(Cybertech) – The Legend of Zelda franchise is quite rightly revered by gamers young and old, but one Zelda title in particular has polarised opinion like no other. Depending on who you ask, Skyward Sword is one of the best games in the series… or one of the worst.
When released on the Nintendo Wii console a decade ago, it was highly regarded by most of the games press at the time, but many players disagreed – lamenting its cumbersome controls, odd art style, and mostly linear game world.
Now it’s back in remastered form for Nintendo Switch – and you get to decide where it fits in your own Zelda list all over again.
For us, there is plenty of evidence to suggest it was mistakenly maligned first time around. It’s still not perfect, especially when played on a Switch Lite, but tweaks have brought the best out of the runt of the litter at last. Read on to find out why.
As with previous Zelda games, there is somewhat a preamble before the main plot reveals itself. And, as the controls on Skyward Sword HD are different to most, there are a lot of tutorial-based missions to get out of the way before jumping (literally) into the main adventure.
You are Link once again (or whatever you decide to rename yourself) and, in age-old tradition, you awake to find yourself in an unfamiliar location. This time, you discover you are a student in Skyloft – a town that floats above the clouds over the “Surface” (Hyrule).
Here you will learn to fly your Loftwing, a giant bird that helps you get between locations, and generally get to grips with the games mechanics and combat. Soon though, you will find the eponymous sword, leave Skyloft for the first time to descend through the clouds, and start your quest to both find Zelda and rid the land from the grand monster Demise and his evil horde.
Skyward Sword is actually a prequel, with many firsts for Link and Zelda. It tells the origin of the Master Sword, for starters, and Link is more naive than in most other games (although, admittedly, he’s often losing his memory anyway). It’s also an oddity in that it was so finely tuned for the Wii Remote and Nunchuk with MotionPlus that it plays quite unlike any others before or after.
World in motion
As with the original, Skyward Sword HD is best played with motion controllers – in this case the Nintendo Switch’s Joy-Cons. Nintendo has implemented new button controls to allow Switch Lite owners to play it, or those who want to use the Switch in handheld mode, but that’s not without shortcomings.
Combat, for example, is based on real-world swipes. By waving the right Joy-Con in the air, you can perform thrusts and slices with the sword. The left Joy-Con can also be used to block with a shield. But, while you can now perform the same actions with thumbsticks, it’s more cumbersome and harder to be precise with. It’s trickier, therefore, to achieve the same results in a fast-paced battle.
When facing the demon lord Ghirahim for the first time, for example, you will discover that swipes in certain directions are required to defeat him. You need to distract him by holding the sword in one direction, then swiping on completely the opposite plane. That’s fairly simply with a Joy-Con, far less so on a thumbstick.
We’ve played the game on a standard Switch using Joy-Cons and a Switch Pro controller, plus on a Switch Lite. The Pro controller and Lite suffer the same issues – you can often end up just flicking the thumbsticks in random directions during fights than using any sort of strategy.
Even the Joy-Cons have so many controls mapped to different buttons, you can often forget what to press at what time. They move so much better than the original Wii Remote – even with MotionPlus it was hit and miss back then – but it never really feels completely natural. We found we were always looking down at our hands at inopportune moments or pressing the wrong thing during battle or a puzzle.
To be fair though, it does get less frustrating as you progress – and there is plenty in the game that makes you want to persevere. Even the button controls and thumbstick use become more intuitive in time. Just be prepared to fail (and flail) a lot in the first few hours.
Nintendo’s “quality of life” improvements don’t end at new button controls and better motion. The graphics are obviously better, with a complete remaster of each asset to take it from standard to high definition, hence the ‘HD’ in the name.
Frame rates have improved too, with the game now running at 60 frames per second. This makes a massive difference to not only the visual smoothness of the game, but responsiveness.
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Other tweaks include interactions with your in-game helper Fi. Originally a nuisance, she now only pops up in cut scenes or when called upon for hints specifically. That way you can choose whether you want your hand to be held or not.
The same is true with other pop-ups. Collectables are only explained the first time you pick one up, for example, while text can be fast-forwarded with a simple press of the B button. Even cutscenes can be skipped, which helps if you’ve died and had to go back to a save prior to one you’ve watched before.
Perhaps even more important are autosaves. The original game required you to find a bird statue to manually save each time – and while that is still in the game, you now also get automatic saves to prevent having to restart too far back each time.
Our other favourite new feature is a free-look camera. This is most important for handheld play and is mapped to the left bumper. Hold it down and you can use the right thumbstick to move the camera as you are travelling around yourself. It prevents moments where you can’t see an enemy because you can’t spin around quick enough.
Our only gripe is that you can’t use the free-look camera with the lock-on button at the same time, which is also a little too physically close being it’s the ZL button. Still, it makes the game more playable and you soon get used to switching between each modes.
The remastered graphics are genuinely excellent. You have to remember that this is a 10-year-old game, with an original resolution of 480p. A lot of effort has gone into not only sharpening assets, but making them work in 1080p (720p in handheld mode).
Naturally, much of the art is basic and lacking a whole lot of polygons or detail, but it is crisp and smooth.
There are some caveats. Draw distances don’t seem to have been tweaked enough, with pop-in of objects on the horizon still visible. And we think on-screen text is far too tiny when viewed on a Switch Lite.
Also, thanks to being sharper and better defined, some elements look a little out of place – the Loftwings against the hazy sky, for example. They look like they are on green screen. However, these are all minor quibbles on what is a great remaster of a very low-res game, and a good indication to what might be to come when other older Zelda games could be released on Switch. Here’s hoping anyway.
As for the gameplay, control issues aside, we found Skyward Sword so much more likeable the second time around.
The game is fairly linear, even with larger maps than Twilight Princess, say. But, the dungeons and puzzles are well thought out and fun. Boss battles are perhaps more difficult depending on the control method – as we’ve already said – but there’s no denying their inventiveness. Character design is great too, with so many odd, funny and interesting encounters along the 40+ hour adventure.
Our biggest problem with the game, however, is its price. The non-motion controls can be frustrating, but we can balance that with the option of playing the game without having to take over the living room floor. But, to price Skyward Sword HD the same as a triple-A Switch game is bizarre.
It’s better than we remember second time around, especially with all the “quality of life” tweaks Nintendo has implemented, but Breath of the Wild it ain’t.
We can’t but feel a remaster like this on any other console would be cheaper, even with the amount of work put into the new controls and upgraded assets. So, to put it in a higher price bracket means that those who have never played the original might overlook it, while those who ignored it on reputation first time around will baulk at paying full whack just to see if they were justified or not.
The Super Mario 3D All-Stars collection was the same price for three excellent remasters after all, including another Wii classic also adapted for handheld play. We’d have been happier with Wind Waker HD and Twilight Princess HD bundled in too, for example. Or Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask.
Still, release strategy aside, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD puts to rest consternation that dates back a decade and proves, once and for all, that it deserves its seat at the Zelda table.
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Ok, so it’s a Zelda game and therefore you’ve almost certainly played it, but if you’ve not then, well, get your running shoes on – because this is arguably the best Zelda title ever.
Writing by Rik Henderson. Editing by Chris Hall. Originally published on .