Revisiting The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword – In High Definition & High Detail

Yep, we’re doing this again.

Ten years. Wow.

It has somehow been (almost) ten years since The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword hit the flailing, ailing Nintendo Wii to a chorus of crickets. Essentially the last major release on the console, there was already a mighty stack of factors going against its success before November 24th, 2011 rolled around: The Wii had endured an extremely light year after a banner 2010 that already felt like a celebratory send-off, as Nintendo pivoted first to launching and then to saving the fledgling 3DS; the game required the purchase of the Wii Motion Plus attachment in order to work with its ambitious controls; and perhaps most tellingly, the lightning had left the bottle for the casual Wii audience and everyone else was playing Skyrim.

Yes, Link, it’s true.

This left a smaller audience than Nintendo would’ve liked to pick up its latest 3D Zelda extravaganza, the endcap to a year-long celebration of the series’ 25th anniversary. Skyward Sword sold in the millions, but for a game five years in development and an install base as record-shattering as the Wii’s, it was nothing short of a disappointment. The day I started writing this it still held the record for the worst-selling 3D entry in the Legend of Zelda series (Edit: Switch sales may have changed this by now). And despite an initial wave of critical acclaim customary for a Zelda game, the reputation of Link’s motion-controlled escapade took a sharp downturn before long and stayed down for years. After all, who wants to dust off their horrifically outdated Nintendo Wii and buy an extra controller attachment just to challenge the notoriety of a finicky, linear, repetitive, excessively hand-holding game in *ugh* standard definition?

omg ewwwww

Five years. Oh no.

It has somehow been (just over) five years since I put out what is still the longest singular piece of writing I’ve ever cobbled together in my lifetime: A 10,000 word behemoth on The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD (Edit: Um, about that…). Inspired by a decade of mixed personal feelings, lengthy conversations with friends, and triple-digit hours of watched YouTube content on the strengths and weaknesses of the game; the post ended up perhaps a touch unwieldy and yet oh-so-cathartic. Thanks to a bucket of alternate perspectives and a highly underrated Wii U remaster, I had never felt so assured that – despite its flaws – um, I liked the game, actually.

And I’d be OK never writing another word about it.

The last thing I was thinking as that project slowly came together was “I’m setting a template here and I definitely want to put myself through this again.” And yet you know where this is going, because you read the title: It’s Skyward Sword’s turn. But this time around, dear reader, we’re not investigating if years of Zelda franchise evolution and some neat nips and tucks have improved my sentiments towards an inconsistent videogame; we’re seeing whether my third favourite Zelda game of all-time (behind only Majora’s Mask and Breath of the Wild) can possibly still hold such a lofty position after it has been exposed to a decade of stiff critiques, a lack of clear historical identity and a radical reinvention of the entire franchise in its wake.

Challenge accepted.

But we are going to try our very best to do it in less than 10,000 words this time, probably (Edit: We failed, and we failed hard). Regardless, this one will need a beverage or two to get through; at the time of writing Skyward Sword is the last 3D Zelda game to release on a second console, and rest assured I have no intention of leaving stones unturned. Whatever it will cost.

You guessed it – we’re in for another long one.

(I’m going to go ahead and re-purpose a paragraph from the Twilight Princess post because it fits too well this time, and kinda feels poetic too)

Be aware that this post contains a huge amount of spoilers that get steadily worse the longer you read – worth mentioning if you haven’t played the game before. All you need to know if you’re a Skyward Sword newcomer is that yes, I believe this HD / portable release is definitively the best version of the classic title, and yes, you really should play it. If you really want to read on, continue at your own risk, but you should know that what follows is so exhaustive that you may not even feel like you need to play it by the end. But maybe play it anyway?

THE CHANGES

— Visuals —

Though it was less widely-advertised this time, it turns out the Skyward Sword remaster was done by the same team who handled that Twilight Princess treatment five years ago: the Aussie legends down at Tantalus Media. Though it likely would have been just as difficult to get any big changes past Nintendo of Japan as it was for the Melburnians last time around, the outsider perspective has once again proved supremely useful in addressing a number of simple technical criticisms levelled at the original Wii release.

Some of those criticisms were entirely due to the game’s debut on a highly limited platform, and so the first change to point out is right there in the name: this baby’s got that native HD resolution. Matching the Nintendo Switch’s maximum output of 720p in portable mode and 1080p docked 100% of the time is a rare feat among major Switch releases in 2021, and that added crispness is the first big point in this remaster’s favour. But you could say the same about Nintendo’s last two similar efforts, Twilight Princess HD and The Wind Waker HD. This time around things are a bit more interesting on the eye.

That’s because the original Skyward Sword arrived sporting a curious, painterly look designed to do what Nintendo has done better than anyone else for decades: overcome technical limitations in triple-A games through sheer force of art direction. The limitations Skyward faced at launch were more significant than usual, as standard definition had already been surpassed in the console mainstream a full half-decade earlier; so the Zelda team brought in an impressionist-art visual filter that effectively sidestepped the problems of blocky pixels and poor draw distance through an unconventional blur effect.

Imagine that horizon with 50% chunkier pixels.

The majority of the game’s textures had a vibrant, splotchy watercolour look to match the slightly surreal aesthetic – putting Tantalus in a bit of a pickle when it came to recapturing the visual spirit of the game. Their solution – a retention of the distance filter rendered with higher clarity, combined with AI-based upscaling of important textures and the odd brand-new character model – is just the ticket for Skyward Sword HD. That’s because this light touch not only allows the game to reach that delicious maximum resolution, it can do so in 60 frames a second. This Nintendo World Report video sums it up much more eloquently and authoritatively than I can:

An example of which textures you improve and which you leave looking like paint strokes.

60 FPS is a historic first for a 3D Legend of Zelda game, and the significance of that cannot be understated; no other single-player Zelda on a Nintendo console looks this fluid in motion. But not only does the extra-smooth movement give the game a premium, modern feel; it does the precise combat of Skyward Sword a massive favour. Perhaps no game in the series has a bigger emphasis on carefully considered confrontation, so cutting the input latency and feedback time on all the player’s actions takes an immediate chunk out of the game’s notorious control controversy. Which of course brings us to…

— Controls —

If the initial reviews on launch weekend are any indication, a decade has done little to change the general consensus over whether Skyward Sword’s motion controls are any good. But love them, hate them or haven’t played them, the game was very clearly designed around motion from its core to its trimmings; any attempt to bring the first chronological Link to a portable system would require some serious tuning.

And tuning we have received.

This is where the Tantalus gang deserve to take their biggest bow: at long last, Skyward Sword is now playable from start to finish with button and stick controls. The even better news is if that’s the way you want to play it, I’m thrilled to report it’s very playable – if not quite the premier way to experience the game.

