Review – The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD
Out of all “mainline” Zelda titles, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword was the only I hadn’t played prior to tackling this Switch version. I was one of the four people in the world who didn’t have a Wii back in the day, nor did I exactly feel like re-buying it on the Wii U years later. It just stood there, waiting for me to play it, even though I really wasn’t keen on tackling a stupidly lengthy adventure with mandatory motion controls in around 2016-ish. I knew it was considered the most divisive Zelda game ever made, with equal amounts of people loving it and hating it.
The announcement of a Switch remaster came as a pleasant surprise. I really wanted to play this game and find out why its reception was so mixed among fans, as critics had previously lauded it as the second coming of the messiah. Even if the $59.99 price tag was nothing short of downright absurd (it’s Nintendo after all, they made us pay sixty bucks for three Mario ROMs), the idea of being able to play this game with multiple control options, and on-the-go, was way too interesting to ignore. Now I completely understand why this game is considered so divisive among fans. I loved a LOT of things about it. But at the same time, I disliked tons of design and gameplay choices that I had never even considered disliking in any other mainline Zelda game. Buckle up folks, this is a long one.
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD is, by and large, a “definitive edition” of the 2011 Wii classic. It takes the original source code and gives it a full remaster treatment that was clearly absent in Super Mario 3D All-Stars. It revamps the original game’s visuals, controls, presentation, design choices, and framerate. But I’ll talk about these changes a bit further in this review. First of all, let’s talk about Skyward Sword itself.
Skyward Sword is, canonically speaking, the prequel to the entire The Legend of Zelda saga. It features the first canonical incarnations of Link and Zelda, as well as the origin story to what would eventually become Ganon. In here, all Hylians live in a sacred town located above the clouds called Skyloft, a place created by the goddess Hylia to protect them and the Triforce from a demonic invasion on the surface. As such, humanity has since forgotten about the surface world, and has been living among themselves and some gigantic birds called Loftwings for generations. Link starts off as a student in a knight academy, alongside Zelda and other characters, such as fan favorite Groose.
Link eventually descends to the surface to look for Zelda after a hurricane strikes her and her Loftwing. He finds out he is a hero chosen by Hylia to save the surface and Skyloft from an imminent demonic invasion. He is accompanied by an entity sleeping inside the goddess’ sword called Fi, who guides him around the derelict land of Hyrule, telling him where to go and what to do in case he gets lost (more on that later).
I’ll stop talking about the story here, as there is a ton that happens afterwards, and I know not a lot of people know a lot about Skyward Sword‘s plot in detail. Suffice to say, it is an excellent story as a whole, which is sadly hampered by an overall lack of stakes, as there is always someone more powerful than you helping you out in some of the more decisive moments of the plot. Nor is anyone kidnapped at any point, which is equally a pro and a con. It is a pro as it subverts the series’ tropes. It’s a con because, well, it feels like the plot would be solved whether Link was there or not.
The best thing about this game’s story is its characters. Skyward Sword features my favorite version of Zelda, someone who’s sassy and outgoing, someone who actually has a personality for once. She has a much deeper connection with Link than any other version of Zelda before or since, and I can’t help but adore her portrayal in here. Groose is your typical bully-turned-friend. Impa actually starts off loathing Link in a “I’ll hate you until you prove not to be a waste of my time” kind of way. As for Link himself, well, he’s a loser. But that’s not a bad thing. He starts off as a lazy doofus, but ends up becoming the hero he was supposed to become. Most characters grow during the story and I truly admire this plot progression, despite the lack of stakes.
A lot of people hate Fi, and I get why. I did one hell of a research on the original version of the game and noticed how annoying she was. Holding your hand during the entire playthrough, showering you with stupid tutorials, and nonsensical statistics that added nothing to the overall experience. The developers did “neuter” her a bit, making most of her tutorials optional and most of her text boxes skippable. She didn’t infuriate me as a result. She was just there, along for the ride, occasionally helping me out with a hint when needed. In fact, the vast majority of the game’s cinematic cutscenes can be skipped, a first for a Zelda game.
This version of Hyrule… well, isn’t very interesting. Skyward Sword is infamous for being one of the most linear Zelda games ever made, with its version of Hyrule being comprised of just three provinces that aren’t even connected to each other. You will always be told where to go next, with very little chance to explore the surface beyond finding the occasional Goddess Cube (which unlocks some treasure in the Sky) and crafting material. Go to a province, do a bit of puzzle solving and platforming, unlock a shortcut in a quasi-Dark Souls kind of way, find the dungeon, beat the dungeon, rinse and repeat.
The Sky is Skyward Sword‘s “open world” section, and in my opinion, a very slight improvement over Wind Waker‘s Great Sea, which was way too big for its own good, taking a freaking eternity for you to go from point A to point B. The Sky is a lot smaller, with you being able to visually detect any islands or portals without the need of a map. With that being said, the Sky is practically empty.
