After rolling credits on The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD on Nintendo Switch, I feel really good about my decision to spend 50+ hours revisiting the Zelda universe’s origin story, warts and all. I’ve always been a fan of this divisive Zelda, though unlike IGN’s reviewer in 2011, I never thought Skyward Sword could quite stand shoulder to shoulder with giants of the series like Ocarina of Time or The Wind Waker. Even so, it’s a great game, and much of what made it great has aged quite well especially in light of the quality of life improvements and updated graphics. The story and characters are still some of the best in the series and the side quests and weirdness of the world remains fantastic. On the other hand, no matter what you’re doing the gimmicky Wii-era motion control mechanics are still constantly right up in your face, reminding me why those never worked well, and some of the dungeons (and especially the boss fights) aren’t particularly challenging or memorable. But with so much to do and a lot to love, Skyward Sword’s journey down memory lane has kept me smiling the whole way through.
I’ve always considered the visual style of Skyward Sword to be one of the best in the series, and the 1080p/60fps upgrade (docked – it’s 720p/60fps in handheld mode) makes the already lovable world of giant birds and creepy mole people all the more beautiful. It’s still not as detailed as Breath of the Wild, but it’s a massive improvement over the 480p/30fps (!) Wii version. Sailing the open desert as a time traveling pirate is bewitchingly beautiful, and the expressions on characters’ faces manage to convey a ton of emotion despite using an art style that’s minimalistic by today’s standards.
Creating an origin story for a beloved series that’s had a fairly disjointed plot is no small task, but Skyward Sword sticks the landing with ease. Every character is extremely memorable, whether it’s a heavy hitter like Zelda who’s more emotional and humanized than she’s ever been, or the goofy cast of side characters like Groose, the dumb jock with a heart of gold. Setting the stage for the events of every story that comes after it and creating an origin for the iconic Master Sword are already impressive feats on their own; the fact that Nintendo pulled it off without voice acting and created such an all-star cast in the process makes me wonder what faustian bargain was struck to make that supernatural feat possible.
Following the typical dungeon-delving formula, you spend most of your time in Skyward Sword HD exploring colorful areas, collecting nifty new gadgets, and solving straightforward puzzles as you slice your way through all kinds of cartoonish monsters. Unique to Skyward Sword is that the four main hub worlds are reused heavily as you retrace your steps in your quest to save Zelda, gaining access to new parts of the world as you obtain new gear. The lack of variety is a little disappointing, but it’s not as repetitious as it sounds because world events sometimes change the landscapes over time and hidden areas reveal themselves during return visits.
Even if they’re reused a tad too much, each of the hub worlds are diverse and full of personality and exploring them all can be a lot of fun. You’ll hunt for archeological secrets with a Goron, help some woodland weirdos reunite, and look for some interesting secrets and collectibles along the way. The main weakness of the hub worlds is that they tend to be fairly barren when it comes to enemies, which are sporadically placed and serve mostly as a minor annoyance rather than any real or worthwhile challenge.
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While I’m on the topic of running around: the stamina system in Skyward Sword is still very out of place and not good. It works in Breath of the Wild, where access to areas is limited by a stamina stat that you’re constantly raising, but in Skyward Sword it simply slows you down for no real reason. It’s also constantly making me feel like a wimp in combat when I run out of stamina then have to stop and pant for like 10 seconds while some moblins whale on me. The fact that you can’t increase your stamina or make the situation less annoying except by chugging potions like a drunken witch makes it even more annoying. If I were in charge of a Skyward Sword remaster and gameplay tweaks were on the table, I probably would have just removed the stamina system altogether. Nothing of value would be lost.
Side quests aren’t a huge part of Skyward Sword HD, which is one of the more linear Zelda games, but the ones that are there are awesome. I flushed a jerk’s love letter right down the toilet then watched him cry about it, and seduced the item check lady right in front of her disapproving father. When dungeons and puzzles were wearing on me, it was nice to be able to fall back to the floating island of Skyloft and just get up to some good ol’ fashioned shenanigans, and Skyward Sword HD has got those in spades.
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Of course, dungeons in the Zelda series have always been the real meat and potatoes, and Skyward Sword mostly delivers in that regard. There are some absolutely fantastic highlights, like the time-shifting, pirate-themed sand dungeons, as well as some that are fairly forgettable, like the by-the-numbers Faron Woods areas that I feel like I’ve played a hundred times already across every Zelda game. That’s not to say that any of the dungeons are actively not fun to play – dungeons are easily the best part of any Zelda game and Skyward Sword HD is no exception. It’s more that you can only solve a puzzle whose solution is to shoot an arrow at an eyeball so many times before you’re like, “Okay. Can we get to the boss now, please?”
