The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD – The DNA of Greatness
“What is that racket?” my wife asks as I click and clack with frustrated gusto. Hearts drain from Link against some lizard bastard whose programming delights in coming up against an opponent so hampered by combat controls that he runs rings about me.
“It’s a game I’m reviewing,” I reply through gritted teeth as the lizard flicks its tail and Link collapses, heartless. I await the continue screen with a sigh. “It came out with motion controls and they’ve mapped them to the thumb-sticks and they just won’t register with any reliability.”
“Well, it’s annoying. Can you go into another room?”
Skyward Swords is a strange Zelda. It is an overly busy game haunted by vestigial components of a bygone console, albeit one that shined brightly. It’s safe to say that motion controls were not the right fit for Zelda. In fact, they are the reason why I never got more than a few hours into Skyward Sword when it first released. I hated the one-to-one combat so much, a combination of arm fatigue and the fact that it never actually worked that well. Sure, it’s interesting on paper to have enemies block you on various attack angles, but in practice, it’s just infuriating. This HD Switch port never had a hope of improving this fundamental flaw.
I cannot cut it much slack, because for every improvement on offer – from the 60 frames per second to the autosaving, the skippable story scenes and ability to hold in L to control the camera at will – there’s a rock in your mouth that brings the whole experience to an inevitable crunch. Perhaps button controls were simply impossible because I cannot fathom why the controls we have been burdened with – needing to flick the thumb-stick like an angry self-abuser – got through testing any other way. They are awful. They do not work half the time. You will die because you’ve forgotten how to perform a jump-stab-thingy and there is no way to check the controls because even the options menu has given up on explaining how everything works.
But despite all this, despite the clicky-clack annoyance to my family as I struggled to find a room soundproof enough to play Skyward Sword, despite the sinking feeling I had every time an enemy presented itself and at every boss fight, I found myself addicted. I played this entirely handheld. I was not even going to bother trying the docked motion controls. I hear from other reviewers they are just as bad.
At least Skyward Sword HD looks nice. The boosted frame rate combines with the new camera option (a bit more on that in a minute) to make everything feel vibrant and responsive. Textures are no longer muddy, and the painterly art design has been given a second life through an un-Vaselined lens. The music is nice and the sound effects brilliant at evoking nostalgia. Everything is in place for a ripping Zelda session. And then you just “do things” for a long time. Every area is a winding labyrinth with a stop-start design that requires you to apply learned skills to progress through elongated fetch quests followed by a brief dungeon with a boss fight – repeat for 40 hours, revisiting locations as you gain new abilities and tools. It is busy work that feels even more artificial than most video games.
Skyward Sword suffers greatly in comparison to what has come after it in the form of the sublime Breath of the Wild. It is incredibly interesting, though, for the same reason. I found myself feeling a bit like an archaeologist, sifting through the DNA of what would become cemented and perfected in Breath of the Wild. There is the obsession with stamina here, as well as flirting with the idea of equipment being unlocked from the character, allowing you to store and exchange tools and items if you do not have enough inventory slots. Emergent systems in BotW are nascent here, such as areas where clothing or wooden equipment will catch on fire if it is too hot. Collecting bugs and what-nots in Skyward Swords offers a hindsight view towards BotW’s cooking and elixir system, even if they are not actually used for anything beyond filling a collection chart.
The saviour for me, the thing that kept me going even after Skyward Sword’s best attempts to get me to give up and just not bother, is the new camera option, which may not even be apparent to players at first. You can hold down the L button and then use the right thumb-stick to move the camera around freely. Doing so makes Skyward Sword feel like an open adventure. The caveat is that you can’t use it when fighting, as you can only draw your sword by taking your finger off L, reverting back to the shit locked camera, and then flicking the right thumb-stick to bring out your sword – and then, of course, suffer the indignity of any combat that might be required.
I do not know why Nintendo did not make this free camera a default. There must be some coding reason. Or perhaps it was added in late. But I do urge you to use it as much as possible because it will make everything feel much more open and approachable, as well as remove the need to constantly recentre the camera behind Link with a button press.