The Once and Future Legends
It is strangely poetic that the last two original console titles in the mainline Legend of Zelda series begin and end its timeline. While Breath of the Wild (2017) has been widely beloved ever since its release, Skyward Sword (2011) is one of the most frequently criticized games of the Zelda series--a curious dichotomy for two games that, while quite different on the surface, share several thematic elements, many of which were pioneered by Skyward Sword. With the recent release of Skyward Sword HD and impending release of Breath of the Wild 2, I think it's a perfect time to unpack them.
Before I elaborate further, I'd like to offer a disclaimer. The thoughts contained within this post are the ones that initially inspired me to create this blog, yet I've refrained from sharing them due to their scattered and likely contentious nature. While my primary purpose in writing this is to argue that Skyward Sword deserves more positive recognition particularly in comparison to its successor, my secondary purpose is to voice my misgivings with BOTW. These opinions are in no way intended to claim that BOTW is a bad game nor to minimize the dramatic impact that it has had on the games industry. And of course, there will be spoilers for both games throughout. That being said, let's get into it.
When it comes to the traditional structure of Zelda games, if Skyward Sword shook the table then BOTW flipped it. Variations in Skyward Sword range from subtleties like introducing sprinting and stamina, to wow-inducing moments like the stealth sequence that forces Link to operate without his extensive arsenal of items late in the game. I mention these cases specifically as they are fundamental to the design of BOTW, which takes them many steps further. Its dramatic increase in world scale elevates stamina management to an essential and compelling mechanic and the reduction of Link's traditional arsenal to the 5 Sheikah Slate runes and breakable weapons that are not freely available for the first several hours of gameplay forces the player to be both stealthy and resourceful. These examples demonstrate a recurring pattern in this comparison of the two Hyrules: in short, Breath of the Wild came out of the gate with magic as a direct result of expanding upon the most memorable aspects of Skyward Sword.
Part 1: The World
Exploration and discovery have been hallmarks of the Zelda series since the beginning, but both Skyward Sword and BOTW take decidedly different approaches from previous games. Skyward Sword adds new constraints to exploration by limiting the world to four relatively small zones while BOTW removes constraints almost entirely.
I think both approaches have their merits; while many people disliked the frequent backtracking that Skyward Sword required, I found it to be an exciting take on the classic progression of Zelda games. Backtracking has always been part of the Zelda experience, but it has usually been tied to optional features like using new items to venture into formerly inaccessible locations to get treasure or revisiting towns to shop or complete sidequests and mini games. While many games have also required backtracking to complete the main quest, like swapping out the Master Sword at the Temple of Time in Ocarina of Time, these instances have often been quick detours in the larger journey that typically preceded unlocking brand new areas with unique environments and challenges. Skyward Sword, on the other hand, only has three zones aside from the sky which you unlock quickly and must regularly revisit in order to progress the story. What makes backtracking in Skyward Sword exceptional though is seeing the changes that the surface undergoes throughout.
Recall the stealth sequence mentioned in the introduction; this takes place on an otherwise routine visit to Eldin Volcano. This time though the volcano has erupted, changing the landscape. This event leads to Link's capture which reduces the player's resources and, combined with the environmental changes and upgraded enemy tactics, shifts the way they must approach problem solving. The player faces a similar challenge when the Faron Woods are flooded and swimming becomes most viable mechanic throughout the large forest (and thank goodness that Skyward Sword has pretty good swimming controls). The core mechanic of exploring the entirety of the Lanayru region is travelling through time and using the environmental differences between the world that was and the one that remains to your advantage. This mechanic is both breathtaking in the vibrance it reveals within the barren desert and heartbreaking as the characters who populate the region oscillate between life and death at the strike of your sword. Even the Silent Realms, which I won't deny are stressful parts of the game, freshen the increasingly familiar landscapes including Link's home, Skyloft, with darkness and suspense. I recap these numerous instances to emphasize that while backtracking in Skyward Sword is frequent, it is rarely boring; something is almost always different when you revisit a place you've been a dozen times before.
