all else, your control over the camera is limited to centering it behind your character. Lining up certain shots takes three or four tries. When using something like the bomb flowers – which have been around forever – you’re given a time penalty on top of horrible aim. This wouldn’t be anywhere near as much of a problem if the Wii Remote wasn’t always reserved for the sword’s alignment – it’s a reasonably precise aiming tool and can certainly compensate for another analog stick if it needs to.
The big praise for Skyward Sword’s motion controls is that they “aren’t waggle” and add a lot of depth to the game. I’d argue that they are waggle. They don’t let me do anything I haven’t already done in other Zelda games, and they make it more complicated. Enemies that require you to hit them in certain ways are nothing new – Zelda’s been doing it for years. This is just a poorly designed way of interacting with those enemies. Plenty of good designs for these systems exist: Dead Space did it for survival horror with the dismemberment system, for example. The Zelda DS game introduced stylus control which drastically changed the way you played the game, but played to the strengths of the platform and made interacting with enemies feel intuitive. Skyward Sword’s controls, in contrast, highlight all of the problems with motion controls. They don’t always do what you expect because you have less tangible control with motion than you do digital button presses – particularly with 1:1 motion, where it’s harder for the game to “help” you get the result you want. Games that succeed with motion controls do not penalize you for that disconnect, and Skyward Sword does.