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The real problem with The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword’s Combat – Editorial

With the release of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD, a whole new generation of people is witnessing one of the more experimental entries in the Zelda franchise, which is also one of the most divisive. Originally released for the Nintendo Wii on November 18, 2011, Skyward Sword dared to use the system’s motion controls to enter commands. When Link swings the wiimote to the left, he swings his sword to the left, and non-zero number of people hate it. The HD version still has the option to input movement, but also offers the option of using the left joystick to input sword strokes. Playing through Skyward Sword HD with stick inputs still left me a little cold in combat. I don’t think the control options are the problem, however; it’s the enemy encounter designs.

When I say hostile encounter designs, I mean the strategy behind defeating certain enemies. The simplest of enemies, like Keese, only need to swing the sword in their general direction to defeat them. Most opponents demand a little more strategy. These strategies are either unclear and confusing or boring. Skyward Sword is the Zelda game that has the player waiting more than any other, and it’s about as fun as it sounds.

From the earliest humanoid enemy, Bokoblins, Link must eschew any combat strategy to wield his sword wildly. Bokoblins are very good at fending off Link’s attacks. A bokoblin moves his sword around to block different directions from which Link could attack. One of them holding his sword to the right means that I should be able to swing my sword to the right to attack their unguarded side. Unless they have an almost instant response time. Often times, when attempting to use this strategy, the bokoblin would immediately block the side it was not guarding. Attacking if they blocked any other direction would block them instantly. My strategy for dealing with them was to mindlessly attack them until they died.

Lizalfos have a clear way of attacking them and having a sense of character.

Skyward Sword has great enemies that focus on blocking angles of attack. Lizalfos will block all of Link’s strikes until they just block one angle and taunt Link, giving him a path of attack that doesn’t close. Stalfos block all but one angle of attack and change one open direction at regular intervals. This gives them a rhythm game feel to combat them. Confusing the timing or direction of attack gives the enemy a chance to attack that can be dodged or parried if you are brave. Confusing a direction of attack on a Bokoblin means that Link just has to swing his sword around more.

This lack of strategy is compounded by the addition of electricity. Skyward Sword will infuse enemies with elemental properties. This could be fire, which deals damage over time and burns wooden shields, or electricity that stuns Link when he hits an electrified enemy with his sword. The counterplay to electrifying an enemy is to wait. The most common enemies can be electrified from Keese to Bokoblins. The worst electrified enemy is the Chuchu. This enemy is defeated by cutting it in half into smaller versions of itself until the smallest version is defeated. After you’ve cut the larger shape in half, the smaller blob will pulsate with electricity. Link has to wait for the pulse to dissipate, then cut the creature in half again, which will then pulsate with electricity again before attacking it. The pattern for attacking the electric chuchu is hit, then wait, then hit, and then wait a total of seven rounds. Link has to stand around seven times waiting for an enemy to attack – maybe five if you’re quick – to take down a Chuchu.

The Encounter design of making Link wait isn’t strictly for electric enemy types either. Moblins will also force the player to do nothing until they are open to attack. The first moblin the player comes across has a spear and a wooden shield. The shield must be attacked in multiple directions to destroy it. Once the Moblin’s shield is gone, Link is free to attack them. Making an enemy’s defensive tool unusable is an interesting encounter design, even if they have way too much health. Later types will be upgraded to a metal shield. The only way to open the Metal Moblins to attack is to parry a blow with their spear. Until they attack with their spear, Link has no choice but to wait. Most of the time I spent fighting metal moblins was standing in front of them and hoping that they would try to attack me. Unfortunately, the “waiting for parry” strategy is used by other opponents. Sentrobes force the player to stand around until the specific attack that can be parried is used. It’s not an appealing combat design.

Boss fights aren’t safe from Skyward Sword’s strange encounter designs either. Scaldera has a phase in the boss fight where her weak point, her eye, jumps to different parts of her body, but it’s not clear how to meet her. The eye would move up and right from the link, so I would use the right diagonal upward stroke, but that would miss. At some point I just had to keep swinging the sword around in front of Scaldera to cause damage. Tentalus has a similar stage sending snake versions of its tentacles to Link. The way these snake tentacles are animated made it hard for me to tell which direction they are coming from. This part of the Tentalus fight almost requires me to take damage.

That didn’t work out and I don’t know why.

All of these strange combat cases could have been avoided. There are numerous clever uses of sword controls to defeat enemies. Any fight against a Deku Baba is really fun. It’s clever to ask the player to hit skulltulas in such a way that they turn around to reveal their weak spot in the stomach. In the first phase of the Tentalus fight, Link cuts off tentacles with the Skyward Strike, which I think is cool. There are just too many instances of enemy encounters that are unclear or designed to waste time. It’s a shame, because I like the implementation of the motion or joystick control in the concept. Swinging the sword to the right by swinging the Joy-Con to the right is neat. Additionally, Skyward Sword has the best overall dungeons suite of any Legend of Zelda I’ve played. The unfortunate design of the encounter brings the experience in a way that could instead have added.

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