In a video game franchise with the kind of history and pop culture prevalence that The Legend of Zelda enjoys, there’re always going to be disagreements among fans about the quality of each entry. You only need to look at the likes of Breath of the Wild to see wars fought over which new twist or mechanic needs to get in the bin. But while any degree of disdain for BotW can be attributed to a number of different design decisions, the case for Skyward Sword is a little more clear cut. You either loved it because it was a great LoZ game with novel, compulsory motion controls or you hated it because it was a great LoZ game with terrible, compulsory motion controls.
The divisiveness over Skyward Sword’s gyroscopic gimmickry is almost tragic, because it also happens to cover one of the more important points in the series’ timeline. As the earliest point in what most would consider the general Legend of Zelda timeline, it tells the tale of the beginnings of staple elements in the series’ lore like the Kingdom of Hyrule and the Master Sword. With these early incarnations of Link and Zelda living a protected life in the clouds in their town of Skyloft, a series of events that leads to the awakening of terrible evils puts them on a journey to the dangerous world below and uncover past secrets while ensuring their future.
Skyward Sword sees Link explore the world below Skyloft in pursuit of Zelda, Girahim and the power to prevent impending catastrophes. Rather than tie together its three core regions with a large overworld map, Link gets around on his Loftwing, shooting back up into the sky to either pop back to Skyloft for a bit of a rest and a shop or straight back down into a new area. Once you’re on solid ground though, this is largely a ‘traditional’ LoZ game with fields and dungeons to explore, full of enemies and puzzles to overcome. Where it differs, of course, is a control scheme that originally sought to take advantage of the Wii’s ubiquitous motion controls, putting complete control of Link’s sword in the hands of players.
An ambitious move on Nintendo’s part and, to their credit, one that was built around the game itself and vice versa as opposed to being shoehorned in for the sake of it. That sword is double-edged though, as the game could solely be played with motion controls; every one of its mechanics, items and environments designed with the Wiimote in mind. It makes sense that Nintendo would want to capitalise on the unique features of its ridiculously-popular console, and the kind of creativity and ingenuity expected from them was still there – it’s just that motion controls, even good ones, aren’t ideal for 40-hour single player adventures.
That’s where The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD comes in. In re-releasing the game for Switch, a console with the capacity for motion gimmicks but a majority focus on traditional controls, it’s only logical that it now ships with an option for the latter. Yes, it’s now finally possible to play Skyward Sword entirely waggle-free (outside of *ahem* emulation). With ‘button controls’ enabled, Link’s sword swings and items are mapped to the right joystick, its multi-axis movements standing in for the IRL movements of players’ wrists and arms. It works surprisingly well, in some cases even better than the original option (frantic sword flails are far less physically taxing with just a thumb involved), only faltering slightly when trying to navigate radial menus and the like previously designed for a pointer.
Whether you’re using motion or buttons though, one immediately beneficial new inclusion is full camera control. That might sound like an odd thing to celebrate, but given the limitations of the old Wiimote and Nunchuck combo it’s something that was sorely missing the first go around. If you’re swinging the Joy-Con around for Link’s attacks the camera is mapped to the right stick, whereas in button mode it’s a case of holding down the left bumper and then using the stick to move the camera – a necessity since it’s otherwise in control of the sword. That certainly took some getting used to, and in fact after doing it for thirty-plus hours I still found myself instinctively pushing the right stick for the camera only to have Link awkwardly swing his weapon at nothing, but it’s really a small adjustment in the grand scheme.
Despite the occasional clumsiness of the button controls, they’re a standout feature and the most compelling argument for picking up Skyward Sword HD. That might sound blasphemous given the game wasn’t designed to be played this way, but the simple truth is it allows anyone (like myself) that gave up on the original version due to its controls to finally experience the game in full. Sure I fought with and swore at the new layout more than I’d like during my playthrough, but it felt like the game and I finally came to an agreeable compromise. You save my weak gamer arms from overexertion, I give you a proper red hot go. The result of which is, I now understand what critics and Zelda fans have understood since late 2011 – this is a ridiculously good Zelda game.
Without dwelling too much on what makes Skyward Sword great (you’ve got a literal decade of reviews, editorials and videos on the matter to look at online), you’ll find some of the series’ strongest level and dungeon designs, puzzles and progression here. Every time you enter a new area, or an old area with new gear, it’s a delight to simply explore and experiment with the environment. You can almost feel the beginnings of some of Breath of the Wild’s strongest identifiers in the more liberal solutions to its conundrums, no less the familiar concepts like a stamina bar and item upgrades. My only gripe with the game itself is a tendency to send Link back to the same areas multiple times over the course of the adventure to fetch various knick-knacks, though it does a good enough job of shaking the experience up each time that it’s a very minor complaint.
Of course, updated controls aren’t the only boon as Skyward Sword HD also offers up a gloriously sharp and fluid 1080p60 presentation as well as a slew of quality-of-life updates. The form is obviously a very nice thing to have, Skyward Sword did always bear one of the franchise’s nicer artistic identities with its exaggerated character designs and watercolour-esque textures. Where it suffered the confines of the Wii’s 480p output at 30fps, the gorgeous visuals are allowed to truly shine here. There’s no mistaking that it’s a decade-old game, mind, especially compared to the likes of Breath of the Wild, but it’s absolutely the best it’s ever looked in any official capacity.
As far as the general updates go, the tightening up of the game’s introduction and the ability to skip through text boxes or entire cutscenes definitely aren’t earth-shattering changes but they go a ways to making the game feel that little bit less its age. I definitely found it easier to get lost in Link’s journey for hours on end without the constant interruptions of both his companion and guide, Fi, and the repeated item explanations of yore.
But then there’s the Amiibo support. This is where things get a bit dicey and Skyward Sword HD manages to undo some of its good. The addition of an upgraded travel system that lets players skip back to the hub town of Skyloft from anywhere in the world – and then return right to where they were – sounds like exactly the kind of change that fans would be looking for in this remaster. Sadly for most, that feature is locked behind a special ‘Zelda & Loftwing’ Amiibo releasing alongside the game. That’s right, an important quality-of-life feature that’s not only tied to an extra purchase but a purchase of a product that’s going to be in extremely limited supply. That’s honestly pretty scummy.
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD isn’t a perfect port, but it’s an important one. Complaints about an awkward button control scheme and the insidious nature of its Amiibo support aside, the fact remains that this could (and should) be a chance for anyone who couldn’t get past the Wii version’s mandatory motion controls to finally play the game. What they’ll discover, if they do, is that Skyward Sword serves up some of the series’ best world and puzzle design while marking an incredibly important place in its narrative timeline. This is why remasters should exist.
Reviewed on Nintendo Switch // Review code supplied by publisher
- July 16, 2021