I logged my 49-hour playthrough of Skyward Sword HD (to virtually 100% completion) hour-by-hour, jotting down what control scheme and screen type I used for each session in an effort to force myself into as many different configurations as I could. This is the pie chart born as a result:

(The control split was roughly 8% pro controller, 92% joy-cons)

As you can see, setups involving motion won out overall, although I still spent a substantial amount of time with the new analogue stick controls. I learned a few things from the mix-and-match experience:

  • The game’s unique visual style and its remastering treatment make Skyward Sword HD a wonderful fit for the mClassic upscaler dongle, which can sometimes add a bit of a haze to edges with its anti-aliasing algorithm – the effect blends right in here, looking almost dreamlike on a 55-inch 4K TV;
  • I did, however, have by far the most issues with motion controls in this configuration, because the distance I usually sit from that screen adds significant, frustrating lag to the joy-cons’ more advanced features – like its internal gyroscope;
  • I played on four different 1080p screens across the playthrough – sitting much closer to the Switch dock because of the smaller panel real estate – and had a great experience with all of them whether I was using motion controls or not;
  • This is probably the best single-player fit for the Nintendo Switch’s tabletop mode since 2017 – there are no discernible performance differences, and I believe full native screen resolution at 60 frames a second from a reasonable viewing distance makes the game look its very best;
  • As I began to rack up the tabletop hours, I started to wonder whether SSHD might make an even better showcase for the upcoming OLED model Switch console than Metroid Dread will – what with its far better kickstand, speakers and screen -and it also made me want the new hardware iteration more. But I’m getting too far from the point here.
Artist’s impression of me trying to balance all my thoughts.

Playing with detached joy-cons in the classic motion-controlled arrangement is shockingly similar to the Wii experience, for better or worse; there are some sacrifices that come with the lack of a sensor bar to subtly re-align the on-screen cursor, but a couple of surprising improvements to balance them out.

Yes, you do have to get used to pressing the Y button reasonably often to give the ‘blind’ gyro a new centre reference, but nowhere near as often as the messy makeshift cursor controls in The World Ends With You: Final Remix or World of Goo seemed to foreshadow when they released on Switch. It turns out the game’s engine doesn’t actually need an external centring input for any action not directly involved with aiming projectiles; and while I’d definitely recommend getting into the habit of hovering over that Y button when playing this way, more times than I can count during my playthrough I instinctively pressed the button to centre Link’s sword only to discover it already was.

They even brought back the old Wii pointer icon – nice touch.

On the plus side, one of my least favourite memories of the original is now a non-issue: the annoying old screen asking you to place the Wii remote upside down on a flat surface for several seconds to calibrate is now nowhere to be found. The Switch joy-cons also have better rumble motors than the Wii remote did, which adds to on-hit feedback even if (disappointingly) there aren’t any real uses for the system’s subtler HD Rumble capabilities to speak of. Then there’s that gorgeous 60 FPS flow, which kept me feeling more in control of the Master Sword than ever before – at least when I wasn’t playing on a large TV far from the Switch dock.

Feeling badass in the game, looking like an idiot in real life. 2011 never left.

But onto the motion-free thoughts. The modern wonder of a right-hand analogue stick carries most of the translation load in the new control setup, and using it for swordplay does take some getting used to whether you’re coming from a personal history with the Wii version or entirely fresh. The best mindset to use here is probably a Super Smash Bros one: you ‘tilt’ the control stick to move your sword in that direction, and you ‘tap’ it against its plastic housing quickly to slash in that direction. Click the right stick in to stab straight ahead, click the left one in to do a shield bash, and bounce three successive right stick taps off the housing edges in opposite directions to perform either the horizontal or vertical spin attack.

It’s a reasonably elegant solution to the fine detail of the motion scheme, I’m sure you’ll agree; even if the relatively tiny joy-con / Switch Lite analogue sticks can make the difference between a tilt and a tap a little too small during some high-pressure combat situations. It’s worth remembering that these situations were designed for a person’s arm with reasonable space to move, after all.

And sometimes there really isn’t a lot of room to attack.

Luckily there’s a bit more going on under the hood of the remaster to help out. Given the original developers’ complete and utter commitment to inventing new motion control schemes for all kinds of in-game actions (each responding differently to the sensitivity of the gyroscope), it’s clear HD needed a much more considered approach than a simple blanket input re-map to the right analogue stick.

Tantalus and Nintendo have clearly obliged with a combination of subtle automatic corrections – such as Link having the sense to tilt the Bug Net to an inward-facing vertical position when the right stick reaches its left or rightmost limit – and a case-by-case assessment of which actions shouldn’t need the right stick at all. If a motion action can be remapped to a simple button prompt or the left stick instead without compromising the depth and/or challenge a gameplay section requires, it probably has.

If it stayed facing downward when you moved the stick, no-one would have a good time.

If all this sounds complicated, it is; but plenty of pundits thought it couldn’t be done at all so that’s hardly unexpected. Thanks to all these tiny adjustments and more, it truly does not take long to learn the ropes and get stuck into the meat of the game; you might even forget there was any learning curve at all after a while. Yet not all bumps could be smoothed out entirely – some are still showing under the rug.

Accidental metaphor assistant.

Take the brand new camera controls: for the first time ever, you can freely adjust the camera in Skyward Sword like you can in most modern third-person games. The ZL-bound camera lock immediately behind Link is still present, but using the right stick to take in his surroundings from all-new angles has a similar transformative effect that it did for Majora’s Mask 3D when played on a New 3DS console. This is a world we previously saw almost exclusively from a reasonably tight following distance behind our hero, but with that aforementioned reduced distance blur effect in HD comes an opportunity to open up the player’s sense of freedom immensely. Any section of Skyward Sword involving a maze or intense verticality – and there are a few – becomes much less frustrating as a result.

Also makes shortcut throws like this possible.

As we know the button controls of Skyward Sword HD already have a clear use for the right stick, so the free camera movement in this mode is only engaged when you’re holding down the L button. That makes a certain kind of sense; after all it’s right above ZL, which already controls one aspect of the camera, and the centrality of sword combat to the entire game would’ve made additional button requirements problematic (especially when you factor in the similar way the Bug Net is controlled). But it does make it literally impossible to move the camera while swinging Link’s sword, giving the motion controls a de facto leg up. Not a useful one, mind you; there isn’t a single situation where you actually need to do this (otherwise the original release would’ve had bigger problems), but one I still definitely noticed when jumping between control schemes. Cutting grass and clearing mobs in open areas is just a teensy bit less satisfying without the combo.

On that note, the game’s stamina-draining sprint is mapped to the B button, making Link’s powerful running jump slash extremely difficult to perform with button controls (you’d need to lift your thumb off the button and onto the stick underneath and then flick it downward within a tiny sub-second window). Again, not a required action, but this one definitely is useful in crowded late-game areas as well as one particularly notorious boss fight. At least you can remap inputs in the Switch’s system-level settings if you want.

Looks a bit silly in freeze-frame, doesn’t it?

Then there’s the sensitivity of the stick itself. Due to the unavoidable difference in travel distance between a control stick and a tilting arm, some in-game movements in full 3D space feel better than others.

Take my favourite item in the whole franchise, the highly versatile Beetle; designed to look, sound and feel like a remote-controlled flying toy, it achieves all three with motion controls because slight direction changes take big efforts. It’s hugely evocative of being a kid with a chunky antennae-toting handheld controller, and every nook hiding a tucked-away switch or collectible is far enough away from a nearby launch point to ensure plenty of time – and some strangely satisfying tension – on the way there.

The stick controls feel ridiculously jerky in comparison, as pushing the stick to its edge launches the little guy into a sharp turn I didn’t even realise was possible before the remaster. Approaching a target becomes either an exercise in zigzag technique or a delicate balancing act as you attempt to keep a tiny joy-con stick (which hopefully isn’t drifting) between neutral and maximum in any given direction.

Such a fun item though.

