There’s a weird cognitive dissonance surrounding The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. In my casual discussions of Zelda games, Skyward Sword often seems lowly regarded. And yet, the Metacritic scores for the 2011 Wii game paint an entirely different picture, making it one of the highest scoring games for the console.
That strange conflict between the game’s negative perception versus its glowingly reviewed reality is remixed and reborn with Skyward Sword HD. This game frustrated and delighted me in equal measure. I enjoyed playing, though the act of doing so would, at times, exhaust me.
I never hated 2011 Skyward Sword as much as others seemed to—I preferred the sunny, open freedom of that game to the claustrophobic gloominess of its cousin Twilight Princess—but I knew where the negative feelings about the game came from: Grief over the finicky, mandatory motion controls was the primary complaint. There were also the invasive tutorials, slow start, and a world that seemed emptier than those in other Zelda games.
For the HD remake, Nintendo introduced a wealth of quality of life changes designed to address the many pain points. Fi is much less intrusive with her tutorials, (and you can skip her Yuri on Ice-like skating cutscenes with the press of a button) and while the expansive sky doesn’t inspire much exploration, the complex depth of the surface world and its dungeons more than make up for it. But foremost among Nintendo’s changes was the addition of a second control scheme, allowing players to use the Joy-Con control sticks to move Link’s sword in addition to the traditional “waggle” of motion controls.
Let’s rip off the band-aid right now: The button controls aren’t great. In a way that defies explanation, they are just as imprecise and fickle as the Wii’s waggle was. Whenever I would try to swing my sword with a flick of the right thumbstick, horizontal became vertical, vertical became horizontal, and diagonal movement hardly registered at all.
It felt like, in order to swing the sword in a particular direction, I had to stop, return the thumbstick to a neutral position, then slowly move the stick in the way I needed it to go. This strategy worked for static obstacles like trees blocking a path, but it was no good for constantly moving, blocking, and striking enemies. By the time I got my sword to successfully swing horizontally, my bokoblin enemy had already moved to block . Lizalfoses with their fast dodges were even harder to defeat. And Ghirahim encounters? Fuggeddaboutit.
I primarily play my Switch in handheld mode, necessitating the button control scheme. But after constantly getting my ass kicked during the first Ghirahim fight, I switched to motion controls and, irony of ironies, performed so much better—defeating him the first time after the change.
After this revelation, I decided to adapt my playstyle. I solved puzzles and fought basic enemies with button controls, but any time a big boss came up, I’d switch to motion. The two-pronged approach served me well.
In dungeons, the button control scheme became a credit to the game rather than a burden. I loved cutting through obstacles that blocked my path. It was satisfying to swing my sword and see the silk of a spider web part in the same natural way it would if I took a knife to the cobwebs in my house—the same went for ropes and tree trunks.
I loved flicking the thumbstick to roll or toss bomb flowers in just the right way to reach concealed enemies and obstacles. Skyward Sword made good use of Link’s arsenal of gadgets. My favorite was the drone beetle, which allowed me to scout out danger ahead and retrieve treasure from unreachable alcoves.
Another bone of contention in 2011’s Skyward Sword was the lack of camera controls. Skyward Sword HD thankfully added them but with a slight catch: Instead of simply moving a stick to control the camera—you know, the way it works in literally every other game—you have to hold down a shoulder button in addition to moving the stick. In the button control scheme, the right stick controls Link’s sword, but if you hold down the L button, sword control becomes camera control and the two are mutually exclusive. You cannot move the camera and fight at the same time. This makes combat even slower and more dangerous. By the time you’ve moved the camera to a suitable position and set up your sword to swing the right way, oops! You’ve been knocked back, losing a heart of health and requiring you to start all over again.
But, surprise surprise, in the motion control scheme, since your sword is controlled independently of your movements, you can use the stick to swing that camera around to your heart’s content in the middle of a fight with no need to hold down an extra button. It blows my mind that Skyward Sword HD created a new problem out of the solution to an old one.
For all my control-based frustration, I still enjoyed this game—particularly the story. For 25 years, the Zelda games focused on a boy named Link. Skyward Sword was the first game that lived up to its name and made the legend about Zelda. But even the princess’s story paled in comparison to Groose—Link’s rival turned BFF, who I’d argue is the emotional heart of the game. When you meet Groose, he’s a bullying cesspit of toxic masculinity. He felt entitled to Zelda’s affections because he’s the biggest and strongest knight-in-training on Skyloft. He resented Link for his fated destiny to save Zelda. But, after a brief moment of wallowing in self-pity, he simply decides to not give a shit about who’s destined to do what and opts to help however he can. By the end of the game, he accepts Zelda’s choice and bears Link no more ill will. Characters in Zelda games typically don’t experience emotional growth unless it’s on the far side of a beating by the Master Sword. Groose’s growth was entirely self-motivated—he saw his lack and addressed it. It’s a shame Zelda doesn’t choose him instead of the silent, and oft confused-looking Link.
I hoped that Nintendo’s improvements to Skyward Sword in the HD remake would help improve its esteem. If people could get over the atrocious control scheme, they might be able to see what I originally saw in the game. The button controls, unfortunately, recreated the same frustration that the old-school waggle did. Still, the Switch’s advances over the Wii makes it such that you can play Skyward Sword in 2021 as 2011 intended—with motion controls.