In November 2011, I plugged my brand new MotionPlus accessory into the bottom of my Wii Remote. I started the console, pointed my newly accessorized Wiimote to the screen and clicked on the The Legend of Zelda: Sword to the sky. A new Zelda the title had finally arrived.
Ten years later, Nintendo re-released an HD version of Sword to the sky for the Nintendo Switch, mainly to serve as an aperitif for Breath of the wild 2, coming (hopefully) next year. The story remains unchanged in this high-definition episode, but the developers have added desperately needed quality-of-life improvements that iron out some – but not all – of the frustrations of a decade ago.
Skyward Sword HD deserves our attention, even if this is only a remaster. Nintendo isn’t known to update its old games, but they’re always up for an HD or 3D remake. And Sword to the sky isn’t a perfect game, but any addition to such an influential franchise as Zelda deserves discussion and critical examination.
It’s a beautiful game with charm to spare
Sword to the sky radiates beauty and charm. My older brother once described it as a mix of two other Zelda games, the cartoonish brightness of Wind waker and the darker, more realistic art style of Twilight Princess. When they combine, the result is a dynamic slice of a franchise that constantly changes from game to game. Memorable characters like Ghirahim, the flaming and sadistic Demon Lord or Groose, the stupid jock crushing Zelda, make the cutscenes and dialogue entertaining (though there are too many of them).
Sword to the sky‘s overworld is a breathtaking site. Skyloft, where your journey begins, is a quaint but prosperous town perched above the clouds. Waterfalls cascade 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 small shops or a rogue treasure chest, there is endless fun in the sky around your base. A well-designed overworld, in my opinion, is one of the most important aspects of a game as linear as Sword to the sky. It’s the perfect way to break up some of the monotony of the game when looking for Zelda. When you have places like this to explore in your backyard, it makes getting home almost as fun as the areas under the clouds.
As many Zelda titles, our hero Link has a loyal sidekick in Sword to the sky: A data-driven, AI-like mind that inhabits your primary weapon. Her name is Fi and Zelda fans love to complain about how boring she was in the original game. And frankly, they are right. Fi was constantly pausing the game, giving painfully obvious advice on how to do this while I was already running in that direction. You don’t need to hold our hands, Fi; we have this.
Fortunately, Skyward Sword HD Makes it a bit more taciturn, which smooths the game out a bit, allowing players the freedom to explore without interruption. Fi still appears from time to time, and for the new Sword to the sky, it provides an occasional useful clue.
But all is not sun and waterfalls
The Fi patch, however, does not resolve many Sword to the skyoriginal rhythm problems. Game interruptions are constant; one moment you’re impatiently running into a new environment, the next you’re cut off by a minor character with one line of dialogue too many. It’s frustrating to have the desired pace obstructed and limited by meaningless interactions. Granted, some of these interactions are fun, like a frightened NPC when Fi pulls out of your sword, but most of them are unnecessary and awkward.
When Sword to the sky Released on Wii, it was the first major title to experiment with Nintendo’s new motion controls. The MotionPlus attachment I mentioned earlier is a small upgrade from the original Wii Remote; it could identify changes in direction, opening up the possibility for developers to make the fight more interesting. An enemy is blocking your sword shots down? Slice side to side to expose weak spots.
Often times a gadget like motion control is limited to a specific game or a short period of games. Take the Xbox Kinect, for example: it was very briefly popular in the early 2010s, but never produced any notable games. The novelty fades. The Wii MotionPlus was no different; Sword to the sky was the only major release that required motion controls, and Nintendo never brought it to other core franchises like Mario or Pokemon. Needless to say, it wasn’t a smash hit.
In Skyward Sword HD, players have two options: continue using the gadget from ten years ago (Joy-Cons detached) or switch to button-only controls while using a traditional controller. Similar to the original Sword to the sky, the motion controls on Switch are crass. The constant refocusing of my pointer was no different than it was ten years ago, but with growing frustration because I expected technology to improve after a decade; I ended up staying exclusively with the button controls only.
It took some getting used to, but the button-only controls worked fine for me. Rather than swinging a Joy-Con, I could simply tilt the control stick to influence my sword strikes. After about an hour of tuning, I found it much easier to play when I didn’t need to waste time recalibrating the motion controls.
Despite their imperfections, Sword to the sky and its HD remaster are memorable games. And while my young self wants me to enjoy the game as much as I did back then, there are some notable obstacles that trip me up as I give it a refreshed game. 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 a few years ago, an older one Zelda just feels a little stale, especially the one whose repetitive, linear gameplay leaves me wanting more.
Keller Gordon is a columnist for Join the game. Find him on Twitter: @kelbot_