Breath of the Wild changed a lot about The Legend of Zelda. Most importantly, it made the fantasy realm of Hyrule more open, increasing the sense of pure adventure. If you saw something off on the horizon — a crumbling ruin, a giant mountain, whatever — you could find your own way there, rather than following a path laid out by the game’s developers. It’s what made the game so refreshing, but it could also make going back to older entries challenging.
At least, that was my fear playing Skyward Sword, which originally launched a decade ago and is coming to the Switch this week. Aside from a few quality-of-life tweaks, slightly updated visuals, and the very welcome addition of a motion control-free control scheme, the new version is the same as the one that debuted on the Wii in 2011. That means it’s a largely linear affair that’s missing the open-ended structure that made BotW so engrossing. But it still has enough Zelda magic to make it worth playing — particularly if you missed it the first time around.
The core is the same as always. A quiet young boy named Link discovers that he’s actually a hero — shock! — and eventually gets a legendary sword and green outfit to help him on a quest to save a princess named Zelda. But as with the best Zelda adventures, Skyward Sword takes that basic formula in interesting new directions. The game begins in a city in the clouds. The residents of this small, floating village ride giant birds like horses and live above a sprawling cloud barrier that separates them from what they believe is a desolate and inaccessible surface. Naturally, this is exactly where Link needs to go.
The premise was refreshing a decade ago, and it still remains an enticing world to explore. There’s something really fun about soaring through the sky, exploring this very different history of Hyrule. At its best, Zelda takes a familiar place and makes it feel new — there’s a reason Wind Waker is so beloved — and that’s exactly what happens in Skyward Sword. This was especially true back in 2011, as it was the next mainline Zelda after the comparatively drab Twilight Princess. Each entry is like a new take on an ancient fable. Skyward Sword remains one of the more memorable.
But while the world still feels fresh after all this time, the actual game is very familiar territory. Unlike BotW, Skyward Sword pushes you along a predetermined path, where you go through a series of areas — a forest, a desert, a volcano — solving puzzles in order to get to the dungeon at the end, where you’ll find another bread crumb in your search for Zelda. And in traditional Zelda fashion, you’ll slowly gather new items that open up new areas. That could be a slingshot for shooting down vines or a magically controlled drone that lets you hit switches remotely.
There’s a satisfying sense of progression, even if the straightforward structure can feel dated. Skyward Sword funnels you along a path; the path can be large at times, but there’s usually only one or two things you can or should be doing. It’s missing the sense of freedom and serendipity that are so core to BotW. This didn’t bother me as much as I expected — likely because the world is still so interesting, and the puzzles and combat remain excellent — but it can be frustrating at times, particularly if you find yourself stuck.
The big change between this version of Skyward Sword and the original is the controls. Skyward Sword was built with motion controls in mind; it originally required the Wii’s MotionPlus add-on, which made your sword swipes more accurate. You can still play that way, wielding two Joy-Con controllers like a sword and shield. But on the Switch, there’s also a more traditional control scheme so you can play in portable mode or use a Pro Controller.
For the most part, it works. Sword swipes have been moved to the right analog stick, which you can use to replicate thrusting a sword in various directions. As someone who doesn’t enjoy flailing my arms in front of a screen, it’s a welcome addition, but there are a few little niggles.
For example, Skyward Sword on the Switch finally adds camera controls to the game, one of the biggest omissions from the original. But the way they work is a little wonky. In order to rotate the camera, you have to hold the left shoulder button and move the right stick — the same stick that controls your sword. I kept finding myself swinging a weapon when I meant to look around; it’s just natural to go straight for the right stick when you need to rotate the camera. It’s especially annoying in battle if you need to both attack and look around at the same time. (The lock-on option helps somewhat, but not when there are lots of bad guys or bosses that teleport around.) The right stick is freed up when using motion controls, but this does require a level of coordination I don’t seem to possess; it’s tough to rotate a camera with your thumb while also swinging your arm around.
Aside from that, this port is improved in all of the expected ways. It runs smooth, the graphics look cleaner (despite a few muddy textures here and there), and the new control scheme makes it a more accessible version of Skyward Sword. There are even some nice little tweaks, like a slightly less chatty talking sword that serves as your guide. The biggest barrier is your expectations. Yes, it can feel dated after Breath of the Wild. But for me at least, the fantastical world, clever puzzles, and challenging dungeons made it worth pressing through. And given that the still-untitled sequel to Breath of the Wild looks like it’ll feature a similar sky-themed world, this could be just the thing to hold you over until its release.
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD launches on July 16th on the Nintendo Switch.