The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD REVIEW
The origins of a legend brought back nearly a decade later. But did this tale need a retelling?
The Legend of Zelda holds a beloved place in many a gamer’s heart. Ever since the series’ first entry on the Nintendo Entertainment System back in 1986 it has captured the imaginations of players with its spell-binding story telling and gameplay. With each successive release the series has garnered praise from both reviewers and the gaming public. To some the clever puzzles and devious dungeons are what propels the series. Others claim the epic stories and endearing characters arethe series’ hallmarks. But no matter which facet of the games is cited, one thing remains clear: The Legend of Zelda has been a dynamite success for Nintendo. For a time it seemed that the series’ clout was untouchable, but that all changed when the Wii came on to the scene.
The Wii hosted a threadbare library of titles upon its launch on November 19th, 2006. Aside from the pack-in game Wii Sports its one saving grace was a port of Twilight Princess, originally a GameCube exclusive and whose development was a long and arduous affair for Nintendo. Early Wii adopters could get their hands on this latest entry a full two weeks before its GameCube counterpart complete with slightly enhanced visuals and altered controls. In time Twilight Princess would go on to be a critical and commercial success but its questionable changes to the Zelda ‘formula’, dull environments, and sluggish pacing were common faults in reviews, and the Wii port itself was a divisive topic. While the enhanced performance was appreciated most were less than impressed with the tacked on motion controls. It felt like a hastily produced stopgap to flesh out the Wii’s barren launch library, and players would have to wait a full five years before the console would finally see its own piece of the ongoing legend.
Development on a new Legend of Zelda title was teased as early as E3 2008 but Nintendo wouldn’t reveal anything remotely concrete until its E3 2009 press event where it showed off a few pieces of concept art including one showing a mature looking Link with his back to a small, ghostly female figure. Her features as well as her placement relative to Link quickly led to theories that she had some connection to the legendary Master Sword and fan rumor mills went into overdrive over the placement of this new title within the expanding and increasingly convoluted Zelda timeline. At E3 2010 its official title, Skyward Sword, was unveiled, and then at GDC 2011 press could finally get their hands on a demo of the title which featured combat against redesigned Skulltula and Lizalfos enemies and dungeon puzzles that served to show off the extent of the new Wii Motion Plus’ capabilities.
Upon release Skyward Sword met with overly positive reviews, including perfect scores from Japanese video game magazine Famitsu (the third Zelda title to receive such an honor), Game Informer, and IGN, who cited the fully orchestrated score, dungeons, and combat to be highlights of the experience. But repeated complaints of unreliable motion controls, an over reliance on back tracking and fetch quests to pad game length, and the tepid reception of companion character Fi, who many found even more frustrating than Navi, marred its reputation with fans and some critics. To this day Skyward Sword remains a polarizing title in the series.
Personally, I found Skyward Sword’s story to be one of the best additions to the franchise. Its dungeons also boast some of the most clever puzzles in the series through the use of in game mechanics, items, and physics. It’s visuals, inspired by the works of Claude Monet and Paul Cézanne, were quite impressive for the time and struck and nice balance between the cel-shaded Wind Waker and modern looking Twilight Princess. My time with the motion controls was also not nearly as frustrating as many other’s experiences, but I did find its pacing slowed to a crawl in the final third of the game as a metric ton of plot revelations and tedious NPC side quests are dropped on the player. Overall, it was still a more worthy entry than Twilight Princess but not a game I would bother to play more than once. That is, of course, until the reveal of a HD remaster coming to the Nintendo Switch that could be played entirely without motion controls.
My initial reaction to the announcement during Nintendo’s February 2021 Direct was mostly bewilderment. Why would Nintendo elect to remaster a title whose lasting legacy was so divisive? However, as more details were presented of what this particular remaster would entail I grew more fascinated. Perhaps this was Nintendo’s attempt to make amends with players over the Wii version’s failings. Quality of life improvements? Yeah, that’s pretty standard these days. More traditional controls? Okay, that sounds promising. Fewer redundant interruptions from Fi? Sign me up!
