The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD Review
When you have a series as universally beloved as The Legend of Zelda, expectations and hype are funny things. Despite a mostly positive critical reception at the time, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword has come to garner a reputation as the black sheep of the 3D Zelda family, maligned by its vocal critics over the years to the extent that history looks back upon its 2011 release with disdain and disappointment. I will be the first to admit that I am amongst that large group of players who don’t hold fond memories of this game.
Having said that, please allow me to be one of the first to happily admit that I got it completely wrong. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD deserves to rewrite the history books on this entry in Nintendo’s blockbuster franchise. With a smattering of clever nips and tucks and the option to disregard the motion controls, this re-release ten years on makes it plain to see that there was a spectacular Zelda game hidden beneath the clouds all along.
Standing as the chronological origins of the series, Skyward Sword tells the familiar tale of a prophesied hero, a young princess, and a seemingly unstoppable evil attempting to conquer the land and lay waste to its inhabitants by stealing the sacred Triforce. The trappings will be familiar to anyone who’s played a Zelda game in their lifetime, but to dismiss its story for that would be a great disservice.
This is the most satisfying narrative in a Zelda game, with a cast of fleshed-out characters, snappy writing, and compelling story beats. From the oafish Groose to the off-the-walls bizarre Ghirahim, there’s a playful charisma to all of the story’s leading and supporting players. Every character is infused with oodles of charm and personality. It makes it easy to invest in the events unfolding and makes for some genuinely emotional moments throughout.
Despite underlying textures that were clearly conjured during the Wii era, it’s a surprisingly enchanting world to inhabit. The watercolour aesthetic has aged superbly, with the new HD lick of paint making everything from Link and Zelda to the forests and mountains look vibrant and crisp. Although still low on detail in many places, the muddy textures and aggressive jagged edges of the Wii era are a thing of the past and never looks ugly. A rock-solid 60fps framerate rounds out the visual improvements in a substantially improved treat for the eyes.
One aspect of the 2011 release I could never hold against it was the stellar soundtrack. Nintendo opted for a full orchestra for a large portion of the music, adding a grandiose sense of scale to the adventure. It also contains some of my all-time favourite pieces of music in the franchise, which is an impressive accolade given the pedigree of what has come before it.
None of these elements would matter if the core Zelda experience at the beating heart of the game wasn’t enjoyable, and it’s this area that has been the subject of much debate over the last decade. Criticism generally fell into one of two camps. The first was the motion controls and their impact on minute-to-minute gameplay. Secondly, there was the game’s overall structure. The good news is that changes made to this remaster help both camps, even if things still aren’t perfect.
Easily the most divisive element of the original was the motion controls. The Wii Motion Plus informed every aspect of the game’s design, from combat and puzzles to items and traversal. Soaring through the skies on your Loftwing turns the controller into a flight stick, whilst combat requires you to read opponents move and strike with precision.
If you opt to play with motion controls on Switch, it’s a similar experience to how it was on the Wii. It has been some time since I’ve played the Wii version, but overall there doesn’t appear to be a considerable difference between the Wii remote and the Joy-Cons when it comes to the accuracy and responsiveness of the motion controls. It still reflects specific actions and gestures accurately around 90-95% of the time (as Fi would say), but that small window of error spread across such a long game still makes for a few too many moments of frustration.
Specific actions like a thrust attack not registering correctly in the heat of battle can become tedious quickly. The idea of baiting an enemy’s block to one side and then quickly swiping the other way is an innovative design choice that should lead to more engaging battles. In reality, finding the balance between moving quickly enough to that other side to make the attack and not so fast that you accidentally register an attack on the way through is an extremely thin line that is annoying fiddly to navigate.
Luckily the addition of traditional button controls works wonderfully and allows Skyward Sword’s clever innovations to shine without being hampered by inconsistent technology. Slashing in any desired direction is a breeze, with stab controls now a simple click of the stick away. Sure, the feeling of alternating horizontal or vertical flicks for spin attacks and finishing moves respectively lacks the impact of performing the physical action with motion controls, but it’s a relatively small sacrifice given the precision granted by the button controls. It has brought the focus back to thinking through each action in a combat encounter, allowing you to concentrate on planning and timing instead of finicky execution.
Results with items and flying work great too. Guiding your Loftwing through the clouds is much easier and less tedious, as is steering your flying beetle or pointing the Gust Bellows. As for items such as the bow and slingshot, the combination of sticks and being able to fine-tune your aim with the built-in gyro controls is a more than suitable replacement. The only item that loses a little magic here is bombs, as using the stick simply isn’t as enjoyable as rolling bombs along the ground like a bowling ball or lobbing them over your head.
