The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD review - "The sky's somewhat limited"

How do you bring back an old, creaky Zelda game without enraging fans of the original or alienating new players with clunky mechanics?

In 2019, Nintendo provided an almost perfect answer to that question with The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening. Here was a thoughtful remake that faithfully followed the original's blueprint, but with modern building materials.

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD treads a much less assured path to rehabilitation.

Unpromising beginnings

2011's Wii original was viewed by many as something of a B-grade effort in a generally A+ series.

Key to its mixed reception was the fact that it forced in annoying waggly controls to suit the host platform's core motion-driven gimmick. It also implemented a sparse, uninspiring sky-based over-world map that few truly loved.

Full disclosure: Skyward Sword was arguably my least favourite Zelda game this side of the NES era, though the DS entries pushed it close.

This Switch re-release is built on slightly shaky ground, then.

Up, up, and away with the fairies

As the name suggests, Skyward Sword sees you taking control of a Link (young, sleepy pixie warrior that he always is) living on a tiny island floating high above a clouded over world.

Link's people hop about between suspended islets on the back of giant birds that bond with them at a young age. Traversal is a matter of leaping off the edge of an island and whistling for your feathered ride, then gliding, boosting, and sky-diving your way to your destination.

After your childhood soulmate (Zelda, naturally) is swept away by a magical tornado, you embark on a journey that takes you down below the clouds to several vaguely familiar locations. There are themed dungeons to be conquered, fantastical items to be collected and wielded, and hulking great bosses to defeat.

It's classic Zelda, only slightly less so. The various areas feel only tangentially connected by an empty over-world, and there's an awful lot of revisiting and recycling on display across its three core areas.

Looking its age

Technically, Skyward Sword doesn't stand up too well to the other Zelda games on Switch. What you're getting here is a very light 1080p sharpening up of a 10-year-old game that was hardly a looker in its day. It's screaming out for a proper reworking with fresh HD textures and improved lighting.

There's no getting around it - The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is an ugly game in places, especially docked on a modern TV. And it's not helped by one of the least appealing art styles of a modern Zelda game, caught somewhere in between the cartoony Wind Waker and the more grounded Twilight Princess.

The usual cast of weird and wonderful characters is a bit of a mixed bag here, too. Many are as quirkily likeable as always, but others are just plain unsettling to behold, despite the perky babble emerging from their lips.

It is at least nice that the game runs at a full 60fps, especially after the sluggish Link's Awakening remake. And on a more prosaic level, the implementation of an auto-save system is most welcome.

Losing control

On to those problematic controls. Nintendo has implemented a couple of workarounds to address criticisms and limitations of the original, but they don't quite cohere.

The motion controls are still here, with each of Link's sword strikes corresponding to a directional swipe of the right Joy-Con. Those swipes feel as hit-and-miss as they ever did to me, while the 'point to aim' ranged controls feel even worse courtesy of the inferior precision of the Joy-Cons versus the enhance Wiimote.

Nintendo has added an alternative control system, which reinstates a more traditional experience. In many ways this is preferable, but the game's protracted sword fights still tend to degenerate into frantically imprecise waggling - just of the right analogue stick rather than the right Joy-Con.

One big advancement in the motion controls is the provision of camera controls on the right analogue stick. But as that accounts for sword commands in the controller method, you have you hold the L button whenever you want to adjust the camera. End result: neither system feels quite right.

Indeed, the entire control and menu system would have benefitted from a complete reworking to make full use of the Switch's array of controls. As it is, the ZR button feels utterly overloaded, used both to select and use items in an often confusing manner.

Relax, it's Zelda

Ultimately, what rescues The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword from a more lowly score is the fact that it's still a Zelda game made by Nintendo.

It's still got impeccable clockwork dungeons that, at their best, simultaneously guide you and challenge you to think outside the box. It's still got an armoury of wonderful gadgets that subtly alter the way that you perceive the world around you (shout out to the remote control beetle thingy).

Even those problematic waggly sword fights can enchant and enthral when they give you the space and time to execute their fickle movements.

The thing is, even a second-tier Zelda game beats most other eShop titles released in a given month. And with potentially another year or longer to wait until Breath of the Wild 2, Skyward Sword might just be the ideal way to fill that yawning void.

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD review - "The sky's somewhat limited"

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword still doesn't wholly convince a decade on, with flaky controls, drab visuals, and a dull over-world. But it retains enough of that irresistible Zelda magic to warrant a place on your Switch. Just.
Jon Mundy
Jon Mundy
Jon is a consummate expert in adventure, action, and sports games. Which is just as well, as in real life he's timid, lazy, and unfit. It's amazing how these things even themselves out.