Skyward Sword’s Second Chance: Impressions Before and After HD From Our Staff’s Biggest Critics
Posted on August 21 2021 by Alasyn Eletha
As a huge Skyward Sword fan, I was stoked to hear that the game would be getting an HD release for the Switch. We all saw it coming, and yet it was still a pleasant surprise to receive its announcement earlier this year. After the initial hype wore off, I realized that this release was more than just a port of an HD version of my favorite Zelda game to the Switch. It was Skyward Sword‘s second chance. One it desperately needed.
Let’s be honest, it’s hard to see past first impressions. Unfortunately, back in 2011, Skyward Sword fell victim to that fact as it quickly became one of the most divisive Zelda games to date. There were quite a few contributing factors, but it was mostly due to its less-than-perfect motion controls. A lot of players were able to move past the initial awkwardness and difficulty, but for most Zelda fans, it was a one and done deal. Either players quit early on and never returned to the game, or they heard about the sketchy motion controls and decided to skip the game entirely. This was something that had always saddened me, because beyond some of these difficulties, Zelda fans were missing out on such an amazing, beautiful game!
In today’s article, we’re going to see if Skyward Sword made a better second impression on a few members of our staff who haven’t thought too fondly of the game since its release in 2011. Before the HD release, they shared their original, unfiltered thoughts on Skyward Sword. Now, after having the last month to play through the remaster, they are ready to declare whether Skyward Sword HD was able to fix some of their critiques, or if their thoughts remain the same. Was Skyward Sword able to redeem itself after 10 years of relatively negative reviews? Let’s take a look!
Impressions Before the Release of Skyward Sword HD:
Mike Midwood, Associate Editor
Skyward Sword’s motion controls receive frequent and deserved derision, but really they’re just the tip of the iceberg. Even if they worked perfectly, the combat and enemies are still mostly just whack-a-mole variants. Dungeons like Ancient Cistern or Sandship are cool, but dungeons are not a strength for the game in general. Likewise, Koloktos and Demise are great fights, but most of the bosses are mediocre to terrible and often repeated. Many Zelda games from this era have slow openings, but Skyward Sword’s is by far the worst, and it never relents. This is a game that won’t stop holding the player’s hand until the credits roll, despite this being one of the simplest and most linear entries in the series.
I often hear praise given to the story in Skyward Sword and I couldn’t disagree more. I’ll acknowledge that I don’t care much about story in video games and certainly not in Zelda, but Skyward Sword’s narrative has little more going on than something like A Link to the Past. Unfortunately, it requires a dozen extra hours and constant interruptions to be told. It’s also presented in an overtly sappy way that the game doesn’t come close to earning, and it expects me to feel emotionally attached to a character who represents nothing more than a monotone annoyance throughout. It’s a shame that a few bright spots, such as the soundtrack and visuals, are stuck in one of the franchise’s lowest points.
Andrew Millard, Copy Editor
As much as I miss dungeon-based Zelda games with over and underworlds, I finished Skyward Sword on Wii out of a sense of duty. By the time I reached Lanayru Desert, the novelty of motion controls had completely worn off, and the game was a slog that I needed to finish only because I am a Zelda fan. The motion controls were a chore to keep calibrated (even with the built-in Motion+ version of the Wiimote). So, the key selling point of its gameplay actively worked against my enjoyment.
Me: “Hey, Link, charge a Skyward Strike!”
Link: *Waggles his forearm awkwardly*
…To the point where adding button controls was the only way I was ever going to play Skyward Sword again. Now, when it seems motion controls should be butter smooth, and someone like me could be convinced to give them another chance, Joy-Con drift is waiting right there to ruin it all over again.
Let’s assume button controls and quality-of-life edits erase all that frustration. Unfortunately, Skyward Sword kicked off an era I have never appreciated: The Official Timeline. I would echo all of Mike’s sentiments about the story. So, if the game isn’t fun to play, its origin narrative won’t save it for me the second time around. I don’t think the Legend of Zelda series ever needed a unifying origin or a branching history between games. Just knowing the simple premise that each game features a new variation on Link, Zelda, and Ganon was enough to keep me interested in how Nintendo would refresh and remix a perfect set of ingredients. The Timeline does little besides confuse the story and give fans a false sense of hope that favorite characters will return or explicit connections between games will be revealed.
