by on Feb 25, 2021

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword doesn’t need redeeming

How often does a video game get a second chance? In a gaming landscape littered with remakes, remasters and rereleases, it can often feel like the norm, but these are less often second chances than they are an opportunity to simply experience beloved titles a second time. No redemption required. For every Shadow of the Colossus or Spyro Reignited Trilogy—let loose on modern consoles with a high-definition sheen, in an attempt to wow players all over again—dozens of other games are left behind on aging hardware, packed away at the back of a dusty cupboard. A true chance at redemption is rare; it relies on outside factors, time, and luck. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword will get it’s second chance, in the form of an HD release, due out this summer on the Switch.

A quick glance at the glowing review scores that it received on release might convince you that Skyward Sword is a game that requires absolutely no absolution. But the truth is a little muddier than that, as it often is for the Zelda series, in which player sentiment for each title waxes and wanes over time. Think of The Wind Waker’s maligned cel-shaded art style, now beloved by most; or Twilight Princess, whose supposed return to the epic form of Ocarina of Time lacks the same appeal nearly fifteen years on. Skyward Sword, for its sins, released at a divisive time in the Wii’s lifecycle, at a point where Nintendo’s “Blue Ocean” strategy (which had seen the Japanese publisher successfully attempting to appeal to a wide and untapped casual audience, with the Wii and DS) was in full swing. Long-time Nintendo fans who cut their teeth on groundbreaking titles such as Ocarina of Time and Metroid Prime were feeling left behind, lost in a crowd of weekend Wii Fit-ers and L-plated Mario Kart players.

Skyward Sword bore many of the marks of this attempt to corral the casuals, with companion character Fi always too willing to offer unsolicited advice, and item descriptions insisting on reminding you what they were every time you booted up the game. Skyward Sword was many things, but groundbreaking was certainly not one of them. Many of its changes—such as a frustrating eroding stamina bar, undercooked gear upgrade system, and parachute-like Sailcloth—were instead smaller concessions that felt ill-fitting for the structure and world design of Skyward Sword. These systems wouldn’t come to fruition until Breath of the Wild released, in 2017, its scope and open-world finally allowing these features to find a suitable home. Even in a game as formulaic as Skyward Sword, trust Nintendo to still find the space to sow new ideas, reaping the rewards in Breath of the Wild six years later.

At its core, though, Skyward Sword stuck heavily to Zelda’s tried and true formula. In fact, in some ways it even felt like a step back, where even the open fields of the N64 games, Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask, felt less restrictive than the segmented biomes below Skyloft. This is a game that released exactly a week after The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and next to that genre-defining behemoth, The Legend of Zelda, as a game and a franchise suddenly looked a bit tired, alot linear, and bereft of new ideas beyond a Wii MotionPlus-controlled sword. It was all too easy for downtrodden Nintendo fans to judge Skyward Sword by what it wasn’t, rather than what it was. To look at an industry charging ahead with open worlds and freedom of choice and ask, “What about us?”

Ten years later, Skyward Sword will get that second chance, but it doesn’t need it, not really. Skyward Sword was redeemed the moment The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild released. With Nintendo finally evolving the series in a meaningful way, with that game’s open-air sandbox, Skyward Sword no longer has any expectations to meet, or Wii Remote peripherals to validate. Players can experience one of the best character-driven stories in the series, some of the strongest dungeons, and a banging soundtrack, without concern for what it means for the future of the series. It can be judged on what it is, rather than what it isn’t.

None of this is to say that it isn’t without its flaws. The previously mentioned handholding from Fi, certainly a product of Nintendo’s continued insistence last decade to appeal to the Wii’s wider audience, is frustrating; the early pacing is slow, especially notable on replays; and the motion controls could be, very literally, hit or miss. These are things that could yet be resolved in the upcoming HD release—we’ve already had confirmation of much-needed button controls—but, regardless, Skyward Sword’s more classic Zelda style succeeds in exactly what it sets out to do.

Video games being redeemed by time and circumstance isn’t something exclusive to Nintendo titles. Batman: Arkham Origins, which released to a chorus of “good, but not Rocksteady,” is looked back on more fondly, since the release of Batman: Arkham Knight, for example. But there’s something about Nintendo’s franchises, and the fans that love them, that means that their games are often scrutinised not just under a critical eye, but with the gaze cast skyward towards what each release means for the future of the series, or Nintendo’s console sales. 

Super Mario 3D World suffered a similar fate, lambasted as a safe or even boring 3-D Mario release—despite its inventive and varied level design—at a time when the Wii U needed a system seller. When Cat Mario and co clawed their way onto the ill-fated console, in 2013, it had been over ten years since the release of Super Mario Sunshine, the last sandbox Mario game, and left many concerned whether the classic formula that began in Super Mario 64 would ever return. With the release of Super Mario Odyssey, on Switch, any such fears were instantly abated, and, separated from the expectations that come with being a new release in Nintendo’s most important series, 3D World was free to lap up the praise when it rereleased on Switch, earlier this year.

Not every black sheep can be redeemed. Metroid Prime Federation Force, a cute co-op shooter for the Nintendo 3DS, was written off by fans the moment it was announced. No one could understand why Nintendo would put time and resources into a Metroid Prime spin-off game—without even Samus at the helm—when it had been nearly a decade since the last release in the series? Even with the promised release of Metroid Prime 4 on Switch, and the 2-D remake of Metroid II, on 3DS, it’s unlikely that Federation Force will ever wash away the sour taste that its announcement left.

Skyward Sword need not fear the same fate, though. Unlike Nintendo’s smaller series, like Metroid, Star Fox, or F-Zero, which can often feel forgotten, The Legend of Zelda is clearly one of Nintendo’s most important franchises, and a new release is always just a few years away. On July 16, we will have the chance to return the sword to its plinth and undo the pressures of time, to play a game that no longer shoulders the fate of its series. That burden will soon lie on the upcoming sequel, as it did on Breath of the Wild, in 2017—a game that bore the weight of innovation, so that Skyward Sword can soar.

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