Upon its release in 2011, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword was met with a polarising reaction from audiences due to the title’s heavy emphasis on motion controls and uneven pacing. Now, the game has been given a second chance in the form of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD, a Switch Remaster that is packed with improvements which breathe new life into an underrated Zelda experience.
Skyward Sword HD makes an outstanding first impression. With reduced NPC interaction, the opening hours zip by and make a good effort of establishing the history and connection between Link and Zelda, having grown up together on Skyloft. Events transpire that push Link to travel to the surface in search of Zelda, where the majority of the game takes place.
The narrative is entertaining and features countless profound moments that accentuate Link’s growth from a student at the Knight Academy to truly becoming the Chosen One and embodying what that entails. There are also a bevy of fun characters. Groose is hilarious and his animation perfectly captures his dorky personality. Of course, it is impossible to discuss Skyward Sword and leave out its iconic villain, Ghirahim. Joyfully menacing and consistently dangerous, every appearance he makes along Link’s Journey is memorable and impactful, bringing with him some of the game’s finest moments.
Another huge strength lies in the game’s level design. Due to the linear structure of this adventure, the development team was able to densely pack the world with engaging gameplay opportunities in every nook and cranny. Parts of a location may not be accessible at first, but upon revisit, open up to reveal a whole new area hidden within. I was also an admirer of the way the Skyloft and the surrounding areas in the sky were designed, allowing Link to travel via Loftwing to a variety of floating islands to play fun mini-games and collect chests activated by striking Goddess Cubes underneath the clouds.
Combat relies less on reaction time and more on the direction of attacks, smartly leaning into the original control style. The key to defeating enemies lies in exploiting the weaknesses in the enemies’ guard—for example, attacking from the left or the right to hit a Bokoblin defending their head. Combat encounters get more challenging in the latter half of the game, where the enemies have fewer exploitable weak spots and punish the player more harshly for swinging in the wrong direction or missing a Shield Bash.
The gameplay strengths carry over to the dungeons, where Skyward Sword excels. Each dungeon is grand in scale and offers multiple chests, clever puzzles and rooms to explore. Progressing through the dungeons often require an attentive eye and judicious use of the intuitive gadgets the game offers, from the Beetle to the Gust Bellows; each of these items are unique and add a vibrant spice to the gameplay formula. To top it off, the dungeons often culminate in a spectacular boss fight, many of which comfortably rank among the series’ best to date.
Despite being a strong experience overall, I have always found the Skyward Sword’s midgame to be frustrating in its structure. Without going into spoilers, there are quite a few fetch quests and many of them involve revisiting areas and locations that have already been explored. While these areas are typically given a new twist like having more powerful enemies present, they do not fill the void left behind by the lack of entirely new locations. The backtracking is the midgame’s biggest sin, there are multiple occasions where Link is not able to progress because he requires a certain item to proceed and is forced to backtrack to recover the item. The backtracking also manifests itself in a particularly obnoxious fetch quest, where a character’s demand for ‘Sacred Water’ forces Link to venture into an older dungeon just to win their trust and gain access to a new dungeon.
While this is not a unique issue in adventure games of this scope or even the Zelda series (Triforce Quest in The Wind Waker comes to mind), it is doubly noticeable here as the first 15 hours constantly introduce new mechanics, locations and progress the story forward which ends up being a jarring contrast to when the game approaches its midpoint and slows down exponentially. It is a design choice that has aged especially poorly considering the next mainline instalment in the franchise, Breath of the Wild, committed to being a wholly open experience, foregoing these pacing issues altogether. Thankfully, the final third picks up exciting speed and offers some fantastic moments, so this temporary lull does not bring down the experience as a whole.
Myriad of Enhancements
Skyward Sword HD immediately addresses the motion control issue by introducing an alternative control scheme, which allows the whole game to be playable with a traditional gamepad. I was surprised at how effective this new scheme was and had no issues playing the game with the excellent Switch Pro Controller. Generally, the motion control mechanics are remapped to the right stick, which works out seamlessly as flicking the stick in a specific direction parallels swinging the Joy-Cons in that same direction in the Motion Control mode. The sword swings are more precise, shield parries can be executed simpler, and the gameplay feels more streamlined when playing in this mode.
Fans of the original control style will be delighted to know that the motion controls are still an option with the Switch’s Joy-Cons and the longer battery life will go a long way towards making this a solid option, even though the button controls are definitely more intuitive. After spending a few hours with the motion controls, I surmised that while it is more than playable, the only tangible reasons for playing this way are to preserve the feeling of the original release or for immersion, which, to its credit, this mode offers in spades.
There is also the added benefit of improved camera movement, something that was extremely limited in the Wii version. Holding L while moving the right stick allows the player to freely move the camera, this comes in handy within dungeons and smaller areas where the players may be required to find hints and clues on how to proceed through the area. The camera does become more cumbersome to use within the battle, as the right stick is already used for Link’s sword, however, the ability to lock on to enemies and keep them within the player’s view means this does not end up being as big of a detriment as it could have been.
Skyward Sword HD’s most noticeable improvement, aside from the ability to play with button controls, is its much higher resolution and frame rate. At a resolution of 1080p when docked and 720p in handheld, its noticeably sharper than the original Wii release and the beautiful artwork has ensured the game’s presentation has aged gracefully. It looks particularly impressive when playing on the go—from the lush forests in the Faron Woods to the sprawling Lanayru desert, the game is consistently excellent in portraying a variety of areas which vary in their layout, weather and landscape, which speaks volumes about the game’s grand scope.
While on the topic of presentation, its also worth noting the return of the terrific orchestral score, whether Link is darting through the skies on his Loftwing or fighting the final boss in a dungeon, the score perfectly captures the feeling of each individual moment and deserves heavy praise.
The increased frame rate to 60 FPS also yields a massive benefit: combat is more responsive and enjoyable, and the animations are smoother than ever. The framerate boost is not flawless however, as I noticed dips when confronted with a lot of particle effects or smoke close to the camera. In addition to this, there are points in the game where playing the harp in scripted sequences will cause the game to lock to a lower framerate. Nevertheless, the reason it is so jarring anytime the game does drop frames is because it holds 60 FPS really well outside of these very specific scenarios and due to how infrequent they are, there is a chance these dips were an oversight that could be patched in a future update.
Summary: While not every design choice has aged as gracefully as its gorgeous art style and incredible dungeons, the implementation of a wide range of improvements ensures The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD remains a memorable adventure worth experiencing on the Nintendo Switch.
Title: The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD
Platforms: Nintendo Switch (reviewed)
Release date: 16 July 2021
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.