Well, it wasn't "The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time."
As long as I have been gaming that has been the gold standard: The benchmark that most games fell short of.
Now, 5 years since the Wii's first Zelda outing, "The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess," many are claiming that the great "OOT" standard has been shattered, and that "The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword" has taken the crown.
But as much as I wish this were true, I'm just not sure it's that easy. "SS" is not perfect, and like all great works of art, there are things that are going to work for some and not for others, and there are areas that keep "SS" from being as perfect as it could have been.
Let's get the good and easy out of the way. "Skyward Sword" is one of the greatest adventure stories ever told, and one of the defining multimedia experiences of our time. It's expansive, beautiful, and shakes up the series in a way no game has since "OOT." It's a beautiful and heartwarming adventure that I'm not soon to forget, and is hands down the most deep and engaging title that Nintendo has ever created.
Surprise after surprise, magical moment after magical moment, the game pulls you along for a ride that only gets more enjoyable as it goes. It's a game that grows and learns with you - as you get better at using the sword you'll have to use it in ways that just make sense. Poke this thing here? Slash this way instead of the other? The sword controls are near pitch perfect, and it's eerie to see it exactly follow my hand. Some of the places that the Wii Motion Plus is applied, such as for swimming and flying, probably could have been better suited to the analog stick, but this is motion controls the way we all envisioned when the Wii was announced.
And it's the precision in the controls the allows for the increased challenge for the player: Simple enemies are now a lot harder to defeat. No more swinging for the fences or waggling, as almost all of the enemies, both old and new, require thinking to tackle.
The world of Skyloft is stunning and masterfully crafted, and while not in HD, is still beautiful and expansive. The game uses a blur technique to balance draw distance for far off areas, which suits the painter-like art style, and keeps the world within the Wii's technological constraints. There are places where the style isn't as crisp or smooth as I would have liked, but this game stands as the defining points in the art style over graphics debate: The art style is perhaps the best visual representation of Link's world we've seen.
I also impressed at how the game has managed to take inspiration from past games in the series, and improve on almost all of them. Some it hasn't, like the sky overworld, which is all too familiar to the empty and wide spread ocean from "Wind Waker." The game's sense of humor and adept narration is equally entertaining, and a breath of fresh air from the more serious tone the series seems to have had lately.
"Skyward Sword" also contains some of the best cut scenes and storytelling in the franchise's history. I was more connected to the universe then I ever have been, and found myself disappointed when I walked outside and real life wasn't painted by wisps of clouds. The characters are as alive and vibrant as the locations they inhabit. I'm still a little uncomfortable with one of the new races (too much technology for my taste), but Zelda, Groose, Fi, and Ghirahim are all fleshed out in ways unheard of previously. The game manages to pull at nostalgia's heartstrings without resting on its laurels, and will control and encapsulate your emotions for the 40 plus hour long adventure. The music only adds to this, and the game has some of the most memorable themes we've seen in a long time.
But when a game is so close to perfection that you can taste it, I can't just ignore the places it falls short.
I was shocked at the archaic save station system. While Nintendo included enough save stations, it means you can only save at those exact spots. The game froze on me once and I had to start off at the last save point; something that really shouldn't be a problem in 2011. I understand the want to be able to save in the exact room you are in, but this just wasn't a good solution.
Difficulty wise, I really felt up until the last dungeon (one of the most creative in the whole series, mind you) that I was continually waiting for the game to ramp things up. The few times I was stuck never lasted very long, and while the overall staying alive/taking damage part of the game is harder, the puzzles, while clever, never really advanced into mind bending or difficult. Most of the dungeons were also on the short side, which made sense given the length and amount of leg work you had to do to get to them, but it made them a little less formidable then in the past. I also thought that the number of areas was too few: My map still has entire areas of it left blank when I finished. Instead, Nintendo opted for densely packed areas that they could reuse, which I'm betting had more to do with spatial limitations of the Wii than anything else. Some of these rediscovered areas worked well, but others felt just like retreading the same places where it could have been new ones.
Perhaps my biggest disappointment was the number of items. Aside from the Beetle, which is the first item you get, the rest really weren't that exciting or useful. The bow, and slingshot, especially, which are series staples, are reduced to merely hitting switches. Gone is Twilight Princess's Z-target bow, and I barely used what was once Link's most dynamic weapon because of this.
The game did learn a little from "TP" in this area, as the items were used outside of the dungeons they were originally found in and used much more often, but if you take out the series staples and items that have appeared in other games, you are left with very few new ones, and not all of them were used as extensively as other. Some I hoped to be included were missing all together: Elemental arrows are gone, as are magic spells, tunics, or any of the other usual late game upgrades (Never thought I'd miss the magic armor). By the time I reached the final boss it had been quite some time since I had gotten a new item, and I didn't have the pimped out end game feeling I'm used to.
To counteract that, new to the series is an upgrade system, which does allow you to use treasures and bugs to upgrade your weapons and shields. It was a great addition to the series, but it just wasn't taken far enough. You can only upgrade certain items, and I had such a large amount of treasures and bugs left over that couldn't be used for anything.
And, post-game, while an included hero mode (one that makes you overwrite your file though, so be careful) and boss battle mode are welcome additions, the game lacks an item trading quest, cave of ordeals, or the other regular postgame additions I love to waste hours on. There are a lot of smaller side quests throughout the game, but I was a little disappointed about what I had to come back to afterwards (Unless there's stuff nobody has found yet). The main game is so packed with stuff to do it can be an odd complaint, but some stuff just shouldn't have been left out(Poor poor Cuccos, may you rest in peace).
The ending of the game was a bittersweet moment, and one that story-wise is growing on me. I liked how Nintendo tried to tie the series together a bit, but felt they could have gone a little further connecting the dots. I'm not sure if I like how they explain Gannon's existence, either. It doesn't take away from the emotional impact of the ending, and some of the fun in the Zelda series is the long debates over how the games all fit together anyways.
Overall, I think that it's fair to say that I'm pickier now then I was when "OOT" came out. I'm older and actually question why things are included or left out in games, not just a starry eyes ten year old soaking them up. The problem, of course, is I'm still measuring "SS" by things that "OOT" implemented: Number of items, number of areas, difficulty, and so on. Nintendo tried with "TP" to make a better "OOT" and found themselves in a creative rut. "SS" breaks the rules that "OOT" set in place and creates a new adventure that is not limited by its predecessors and sets the bar sky high for the future of the series. This time around, Nintendo succeeded in, despite any shortcomings, creating a masterpiece and new benchmark by which other video games will be continue to be judged, even if it has its own flaws.