While I was thrilled by these big, world-altering moments, my favorite area that I had to revisit was Skyview Temple. Normally the Zelda dungeons exist in isolation, meant to be plundered, conquered, and abandoned. When I had to travel back to a dungeon that had already succombed to that cycle to get sacred water for the injured Water Dragon, it grounded the world. In that moment, Skyview ceased to be just another dungeon: it was a real temple protecting a precious resource on consecrated ground. I could feel that it had purpose aside from satisfying the player's expectations of a classic Zelda dungeon. While this was a subtle event, I felt it worthy of recognition alongside the likes of volcanic eruptions, great floods, and time travel for the meaning that it adds to the otherwise disconnected surface world.
It is disappointing that there are not many other profound moments of backtracking like the second trip to Skyview Temple and that the exciting changes to the surface world are short-lived without any lasting ramifications. Still, the primordial world of Skyward Sword makes full use of its limited space by adding creative twists to each environment that make the surface itself feel alive.
This is in sharp contrast to the post-apocalyptic setting of BOTW which relies on its huge size to create value. The approach is extremely effective at the beginning of the game; the thrill of stepping into a hostile world with nothing but courage coupled with the promise of finding something new around every corner creates a potent cocktail of wonder and excitement that I eagerly drank. But after finding all of the memories, finishing the main story, building up a stash of excellent weapons including the indestructible Master Sword, and beating most of the shrines, the world began to feel empty. The possibilities it first promised rapidly shrunk until all I had left to do was collect Korok seeds, a mission of diminishing returns as it only served to make my already bursting armory bigger. Needless to say, the shine wore off and I stopped playing. I've revisited BOTW a couple of times since, hoping that my feelings would change or the fact that I'm still missing 4 shrines would inspire me to look at the world with wonder again, but unfortunately neither of those things have happened. No one can deny that the mechanics of exploration are stellar in BOTW, but the experience of exploration is only as good as the world you can discover.
This brings me to the settlements. While there are a fair number of them in this version of Hyrule, they are utterly swallowed by the vastness of the world and fail to leave lasting impressions. While some are more artistically striking, they lack the character of villages in Hyrules past that, even when sparsely populated, had unique sites or moments tied to them. This is especially bothersome considering that the most prolific outposts are the nearly identical stables. The more developed villages are without exception on the far edges of the map, a layout choice which I actually think is effective in emphasizing the loss felt throughout the kingdom; in the center of everything where once we assume the grand city of Castle Town stood now lie only ruins and festering pools of evil.
However, we can only feel so much when the game hardly spends any time estbalishing what was lost. 100 years have passed since the events recounted in the memory cutscenes and none of the sites that trigger those memories have changed in all that time. It is hard to fathom the scale of Calamity Ganon's wrath because with the exception of the death of the champions, little else seems to have changed.
In order to avenge these deaths Link must conquer the four divine beasts which is unfortunate because one of the most commonly critiqued elements of BOTW is the dungeon design. Many people have expressed frustration at the monotony of both divine beasts and the shrines that dot the landscape. Rather than belabor this point, I want to point out that Skyward Sword, has some of the best dungeons the franchise has to offer featuring gorgeous set design, inventive mechanics, and impressive boss fights. I highlight this difference precisely because it contradicts my central thesis that BOTW owes much of its success to groundwork laid by Skyward Sword. In this instance, BOTW utterly rejected an aspect of Skyward Sword that was particularly well done and doing so was arguably its greatest downfall.
Part 2: The Cast
As Zelda games have evolved, they've become full of dynamic, carefully crafted side characters. Their personalities and quirks have left lasting impressions even long after the release of games they appeared in. We all remember the cucco lady from Ocarina of Time and how inexplicably bad at her job she was as well as we recall the seven sages. While the sages had unique roles in the story and Link's life that intentionally cemented their presence, the cucco lady is just as ubiquitous to anyone who scoured Kakariko Village to find her flock. In addition to a relatively quick & easy way to grind for rupees, she added color to the small world.
