The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD Review (Switch)
Release Date: July 16, 2021
File Size: 7.1 GB
Click here to view on the Nintendo eShop.
Prior to The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD landing on the Nintendo Switch this past July, I was in the same boat as others who had overlooked its Wii release. Truth be told, my only knowledge of the game, apart from an aesthetic that seemed to draw its inspiration from cheesy Saturday morning cartoons, was that it originally launched to widespread acclaim only to gradually fall out of favor with many critics and fans alike. The primary divide, insofar as I could surmise, was between players who could tolerate the Wii Remote’s motion controls enough to fall in love and those who couldn’t.
I imagine that I would’ve belonged to the latter camp, which is why I was beyond thrilled to learn of Nintendo’s plans to remaster Skyward Sword in high-definition with a more traditional button layout. So then, having now completed it, how does this ten-year-old entry in one of the longest-running and most idolized franchises of all time, revitalized with a fresh coat of paint and then some, stack up for us newcomers?
I’ve said a good deal already in my rather extensive Libra: The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD article, wherein I shared my first impressions after sitting down with Link and company for roughly half a dozen hours. To minimize repeating myself here as I take a more bird’s-eye view of the game (no pun intended), I’ve decided to highlight any aspects that I may have covered in the link above (again, seriously, no pun intended) by using bold font, shaded in the same color as the Master Sword. Thus, if it seems like I’m relegating any details to a footnote and you wish to delve further into that particular aspect, so long as it looks like this, you can read whatever additional thoughts I had in Libra: The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD.
In The Beginning…
To summarize the narrative, Skyward Sword HD is a Legend of Zelda that tells the legend of Zelda before the… um, legend. That’s right, when our adventure begins there is no Princess Zelda, no Master Sword, and even the pointy-eared people (…Skylians?) who eventually come to populate the kingdom of Hyrule are still only residents of a faraway realm, high above in the skies on a floating chunk of rock. How it is that two ostensible nobodies living in Skyloft named Link and Zelda become integral to a timeline which perpetually unfolds in mirror image cycles across multiple Zelda games is the chief subject of Skyward Sword HD’s emotionally stirring, whirlwind origin story.
Alongside a number of familiar faces, Skyward Sword HD introduces a surplus of completely new and memorable personalities. There are Loftwings, Guardian Birds that serve as companions and private taxis for the people of Skyloft. Among the more notable Skyloftians are Groose, Link’s macho rival whose central aim at the outset is to win over the heart of Zelda, and Headmaster Gaepora, Zelda’s father who runs the Knight’s Academy and also unmistakably resembles Kaepora Gaebora, the owl that stalks Link in Ocarina of Time.
Throughout his Skyward adventures, Link is flanked by the chatterbug Fi, a spirit that resides within his blade and is ready to answer his every beck and call, offering assistance whenever needed… and even when her advice is wholly unnecessary: ’There is an 85% probability that the door ahead requires a key,’ she’ll say, as the camera pans on an enormous chain lock. Link also encounters goofy mole-like creatures known as Mogmas, a civilization of Ancient Robots, and the aquatic half-seahorse, half-jellyfish life forms that comprise the Parella tribe. And then there’s the game’s central villain, whose sadistic tendencies you’ll just have to discover for yourself!
The diversity of whacky and eccentric temperaments located across The Legend of Zelda’s 35-year-old history has to be regarded as both integral to the franchise’s DNA and part of the charm that makes each iteration so revered. Yet, when it comes to plot and character development, I’ve never considered the series to be particularly noteworthy. That’s not to suggest that Zelda games tend to falter on these points, nor to imply that their dialogue suffers from the sort of frivolity that can make reading text in games an outright snoozefest. On the contrary, most Zeldas are well-written but instead place a much greater emphasis on gameplay over narrative, pulling players into their worlds with grand, mysterious environments, ever refined combat mechanics, and countless puzzles and secrets awaiting the meticulous explorer. Like Link himself, it’s action over words, making it all too easy to overlook just how much attention goes into the writing.
Skyward Sword HD is no exception. Adding a decent amount of cinematic flair to its light-hearted, cartoonish cast, I found myself surprisingly affected by the characters it portrays in ways that I can’t really recall feeling anything similar since that gut-wrenching scene in which I turned my back on Saria, Link’s childhood friend in Ocarina’s Korok Forest… Okay, Marin’s rendition of the Ballad of the Windfish in Animal Village may have caused me to tear up too… but just a little bit!