Then we get to arguably the best addition to this remaster – complete camera control. Getting full control over the camera is a gamechanger and simply makes navigating the game’s space infinitely more enjoyable than needing to constantly stop and recentre the camera behind Link. If you’re playing with motion controls, the camera is always on the right stick, but those playing with buttons will need to hold L to override the sword controls and switch to controlling the camera instead. It can take a little getting used to, and an option to have this as a toggle rather than needing to hold L the entire time would have been appreciated. However, once you get used to it, its impact on the overall game feel is enormous.
Many other quality-of-life tweaks have been made to help the general flow of the game. The much-derided opening segment has been significantly streamlined. There’s less dialogue, fewer interruptions, and you can even skip some tutorials. An emphasis has been put on speeding up the flow of the game throughout. Information screens don’t repeat when you pick up the same item multiple times, Fi bothers you far less often than before, and you can even zip through text or skip cut scenes if you so choose. Having the option to instantly warp back to the overworld would have been a nice little timesaver to be built into the game rather than having it locked behind a sold-out amiibo. With that said, I honestly can’t think of too many instances where I would have used it anyway.
Between the consistency offered with the button controls and the fine-tuning to some of the more irritating elements, it’s hard to overstate just how much of a difference these changes make. Previously playing Skyward Sword felt like a decent game periodically but persistently interrupted by some jarring design decision or frustrating control shortcoming. It has become a game free of such irritating moments to the point that everything else around it has become infinitely more enjoyable.
I was pleasantly surprised just how much fun I was having, with the game’s strengths shining through without the baggage dragging it down. Progression zips along at a brisk pace, taking Link between a few key locations and offering something new each time. While you are in Skyloft, the game’s central hub, you’ll split your time between shopping and helping the denizens of Skyloft with their trials and tribulations. After jumping off the floating island and being swept away on your trusty bird, there are three areas to venture to below the clouds. Upon repeated visits, sometimes a new area will open up, other times the existing landscape will have been completely transformed since your last visit, but either way you’re usually doing something different to last time. Whether it’s tracking down musical notes, surviving a treacherous minecart ride or sneaking through an enemy base to recover your stolen gear, there’s a good amount of variety on offer to keep things fresh. Overall the strucure may be a slightly more linear experience than other quests through Hyrule, but I came to enjoy it for what it was.
These are also some fantastic dungeons hidden away in these lands, to the extent that it’s one of my favourite collections of dungeons in the series. From the time-switching puzzling of the Lanayru Desert Sandship to the moving architecture of the Ancient Cistern, each dungeon feels suitably unique and meticulously crafted, even if they’re not particularly challenging. They’re capped off by some incredible boss battles too, with excellent designs and exciting ways in which you’ll need to take them down.
Some criticism can undoubtedly still be levied at Skyward Sword. Although the areas do get shaken upon each visit, only having three significant locations to revisit repeatedly to get a new set of MacGuffins can feel a little barebones, especially with a somewhat barren overworld. Being forced to fight two of the game’s bosses on three separate occasions, each with only minor variations, is also a little uninspired. Lastly, I wasn’t a massive fan of parts that required the Dowsing ability to search for things you would never find otherwise, or the Light Realm sections that task you with hunting down collectables before Link gets hunted down himself.
Despite these minor quibbles, none of these things bothered me anywhere near as much as they did when I first played this ten years ago. I kept waiting for frustrating sections from my memory to reappear, and every time they did, I played on through with no frustration to be found. It’s a testament to just how much the improved controls, pacing and other quality of life tweaks work to make this a vastly superior experience overall.
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD manages to smooth over practically every rough edge of the original release and offer a vastly better experience from start to finish. I truly expect this remaster will bring the game’s reputation from the maligned place in history where it currently sits up towards the upper echelon of the series where it belongs. Much like how the small town of Skyloft sits in the clouds above an enormous world below, looking beyond the surface of this remaster reveals a revitalised adventure with so much more to enjoy than you expect. Even if you didn’t like it ten years ago, I implore you to give it another chance. It just might surprise you.
+ Inventive dungeons
+ A delight for the eyes and ears
+ Quality of life tweaks lift the entire package
+ Button controls work great…
– …though some very minor sacrifices when opting for buttons
– Slight repetition with bosses and areas
– Dowsing and light realm challenges