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It’s no secret to anybody that Skyward Sword is considered one of the weakest 3D entries in the Zelda series, due to many reasons. For most people, it was the switch to motion controls, considered gimmicky by some and inaccurate by others; the game’s difficulty has also been questioned by many - especially due to the heavy handholding, a factor that not only ruined the gameplay, but also affected the story, as it was delivered by Fi, a main character and also the resident exposition fairy—er, sword.
Most of the previous statements have been contested; some say the control scheme adds realism, other praise the dungeons’ design over their hand-holding nature. However, there is one characteristic on which everybody in the Zelda community and their grandmother agree: the overworld was simply screwed up. No matter how many things have changed throughout the series’ history, if anything has always remained the same, that’s the overworld: be it Hyrule, Koholint Island, or Termina, it is always a large, unified mass where every location is connected to the central field, bringing the sense of exploration and adventure that the series is known for. Even Spirit Tracks’ overworld is connected, despite the train routes reducing the exploration.
Skyward Sword, on the other side, has three isolated areas for an overworld, and there’s no way to travel from one to another without visiting Skyloft (a glorified hub) in between. Therefore the sense of unity is lost and the exploration takes a back seat due to Fi’s handholding and pretty much lack of hidden stuff – apart from the traditional heart containers, there’s only the Goddess Cubes plus the occasional sidequest objective here and there...but then, again, as little as there is to search for, Fi ruins the fun of it with her dowsing capabilities that pretty much tell you where the stuff is. Again, so much handholding! Stop helping me, future Master Sword!
Nonetheless, I think the overworld has its redeeming quality, and that is its dungeon-like nature. It’s been heavily criticized how Skyward Sword deviates from the Zelda core by ditching the unified overworld and connected areas in favor of isolated dungeon-like mini-overworlds. However, once you analyze it, it is actually one of the features that most resembles the first Zelda thanks to the way said areas are executed.
As an old school Zelda gamer I miss the good old days when the overworld was a challenge by itself: in the NES games there were so many enemies out there, some of them so tough that you could easily die in the plains of Hyrule at the hands of a Lynel, or find your demise inside a cave. Nowadays, Hyrule Field and the Great Sea have the occasional weak Bulblin or a hostile fish, but none of them pose a threat to our hero at all. If anything, they’re annoyances - but that’s actually worse: they don’t bring any danger, they just make you lose time for no reason. And that's only if you take the time to engage in battle with them, because most of the time, you don’t even bother and simply ignore them in order to go on. What’s the adventure in that?
On the other side, the provinces of Faron, Lanayru, and Eldin as depicted in Skyward Sword bring back a bit of that challenge that was lost with the newer iterations. While Faron Woods is mostly a breather level, Eldin Volcano has hordes of Bokoblins waiting for Link and, because of the new fighting system, they are now hard to deal with and they can actually inflict serious damage; climbing up the slopes can be quite difficult too due to the rocks thrown by the Bokoblins. And don’t let me started on Lanayru Desert - that place was pure genius, and no other overworld location in the Zelda franchise has ever reached its level of intricacy. Also, for the first time in years, probably since the NES era, I actually died in the overworld.
One can argue that Skyloft is nothing but a glorified hub, and that isn't an incorrect description, but how do the Hyrule Fields (both 3D incarnations), Termina Field, and the Great Sea differ from that? All of them are mostly empty areas that only serve for padding and, sometimes, plot advancement, but they lack true content. Long gone are the times of hacking and slashing your way through Hyrule, a time when merely arriving safely to the next dungeon was already a big accomplishment.
It’s not only the enemies; as I said earlier, it’s the overall content. The Surface World feels more like an outdoor dungeon, with its own puzzles and how it gradually opens up - Lanayru Desert, again, being the province that showcases this feature best. Like in the NES games, you’re prone to stop and wonder how to get to that place that gives you access to the next dungeon. Remember how in A Link to the Past and Link’s Awakening the main overworld started up small and limited, only to open up as you gain new items? Yeah, I miss that sense of expansion too. Starting with Ocarina of Time, the overworld can be fully explored as soon as the player leaves Link’s hometown, leaving little to be explored in the late game; in Skyward Sword however, there is always a new location to discover as the game progresses. How can that be bad?
There's also the Goddess’ Trials, probably one of the best parts of the game, set in each of the three Surface provinces to take full advantage of said places. With such brilliant subquests, there is no reason to call Skyward Sword’s overworld devoid of content. To me, they are rich and fun to explore.
Sure, Skyward Sword has its flaws, but it’s nevertheless a good Zelda title. Its isolated overworld regions, just as nearly everything on this game, constitute a unique experiment; in this particular case they might lack the unity that has prevailed throughout the series, but otherwise, the Surface is closer to the original overworld than any recent entry in the franchise. For me, that's a big improvement. I hope Zelda U keeps this aspect while putting back the overall unity for the perfect Zelda overworld.
And bring back the main theme too, please.