The Legend of Zelda: Why It’s Time to Forgive Skyward Sword

Take a moment to step away from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and reevaluate one of Link's most controversial adventures.

Some gamers still believe that studios bribe critics en masse in exchange for good reviews. It’s a theory that I could immediately shoot down with a picture of my apartment – a humble estate where your wingspan brushes up against four walls.

Besides, if I were controlling the purse of a major game studio, I would pay for critics to viciously tear my game apart rather than praise it. While that decision could easily be blamed on my lack of financial skills (again, see apartment), it is actually based on the tremendous backlash that almost always results from widely favorable reviews.

The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword’s controversial legacy can be traced back to its acclaim. In 2011, following a troubled five-year development cycle, Skyward Sword finally graced Wii consoles all over the world. Those first gamers to get their hands on the new adventure responded with widespread acclaim similar to the accolades that Breath of the Wild is currently enjoying.

Imagine that you’re a Zelda fan who has eagerly been awaiting the release of Skyward Sword, and you see that the first line of IGN’s review: “The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is the greatest Zelda game ever created.” How do you not feel like your emotional investment into the game has been vindicated?

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Such untethered optimism can often prove to be fertile ground for the seeds of discontent that accompany any new game. In the case of Skyward Sword, the harvest was particularly bountiful.

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While Skyward Sword did not endure the kind of near-universal ridicule that titles like No Man’s Sky suffered, it wasn’t long after the game hit the market that some players broke through the echo chamber of praise that preceded its release with piercing cries directed at its various flaws.

No flaw drew more scorn than Skyward Sword’s use of motion controls. As many Wii owners will no doubt remember, the console’s motion detection sensors were often temperamental. The console’s often dodgy detection was annoying when you’re mom was beating you at Wii Sports, but it was downright frustrating to experience it while in the middle of a Skyward Sword combat sequence that required you to swing your Wii controller as if it were a sword.

Some who played Skyward Sword were able to use its supposed 1:1 motion detection abilities to their full extent and appreciate the game’s attempt at realistic sword combat. Others found themselves flailing wildly as Link responded with the occasional misplaced strike. Most, however, endured a combination of both that served to emphasize the brilliance and blunder of the game’s motion control system at it’s best and worst.

While the effect of such a key component being so unreliable cannot be overlooked, complaints levied against Skyward Sword went well-beyond its reliance on the Wii’s controversial central gimmick. Whereas Twilight Princess and The Wind Waker helped turn Ocarina of Time’s illusions of a vast open world into genuine large-scale exploration, Skyward Sword proved to be the most linear 3D Zelda experience yet.

Nintendo’s idea was for Skyward Sword to utilize an exploration method similar to the one featured in the Metroid series. What that means is that players were required to navigate between a few key areas several times in order to gain access to new paths. That idea isn’t inherently awful, but Nintendo’s chosen style forced gamers to endure an unfortunate amount of backtracking that the franchise had been wonderfully devoid of up until that point.

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What was missing was the feeling that you were organically exploring and discovering the game’s world. The experience offered few moments equal to riding Epona across Hyrule Field. A couple of trips across Skyward Sword’s welkin sea was all it took for many players to realize that the journey it offered was far more linear than it was presented to be. 

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The bulk of Skyward Sword’s remaining controversial elements can be partially blamed on Nintendo’s failed attempts at replicating some iconic elements of previous franchise installments. Link’s constant companion in Skyward Sword, Fi, was somehow an even more annoying version of Ocarina of Time’s Navi. When she wasn’t repeating the known, she was ruining the discovery of the unknown with her prophetic advice. The bird players flew between destinations was seen as a poor substitute for Wind Waker’s boat. Even Skyward Sword’s harp was portrayed as a poorly orchestrated replacement for previous musical instruments.

The complaints go on, as they so often do. Some criticized Skyward Sword’s soundtrack, for instance, while others found fault in its inventory management and filler quests. These issues aren’t rapidly presented in an attempt to trivialize them, but rather to emphasize that while there were many elements of Skyward Sword that did not appease every player, the core complaint was that Skyward Sword did not advance the series forward in a meaningful way as prior games had. All other issues are symptoms of that disease.

And what a demoralizing disease it is. It often feels as if every Zelda game released since Ocarina of Time has failed to live up to the legacy of its predecessor in the eyes of some fans. Majora’s Mask wasn’t a proper sequel, Wind Waker failed to continue the mature tones of Majora’s Mask, Twilight Princess couldn’t replicate the wonder of Wind Waker, etc. Sometimes, it seems like the only way a Zelda game can be cured of this disease is for a new game to arrive and take its place as the infected.

