Libra: The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD (Switch)
Libra is our “first impressions” series. These are generally spoiler free, but may reveal some base plot points and mechanic details.
Is it just me or do like 80% of Zelda games begin with Hyrule’s celebrated elven gadgeteer lost in the land of Nod? Oh yes, the strong, silent type is back, baby! With Nintendo’s latest release, an HD remaster of 2011’s The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, Link awakens for yet another notable adventure on the Nintendo Switch!
This is my first sortie into Skyward Sword, having sold off my Wii well before the original version was released. I’ve noted before that at the time I was in a period of my life when video games didn’t quite captivate me as they once did. That all changed when the forces that undergird Hyrule visited their magic upon me, shaking me from a long, dark stupor. Just when I thought I was out, Breath of the Wild pulled me back in!
Now, as we all patiently anticipate the sequel to that 2017 masterpiece, supposedly arriving sometime next year, I couldn’t be more hype to finally get the opportunity to experience Skyward Sword, the one and only 3D Zelda game which I’ve never played. Most astonishingly (to me, anyway), is that, aside from Breath of the Wild, it has the potential to be the first 3D Zelda that I actually finish since… Ocarina of Time!
I’ve only put about half a dozen hours into Skyward Sword HD thus far, completing the game’s first proper dungeon just before sitting down to hammer out these initial impressions. Though I’m still more or less at the beginning and intend to review the game in full after the credits roll, here are some thoughts on what I’ve encountered up to this point.
Zelda games aren’t exactly known for telling fantastic narratives, and if you’ve played any of the previous mainline titles you’ll probably know the impetus for Link’s journey. Skyward Sword HD, up to now, has pleasantly surprised me in this regard. Situating itself as something of an origin story in relation to the series’ other entries, the game begins high above a sea of clouds on the floating island of Skyloft, home to a race of elven people and their giant avian guardians, known as ‘Loftwings,’ which they use to get around. The sky-dwelling hominids that live in Skyloft—which includes Link and Zelda, who appear as little more than ordinary citizens of the town—know virtually nothing of the world below them, and enjoy a relatively tranquil existence. However, a dark power is afoot, lurking beneath the white blanket that obscures and separates the creatures of the sky from the inhabitants on the surface.
Following a slow-moving introductory section that has Link frolicking around the settlement and learning how to differentiate his ass from his elbow, he’s tasked with locating his ‘Crimson Loftwing.’ The bird has mysteriously disappeared on the morning of Skyloft’s annual ‘Wing Ceremony,’ a competition that involves Skyloft’s finest knights-in-training vying against one another to see who is worthy of advancing in rank. Fortunately, Link is able to locate his feathered friend in time, claim victory in the contest, and receive the coveted prize:
a kiss from Zelda Zelda’s Sailcloth, i.e. a parachute.
In celebration of his achievement, Link and Zelda decide to take a romantic flight through the skies. Then, just as everything seems to be leading up to a legendary moment, a moment fans have been waiting three and a half decades to witness, a tornado appears and hurls both Link and Zelda off their Loftwings. When Link comes to his senses, he finds himself safely nestled back within the confines of Skyloft, but learns that Zelda is still missing. Strapping up in his flamboyant green tunic and iconic pointed cap, he prepares himself for the dangers that lie ahead and sets off to search for Zelda in the uncharted lands below.
Like pretty much every Zelda title that has come before it, Skyward Sword HD is an action-adventure game that has you exploring vast open areas, collecting items, solving puzzles, and fighting enemies with your sword, shield, and other nifty gadgets like a slingshot or, at my current point, a remote-controlled Beetle that you can fly around Link’s vicinity for 30 seconds and use as a kind of homing missile. I won’t waste any time in this space covering ground that will likely be familiar to most players coming into Skyward Sword HD, even if for the first time, so let me turn my attention to the game’s most controversial aspect, which is also totally unlike previous Zelda games and has been substantially reworked for the HD remaster: the controls.
