Do control options and a handful of other tweaks modernize Skyward Sword for the HD era?
Looking back at a video game with years of hindsight can be eye-opening. I walked away from reviewing The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword on Wii a decade ago head over heels for the motion-controlled console's swan song. Since then, Skyward Sword got largely run through the mud and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild completely reinvented the idea of a 3D Zelda game. Revisiting Skyward Sword in its new HD form on Nintendo Switch is fascinating, because even in spite of flaws, this is an incredible game that puts a bow on both traditional 3D Zelda and the Wii while also laying down the foundation for what was to come. With that power of hindsight, I rediscovered what I love about Skyward Sword and thankfully, Nintendo did a decent job cleaning up what was a little rough around the edges.
The visuals were never one of those rough aspects, though. On Wii, this was a game designed to look painterly and vibrant on a standard definition TV. In HD, the visuals are still true to the original design but are upgraded to look pleasing on a modern display. The cartoony characters fit right in with the gorgeous locales. It does that good thing where it basically captures the look of the game as you would remember it and not how it actually was. While this isn't pushing the limits of the console, this is a nice looking video game that runs well on TV and handheld.
The handheld play is thankfully the most hand holding you will likely come across here as Nintendo subtly tweaked a lot of Skyward Sword's laborious tutorials and over explanation. No longer do you see the explanation for a rupee every time you turn on the game. Fi is 95% less annoying, as the majority of her hints are locked behind a button press. Characters also routinely give you the option to basically cut to the chase. The pacing is still slow but the tiny trims and cuts help make it more enjoyable. For example, I didn't initially notice anything really changed in the Skyloft opening, but I found myself enjoying it more than I had in a recent replay because it just kept moving a little bit faster. Some losses are incurred though as the Visions Super Guide feature appears to be gone. On one hand, you can find guides easily online; on the other, it was cool when Nintendo basically had a built-in strategy guide in their games.
Ultimately, one of the biggest changes here is the addition of button controls. Taking the motion-heavy gameplay and translating it to a more traditional scheme isn’t perfect, but it works close to the best it can. For the most part, it just controls like a 3D Zelda game this way, but the sword is mapped to the right analog stick. Directional attacks are done by tilting the stick in any direction and stabs are done by clicking in the stick. It’s weird, but it was far less awkward than I expected. Two major parts of these controls don’t sit well with me, however. Spin attacks and the fatal blow finishing move are done by flicking the stick in three directions quickly (e.g. a horizontal spin attack is done by going left-right-left). This never felt natural and I struggled to complete it consistently. The other annoying part is the camera control. Another new addition to Skyward Sword is free camera control, which is mapped to the right analog stick when using motion controls. The right analog stick is occupied by the sword with button controls, so the twin-stick camera movement can only be done by holding a shoulder button and then using the analog stick. It’s relatively minor and something that you can get used to, but boy it would have been so much better to be able to more easily control the camera in button controls.
But aside from those two nagging issues, the button controls are great. The game is clearly not designed for them, but this seems like the best way of mapping the motion controls to buttons without totally redesigning the whole thing. Sometimes it’s nice to just control the beetle with an analog stick or not have to deal with balancing using motion controls. Sword fights are also on the whole easier because the enemies focus so much on where you’re holding the sword in motion controls, so when you’re able to quickly flick the stick to execute an attack, it’s not as telegraphed.
The motion controls on Switch are generally fine, but I struggled with them more now than I did in 2011. That’s more because motion controls like this are very uncommon, whereas at the game’s original launch, I was coming off of five years of Wii games. It’s still satisfying, however, to slash your controller and slice up a Bokoblin. Some parts that I loved on Wii don’t translate as well on Switch, unfortunately. Rolling bombs isn’t nearly as smooth with the Joy-Con, but that more limits silly trick shots than hinders the moment-to-moment gameplay. Pointing towards your TV screen and simply pressing a button will recalibrate your position, making it far less cumbersome than having to lay your Wii Remote down on the ground for calibration.
I spent a good deal of time with both control schemes and found that motion is still the best way to play. Still, whenever I played handheld, I didn’t feel compromised because I was using button controls. It’s a slightly wider gap of the difference of playing Super Mario Odyssey with buttons or Joy-Con. Like Skyward Sword, Odyssey was designed around the motion controls, but it’s perfectly playable and enjoyable without them.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the story, which still tells the earliest known adventure of Link and Zelda. It’s filled with memorable characters, whether it’s the goth villain Ghirahim or the rambunctious rival Groose. The core is the relationship between Link and Zelda, which is more fleshed out here than in any other game. Link has a clear objective in his quest, which is to save his childhood friend, and the journey he goes on to become a legendary hero rarely loses sight of his initial goal. While Fi has a checkered history largely due to her tutorializing, I do really love how the game builds up a relationship with Link and his trusty sword. Zelda largely being an active participant in the story still holds up and the way the game lays out the Legend of Zelda as an entire concept is novel.
In general, coming back to Skyward Sword on Switch was an enjoyable experience. Many aspects still hold up, primarily the dungeon design. You do have demarcated dungeons, but the minute you set down on the ground, you have puzzles to solve, items to find, and paths to uncover. It’s incredibly seamless and I can see ways that this design carried forth in the Shrines in Breath of the Wild. While you only have three core areas to visit, each one features layers of puzzles and challenges that help to deepen your connection to the world and master the layout of the land. The first time you visit Eldin Volcano, you just romp around and explore. Then later, it’s a tense stealth sequence that builds on the prior knowledge you had of the map. Each place also has a Silent Realm sequence near the end that tests your area awareness even more. The progression of all three places, and even Skyloft, is where Skyward Sword excels.
The same can’t be said for the sky, unfortunately. While flying around the sky on a Loftwing initially conjured up Wind Waker seafaring, it’s far closer in reality to the barren wastelands of Hyrule Field in Twilight Princess as there isn’t that much to do and much of it is undercooked and too far apart. While the music tries to be as bombastic as possible, flying as a Loftwing just isn’t that much fun.
While the march to 100% completion in the skies might be disappointing, the core experience in Skyward Sword is largely great. For every dreadful Imprisoned fight and frustrating music note collection puzzle, you have almost the entirety of Lanayru and more than a half dozen epic and interesting boss fights. Parts of the game are smoothed over, but nothing is all that fundamentally different. Skyward Sword is what it is, and to me, it’s an awesome Zelda game.
What Skyward Sword HD does best is make a 3D Zelda once thought limited to a unique console playable in perpetuity (hopefully). Along the way, enough changes and tweaks are made to improve the adventure, whether it’s streamlined tutorials or satisfactory button controls. It wasn’t known at the time, but this represents the final chapter of Nintendo’s 3D Zelda design that started with Ocarina of Time. With hindsight, Skyward Sword HD serves an interesting coda that paved the way for Breath of the Wild. The linear ebb and flow of Link’s earliest chronological story might be rooted in the past, but it’s still an engaging and cozy adventure in the present that’s well worth playing or revisiting.