Skyloft's community is full of such colorful characters, and not just by nature of the art style. For the most part, all of them have something going on in their lives: Bertie is struggling to take care of his baby 24/7 while his wife Luv commands their potion shop during the day and sleeps all night. Peatrice the item check girl grows out of her state of ennui and discovers excitement and confidence through her relationship with Link, no matter how it turns out. Pumm the restaurateur is one of the few characters in the entire series who (rightfully) berates Link for coming into his place of business and audaciously breaking his things. These are just a few examples of the distinctive, thoughtfully designed characters who populate the sky.
BOTW falls short in this regard. Aside from the champions and their descendents, most of the other characters found in the game are forgettable, lacking any hint of an inner life. This is true both narratively and aesthetically especially in the human characters. The noticeable lack of unique costuming or defining facial features makes human NPCs in BOTW feel mass produced, which is extremely disappointing when compared to the handcrafted appearances of Skyward Sword's human NPCs. Equally glaring is the lack of compelling personalities. NPCs in BOTW, even those who give sidequests, largely feel more like decorations than participants in their respective communities. This is wholly unsurprising considering the lackluster nature of the towns themselves described in the previous chapter, though they would have been far more lustrous if their inhabitants had more depth. I recognize that curating entirely unique NPCs to populate BOTW would have been a fool's errand because the world is so huge. My point is that the near complete absence of people that make the world feel lived-in is a major contributor to the feeling of emptiness that BOTW has left me with.
The most egregious illustration of character dilution is the role of the three dragons. The elemental dragons appear for the first time in Skyward Sword in which they are intelligent characters. Faron has a haughty demeanor that makes her growing affection for Link feel earned. Lanayru, though he is most well known for his minigame that grants the player the unbreakable Hylian Shield, has an endearing love for his robots and a tragic, if somewhat confusing, existence: dead until Link saves him in the past, and gone who-knows-where in the present after he is healed but the beings he created have died. Even Eldin turns out to be a thoughtful storyteller if the player chooses to revisit him after learning his portion of the Song of the Hero. When I learned that the dragons had made a return in BOTW, I couldn't wait to see what they would be like. "Let down" would be a charitable description of my reaction to discovering that they had been downgraded to resource farms. Despite their startling appearances, their mechanical purpose is equivalent to the ore deposits. The dragons illustrate my biggest praise of Skyward Sword and my overall problem with BOTW: while Skyward Sword takes elements that have been established in the series and deepens, remixes, or otherwises revitalizes them, BOTW only takes surface level cues from its predecessors, gutting them to husks that scatter the beautifully massive but shallow world.
I would be remiss if I ended this chapter without comparing some of the more siginificant side characters. The champions and their descendents in BOTW are great characters; they have delightful designs and likable personalities. Other than that, though, there isn't much to latch onto. Their roles seem quite small compared to the significance ascribed to them in the story. This is supported by the gameplay as well: while freeing the champions' spirits makes the first phase of the final encounter with Ganon easier, I would have expected 4 warriors with mastery over colossal robots to do a bit more than fire lasers at the final boss once. The role of their descendents is similarly anticlimactic; they help you approach the divine beasts, but afterwards become basically irrelevant. Despite this, I hold a lot of affection for these characters, which is why I wish they had been more active participants in the world with more fully fleshed out character growth.
Skyward Sword's own champion, however, fills his surprisingly similar role well. I speak, of course, of Groose, who experiences fantastic character growth throughout the game. By coming to terms with his unwarranted bias toward Link, his own weakness, and discovering his talents, he becomes a humble, considerate person with a moral compass as upright as his iconic pompadour--a far cry from the bully we meet at the beginning of the story. His character arc and the mechanics of the second and third battles against the Imprisoned make his use of the groosenator feel more purposeful than the BOTW champions' one-off blast at Ganon that only marginally impacts the final fight.
