I’ll never forget staring in awe at the giant map that came packaged with the original impossibly glittery gold cartridge of The Legend of Zelda for the NES. Sure, my barely out of diapers self would still undoubtedly get repeatedly lost and die, but with that map and the bounding 8-bit score it felt like I was on the grandest adventure of my admittedly young life. I have loved the Zelda series for as long as I can remember and even count Ocarina of Time among my favorite games ever, but, while I may be a seasoned veteran with the more recent adventures of Link with Breath of the Wild, Link’s Awakening, and Age of Calamity, there’s a Triforce-sized hole in my Zelda knowledge due to never having owned a Wii or GameCube.
Thanks to the celebration of the 35th anniversary of the eternally connected elven warrior Link and his princess Zelda’s adventures, I finally have a chance to rectify missing out on one of these lost entries as Nintendo bestowed upon us a remake of 2011’s divisive Skyward Sword for the Wii. While I may have been clamoring for some more personal nostalgia focused remakes, I was still excited to see what all the heavy vocal praise and criticism was about. Would I find myself turned off by a lackluster remake trying to make a fast buck, or would I end up charmed by a lovingly crafted remaster that stands the test of time? More importantly, would we finally have an answer to the question of whether or not there even can be a “bad” Zelda?
The Start of It All
Canonically speaking, Skyward Sword is the first Zelda game in the somewhat cyclic timeline of heroes and goddesses destined to destroy the calamity brought by Ganon and other assorted evils. As such, it was cool to get the glimpse in to the origins and to see how it all began.
The Prototype of It All
Without a doubt, this game represents an inflection point in the series as it is so clearly a prototype for the masterpiece Breath of the Wild. From the introduction of stamina to the open world vibe of flying through the sky to the gliding cloth, it’s clear that a lot of the elements in here are getting their trial run before perfection for the Switch’s gem. It’s like the team had tons of great ideas but were held back by the Wii’s hardware. Still, as a historical document, it’s enthralling.
Link and Zelda’s Childhood Crushes
Has there ever been a “will they/won’t they” romance that lasted through so many generations and timelines? While some games play coy with whether or not Link and Zelda want anything beyond friendship, Skyward Sword establishes from the outset that these two childhood friends have all kinds of awkward feelings and butterflies for one another. It’s exceedingly cute and helps develop the characters wonderfully.
Zelda the Not Quite Damsel in Distress
Sure, Zelda spends a significant portion of the game with Link trying to find and rescue her, but it turns out there’s a lot more to what’s happening than just the surface level damsel in distress. This Zelda is in charge, has a plan, and knows how to do what needs to be done. Early on, she even serves as Link’s protector, helping him stand up to the knight academy’s bullies.
Link’s schoolyard tormentor is an incredibly fun character. His subsequent hero’s journey and importance in the story makes him all the more memorable and made me wish he was one fo the characters that returns in every timeline. #JusticeForGroose
Thanks to the game initially being finely tuned for motion controls, every enemy has their own unique quirks and style to learn. You’re not just swinging your sword wildly, but you’re attempting to find the perfect opening and strike to take foes down giving each battle a mini-puzzle feel that you eventually master as Link himself grows into the hero of Legend.
Fans of the Zelda series are used to each dungeon’s boss having a unique gimmick to figure out to earn your reward, and Skyward Sword upholds that tradition marvelously. Some bosses require mastering the latest equipment like carefully placed shots from your bow or bowling bombs down a hill while others dip into Dark Souls parry-heavy territory testing your reflexes and coordination. I never found myself bored with a boss (even when they kept throwing the Impossible at you in rapid succession), and having to do a special boss rush mode to unlock the Hylian Shield just further cemented how much of a blast each meaty encounter was.
The First Third
Most Zelda games are about Link taking his baby steps into becoming the hero he’s prophesied to become. Skyward Sword does an amazing job providing the feeling of experiencing a truly legendary adventure for the very first time while also establishing the world around it and its dense mythology. The early temples and interactions are not just outstanding tutorials but genuinely standout Zelda dungeons.
