Skyward Sword HD has arrived on Nintendo Switch approximately 10 years after it debuted on the Wii. It’s arrived with significant improvements to the motion controls, plus it’s a great opportunity for those to catch up on the canonical start of the Legend that is the Zelda series. Skyward Sword has its flaws, but I think it’s a must-play for any Zelda fan out there.
The original Skyward Sword was a product of its era when it first came out. The Nintendo Wii console was one of the most successful consoles ever produced and millions of units were in homes all over the world. Nintendo really invested in motion controls and in Skyward Sword they were front a center. This felt more than a gimmick like swinging a tennis racket in Wii Sports, this was a full-on mainline Zelda entry, following on from the mildly successful Twilight Princess. Players could now wield a Sword in their hands with the Wii-mote and perhaps for the first time, really understand what it felt like to be Link and hold Master Sword in your hands. Skyward Sword has some fantastic Dungeon designs, but the motion controls (and other aspects of the game) put off many fans, leading to a major rethink of the franchise, which would later spawn one of the most successful games of all time in Breath of the Wild in 2017.
Fast forward to 2021 and Skyward Sword HD feels like a vast improvement over the original. The motion controls are still there if you want them, in the updates Joycon attached to the Nintendo Switch. However, Nintendo has also implemented button controls. Both options are still viable, although there’s nothing like sitting back with the Pro Controller and having an adventure around Hyrule.
Nintendo has been very deliberate with its marketing for Skyward Sword HD. The quality of life improvements has been front and center to the marketing campaign. Some of this marketing has also crept into the Breath of the Wild 2 teasers, with a shot from their new trailer shown off at E3 2021 demonstrating clear inspiration from Skyward Sword with Link diving from above. Skyward Sword HD’s release feels like a deliberate move from Nintendo, and perhaps they are admitting that many people didn’t play Skyward Sword and want to present an opportunity to fans to go back and enjoy this lesser-played Legend of Zelda adventure. Nintendo has a massive install base for the Nintendo Switch, and hopefully, with a few tweaks, they could introduce a whole new audience to what is a solid Zelda story.
I played the game primarily with button controls, only breaking out of this mode to test out the new motion controls. I would say buttons are the way to go with this entry and Nintendo has made some interesting improvements to the controls. They are not perfect by any means, but I think they are more than adequate and allow me to enjoy Link’s adventure in Hyrule without having to worry too much about waggling a joy in the air.
One of the freedoms presented with Skyward Sword was you could swing the Wiimote in the air and this would be translated to the screen with different directional swipes. You would swipe horizontally, vertically, diagonal, and also stab too. These motions have been translated to the right thumbstick on the Pro Controller or Joycon and it works fairly well. It’s not the most comfortable control scheme I’ve ever used for an action/adventure game, but it’ll do. Normally, the camera controls are reserved for the right thumbstick, and this is still there with the tactical use of the L button. Sometimes I’d end up getting my Sword out when I didn’t want to, as it feels so natural to use the right stick for the camera, but after a few hours it becomes second nature and you can stop worrying about the controls and focus on the great story in the game.
This is where it all began for the Legend of Zelda, and if you check out the timeline for the Zelda series then canonically it’s the first story. You play as Link, or whatever you decide to name the main character, in Skyloft. This is a small town above the clouds on floating islands. In the first hour or so in the game you take part in a coming of age ceremony where you and your bird mount are taking part in a competition to become a Knight of Skyloft. Zelda is there too and she’s taking on the role of the Maiden, where the reward for winning the ceremony is some alone time with Zelda, and she’ll also offer up a gift in the form of a glider (which nods to the future as one of the main tools of Breath of the Wild). Groose, the standard rival character, and his gang are determined to stop you from succeeding in the event and kidnap your bird, however, you managed to get him back and win the day, and the attention of Zelda.