Unfortunately, the boss fights are a little hit or miss as well, with repeated encounters throughout that are only slightly modified variations each time and become monotonous. A few are just forgettable, like the giant scorpion with eyeballs on his claws that could be used as a stock photo of a boss encounter. That said, there are also a few really stellar boss fights, especially in the back half of the adventure (which I won’t spoil here for those who haven’t played yet). When a satisfying dungeon filled with interesting puzzles and a memorable boss encounter come together it’s one of the most satisfying Zelda-specific feelings in all of gaming, and Skyward Sword HD does have quite a few.
Going Through The Motions
When it debuted in 2011, there was a lot of discussion around Skyward Sword’s heavy use of motion controls – and now, with the remaster offering both motion-based and thumbstick control options, that debate seems primed to reignite. Even with motion controls disabled, nearly every battle and puzzle incorporates the direction in which you swing Link’s trusty blade and you’re often asked to draw a symbol on a wall or some other task that was clearly built with the Wii Remote in mind. Using motion controls on the Switch, Skyward Sword feels very much on par with the original version, both good and bad. Swinging your detached Joy-con around at an enemy can be a lot of fun, but flapping your arms like a bird to get your Loftwing to fly higher is pretty annoying. And, naturally, when it occasionally doesn’t detect your movement correctly it’s just frustrating and not fun.
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There are a few moments in Skyward Sword HD, though, where motion controls feel absolutely perfect, like the rare moments where you thrust your sword into the ground during a cutscene or draw the outline of a sigil with your sword to perform a sealing ritual. Regardless of how you feel about motion controls during fights, these small, quick-time event-like interactions are satisfying and memorable.
For those who typically aren’t into motion controls – a category in which I include myself – there’s an option to disable them altogether. Unfortunately, the replacement is every bit as much of a pain in the neck and doesn’t really solve the problem I have with the motion controls. It’s not that I hate exercise or swinging my arm around – it’s that I hate how unreliable they are. But the motion-free answer to this, which is the only way to play in handheld mode or on a Switch Lite (unless you buy another controller) is that the right joystick serves as a directional pointer that you flick around in place of swinging your arm, and there are just as many issues with that.
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For one, you actually have to flick the stick around for a swing to register, not move it slowly. If you do, Link merely draws back his sword in preparation for an attack – he’ll only swing it once you rapidly flick the stick in a direction. Because you can’t take your time to line up those inputs, this means you end up with the exact same issues of inaccuracy as you’d get from motion controls. Which is to say, it works ~80% of the time, but when it doesn’t work it gets old really fast.
On top of that, the way the stick has to be moved makes sense on paper but can be a little counterintuitive in practice. For example, if an enemy is guarding to your right, my instincts tell me to input toward the left to hit his unguarded side. But flicking the stick to the left swings my sword from right to left and immediately gets blocked. Like playing with an inverted camera, in order to hit the enemy I have to do the opposite of what I naturally want to and move the joystick to the right so that Link will swing his sword from left to right and hit the enemy’s unguarded side. I might’ve chalked this up to a problem unique to my broken brain, but another IGN staffer had the exact same issue trying to swing the sword in the intended direction. At the very least it takes a few hours for the unintuitively strange controls to start feeling natural.
In fact, I ultimately ended up switching back to motion controls because at least then I knew which way to swing the controller to get the desired result more naturally. That’s a huge miss for people like me who were hoping for a more reliable option, or for people who pick up Skyward Sword for the first time only to be presented with two less-than-ideal options. To be fair, motion controls are so baked into Skyward Sword’s DNA that there might well be no good way to get around the problem no matter what, but either way the route Nintendo landed on is disappointing.
On the bright side, Skyward Sword HD adds the ability to fully control the camera, which was absent in the Wii version, but the caveat here is that it uses the same joystick as your sword in motion-free mode. Since you use the right thumbstick to control the camera normally, when that stick is occupied serving as your sword arm, you instead need to hold down L to move the camera then release it to regain control of your sword, which can be a bit clunky. Still, it’s a welcome addition, and if you’re playing with motion controls (as I ended up doing most of the time) then it’s a huge improvement over the Wii version.
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Aside from these major changes, there’s also a bunch of little quality-of-life stuff that wasn’t in the original, like skippable dialogue and cutscenes, autosaves, tutorials at the beginning that are now optional, and no more repeated item explanations every single time you pick something up. These are great changes that genuinely add up to make a noticeably smoother experience – although, there is one bizarre one in their midst: the not-insignificant new ability to instantly return to the sky at any time is inexplicably locked behind owning a specific Amiibo. Why? Because Nintendo, that’s why!