And he waits, and he waits, and he waits
With the release of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD, a whole new generation of people are experiencing one of the more experimental entries in the Zelda series, which is also one of the most divisive. Originally released on November 18th, 2011 for the Nintendo Wii, Skyward Sword dared to use the system’s motion controls to input commands. Swinging the wiimote left has Link swing his sword left, and a non-zero amount of people hate it. The HD version still has the motion input option, but also includes the option to use the left joystick to input sword strikes. Playing through Skyward Sword HD with stick inputs still left me feeling a little cold on the combat. However, I don’t think it’s the control options that’s the problem; it’s the enemy encounter designs.
When I say enemy encounter designs, I mean the strategy behind defeating specific enemies. The simplest enemies, like Keese, only require swinging the sword in their general direction to defeat them. Most enemies demand a little more strategy. These strategies are either unclear and confusing, or boring. Skyward Sword is the Zelda game that makes the player stand around waiting more than any other one, and it’s about as fun as that sounds.
From the earliest humanoid enemy, Bokoblins, Link has to eschew any combat strategy to swing his sword around wildly. Bokoblins are very good at blocking Link’s strikes. A Bokoblin will move their sword around to block different directions that Link could attack from. One of them holding their sword to the right means that I should be able to swing my sword to the right to attack their unguarded side. Except they have a near instant reaction time. Many times when trying to use this strategy the Bokoblin would immediately block the side they weren’t guarding. Attacking up when they were blocking any other direction would have them block up immediately. My strategy for dealing with them was mindlessly swinging at them until they died.
Skyward Sword has great enemies that focus on blocking angles of attacks. Lizalfos will block all Link’s strikes until they only block one angle and taunt Link, which gives him a path to attack that doesn’t close. Stalfos block all but one angle of attack and change the one open direction on regular intervals. This gives them a rhythm game feeling to fighting them. Messing up the timing or attack direction gives the enemy an opening to attack which can be dodged or parried if you’re brave. Messing up an attack direction on a Bokoblin means that Link just has to swing his sword around more.
This lack of strategy gets compounded by the addition of electricity. Skyward Sword will imbue enemies with elemental traits. This can be fire, which causes a damage over time effect and burns wooden shields, or electricity, which will stun Link when he hits an electrified enemy with his sword. The counterplay to an enemy being electrified is to wait. 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 cutting the larger form in half, the smaller blob will pulse with electricity. Link must wait until the pulse dissipates then cut the creature in half again, which will then, again, pulse with electricity before being attacked. The pattern to attacking electric Chuchu is strike then wait then strike then wait for a total amount seven turns. Link has to stand around waiting for an enemy to be open to attack seven times - maybe five if you're fast - to defeat one Chuchu.
The encounter design of making Link wait around isn’t exclusive to electric enemy types either. Moblins will also force the player to do nothing until they’re open to attack. The first Moblin the player comes across has a spear and a wooden shield. The shield has to be attacked in multiple directions to destroy it. Once the Moblin’s shield is gone, Link can freely attack them. Making an enemy’s defensive tool useless is an interesting encounter design even if they have way too much health. Later types will upgrade to a metal shield. The only way to open the metal Moblins for attack is to parry a strike from their spear. Until they attack with their spear there is nothing for Link to do but wait. Most of my time spent fighting metal Moblins was to stand in front of them hoping they would try to attack me. The "wait to parry" strategy is unfortunately employed by other enemies. Sentrobes will force the player to stand around until the specific attack that can be parried is used. It isn’t an engaging combat design.
Boss fights aren’t safe from Skyward Sword’s weird encounter designs either. Scaldera has a phase in the boss fight where their weak point, their eye, bounces around to different points on their body, but it’s not clear how to hit it. The eye would move up and to the right from Link, so I would use the right diagonal upwards strike, but that would miss. Eventually I just had to swing the sword around constantly in front of Scaldera to do damage. Tentalus has a similar phase where it sends snake versions of its tentacles after Link. The way these snake tentacles are animated made it difficult for me to tell what direction they are coming from. This part of the Tentalus fight almost necessitates me taking damage.
All of these weird instances in the combat could have been avoided. There are numerous clever uses of the sword controls to defeat enemies. Every fight against a Deku Baba is genuinely fun. Requiring the player to hit Skulltulas in a way that turns them around to expose their stomach weak point is clever. The first phase of the Tentalus fight features Link cutting down tentacles with the Skyward Strike, which I think is cool. There’s just too many instances of enemy encounters that are unclear or designed around wasting time. It’s a shame because I like the implementation of the motion or joystick controls in concept. Swinging the sword right by swinging the Joy-Con right is neat. On top of that Skyward Sword features the best overall suite of dungeons of any Legend of Zelda that I’ve played. The unfortunate encounter design brings down the experience in a way that could have been additive instead.