Thankfully the opposite is true with the swimming controls. Skyward Sword HD might well be the first Zelda series re-release of any kind with better options for underwater movement, which just so happens to be a segment of game design in which Nintendo’s Zelda teams seem consistently uninterested. Controlling Link’s entire body with motion controls, especially at speed with the spin dash manoeuvre, was already an awkward endeavour due to the need to round several tight corners within the game’s (mercifully few) waterlogged tunnels; transitioning to the left stick is a natural fit that gives you slightly more control over Link – even if it doesn’t quite stop the feeling of sliding through a tunnel of butter.

Best you can hope for is some control over the wild chaos.

That leaves airborne controls, an area where I believe both options more-or-less work equally well. By default there’s a satisfying learning curve to understanding Link’s red Loftwing mount – almost like it’s a living thing – that you don’t quite get with a control stick; learning the best timing for a flap action to gain altitude and especially nailing the optimum dive angle to maximise distance and speed are just so much more tactile with the joy-con – especially given the latter’s pulsing wind rush effect within the controller’s rumble – but putting the flap on a single button definitely saves a whole lot of energy and the left stick is wonderfully tuned for the most intuitive flight control possible. I didn’t feel like I was missing out by using the button controls in this case, especially in the second half of the game once I had done most of the quests in the sky.

A win either way in my book.
Oh yeah, a quick word on the free-falling controls: They just feel wrong on stick.
They were always designed to work best if you imagine your controller IS Link…
…and tilt accordingly. But you don’t free-fall enough in the game for this to really matter.

A strange final motion point: Tantalus has programmed in a motion-controlled aiming option for use with button controls, and it works almost exactly like the ones in Twilight Princess HD, Ocarina of Time 3D and Majora’s Mask 3D; that is to say it centres the aiming reticle and moves the entire screen around it for pinpoint-accurate shots with or without assistance from the right stick – not to mention no need for Y-button re-centring. In fact the game lets you walk around while aiming in this mode, so it’s actually up there with the series-best implementation from The Wind Waker HD. Splatoon 2 players will be right at home with it – and I for one have always liked the way it feels in every single 3D Zelda re-release – but it is decidedly not how the original Skyward Sword handled aiming and so it is only usable from within the button control setup.

All this cursed knowledge makes it a little disappointing that you can’t mix-and-match parts of the control scheme – like, say, take the wholesale modern gyro aiming and the stick swimming controls with the motion swordplay and beetle flight – but that level of fine control within the menu of a Nintendo game might have made some of their other games look bad, and we can’t have that now can we? Still, it’s great to know I could happily play with either control scheme as-is; I just prefer the original way overall.

Alas, the best of all worlds isn’t quite possible.

I’ve spent the better part of a decade wondering just what makes the default control scheme of Skyward Sword so controversial, and I do mean properly controversial. But somewhat disappointingly, my playthrough of HD leaves me with a reasonably unchanged conclusion. The secret to enjoying the motion controls is ultimately the same as it was ten years ago: patience and attentiveness.

Following the way the game wants you to play did not lead me astray ten years ago, and it didn’t this time either. As long as I wasn’t playing on my biggest TV, I still found the game did exactly what I wanted it to do with most every motion I made; if it didn’t I could always tell what was wrong with my action. I had exactly three unpleasant moments with the motion controls on this playthrough: the first was in the game’s final stretch, when I sat down to play after an awful day and noticed I was flailing wildly instead of positioning and slashing deliberately, like I had been all game. The second and third were both directly due to me underestimating how precisely I had to perform an onscreen action.

This kind of precision has always made me scratch my head at the allegations that Skyward Sword’s controls were broken. But maybe that’s it – Some people just don’t want to stick with a game that takes something as natural as an imaginary sword swing and restricts it to an exact range of motions you have to perform correctly every time. Makes sense, really; and now no-one has to play that way! I can finally stop talking about this game’s controls!

— Convenience —

In the spirit of that wonderful Twilight Princess HD release, SSHD drops in a few simple quality of life changes that show their value across the entire game, each going a long way towards making the maligned original a more balanced experience. For reasons I hope will become clear if you make it to the second half of this article, these small changes are nowhere near as numerous for the cloud-surfing slacker as they were for the wolf boy, but they’re smart and they’re welcome.

Let’s get into them!

First up, this HD remaster follows the last one by eliminating the infuriating item pickup explanation that used to take place every time you picked up an item for the first time since the last load of your save file – something, incidentally, you never actively have to do anymore because SSHD happens to be the first Zelda game with an autosave system! Yes, really. Every manual save now comes with a file selection choice too, in case you’re about to make a contentious choice and want to re-load afterwards. The world truly is your oyster.

Treasure this wondrously informative screen, cause you’ll only see it once!

Not only have the game’s UI elements been scaled down to take up less of the screen and given a HD polish on top – text boxes included – but those text boxes now feature text you can actually fast-forward with the B button. This may seem like a basic feature of almost every text-heavy game these days, but believe it or not it wasn’t present on the Wii; needless to say things moved at an absolute snails pace in 2011. Oh yeah, and every cutscene is now skippable from the very beginning. And every load between areas happens at twice the speed of the original or faster.

Gotta go fast.

Yep, it looks like speed was the name of the game when Tantalus set out to tighten up Skyward Sword, but that’s not the only way they achieved it; there are a few specific manual changes to accentuate the technical improvements across the board. Early on in the original game, Link’s path was repeatedly stopped – even mid-sprint – by characters asking him to perform tutorial-style actions. Most of these are now entirely optional, as the offending characters now simply flaunt the game’s thought bubble sidequest indicator above their heads instead. Ignoring them entirely is now a viable option.

Right there on the left. This guy used to interrupt your run every time.

Speaking of optional, Public Enemy Number One in Skyward Sword discussion circles has clearly taken a relaxing holiday over the last ten years to address her more controlling impulses. Link’s pseudo-sentient AI companion Fi, formerly of “Your batteries/health are low” infamy, now has a higher percentage of her Captain Obvious comments buried under an optional sword glow and button prompt combo – enough of them to (perhaps) allow her to fulfil her story role more meaningfully.

You will now only see a repeat line from Fi if you call her yourself in the right (wrong?) place with the bottom d-pad button. Though her progression-related behaviour is changed less in the game’s second half, it’s arguably far less of a problem there; and while I don’t have a minute-by-minute comparison on hand I am thrilled she allowed me to get stuck in places I know I didn’t ten years ago. But let’s put a pin in the Fi topic for now.

There’s an obscure Jungian cognitive functions joke in here somewhere.

My original playthrough of this game was 65 hours long. I tend to take my time with Zelda games, and I certainly did not rush at any point this time around; in fact in addition to all the new places I got stuck, I also doubled back for collectables every chance I got to make sure I filled out that status screen and failed several times on the boss rush minigame near the end. So I’m convinced a huge chunk of that 16 hour difference comes down to all these small time-saving changes adding up.

A quick mention for something that I initially felt disappointed didn’t change in Skyward Sword HD: access to Hero Mode. A popular addition to recent Zelda re-releases, this simple difficulty modifier doubles damage received from enemies and stops all standard collectable heart drops, going a step further in this case by speeding up Link’s stamina consumption rate to boot. It’s easy to forget (I certainly did) that Skyward Sword was actually the first 3D game in the series to offer this mode back in 2011, although you had to beat the game once to earn the right. Since then The Wind Waker HD, Twilight Princess HD and the 2019 remake of Link’s Awakening have included it in their own lists of upgrades, allowing the game to be played that way from the very start.