Setting aside Skyward Sword HD’s sentimental moments, many more are bound to leave you smirking ear to ear. The interpersonal dynamics of Link, Zelda, and Groose, or those between Link, Fi, and a feisty little robot you enlist named Scrapper, are among the many instances that left me especially amused. Even ordinary NPCs that in previous Zeldas might be a mere afterthought have enlarged roles to play, introducing several sidequests that reveal aspects of their personalities and private lives and add a layer of depth to the citizens of Skyward Sword HD. Zelda games always seem tremendously underpopulated to me. At least here the fifty people that you’re attempting to save are ones you can truly care about!
Excluding the Zeldas currently available on the Switch, it’s admittedly been awhile since I’ve actually seen a 3D Zelda to completion. With that caveat, I’d argue that this ‘latest’ entry not only features some fantastic characters but also a riveting, moving narrative that I won’t say bucks the trend of past games so much as it elevates everything… skyward!
Combat and Controls
With Skyward Sword HD Nintendo has sought to rectify the limited appeal of the original’s controversial control scheme by mapping its inputs onto the Joy-Cons/Pro Controller’s button configurations. Most players will find the result, while more accessible, to be somewhat of a mixed bag.
I played between one-third and one-half of Skyward Sword HD using gyroscope. Using the Joy-Cons as Link’s sword and shield, having to physically enact his on-screen movements in combat as you take on Bokoblins, Stalfos, Lizardos, and other enemies both new and familiar, is mostly a fun experience. Unfortunately, it’s beset with imprecision as the calibration of the right Joy-Con repeatedly becomes discombobulated, compelling you to press the ‘Y’ button to reset the gyro. It’s never more than a minor annoyance though it is considerably worse when manning an item like the bow, where aiming is done from a first-person perspective and, unlike most instances of swordplay, requires the Joy-Con’s gyroscope to be much more accurate.
Opting to instead use the button controls that many have long desired makes for a smoother interface but still feels awkward. In this layout the right analog stick alternately controls the directionality in which Link swings his sword, two different item wheels depending on whether the ZR or R shoulder button is simultaneously pressed down, and the free-moving camera (using the L shoulder button). This multifunctionality of the right analog stick led to countless instances wherein I did one thing when I intended to do something else. Again, it was only a slight irritation, though perhaps more so given that even after fifty hours of playing Skyward Sword HD I never could quite get used to the gamepad controls.
These issues being what they are, Skyward Sword HD still manages to deliver some of the most engaging combat sequences I’ve encountered in a Zelda game, and that’s saying a lot. What makes sword fighting so satisfying in Skyward Sword HD are the maneuvers that enemies use to guard themselves, forcing you to deal blows from various angles in order to land a hit. On top of this, there are different special moves that Link can perform by quickly flicking your arms, or the right analog stick, back and forth. The only restriction to consider is Link’s stamina wheel, which, as in Breath of the Wild, replaces the magic meter. If you run out of stamina you’ll need a moment to regain your poise! All these details add a level of involvement in how you approach foes; few are ever so easily taken down by merely spamming sword attacks.
The use of Link’s shield is also a pleasure for its requirement of precise timing. By either holding the left Joy-Con up in a vertical direction or pressing the left analog stick, depending on your preferred method of play, Link will block incoming attacks. If you time your deflection right, the enemy will stumble, giving you a chance to deliver a strike. If not, you’ll spare yourself harm but your shield will suffer damage. Unlike Breath of the Wild, which introduced weapon durability to the extreme, especially in rendering Link’s swords so fragile as to be made of glass, Skyward Sword HD’s perishable equipment is restricted to shields and far less of a nuisance. Should a shield wear to the point of near-destruction, you can simply take a flight into town and repair it.
Items and Exploration
Skyloft is the main hub where Link—and apparently 90% of the few dozen or so people that make up all of human existence—lives. Here you can rest in a bed to regain your health or to alternate between the game’s day and night settings. Differing from other 3D Zeldas, there is no natural day and night cycle in Skyward Sword HD, and outside of three or four areas where you can elect to roam out into the dark, it always remains daytime. In Skyloft you also find the Bazaar, the venue where you can purchase items such as bombs, arrows, new shields, all types of potions, as well as stow items at the Item Check or upgrade equipment at the Scrap Shop.
The way in which Skyward Sword HD utilizes the Item Check and Scrap Shop are/were entirely fresh additions in my experience of previous Zelda games. Link’s Adventure Pouch, which allows him to carry his shield(s) and other useful accessories, is finite in size, meaning players will have to choose which items are of utmost importance and which should remain at the Item Check. The Scrap Shop, on the other hand, let’s you not only repair your shields but upgrade them, along with several of Link’s gadgets. It’s not free, of course, and requires you to have the right materials: usually plants, monster parts, or insects! Yes, there is foraging and crafting in Skyward Sword HD too, and in my view how these are implemented in this particularZelda—as opposed to others that have featured similar mechanics to one degree or another—is hands down the best.