On the whole, I would classify the characters in BOTW as nearly devoid of identity and I believe this is by design. The entire point of BOTW is to explore a world freely, and it is extremely successful at meeting its core experience goal. However, I am disappointed that engaging side characters were largely sacrificed to bolster the desire to explore. In my view, they are not mutually exclusive. In fact, I believe that leaning into this aspect of the series would have enhanced the experience of exploration by rewarding players with noteworthy interactions in the locations they work hard to access. Instead, it seems like the designers made everything outside the raw experience of traversal intentionally boring.
Part 3: The Hero and The Princess
It's a tale as old as time: a princess is in danger and a hero rises to save her. This enduring model is the basis of nearly every Zelda game. In the overwhelming majority of these cases, damsel and rescuer is the extent of the relationship between Link and Zelda, but this is not the case in the stars of this post.
In Skyward Sword, Link and Zelda are childhood friends. While this alone raises the stakes of the quest once she is endangered, I think the most important part of this relationship is that it gives us a chance to know Zelda as a person before the adventure begins. She is a fiesty, mischevious, kind, and loyal girl who treasures her friendship with Link and her simple life, but longs for adventure as well. While Skyward Sword was not the first game to highlight Zelda's personality, it was the first to dedicate a significant portion of time to develop it outside the adventuring context. Other examples include Wind Waker and Spirit Tracks, in which the player only gets to know Zelda (or Tetra in WW's case) once the main quest has begun, and Minish Cap in which Link and Zelda are also childhood friends, but only have a few minutes together before she gets captured. But I digress.
The time you spend with Zelda at the beginning of Skyward Sword has an air of intimacy about it: the way she affectionately calls Link "sleepyhead" in a note at the start of the game, how she excitedly leaps into his arms after the wing ceremony, and of course the way she teases Link before shoving him off of a statue in what many fans will recall as a bait and switch tinged with romance. These calm moments build the characters' relationship and Zelda's persona in tandem, creating an amazing opportunity for players to invest in her in ways not previously facilitated by the franchise. It is easy to imagine her weathering the trials of the surface and it's easy to worry about her in your search because of who she is, not what she represents.
Skyward Sword Zelda's character and her emotional arc are quite different from most of the Zeldas before her, but they are not such huge departures that her taking on the typical role of imprisoned damsel late in the game feels wrong. On the contrary, I would say that Skyward Sword has the most effective implementation of that trope in the entire franchise because the game embraces the traditional structure of the series and adds a great deal of depth to Zelda's character within those confines. Her strong personality combined with the beautifully crafted relationship between her and Link makes the scene of Zelda imprisoning herself in crystal uniquely devastating among the many times that she is crystallized, put to sleep, or otherwise temporarily extracted from the story throughout the series. Who among us could say anything other than "I promise" when Zelda asked her "sleepyhead" to come and wake her up like she had always done for him on Skyloft?
Now we turn to Breath of the Wild, another game in which Link and Zelda only meet due to world-threatening circumstances. I would also call theirs one of the most well developed Link/Zelda relationships in the series; through cutscenes and journal entries we watch Zelda, a fiercely independent, intelligent, determined young woman, grow from detesting Link to trusting him enough to share her uncertainty around her destiny, allow herself to fall into him in anguish, and ultimately unlock her power to protect him. These powerful moments echo the intimacy between Link and Zelda in Skyward Sword.
The princess herself is where the pattern is once again expanded. We know Skyward Sword Zelda to be firey and playful in the way she both defends and teases Link. BOTW Zelda shares these traits in the way she shrugs Link off at first then winds up enthusiastically shoving frogs into his face once they become friends. However, the Zelda in BOTW does something that none of her predecessors ever has: she questions. Throughout the game we see her struggle to use the magic of her ancestors, and even fail to do so in crucial moments. She has a passion for science and research that she pours herself into, both for the love of it and in desperation to be somehow useful to the fight against Calamity Ganon even if she can't use her family's magic.
This is where my biggest complaints about Breath of the Wild begin to emerge. Because BOTW has a non-linear structure, none of the information in the above paragraph is required to learn. I sought out all of the memory sequences and did all of the divine beast dungeons because the stories of the Zelda series have always been my greatest love within them. I wanted to go into the final fight armed with all the knowledge I could get my hands on--much like Zelda, now that I think about it. But the end of the game does not feel like it was built for experiences like mine. On the contrary, it seemed like the more story content a player found before battling Calamity Ganon, the lower the payoff was for finishing the game.
