The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD made a bad game good. But Skyward Sword deserves even more than it got.
Skyward Sword HD gives me the chance to throw my Wii Remotes in the garbage where they belong, in exchange for analog stick controls on Switch. The result is a far more precise, relaxing, and fun experience than the original Wii game. But Skyward Sword HD is hamstrung by its past: even with motion controls turned off, the game is filled with awkward motion-first mechanics that feel more like a workaround than an update. Skyward Sword didn’t need a remaster, it needed a remake.
The nonsense isn’t gone, only hidden
The original Skyward Sword changed up the standard Zelda controls through the Wii Remote, forcing players to swing their arm as if they were Link himself, slashing with the Master Sword. But the Wii Remote was an imprecise tool, and it was infuriating to go through the effort of swinging diagonally and to the right in order to hit an enemy’s weak point only for the game to interpret it as a horizontal right slash. Worse, it made the game very difficult to play while sitting down — the position I, and I’d think many people, prefer to take while relaxing with a Zelda game.
Skyward Sword HD isn’t like the “tap A to slice” Zelda games of old, nor does it have Twilight Princess’ special combo attacks. Instead, I can control the Master Sword with the Pro Controller’s right analog stick. No combat is simple in Skyward Sword HD, but with the removal of motion controls, it’s at least comfortable and precise — something the original version definitely was not.
Still, the odd remnants of the original Skyward Sword and its obsession with motion controls remain. The combat will definitely seem odd to players who don’t know the game’s “motion-first” history, and actions like rotating the boss key to fit into its keyhole are downright confusing. Skyward Sword is filled with these random moments that remind you what it once was, like using Link’s sword to draw on walls to get hearts or bombs. It was clunky with motion controls, but it’s completely out of place when using a controller.
These motion control moments are jarring, but Skyward Sword HD’s new controls also suffer from trying to work around the Wii Remote’s limited button layout. You benefit from being able to easily flip Skulltulas by swiping up, or stabbing a crystal out of an Armos’ open mouth with a click of the stick. But simple actions like moving the camera makes Skyward Sword feel like a remastered Nintendo 64 title, where I’m spending as much time trying to see what’s in front of me as I am moving my character.
To move Link’s camera — without jarringly resetting it behind his back — you have to hold the right shoulder button and then move the right stick, overriding its attack functions. You can’t even do that when sprinting. The right stick, which has traditionally controlled the camera in games since the invention of dual analog sticks, is right there — but instead of just using it to help me see where I’m going, I have to use it to control Skyward Sword’s gimmicky combat instead.
Skyward Sword HD is filled with these kinds of odd frustrations. None of them are game-ruining, but they are annoying. It’s like Nintendo bulldozed over a rocky field, turning it into a lovely road. But the rocks are still there, below the surface, and sometimes they poke up through the asphalt.
Why a remake?
Remasters allow developers a chance to fine-tune an old game, or add new tools like the 3DS version of Majora’s Mask’s Bomber’s Notebook. But a remaster also has to rely on what was there before. Remakes, of course, take far more time and resources to create than a remaster — just look at Final Fantasy 7: Remake and how long fans waited for that — but they can depart from some of the game’s original design decisions to make something that feels modern. Remakes can learn from previous mistakes by building something “new” from the ground up, where remasters are often locked into what was.
Some of the workarounds in Skyward Sword HD feel like patching a hole in your house and not painting it to match the walls: It doesn’t look pretty, but it’s functional. A Skyward Sword remake could’ve given Nintendo a chance to explore some of Skyward Sword’s truly brilliant ideas without an awkward remnant surfacing every hour or so. A remade Skyward Sword with better camera controls and more traditional Zelda “mash A to combo” combat could have removed some of the game’s barriers while still featuring the important story and (mostly) incredible dungeons.
The greatest argument against a remake, aside from development resources, is that we might lose some of what makes incredible dungeons like Sandship and Sky Keep iconic. But the four-way lock that I open with my sword isn’t what makes the Ancient Cistern dungeon good, it’s what reminds me of the game that Skyward Sword used to be.
A good remake can open an older game to a completely new audience while also holding onto what made the original special. In the past handful of years, we’ve gotten both Resident Evil 2 and Final Fantasy 7 remakes, and both are responsible for pulling players like me — who rarely touched the originals — headlong into old franchises. These games felt new, re-envisioned for a modern generation while evoking what came before. Skyward Sword’s remaster doesn’t feel that way. It’s the game we had a decade ago, but with more responsive combat that doesn’t rely on motion controls. It’s the version of the game I’ll gladly use in my next Zelda playthrough, but unlike the best remakes of the past five years, you’d never confuse Skyward Sword for a 2021 title. It holds on to just enough of its past that it feels dated, rather than new.
I’ve spent years hating Skyward Sword. Hell, I replayed it last winter and hated it. With the motion controls stripped away, Skyward Sword’s excellent content quality is easier to see than ever, and I’m almost shocked to see how much the game’s shitty play experience covered up a great video game. But as I finally feel comfortable playing Skyward Sword and start ranking its various dungeons and gadgets among the series’ greats, I can’t help but wonder what could’ve been if Nintendo had gone a step further.