Skyward Sword was originally designed to realize the full potential of the Wii Remote’s motion controls. The result was that using Link’s sword, for example, required the player to move their arm accordingly. If you wanted to do a vertical slash, you had to swing your arm in a vertical direction. To hack at an enemy with two horizontal swings, a forward thrust, and finish with a diagonal blow crashing down on its left shoulder, you could more or less do all that… but you had to actually do all that. If you wanted to do a backflip, you had to stand up from your comfy couch, get into a crouching position, and then jump as high as you could, tilting your head backwards as you twisted your body 360 degrees, hoping that you’d land on your feet. It was tough being a gamer back then.
In all seriousness, there were no live backflips involved, and it was a cool concept. But honestly, who wants to be forced to play games like that? I rarely played my Wii precisely because I didn’t want to be bothered with controls that often felt as unintuitive as they did burdensome. One of the reasons that games which use motion controls rarely feel natural to me is that they’re never quite as responsive as it seems like they should be (this actually applies to gyro controls for me as well, which I find interesting as I know a decent number of people who despise playing certain genres any other way).
As Nintendo has retained motion control functionality as an option for Skyward Sword HD via the Switch’s Joy-Cons, I played through its first temple using my brand new Skyward Sword Joy-Cons and found the experience to be… pretty darn pleasant! All of the issues that made me hate playing games with the Wii Remote persist, to some degree, but it’s not really a problem so long as I’m not obligated to play in that manner. Should I instead prefer to be lazy and simply kick back with a Pro Controller in hand, or lounge around in bed, taking down hordes of Bokoblins in handheld mode, I can. For whatever reason, that seems to make a world of difference, and I think I’ll even end up playing a fair amount of Skyward Sword HD with its motion control setup when all is said and done.
An additional cause for my taking a liking to Skyward Sword HD’s motion controls is that its more traditional, button-only configuration itself feels kind of weird. In this play style, the right joystick dictates the direction in which you fling your sword rather than control the game’s free-moving camera, as it does in Breath of the Wild and numerous other 3D adventure games. Except, that’s only half of the story. If you hold down the L button, then the R stick does allow you to rotate the camera. I’m sure that I’ll eventually adjust to it but as of yet I keep unsheathing my sword when I didn’t intend to do so, and it’s driving me nuts!
To the extent that the controls are a departure from past Zeldas, I wouldn’t call them an improvement. No, they’re easily worse. But more than that, they’re just… different. I’m not one who thinks uniqueness is itself always a good thing but here they lend themselves to a sense that I’ve never played a game, much less one in the Zelda series, that feels quite like this, and I am finding that extremely refreshing.
All in all, I’m thoroughly enjoying my time with Skyward Sword HD! There’s a lot more that I want to say, from the game’s use of a stamina bar to shield durability, which players of Breath of the Wild will immediately recognize, but I’ll save all that and more for the full review. Besides, I’m by no means far enough along to fully appreciate these and who knows how many other game mechanics yet to be discovered along the way.
Back in 2012, a notorious independent game developer found himself in hot water with the gaming press for glibly telling a Japanese audience member during a Q&A panel that Japanese games ‘suck.’ One of his fellow panelists went on to elaborate, stating:
’I don’t like Japanese games either. The thing that I don’t like about them, all the modern ones that I’ve played except, you know, like Dark Souls and Demon Souls and stuff, is you sit down and the game treats you like an idiot, right? You have to click through like 700 little boxes telling you how to do everything… Japanese games feel like it’s illegal to ever let the player do anything that has not been explicitly shown to the player in painstaking detail earlier in the game. And what that does is it kills the joy of discovery… And when you show the player everything you’re turning it into an exercise, and it’s an exercise that’s kind of insulting because of course I can follow the exercise. You told me what to do, right?’
