Skyward Sword HD Review: The Best-Worst Zelda Takes Flight Again

It isn’t exactly a hot take to say you don’t like Skyward Sword. It is the single-most maligned game in a beloved franchise. It suffers from a series of easily avoidable defects. It seems to trip over obstacles that the developers purposefully placed in their path. However, it’s not so simple as saying that I don’t like Skyward Sword. To the contrary, I like it.

That’s not a hate take, either. The game has reached its tenth anniversary, and most Zelda games between Ocarina of Time and Breath of the Wild have met with criticism upon release. However, public opinion generally softens as time and nostalgia take hold, which has led to many people actually saying that Skyward Sword is underrated. However, neither of these sentiments actually capture my the nature of my relationship with Skyward Sword.

So when I review a game like Skyward Sword HD, I have to address both my complex feelings towards it, and the improvements that the developers have made. This is going to make for a bizarre review, but it’s a bizarre game already, so I think I’m up for the challenge.

See the source image

To begin, I’ll try and distill my thoughts on the original Skyward Sword, which I replayed last year in a mid-pandemic effort to replay every 3D Legend of Zelda. I’m glad I did, as it allowed me to refresh my memory and peel back a lot of the nostalgia that surrounded games I had only played years before as a kid, often without completing them. Skyward Sword was the last game in that particular journey, as I replay Breath of the Wild once every three months, so it didn’t’ seem right to include it.

As for the positive, the first thing that comes to mind is that Skyward Sword is the most visually impressive traditional Zelda. Its watercolor aesthetic brings a fantastical world to live. It has ingenious world design, perhaps the best the franchise has ever seen. Between Skyloft’s homey vibe tucked away in the clouds, the brilliant decay and futurism of Lanayru Desert, Skyward Sword is a conceptual masterpiece.

It also has the strongest story of any Zelda game thus far, thanks to some decent character writing for once. For perhaps the first time, Zelda and Link are people with endearing traits, chemistry, motivations, and personal conflicts that enhance the experience of its story. Breath of the Wild’s Zelda has a compelling character arc, but Skyward Sword’s Link isn’t just an empty vessel here, he actually has a character.

He’s lazy, kind of oafish, and fitting for a resident of Skyloft, he has his head up in the clouds. Link usually has to grow in power to meet challenges, though he’s never had to grow up. The amnesiac construct of Breath of the Wild is great, but it means Link doesn’t have nearly as much personality.

Concerning the negatives, they’re well-established and almost cliché to complain about. Fi’s constant reminders are irritating, the persistent tutorials frequently ruin the satisfaction of solving the game’s clever puzzles, and the pacing is all over the place. The motion controls are often maligned, but they only became an issue for me when an enemy would block certain attacks, which become more common as the game goes on. Some of these problems have been fixed, but not all of them. So let’s take a closer look at how Skyward Sword HD handles both its predecessor’s best and worst traits.

See the source image

When Skyward Sword HD was first revealed, it took a lot of flack for allegedly not improving the original’s graphics. That’s not entirely correct, now that I look closely at the game, but it’s not completely wrong either. The game wasn’t remade from the ground up, but the models are significantly clearer. Other than some sharp polygons, you might believe it’s a Switch original. The game’s painterly aesthetic means there is a little fuzz over the backgrounds, but that’s a conscious artist decision.

The controls have been refined somewhat, which was a major concern. Skyward Sword had to be packaged with the new Wii Remote Plus, so a device that uses limited motion controls could be forgiven for not managing the same level of fidelity. The flight controls and combat are consistently above the Wii Remote’s accuracy, despite that.

But the biggest complaint leveled towards Skyward Sword addresses its incessant tutorials, long unskippable cutscenes, and Fi’s nagging, which Skyward Sword HD has all but removed. This does wonders for improving the experience of playing the game, especially as someone who has already sat through the game’s arduous tutorial before. For the first time, it feels like Skyward Sword is respecting its players, treating them as though they’ve played a game before.

That’s all for the new improvements, but that doesn’t count how removing so many negative aspects allows you to appreciate the game’s finer points. The worldbuilding and design were obscured before, since it feels like the game is forcing you to wade through them at a snail’s pace. If nothing else, Skyward Sword HD has taken a secretly enjoyable experience and ushered it forward.

See the source image
This is from the original game, so excuse the fuzziness.

Nintendo has made strides in revamping the most plainly flawed Zelda, but that doesn’t mean they fixed everything. Right off the bat, the game is still incredibly repetitive, reusing the same handful of locations for the entirety of the game. It lacks the diversity of scenery that makes most Zelda games feel like proper adventures.

And the actual gameplay suffers for relying exclusively on motion controls, and I do mean exclusively. You have to recenter the remote quite literally every time you want to get into a fight, take aim, or fly. Then there’s the issues with the combat that all come back to the same jank motion controls we’ve been complaining about for a decade. Refined, but not fixed.

Basic enemies like the Bokoblins and Lizalfos are Zelda staples, both of which use swords and shields to block attacks that come from the from angle. The problem is that enemies can psychically predict where you’re attacking from. You have to feint on a dime in order to trick them and get in their guard, as 99% of the time they’ll switch their block in the time it takes for the game to interpret your input. It’s incredibly frustrating that Skyward Sword still punishes you for trying to play, even though it’s the way the developers intended.

And while Skyward Sword HD has introduced button controls, they’re a miserable half-measure. Swinging the sword with the joystick is so unnatural, and you can’t move the camera unless you’re holding the left shoulder button, but then you can’t use your sword and manipulate the camera at the same time. You can tell they wanted to make the game playable without motion controls, but they couldn’t come up with a good system. In the end, they just hobbled camera movement to balance it out, nearly ruining one of the best new additions to the game.

And while they’ve given you the option to skip cutscenes, dialogue, and tutorials, these feel like they are only mitigating the problem. Skyward Sword suffers from glacial pacing, and this is most obvious in its cutscenes, particularly the ones you still can’t skip. Why do I have to initiate a new conversation just to play the bamboo cutting game again? Just give me a replay option! It would have been preferable to fix the atrocious pace rather than just give the option to skip it, but that’s the overarching theme with this remaster.

See the source image
This guy walks up to your girl and hits on you, what do you do? Legally, you have to leave. That’s his girl now.

The problem with Skyward Sword was never just about fixing specific isolated issues. It was that the game was built on the foundation of these flaws as key features. It was designed to be slow and repetitive, so the fixes they slap on look like they’re holding the whole joint together with duct tape. It works, but it’s ugly, and it would have been better if they had just made a good game in the first place.

This has led me to the conclusion that Skyward Sword is a “bad” game. It has many merits, holds fond personal memories, but its construction is obtuse and almost on purpose. Skyward Sword held up certain ideals as a goal in game design, but it goes about them in the most backwards way possible.

I’ll give them credit for improving so many defects and making the least accessible Zelda game both playable, and playable on the Switch, but it was a bad decision to simply patch up its most egregious errors. Previous Zelda remasters have simply added quality of life improvements, but Skyward Sword needs to be completely remade. Plus, that might have justified selling a decade-old game for $60, when the original Wii version only cost $50 at release.

If I had to fit Skyward Sword HD into my review scale, it would be difficult, but I patented this system to be as flexible as possible, and it has earned a Boring Fine. Worth playing if you haven’t tried the original, though you’re probably only interested in it if you are already a Zelda fan. Either way, tell me your thoughts on which of the many Zelda games you’d rather see on the Switch, either in the comments down below, or over on Twitter @ExhibitionOtaku. Until next time, thanks for reading.

FineSkyward Sword HD

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: