Skyloft. The land above the clouds we heard about so much from Skyward Sword‘s initial announcement at E3 2010, steeped in wonder until we finally got a chance to see and explore it in June of last year. I knew from the moment I heard about it that it would be a magical place, and that it would hold some secret about the establishment of Hyrule Kingdom… In the end, it turned out to do a pretty good job of living up to my lofty expectations.
I believe Skyloft to be representative of Skyward Sword at its best, a true step forward in terms of modernizing the series while still sticking closely to the feel that’s characterized series towns and cities since Zelda II and A Link to the Past and the charm and depth of Clock Town or Windfall Island. Every character has a face, a name, and a story to tell; every building, rock, tree, and creature has something to do with the player’s experience. If there’s anything in terms of world design in Skyward Sword that I hope future Zelda games take note of, it’s the breadth and depth present in the game’s central city.
For one thing, it’s just the right size - not bloated with too much space, pointless buildings, nameless and voiceless NPCs. I never feel that it’s a chore to get around town. It seems fairly large as far as Zelda villages go, but it takes little more than a minute to get anywhere you could possibly want to visit. What’s more, it feels like a fairly seamless space. Aside from buildings and caves, there’s nary a loading screen in sight anywhere in the village.
Few Zelda towns feel like they go the extra mile in terms of content offerings. Most have a part in the main story once or twice and a sidequest or two; it’s rare to see a town that gets visited time and again throughout the game, whether it’s to visit the Bazaar, hunt for sidequests, or progress through the story. Skyloft is one of those. While I’m not sure that having to trek back there after every dungeon was one of my favorite features, things like upgrading items at the Scrap Shop, finding Gratitude Crystal sidequests, and hunting new secrets with my improved inventory were all really satisfying ways to extend Skyloft’s relevance. It’s a nice contrast to some of the less effective attempts at extending play time in the surface world (return visits to Skyview Temple come to mind…).
I’m also a big fan of the place for reasons other than its gameplay utility - the visual design, for instance, is far beyond the more generic fantasy environments we’ve seen in many previous games, with a good blend of quirkiness and color that surpasses Clock Town, my former #1. Despite a lack of technical detail, the paint-like textures did a good job showcasing Skyloft’s culture, from its stained glass windows to all the bells and whistles hanging from the ceiling in the Bazaar. The characters and the extent of your interactions with them rival those of other sidequest heavy Zelda games like Majora’s Mask and The Wind Waker. Add the fitting soundtrack on top of that - one that varies based on the part of the city you’re currently in to boot - and you have one of the most lovingly-executed locales in the series’ history.
Skyloft’s role in the overall scheme of Zelda lore, however, takes the cake in terms of its strengths. Had Nintendo not so adoringly spilled the beans that Link picks up the Goddess Sword before his first trip to the surface, I don’t think I ever would have expected that I’d find the game’s sacred blade right off the bat, and certainly not in the very first town. The whole Goddess mythology was also really neat - you get a vague backstory about Skyloft being raised from the surface, a haven for the surviving humans, that seems to tie in to previous sky worlds as seen in The Minish Cap and Twilight Princess, but then the story takes another turn and you find out things about the Triforce’s hidden history that reveal other possible connections to the Sacred Realm and the founding of the Hylian people. It’s a very rich set of legends that, despite some of the shortcomings of the plot, made the story really impactful and had me really caring about how things would play out.
I hope Nintendo realizes just how good a job they did and emulate that level of quality and depth in later Zelda towns - and let’s try including a few more of them while we’re at it, eh? Zelda worlds were once known to stand toe-to-toe with those of many RPGs in terms of size and depth. Ocarina of Time may not be all that impressive today, but for its time it was more or less unprecedented. In light of my recent playthrough of Xenoblade Chronicles, I’ve realized that achieving a truly grand scale really is possible with even outdated technologies - imagine what we could see with newer tech!
Now, do I think we’ll ever see a Zelda game as huge as Xenoblade? Probably not. The more action-based game engine, both in terms of combat and interacting with things in general, is a bit more demanding in terms of the hardware and level design. But I think there’s a certain appeal to the whole “massive world” thing that I think goes hand in hand with Zelda. It’s a potential I know many gamers wish for Nintendo to deliver upon - the reactions to Twilight Princess‘s announcement in 2004 say it all. While it’ll be a lot of work to really put the series on the level of some of the greatest in terms of the sheer scale and ambition of the game world once again, as long as Nintendo manages to hang onto the spirit that keeps people engaged in the series I firmly believe that the results of that effort will be more than worth it.
(By the way, expect my review of Xenoblade Chronicles sometime on Friday - I think I may be one of the few who will have played through the majority of the game’s content before rating it.)