However, one thing I could not overlook was the price tag. Skyward Sword HD would retail for $59.99, or full MSRP for a major Switch release. That’s a bit steep for a HD remaster considering Wind Waker HD and Twilight Princess HD on the Wii U released with a $10 price cut compared to full fledged releases for that console. And like so many other Switch titles Skyward Sword HD would also have Amiibo support. This support would be limited to a special edition “Zelda and Loftwing” Amiibo that would add a special unrestricted fast travel mechanic between the surface and sky. For the uninitiated, Skyward Sword features constant travel back and forth between the surface realm and the sky, but it can only be initiated at certain outdoor statues on the surface or at cloud openings in the sky. Locking such a feature behind a $25 Amiibo comes off as incredibly money-grubbing, but its entirely optional and the game is still imminently playable without it.
Like any true Legend of Zelda fan I sprang for a copy at launch, though it would be nearly two months before I could get my hands on one of the Amiibos. I had every intent on streaming my entire playthrough on my Twitch channel but after streaming the first few hours I began to recall some less than flattering memories of my time with the Wii version. The intro is boring bordering on torturous and I was having trouble wrapping my head around the stick/button controls. I concluded the stream and didn’t touch the game for a full six weeks, but all the while a persistent voice in my head kept urging me to give it another chance. So, rather than stream it I chose to play the majority of it on my own time. My second, private outing with the game finally saw the controls click and I began to appreciate the many subtle improvements to the presentation and gameplay.
Exactly as it was billed, Skyward Sword HD is a slick, streamlined version of the original. Disruptive/repetitive item text and character dialogue has been removed, game environments and cinematics load incredibly fast, and with a little bit of practice the stick controls are a significantly more responsive and accurate setup than a Wiimote and Nunchuk. The game is presented in full 1080p at a buttery smooth 60 frames per second with slight updates to character models and environmental assets as well. However, these graphical upgrades cause the HD remaster to lose some of the post-impressionist style that the original was highly praised for. The textures are much cleaner but their relatively low resolution now stands out that much more, and character outlines pop out revealing a noticeable amount of aliasing that was once hidden behind the interlacing filters used to produce the original’s aesthetics.
Gameplay remains relatively untouched with a few exceptions. Players are now able to skip through much of the dialogue which is a much needed touch as Skyward Sword’s NPCs are some of the most verbose in the series. The in game camera can now be freely controlled using the right analog stick (when not using motion controls players have to hold the L button while moving the right analog to control the camera) which makes navigating the game’s complex and often vertically inclined environments a much simpler affair. Additonally, Skyward Sword HD features a rigorous auto save which can often be the difference between quickly getting back into the action or losing several hours’ worth of progress.
The game is not without its problems, though. As much as I appreciated the stick controls I repeatedly came across a couple of issues where the item swap menus would fail to change out to the item I had selected, and the lock on targeting would not register. The lack of any D-pad functionality, even in menus, was also grating. These nuisances are manageable for a veteran like myself but they could put off newcomers. I also found the enemy AI to be skewed with some of the lesser enemies having almost lightning like reflexes to my sword swings and the tougher enemies exhibiting an embarrassing level of ineptitude that could be easily exploited. I tried the game with all three controller types: Joy-Con motion, Joy-Con stick, and Switch Pro. I would highly recommend playing Skyward Sword HD with the latter. I found the motion sensitivity on the Joy-Cons performed only slightly better than the Wii Motion Plus at registering my movements, and the Joy-Con analog sticks are more difficult to use in combat than the Switch Pro’s.
When it was all said and done, however, I was surprised at how much I had enjoyed my second bout with Skyward Sword. After languishing as a Wii exclusive for a decade the Switch may be the perfect home for this title in the series, and this HD remaster is a serviceable update to what was already a decent game. I would encourage anyone that has yet to play this entry to give this remaster a shot. Skyward sword packs one of the most gripping and emotional stories in the Zelda series, which should be reason enough for many of you to give it a try, and this remaster removes many of the headaches that wound up bringing down what could have been a masterful game for the Wii in 2011. It’s not enough to justify the current $60 price tag, but if you can wait for an eShop sale or find a physical copy for under $40 online don’t pass up on it!
Until next time, Geeks!
OVERALL SCORE: 8.0