Does The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword fit in line better with the Metroid series than The Legend of Zelda series? I think it just might.
Released as the Wii's beloved swan song in November 2011, Skyward Sword got a lot of mixed press and mixed criticism. The game certainly wasn't hated (it has a 93 on Metacritic, for whatever that's worth) but it wasn't quite loved. Critical response included many comments on the game's length, scope, linearity, more RPG-like systems (such as crafting/upgrading equipment), graphical fidelity, and overall different feeling than previous games in the franchise. Personally, I greatly enjoyed the title. That being said, I admit if you look at Skyward Sword next to another 3D Zelda title – like, say,The Wind Waker HD – you notice there's something uncanny about it. It feels familiar, but not the same as what we've come to expect.
In my opinion, it feels familiar because you have played something like this before: it was called Metroid Prime.
First, let's look at what makes a Zelda game a Zelda game.
Open world exploration
Self-contained settings, such as towns and dungeons, connected to the overworld
Real-time action combat, generally involving a sword, shield, and selection of equipable items
Heavy inventory management
Character power-ups, such as more health and magic
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword has all of these elements and follows the series's established tenets quite well, with the exception of the first two points. These two I want to look at closer.
1. Open world exploration
Every Legend of Zelda game has an overworld waiting to be explored: Hyrule, Termina Fields, the Great Sea. Typically, this overworld is an expansive area that connects all of the other pieces of the world – like towns and dungeons – together. You travel the overworld to get from one destination to the next. You explore and enjoy the overworld in hopes to come across secret caverns (or grottos) holding treasure or fairies (or cows). Generally, you can expect to pretty evenly split your play time between the overworld and your destinations.
This started all the way back with the original Legend of Zelda on the NES. The overworld is expansive and without borders, meaning you could go anywhere you'd like. Puzzles were limited to using bombs or fire to find secret entrances. Combat was scattered but not mandatory: enemies played the role of obstacles. This paradigm was carried over into 3D with Ocarina of Time and has continued since. Hyrule Field has a few enemies scattered about and hidden rooms to find through the use of bombs or other items.
In Skyward Sword this overworld is the sky around Skyloft, but there's not much there. It's less of an overworld and really more of a hub to visit different locales -- not unlike the observatory in Super Mario Galaxy. You don't explore the sky as much as you pass through it. This may sound nit-picky but it means you no longer evenly split your time between exploring the overworld and being off of the overworld; instead, you spend maybe 5-10% of your time in the sky and the other 90-95% at a specific destination. This brings me to my second point...
Dungeons are your primary destinations on the overworld. Inside, the experience is far less about exploration and more about combat interspersed with puzzle-solving in order to advance to a discrete goal: enter a room, avoid obstacles, find a switch, kill some baddies, and progress to the next room – repeat until you clear the dungeon. Your advancement through rooms typically isn't linear, however. Back-tracking is involved as you find locked doors and in turn search for the keys or switches to bypass them. A notable feature of dungeons is that they are self-contained: what happens and what exists in a dungeon stays in and only affects that dungeon. There is also only one way to enter a dungeon and a dungeon is complete once the boss has been slain. With only a few exceptions – such as golden skultulas in Ocarina of Time – there is never a reason to revisit a dungeon once it has been cleared. Again, this was established in the first Legend of Zelda and has carried through since. The Adventure of Link even went as far as to use a different camera – side-scrolling versus top-down – when you entered a dungeon or town.
Skyward Sword follows this rule decently – and has some very good dungeons! – but it also takes some liberties with what is a dungeon and what isn't. Skyview Temple and Lanayru Mining Facility, for instance, are obviously dungeons but the Faron Woods and Lanaryu Desert around them act a lot like dungeons as well. Think about it: they involve besting baddies, solving puzzles, avoiding obstacles, and even a light form of back-tracking. These areas have an almost equal blend of exploration, combat, and puzzle-solving. The only stark differences from dungeons are that they don't have bosses to battle and you are encouraged – even required – to revisit the locations.
What this means is that the line between "overworld" and "dungeon" is blurred in Skyward Sword. What might normally be thought of as a part of the overworld certainly feels like a dungeon. Due to how diving-from-the-sky works, they almost even have doors you must enter through.
Metroid Prime, on the other hand, has little-to-no distinction between "overworld" and "dungeon" – it simply has a world which you explore. Therefore, in Metroid, all of your time is split between exploration, combat, and puzzle-solving, with shifts in focus being much more organic or subtle. In Metroid you're nearly always looking for the next place to go and you frequently have to battle creatures or solve puzzles in order to get there. The franchise is also well-known for encouraging and requiring back-tracking: that is, returning to areas previously visited with new utensils in order to advance further. Skyward Sword is one of the only Zelda games to do this.
Skyward Sword blurs the lines between being in a dungeon and not being in a dungeon. It requires returning to old locales with new gear in order to advance further. The sky could be just another region (or "dungeon") with portals to each other region – very much like the Talon Overworld connects the other regions in Metroid Prime through elevators. The game even has a "scan visor" (dowsing) which must be used to find hidden objects or paths forward.
What do you think? Does Skyward Sword follow the Metroid Prime franchise better than it fits in with its Legend of Zelda brethren?
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword was developed and published by Nintendo.