Link's dowsing ability - point the sword and follow the bleeps - is basically an excuse to pump the land with treasure hunts. By the end you're collecting so much tat - Goddess Cubes, upgrade materials, insects, heart containers, rupees, side-quest doodads - you'll wonder if the game was co-developed by Rare circa Donkey Kong 64.
And Nintendo make up for the smaller acreage - although, in fairness, the map dwarfs Ocarina's - by modifying landscapes for meaningful return visits. Some tweaks are small: increased enemy presence, perhaps, or new items hoisting Link to unseen heights. Others renovate entirely, turning safe ground treacherous and turning dry ground... wet.
Returning to trodden ground to find it sodden ground isn't just a great surprise, it taps into a surrealist beauty we'd typically associate with Mario Galaxy. In comparison, Hyrules of old feel stubbornly averse to change, preset locations destined to play out in an endless repeating loop. Skyward's Hyrule is a place where things... happen.
DEFENCE OF THE REALM
Link's trips to a temporary dual world, the Silent Realm, aren't quite the big deal we hoped for. In this world, you pacify masked pursuers by gobbling mystic fruit. The unusual blend of parkour and stealth is novel and diverting, but never a substantial challenge. What could be a devious design - the more fruit you grab the less fruit there is to save you - fails to ramp up to palm-moistening levels.
It gave us our fair share of heart-in-mouth escapes (the clanging industrial music is heaps scarier than anything in Wii's Silent Hill), but we never failed more than twice. No biggie - Silent Realm constitutes 30 minutes of a central quest that runs to 35 hours.
And that's a blinkered 35 hours. Get stuck into Link's home in the clouds, and the figure grows. Up here, Skyward Sword plays like Wind Waker in fast forward: fewer islands, closer together. What the sky lacks in breadth (you can flap from one end to the other in three minutes) it makes up for in height.
Dismounting into a tumbling skydive taps into that same brief thrill felt at the start of Wii Sports Resort, only here the sensation is on tap. Despite adding minutes to journeys, we found ourselves flapping to the invisible ceiling just to hear the wind whooshing past our ears as we fell back down again. If you remember to pull Link's parachute in time, even better.
Nintendo fill the void with big characters. Skyloftians are a weird bunch. Link rubs shoulders with saucer-eyed psychics, hen-pecked husbands and lovelorn school bullies. Best not rub shoulders with the clown on Fun Fun Island. Take a nap until the evening and you discover a buzzing nightlife: the local watering hole gets rowdy, shopkeepers drop their sycophantic grins and something odd emerges from the school toilet.
It's a sense of place to rival Majora's Mask's Clock Town. As in that game you end up running laps of the town, terrified of missing the cast's bizarro antics. Our favourite is the item check girl who may or may not be slapping on more makeup every time Link visits.
Skyward Sword's character work is flawless. Link's rivalry with school bully Groose fleshes out a franchise traditionally given over to sullen lone wolf behaviour (literally so in Twilight Princess). Likewise, the tomboyish Zelda is the first of her lineage we've genuinely wanted to save. Her touchy-feely relationship with Link is both fanboy-pleasing - releasing 25 years of pent-up sexual tension - and the beating heart of the most charming Zelda yarn to date.
We'll even admit to a few goosebumps as their fates dramatically ricochet off one another throughout the tale. Needless to say, this is the hardest we've seen her work for top billing.