No, this is not a highly-opinionated article about what features of Skyward Sword were better or worse than any of the other games, nor is it a controversial dissection of the game. No, this is a business and advertising-based examination of why Skyward Sword objectively failed in the general gaming culture sphere. Or, more specifically, what Nintendo did wrong in their numerous attempts to get Skyward Sword back into the spotlight of relevancy. And yes, there were many wrong turns taken in the build-up and hyping of this latest entry in the storied franchise - and some were positively fatal.
How could a game which, going into its reveal, was considered by the general gaming populace and journalists alike as the most anticipated game of its given E3 go out of its reveal as lackluster and ignored? How could a game in the most legendary series of all time be continuously ignored time and time again, regardless of the number of trailers released for it?
It all begins right after E3 2009, with a single piece of artwork. While this E3 saw the reveal of the next major Metroid game and held new information for several upcoming Nintendo titles, the biggest Nintendo-related story to come out of E3 2009 was a poster depicting a realistic Link standing back-to-back with a figure similar to the Master Sword. This mysterious tidbit of information reignited the flames of Zelda-dom across the internet, and within a few days this untitled game - with no actual information to back it up - had become the most anticipated upcoming Nintendo release, and was now a major talking point for gamers in general.
After this intriguing artwork reveal, Nintendo went dead silent on its latest Zelda game for an entire year - but this did nothing to curb expectations. The untitled “Wii Zelda” took first place in Gametrailers’ list of most anticipated games of E3 2010 (link here), and anticipation for the game had reached a fever pitch. A new Zelda was coming - the first console reveal since that of Twilight Princess - and all eyes were on Nintendo. This is where things started to go horribly wrong.
The reveal was not the climactic finale of a trailer like in E3 2004. It started Nintendo’s E3 2010 press conference - the first mistake. The game that was more anticipated than any other had just become the little introduction before the big stuff later on in the show. This immediately struck me as odd when watching the show that year. “Why are they showing Zelda first?” The answer to this question was given almost immediately: it was nowhere near completion. The introduction to Skyward Sword was that of a pastel Link (nothing at all like the artwork everyone was expecting it to follow) fighting red goblins in…leopard-patterned underwear. Yes, not quite up to par with the reveal for Twilight Princess, but this was just the beginning. It was about to get much worse.
It didn’t work. The reveal of what was expected to be a realistic and deep Zelda experience featuring advanced swordplay instead was a nonfunctional, bungled mess that had all the same animations and sound effects as Twilight Princess pasted over with a coating of extra color. I distinctly remember telling my younger brother who was watching it with me at the time, “it’s not finished”. The advanced Zelda game they had made pains to assure was coming out in 2010 was revealed as a beta-stage single forest area, and Miyamoto being unable to play the game in front of the audience was horrifying. Yes - it was due to infrared from all the cameras, etc. that caused this mess and it worked perfectly when everyone else tried - but the damage had been done. Skyward Sword was kicked on to the scene far too early.
Now, overshadowed by myriad other titles, Skyward Sword was in a rough spot. It’s destructive debut would ultimately be forgivable if it could recapture the spotlight - so it was now of the utmost importance that Nintendo really show off what it could do. There was only one trailer out there at this point in time - a fairly dull teaser that showed Link doing typical Zelda things in typical Zelda woods (with some volcano in there for flavor), and gave no real indication of the setting. It took until GDC 2011 for Nintendo to unveil the first “real” trailer for Skyward Sword - and it served its purpose. Although it was not a truly exciting trailer, it gave a much better sense of the game than the E3 2010 demo, and managed to hold some rudimentary interest until the coming E3. Zelda was almost back on the map.
E3 2011 was the deciding moment. All of the mess leading up to it pointed to Skyward Sword being a failure, and this latest E3 would have to be the time it would finally grow and take on the gaming world by storm - otherwise, it would be swallowed up by the hype surrounding its competitors. Unfortunately, Nintendo fumbled again. A huge to-do was made of Zelda’s 25th Anniversary at E3 2011 - which sounds great in theory, but ended up harming Skyward Sword. During the entire show, only one little snippet of Skyward Sword footage was shown - unannounced, basically hidden - at the end of a live orchestral montage in celebration of the entire series. In a twist of irony, the series’ celebration overshadowed the intended focus.
The lack of information about Skyward Sword was not to be the greatest harm Nintendo did to it at this show, however. No, there was one certain thing Nintendo itself did at this very E3 to ensure Skyward Sword’s irrelevance. This very thing drew longer lines than those for the booths where Skyward Sword was playable - it was the biggest thing Nintendo showed at their entire E3 show last year. This was the Zelda Wii U tech demo - an unplayable, looping video of a more realistic Link squaring off against Armogohma, all in an incredibly advanced HD interface that featured top-line graphics in realtime. Skyward Sword would not be released for another couple of months, and it was already irrelevant in the face of the gaming world at large.
Nintendo, in effect, ruined the E3 2011 showing of Skyward Sword by overshadowing it with a look at what Zelda could be on their next-gen system. The elusive Wii Zelda had gone from the forefront of gamers’ minds to being no more than an afterthought on a dying console. What could Nintendo do to rekindle interest? Apparently, they believed the answer was trailers. Lots and lots of trailers that all showed different mechanics, but none of them really captured the essence of the actual game. Only one trailer, out of all of these, felt like a true, final “trailer” for the game - something that could be shown to people as a singular advertisement to increase hype. It was aptly named the “Epic Trailer”...but it was released in late February 2012, over four months after Skyward Sword already shipped.
In conclusion, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword’s comparative lack of success is attributable to many factors, one of the larger ones being how Nintendo themselves treated its release. It was stressed as the lone finale for the Wii - one last hurrah on a dying system (ironically, seeing as Xenoblade Chronicles and The Last Story are certainly picking up months after the supposed swansong). Put under this much stress, perhaps there was no way it could truly live up to such lofty expectations in the sales department. One game, no matter what it is, cannot sustain an entire console. Coupled with the environment chock-full of excellent games it was released to (such as Uncharted 3 and Skyrim), the early disappointments at it not being at all the realistic Zelda people were led to believe it would be, and Nintendo’s own bungled attempts to put it at the forefront, it really does seem like there was nothing that could be done to increase its popularity.
What do you think? There are certainly other contributing factors to Skyward Sword’s relative lack of success - what are they? Comment away!