Skyward’s Princess Zelda, Groose, and Peatrice were pretty cool, though.
Joseph Berlinger, Editor
First the good: Skyward Sword has an epic orchestral soundtrack, some solid characters, decent immersion, and a focus on storytelling. The problems I have with the game come in two forms, restrictions of freedom and limitation of scope.
Unlike past Zelda games, Skyward Sword’s world is broken up into zones that you visit three times each across your adventure. They feel more like levels in a Mario game than locations that fit into a cohesive world. Between the small world size and Fi’s constant interruptions, I feel my freedom to act and explore are severely hampered. Second, the world’s scope is limited. The Sky is mostly barren which is a huge waste of potential. While the surface is meant to be a primitive form of Hyrule, its lack of any towns or settlements for the local races makes the land too much of a wilderness to stay engaging.
Rod Lloyd, Managing Editor
Beyond the common gripes involving motion controls, obtrusive hand-holding, and constant interruptions by Fi — gripes that Skyward Sword HD appears to be addressing — my biggest criticisms of Skyward Sword relate to the game’s world and pacing. One of the things I value most about The Legend of Zelda as a franchise is that its best game worlds provide a sense of scale — a perceived vastness in relation to the player — and a sense of progression — a logical cohesion between areas and a gradual increase of danger / difficulty as players travel from place to place. Skyward Sword‘s world, in my opinion, lacked that sense of scale and progression.
The game’s explorable areas, both in the Sky and on the Surface, were far too segmented and distinct from one another. Traveling between them felt less like an expansive journey from Point A to Point B, and more like a simple hop through a loading zone, where Point A and Point B do not occupy the same physical space. In inelegant terms, the way the player moved throughout the world felt like a glorified Level Select screen. Additionally, those explorable areas are either quite barren of worthwhile content, like with the Sky, or are very guided / linear in regards to how players are supposed to move through them, like with the Faron and Eldin Provinces. In both cases, exploration — an aspect of Zelda that I most enjoy — seems to have been deprioritized in favor of sequential challenges involving motion-control gimmicks, fetch quests, enemy encounters, or basic traversal. I would have preferred to see either the Sky or the Surface more densely packed with content, and to see that content arranged in a more open / non-linear way. At the very least, the world would have felt more cohesive and lifelike as a result.
And then there are Skyward Sword‘s pacing issues, which are a direct result of the limited size of its world. Players are asked to visit Skyward Sword‘s primary areas upwards of three times over the course of their journey, which results in an adventure that feels both repetitive and artificially drawn out for time. I will admit that one of the game’s Surface areas in particular, Lanayru Desert, handles its revisits really well, with each return expanding the desert’s explorable areas to give the player a worthwhile sense of growth and progression. However, the two other surface areas fail to do the same. Swimming through a flooded Faron Province or sneaking through a darkened Eldin Province just aren’t big enough changes to make retreading the same recycled ground engaging. These revisits feel like they would have been mini-games or side content in any other Zelda game; but as mandatory sequences of the main quest, they just feel like filler. These criticisms extend to a few boss battles as well; I barely wanted to fight The Imprisoned once, let alone three times. Altogether, the repetition of areas and enemies in Skyward Sword, to me, made the adventure feel improperly paced. By the end, my quest didn’t feel like a continuous thrust toward a satisfactory conclusion, it felt like a meandering jaunt that doubled back on itself twice for no good reason.
Impressions After the Release of Skyward Sword HD:
Skyward Sword HD deserves credit where credit is due. Technically speaking, the Joy-Con provide motion-players with a much higher level of accuracy and consistency. With the game now running at 60fps, the combat feels much better, and I took significantly fewer cheap hits than I have in the past. There has also been a reduction in the number of interruptions when snagging upgrade items or passing NPC’s. While it seems silly to give a remaster points for fixing something that never needed to be a problem in the first place, I’m certainly glad for this streamlining. This is easily the definitive way to experience the series’ origin story.
