“I really want to play old Legend of Zelda games that I’ve missed, like Skyward Sword!” One finger on the monkey’s paw curls as a motion calibrator comes into focus on the screen.
This is my quest to visit past glories of a series that I fell in love with after playing just one game: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I found Zelda's world compelling from the moment I hit the Temple of Time. What was this ruined temple, and what’s it doing all the way up on this desolate plateau, far away from civilization? These are questions that Breath of the Wild never answers, and so I took up my own quest to uncover the hidden lore surrounding one of my favorite games of the decade, by visiting the series’ storied past.
“Why start with Skyward Sword?” I hear you ask. It’s a fair question. It isn’t exactly beloved by a lot of people, as evidenced when rumors of a remaster for the Switch did the rounds late last year (Nadia's reaction was to wonder how it could be fixed). Motion controls haven’t aged well, it would seem. But a family member had an old Wii that was gathering dust in their attic, so I’ve hooked it up to play the first chronological tale of Hyrule.
Skyward Sword is of course best-known for its motion controls, which feature in basically every element of the gameplay. They're evident almost from the start. Once Link emerges from oversleeping, the first stage of his epic quest is to climb up two stacks of wooden crates and hop over a gap in a bridge to meet a companion in the town of Skyloft. This proved to be a temporarily insurmountable task for me. I tried and failed seven times to jump the cursed gap in the bridge, each time sending Link plummeting down to the ground below. It got so bad that my better half watching me play left the room after attempt number six.
I can see why there’s a bit of contention over the motion controls in Skyward Sword. They aren’t exactly overbearing, since you use the analog stick on the Nunchuck to move and the A button to sprint, but the platforming and combat are unnecessarily tricky. A sole analog stick means you aren’t in total control over the camera angles—hence my failing the opening climbing section so many times—and the camera can ever so slightly rotate by itself while Link’s on the move. For combat, Skyward Sword becomes a physical hack and slash game, where you end up waving your arms through the air like you’re swatting a horde of invisible mosquitos around you.
There are three types of motion attacks for the first few hours of Skyward Sword: a horizontal slash, a vertical slash, and final spinning slash that circles 360 degrees around Link. The first two are done by simply moving the Wiimote in the corresponding direction, while the last involves flicking both the Wiimote and Nunchuck at the same time (thankfully it doesn't involve you literally spinning around on your couch).
It’s actually a system that works really well—if you don’t panic. As I mentioned earlier, it’s all too easy to devolve into hacking and slashing the air around you while playing Skyward Sword, as though you’re the physical manifestation of Link in your living room. Too often I would lose my shit when faced with even a single Aracha or Bokoblin in Skyloft’s debut dungeon; a brief jaunt through a cave to rescue Link’s Loftwing, comically flailing my arms around in the air. I would reset, take a deep breath, and approach the challenge like I would a Bloodborne boss, with careful planning and precision movement.
Surprisingly, I don’t actually hate Skyward Sword’s motion controls, but perhaps that’s because I don’t have seven years of hindsight to reflect on chaotically swinging my arms around. I’ve actually enjoyed the learning curve, practicing again and again to get the motion patterns just right for the corresponding attack.
Skyward Sword in a Breath of the Wild World
Beyond the motion controls, playing Skyward Sword in a post-Breath of the Wild world is actually really interesting. In Breath of the Wild, the only company Link has for miles around (aside from the Bokoblins trying to club him to death) is the ghost of a dead king weighed down by past failures. Skyward Sword, by contrast, depicts our mute savior as an active part of Skyloft's community. So active, in fact, that he’s already old friends with Zelda before the game begins.
Breath of the Wild is desolate, but you need context to understand just how decrepit the land of Hyrule has become. In Skyward Sword, Link feels more human, and less of the... well, link... that he’s meant to be between the player and the game, because he’s already part of an established community. In Breath of the Wild, over half the people that Link interacts with over the course of the story are ghosts.
It’s not just in setting and characters; the way pacing and plot unfolds between both games is worlds apart. The story of Skyward Sword is always dogging you with new events and objectives, because it’s obviously linear in design, but with Breath of the Wild it’s like the story took a backseat to the game going open-world for the first time. There are speedrunners that famously go straight for Hyrule Castle in the distance from the starting point on the Great Plateau, bypassing Impa, the four Champions of Hyrule, and other major characters in favor of a showdown with Ganon in under an hour.
With Skyward Sword there’s no such freedom, let alone an actual overworld. Link and his Loftwing pierce the blanket of clouds separating Skyloft from Hyrule, almost base jumping down to a small area on the ground that Skyward Sword allows you to venture around. Weirdly enough I think I’d be paralyzed with fear if I’d been playing the two games the other way around. Having a huge open Hyrule to explore with zero direction after playing around in the open pools of Skyward Sword would scare me, but having limited pockets to venture around in is actually a bit of a pleasant surprise.
Skyward Sword is obviously more focused and driven, and I think it’s a neat little breath of fresh air after Breath of the Wild. Sometimes it’s nice for a game to just grab you by the shoulders, point you in a direction, and shout “GO,” providing you with regular story beats and narrative intervals every few minutes. Breath of the Wild was relaxing because there was zero pressure to do any one particular activity in the open world, and Skyward Sword is relaxing because you can just put your brain on autopilot and venture forward with Link.
Seven Years Later, Does Skyward Sword Hold Up?
Whenever I mention the fact that I’m playing Skyward Sword to anyone, it’s usually met with a response of “Oh, that one that everyone liked and then hated.” If that’s the case, I’m not sure Skyward Sword has done anything in the seven years that it released to make it any more endearing. No one’s after motion controls for a console interface these days (sorry, Kinect), let alone combat-based motion controls in a game.
Nonetheless, I have enjoyed my time with The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, mainly because it’s in such a fascinating personal juxtaposition for me with Breath of the Wild. Skyloft, filled with charming villagers, is exactly what I needed after worming my way through the desolate ruins of the Kingdom of Hyrule.
Sometimes it’s just nice to be surrounded by a pleasantly charming cast of cartoon-ish characters, and be provided with similarly charming story beats, like a blossoming friendship between Link and Zelda. There’s no doubt that Skyward Sword will stand out in my memory for the occasionally awkward motion controls, especially when it comes to combat, but I’ve still managed to have a thoroughly enjoyable romp around Hyrule and Skyloft with our dorky Link.