That’s an undercooked recommendation. You need to utilise potions.

But that disappointment quickly went away once I refreshed my memory on how Hero Mode worked in its debut game. This isn’t just a difficulty setting – it’s a full-on ‘new game plus’ mode that carries over all your collected treasures and bugs from a completed save file, and it does so because Hero Mode in Skyward Sword truly does not mess around. The game is implicitly telling you to spend those built-up resources on things you might not have needed on a first playthrough, such as potion upgrades or even potions you flat-out ignored originally (the green stamina one comes to mind), because mistimed attacks will cost you dearly over the long stretches of gameplay between life-restoring rest seats.

Throwing this option right at a new player – or honestly even someone like me returning after a long time – would almost certainly only make for angrier players. The controls don’t need any more pressure put on them, that’s for sure.

Nice to see during normal gameplay, a sight for sore eyes in Hero Mode.

Sadly no discussion on quality of life improvements can be complete without mention of the Zelda & Lifting amiibo figure released separately alongside the game. It’s a wonderfully-made figure – one of the best-looking of the Switch era in my opinion – but it does cross that delicate line every amiibo has since the product line began seven years ago. It brings a more substantial exclusive benefit than the cosmetic or random-roll unlocks that have been the norm over the last few years of Switch games, allowing Link to teleport to the sky at any point and then back to that same spot on the ground with a simple Fi call and tap.

And that’s a real shame because it looks so good!

Now Skyward Sword is a rather condensed game by design, as we’ll get into in a moment. You are never far from one of the bird statues that can return you above the clouds, so it was rather easy for me to ignore the amiibo entirely after the one time I tried it to see its effects. But you could argue that using it the exact moment you’re done in a terrestrial area – every single time – adds up to a whole heap of minutes saved over the course of a playthrough, so it’s not so easily dismissed as a criticism. I can particularly see it coming in handy for returning players on a Hero Mode run, but it just feels like such a weird artificial spanner jammed into the gears of the game’s momentum otherwise.

You just get this awkward glowing pan-away and then you’re in the sky again.

It’s worth pointing out that this awkwardness doesn’t come out of nowhere. If anything, Twilight Princess HD was a far more amiibo-centric experience – that game’s Wolf Link amiibo unlocked an entire gauntlet of challenge rooms leading up to a companion unlock in Breath of the Wild. A powerful any-time heal was locked behind a different specific figure, and the same can be said for an entire extra pseudo-difficulty level.

There are nuanced arguments about pricing and availability that could be had here, but sadly at the time of writing none of the figures with functionality within either TPHD or SSHD are readily available for official purchase anywhere. And the games are the same price – amiibo-less – on the eShop to boot (so is The Wind Waker HD, for all that’s worth). So yes, the situation sucks all around, but it sucks in a way that’s consistent with how Nintendo has treated their modern Zelda remasters for as long as they’ve been around.

I can’t believe I dug out and set up my Wii U again for this one shot.

But that’s quite enough about the new stuff – there’s a long overdue core game discussion to be had here.

THE GAME

— Story —

Big spoiler time is coming up (that’s your last warning), but let’s just take a quick look at something before we dive in here. This is a direct comparison of the blurb on the back of the retail boxes of the original Skyward Sword on the Wii and its HD Switch release:

hmm…

Notice the big difference?

Over the last decade, Nintendo has evidently changed their attitude towards Skyward Sword‘s major selling point. Though it remains a landmark moment for bold motion controls in more ways than one, the impressionist adventure also arguably marked the high point of the Zelda dev team’s interest in committed storytelling. It was, after all, initially released during the series’ 25th anniversary celebrations, which also included a full orchestral tour and a phenomenal collectible tome solidifying the once-nebulous concept of a “Zelda timeline”; no doubt a few people at that Kyoto head office were feeling sentimental.

It didn’t last long.

In the ten years since, we’ve received three brand-new Zelda games (alongside a handful of remakes, remasters and spinoffs) and not one of them has shown anywhere near the same amount of narrative consideration. Skyward‘s reappearance thus comes at a fascinating time; lore-leaning Zelda fans have been somewhat starved for a little while, and many new fans may not even realise what the series can achieve when it cares just a little more about the why behind all the wonderful adventuring. It’s fortunate that the timing is ripe, because the story within The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword certainly holds up.

Like the game around it, the plot of Skyward Sword isn’t exactly sprawling or epic in quite the same way as some of its franchise siblings. It does, however, manage to be intimate, consequential and focused – three crucial qualities that keep it engaging all the way through from cutesy anime-esque opening to all-timer finale. And thanks to those aforementioned speedy quality of life changes in the remaster, the narrative flow is less obstructed and picks up momentum at a much more satisfying clip.

Yes, believe it. It can be done.

Skyward Sword’s narrative strength starts and finishes with the stunningly-executed relationship dynamics between Link and Zelda. There’s a truly fabulous little supporting cast – one of the series’ very best – to fill out the heft of the main plot, but all of their individual character arcs ultimately point in the same direction; there’s no confusion or dilution of impact and the emotional core stays firmly lodged where it should be.

Adorable.

There’s no sign of the tradition-vs-trailblazer objective conflict of Twilight Princess, you don’t have to find most of the heart in the sidequests like in Majora’s Mask, and none of the progression gates that push the story along seem physically arbitrary, like they do in The Wind Waker or Phantom Hourglass. The mostly linear game design is a huge win for the narrative – so much so that I daresay this might have been *gasp* a Zelda game designed directly alongside its story!

The tale’s position at the very beginning of the grand series timeline (which Nintendo does sometimes care about) facilitates a relatively baggage-free story that starts with no immediately apparent grand destiny weighing on our hero; in fact, this relatively unimpressive Link is apparently known around the floating town of Skyloft for little more than his laziness. He only seems to get anywhere in life because Zelda, the mayor’s daughter, has taken a shine to him and basically drags him through life.

Ugh, classic Link behaviour.

That’s not to say he doesn’t reciprocate the affection, or that he has no charm; if anything, the screenshots I’ve been using on this page so far should have made it clear that this is perhaps the most expressive version of Link in the entire Zelda series. That’s often a title given to the cel-shaded, eyes-like-dinner-plates protagonist from The Wind Waker, but there’s a clear winner when you’re truly paying attention to it; the Hero of the Sky goes even bigger and wider on his reactions and it’s immensely endearing.

He’s also far from the only character who does, and thanks to this expressiveness you buy the genuine connection between Link and Zelda as longtime friends (or perhaps more) even without voice acting. Skyward Sword is not afraid to spend time on their relationship with each other – and their fellow Skyloft residents – early on in the game so that you’re strapped in with the pair as their world gets completely upended.

And the good news is you feel it even with all of HD’s speed-boosting changes.
Oh no, he’s frozen.

When the story’s major inciting incident pulls Zelda quite literally out of thin air and onto the unfamiliar land beneath the clouds, the player’s need to progress the story by following her down is in perfect sync with Link’s anxious energy to do the same. Each time he barely manages to catch up with her own mysterious quest – accompanied by her guide in the form of a series-best Impa design – Link’s confusion, fear and resilience are painted clear as day on his face; Zelda’s newfound internal conflict between duty and connection responds in kind. This focus on character expression is enhanced by the kind of thoughtful shot framing that hadn’t really been seen in a Zelda game at the time of first release, and hasn’t yet been repeated to this extent.

