Don’t think, just shake your stick. Skyward Sword thinks you are a moron.
Alright, I’ll say it: the-long awaited Nintendo Direct was disappointing. My expectations were pretty low given the ongoing global health crisis having an understandable impact on game development, but now they’re positively subterranean and being kicked to death by Morlocks. While many hoped to see some indication that Metroid Prime 4 or Bayonetta 3 might be released this decade, many expected to catch even a glimpse of the upcoming sequel to The Legend of Zelda: The Breath of the Wild. With the 35th anniversary of the franchise mere days away at the time of broadcast, it seemed like the ideal time for an update.
No such luck.
Nintendo appear to have anticipated this expectation, as series producer Eiji Aonuma announce that he had nothing to announce regarding the in-development sequel. He did, however, announce an HD port of The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. I have since had my monkey’s paw confiscated.
At the time of writing, Nintendo have yet to announce any plans for further Zelda anniversary celebrations. While it felt like a sure thing just a few days ago, now I’m not so sure. It could be that a separate, dedicated Direct is planned for the coming weeks. It could also be that Nintendo don’t want my money. Given the laziness with which they threw together the Super Mario 3D All-Stars Collection last year, a similarly low-effort Zelda “celebration” seemed obvious. But Nintendo don’t deal in the obvious, Nintendo deal in the obtuse and the arcane.
Anyway, Skyward Sword, eh?
If we discount people who are wrong about The Adventure of Link (and we will), Skyward Sword sits at the very bottom of the pile for many game-likers when it comes to mainline Zelda titles. Originally released on the Nintendo Wii in 2011, Skyward Sword was hailed by critics as a masterpiece. No, really—it was. It’s still sitting pretty with a 93 on Metacritic. The early 2010s were a different time, and I assume there was something in the water. Ken Levine’s racism-solving “both sides were bad all along” shooter Bioshock Infinite still sits at 94, and Rockstar’s dreary clunkfest Grand Theft Auto IV pulled in an astonishing 98. Again, it was a different time.
Over the years, despite this critical adulation, Skyward Sword’s reputation among players has soured. Chief among the complaints levelled at the game were its mandatory motion controls which, of course, were inevitable being that they were the selling point of the Wii system. The game required the Wii Motion Plus attachment (or a new Wii remote model with the tech built in)—an add-on for the existing Wii Remote that turned the Wii into the system Nintendo marketed it as in the first place. The standard Wii Remote’s motion technology was incredibly rudimentary (see Twilight Princess’s shake-to-sword), and this new attachment allowed for a degree of accuracy the original was incapable of. Players were finally able to wield the remote as a sword, executing moves (and Moblins) with precision! Horizontal! Vertical! Diagonal! HYAAH! It worked! Most of the time!
The idea that these controls simply do not work has been overblown over the years, likely due to memories of a disastrous presentation in which they definitely didn’t work. But if you’re playing it as instructed, technical problems are few and far between. However, the real frustration with motion controls is that they are there at all, working or not. They’re a needless gimmick acting as a barrier between me and my Zelda. Despite all obvious intentions, I find motion controls far less immersive than a standard gamepad, and it seems many others feel the same.
It’s worth mentioning that the Wii was born of Nintendo’s desire to broaden the gaming audience and appeal to those who may otherwise be put off by the perceived complexity of traditional controls. In other words, they wanted gaming to be more accessible. However, this only seemed to stretch to able-bodied customers. Mandatory motion controls suck for a lot of reasons, but the way they can prohibit people with certain disabilities from enjoying a game in a series that they’ve previously enjoyed is probably the worst of them all. Nintendo have never been very good at accessibility as we understand the term today. As proven by Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us Part II, when it comes to AAA game development, all that is required is that the developer care enough about it to put the time in, and Nintendo surely don’t. That being said, the new port does come with the option to use a traditional button control scheme that resembles that of Konami’s Metal Gear Rising. It’s hard to say how well it will work, but it’s a step in the right direction, though probably more to do with the existence of the Switch Lite than a sudden effort to accommodate disabled gamers. Either way, it’s a win.
However, motion controls are the least of Skyward Sword’s problems.
Nintendo’s drive to get grandma gaming by waving a dumb wand in her direction and saying the names of sports she recognises resulted in their patronising handholding hitting an all-time high. From games reminding players to take a break at alarmingly frequent intervals to the dumbing down of titles to appeal to this potential imaginary audience of drooling simpletons. There are plenty of excellent games on the Wii, and I love them, but the Wii itself blows. It always did.
Nintendo’s overbearing, helicopter parenting runs through Skyward Sword. The game is breathing down your neck every step of the way. Tutorials are lengthy and tedious, overexplaining simple concepts ad nauseam until there is no doubt that absolutely anyone playing this damn thing totally, 100% gets it. Rather than show the player how things work through game design (or assuming basic human intelligence), Skyward Sword repeatedly beats the player over the head with it, telling them over and over again.
This harassment is largely perpetrated via the companion character, Fi. She is ostensibly the manifestation of the spirit that dwells within the Master Sword. She is, actually, a manifestation of Nintendo seeing all those Navi memes back in the day and defiantly yelling, “Hold my beer!”
