SPOILER WARNING: This review contains minor gameplay spoilers related to items and dungeons. If you want to go in completley fresh, skip to the score.
There is a piece of cleverness at the heart of Skyward Sword's desert region that is pure Nintendo. Link discovers shards of timeshift stones; crystals that, once struck, create a temporary window to the past.
Within a five-metre radius the sand sprouts grass, rusted mine carts' wheels are greased and a race of automaton miners whir back to life. If enemies from the past accidentally leave the area they age to a pile of bones, and if enemies from the future accidentally enter, they revert to harmless infancy. Even the soundtrack rediscovers its oomph, as if what was heard in the present was some distant echo carried on the winds.
Isn't this the Zelda experience in a nutshell? Listen to the right audio cue or discover a certain item and we're engulfed in a temporary bubble of 1986, 1992, 1998 - or whenever it was you first entered Hyrule. For some it's the do-do-do-doo of an item get. For others, a yelping spin attack. For this writer, one blast of fairy fountain and he's back in his living room on Christmas Day, puking with joy over an Ocarina cartridge.
Detractors say Nintendo rely on these building blocks to a fault; nostalgia verging on recycling. Skyward Sword aims to quiet dissent for good by telling the tale of how some of these icons came to be, and by telling it in the most radical Zelda to date.
How radical? Try this on for size: 'light the torch' puzzles have been extinguished for good. A brutal ideas cull sees Nintendo HQ's skip piled high with pressure pads, boomerangs, crate conundrums, timed switches and coloured tunics. In their stead, Nintendo visit Puzzle Ikea and return with their car groaning under the weight of new level furniture.
Timeshift stones are joined by eyeball locks, wind-blown swings, Tarzan vines and thirsty doors. Yes, doors demanding a tasty beverage to unlock. It's the Samuel L Jackson of Zelda puzzles. Innovations continue late into the game, where impromptu spelunking and a misbehaved musical score wait to bamboozle puzzle-fatigued minds.
More importantly, ideas get the space to breathe. Rather than wither in dungeon crannies they underpin entire buildings. A disused mining facility becomes a showcase for timeshifts as Link clears present day debris while unwittingly rebooting the deadly production lines of the past. And a later fire temple revitalises the most hackneyed of settings by focusing on cooling magma canals with succulent berries.
It's great to see Skyward Sword's architects reject the old thinking that dungeons must be defined by the items found in them. That line of thought was exhausted by Twilight Princess, and Nintendo are wise to move on.
TALES FROM THE CRYPT
Skyward Sword mines such a rich ideas vein that many dungeon elements overflow, spilling into the field. Before descending into puzzling crypts (each entrance gets a cutscene where our hero steels himself for the horrors to come) Link has already raided volcanic strongholds, hunted camouflaged birds and cranked up ancient power generators.
One second-act highlight sees Link master rickety mine carts, climb a rocky peninsula and infiltrate a pirate hideout all in pursuit of a single dungeon entrance. That's enough adventure to fill an entire game; here it's just another peak in a game with little time for troughs.
Yet, for all its big talk, Skyward Sword is surprisingly economical with space. The Surface - a kind of proto-Hyrule where Link spends 80% of the game - is split into three unconnected regions. Coming from Twilight Princess' hulking continent it sounds stingy. What, no Hyrule Field to gallop across? Instead, every acre is crammed with purpose.