I won’t spoil any of the awesome tools Link acquires along his journey, aside from remarking that a number of classic items return together with a variety of new appliances. They’re specific usage in Skyward Sword HD makes for a gameplay loop that feels incredibly rich and well-rounded. One item even acts as a sort of reverse-[redacted] and reminded me of the water gun in Super Mario Sunshine. (Link’s [redacted] doesn’t shoot water. Also, that’s a great Mario game and I don’t care what anybody says.)
Finally, while I have Mario on the tongue (or at my fingertips), I want to make one or two comments about Skyward Sword HD’s world design. It’s not… my favorite. Many of the areas, such as one that, let’s just say, ‘contains a lot of sand,’ struck me as a map that could have easily been found in your average 3D Mario game. Nothing against Mario. There is a kind of quirky design that naturally fits those platformers. In Zelda, however, where I want to fully immerse myself in this fantasy world in quite a different way, to have environments that are overly populated with capricious objects or just lack a certain authenticity in their appearance, well, ruins that vibe for me. That said, it remains a fact that Skyward Sword HD’s playground enclosures are still a joy to navigate.
The one exception to that last statement is The Sky. As the game is divided between this enormous open section above the clouds, where Skyloft sits, and three large regions below, you’re often traveling to and fro on the back of Link’s Crimson Loftwing. One criticism I’ve heard of Skyward Sword is that it’s too linear and repetitive, especially towards the latter half of the game. That’s true. There’s certainly a decent amount of backtracking involved. Yet my main gripe was the general emptiness of The Sky. There are a few small floating islands that you can visit but it mostly feels like wasted space and a missed opportunity. It would’ve been cool to discover other sizable floating land masses to explore, to stumble upon other towns or cities. Instead, Skyward Sword HD’s open skies are like Ocarina of Time’s open field: they’re big… but also a big chore to travel across after the twentieth time.
Dungeons, Puzzles, Minigames, and More
As any Zelda veteran will tell you, a staple of the series is its profusion of carefully constructed dungeons. The puzzles these contain are often the games’ most strenuous obstacles, standing between you and some highly coveted chest that probably holds an essential item, key, or dungeon map! Skyward Sword HD is for us johnny-come-latelies a return to classic Zelda form. Boasting of seven proper dungeons, the arrangement of each successive labyrinth only seemed to exhibit greater and greater genius than the last. Many games have tried to emulate the tried-and-true Zelda blueprint. Skyward Sword HD demonstrates why none does it better than the OG.
What makes its dungeons so gratifying, apart from being the consummate length, striking the right balance between action and thought, and culminating in downright epic boss fights, is that Zelda puzzles never feel cheap. Sometimes you’ll find yourself stuck on a conundrum for several minutes. Despite that, you know that if you survey the area thoroughly enough, thinking through the different possibilities that lie before you and the general logic of the mechanics at hand, you can solve it. Skyward Sword HD’s dungeons are particularly brilliant examples of this and though I won’t claim that these are the best Zelda dungeons to have ever graced the series, a couple of them might be. They’re all darn good.
It also wouldn’t feel like a proper Zelda without its share of stupidly addicting minigames. Skyward Sword HD has a slew of them, ranging from one that has you slicing bamboo (meh), another that has you free falling onto a multicolored spinning wheel, full of various prizes and penalties (awesome), to a challenge in which you have to carry a stack of pumpkins without them toppling over (why, Nintendo, why?). This last activity is part of a sidequest, as many of the minigames featured in Skyward Sword HD are. Packed with an array of citizens who need Link’s help, sidequests can oscillate between searching for a baby rattler to relieve an exhausted parent to helping a friendly demon fulfil his dream of becoming human by collecting ‘Gratitude Crystals,’ a substance that the humans of Skyloft are said to produce when they’re made happy… Yeah.
Besides minigames and sidequests, there is also a tremendous variety of gameplay styles to be found throughout the main campaign: firing cannons from a dinghy, riding a rickety mine cart on a roller coaster track, flying through the skies on Link’s Crimson Loftwing as you try to smash targets within a time limit, and heart-pounding stealth missions—which the game leans into just a tad too much—are only a handful of the enjoyable undertakings you encounter. And then, as is to be expected, there are hordes of collectibles to be discovered across land, sea, and sky: all manner of insects, ‘Goddess Cubes’ and their corresponding chests, heart pieces, and much, much more.