That right there is an internal recognition of lost innocence, on a cartoon face.
When are we getting an Impa game, Nintendo?

The music also helps. A lot. In fact there probably wasn’t any single aspect of Skyward Sword that I underappreciated a decade ago more than its score, but suffice to say that has been rectified. Around the game’s first launch much was made of its unprecedented move towards true orchestral recordings, but a significant part of the fanbase ended up lukewarm on the decision because the looser, more cinematic flow meant fewer memorable new melodies to get stuck in your head, hum endlessly, save and remix. I was definitely in that camp; aside from the excellent Ballad of the Goddess and Fi’s Farewell pieces – which are definitely memorable on a note-by-note basis – I mentally scrapped the rest and moved on. That was just how I processed Zelda music.

Over the last ten years it’s probably fair to say that videogame music has evolved a great deal, as has the way we understand it as fans. Big budget triple-A games have become exponentially more movie-like, while the explosion in indie game accessibility has spotlighted more diverse and flavourful composing styles; in the meantime huge communities of musically-inclined fans have turned their experience into analytical YouTube channels spotlighting the underappreciated power of ambient tunes, themes, motifs, subtle variations and much more. This is the right climate for Skyward Sword’s soundtrack to soar.

Ah, I can hear it now… Because I’m listening to it while I write.

Take the fabulously airy “Romance” theme, which plays in multiple forms across the game’s opening chapter – mostly to accompany scenes with Link and Zelda in centre frame. It’s a high-fidelity piece with gentle notes and a waltz-like joy that seems to float like the town of Skyloft itself. It weaves itself in and out of other music pieces in those opening hours – and then is never heard again. The next time Link sees Zelda, her music becomes a mix of the Ballad of the Goddess and a few standalone pieces until – at a crucial point of exposition – it unfolds into a beautiful rendition of Zelda’s Lullaby.

Quick mention of how cool it is that Zelda’s journey is shown over the credits.

Yet other major characters get so many telling versions of their themes throughout the story that once the land is saved at the end, you’re almost expecting some variation of Romance to return. The theme itself is memorable enough to be iconic (check out Rozen’s outstanding arrangement Farore’s Wind), and Zelda even excitedly talks about wanting to live out her days beneath the clouds for the benefit of the land. But it just… doesn’t play. Not even in a darker form.

We just get a brief glimpse of her looking out over the forest, almost as if too weighed down by her experiences – and sudden wealth of knowledge as the reincarnation of the goddess Hylia – to even pretend like she’s still her old self. She seems to snap back to a Zelda that Link remembers right after, but the emotional point has been made. The musical choices in this one moment reverberated all over my 2021 playthrough of Skyward Sword.

She knows things can never be the same again, and it’s heartbreaking.

Then there’s Groose, and Groose’s Theme. Such a simple, brash collection of notes initially seems as annoying as the posturing town bully himself, but those few notes soon reveal how versatile they can be, just like Groose’s inner potential for heroism is gradually unwrapped over the course of the story. It’s probably not a stretch to call his the most memorable supporting character arc in the Zelda series (an admittedly low bar), as he goes from jailing Link’s Loftwing to doing most of the heavy lifting against the monstrous incarnation of evil itself, culminating in a cathartic catapult moment straight out of Shadow of the Colossus. As his actions go from selfish to selfless, so does his musical accompaniment, turning clumsy braggadocious trumpet triumphant and almost drowning it out with the full sound of an entire brass section.

The principal cast is rounded out by opposing takes on Japanese media’s classic ‘living weapon’ trope: the robotic Fi and the flamboyant Ghirahim. The latter was instantly iconic a decade ago and remains one of the most memorable Zelda villain designs ever; all sizzling condescension and snake-like movements, he goes from graceful dance to venomous teleportation strike and back again without breaking that ravenous gaze. The former we’ve already touched on briefly, but it’s worth mentioning that her story role was always the one that stood to lose the most impact from the SSHD changes.

Both Fi and Ghirahim receive wonderfully rich evolutions of their respective musical themes throughout the story, as the stylish villain loses more of his cool and the ice-blue tool of the goddess within the soon-to-be Master Sword shows more signs of humanity. But the well-documented emotional sucker punch right at the very end of the game, when Fi’s Theme becomes the stunning Fi’s Farewell beneath a perfectly directed cutscene, arguably only works if you’ve spent enough time talking to her – irritating or not – to build up that unexpected Big Yellow Taxi feeling.

Skyward Sword HD cuts a clean swathe right through this time, but thankfully, I still felt that moment where I live this time around. It’ll be interesting to see how newcomers react to it, although even if it doesn’t land for everyone I suspect the trade-off in gameplay pacing bonuses will still be worth it.

A fantastic design to mirror Ghirahim’s ultimate form, which we can now appreciate more.
Couldn’t have predicted that onion flying straight at my face.

While parts of the soundtrack still fail to land – such as the majority of the piecemeal harp melodies Link must learn late in the game (though the final combined performance hinting at the main Legend of Zelda theme is a nice touch), there are so many highlights I initially slept on: from the superb Faron Woods theme – now immortalised as background music across years of Nintendo YouTuber discussions – to the strangely calming woodwind of Bamboo Island; to the almost Grant Kirkhope stylings of Batreaux’s Theme and the various Mogma music iterations. But above all, this collection of music is unafraid to put mood before melody when necessary and that is just such a win for the narrative. I hope we’ll witness a rise in the popularity of Skyward Sword fan arrangements in the years to come.

Some wonderful mood music in this one.

If Skyward’s story sits on the shoulders of six focal characters and their crucial relationships with one another, imbuing the intimate plot with charm and heart, then talking about its seventh illuminates the game’s biggest natural advantage over other Zelda tales: this one packs consequences. Within a saga renowned for last-minute baddie reveals, Demise might be the most significant; this primal force made of pure evil re-contextualises every other game in the franchise, simultaneously lending extra credence to Ganon’s inhuman resilience across most of the games and adding real weight to the times he leaves the final antagonist seat vacant for the likes of Vaati, Majora and Malladus. There’s now a case for all of them as reincarnations of Demise, endlessly cursed with facing off against the reincarnated Hylia and… some dude wearing green.

Of course, there’s no doubt which classic Zelda villain Demise resembles most.

One single important line of exposition in Breath of the Wild takes on extra significance after you’ve played Skyward Sword, too. Calamity Ganon is born from a desire to halt his wretched cycle of rebirth after hundreds and hundreds of years, and as a result he looks almost formless, with a giant mouth one of his few discernible features for most of the game. Demise, conversely, takes form out of The Imprisoned, a gigantic scale-covered beast that is otherwise – you guessed it – mostly mouth. That’s a pretty rad parallel that I believe enhances both games ever-so-slightly, although I wouldn’t think too hard about it; Nintendo was definitively not in timeline-honouring mode when they made Breath of the Wild.

My, what big teeth you have.

The same can be said about the ultimately minor change of lighting Skyward casts onto the saga’s various Princess Zelda incarnations, whose mystical and occasionally death-defying powers – and even royalty – are freshly contextualised by her divine origins. It’s also pretty cool to know the Master Sword has a story behind its forging and might actually enjoy being around Link’s descendants in more than just a poetic way. Equally fun is the knowledge that the green tunic tradition passed down the Hylian generations was literally just a coincidence based on a seasonal flight uniform – a coincidence occasionally repeated in the series.