With the exception of Skyloft itself, as well as a handful of small islets here and there, there’s nothing to do in the Sky. You can occasionally open a chest after striking its respective Goddess Cube back down on the surface. I found this to be a tremendous waste of time, just there to give a reason for you to fly around with your Loftwing every now and then. You can get a few Pieces of Heart and item upgrades, which are always nice, but the Sky felt like an afterthought as a whole. A mere reason for you not to beat the entire game in a very linear sitting without ever deviating from the main plot.
Skyward Sword‘s linearity is disappointing because its “levels” are indeed well-designed and its items are a blast. The Beetle is one of the best items in Zelda history, being basically a small drone that allows you to further explore dungeons and the overworld with an increased amount of freedom and precision. Not to mention that it can be further upgraded, allowing you to carry bombs around and drop them on top of enemies and switches, basically like a UAV from Call of Duty.
The problem is that despite having some of the best item selections in any Zelda game, a good chunk of them feel superfluous. Take the Slingshot, for example. As soon as you acquire the bow, the Slingshot becomes utterly useless. Even before that, the Beetle would perform most of the Slingshot’s functions without having to deal with a limited amount of ammo. The Whip is another example, as it becomes useless as soon as the Clawshots are acquired further down the line. Given the game’s major focus on linearity, you won’t even see an optional puzzle of platform that requires the Whip to access it later in the game. As a result, you will basically use two or three items at all times in Skyward Sword, and ignore the rest.
Then there’s the backtracking. Considering the fact that Skyward Sword only has three main provinces, that means you’ll go back to previously visited areas more than once, which is a nuisance. Granted, each province’s layout changes a bit every time you re-visit them, but the fact you have to backtrack all the time in such a linear game is ridiculous in my opinion. You even have to re-visit a dungeon at a certain point! This only worked in Ocarina of Time due to the time manipulation mechanic. There are some instances in which the backtracking becomes a fun challenge, such as when you have to collect Tears of Light in alternate versions of each province, but this only happens once per area. Skyward Sword could (and should) have had more areas to explore.
Speaking of dungeons… they’re alright. I’ve always heard from fans that Skyward Sword featured the single best selection of dungeons in the entire franchise. This was impressive to hear back then, since Twilight Princess had set an Everest-sized bar with its fantastic dungeons and boss battles. I will say that I like a few of the dungeons in Skyward Sword, but all in all, they weren’t very memorable. The ones in Lanayru ended up being my favorites, as they usually revolved around messing with the time-space continuum in creative ways. The first two temples, on the other hand, were weaker than the Great Deku Tree from Ocarina of Time in terms of sheer simplicity and amount of rooms to explore. Not to mention how linear they were.
The same cannot be said about the bosses. Those were a blast. Even the bosses people usually dislike, such as Scaldera and Tentalus, were fun and epic in my opinion. Other bosses, like Koloktos, were as good as some of the best battles in the franchise, such as Twilight Princess‘ Stallord or Majora’s Mask‘s Twinmold. On the other hand, the three battles against the Imprisoned felt like a massive waste of time. The combination of lame weak spots, a terrible monster design, the aforementioned lack of stakes, and the fact you have to fight the damn thing three times during the game led to one of the most disappointing aspects about Skyward Sword as a whole.
So, I’ve talked about the original Skyward Sword in full detail so far… but I haven’t even talked about the remaster itself. This is where things become interesting, for better and for worse…
Let’s start off with the best aspect about Skyward Sword HD: it’s gorgeous. It’s hard to believe that this game is already ten years old and that it was originally released for the Wii, a console whose hardware was just a tad bit more powerful than the freaking Gamecube. The art style, which is best described as a cartoonish take on the seriousness of Twilight Princess, is great to look at, with well-detailed characters and an utterly fantastic impressionist coat of paint on every single environment. It’s colorful, bright, and pleasing to the eyes. Plus, being able to witness this at an ever constant 60fps at a 1080p resolution (720p on portable) is fantastic. This is the best looking Zelda game ever made, even more than Breath of the Wild.
The same has to be said about the sound design. Skyward Sword is known for being the first Zelda game with an orchestral soundtrack, and boy, did Nintendo deliver with it. I don’t think there is a single bad song in this entire game, with Skyloft’s theme song being my favorite of the bunch. The sound effects are also excellent and I really appreciate the lack of voice acting in here, especially considering how subpar said feature ended up being on Breath of the Wild…
I cannot complain at all about the effort put into making a game released for a stupidly weak console ten years ago look like something that feels right at home in 2021. Other Nintendo remasters released for the Switch, such as Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition and the embarrassment that was Super Mario 3D All-Stars, pale in comparison to Skyward Sword HD‘s visuals and performance.
But the thing is, this was originally released for a console whose main gimmick was motion controls. Skyward Sword, as a whole, was basically being sold as the main reason for you to buy a Wiimote Plus. But the Switch is a console that’s mostly played in portable mode . Nintendo had to find a way to port the original game’s motion-based controls onto a more traditional button-based layout… to mixed results at best.
