As one of the most iconic and enduring series in the business, The Legend of Zelda games seem to run on a cycle of positive and negative reception. Critically and commercially, Zelda games almost always excel, but the general opinion of its fanbase wavers more. In 2003, many fans were disappointed by The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker’s cartoonish, cel-shaded look, only for that art style to let the game visually age better than most of its peers. Twilight Princess followed it in 2006, winning over many of the fans who were waiting for a supposedly more “mature” title; today, though, conversations around it are more mixed, with people noting how derivative it was of older titles without bringing much that was new.
Then came Skyward Sword in 2011, and sure enough, the glowing reviews and fast sales gave way to a level of cynicism and frustration that was arguably worse than with any other Zelda game. There were valid reasons for this contempt, of course. Fi, the companion character of the game, was more hand-holding and intrusive than ever, stopping the flow of the game every few minutes to give an obvious direction or tell you the batteries in your Wii remote were low. Motion controls were another point of division, as the advertised one-to-one swordplay simply didn’t work for some people, not to mention the people for whom it was entirely inaccessible. Combine these issues with split-up areas with little room for exploration and a sparse overworld, and it can be easy to see why the game didn’t click with a lot of people.
But there was also a lot to love. Skyward Sword was the first Zelda game to have a fully live orchestra record most of its music, and the result is a gorgeous arrangement of new and classic tunes. Although the motion controls didn’t work for everyone, they really worked for others, offering an unparalleled level of precision and turning each enemy encounter into a tiny puzzle to solve. It was also one of the few Zelda games to really care about its story and place in the timeline, acting as an origin story to the entire franchise with some of the most fleshed-out iterations of its classic characters and great introductions to new ones.
But when I first played Skyward Sword, I was completely oblivious to anyone else’s opinion on it. In fact, I was oblivious to most other major videogames entirely, let alone any discourse on them. Other than a few LEGO and Pokémon games, 12-year-old me was completely new to the world of videogames, and all he knew was that he saw some friends play a game with “Zelda” in the title when he was at their house and it looked awesome. So I went to GameStop and picked up Skyward Sword, and had my mind entirely blown.
Although a few of them still hold up today, when people talk about why they loved the comparatively primitive games on the NES and older systems, it’s often because they were kids and hadn’t seen anything like it before. When I later played the original The Legend of Zelda out of curiosity, I found it to be obtuse and unfair, but I completely understand why someone who grew up with it would be amazed by how completely new and different it must have felt to play when it first came out. All of the criticisms we would throw at a game like it if it were to come out today are irrelevant because at the time, and especially for a kid, it was simply magic.
That’s how playing Skyward Sword felt to me when I first played it: like magic. Even though many other games outshone it in terms of graphics, story and scale, arguably including earlier games in the Zelda series itself, all of those were irrelevant to me because I’d never played or even heard of them. All of its strongest elements were elevated tenfold, and its weakest elements were accepted because I didn’t have anything to compare it to (and also, Fi’s incessant guiding was probably helpful for a young novice to games like myself at the time). Skyward Sword is what made me fall in love with videogames, and I likely wouldn’t be writing for Paste had I never played it.
After experiencing other games, both within and outside the series, and coming back to it, however, my impression of Skyward Sword is more mixed. The elements that wowed me were often still impressive, albeit less so once I knew where other games did similar things before or better, and parts that didn’t bother me the first time, like the series of fetch-quests and hand-holding, started to become grating.
But even when I had to do that stupid Imprisoned boss fight for the third time (which, as a kid, I always called “Evil PAC-MAN”), the fond memories I had of the game maintained a certain level of enjoyment. As much as we may try to be “objective” in our assessments of media, our individual experiences all color how we feel about any particular work, and in the case of Skyward Sword, it will always be tied to the childhood wonder and joy I felt when I first played it.
With the upcoming remaster out tomorrow, I hope we may be entering a time where Skyward Sword is given more of the respect it deserves. The quality of life enhancements, most notably the option to play without any motion controls, will hopefully fix some of the issues its critics had, as well as introduce the world of Skyloft to an entirely new audience. Combine that with the fact that the much-anticipated sequel to Breath of the Wild is drawing a lot of comparisons to Skyward Sword, and I’m slowly seeing conversations around the game to skew more positive.
If you’ve never played Skyward Sword before, I hope you’ll give it a chance on Switch. And if you did play it but found the aforementioned issues with it soured the experience, I hope the new changes to the game can fix that for you. I know most people won’t find Skyward Sword to be as special and potentially life-changing as I did, but it’s still a beautiful game that deserves its time to shine.
Joseph Stanichar is a freelance writer who specializes in videogames and pop culture. He’s written for publications such as Game Informer, Twinfinite and The Post. He’s on Twitter @JosephStanichar.