Unfortunately, despite these alterations, Skyward Sword HD is merely a somewhat improved version of a fundamentally bad game. The control refinements don’t mean much when the enemy designs still have zero progression and negate the intrinsic appeal of having direct control over Link’s sword. Shallow, shoehorned motion gimmicks like the harp and boss keys still abound. The game is still overlong and padded by repetitive, mundane segments, though I suppose I should be glad the intro now only takes a million years to get through rather than a billion. Finally, while there are fewer interruptions, they haven’t been reduced by nearly as much as they needed to be.
This is Skyward Sword HD’s most persistent problem. While many stoppages, such as Fi’s dousing recommendations, have been made optional, the game is still far too eager to spoil any satisfaction to be gained from victory. Fi still pops out when entering most rooms or new areas to give the player painfully obvious advice. Dungeon puzzles are still frequently accompanied by patronizing tablets spilling the beans on how to advance. Even the better dungeons, like the Ancient Cistern or Sandship, are only elevated because of their presentation. They’re still navigation-bereft hallways with (mostly) formulaic bosses at the end. I don’t think anyone considers this a difficult or complicated game, but it refuses to let go of the player’s hand until they are safely in the ending credits. Skyward Sword HD endures as a trite, facile, bloated Zelda game and one of the worst in the franchise.
I came back to Skyward Sword HD hoping — wanting — to have my mind changed. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve really tried to back away from being overly critical or nit-picky when it comes to entertainment. Surprisingly, I’ve found that the attitude has made me sound more critical of and grumpy about the things I actually love. In essence, if I’m not into a game, or any piece of entertainment, I’ll simply bounce off of it, and it won’t bear talking about. So when it comes to Zelda (a series whose every entry I’ve played, I’ve finished), I can spout takes that might make people wonder why I claim to be a fan.
In the ten years since playing the initial release of Skyward Sword, I forgot that I had loved this game. As a collection of dungeons, Skyward Sword is a monumental success! Playing SSHD let all of the fun buried by its baggage come gushing back to the surface. Using a pretty modest set of dungeon items, Skyward Sword placed one enjoyable progression puzzle after another in front of me. So for that, thank you Nintendo. You reminded me how gratifying the pre-Breath of The Wild Zelda formula is, even in a game that is still mired by the same problems it had a decade ago.
Ultimately though, Skyward Sword HD did little to move the needle for me. Motion controls still begged to be calibrated. And rather than encourage off-the-couch play acting, I wound up much like I did on the Wii: sitting with my elbows tucked, raising and waggling the Joy-Con with just enough energy and motion to trigger the desired move. Button controls, which held all my hopes for suddenly “getting” this game, were only passable. As head-smackingly genius of a solution using the right thumbstick to emulate motion is, in practice it comes with its own aggravations. I found them too unintuitive to take on bosses, especially Girahim himself. Using the free camera with a thumbstick alt-mode proved jarring. So, the game’s lovely textures were constantly jumping all over the place as I developed the habit of snapping the camera back, rather than holding the camera button to enable free look.
And finally, it comes as no surprise that despite having such winning characters and dungeons, Skyward Sword HD was not able to change my mind about the game’s nature as an origin story. Its existence as a unifying story in an ad hoc timeline still holds no appeal. It appeared at a time when Nintendo was scrambling to accommodate an obscene number of new players. Potential fans who apparently exclaimed, “Please hold our hands through the whole game!” and, “Give us a soft reset! We’ve never played this 25-year-old, world-famous franchise!” So, for better or worse, Nintendo tried to usher the mobs of Wii owners into the world of Zelda with Skyward Sword. Only then to completely upend — or undermine — the approach with Breath of The Wild six years later. So, I’m sorry, Skyward Sword. I love you just enough to be critical of you. But I respect the effort you made.
Skyward Sword HD fixes one of my initial complaints. The amount of small hindrances, interruptions, and annoyances that slowed my progression have been significantly reduced. As on the Wii version, the soundtrack is excellent at creating atmosphere in both the Sky and Surface. Though I don’t think I’ll use much of the dialogue skipping features, as characters drive this game’s narrative. Skipping what they have to say would remove the story hooks that make the barren Surface tolerable.
Looking back on past Nintendo ports, it is still sad that Skyward Sword HD did not get the graphical overhaul in the same way that Ocarina of Time 3D and Majora’s Mask 3D both did. The remastering would have gone over better had the models and textures been upgraded with more polygons to remove the jagged and stark edges. Granted, the improved framerate does help occlude the rough spots if you keep Link moving. A rounder look for the characters and locations would have fit with the game’s watercolor art style better.