Skyward Sword HD’s controls may continue to rub some players the wrong way. Nonetheless, on the whole they work well-enough, lending themselves to one of the most comprehensive and fulfilling Zelda experiences to date. While the overall world design of Skyward Sword HD left me largely unimpressed, and the linearity, repetition, and backtracking required at certain points can feel tiresome—to say nothing of Fi, whom you sometimes wish would just shut up—the sheer ambition of the game, exceptionally diverse in the activities you partake in, its masterful dungeons, and the extensive amount of items and upgrades to be collected, makes Skyward Sword HD an absolute delight. Whether you intend to sink the dozens of hours required to reach the end credits, another dozen or so unearthing every secret, or decide to tackle ‘Hero Mode,’ the game’s enhanced difficulty setting that becomes available following a complete playthrough, Skyward Sword HD is liable to be a game that you won’t be able to put down once you’ve committed to it.
Leading up to the release of Skyward Sword HD, Nintendo teased numerous quality of life improvements to features that left players of the original frustrated: enhanced frame rates, fast-forward dialogue, skippable cutscenes, the elimination of superfluous text boxes, and an option to ignore some of Fi’s commentary altogether. I can’t speak on a comparison of the two versions but I can say that these changes were very welcome. Skyward Sword HD is, in the main, a smooth experience which looks prettier than I had anticipated. In spite of balking at the race to produce the most cutting-edge, technically astounding visuals, Nintendo continues to push an art direction in its games that favors clean textures over impressively detailed ones, a graphical aesthetic that aims for a kind of timelessness rather than a perpetually aging realism.
Perhaps it’s inaccurate to describe Skyward Sword HD’s exteriors as ‘timeless.’ After all, it is the result of a significant visual update, suggesting that the older paint job doesn’t quite hold up. Be that as it may, Skyward Sword HD has a beautiful art style, and though I’d much prefer to see Nintendo take the aesthetics of Zelda in the direction of, say, a Dark Souls—by which I simply mean something darker, grimmer, and more demented instead of character and enemy models that seem to have been inspired by DreamWorks Animation—in the end Skyward Sword HD’s vibrant, polished, almost watercolor-esque surfaces (which, by the way, look wonderful in handheld mode too), completely won me over. And I won’t be surprised if they appear equally as lovely in ten years from now too.
I’ve already underlined several aspects in which I believe Skyward Sword HD arguably executes its vision better than previous entries in the franchise. Include Skyward Sword HD’s soundtrack on this list. I hesitate to put forth any definitive assertions because the bar set by past Zeldas is so high, but the exquisite, fully orchestrated compositions (a first in the series) that make up Skyward Sword HD’s musical score are really second to none. Whether classic themes like that which plays over the File Select screen, or a breathtaking rendition of Zelda’s Lullaby, to countless new pieces that are no less memorable, for example, the soothing Island in the Sky, the team that filled in for the inconspicuous absence of longtime Zelda mastermind Koji Kondo could not have delivered a more heartfelt, impactful set of accompaniments. It sits next to Animal Crossing: New Horizons (no, really) as some of my favorite music to emerge from the House of Mario in recent memory.
To state it quite simply, resorting to another terrible pun, for a title for which expectations were reasonably high out of the gate, Skyward Sword HD’s soundtrack… soars!
If you ask ten random people to cite their favorite Zelda game you’re likely to receive half as many different answers. What you consider to represent the pinnacle of the series’ remarkable history is probably going to be inextricably bound to your personal gaming biography. For the longest time, before Breath of the Wild came around, that Zelda for me was A Link to the Past. In my view, though Skyward Sword HD doesn’t surpass those crowning jewels of video game perfection, those who do rank Skyward Sword at the top of their charts can certainly mount a respectable defense. While these are all merely opinions anyway, I will positively declare this: Skyward Sword HD is a great game, nay, a great Zelda game, and anyone who dismisses it as a bad (Zelda) game—and I’ve seen these takes—should not be taken seriously. (I recognize the irony in my stating this as I imagine there is a fairly passionate trucking community who feels the same way about one of my recent takes.)
Skyward Sword HD has its faults, chiefly in what remains its clumsy controls. This might not seem like a minor flaw but considering how enjoyable I still found the game to be, how ambitious it is in its storytelling, soundtrack, the range of activities you perform, and how wonderfully it realizes all these aims, I’d contend that given everything else Skyward Sword HD gets right, its shortcomings are easily overshadowed by its achievements. Does it excel beyond that other 3D Zelda-that-isn’t-actually-Zelda currently available on the Switch? I don’t know. What I do know is that both are monuments in the action-adventure genre, both are masterpieces, and if you haven’t already played Skyward Sword or need an excuse to revisit it, I can’t endorse this HD remaster fervently enough.