I have a copy of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword for the Wii in my possession, and to this day I don’t know how I acquired it. I never purchased it, no one gave it to me, and my former roommates never even owned a Wii. Yet there it is, nestled in a drawer amongst a group of other games I remember buying. I’ve only opened the case twice: once to confirm that there was a disc there eight years ago, and the second time about five minutes before I started writing this review to ensure that it hadn’t magically disappeared in the time since.
This is all to say that I have never played Skyward Sword before I began my journey through the upcoming Nintendo Switch remaster. As such, this review may not be the best for those who are looking for a direct comparison between the original version and Skyward Sword HD. But for those who want to see what someone thinks of the game having not played it all those years ago, read on.
To me, Skyward Sword HD is a game defined by contrast. It has some of the strongest dungeon designs in the series, standing out in part due to the repetitive overworld. The art style is wonderful to look at, though the landscapes are far more interesting than the character designs. And it is remarkably well paced save for a few key quests that sap all momentum the game has. Taken as a whole, Skyward Sword HD is a good game despite it being one of the weaker Zeldas I’ve played.
Set in the floating islands of Skyloft and the lands beneath its clouds, we follow Link as he sets out on a journey to defeat an evil force that threatens the world. Despite being a simple setup, there’s a lightness to the story that makes much of the game feel like a fantasy. The locales are bright and filled with a sense of wonder. This is primarily thanks to the visuals, which look crisp and welcoming in this HD update. The monsters are energetic, the land filled with colour that pops out as you explore the nooks and crannies, and it all makes exploring the rather constrained outdoors more interesting than it would otherwise.
The exception to this lies in the characters themselves. Frankly, the cast feels lacklustre in comparison to other games in the Zelda series. This is partially a result of the writing, as there is little personality on display for many characters. It’s also because I didn’t find the designs themselves memorable, with the exception of the designs of characters that are not human.
But if I’m being honest, much of the reason why many of the characters fell flat for me is because of where most of them reside – Skyloft itself. In contrast to the world below the clouds, exploring the sky is tedious at best and outright dull most of the time. What islands there are to explore are few in number and small in size. The town of Skyloft is bland, with few things to do and filled with simple fetch quests that do little to inspire the imagination. Even the act of flying through the sky is unenjoyable — the emptiness of Skyloft means that there’s rarely anything to do beyond pointing your Loftwing to your destination and waiting. I didn’t latch on to many of the townsfolk because I simply did not wish to be in Skyloft any longer than I had to.
Except you’ll be there for a while, particularly in the opening hours. It takes far too long for Link to actually begin his quest, as the story slowly introduces the world and its characters to the player. But neither Link, Zelda, or Fi — the spirit residing within Link’s sword — make the introduction interesting. I was champing at the bit to get going, eager to escape the drawn out opening and actually begin to explore.
Once I did, Skyward Sword HD grew on me quickly. Though the explorable areas are small, especially compared to past Zelda games, they are well constructed. There are many puzzles and secrets to solve and uncover, even on repeat visits. Sometimes revisiting a location can become grating — after three visits to the Faron Woods for story purposes, I was starting to get tired of it — but for the most part, I enjoyed walking around them.
Yet it is the dungeons that are the star of the show. Skyward Sword has some of the best dungeon designs in the entire series. Like the overworld, the dungeons are less vast and more tight in nature. Though they rarely take more than an hour to complete, they are a delight to navigate and explore, testing your mettle while offering up surprise after surprise. The Ancient Cistern in particular is a highlight. Inspired in large part by a Japanese short story called “The Spider’s Thread”, the Ancient Cistern features fun mechanics backed by a very engaging item. There is a sequence in it that mirrors a descent into hell, and the entire dungeon ends with a challenging boss fight that makes great use of the control scheme.
The items themselves are also worthy of praise. Each item is used again and again over the course of the game, with plenty of inventive uses that ensure that you’re not going to be bored using it repeatedly. The whip is my personal favourite, especially since I discovered that you could steal items from certain enemies if used appropriately. A quick flick of the stick, and upgrade materials became a lot easier to grab.
“The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword has some of the best dungeon designs in the entire serie”
On that note, it’s important to mention the new control scheme. Unlike the original, Skyward Sword HD offers the ability to play the game without motion controls. This was how I played through the game, both because I found the Joy-Cons to be imprecise and because I had a case of Joy-Con drift that made controlling the camera an exercise in futility.
With a buttons only scheme, you control Link’s sword by moving the right stick to attack in a certain direction. To control the camera, you must first hold down the L-button before moving the right stick. Though it takes some getting used to, by the end of the game I was quite comfortable with this layout. There were several times where controlling the camera became a pain, most notably when swimming, and I frequently unsheathed the sword with only a light touch of the stick. But it functions well at the end of the day, and unless you have a new pair of Joy-Cons I would strongly recommend using this method.
That being said, there were times where I felt that a lack of motion controls made some sections of the game play out differently than how they were designed. The most noteworthy instance was a miniboss fight atop a ship’s bow that is meant to be played out as a duel. I completed it quickly thanks to the fact that I could stab my opponent by pushing in the right stick. The boss blocked maybe twice the entire fight, and I suspect that if I were using motion controls it would have been a proper challenge. This is the risk that comes with making as big of a control scheme change as Skyward Sword HD makes, I’m afraid, and I think that those who have played the Wii version will spot more instances of this than me.
Even with a new control scheme, however, there are parts of the game that simply don’t feel good no matter how you look at it. For example, there is a recurring boss fight in the latter half of the game that becomes more and more miserable each time you fight it. A quest to collect musical notes is similarly dreadful, though you thankfully only have to do this once. There are a handful of encounters like this throughout Skyward Sword, and they disrupt the otherwise great pacing each time they appear.
It is to Skyward Sword’s credit that these issues do not derail the game as a whole. Despite my qualms with it, I still enjoyed my time playing through this remastered Wii epic. This is a good game at the end of the day, even if there are other Zeldas that I enjoy more than this one. For those who haven’t played it, Skyward Sword HD is an interesting adventure that will captivate you far more often than it will frustrate you.