The Final Third
Just as soon as you think the gameplay might be getting a little stale and repetitive, the final 1/3 of the game with the search for the Triforce pulls out all the stops. It takes massive swings in gameplay from an N64-style collect-athon to a masterfully executed “you’ve lost all your equipment” stage (Seriously why is Zelda always the best at doing this? I’m looking at you Eventide Island) to a final dungeon that plays out like one of those missing tile puzzles. And all of these swings somehow land perfectly. Right when I had found myself growing tired of the game, I suddenly didn’t want it to end because surely there were more great ideas to throw at me (which, it turns out there are; they’re just all in Breath of the Wild).
There was a lot of unnecessary controversy surrounding the amiibo adding a quality of life feature (allowing you to take to the skies from anywhere), but I only found myself actually using it about 3 or 4 times when I was too lazy to spend a couple of minutes backtracking to one of the many bird statues. Instead, I wanted to just say it’s one of the prettiest and most detailed amiibos I’ve seen, and that’s why it earns a spot in the good list.
Fresh Takes on Dungeon Items
By this point, we all know the pre-Breath of the Wild Zelda dungeon drill. You enter a dungeon, get a new item and use that item to solve the dungeon’s puzzles. What makes Skyward Sword special in this regard, is that they have clever new takes on plenty of the series’ mainstays. For instance, instead of a standard boomerang to hit items and switches in far off areas, Link now has a remote control beetle that can even pick up and hurl bombs at unsuspecting enemies. Throw in a Luigi’s Mansion-esque dust bellows, a whip that’s used for both swinging and pickpocketing, and the single greatest hookshot the series has ever seen, and Skyward Sword’s utility pouch is packed with more goodies than ever before.
Speaking of the world’s most magnificent hookshot, the clawshots are absolute stunners. Instead of one simple grappling hook, the clawshots provide Link with double the fun allowing him to stay attached to one target while using his other hand to seek out another. This is the closest Link will ever come to being Spider-Man and likely the best it ever felt to move him around before he got that baller hang glider in BOTW.
Prior to playing the game, I heard plenty of complaints about how Fi never shuts up, so I just wanted to stand up as a Fi defender and say she’s incredibly helpful and also a really cool weird blue alien-looking thing who lives in a sword. I mean what’s not to love?
Ever since the transformative powers of the gold skulltulas in Ocarina of Time, I’ve loved questing in a Zelda game to get rewards and heal some unfortunate soul. There’s an immense joy that comes with this game’s gratitude crystals that just made me happy every time I helped someone out on a side quest and they produced these shiny little orange orbs in thanks.
The soundtrack is straight up full of bangers that make everything feel even more epic. The second I heard the score inside the opening temple, I knew I was in for quite the adventure.
The Joy of a “New to Me” Zelda
I’ll be honest, I was somewhat disappointed to find out that the only Zelda remaster for the 35th anniversary was going to be a game that I had no nostalgia for (see Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask) or burning desire to play for the first time (see Windwaker or Twilight Princess). Instead we got what felt like a forgotten adventure from the Wii that while successful is often derided as one of the less inspired entries in the series. By 5 hours or so into the game, I realized just how wrong I was. This felt like the perfect midsection of classic Zelda adventures and the start of a new direction for it all. It was an absolute joy to experience, and I’m just glad I finally got the chance to and didn’t let it pass me by.
The Goddess Cube and Chest Cycle
Scattered throughout the land and clouds are mysterious cubes that you activate with a skyward strike from your heavenly blade. Once activated, this opens up a chest somewhere in the world leading to a fun little interlude in between missions where you go exploring to reap the rewards from the 3 or so cubes you had just uncovered.
Almost every Zelda has some sort of time based elements to it and this one is no exception. The two main uses of time include a super cooly animated portal to the past that’s used for one pretty fun puzzle and lots of important story elements and the ridiculously amazing time-shifting crystals at the Lanayru mine that might be my single favorite dungeon-mechanic yet.
The Actual Remaster
A frequent complaint among gaming circles in recent years has been that Nintendo phones in their remasters. While, I don’t buy this at all, Skyward Sword should thoroughly debunk this misguided notion. Even if no one is going to mistake this for a PS5 game, it looks right at home on the Switch with its fresh HD coat of paint, but its performance is where it truly shines – purring along at a steady 60 fps throughout. Anyone who has played BOTW knows that consistent framerates for Zelda titles aren’t necessarily a given. Aside from the fidelity and performance improvements, it seems that there are a ton of quality of life enhancements that have melted some of the coldest reviewers hearts to embrace this game that they lambasted in the past (see Gene Park of the Washington Post).
