Among film theorists, there is a common idea that one of the pleasures of genre films is that they are both familiar and new at the same time. Audiences are reassured by the familiar conventions of the genre, the archetypes that become the code with which we determine a films genre. At the same time, a genre film must deliver something new in order to be original. A fantastic example of this is Clint Eastwood's westerns, they evolved throughout his career and culminated in the stunning Unforgiven, a post modern western that took the conventions and expectations of the western genre and turned them upside down. Game genres work in the same way, but on two levels. You have the genre of the narrative (for example, Red Dead Redemption is a western) but also the genre of the gameplay (Red Dead Redemption is also an open world action title). Gaming developers are always striving towards the "new" whilst working with the familiar and as a result, games evolve very quickly. Sometimes the familiar elements of a gaming franchise are camouflaged by the new elements a developer will bring to the table, as was the case with Final Fantasy XIII. However, there is one franchise that is the apotheosis of the "familiar new" and that is the Zelda franchise. Zelda games are exceptionally similar to one another, from the music to the design elements, playing a new Zelda game is like putting on a well worn pair of shoes. In many ways, Zelda games are just a series of remakes of the original formula, an aspect that causes equal amounts of criticism and adulation. Yet, while there are always going to be huge similarities with past instalments of the franchise, Zelda games are always hugely successful. This is due to the care and attention that the games receive. Zelda games are loved, not just by gamers but by the people that make them. It is this love that makes Zelda not only one of the most beloved franchises after 25 years, but one of the best game franchises of all time. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is the latest instalment and as you would expect, is very familiar. What might surprise you however, is just how new Skyward Sword feels. The implementation of 1:1 motion controls certainly makes playing Skyward Sword feel new, but it goes beyond the gimmickry of the Wii. Skyward Sword has shaken up the Zelda franchise and it may never be the same again! The first thing that will strike you about Skyward Sword is Zelda. For one, she isn't a princess, but Link's best friend. Zelda is accessible and more importantly, loveable. She stands up for her friend (even though Link is more than capable) and is playful with Link. The distant, 'princess putting you on the path to adventure' role is completely replaced by a more personal mission, saving your best friend. It may not be a new narrative concept, but drastically changing the way Zelda is used changes the whole focus of your adventure. Link is also more accessible, he is no longer a blank canvas for which you can project your own ego, but a character fleshed out as silent movie stars were, through expression and action. The story in Skyward Sword isn't quite so revolutionary but it is character driven and wholly satisfying. Your mission takes you on a journey across the land, but this isn't Hyrule. Indeed you wont spend your time taming a horse to quicken your journey times here, in fact you barely travel at all and what travelling is done, is by flight. The ground level of the game is actually 3 big levels, each with a dungeon of course, but essentially the whole area is a dungeon just with a sky line. The rest of the game takes place above the clouds (which are strangely only visible when above them) in and around Skyloft. Being a town in the sky naturally means that flight is a rather important part of daily life. Luckily, the good folk of Skyloft ride giant birds that look like a cross between a duck and an alpaca's cleft lip. Their slightly odd looks are offset by cute animation and some nice comic touches, not to mention the fact that flying is awesome. It is a shame that the flight mechanic isn't brought to the surface as it really is the only way to travel. Still, you spend enough time on your crimson steed to form a relationship with him, like your favourite horse in Red Dead Redemption, only you can't accidentally shoot it in the head. When playing any Wii game you have to forget how good games look on the PS3 and Xbox, but in all honesty, Skyward Sword looks great regardless. Yes it is SD and the textures look muddy, but it is still beautiful. The colour pallet is like a vibrant water colour and the design is the perfect balance of anime cute and fantasy adventure cool. Link looks a little girly, but he's a modern metrosexual man of the 21st century. I'm surprised he doesn't have a pink tunic. Zelda games are well known for having fun with the characters (remember the prancing brothers in Ocarina of Time?) and Skyward Sword is no exception. Character designs are often hilarious, especially the various intelligent races dotted around the place. The only character that is a real dud is your fairy side kick, who this time round resides in your sword. It may sound cool, but in reality she talks like an accountant and insists on repeating important information you just read. Seriously, we get it, if the text is highlighted red we need to take notice of the words. Her needlessness aside, she is also rather ugly and odd looking. I miss the days of my fairy companion being largely ignorable, shouting "HEY!" all day but getting zero interest from me. The gameplay in Skyward Sword is basically what you expect from a Zelda game, only this time it is motion controlled and actually works. That isn't to say there isn't issues with the motion controls, sword fights are often easier if you waggle frantically (though not so much later on) and the lack of control over the camera can be frustrating. Still, for the most part Link does as you do and it is cool to see his sword swing through a tree and cut it at the point of impact. The only downside to Link copying your sword movements is that when he has his sword drawn, he runs around holding it like it's covered in horse piss and he's desperate for someone to pass it on to. Credit where it is due, the game works well with motion controls but I would probably revert to a standard controller set up if I could, for no other reason than it would allow me to relax as I play it. For all its triumphs in the motion control department, the same old arguments still stand. I like to game when I just wake up or just before bed and this severely restricts my time with Skyward Sword. Half the time, I can't be arsed to sit up and wave my arms around, I just want to nestle in to my man shaped dent in the sofa. For a text driven game, sound is remarkably important to the Zelda franchise and Skyward Sword doesn't disappoint. The score is superb, mixing the familiar (such as the "I'm in someone's house" theme) with new epic orchestral numbers like the main theme. The sound effects are also spot on, making the experience feel nostalgic even during the more innovative moments. Link's trade mark "haaaiiiii" when doing a jumping sword attack never fails to make me smile and the bizarre flying shop shopkeeper is really funny ("Thank yooooou"). It is a shame that Skyward Sword didn't take the opportunity to have spoken dialogue, but at least it doesn't suffer from Final Fantasy X syndrome and have a great story marred by hideous American accents. The strange thing about Skyward Sword is how small it feels compared to previous instalments. The lack of an open field to explore (or in Wind Waker's case an open sea) makes the experience more claustrophobic and the fact that there are only 3 main areas means that you become overly familiar with them by the end game. Returning to areas opens up new paths but at the same time, it isn't Ocarina of Time's 7 year jump, nor does it compensate for the rigid follow your sword structure. That said, the game will still take you a serious amount of time to finish, especially for a Wii title. It is a shame that it took so long for Skyward Sword to arrive, the Wii needed it on its launch day truth be told. Skyward Sword is the title that defines the console but, the console is old and saggy now. The Wii rarely gave us hard core gamers a meaty meal, but Skyward Sword is a hell of a retirement party. It is probably the best game the Wii has ever had and for some it will be the best Zelda game. For me, I think Ocarina on the 3DS may have it still hold the crown (N64 purists can bugger off, the 3DS version is the definitive version) but Skyward Sword may well cause a revolution in the long run.
Skyward Sword is out now.