“But wearing green’s all I know!”

The origin of the Hylian people as a sky-dwelling race hasn’t had too much of an impact on the franchise as a whole – yet? Speculation about upcoming Zelda games doesn’t tend to mesh well with long posts like this, which I hope to leave up for years to come – but at the time of writing the next big 3D Zelda game seems to spend a fair amount of time in the sky… What could be in store? Probably not all that much, let’s be honest, but let’s also be hopeful.

Regardless, all the heart and impact within the oldest game in the Zelda timeline ultimately comes together because Skyward Sword has its eyes on the prize from moment one. Whether they know it or not; whether for a growth arc or a twist reveal; whether for good or for ill; the main characters of this story all find clear endings in the same place. Focus is, in the end, this game’s greatest asset. And how does it achieve such focus? I’m so glad you asked…

— World & Design

The close-quarters plot is one thing, but the structure of Skyward Sword‘s world brings new meaning to the word cosy. Though most of the game’s perilous encounters and challenges are found on the untamed surface beneath the clouds, the floating town of Skyloft, where the lazy Link starts his journey, is positively radiant with charm and personality.

Its streets are lined with whimsical houses inhabited by wildy differing caricatures that seem to hail from different videogames. From the fortune teller with a face as spherical as his trusty orb, to the mother of the repair stall with a wizened steampunk look straight out of Xenoblade, to the potion remixer with a crescent moon face sparsely decorated with little more than dots for eyes, these inhabitants may as well be Animal Crossing characters from different species.

The inhabitants of Skyloft contribute heavily to a constant line of dry humour running right through Skyward Sword – and they’re often assisted by surface world characters, main characters, even Fi, whose compulsive need to analyse every situation in a data-first light provides plenty of chuckles. Once this constant energy had worn me down I found myself laughing out loud at quite a few lines, particularly in the story’s second half; it’s ultimately a huge asset to the warmth of the game’s world. There are also some champion visual gags that rely on the traditional visual language of 3D Zelda games to pull a fun surprise or two.

I can safely call this the funniest jump scare I’ve ever seen in a videogame.

Those Animal Crossing vibes had to be deliberate, as not only does Skyloft make you want to return to it between story beats constantly to check on the townspeople, the folks at Ninty also essentially transplanted the addictive bug collecting from that series into this one; it’s basically the same skill set and rhythm that will net you a successful capture too – particularly noticeable when it comes to those pesky cicadas.

Ooh, nothing like four at once!

Of course that was hardly the only new thing the game introduced to Zelda as a whole. It’s hard to believe now, but when Skyward Sword was released in 2011 it was praised (and derided) for being the Zelda game to most drastically alter the gameplay formula pioneered by A Link to the Past and immortalised by Ocarina of Time. In a world where Breath of the Wild exists, that assessment now looks almost cute, but it’s still tremendously clear in 2021 that this game is its own beast.

Busting out of series conventions.

There are quite a few gameplay elements Skyward Sword has going for it that no Zelda title had implemented before at the time. For starters, the game introduces a stamina meter and a sprint that uses it, then tunes the recharge rate and the spacing of the fruit that replenishes said meter so that the player will rarely run out of juice where they aren’t supposed to.

As the game progresses, the window for error shrinks, leading to some tense moments – and because other exertion efforts also drain the meter, the need for a chunky magic bar (which Twilight Princess awkwardly tried to give up cold-turkey five years earlier) is finally discarded in an elegant manner. Such was the initial success of the stamina meter that it has made an appearance in every new Zelda game since: A Link Between Worlds, Tri Force Heroes and Breath of the Wild all take a bite at the concept.

But it hasn’t looked quite this, uh, citrus-y since.

How about another huge game-changer for the series that has appeared in every new game since: a real, honest-to-goodness upgrade system! Using the consumable treasure framework that debuted in Phantom Hourglass to address the increasingly meaningless economies within Zelda games – here tweaked for a better balance between randomness and surefire pick-ups – Link can make his Bug Net bigger, his Beetle faster and tougher, his shields more resilient, his bomb bags/quivers etc bigger, the list goes on.

Yep, bags/quivers, plural. You see, Skyward Sword takes the upgrade idea even further by mixing it in with a risk/reward item management system all its own, and it’s great. Link starts with only four slots in his Adventure Pouch, where items as crucial as shields and empty bottles each take up the same space as unique RNG-boosting medals and arrow/bomb/seed holders. Multiple such holders can stack their benefits, and there may be times – especially early in the game and depending on play style – where taking more than one shield is a decent idea.

Just about every item that can hang out in this pouch has pros and cons to consider, so each return to Skyloft has the practical purpose of scoping out possible upgrades and re-assessing your priorities for the next return to the surface. Everything costs money too, and Skyward is not exactly a game that showers you with rupees. Reliable money farming methods are thin, so spending choices matter more than most anywhere else in the series.

Pouch expansion slots are yet another unique type of reward that feel amazing to track down.

Thus each chest you find in Skyward Sword is exciting to open; every possible option has some potential use to the player and no slight deviation from the central path is wasted. In both this playthrough and my original one, it took until the final act of the game for my Zelda completionist tendencies to start bearing fruit for my constantly-draining wallet. This is the best economy in the Zelda series and I don’t think there’s much of a contest.

Even the sidequests give you their own unique currency.

The most rewarding chests in the game have an unlock method that really only works with the sky/surface dynamic defining Skyward Sword, and it is here that we must talk briefly about the grand old sky itself.

Beyond Skyloft and a couple of its larger satellite islands, the sky doesn’t offer much in the way of meaningful exploration; flying around on Link’s red Loftwing is largely just a fancy way to get from A to B. That said, it slowly reveals more of its side activities upon every ascent from the surface at a similar pace to Skyloft itself, and if you’re particularly keen-eyed when looking out for Goddess Cubes, the space can really come alive.

Occasionally there’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it money-making opportunity, too.

As the only area within Skyward Sword that presents the illusion of true openness, it was compared poorly against other Zelda overworlds at the time of release – and it definitely feels at odds with the rest of the game’s tight design at times – but if nothing else it’s smaller than almost all of them despite holding a similar amount of rewards. Sometimes that proverbial wind-rushing-through-hair feeling does feel good after a tough ground section, at least, and that’s probably the main reason why it’s laid out the way it is.

Not all that big, but that also means less wasted travel time.

Within those ground sections lie the perilous activities that make up most of your time playing Skyward Sword, and the single most meaningful change to the Zelda formula this title introduced. This Link goes through his adventure by landing in three different puzzle-packed biomes, each disconnected from the others and each getting revisited and remixed in a multitude of ways between visits to the sky. Perhaps more than any other game in the series, Skyward Sword is a Metroidvania game.

No, it’s not your turn yet.

Around the time fans were originally anticipating its launch, a popular rumour surrounded the game’s development: apparently Nintendo employees had disagreed about the form Skyward Sword should take, ultimately leading to a huge chunk of development getting scrapped halfway through its five-year dev cycle.

Back then we had little more than images in our heads of swirling ambition clashing with realist takes in Kyoto boardrooms, but over the last decade we have gradually learned more – in bits and pieces – about how the incredibly secretive Nintendo makes games. Suffice to say it seems such a confrontation among passionate people was hardly uncommon – particularly right around the time of Skyward’s development; it would certainly help to explain the far-too-late release of the game, and probably also the self-contained area-based level design.