The other game developer, the one who said Japanese games just ‘suck,’ chimed back in and added:
‘If you look at the first Zelda and the latest Zelda, the first Zelda, it just drops you into that world and it’s a completely open, non-linear world, and it’s dangerous and it’s hard, and you have to learn from your mistakes and figure things out, and there are these secrets, and these secrets are not obvious at all which makes them secret… and interesting. And you play the latest Zelda and… it’s just a straight corridor… holding your hand the whole time. All the secrets have an arrow pointing at them, it’s just like, “You can break this wall with a bomb because there’s a little crack,” and there’s all this surprise and magic and danger and mystery [that] is just gone completely… because of this obsession with tutorials and making sure the player knows about everything, like it just… it kills it for me.’
Needless to say, when it comes to Japanese games, I don’t think ‘they suck.’
And when it comes to Skyward Sword HD, nothing about its game design ‘kills it for me.’ Not even close.
But when it comes to their other remarks, about games feeling like an ‘exercise’ because your hand is held through everything, treating you somewhat like an idiot, and about ‘the latest Zelda’ (the one in question was Skyward Sword), I have to say: for the first two or three hours, I kept thinking about these comments because… I sort of 100% agree with them.
The game has become much more exciting since I’ve made it through the first temple, however, when in fact I discovered the opposite problem: I kept getting stuck! Still, the opening sections prior to that and how the game presents its core mechanics were a bit of a drag. I wanted to soar! to roam freely! …and instead I was getting tasked with chores like ‘fetch Headmaster’s Gaepora’s cat from that roof over there,’ clearly a lame excuse for me to discover how shimmying across ledges and climbing vines in video games work; or being taught important life lessons by Instructor Horwell like how to Z-Target. Z-Target!
But fetch quests and temples aside (which, by the way, I’m thrilled to welcome back), Skyward Sword HD’s ‘Presentation’ is easily one of its high points. The music, even at this early juncture, absolutely bangs, with tunes new and old delivered as lush symphonies that really elevate every cutscene, every inch of forest, town, or sky that I’ve so far observed in my travels. To my knowledge, Skyward Sword was the first major Zelda release in which the presence of longtime series composer Koji Kondo was essentially lacking, and the team that stepped in to fill his shoes didn’t miss a note.
Likewise, the game’s high-definition visuals are crisp, colorful, and, coupled with a consistent performance at 60 frames per second, make Skyward Sword HD feel much less like a game that originally entered into development in the late aughts and more like something from the past couple of years or so. This is equally true in handheld mode too. I’ll admit that I’m not crazy about the character models, which excellently bear their emotions but kind of look like they walked out of a straight-to-DVD Disney film. Be that as it may, overall the game’s aesthetics, ideally encapsulating the transition one might expect going from Twilight Princess to Breath of the Wild, are no less pleasing on the eyes than your average Great Fairy is… ummm… large.
To invoke my favorite Zelda one final time (sorry, not sorry), breaking the mould and departing from the formulaic structure recycled in nearly every Zelda from A Link to the Past to Skyward Sword is what arguably made Breath of the Wild feel as groundbreaking as it did. Regardless, it’s evident in multiple ways that I’ve merely glossed over that to make Breath of the Wild Nintendo first needed to make Skyward Sword. And it’s a joy to have an intimate glimpse at that process and to now be a part of that journey.
- New(ish) Zelda!
- Engaging characters and story (thus far).
- A lovely art style in crisp and colorful high-definition.
- Solid 60fps performance.
- The controls aren’t… bad. They’re actually kind of cool!
- A neat Beetle drone thingy that you get in the game’s first temple.
- Yes, temples!
- Awesome musical score.
- The controls aren’t great… They’re only kind of cool.
- Sluggish start.
- The beginning sections hold your hand just a little too much.
In conclusion, if you’re in the same boat that I was before Skyward Sword HD’s Switch release, having never played it, or if you previously tried to get into it but found yourself repelled by the Wii Remote control scheme, I wholly recommend that you check out the HD remaster. It may not be a perfect Zelda game when all is said and done—though the jury is still out on that—but it’s shaping up to be one that I’ll look back on in five, ten, or fifteen years (knock on wood), and recall warmly those adventures over land and sky that I’m partaking in now, just as I do from time to time with A Link to the Past or any of the other memorable titles that I’ve started… even if I never finished them!