That thrill of feeling like the smartest person in the world as you solve a particularly tricky puzzle? Gone. Skyward Sword is unwilling to risk the player not knowing exactly what to do or where to go for even a moment. Don’t think, just shake your stick. Skyward Sword thinks you are a moron. Before you’ve even begun to think about how to proceed, the game will have either forced the solution on you, or be pestering you throughout. This is annoying, but what’s absolutely criminal is that Skyward Sword’s dungeons are mostly fantastic. They’re far better than those found in The Wind Waker, for sure. A number of them feature the complex setpieces and environmental manipulation that have come to typify Zelda dungeons, and not all of them are ruined by the game telling you what to do!
In addition to never respecting your intelligence, Skyward Sword also does not respect your time.
On picking up a collectible, the game stops and presents you with information on said collectible. After that, you are free to pick them up uninterrupted—for this session. The next time you boot up the game, this is reset. You must endure these pick-up pop-ups anew every single play session, for every single item. The game can’t have you forgetting what those are for, right!?
Skyward Sword also introduced the stamina meter, which functions similarly to its counterpart in Breath of the Wild. While not perfect in that game, it certainly served a purpose in preventing the player from simply climbing everywhere unhindered from the off. In Skyward Sword, the stamina meter seemingly exists to prevent you from enjoying yourself too much. There’s no real reason to limit the duration for which you can run. Not really. It’s just more padding. A hinderance for hinderances sake.
This willingness to waste your time extends to your objectives themselves. For example, “dowsing”—an activity in which the player must point their sword forward and follow radar-like beeping in order to seek out their target—recurs throughout the game and never becomes any less tedious. Skyward Sword, as a whole, is a handful of similarly tedious activities repeated across its approximately 40 hours of play time. Repetition is the name of the game, and you’ll find yourself collecting the same collectibles and fighting the same boss time and time again.
Hold up, it gets worse. Instead of the sprawling overworld’s of Zeldas past (and future!), Skyward Sword has entirely disconnected regions which can be accessed via The Sky. The Sky is an enormous void the colour of used bath water. It’s full of floating rocks, and the occasional small island. There is very little of interest to be found on any of these islands. The Sky is, essentially, an extremely inconvenient level select screen. It’s ugly to look at, it sucks to navigate thanks to the controls, and you’re going to be seeing a lot of it.
It’s not a far cry from The Wind Waker’s Great Sea—also empty, also dull—but at least that world felt coherent and whole. This is clumsily pointing in a direction and waiting until you’re teleported to somewhere slightly more interesting on the surface. And yeah, ground level is slightly more interesting. Slightly. These Zelda-themed corridors seem to have been deliberately designed to be the antithesis of the series’ trademark exploration. Some of the later areas do throw in a few dungeon-lite elements here and there to ensure you’re actually doing something, but otherwise they are painfully linear. You’ll be revisiting them, too. And no, they don’t really offer anything new the second time around either.
Now, Skyward Sword’s story, despite the way it is needlessly stretched out through gameplay padding, is surprisingly lovely. While the writing itself isn’t the strongest the series has seen, its engaging themes and lovable characters elevate it considerably. Zelda specifically is a joy, especially against the backdrop of hit and miss depictions of the character over the years. This incarnation of Link and Zelda have grown up together, with the underlying romantic aspect of their relationship just beginning to bloom. Everything from their wonderfully expressive faces to their telltale body language with one another underpins this dynamic.
Likewise, Groose—Link’s bully and rival for Zelda’s affections—is a delight. A preening, pompadour-sporting prig in the beginning, Groose’s transformation into a loveable stalwart ally is carried by his expressive design and animation. Oh, and this bit:
The plot itself is standard fare—Link must rescue Zelda from the Big Bad by collecting numerous Macguffins—but it’s in the world-building lore that it really shines. Skyward Sword isn’t just steeped in Zelda lore, it is Zelda lore. As the earliest entry in the so-called timeline (don’t get me started), Skyward Sword serves as an origin story for the three key players—Link, Zelda, and Ganon—and their cyclical, eternal conflict. Despite the rather dubious nature of the “official timeline,” it is very interesting to see a Zelda story with such strong ties to the series at large.
There’s a lot to like here, and that’s what makes Skyward Sword so disappointing. Button controls are a very welcome addition to the port, but the game’s problems go much deeper than that. The handholding and peculiar choices like the item pick-up thing seem like easy fixes, but truly fixing Skyward Sword would require massive changes to be made to the structure and pacing of the game. Nintendo have revised elements of Zelda games when porting before, such as the significantly reduced Triforce hunt section in the Wii U port of The Wind Waker, but never to the extent Skyward Sword sorely needs. It’s not impossible, but seeing as they didn’t mention it during the presentation, I wouldn’t bet on it.
The port does seem to be running at 60fps/1080p, up from the Wii’s dismal 30fps/480p, which is obviously an improvement. However, it’s worth remembering that these kinds of improvements are offered on backwards compatible Xbox games for free. It’s the absolute bare minimum. It’s also worth noting that the game is priced at £49.99, which is actually £10 more than the original game was at launch 10 years ago. Given that the perennial lies about the cost of game development trotted to justify price hikes don’t even apply here, it would be interesting to hear a defense of this. But we won’t. Because Nintendo. It also seems as though its nice, painterly art style relied rather heavily on the low resolution of the Wii, and that this upscaling to 1080p might result in the game looking much rougher than expected.
I won’t tell you what to do with your money (except not to buy those beautifully hideous limited edition Joycons until Nintendo acknowledge and fix the drifting issue). But if I were you, I’d wait until Nintendo reveal more about this remaster, if indeed there is anything more to reveal.
Don’t pre-order. Wait and see. After all, in the land of Hyrule you can polish a turd.