But my word; if a time squeeze was the reason for the way Skyward Sword unfolds, what a blessing in disguise.

Much like Groose, really.

When Link has his feet on solid ground, Skyward Sword does not waste an inch of that ground. Each of the three main areas – the Faron Woods, Eldin Volcano and Lanayru Desert – is steeped in its own unique atmosphere and crammed with both combat challenges and puzzles aplenty, made up of subtly-defined paths that double back on each other and twist around in clever ways.

And that’s just on Link’s first visit; each subsequent return has more to reveal where you might not have thought there was even room, and in true Nintendo style each new game mechanic introduced within a given area builds on itself with added complexity in a natural upward curve to become something truly memorable.

Just add bees.

Never is this more obvious than in the Lanayru Desert, which is easily my favourite iteration of a traditional videogame biome I usually dread visiting. The dunes and ruins are sprinkled with enemies and hazards that emit electricity – which is conducted by the metal shield you likely bought to resist the firey trappings of the volcano you just left. This forces you to return to the weaker wooden shield, which you can then upgrade if you have the funds (oh look, elemental object properties; another game design feature that debuted in Skyward Sword) and enter the largest hostile area in the game up to that point feeling a little better.

It really doesn’t look impressive, but what an amazing biome.

Soon after realising that some of the most stubborn enemy types in the game are actually helpful once they’ve been dispatched, you navigate quicksand and dusty building remains to reach easily the most brightly-coloured thing you’ve seen in at least an hour – the first instance of a Timeshift Stone. You strike it and the world around you whirrs to life, lit up in glorious colour within a certain radius around you, waking up mechanisms and adorable ancient robot creatures from the distant past – along with newly armoured and volt-spewing enemies. You soon realise that only one of these stones can be active at one time, and some are more mobile than others; some of the most satisfying puzzles in all of Zelda follow, and the Timeshift mechanic continues to evolve over the rest of the game.

The subtle music changes alone…

Soon enough after your first few meetings with them, however, you are searching for Zelda’s last known location via Fi’s first-person “dowsing” feature, and meet one of the little robots who insists your map is incorrect – it has, after all, been a long time. He corrects it – and immediately you realise that what you thought were sporadically-placed derelict walls are actually the surviving parts of a giant radial electric grid now mostly buried beneath quicksand. Using the manual beacon waypoints Fi gives you (yes, another new mechanic that would go on to enjoy a richer future in Zelda games), you’re just about able to mark the safe spots in the sand and reach new areas that were technically accessible the whole time.

I’m getting fired up just writing this; it’s such a genius section!

You then need to locate three themed switches, each activating a ring in a generator you activate by inserting Link’s (pre-Master form) sword and turning. But to what angles? There’s no real indication – until you look at your map again and realise the generator is itself a mirror of the giant ancient ring you’ve been running all over for the last little while. And this isn’t even in a dungeon, it’s the approach to find a dungeon!

This may be my favourite instance of layered overworld puzzle design in the game, but it’s the kind you’ll find in each of the three main surface areas – particularly as the game grows more confident in your ability to understand its systems. Skyward Sword’s biggest formula shake-up lies in where it puts its brain-teasers; in terms of where puzzles can appear and in what form, it’s still the least rigid Zelda game out there. But there’s always a linear path forward; a path that, once again, mirrors Link’s single-minded desire to find Zelda again and eventually save the world. The level design works alongside the story to keep that golden focus intact.

That’s right.

Then there’s the remixing. A good chunk of the game’s landmasses are re-appropriated at some point in the game to serve a different purpose and shift the player’s perspective on an area, often making it feel almost new. But the key word is almost, because each direct revisitation rewards people who were paying attention to the level layout the first time around.

The simplest example of this – and in my opinion the weakest – comes when the majority of the Faron Woods area is straight-up flooded and Link must collect a bunch of individual Tadtones (swimming sentient musical notes) across an area as wide as it was before but several times taller, using those swimming controls, before he can proceed. It pays to remember where different clearings connected so you can make a mental note of where you haven’t yet been.

PLAY THIS PART WITH STICK CONTROLS.

But the Eldin Volcano remix takes things to another level. Post-eruption, the ashy sky gives the area a dark atmosphere amplified by the fact Bokoblins have beaten Link down and imprisoned him without any of his items – sword included. What follows is a truly transformative stealth section where you must use your memory of the area, a bunch of underground tunnels and your reflexes to retrieve a selection of your most important items back from guarded treasure chests lying beneath wooden towers and behind iron fences, one-by-one. Usually only 2D Zelda games get to do cool sections without a sword, so it’s great fun here to feel like you’ve outsmarted and outmanoeuvred an army of enemies using little more than your slingshot.

It won’t win any awards for stealth mechanics, but it’s a really fun change-up.

The Silent Realm trials: now there’s a title that’ll send chills through some Zelda players and eye rolls across others; but I sure did gain a new appreciation for these clever nightmare segments on this SSHD playthrough. Throwing a completely item-less Link into a hazy, shimmering version of an area where he has already spent plenty of time, the Silent Realm populates said area with one-shot-kill clanking death robots that are put to temporary sleep by collecting one of fifteen Sacred Tears; but are all woken at once if that Tear’s protection wears off, Link comes into contact with any (blood-red-tinged) body of water, or he touches the light from a ghostly Watcher’s lantern.

Gotta love a Terminator entrance.

The atmosphere within these trials is something else; the ethereal musical rearrangements and constant knife-edge tension are further spiced up by the presence of a unique treasure type that virtually only appears within the dreamscape, intensifying the risk-and-reward decisions you must make every few seconds just to get through them. And if you realise you weren’t paying attention to the layout of the area under normal circumstances, that tension ratchets up a few notches.

Aaaaaaaaaaaa

I’ve always adored these surprisingly scary sections, but my fresh appreciation this time came from a particularly nerdy detail: the triforce-flavoured descriptions Link receives from Fi about each of the first three trials.

The first one in Faron Woods is said to test Link’s courage; it’s the player’s first experience of the Silent Realm and those scythe-toting faceless pursuers are terrifying, so that makes sense. The second one takes place in the Lanayru Desert and supposedly tests Link’s Wisdom; this comparatively gigantic area has large stretches of danger between its enemy-pausing Tears, and the smartest way to go about it is to strategically leave easier Tears uncollected for return trips – particularly around the quicksand areas. The third, at the Eldin Volcano, is said to test Link’s power; as the area with the most complex geography and verticality, several Tears are placed in locations that require careful stamina usage and/or feats of athleticism. Cool detail, right?

Don’t fall don’t fall don’t fall

This small suite of rearrangements won’t be to everyone’s tastes – the feature certainly had its detractors ten years ago. But perhaps in a world where the last new Zelda game valued directionless exploration more than any triple-A release in history, more people might notice the delightful design touches in Skyward Sword’s second half.

Of course if the overworld of Skyward Sword has this much to offer, then where does that leave…

— Dungeons, Items & Bosses —

Dungeons! Actual themed dungeons! It’s so good to have them back in the spotlight after Breath of the Wild and its ensuing DLC/spin-off took the focus right off the longtime series staple. These morsels of individually-wrapped adventuring goodness may continue Skyward Sword’s overworld design philosophy by mixing up series traditions in small ways, but each one still unmistakeably stands alone on every level from visuals to puzzle composition. And how about this lineup of incredible boss fights to go with them!

