While The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD fixes a surprising number of the original game’s issues, it does little to address the game’s status as this franchise’s somewhat awkward origin story.
Yes, even though the Zelda timeline is a bit of a mess, there’s no denying that Skyward Sword is the earliest adventure in the official Zelda canon. It doesn’t quite tell the story of how “Heaven and Earth were created” (the only listed event that precedes Skyward Sword on the official Zelda timeline), but it does help explain the origins of the Master Sword, the early history of Hyrule, and why Link and Zelda are seemingly destined to do this dance until the end of time.
Truth be told, Skyward Sword does sometimes succeed as an origin story, if for no other reason than many fans couldn’t have guessed that Nintendo would ever dare try to explain the origins of such a complicated and often inconsistent timeline. It’s sometimes enough to just get a glimpse at why some of the pillars of the Zelda universe are the way that they are.
In many other ways, though, Skyward Sword falls well short of being the “definitive” Legend of Zelda origin story that some fans hoped it would be.
There are numerous little questions people have regarding Skyward Sword‘s inconsistencies as an origin story (should Link really have his iconic hat at this point given the events of Minish Cap?), but the biggest issue with the game’s plot is how it fails to address (or adequately address) so many of the bigger things that hardcore fans want to know about this franchise. It struggles to consistently explain how the Triforce works, it tries to establish a lineage for Zelda‘s major villains that doesn’t make a lot of sense, it features a Zelda/Link love story that raises a lot of unanswered questions about their future together, and…well let’s just say the game makes a habit of leaving unanswered questions on the table.
It’s enough to make you wonder why Nintendo bothered to even set a story that far back in the series’ past. After all, the Zelda timeline has been an absolute mess for years, and the truth of the matter is that there really aren’t that many people (relatively speaking) who are that invested in knowing every single piece of Zelda lore. Most people are fine with booting up the next Zelda game, enjoying that particular adventure, and doing the same thing again when the next one comes out. Zelda games are actually quite good at offering relatively satisfying independent stories built around central themes, so why try to offer such a substantial origin story for a series that’s constantly reinventing itself anyway?
It’s almost like someone at Nintendo was under some kind of obligation to create a Zelda origin story and discovered too late that they were in over their heads. Funnily enough, that’s not too far from the truth.
We recently talked about how the N64’s divisive controller was designed alongside Super Mario 64. It’s not that the controller was built for that one game, but rather that the design of that game informed the design of the controller and vice-versa. Nintendo was trying to ask some big questions about the best way to control 3D games and, in the process, they made some strange decisions.
Well, that’s basically what happened with Skyward Sword‘s story. In an old “Iwata Asks” column, Satoru Iwata speaks with Skyward Sword director Hidemaro Fujibayashi and producer Eiji Aonuma about how they landed on the game’s basic premise. It’s then that Aonuma reveals that the desire to tell a Zelda “origin” story can be attributed to a much greater desire to build a story around the game’s motion controls.
“This time, the theme is the sword which makes use of the Wii MotionPlus accessory,” says Aonuma. “When you think of a sword in The Legend of Zelda, you think of the Master Sword. Rather early on, we decided to address the origin of the Master Sword.”
That’s honestly not an inherently bad idea, but it wasn’t long before the team realized that there was a big difference between telling a Master Sword origin story and making sure that it all made sense.
“We settled on having the sky and surface world, and on top of that, it was going to tell the story of the creation of Hyrule, with the untold story of the origin of the Master Sword,” says Fujibayashi. “So, looking back at the series so far, we began knitting together the various elements. And then all sorts of contradictions arose.”
Despite knowing early on those contradictions were going to be a problem, it sounds like work didn’t begin on Skyward Sword‘s detailed story outline until about a couple of years into the game’s development. Even then, Fujibayashi admits to essentially knocking out the basic story by himself in one long day. From that point, there was obviously still quite a bit of work to do in terms of animating the major story sections, filling in as many plot holes as possible, and trying to make sure that the whole thing made sense as both a standalone story and pretty substantial piece of franchise lore. Needles to say, it wasn’t always a smooth process.
To be clear, this wasn’t a matter of the developers just not caring about the game’s story. The interview makes it obvious that the Zelda team put a lot of thought into even minor plot and character elements. As Iwata also notes, there “have been a lot of games in the series since the original Legend of Zelda game 25 years ago” and “trying to create a new setting based on them all is bound to become a battle against contradictions.” This was always going to be a tall task, and it wasn’t taken lightly.
No, the big takeaway here is that the motivation to make a Zelda origin story (or Master Sword origin story) in the first place was based on Nintendo’s desire to create a certain kind of Zelda gameplay experience rather than because they had a story in mind that they really wanted to tell. It’s honestly the same reason why we see so many movie origin stories fall short. Solo was made because it’s Star Wars and not because someone had this incredible Han Solo story that everyone felt simply had to be told. In both cases, the story we got was ultimately a means to an end for some other purpose.
The great irony in this instance, though, is that Skyward Sword‘s origin story was designed around motion controls that were the source of many of the game’s problems and ended up being optional in Skyward Sword HD. Imagine going back and telling the Skyward Sword team that’s the way things are going to play out. Wouldn’t they have probably reconsidered the entire experience?
Maybe, but it’s hard to dwell on that possibility for too long just as it’s hard to really fault the Skyward Sword team for taking the swing that they did. Skyward Sword‘s origin story may be about as awkward as the motion controls it was inspired by, but after all these years, it’s easier than ever to appreciate how you kind of have to accept the good with the bad in Skyward Sword. Nintendo’s successes are often built on the back of their failures, and with Skyward Sword‘s origin story, we get a fascinating blend of both.