It has been a brutal year for fans of the Wii. Other publishers have stopped bringing AAA games to Nintendo’s low-powered console. The best-reviewed new game on the system, “Xenoblade Chronicles,” has inexplicably been withheld from the United States. Nintendo itself seems ready to move on to its forthcoming Wii U.
So “The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword” ($49.99) looks like the last gasp for the once unstoppable Wii. Is it worth dusting off and plugging in your old machine to play it? Absolutely — although it’s not quite the masterpiece Nintendo has been promising.
The core elements of the 25-year-old “Zelda” franchise remain. Once again, you are Link, a teenager who’s destined for great things. As usual, your friend Zelda disappears and you must run to her rescue. Your journey takes you through a series of fantastic locations — including, most notably, a series of dungeons filled with brain-twisting puzzles.
Still, there are plenty of tweaks to the formula. “Skyward Sword” begins in Skyloft, a tiny town floating high above the clouds. Each character is master of a “loftwing,” a bird you can fly to the other rocks floating around Skyloft. While out on a joyride, Zelda is attacked by a tornado and dragged to the land below, where most of the action takes place.
There are three major areas to explore: the grassy Faron Woods, the fiery Eldin Volcano and the desolate Lanayru Desert. Each is populated with a healthy variety of native creatures, some helpful, some vicious. There’s plenty of sword-swinging combat, but that’s not the emphasis — the real challenge is figuring out how to get through the mazelike environments to their central temples.
The “Skyward Sword” temples feature some of the most devious puzzles ever conjured up by the “Zelda” team. The desert area, for example, has switches that send parts of it back in time, to when it was a working factory. Some machines are useful, but after you get zapped by a guard robot you’ll wish you’d left the electricity off.
Besides your sword, controlled by swinging the motion-sensing Wii remote, you have a variety of gadgets, including the reliable old grappling hook and slingshot. The most versatile of the new devices is the beetle, a flying drone that can pick up bombs and drop them on enemies.
“Skyward Sword” is filled with “aha!” moments when you suddenly figure out how to use those devices to get past a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. It’s an unusually rewarding game mechanic, emphasizing logic and strategy over reflexes, and the devilish puzzles make this “Zelda” chapter well worth your time.
With 60-plus hours of playtime, this is the longest game in the “Zelda” franchise, but not all of it is as rewarding as the dungeon sequences. It takes several hours before Link finally gets to the surface, where almost all the action is. In between dungeons you have to keep returning to Skyloft, home to a bunch of dimwits who send you on tedious fetch quests while you’re trying to prevent the apocalypse. There’s an awful lot to do in “Skyward Sword,” but about one-third of it feels like filler.
The boss battles against the most powerful monsters range, similarly, from boring to spectacular. The bad ones essentially involve slashing at the enemy until he surrenders, but the good ones make imaginative use of the skills Link has learned. One sequence, which involves rescuing a parasite-infested sky whale, is “Zelda” at its most exhilarating.
Such moments go a long way toward reawakening the sense of wonder common to the best Nintendo games of the last quarter-century. And despite some dull stretches, “Skyward Sword” delivers enough of those moments to make it one of the most satisfying chapters in the “Zelda” canon. Three-and-a-half stars out of four.
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