Returning to The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword some ten whole years down the line from its original release, you may be expecting, as we certainly were, to be greeted by a core game that’s unavoidably, naturally, beginning to show its age in some regards. It stands to reason, this is an entry in Nintendo’s storied franchise that’s had its detractors from the get-go, criticised for its sometimes unreliable motion controls, its fractured overworld, intrusive sidekick, pacing and some late-game repetition. Surely by now these issues — these rough edges — have been exacerbated, and even added to, by the natural progression of time.
Well, whether or not any of that might have been the case seems quite beside the point now; with this HD remaster, Nintendo has taken its gust bellows to a layer of jank that, in hindsight, stood between players and the true promise, the full potential, of this masterpiece. The raft of tweaks, changes and updates drip-fed to us in the months leading up to The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD’s release may not have seemed all that exciting on paper — this isn’t some ground-up remake and there’s no new content or notable changes to how things unfold — but together they give the underlying game here a whole new lease of life. This HD remaster feels like how we were meant to originally experience this adventure, the connection between the game’s world and the player now unimpeded.
Let’s start with those technical changes. The motion controls here, such a divisive element of the original release of this game, now perform so much closer to the way we dreamed they might back in 2011. Tight, responsive and absolutely up to the task in the most frantic of mob battles and boss fights, they may not quite manage the flawless 1:1 swordplay that was touted back in the day, but boy do they come close.
Engaging in combat in The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD feels fluid, your sword swipes and shield actions responding accurately to your commands and enabling you to properly relax, to feel confident that the inputs you make whilst playing with motion controls will now translate onto the screen. We were impressed with this game’s combat back in 2011, but there was no doubt it could prove hugely frustrating when a thrust or cut failed at some critical moment, when your shield refused to parry an attack or a skyward strike refused to charge. All of these issues are, for the most part, banished here.
In terms of the all-new button controls, although they don’t quite match up to the feeling of immersion you get from swinging and flicking your Joy-Con as you batter Bokoblins and slice and dice Deku-Babas, they still feel remarkably good and enable Switch Lite and portable players to fully enjoy this experience in handheld mode. Controlling your sword by flicking the right stick works wonderfully well here, and in situations where your sword skills are really put to the test, such as those exacting face-offs against Ghirahim, they prove to be accurate and responsive enough to avoid almost any frustrations. There’s still the odd time where a slash doesn’t quite line itself up, where you need to thrust for a second time to get the required response, but in comparison to the original game’s motion controls the difference in precision is truly noticeable.
There has been one trade-off with this handheld control scheme however, with regards to controlling the in-game camera. As we’re sure you already know, you now have full control over the game’s camera in this HD remaster when using motion controls, the right stick granting you total freedom over where you choose to look — a huge change that makes everything about this game feel so much more modern and free-flowing. However, when using the button control mode, you’ll need to to hold down the left bumper button to access full camera control on the right stick. It’s not a huge issue, we got used to holding in the left bumper where needed and letting go to engage in combat when necessary, but it’s undoubtedly slightly inferior to the total freedom of the motion control set-up. It also caused us to spend a lot of time unsheathing our sword by accident until we got used to it.
The raft of quality of life changes that have been introduced here combine with these revamped controls for a much more modern feeling, streamlined and enjoyable experience. The new autosave feature that records your progress on the fly, the introduction of multiple save slots, removal of repetitive item descriptions, ability to skip cutscenes and speed up text; nothing here is ground-breaking — it’s all stuff that perhaps should have been included from the get-go — but it is nevertheless transformative to the flow of this ten-year-old game.
Of course, the biggest change in terms of quality of life has to be the streamlining of your communications with Fi. Your sword-dwelling spirit side-kick is still an integral part of proceedings, but she’s no longer constantly harping on or appearing every five minutes to give you a redundant run-down of things you already know. In fact, the whole Fi mechanic is almost elegant now — how you can call upon her only when necessary with a quick push of the d-pad for a hint, objective update or enemy description. She’s actually useful and no longer the incessant annoyance of old. Alongside all of the other changes we’ve mentioned here it all adds up to a game that feels as though it’s finally been given the freedom to flow properly, no longer bogged down by control issues, constant interruptions or annoying, over-eager guides.
However, with all of this doing so much to positively affect the player experience in The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD, it definitely does leave a quite a bad taste in the mouth that the ability to jump at will between Skyloft and The Surface has been locked behind the official Loftwing amiibo. When so much good work has been done to improve the game’s pacing, it feels like a real misstep to lock this one properly significant change to the tempo of how you move around the world — perhaps even the biggest change — behind what is, essentially, a paywall.
Away from this one issue however, this remaster really has taken a ten-year-old game and made it sing like never before. We haven’t even mentioned the jump from 30 to 60 FPS yet, a shift that makes everything you do here feel so much more fluid, exacting and responsive. Gliding through the air on your Crimson Loftwing, battling battalions of Bokoblin and clawshotting, whipping or swinging your way around the intricately designed dungeons here is now an absolute joy. That silky smooth frame rate joining forces with the new and improved controls and refreshed visuals to deliver an experience on a technical level that finally, absolutely does justice to the artistry and ingenuity of the game underneath.
Indeed, perhaps the biggest surprise in returning to this adventure ten years on, quite apart from all of the changes, nips and tucks introduced in this HD remaster, is just how well the core gameplay, the story, the dungeons, boss fights and puzzles have stood the test of time. It has its minor issues for sure; there’s some unnecessary repetition of one major face-off, perhaps a little too much re-treading of overly familiar territory in the build up to the gloriously intricate final dungeon — and we could all have done without being thrown into a search for flipping Tadtones so late in the game — but overall what’s here is still an absolute joy to engage with.
This is a game that’s oft been criticised for its rather empty hub area, and it’s true there’s not a great pile to do or see as you fly around The Sky, but once on The Surface, once engaging with enemies, solving puzzles and searching out secrets, this is perhaps as good as a traditional, non-open world Zelda game has ever been. From Faron Woods to Eldin Volcano, Lanaryu Desert and beyond, it’s non-stop fun with clever mechanics and new ideas around every corner. Boss battles — beyond that slight repetition issue with The Imprisoned — are also perfectly pitched, a fantastical, often ridiculously OTT line-up of grotesqueries that are suitably bombastic without being overly punishing, challenging without standing too tall in the face of your progression through the campaign.
The story too, without wanting to spoil a second of anything for those who are coming to this one fresh, adds much to the Zelda timeline. We get some great backstory here, origin details and explanations, as well as being introduced to some properly stand-out original characters (we love you, Groose). Skyloft may not be the most modern of game hubs — it’s small and underpopulated and the islands that surround it are, for the most part, nothing more than hiding spots for the game’s treasure chests and a handful of mini-games — but it’s all so well designed, full of smart secrets and delightfully oddball characters. Soaring around these skies still feels utterly triumphant at times, too, taking to the air after an arduous dungeon run or boss battle, running and diving off a ledge to freefall and then be swept up by your Loftwing as that orchestral score rises… it still feels heroic.
In the end then, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD brings a level of Nintendo finesse and polish that was perhaps slightly lacking first time round. The quality of life improvements, increased frame rates, crisp HD visuals, refined controls and newly liberated in-game camera combine here to remove all previous barriers to your enjoyment of this epic, intricate and wonderfully clever entry in the Zelda franchise. It’s a game that’s received its fair share of criticism in the years since it originally released, but one that’s now addressed many of those criticisms whilst coming as close to realising its full potential as is perhaps possible.