The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD

Available on: Nintendo Switch

Under embargo: The ending of the game, from the final dungeon onward

Fifteen hours into “Skyward Sword HD,” I finally, conclusively lost my grip.

Around that mark, the game’s hero, Link, is tasked with rotating two windmills to face a tower — a fairly basic puzzle, mostly premised on deciphering veiled instructions. The first windmill turns without a hitch. But at the second, there’s a problem. A key component of the turning mechanism is missing. Worse yet, all of this takes place in the cozy hamlet of Skyloft, on an island which hovers, suspended, in the sky. The part you’re looking for likely fell off the edge, plummeting to the earth below.

A nearby carpenter offers to fix the machine, provided you can find the missing bit — a fool’s errand, he warns. But maybe, just maybe, the mechanic across town can help. He’s got the remnants of an old robot in his shop, which, legend has it (Cut to: Me, hammering the B button, trying to get through the dialogue faster) used to help people carry things to and from the surface.

You schlep across town to the bazaar seeking Gondo, the owner of the scrap shop. It’s true: He does own the remnants of the robot, despite folks in town dismissing his fascination in the wreck as pure crankery. He could bring it back to life, but he’d need the oil extracted from an ancient flower to do so. (Thankfully, I already had this in my inventory; God help you if you don’t).

Huzzah! The robot is fixed. However, he deems you — a mere child — unworthy of his time and attention, and refuses to interact with you or take you seriously. Luckily, he’ll speak with your in-game assistant, a humanoid spirit named Fi. And so, all communication between you and the helper robot is routed through a third party. It’s a joke I appreciate in theory, from a distance. In the moment, it was just more friction, slowing the pace of the game.

Next, you turn to the bazaar’s fortune teller, Sparrot. Divination goes a long way in the Zelda franchise, and here, Sparrot identifies that the component I seek is near a temple, nestled in a mountain in the Eldin region. I leave the bazaar and take flight.

One of the core mechanics in “Skyward Sword” is the ability to travel across the sky, hopping from island to island, by bird. There are also portions of the sky where the cloud cover below is parted, allowing Link to drop down into levels on the surface, which is considered uninhabitable by the denizens of Skyloft. Eventually, you’ll fly over and land in the Eldin region. If you follow the directions, you’ll spot the missing part almost immediately. Summon Gondo’s robot helper — via Fi. Then, go back to where you landed, return to the sky, and fly back to the windmill.

This portion of “Skyward Sword HD” feels emblematic of the whole experience. Did you read the description above and think: “Where is this going? This feels weirdly drawn out.” That’s right. Now imagine playing it. The individual portions of the quest described above aren’t particularly interesting or fun. The conclusion — a slightly repositioned windmill — isn’t either. It’s all squeeze, very little juice. Maddening.

Even in the dungeons, which are arguably more “core” to the Zelda experience than windmill repair, most of the time you’ll be doing simple paint by numbers (use X item on Y object to proceed) with padding in between. There’s little decision-making or mastery required of the player. There’s just a lot of stuff to do before you get to the next thing.

Early on, Link unlocks Digging Mitts, which allow the player to dig for treasure at designated markers. Very few of these holes yield meaningful treasure. More often than not, I’d walk up to a spot where I could dig and spam the A button, pulling up green rupee after green rupee — the in-game equivalent of bending over to pick up a few pennies off the ground. In another section, you earn a device which can blow away tiny piles of sand scattered around the level. But, adding injury to insult, many of the sand piles have tiny enemies underneath — never a threat, but a constant nuisance.

Motion controls, on the other side of the spectrum, are defined by complete agency. Link swings the sword the way you move the controller in real life. It’s one of the game’s most compelling mechanics and its best selling point. But the controls can feel fickle and imprecise. Most of the game plays like a roller coaster, with Nintendo carefully guiding players along a manicured path. Then, the moment the player is given the reins, things start feeling loose and wobbly. Your in-game foes, wise to this, take advantage of your imprecision. These moments can be frustrating, but also vibrate with rare tension and verve.

“Skyward Sword” is, on the whole, clumsy and unstylish. For every one great design (several of the boss fights stand out in particular) there are 10 that feel like bargain bin imitations. But there are moments of real majesty and charm scattered throughout. If you squint, beyond the basic “hero saves world” narrative, “Skyward Sword” is a story about reclaiming nature and restoring peace; about revisiting and reconnecting with the past; it is about camaraderie — and sealing away cursed spirits. After playing, I would catch myself humming along to themes from the game’s score. Flying, too, is a treat. Some of the views from above Skyloft count among the most stunning in the game. But eventually, flight becomes a chore, a means to an end. Like so many other moments in the game, flight is something you do while waiting for the real gameplay to begin.

I have no particular reverence for the Zelda franchise. The original “Skyward Sword” for Wii was my entry point into the franchise. I found it charming in 2011, though in retrospect, I realize I had actually only played a very small portion of it.

Just over a half-decade later, I played “Breath of the Wild,” which, for me and many others, became the gold standard Zelda game. It is hard — even a bit unfair — to compare the two titles. Their design intentions are different. The mechanics and technological specifications both were built around are incomparable. Even still, it cannot be denied that “Skyward Sword HD” exists in “Breath of the Wild’s” shadow, in the lull before the arrival of the latter game’s sequel. The freedom of style, movement and choice that defines the newer game cannot be forgotten or wished away. It dates “Skyward Sword HD” more than the motion controls — a throwback to the Wii — ever could.

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