Nintendo Makes Some Needed Improvements In 'Skyward Sword HD' (We See You, Fi)
In November 2011, I plugged my brand new MotionPlus attachment into the bottom of my Wii remote. I booted up the console, pointed my newly accessorized Wiimote at the screen and clicked on the icon for the Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. A new Zelda title had finally arrived.
Ten years later, Nintendo has rereleased an HD version of Skyward Sword for the Nintendo Switch, mostly to serve as an appetizer for Breath of the Wild 2, coming (hopefully) next year. The story remains unchanged in this high-def installment, but the developers added some desperately needed quality-of-life improvements that iron out a few — but not all — of the frustrations from a decade ago.
Skyward Sword HD deserves our attention, even if it's only a remaster. Nintendo isn't known for updating their older games, but they're always up for an HD or 3D remake. And Skyward Sword isn't a perfect game, but any addition to a franchise as influential as Zelda warrants discussion and critical review.
It's a beautiful game with charm to spare
Skyward Sword radiates beauty and charm. My older brother once described it as a mixture of two other Zelda games, the cartoony brightness of Windwaker and the darker, realistic art style of Twilight Princess. When they combine, the result is a vibrant installment of a franchise that's constantly changing from game to game. Memorable characters like Ghirahim, the flamboyant, sadistic Demon Lord or Groose, the dumb jock crushing on Zelda, make cutscenes and dialogue entertaining (even if there is too much of it).
Skyward Sword's overworld is a breathtaking site. Skyloft, where your journey begins, is a quaint, yet thriving town perched above the clouds. Waterfalls cascade down into the puffy white sea below them as giant birds called Loftwings take flight with their owners. Tiny islands float around Skyloft, begging to be explored. Whether they house little shops or a rogue treasure chest, there is endless fun in the sky around your home base. A well-designed overworld, in my opinion, is one of the most important aspects of a game as linear as Skyward Sword. It's the perfect way to break up some of the game's monotony as you search for Zelda. When you have places like this to explore in your backyard, it makes coming home almost as much fun as the areas below the clouds.
Like many Zelda titles, our hero Link's got a trusty sidekick in Skyward Sword: A data-driven, AI-like spirit who inhabits your main weapon. Her name is Fi, and Zelda fans love to gripe about how annoying she was in the original game. And truth be told, they're right. Fi was constantly interrupting gameplay, bestowing painfully obvious hints about how to proceed while I was already running in that direction. You don't need to hold our hands, Fi; we got this.
Luckily, Skyward Sword HD makes her a bit more taciturn, which smooths the game a bit, allowing players the freedom to explore without interruption. Fi still pops up from time to time, and for folks new to Skyward Sword, she does provide the occasional helpful hint.
But not everything is sunshine and waterfalls
The Fi fix, however, does not resolve many of Skyward Sword's original pacing problems. The gameplay interruptions are constant; one moment you're running impatiently into a new environment, the next you're being cut off by a minor character with one too many lines of dialogue. It's frustrating having your desired pace obstructed and limited with meaningless interactions. Granted, some of these interactions are amusing, like an NPC being frightened when Fi pops out of your sword, but most are unnecessary and clumsy.
When Skyward Sword released on Wii, it was the first major title that experimented with Nintendo's new motion controls. The MotionPlus attachment that I mentioned earlier is a small upgrade to the original Wii remote; it could identify directional swings, opening up the chance for developers to make combat more interesting. An enemy is blocking your downward sword swings? Slice from side to side to expose its weak points.
Oftentimes, a gimmick like motion control is limited to one specific game, or short era of games. Take the Xbox Kinect, for instance: it was popular very briefly in the early 2010s, but never produced games of note. The novelty wore off. The Wii MotionPlus wasn't dissimilar; Skyward Sword was the only major release that required motion controls, and Nintendo never brought it to other core franchises like Mario or Pokémon. Needless to say, it wasn't an overwhelming success.
In Skyward Sword HD, players have two options: continue to wield the gimmick from ten years ago (Joy-Cons detached) or switch to button-only controls while using a traditional controller. Similar to the original Skyward Sword, the motion controls on Switch are cloddish. Constantly recentering my pointer felt no different than it did ten years ago, but with increasing frustration because I was expecting the technology to have improved after a decade; I eventually stuck exclusively to the button-only controls.
It took some getting used to, but the button-only controls worked well for me. Rather than swing a Joy-Con, I could simply tilt the control stick to influence my sword swings. After about an hour of adjusting, I found it much easier to play when I didn't need to waste time recalibrating the motion controls.
Despite their imperfections, Skyward Sword and its HD remaster are memorable games. And while my younger self wants me to enjoy the game as much as I did back then, there are noticeable stumbling blocks that trip me up as I give it a refreshed playthrough. I still love this game, don't get me wrong. But when you play a game like the Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild only a couple of years beforehand, an older Zelda just feels a bit stale, especially one whose repetitive, linear gameplay leaves me wanting more.
Keller Gordon is a columnist for Join The Game. Find him on Twitter: @kelbot_
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