Need to heal? Just find any of the conveniently placed stools, benches, or toilets and have a seat. I cracked up laughing every time I saw Link take a brief break from trying to save the world to have a quick little rest.
The Mixed Bag
Let me just start by saying that the majestic loftwings are incredibly cool creatures. The whole backstory with each loftwing having a soul-mate essentially in a human is really fun. I just wish they had explored it more. After the first couple of hours are heavy on loftwing love with the flying ceremony, they completely take a backseat the rest of the journey and serve merely to help get you from point A to point B. It was probably the biggest missed opportunity in the entire game.
Flying around the sky atop your loftwing is cool, don’t get me wrong, but it also feels a little too empty at times. Again, this is probably just due to limitations of the Wii hardware the game was designed for, but I really wanted more to explore other than opening Goddess chests and finding the occasional mini-game. By halfway through I was just desperately wanting a fast travel option, so I didn’t have to fly from Skyloft to the Farron Woods for the 5 millionth time. While the sky in Skyward Sword didn’t quite do it for me, it did make me incredibly excited to see what Breath of the Wild 2 does with the idea as the trailers indicate you’ll be taking to the clouds for part of your adventure.
I spent right at about 35 hours to pretty much 100% the game (all side quests and collectibles). In today’s world where 50+ hour games are the norm and Breath of the Wild took me 90+ hours to complete this number almost seems quaint, but I think the game would’ve been better served with a 20-25 hour or so time to completion
The Middle Third
And hey, what do you know? This is where you could find those 10 or so hours to trim! As previously mentioned, the first and final thirds are filled with fresh experiences and exciting things, but that middle third definitely drags. In returning to the previous dungeons in search for the Goddess flames to strengthen your blade, you fall into an energy sapping rhythm of Silent Realm challenge rooms (which, admittedly are kind of cool when novel), lengthy searching for a temple, and even lengthier completing of a temple. Also, throw in oddly timed boss battles including almost 2 in a row agains the Imprisoned, and it definitely seems like they were padding things. You do get some of the cooler pieces of equipment during this stage of the game, but it just feels like a heavily worn path at that point.
Musical instruments often play a role in Link’s adventures, and while the harp is a cool idea, it’s no ocarina; that’s for sure. You merely strum the harp from left to right and vice versa repeatedly to a certain rhythm to accomplish what it’s needed for. You don’t learn new songs rather just new slightly different rhythms. At least it does lead to a ridiculous mini game at the bar in Pumpkin’s Landing.
For the most part, the thumbstick controls work pretty well once you get used to them. The only major drawbacks are having to hold a shoulder button to unlock camera controls with the right joystick (which meant I often forgot I could run) and the controls mistaking my flicks for attempting to hold my sword out instead of frantically swinging during some of the more intense encounters. While not perfect, they get the job done and did feel more fun than just a typical one button strike.
As previously mentioned, you can control the camera by holding the left bumper and then using the right joystick. This in and of itself isn’t so bad, but the sheer number of times you have to do it can get frustrating especially when trying to battle which requires that right thumbstick. I can’t even imagine how people played this on the Wii without camera controls. Even Lakitu was never this bad at operating a camera.
The Size of My Office
I either played Skyward Sword in handheld mode laying in bed fighting off sleep or docked on my nice monitor in my tiny little office. As such, I never got to try out the motion controls for proper comparison. I’ll never know the thrill of having a joycon fly off and crash into something. I’ll also never experience the sensation of power that accompanies raising your controller up to absorb the power of the Goddess for a skyward strike because taking the two minutes to hook it up to my actual TV just sounds like way too much work
The single most annoying thing in the game was when you had to swing from one vine or rope to another – especially if they weren’t perfectly aligned. I fell to my doom (which fortunately just starts you back where the jumps began without a penalty) more times than I could count and cursed whoever tuned the physics. I’d either be too high or too low or just off to the side, and it really should’ve just been a lot more forgiving. At least the thrill of the clawshots later in the game helped make amends.
Thirty-five hours later, I’m happy to report that Skyward Sword is indeed yet another superb entry in the Zelda series. It may not sit high atop my Zelda rankings (most likely due to lack of nostalgia), but it’s still a blast as even a “lesser” Zelda game is still better than 95% of the other stuff out there. Now if only Nintendo would show the same love and attention to some other titles in the series, so I can finish playing catch up.