Nintendo has never shied away from opportunities to touch up and re-release its most beloved video games. 1993’s Super Mario All-Stars is arguably the industry’s first “big” remaster project, while the Zelda series has been downright spoiled with the concept going back as far as a 1995 reimagining of the original Legend of Zelda for the Super Famicom’s Japan-only satellite service.
In the intervening years, expectations for “HD” versions of older games have exploded, primarily because gamemakers have gotten better at this. And the Zelda series has excelled within this trend, too, as highlighted by Nintendo’s top-to-bottom retouches of Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask for the now-discontinued Nintendo 3DS.
But if those games are examples of Zelda remasters at their best and most ambitious, then this week’s Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD (a re-release of the 2011 Wii adventure game for the Nintendo Switch) is arguably the opposite.
If you never played Skyward Sword on the original Wii, this is likely the better way to play one of the series’ most coolly received entries. (As ever, a “so-so Zelda game” is still typically pretty good in the grand scheme.) Yet this Switch port’s scope and technical wimpiness are hard to stomach at a $60 price point this many years after the original game came and went.
Open skies < open waters
Now, hold on, you might say. “Coolly received” Skyward Sword? But Ars Technica printed a rave review! So did others!
I honestly am not sure what sweet Hyrulian grass most critics were smoking during Skyward Sword‘s original pre-release period. I didn’t catch a puff, as I wrote the following for the now-defunct, iPad-only outlet The Daily in November 2011:
You may not find a more uneven tour de force in gaming this year. Skyward Sword‘s slow start is just about unforgivable for such an old franchise, but sure enough, later challenges—particularly a time-bending mechanic—prove among the best in series history. And control foibles nearly drown out the series’ best writing and characters in years. What Nintendo delivered here was probably as experimental or risky as we could expect from a game with the word “Zelda” in it, and the result is certainly a good one. But games like Assassin’s Creed, Arkham City, and Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, in creating open worlds with childhood-sized visions of grandeur and accessibility, beat Nintendo to this year’s 25th anniversary party.
The more commonly accepted takeaway, this many years later, is that Skyward Sword‘s Wii-specific gimmicks and finely crafted highlights couldn’t make up for its general issue— a failed attempt to one-up the wide-open wonder of Wind Waker or to keep up with so much Zelda-inspired competition in that era’s 3D-adventuring renaissance. Wind Waker‘s open seas ultimately felt more alive and creatively packed than Skyward Sword‘s sparsely dotted skies. And while Nintendo still delivered a satisfying, content-rich adventure in its 2011 Zelda game, it’s hard not to see the series’ follow-up home console game, Breath of the Wild, as a repudiation of Skyward Sword‘s reliance on old series tropes.
However you feel about Skyward Sword ten years later—on the eve of the original Legend of Zelda‘s 35th anniversary, no less—know that this new HD version is almost entirely identical in terms of content. GameFAQs bookmarks from 2011 will apply to any Skyward Sword HD conundrums in 2021.
Bilinear filtering? Really, Nintendo?
Sadly, this ten-years-later project fumbles the most obvious path to re-release improvement: the visuals.
Skyward Sword revolved around a novel aesthetic for the Wii at the time—a smeary-filter effect that leaned into that console’s low resolution and technical weaknesses. The results looked pretty darned good on CRT TVs capped at 480p resolution, and this unique approach countered other consoles’ increased focus on HDTV compatibility by instead looking like a watercolor painting come to life.
But booting the 2011 game on a modern higher-resolution LCD panel exposes the Wii’s inability to process such an aesthetic in timeless fashion. One particular issue comes from the game’s incredibly low-resolution textures, since they’re juxtaposed against vibrant 3D character designs. Link, Zelda, and a wide cast of new and wacky characters benefit from Nintendo’s ability to defy technical generations in its character designs, all animated with expressive faces and eyes. The world around them isn’t as timeless without the aid of natural CRT effects, though.
Yet in spite of the Switch’s considerably larger and faster VRAM pool, this year’s Skyward Sword HD continues to rely on the same texture and effects budgets. Zooming in on major characters during cut scenes still mostly looks great, but the piddly original clothing textures look that much more out of place today.
Really, all of the game’s textures—which cover the game’s ground, walls, ceilings, and architecture—are drenched in a cheap “bilinear” filter, which you may best recognize from classic console emulators. Remember the first time you toyed with settings on an emulator like NESticle, only to find they turned pixellated edges into weird-looking blobs? Skyward Sword HD looks like that much of the time. It’s not ugly, per se, but the game’s action pauses often enough for cameras to linger on the blurry stuff and make players wonder what the heck Nintendo’s “HD” team was thinking.
Additionally, Nintendo didn’t see fit to give the game a serious pass on modern effects like depth-of-field blurs in the distance or ambient occlusion on up-close elements. The company has left the game’s “level of detail” (LoD) slider in the same place as the 2011 original, which means tufts of grass and other small details continue to appear out of nowhere as Link approaches them. On Wii U, Twilight Princess HD and Wind Waker HD each did more to earn the “HD” in their names, and I went back and forth between original Wii captures and my Switch footage of Skyward Sword in search of anything that approached those games’ level of visual scrutiny. I never saw it.
Instead, we’re left with a jump from the original 30 fps performance to a steady, locked 60 fps frame rate, along with a boost to near-max resolution in both docked and portable modes. For some Skyward Sword fans, this frame rate jump might truly be enough to merit the upgrade, if only because emulator fanatics know that fans have yet to get the game working at a higher frame rate (beyond using frame interpolation trickery, which isn’t the same). But those same emulator fanatics have seen what fan-made texture packs and engine tweaks can do to bring this game into the modern visual era. Nintendo’s failure to exceed these community’s efforts is a serious shame.