To their credit, they tried. Nintendo did come up with a brand new control scheme that ditches motion controls altogether. That means that, yes, you can play Skyward Sword HD in its entirety in portable mode, with third-party Joy-Cons that feature a better quality build than Nintendo’s own, or even with a Pro Controller. By and large, that is commendable. A lot of people aren’t exactly fond of mandatory motion controls, and that means that other underrated Wii gems may be ported to the Switch in the near future. The problem is how these controls were implemented on a normal controller layout.
Take the sword combat, for instance. This was Skyward Sword‘s main selling point: a one-to-one sword combat system that mimics the movements of the Wiimote. Nintendo adapted this control method onto the right analog stick, the only input in which such adaptation would have been feasable. Granted, there is a bit of delay when you swing your sword with the right analog stick, but you can get used to it. It’s not ideal, far from it, but your brain can (and will) adapt to this unfortunate situation.
This combat scheme is a bit unresponsive, but that’s not the worst thing when it comes to how the right analog stick is used in Skyward Sword HD. The same stick controls the camera, but you can only move it around by holding down the L button at the same time. This is not practical, useful, or smart. Skyward Sword is not filled with enemies like other Zelda games, so I honestly think that Nintendo should have swapped this functionality with the sword combat mechanics. As in, having to hold down or just press L once in order to “unlock” your sword mechanics with the right analog stick. It is way too cumbersome and I just ended up using ZL to center the camera behind Link like an old Nintendo 64 as a result.
The way the right analog stick is used throughout the game is beyond confusing. For instance, it is used normally when aiming with your Bow or Slingshot. It works like a charm. But if you want to aim the trajectory of your bomb throw, you need to move around with the left analog stick, as the right stick dictates whether you’re going to throw or roll the bomb. I find it weird that Nintendo came up with completely redone control schemes for some items, while leaving other items with a much more archaic (and occasionally obnoxious) input method.
Another thing I don’t agree with this game’s overall control scheme, which could have been fixed in this remaster, is the fact that you can only equip one secondary item at the time. It is always assigned to the ZR button. Now, the game itself doesn’t require you to constantly change items like, for instance, the Nintendo 64 Zelda titles. However, the fact the X button is almost never used during the the entire game makes me wonder if Nintendo couldn’t have implemented a second item slot to streamline things even more. They sure did that with the 3DS remakes of the Nintendo 64 games, as well as the Link’s Awakening remake after all…
As a result, the “optimal” way to play Skyward Sword HD is by resorting to motion controls, but this decision ultimately kills the biggest selling point of this remaster. Playing the game on docked or tabletop mode is not as fun as being able to play a huge 3D Zelda as a portable. In order to fully enjoy Skyward Sword HD on-the-go, you will need to get used to some confusing control schemes. Again, I don’t exactly think all of Nintendo’s decisions were stupid, as they had the unfortunate task of translating motion controls into buttons. But it doesn’t mean I shouldn’t criticise some of their most nonsensical choices, such as the camera controls.
In order to avoid sounding like a complete negative Nancy, there is one revamped gameplay aspect in which Nintendo knocked it out of the park: flying around with your Loftwing. Even though there is almost nothing you can do up in the sky, the brand new control scheme, which requires zero motion input, makes the act of flying around with your bird simple and fun. It almost feels like a mix between running around with Epona in Twlight Princess with the free-form flying mechanics from a good Star Fox game. If only there was something to do in the Sky…
I finally understand why Skyward Sword is such a divisive game. There are excellent things about its plot, its level design, and its gameplay choices. But they are equally offset by some terrible design choices in the same segments. The same can be said about this remaster. For every welcoming improvement, such as the fantastic graphics, performance, and being able to ditch motion controls altogether, there is another annoying setback, such as the implementation of said non-motion controls and the bizarre camera movement. Skyward Sword HD is a fascinating game that will either please or bore fans. I almost feel there is no in-between. At sixty bucks, this is way too much to ask for a Wii game, but the fact you can play it on-the-go is still worth lauding. Even if you have to deal with some confusing controls in order to do so.
Skyward Sword might actually feature the most beautiful art style from any Zelda game ever made. The improved resolution and framerate help make what was already pretty even more appealing to the eyes.
I love that I can sort of play Skyward Sword on-the-go, without the need of motion controls, but the button placement and design decisions usually work against the player, especially regarding the camera. As a result, playing in docked mode with motion controls is still the ideal way to go, but that goes against the Switch’s main selling point.
Not only is the fully orchestral soundtrack fantastic, but the sound effects, something I usually don’t pay attention in a Zelda game, are really well-implemented in here. The lack of voice acting is actually a blessing, considering how subpar it was in Breath of the Wild.
For every gameplay or story element that I liked in Skyward Sword HD, there was something else that hindered my enjoyment. The lack of meaningful sidequests, average-at-best dungeon design, obnoxious amount of backtracking, and a plot that’s actually devoid of stakes offset the cool boss battles, creative items, and fantastic characters.
Final Verdict: 7.5
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD is available now on Switch.
Reviewed on Switch.