Like the best ones in the series, every Skyward Sword dungeon except for the first and last introduces a single defining mechanic and builds on it. Whether rolling a giant ball in lava, hitting the same time stone from different angles to transform the entire dungeon, or marking a central tower to climb and then send to the basement; each dungeon succeeds in carving out its own identity even within an external biome boasting plenty of its own neat puzzle designs.

What’s more, because of said external puzzles, not one of the dungeons outstays its welcome. On the whole they are shorter than the average 3D Zelda offering, which occasionally hurts them in the comparison stakes when pitted against the grandiose Twilight Princess, super-ambient Ocarina of Time or beautifully elaborate Majora’s Mask dungeon suites, but really helps the pacing of this game. the first three dungeons don’t even have a second floor and only one of those contains anything resembling a traditional Zelda miniboss. When a central puzzle mechanism reaches its logical endpoint within a Skyward Sword dungeon, you’re probably at the boss and moments away from returning to the sky.

Of course the minibosses do show up, and some of them are tough.

In keeping with Skyward’s thematic affection for rewarding spatial awareness and cutting out unnecessary time, the game does away with the series staple Compass dungeon item, rolling its item-revealing effect into the Dungeon Map instead – which also often comes with a piece of information not explicitly revealed by the dungeon itself. Finding the DM thus feels more like a useful win and less like a checkpoint in your dungeon progress this time around. The game’s playful attitude regarding series traditions extends to the fact that it might be the only Zelda game to require that you revisit a dungeon (the first one) as part of the main story progression.

Awww, look at Link with his basic shield and wallet…

This lighter touch to dungeon design does not mean there aren’t some absolute classics worthy of standing on their own against any other in the wider series. You can find praise for the jaw-dropping Buddhist poem-inspired Ancient Cistern all over the internet; ditto for the brilliant Sandship – the only Skyward dungeon with enough organic sense of place to go toe-to-toe with Twilight Princess’ all-star lineup. But I am now convinced I slept on the final two dungeons on my first go-around all those years ago.

If each dungeon in the game is built around a central mechanic that usually doesn’t see the light of day afterwards, then the penultimate fire Sanctuary is three dungeons stacked on top of each other; there are at least that many huge a-ha moments built upon brand-new ideas within its dense inside-and-outside design. It’s a massively underrated dungeon that I’m now convinced doesn’t get the attention it deserves because not enough people ever got that far into Skyward Sword on the Wii. And then there’s Sky Keep, the build-your-own-dungeon mental gymnastics test that I probably used to undersell back in the day because I’m not a fan of sliding puzzles, but what a fabulous design! I won’t say any more on that matter.

So many cool ideas in one dungeon.
If you know, you know.

The prevailing attitude to mixing up dungeon design also extends – thankfully – to items. Zelda dungeons are usually built around the major item you find within; an item which will directly allow you to interact with some form of obstacle that is often exclusive to that dungeon, and thus reach the end. If that item sits unused for most of the remainder of the game, who cares, right?

Skyward Sword cares. remember the Beetle we talked about earlier? It has a use in every dungeon afterwards. You know bombs, the absolute Zelda staple? This game revolutionises them, allowing you to throw or roll at enemies or obstacles, with spin if you feel like it, and allows you to refill your supply by simply placing wild Bomb Flowers directly into your bag – no mark-up from shops necessary. A need for the seemingly niche Gust Bellows pops up in a few places you’d never imagine, and something as simple as the Whip (which admittedly isn’t nearly as fun to use with stick controls) has a sneaky use for treasure collectors against all kinds of unassuming enemies. What’s more, most of the game’s bosses do not care what item you found within their respective dungeons – everything is on the table at the start of each new fight.

It’s like Wii Sports, only more explosive!

Speaking of which, Skyward Sword is the only Zelda game to put a full boss rush mode inside the regular game – with a tasty Hylian Shield-shaped reward at the end – and such a move comes from confidence in what it’s packing in that department. As a package, epic Zelda fights big enough to get their own title cards do not come better than Skyward Sword’s.

These standout battles take Skyward Sword’s commitment to combat to the extreme and deliver on all the promises of motion (or other) control. They make up a decent mix of impossibly tense sword duels, environmental assistance bouts, imposing scale and, naturally, a tiny serving of Zelda energy tennis. Some of them come back for seconds – at least one out of the blue and others with repeatedly foreshadowed inevitability – but when they do they throw in surprises and mix things up with aplomb.

Not all of them can be as good as Koloktos – the best Zelda boss fight in history and don’t you dare @ me – but break them down and they are all immense fun to fight. Worth multiple failed attempts at that boss rush, in fact. Yes, even the second Imprisoned battle. Here, watch another Nintendo World Report video:

— Legacy —

It’s difficult to enjoy a positive lasting reputation as a 3D Zelda game when you sell under half the units of your predecessor and less than a fifth of your successor – especially when enough of the loud voices who did play you don’t even get along with your basic controls. And yet until 2021, that was pretty much Skyward Sword‘s lot in life. Now, with a leaner, prettier re-release on a hugely successful console that isn’t on its very last breath, we can finally discuss the game’s actual identity as part of the (more popular than ever) wider Zelda franchise.

It’s all coming together.

Over the month-and-a-half it’s taken to write this, my YouTube and podcast feeds have gradually begun to fill up with sentiment to the effect of “It turns out Skyward Sword wasn’t that bad after all”. What a relief; it’s not as if I was trying to tell people this for years before coming to peace with the game’s black sheep status and moving on, only for the remaster to unlock a bunch of emotions I had completely forgotten about. No sir.

Now we can sit here and split hairs about whether this slow shift in consensus means it was always a good game that was simply hit far too hard by its terrible release timing and hamstrung by its eggs-in-one-basket motion control philosophy, or whether the small but far-reaching improvements made by Skyward Sword HD have finally removed enough stubborn roadblocks to unearth the gem that was always hiding beneath. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter all that much, because either way this game finally has a shot at an identity that isn’t just “one of the bad ones”.

Skyward Sword finally has a shot to get off the ground.

If the previous 12,000 words have not sufficiently illustrated that identity (Oh no, what have I done?), allow me to sum it up in the hope that I’ve somehow managed to get close to the spirit of it all.

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is a bright, optimistic entry in one of gaming’s most revered series, with a striking painterly art style that sets it apart from its siblings. Covered from head to toe in expressive personality, the game uses a focused, linear gameplay flow to throw exciting new challenges and mechanics at you one after another, all while telling a bittersweet Zelda timeline origin story featuring a cast of memorable characters up there with the best in the Zelda franchise. It will give you a wonderful experience that draws from the long legacy of series titles while standing all on its own – especially in today’s age of “open air” Zelda games.

Skyward Sword’s quality has not diminished in the last ten years, and it is still lodged firmly within my personal top 3 games in the Legend of Zelda series.

Because you made it to the end, dear reader, here’s a link to my *ugh* original Skyward Sword review from early 2012. I cringe looking at the off-TV standard def screenshots and the complete lack of depth or flow in the writing, so I wasn’t planning to draw attention to it; but hey, I feel like you deserve something. At least I knew how to be concise back then? Thanks for your patience regardless, and long live the Legend of Zelda!

That’s all, folks!

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