Like a flu shot, the dose of nostalgia that each new Zelda title brings is both a cure and a sample of the disease. It washes away the stains of its forebearers and allows us to easily assign them a role in one of gaming’s greatest legacies, but it also elevates that legacy further and further from the grasp of reality.

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In the case of Skyward Sword, however, it feels like that vaccine may have finally run its course. Breath of the Wild is already being hailed by fans and critics as a genuine revolution for the franchise and open-world game design in general. The game has its dissenters, but those who balk at Breath of the Wild’s charms are often those who miss the more “traditional” Zelda experience that Skyward Sword represents in many ways. 

If Breath of the Wild’s arrival will not begin the healing process, then consider this a call to those who still harbor hate towards Skyward Sword. You should never feel the obligation to love the game, but it is time to forgive it.

The distinction between the two may seem irrelevant, but whatever Skyward Sword‘s faults may be, they do not make it a game worthy of absolute scorn. If anything, the game’s flaws should be treated as a consequence of the cycle of disdain that each new Zelda release perpetually fuels.

Skyward Sword intentionally invokes the inherent charms of the Zelda franchise more than any other installment in the series. Released around the time of the franchise’s 25th anniversary, Skyward Sword plays like a celebration of the Zelda name more often than it necessarily feels like a concentrated effort to truly advance the series. While that philosophy is often cited as the source of the game’s shortcomings, it is also responsible for many of Skyward Sword‘s best qualities. 

Chief among these qualities are the game’s bosses and dungeons. More often than not, those who consider Skyward Sword one of the greatest Zelda adventures hold it in such high regard because of its dungeons and boss fights are among the greatest in franchise history. From the iconic battle against Koloktos, whose multiple arms require an almost Dark Souls-like level of battle concentration, to the Sand Ship and its use of reality bending time shift stones, Nintendo went to great lengths to ensure that Zelda’s traditionally iconic aspects yield Skyward Sword‘s greatest moments.

Yet, it’s unfair to label the game as a simple trip down memory lane when it does feature several notable attempts to blaze a new path forward for the design of the franchise. With Skyward Sword, Nintendo made a genuine effort to advance the franchise’s placeholder storytelling and pedestrian combat. 

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Actually, when Skyward Sword’s combat functions properly, it is arguably the greatest use of motion controls in Wii history. The point of attack control system forces the player to treat every combat sequence as a miniature puzzle. Skyward Sword‘s combat marks the first time in franchise history that the game’s action sequences captured the adventurous spirit of Zelda‘s exploration aspects. If you want to see how brilliant Skyward Sword’s combat could have been if it wasn’t held back by technical issues, simply experience Breath of the Wild’s methodical battle system. Its methods may be different, but its ideology is roughly the game. 

Skyward Sword is also the Zelda game that dared to expose the shortcomings of the franchise’s traditional storytelling formula. While the game’s infamous lack of voice acting impacted the overall strength of the narrative, Skyward Sword’s attempt at forming the roots of the series’ mythology results in a compelling journey that no longer has to be praised alongside the qualifier, “for a Zelda game.”

That’s the thing about Skyward Sword which makes it so difficult to hate all these years later. Moment to moment, Skyward Sword features more frustrating instances of poorly conceived design than any other installment in the series, but they are frustrations accumulated by the game’s bold attempt to both honor the legacy of the Zelda franchise and advance it by honestly examining the flaws of the series thus far while addressing them in creative ways befitting of the Zelda name. Criticize the game’s techniques, but it’s difficult to look at the artistic intent behind Skyward Sword and not appreciate what Nintendo was trying to accomplish. 

The near unanimous praise that Skyward Sword received upon its release may seem like a painful exaggeration in retrospect, but there is an honesty to the hyperbole that even the game’s harshest critics must respect. It speaks to a desire to skip the cynicism and arrive at that point when most Zelda fans recognize that even the series’ darkest hours represent some of the greatest gifts that gaming has ever bestowed.

Breath of the Wild’s arrival shouldn’t elevate Skyward Sword nor allow for nostalgia to blind us to the game’s obvious shortcomings. What it should do, though, is afford us a moment to realize that the Zelda franchise sometimes receives special treatment right out of the gate because it is a special franchise. It’s special because each new entry in the series exhibits classic attributes that leave us no doubt that we are experiencing a new Zelda game at long last while also attempting to find those elusive qualities which will help it forever stand out among the considerable accomplishments of its brethren.

In short, the Zelda franchise is special because of games like Skyward Sword and not in spite of them.

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Matthew Byrd is a staff writer.