The Legend of Zelda is one of the strangest series in videogames. It just has this energy to it, this massive air of prestige running alongside a distinct strangeness that makes this series successful despite its conventions being almost entirely inward. There’s really nothing else like a Zelda game, and Skyward Sword is one of the loudest examples of that. I never played it the first time on Wii, but with Skyward Sword HD coming across my desk I found myself drawn to it. In my case, this was all about a morbid curiosity fueled by discourse.

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD Review

Skyward Sword was the Zelda game that always stood out due to how nobody seemed to be able to figure out how they felt about it. It also came towards the end of the Wii’s life, really marking the start of a low period for Nintendo in business terms. Much like the entire Wii U’s existence, there’s this element of a bridge-like vibe you can retrospectively follow between where Nintendo was then, and now. And it’s funny, because a lot of this waffling language I’m using is related to Skyward Sword’s response simply being without consensus. It’s a divisive game, one of the few Zelda games that isn’t lionized. This stands out in videogames due to how important consensus still is to the community.

I didn’t know what to expect, honestly. I entered this arena as a Zelda appreciator, but not necessarily a Zelda fan. Unless we’re talking about Hyrule Warriors, in which case sign me the heck up. I played Ocarina of Time as a child just like everyone else my age, and certainly have my series favs (Wind Waker, natch). But I’d rather hang out with Donkey Kong or Kirby. So knowing Skyward Sword is such a tornado of disagreement, and knowing I have no strong loyalties here, I was excited just to see what would happen with this game in my hands. Especially knowing the controls were a big part of Skyward Sword, and those controls being modified in the HD version a particular point of interest.

Translating Skyward Sword’s controls to buttons even just looks like a terrifying ordeal of a task. It goes well beyond simply mapping the sword swings to a stick. The entire camera situation just seems like a nightmare, not to mention figuring out where to map things like subweapons. Think back to what the Wii controls looked and handled like, the buttons mostly living on a vertical bar. That and motion controls converting a game built specifically around that hardware to something more traditional is a miracle. And for the most part I think the team did a fantastic job. The biggest mark against Skyward Sword HD’s button mode is having to hold a button down to move the camera versus the same stick operating the sword. Perhaps some sort of toggle would’ve been better, but that’s a tough one to quantify. That said, using the motion mode actually benefits, as the free camera (to my understanding) wasn’t available at all in the original.

Related: Five Things I Would Rather Do Than Aim Bombs in Skyward Sword

Either way, it’s easy enough to get used to how the controls operate. It’s how the game itself is built around those controls where I believe the quirks start to come out. Frankly, I think a lot of the “controls bad/good” discussions miss the forest for the trees in this way. The controls work just fine, but the way you’re forced to think about them often feels a little too on the nose. The way enemies constantly wave their weapons around to give you workable openings, the way there’s unavoidably dense signposting, the way dungeon puzzles are more specialized than ever - all of that feels awkward in an uncanny way.

It’s almost like Skyward Sword HD crumbled a bit under external pressure. When a new console or whatever comes out and has new features, there’s always critical emphasis on “how do the games use xyz?” as if, for example, the PlayStation Vita’s rear touch pad was a required component of every game because it was there, and any game not integrating it fully was a mark against the platform. You see that a lot with Nintendo things especially, given how off the beaten path that hardware can look. Twilight Princess simply mapped sword swings to “waggle,” which ended up being a crime in that context.

So with Skyward Sword, it was all about the Motion Plus and showing the Wii Remote could fulfill “the promise of the Wii” or whatever the phrase of the day was. As anyone can see, the result of that baggage was Skyward Sword, for better and for worse. For me, playing through this game often feels like a Narnia-like journey to another world. Except instead of a magic closet taking me to a land of Tolkienesque Christian allegory it’s a magical E3 booth transporting me to an interactive focus test survey. The best ways in which videogames feel like bizarre physical extensions of ourselves through a hunk of buttony plastic don’t work out here. I’m much more aware of the plastic, the mechanisms justifying the plastic and all the hazy compromising taking place under the hood.

It’s fascinating. It’s like a time capsule to a distant era, but one I lived through in the first place. The “quality of life” improvements seem necessary, but at the same time Skyward Sword HD doesn’t feel like an apologetic release. Nintendo isn’t trying to right perceived wrongs here; this just feels like the next game in the re-release queue. Time is a straight line, and that means more and more games fall behind the rear view mirror, and videogames’ relative youth and unique technology makes that nostalgia much more complicated. Whether or not Skyward Sword is a Good Videogame feels irrelevant. Rather, it’s a part of the timeline, and that makes it worth new opportunities for access now that so many years have passed. 

Skyward Sword is one of the more distinct flashpoints on the Legend of Zelda timeline, and this new HD version only draws more attention to that. It’s fascinating in so many ways beyond the usual game evaluating criteria, and while I’m not sure I enjoy playing it I certainly appreciate having that historical gap filled in. Also, that leitmotif utterly slaps.


Pros:

  • Super solid performance, especially rare for a Zelda
  • Control options are nice considering the context
  • That leitmotif rules

Cons

  • Complex controls mean rigid mapping, mean little accessibility for those who would benefit the most
  • The tech demo vibe in inescapable
  • That whole amiibo situation is just silly

Score: 7.5

A copy of this game was provided by the publisher for review