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Zelda: Skyward Sword is the third-best Zelda game on Switch

The Nintendo Switch's latest Zelda game is a Wii classic with some brand-new controls, but it takes some getting used to.

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Zelda: Skyward Sword is back on Switch, Loftwings and all. 

Nintendo

Has it been 10 years since I reviewed The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword on CNET? Yes, it has. Back in 2011, Jeff Bakalar, Dan Ackerman and I looked at what was one of the last big Nintendo Wii games. Zelda: Skyward Sword hasn't been remembered all that fondly since then; the game isn't considered one of the very best Zeldas. That's partly because of the Wii version's unusual and motion-based controls, which turned sword swipes into swinging hand motions using the Nintendo Wii Motion Plus controller.

The Nintendo Switch is in a bit of a lull this summer. You're likely waiting for Zelda: Breath of the Wild 2, which isn't coming until 2022. (And maybe a new OLED Switch to play it on; that's coming in the fall.) You've already played the first Breath of the Wild game? Have you also tried the charming remake of Zelda: Link's Awakening? Skyward Sword is here to offer more. 

I've been playing the remastered version on the Switch for about a week, and it's the best version of the game that exists. But it hasn't rid itself of some of the strangeness, especially when it comes to game controls. The game plays completely differently depending if the Switch is docked or undocked, making this feel like a hybrid game that can't entirely get its footing on the Switch.

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Analog stick controls work for sword moves in handheld mode, or can be turned on in TV-docked mode. It works, but other movement controls get shifted.

Nintendo

Skyward Sword's controls have been admirably remapped to the physical Switch buttons in handheld mode. That -- plus an autosave mode that always keeps a save file just in case you forget to manually save -- makes this Zelda a lot easier to pick up and play in short sessions.

Chronologically speaking, this is the first Zelda game in the hard-to-process, branching-universe Zelda timeline. It's the origin story... sort of. I have a feeling that Nintendo's release of Skyward Sword ahead of Breath of the Wild 2 may mean that some of this game's lore might carry over. Maybe not. 

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Falling through the clouds! This happens a lot.

Nintendo

The game was released after Zelda: Twilight Princess, and before the 3DS game Zelda: A Link Between Worlds. It's a 3D Zelda game, with a graphic style that feels dated but not incredibly so. It's a little hard to accept after being so spoiled by Breath of the Wild. Skyward Sword's massive vistas and flying sequences no longer seem as breathtaking or vast. 

Skyward Sword jumps between a series of floating islands in the clouds, and a ground map below with patches of Hyrule that you, as Link, discover. A bird-mount (called a Loftwing) is your sky-horse, so to speak. It takes Link between floating islands, or Link can drop down through holes in the clouds to the map below.

The game's story is a lot more linear and contained than Breath of the Wild, with smaller area maps and dungeons. That sometimes feels comforting. I don't feel like I'll lose my way in this game very easily, in case I put it down for a while.

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See those little Joy-Con movement instructions? There are a lot of those in Skyward Sword. It can get confusing to pull off some moves.

Nintendo

When docked in front of a TV, the Switch's game controls shift to the Wii's original motion-based ones. Swinging the right Joy-Con controls sword action, the shield is controlled with the left. Flying means flapping the Joy-Con controller. There's a lot of tilting and aiming at the screen. I loved a lot of these motion controls revisited, but some of them are really hard to pull off and lack precision. I forgot how to make some controls work (an on-screen helper isn't always helpful).

It gets even weirder when switching between handheld and dock, because the button controls are completely different. The right analog stick controls sword swings in handheld mode, while the right stick lets you look around in TV-docked mode. To look around in handheld mode, you need to press the top-left shoulder button with the right analog stick. Some necessary moves are hidden in confusing button configurations. It's little things like this that threw me off and prevented me from relaxing into the game.

Button controls can be used for TV and handheld modes, if you want, and there are ways to selectively turn aiming with motion controls on and off (or inverting the analog sticks for flying and looking around). It's great to have those settings, but really, what I wanted most was to just use the right analog stick to look around and the buttons for sword swings, just like most games. Skyward Sword just won't let you do that. These similar types of control quirks haunted the Switch's port of Super Mario Galaxy in Super Mario 3D All-Stars, too. It's part of the challenge of adapting Wii games that added unique novelty motion controls that, alas, haven't aged well.

It sounds like I'm complaining, but nonetheless, I do love playing this game. I can get sucked into a Zelda game so easily, and Skyward Sword's more contained story structure (and a persistent helper-spirit called Fi that basically lets me get lazy and ask for help whenever I'm stuck) feels like my speed right now in my personal 2021. Just know that Skyward Sword isn't the first Zelda game you should play on the Switch. Or even the second.