Zelda has been having visions of evil below the clouds. After the ceremony, you are both flying on your bird mounts, when all of a sudden a cyclone knocks you both off your birds. Zelda is lost below the surface and Link wakes up back in his bed in Skyloft, safe for now, but with Zelda’s worried Father at the foot of his bed, asking where his daughter is. Link then travels to the Statue of the Maiden, an ancient statue in the legends of Skyloft and is presented as the Hero. Zelda’s father gives you an ancient tablet and you are equipped with a sword then it’s time to set off on your adventure below the clouds.
Skyward Sword is the last game of the traditional Zelda model, which started back years ago with games like Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time. Link starts out with only a few tools in his arsenal, then as you progress through the game you pick up a series of weapons and tools through the dungeons and slowly get more powerful over time until you take down the big boss at the end. By the time Skyward Sword came out this formula for the Legend of Zelda had become a little tired, leading to the team rethinking what a Legend of Zelda game could be.
Although the formula is somewhat tired, it doesn’t mean Skyward Sword is a bad Zelda entry. it’s actually very good. I think many people when they first played it found it tough to get through the motion controls and the new way of playing, but scratch under the surface of this game and there’s a very solid Zelda game here, which holds up.
Breath of the Wild switched things up in 2017 by removing dungeons and the linear path through the game. Rather than provide you tools and items as you progress through a series of dungeons, we got all of our tools on the Great Plateau in Breath of the Wild then we could forge our own path to the end of the adventure by any means, and any path we decided. The dungeons were replaced with smaller, more plentiful shrines and Nintendo injected a sense of exploration not found since the original Legend of Zelda on the NES.
Skyward Sword does feel on rails for the majority of the game, but there are elements of freedom here. Skyloft acts as your central hub world, from which you can discover new areas on the map below, then dive there, solve the puzzles, and beat the dungeon, often opening up new areas with improved tools and items.
The controls are improved in the game, but there’s also another quality of life improvements too. In the original, you would get item notifications all the time explaining what something was. For example, you’d pick up a rupee, and then get the same explanation each time you picked up another rupee, which was just unnecessary. You can now skip cutscenes and dialogue, which is perfect if you die and don’t want to see the same time-consuming dialogue you’ve been through before. There’s also support for fast travel, although this is locked behind the Amiibo, which is a little cheeky.
The quality of life improvements really work and make the overall experience of Skyward Sword HD much better than the original. I prefer sitting back with a controller and having my adventures like that. The world has moved on from deliberate motion controls of the Wii Motion + era, and motion controls are much more subtle these days if there at all.
There are deeper issues with Skyward Sword that quality of life improvements can’t fix, however. The map is very big, but it feels empty. It’s unfair to compare to Breath of the Wild, but in that game, it felt like a little adventure was around every corner. Skyward Sword feels quite lonely in comparison. The quest structure is also ‘of its era’ which amounts to gathering a bunch of items or doing a series of mundane tasks to get to the next. Skyward Sword could do with a little pruning of these unnecessary fetch quests because when Skyward Sword is good it’s great. Rather than a 50-hour game, this would likely have performed better at 25-30 hours with cutting some of the filler content.
Minor bloat issues aside Skyward Sword is a good Zelda entry, and better than many of the reports since its original release. The pattern of critical analysis of Skyward Sword is rather interesting – when it first came out it scored very well, then the reception on the title cooled not too long after release. I don’t think many people went back to play it purely because of the controls, and since Breath of the Wild came out and became one of the best games ever released, there’s almost less reason to go back to the original.
Skyward Sword HD is a worthwhile investment in Nintendo Switch for Zelda fans. It’s not a dramatic remake like Link’s Awakening, but it’s a good time capsule of a video game displaying the nature of Nintendo gaming at the period of release. Skyward Sword also sets up the franchise, acting as a prequel to many of the games that came after it – plus there are potential links to Breath of the Wild 2. Nintendo knows what they are doing when it comes to telling a good story, and this release at this time, with Link, dramatically skydiving in the Breath of the Wild 2 trailer probably isn’t a coincidence, so I’d recommend picking it up on Nintendo Switch and checking it out. There’s nothing more relaxing and delightful than an adventure in Hyrule, and Skyward Sword does a great job.