A controversial release – even at launch – The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword was first released on the Wii, arriving at the end of the company’s controversial motion control period. Many believe the game is stuck in the past, a derivative of the Ocarina of Time formula, and the new wobble controls fail to propel the series forward. 10 years later, Skyward Sword HD is an opportunity to re-evaluate the game – and at least for me, it finally worked. The graphics are improved but really, it’s the quality of life improvements that take away the frustration and friction with the original game, letting the core design shine through.
In bringing Skyward Sword to the Switch, Nintendo has chosen to keep the look and feel of the original game while introducing visual tweaks and sensible changes. Some of the assets have been reworked, the whole UI is new and the image quality has been greatly improved. On the Wii, Skyward Sword is limited by its 480p output and reduced color depth, leading to obvious dithering artifacts. For the Switch, we ran a fixed resolution of 1080p (720p when docked) with a near-perfect 60fps performance rate, only marred by the rare heavy alpha effects – explosions and particles – that appeared.
The Wii’s color dithering is completely eliminated and overall image quality is greatly improved. However, anti-aliasing is not used, but due to its textural properties, shimmering is kept to a minimum. It’s not a cutting-edge game but it looks visually pleasing. And here’s where things get interesting: Switch tinkering with OatmealDome and more have examined the game closely and as it turns out, there are some neat techniques at play here. In particular, Nintendo appears to have developed a plug-in that translates the Wii’s GX Graphics API calls, mapping them to the new NVN API on the Switch. Obviously the idea here is to accurately simulate the visual effects created for the original game – and I feel like they’ve worked.
Between this and other information that has been discovered, it appears that this is not entirely just an emulation solution but seems to take advantage of the Wii’s native data format for assets. Most of the game code runs natively on the Switch CPU and, obviously, the frame-rate has been doubled but this workaround suggests we could see future Wii games appear on the Switch with similar improvements. This solution is not the same as the one used in Super Mario Galaxy, it should be noted.
However, visual enhancements move beyond resolution. One of the most visually appealing things in this game is the painterly effect that is used to give it a watercolor-style look. Both textures and the way distant objects are handled play a role in this. At a distance, objects use small, bokeh-like shapes that remove the rough pixel edges you normally see in games like this. This is a beautiful display and is affected by the rendering resolution because the size of the shape and the way it interacts with the distance object varies between the Switch and the original. So while the general appearance of the games is very similar, things like remote rendering and blending of blooming light are very different and, in my opinion, look better overall.
What is perhaps more transformative is the improvement in texture quality. While it’s clear that Nintendo wants to keep the original look of the asset, the resolution is actually higher. Due to the nature of these textures, it’s not entirely clear whether they’re using new handcrafted assets or relying on AI enhancements, however, there are finer details if you look closely. It seems that not every texture has been updated, but the surface looks clean and fits the visual style. While the emulation community has created texture packs for this game, I don’t feel that simply increasing the visible detail in these textures makes sense given the art direction. Nintendo’s approach here is the best solution. In addition, the entire UI is given a higher resolution boost, while loading is also dramatically faster.
Graphics improvements are given, but it’s an adjustment to the flow of the game that really hits home. My biggest problem with the original release was the constant barrage of text boxes, tutorial text and helper information. There was so much friction in the original release – it was almost as if everyone wanted to talk to Link or share information with him, stopping him in his tracks and slowing his progress through the adventure. On Switch, however, many of these are now optional – you have the choice of whether to talk to characters, as opposed to having them stop you in your tracks. The speed at which text is sent in dialog boxes can also be accelerated, reducing friction even further.
The same politeness extends to the item description dialog, which can now be sped up and which no longer appears when you return to the game – something that was infuriating in the original release. Additionally, the game now has autosave and the option to save your game in any of the three slots from any save point which adds even more flexibility. Also key to a more user-friendly experience is how you have full access to the right-hand camera when using the joy-con in its motion control configuration – something that’s standard in modern games, but wasn’t included in the original Wii U release, as it wasn’t possible on the Wiimote. . This simple addition has a huge impact on the gaming experience – exploring the world is much more fun with this option. Along with the higher resolution, this feature makes it easier to parse dungeons.
On the surface, these changes may not seem like a big deal, but I can assure you that they have a dramatic impact on the overall pace of the game. This completely changed my view of the experience, allowing you to enjoy the good stuff while keeping this constant distraction completely in the background.
The next question concerns how the original gesture controls have been mapped to the Switch. If you use the joy-con in a two-handed configuration, the original Wii’s control scheme is largely replicated, only you gain access to the right-hand camera. There have been adjustments made to the button layout as well and I find it works better overall, although the gyro mechanism (which lacks the augmentation of the Wii’s sensor bar) now feels less precise, requiring more use of the re-center function.
Gamepad controls are also available – and very important for Switch Lite users. The idea here is that many functions that previously relied on motion control are now mapped to analog sticks. For example, flying around your bird is now driven by an analog stick. Many moves are now completely free of the need to move your controller – shields, for example, are strapped to click the left stick. almost works but there is a problem and it is directly related to the sword. At any point, the right stick basically functions as your sword – move the stick and swing the sword. This on its own works, although it’s a little tricky to use, but makes camera control difficult. You see, to use the camera you have to hold down the L button and, at least in my case, this means holding down the L button all the time except during combat. I have a feeling you’re more likely to want to use the camera versus the sword so reversing this would help a lot – but no such option is available.
Basically, that’s my biggest problem with this remaster. I didn’t find the gamepad controls comfortable to use as a result and I can’t recommend them. This is probably the only major thing I don’t like in this new conversion – and it makes mobile gaming problematic for Lite users, while standard Switch owners may prefer to play in table top mode, in order to use the superior motion control options. Thankfully, the gesture controls work better than expected and have progressed on me and, in the end, I’m really enjoying my time with the game now. Improved quality of life, updated visuals, and smoother frame rates all helped address the gripes I had with the initial release. I can still see where some might struggle – a teardrop challenge, for example – but overall, I’m hooked.
I must also mention his voice. Despite its roots in the Wii, Skyward HD includes full surround sound audio support with true back channel use… something that wasn’t possible on the original platform – and it sounds beautiful. Other than that, the music still holds up very well. The music adds a lot of atmosphere in a way that I feel is a step above the previous Twilight Princess and Wind Waker.
In short, this remaster works – not only in dramatically improving the graphics quality, but in streamlining the game, removing most distractions and essentially allowing the true game design to shine. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD is a game with an excellent dungeon design and features a beautiful world and fun mechanics that somehow feels fresher 10 years after its initial release than it did then. It is not without its drawbacks but I can strongly recommend it.