On the whole, I would argue that Skyward Sword HD excels at the little things, but does not go far enough on the big issues, certainly not enough to cost more than it did a decade ago.
Skyward Sword HD is, without question, a better game than the original.
Everything that was great in Skyward Sword — music, characters, art design, animations, dungeons, Skyloft as a hub area, and Lanayru Desert — remains great in HD. The various quality-of-life improvements introduced do a lot to smooth over the uneven portions of the original adventure; the auto-save feature, skippable cutscenes, and reduced interruptions were all very much welcome during my playthrough. And, most importantly, I found the button-only controls to be a vast improvement over the original’s motion controls; every action — from hand-to-hand combat, to flying the Loftwing and Beetle, to playing the harp — was more precise, more reliable, and more enjoyable overall. The button-controls do limit one’s camera controls, but veterans of the Nintendo 64 generation’s Z-targeting camera controls won’t have any trouble getting used to that compromise.
But, with that said, I still felt that HD did not do enough to address the annoyances I experienced in the original game. For one, while Skyward Sword HD‘s controls are more precise than what they once were, there were still plenty of instances where my stick flicks were not properly registered within combat, resulting in missed attacks or misaligned sword strikes. Likewise, the game still hosts too much hand-holding and too many interruptions. At nearly every step of Link’s journey, the game halts momentum to tell the player exactly what to do or where to go (and, in some instances, exactly how to solve a puzzle), whether through Fi, a cutaway to the map, or a slow pan of the in-game camera. Some guidance is to be expected from a game intended for everyone, but even with Skyward Sword HD‘s adjustments and reduced interruptions, this game still stands out among all other Zelda games for its constant intrusiveness when guiding the player. And speaking of Fi: while many (but certainly not all) of her interruptions have been made “optional,” an irritating chime sound effect, which the player can’t turn off, will still play when the sword spirit has something to say, such as when the player is low on hearts or their wallet is full. While reduced, these minor annoyances do add up by the end of the game.
In my opinion, these elements exist now as outdated relics of a past generation of Nintendo’s history, and they should have been made completely optional or cut from the game outright.
Lastly, Skyward Sword HD, as expected, did nothing to address what I consider to be Skyward Sword‘s biggest failings: its pacing and its use of filler content. I will admit that I was, to a point, more forgiving of the game’s Surface regions like Faron and Eldin, as I knew to anticipate them as inherently guided sequences and therefore tried to view them as dungeon-like experiences rather than freeform, explorable areas. But playing the game a second time really emphasized how many areas are re-used over the course of the game for, in my opinion, no other reason than to artificially draw out the length of the adventure. The most egregious examples in this playthrough were the Scrapper escort mission up Eldin Volcano and the revisit to a slightly altered Skyview Temple. These remixed challenges, in my opinion, were not very fun, interesting, or fulfilling. The last third of the game in particular, when I had three Surface revisits but only one dungeon left to look forward to, felt like an excruciating slog during what should have been the exciting build-up to the story’s climax.
In the end, there just isn’t enough engaging content in Skyward Sword for how long the adventure lasts. This issue lay at the core of my criticism of the game 10 years ago, and it lies there now after I’ve finished Skyward Sword HD. No matter how many improvements are made to its sword swinging or its companion character, the truth is that the Skyward Sword experience is not what I am personally looking for in a Zelda game.
Well, there you have it. I suppose the truth of the matter is that a game can’t hook everyone, no matter how many chances it is given.
I can understand that, beyond motion controls, there are negative factors that a remaster can’t really fix. However, I still believe that Skyward Sword HD changed more minds within the Zelda community than we know. It’s more accessible now, the Joy-Con perform far better than the Wii remote ever did, and — I don’t care if anyone disagrees — the HD version looks exponentially better. I think these things really helped tip the scales in Skyward Sword‘s favor. Maybe not by a huge amount, but I’ve really enjoyed hearing how much players love this game after hearing mostly negative reviews for the last 10 years. Personally, I think that makes Skyward Sword‘s second chance a success!
What about you? What were your thoughts about Skyward Sword before and after the HD release? Do your opinion improve? Or did it stay the same? Let us know what you think in the comments below!