You may have heard it on the podcast this week, but I am angry at The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD. Not because it’s a bad game: frankly, it’s the opposite. It’s a really well-designed game bursting at the seams with good ideas (good ideas that would be put to wonderful use in the next installment of the series) and interesting systems, set in a fascinating world. It has incredible dungeons and a very cool overworld and an interesting take on crafting, alongside traversal that makes sense for this type of fantasy adventure.
No, I’m angry because the developers at Nintendo did the hard part. They crafted said systems and levels only to bury them under controls and a camera system that actively hates its players. It’s like making the perfect celebration cake, a towering delight of color and majesty and perfectly balanced flavors, only to coat one of the layers in shit-flavored, peanut shell-sprinkled fondant.
I’m being a little facetious here, but I’m far from the only one who feels this way. The game was developed to work with Wii Motion Plus technology, which never functioned consistently for me even back in 2011. I pushed and pushed and pushed through most of the game a decade ago — because there is a lot to enjoy here — but never made it to the end. I kept trying to play side quests long after the controls simply failed me too much and too often to progress through dungeons and boss fights. Eventually, I just ran into a dead end.
Designing a control scheme entirely out of spite? It’s more likely than you think.
— Fanbyte (@FanbyteMedia) July 22, 2021
I downloaded the remake last week, overjoyed that I could finally play the whole thing! Nintendo promised normal, non-motion controller support, so I loaded up the game once again, thrilled! Finally I could play the game that I had such fond memories of (in spite of it all). Finally, I could play a video game as god intended: with a video game controller, not a horrible condomed-up plastic monstrosity!
Sadly, it became apparent pretty quickly that the whole world was designed around the sludgy, fussy mess that was the original control scheme. The joy slowly drained from my face. Turns out you can’t just slap different inputs onto a fundamentally flawed system. Especially not when every single element was built from the ground up and tuned for just that.
I need to take frequent breaks while playing Skyward Sword HD. Otherwise I risk elevating my blood pressure, screaming at the screen, and terrifying my pets. It doesn’t help that Skyward Sword has a notoriously slow start. The whole first “action” area nakedly feels like an ugly demo level for trying out the (terrible) controls. The grinding intro was an issue in Twilight Princess as well, and it was the lowlight of that game. Though it’s obvious here that the team went all the way in on motion controls thanks to the supposed “new and improved” Wii motion Plus. In retrospect, Twilight Princess kind of fudged the edges around the motion scheme; the fact that it was co-developed for the GameCube probably helped.
It’s easy to just eat shit embarrassingly early in Skyward Sword’s Faron Woods, either from plummeting to your death on a slow, terrible tightrope, or due to the game’s spastic, unreliable combat. I’m using button and sticks only (a long-time wrist injury makes motion controls out of the question these days), and, charitably, Link does what I intend for him to do with my sword about two-thirds of the time. Otherwise he just swings wildly. This is the training area in a Zelda game. It’s not a series known (especially in the 3D era) for challenging combat.
For my money, the best thing about 3D Zelda is the flow state you achieve — especially in a well-designed dungeon. There are light puzzles, some combat, traversal… Everything is designed very deliberately so that you flow effortlessly from one mode of gameplay to the next. Most importantly, it feels good to play and scramble and figure out your next move.
Maybe you run and jump and avoid obstacles; maybe you learn new movement patterns. Think of the Deku leaf and the Forbidden Woods in The Wind Waker, for a nice early game example (and area with the same theming). That dungeon teaches you to float, use the leaf as a little boat, and make use of the boomerang. Nothing is especially difficult. Yet the rooms flow nicely together: each task is pretty clear and it’s a joy to make your way through.
Wind Waker Link is a spritely little guy, leaping quickly, running with gumption, swinging on vines and floating through the air. The animation is fluid and there is a nice, steady pace to the gameplay. That pace changes somewhat as you engage with different mechanics (say, fighting enemies with your sword, in the game’s responsive and musical combat, vs. jumping on little wooden bridges versus using these plants to pop into the air and float), but things keep on moving appreciably.
Contrast that with the early game here in Skyward Sword. Here in the Skyview Temple (the game’s first dungeon), I keep falling off the edges of the geometry. I’ve had to look up a guide something like three times, because the shitty camera controls have made it such a chore to actually see what’s going on, and I’ve missed a few (should-be-obvious) triggers. Everything feels so staccato — so “start-stop-stop, no, STOP, goddamn it, I fell again” — so messy and finicky and weirdly sticky, that it’s an absolute chore to do anything or go anywhere. This is the first dungeon in a 3D Zelda. It’s supposed to be easy and flowy and fun, an extended tutorial that teases where the game is going. It’s not supposed to feel like running uphill in mud.
This isn’t me playing, but you can see how awkward the whole thing looks in action, especially compared to the Wind Waker gameplay. The person at the controls obviously knows the game well — they are doing a 100 percent playthrough — and even they get stuck on bits of the scenery, and the camera is doing… something.
Breath of the Wild is the high watermark for the series’ feel: for responsive controls that feel natural right away and a starting area that teaches your main powers without feeling like a claggy mess. But it’s unfair to compare it to a 2011 game. So, once again, I’ll point towards The Wind Waker for doing this well in 2003. Not to mention the remake from eight years ago. That was a pretty spot-on HD redux that made a few simple nips and tucks (adding a swift sail to make traversal much faster and easier, reducing the Triforce chip grind, etc.). Otherwise it simply pretties up an already pretty game. Playing Skyward Sword HD just makes me wish that Nintendo had gone in and done the same thing: fixed what was fundamentally not working here.
I understand that’s a massive amount of work. To truly fix Skyward Sword, Nintendo would’ve had to adjust just about everything. The spacing of the geometry, the hit boxes, even the width of the corridors in indoor spaces. The team went so hard (and clearly tried so hard) to make that awful dongle work that they ended up sacrificing any easy portability.
But if the team really did want this game to shine — and, again, I believe it deserves to — they could’ve done it. I badly want to play the Ancient Cistern again, and I want to finish the Lanayru Mining Facility and Sandship dungeon, with its intricate clockwork design. I’d love to really go out and fill in all the side quests and fully explore this world. There is a beautiful game under the control/camera poison cloud, and really, honestly, with the company’s resources… I have to think it would’ve been possible to do something about it.
As it stands, I’m still chugging along, cursing Link (and my controller) every other step of the way.