With The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild fast approaching on the near horizon, now seems likes a good time to look back at the Zelda franchise’s last major console entry, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. While Breath of the Wild has garnered massive hype, Skyward Sword lives on in infamy as one of the Zelda’s franchise’s most controversial entries. There were many aspects of the game that contributed to this, but I think it’s safe to say that the most divisive of Skyward Sword’s features was it’s 1:1 motion controls with the WiiMote Plus.
The most fundamental part of any video game is its control scheme, and so it stands to reason that any game that messes with the basic set up of the controls is going to easily induce frustration. It’s not that controller innovations or changes are necessarily bad in of themselves, but that any change to how the player controls a game should not make it more difficult to control than in other, similar titles. I’m personally quite keen on this philosophy, because the most common reason I’ll put down a game for good is if I can’t stand how it controls.
I’m not going to rehash the now done to death arguments about whether or not Skyward Sword’s controls were actually any good, (though full disclosure: I didn’t like them), but instead comment on their controversial reception. While Twilight Princess had set the first precedent for converting the Zelda franchise from classic button mashing to making gestures with the WiiMote, Skyward Sword’s 1:1 motion controls were a bold, new step for the franchise and added a unique learning curve to the game. Suddenly, some players like me, who had mastered Zelda’s combat and navigation mechanics under the old control scheme, were struggling to adapt to the new motion controls.
What can be learned from this incident is that using a controller is second nature for experienced video game players and anything which deviates from a conventional control scheme quickly feels like a poor design choice; it’s hard to blame yourself when the controls feel so alien from what you were previously used to. In that sense, it’s extremely frustrating to be constantly thinking: I could beat this enemy if I just had a normal controller, but instead this WiiMote is making even basic actions so much more clunky and awkward than they have to be. Maybe it’s is just a personal preference, but as a player, I want a game’s challenge to be rooted in things like its enemy abilities and level design, not in finicky controls.
It’s possible to conceive of a universe where Skyward Sword’s controls became the mainstream for other action games, but in our universe where they remain a novelty, they added an unnecessary learning curve that made even a veteran Zelda player like myself feel as though I was picking up my controller for the first time. While that sounds like the sort of experience that bored players and critics alike dreamily long for, (that feeling of newness in a franchise that has become increasingly stagnant), I’d rather stick with building on what I already know and love over throwing out so much of what made the previous titles great. In this case, that means focusing more on the actual content of the game and less on a gimmicky control scheme that undoes all of the refinement the last few iterations of the franchise have added.
I don’t fault Nintendo for trying to innovate, because their more successful innovations have kept them relevant for all these decades, but its frustrating when innovation comes at the cost of a player’s sense of mastery over a game. How designers can create games that are new without destroying too much of what already works is beyond the scope of this article, but in any case, feeling like a new player again is not worth also feeling like I have to work twice as hard to accomplish what I could previously do with ease.
Of course, not every player who played Skyward Sword had such a negative experience with its controls, and in fact many players have specifically praised the game for them, but it nevertheless stands that by changing such an essential and basic aspect of the series there was bound to be some controversy. While Breath of the Wild looks to be more or less a return to the old style of controls, (putting the questionable ergonomics of the Nintendo Switch aside), there are still many other features that are a significant change from the rest of the franchise. I’ll admit to buying into the hype and I’m confident that Breath of the Wild will be fantastic, even if some of my biggest concerns are realized, but I still have to wonder what may be inadvertently lost as a result of the coming changes to the series. At the very least, I am extremely grateful that motion controls have been abandoned and I’m sure that whatever does change about the series, I’ll enjoy it that much more without having to constantly worry about how to properly use the WiiMote.