Sunday, April 23, 2023

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD Review

Developer - Tantalus Media
Publisher - Nintendo
Platform - Nintendo Switch
Price - $49.99

What better way to prepare for Tears of the Kingdom than playing Skyward Sword HD? I could think of a dozen better ways, but this is what I played. Skyward Sword was where all of Nintendo's worst ideas came together. Long tutorials, chatty companions, collectathons, gimmicky controls, you name it. Some of this stuff didn't even come from Zelda games. Skyward Sword just came out during the worst possible time, Nintendo's "Blue Ocean" era. That's when they were obsessed with reaching the widest audience possible with games like Brain Training, Wii Sports, Nintendogs, and Wii Party. Skyward Sword was the straw that broke the camel's back for many Zelda fans. This game was so badly received by gamers that they completely rethought how to make Zelda games afterwards. I guess, in a way, we should be thankful that Skyward Sword was such a mess because it led us to A Link Between Worlds and Breath of the Wild.

The main reason I'm playing this game now is for the story. There's a reason why Nintendo chose to release this game right before Tears of the Kingdom, and not something like a Wind Waker and Twilight Princess double pack. Skyward Sword tells the story of the first Link and Zelda, and introduces the evil being who possesses Ganondorf to create Ganon, Demise. There's some retconning going on here, but whatever. Skyward Sword also gives us some details about Hylia, like how she sealed Demise, created Skyloft, the Triforce, and the Master Sword long before the events of SS. She was basically just God in previous games. It's very interesting because we know Demise and floating islands are both in TotK. Did Hylia put the islands in the sky in TotK? Is Hylia herself in TotK? I'm hoping that having SS fresh in my mind helps me get the most out of TotK's story.
I never had a huge issue with Skyward Sword's motion controls on Wii, but the Joycons are no replacement for the Wiimote and Nunchuck. SSHD's motion controls are borderline unusable. They're just too finicky. Just like with all games that use motion controls on Switch, you constantly have to recenter your aim because the Switch doesn't have a sensor bar, like the Wii. I don't think it even matters if you move around too much or not. My aim drifted away from the center no matter what I did. The wireless connection of the Joycons is also very bad. I had to sit about 5 ft away from my Switch to avoid Joycon drift-like issues with the analog sticks. There also just seems to be some issue with the game registering right analog stick movements when trying to move the camera to the right no matter what controls you're using.
Even though the button controls are incredibly awkward and counterintuitive, that's how I played the game. I had to rewire my brain to use them, but at least they work. The biggest issue with the button controls is that you have to swing your sword with the right analog stick. You can swing in 8 directions and press R3 for a stabbing move. This means you also have to hold down the L button to move the camera around with the right stick. Of course, this led to constant accidental sword swinging. Now that I'm done with the game, I keep trying to hold L down when moving the camera in Pokemon SV. Moving the stick around is also just physically more work than pressing a button. And if that didn't feel unresponsive enough, you have to quickly let go of the stick after pushing in a direction for Link to actually swing the sword.
There's a saying that goes something like "going around the world to get across the street". That's the ongoing theme with this game's controls and UI. You can't map items to a button, the button to use items is the same one you hold to bring up the item wheel, you have to hold L to move the camera with the right stick, you have to be dashing to jump off a ledge, you have to equip bottles in your inventory, and so on. There's plenty of other 3D Zelda games with perfectly fine button controls, so why didn't they copy those? Couldn't they find a way to let you attack in multiple directions without making the controls so awkward?
The way the world of SS is structured reminds me of an N64 platformer. You have a hubworld in the sky and 3 separate areas on the surface. Unlike in other Zelda games, the 3 areas on the ground don’t connect to each other directly, they can only be accessed by skydiving down to them. While the sky area is huge, there really isn’t a lot in it. The most important thing up there is Skyloft, which is the Kakariko village of the game.
In Skyloft, there’s stores, the knight academy, a giant statue of Hylia, and all the villagers, who have a bunch of quests for you. These quests have you traveling to other sky islands or doing things in Skyloft at night, when most villagers are home. These quests are completely optional, but they’re fun and the rewards are pretty good. I actually did them all in this playthrough and enjoyed seeing all of the villagers’ little stories. There’s also a few more islands with NPCs in the sky, like an inn, and 3 more with minigames, which were designed around using the motion controls. The rest of them are very small rocks where you’ll find treasure chests you unlock after finding “Goddess Cubes” in the surface areas. It's not like there isn't anything to do in the sky, but there is a lot of empty space.
The surface areas around the dungeons are where this game really starts breaking down. Before you can enter any dungeon, you're forced to do quests for NPCs and go through obstacle courses, collectathons, and mini dungeons. It feels like the start of them bringing the dungeons out into the overworld, like they did in BotW, but the execution is nowhere near as good. I'm not against some questing and puzzle solving in a Zelda game, of course, but a lot of this stuff just reeks of filler content. Why am I collecting all this stuff? It comes out of nowhere, and it reminds me of Rare's N64 platformer design. A lot of this pre-dungeon stuff is very linear, nonsensical, and simply not fun. What's worse is that all 3 of these areas are reused 3 times for the same kind of pre-dungeon questing. They open up a little bit on return visits, but still. Couldn't they have come up with a few more areas? All these areas put together pale in comparison to the overworld in most other Zelda games. This game makes me wonder if something happened during the development that forced them to reuse these disjointed maps like this.
Strangely enough, considering how bad the overworld is, the dungeons are excellent. They're not Twilight Princess quality, but they are good. They're just classic Zelda dungeons designed around solving puzzles, finding keys, pulling switches, and using a few items to do whatever it is you need to do. This is where using the game's creative inventory really shines. Bowling bombs into little holes, flying the remote control beetle, grappling from wall to wall with the double hookshot, very clever stuff. It's almost cool enough to make you forget about the wonky controls. It made sense on Wii, at least.
Skyward Sword is a beautiful game, but I don’t really like the character designs. They have visible nostrils, pronounced lip colors, big anime style eyes, and jagged edges all over their bodies. It's a very strange combination. It makes characters look kind of like wooden marionettes or something. I'm really not a fan of the lips and nostrils. The environments look great, though. They are pretty low poly by today’s standards, but they have really nice looking textures, which look like they were hand painted with watercolors. The game also runs at 60 FPS, which is really nice.
There is no voice acting here, and it’s very noticeable since this is one of the most cut-scene heavy Zelda games. All we get out of villagers is weird little yells and gasps. Fi is kind of voice acted, but she just sounds like an unintelligible autotuned robot. The soundtrack is pretty great, though. It’s not really a soundtrack I think of when I think of Zelda music, but the songs kept getting stuck in my head while I was playing it. That counts for something in my book.
Oh, and I did get the Zelda and Loftwing amiibo for $5 last week. I remember this being a big controversy when the game launched because it was $25 and it added a nice new function to the game. It's definitely not worth that much, but I got my $5's worth out of it. You can scan it at pretty much anytime while on the surface areas and go right up to the sky on your Loftwing. It's a nice timesaver. You can just go to a save statue to exit dungeons and then go back to the sky, though. It's not a necessity.
What can I say? This is the worst 3D Zelda game ever made. I thought about dropping it about 10 times within the first few hours. The controls are incredibly frustrating, and I played this game on Switch, so I knew the N64 platformer-like collectathons were waiting for me ahead. The only reason I stuck with it was for the story, which is still really good. Now I feel like I’m ready for Tears of the Kingdom.