It is generally agreed that the battle with Calamity Ganon is anticlimactic. Regardless, I couldn't wait to see Zelda again, to see her and Link reunite after everything I knew they had been through. My heartstrings were ready to be tugged the way they were when Zelda finally woke up in Skyward Sword and Link rushed in to catch her as her wobbly legs gave out. When BOTW Zelda reappeared she asked the question at the core of the game's narrative: "Link...do you really remember me?" My Link did. But instead of expressing this, he and Zelda simply stood apart staring at each other until the credits rolled. This ending was very clearly a catch all as it technically made sense regardless of how much or how little narrative content the player had gone through the trouble to find. Emotionally though, it felt completely wrong for how I had played the game. There was no reward for taking the time to learn about who Zelda and Link were before the 100 year sleep. All of my effort up to that point felt wasted.
With that ending, BOTW became the first Zelda game to truly disappoint me; in fact I've scarcely picked it up since finishing it within months of its release. Since then I've come to the conclusion that story was not meant to be critical to BOTW. That seems like a forgone conclusion when you look at the truly defining moments of BOTW: the expansive world, innovation of climbing mechanics, mind boggling possibilities for systemic interactions, and more. But when you examine both the mechanics and the storyline, both of them were actually quite innovative. Obviously the mechanics were much more daring and had a more far reaching impact than the story, but strictly within the context of the Zelda franchise, the story was not quite like any other. That all came down to Zelda herself.
We have finally arrived at my biggest criticism of BOTW. Every other Zelda, even the plucky pirate Tetra, accepts her fate when it is spelled out to her. BOTW Zelda is fundamentally different from her peers in her approach to the danger that plagues Hyrule. She rejects tradition and looks for her own answers rather than accepting those given to her. But at the end of the day, even she succombs to the destiny long laid out before her and at the beginning of the game, we find her in exactly the same position as countless other princesses: imprisoned. For players familiar with the series (myself included), this a perfectly natural starting point for the princess. If you beat Calamity Ganon without discovering much if any of the background content, the story you get (Zelda is imprisoned to keep Ganon at bay until he is defeated) fits in perfectly with the rest of the franchise. But if you get to know Zelda, if you see just how different she is from any other incarnation, you get the sense that she isn't meant to carry on her family's legacy--at least not in the same way as her ancestors. BOTW may have disappointed me, but I think it completely failed Zelda. It gave her so much life, so much heart, and an internal battle so compelling that it threatened to overturn the entire formula, but it didn't follow through.
That's what I found so disheartening about the end of BOTW. The lack of payoff for developing the relationship between Link and Zelda can be chalked up to a lack of foresight from a series that's never dealt with branching narratives, but the refusal to free Zelda from the confines of her role as the sacred princess/damsel in distress was a blatant slap in the face when her entire story arc seemed to finally be leading her down a new path. For years fans have been begging Nintendo to make Zelda the protagonist of one of her many games and I think everything about BOTW Zelda made her the perfect candidate. I was cautiously optimistic for her to finally have her moment when the initial trailer for BOTW2 dropped and we saw Link and Zelda exploring together, but those hopes were squashed by the E3 2021 trailer which opens with Zelda falling into an abyss.
Ultimately both Skyward Sword and BOTW Zelda represent a sad truth: Nintendo acknowledges that the fanbase wants a more expansive role for Zelda and their capability for innovation on a massive scale extends to their approach to her story. Capability means nothing without desire though, and when it comes down to it I believe they care more about preserving tradition than broadening horizons in the narratives of the Zelda games. While this obstinance is most obvious and frustrating in Zelda who changes the most from game to game, it is also a limiting factor for Link and even Ganon, the third primary recurring character. Who might they all be if released for a moment from the roles they were cast in 36 years ago? BOTW gets so close to answering this question with its incarnation of Zelda, who doesn't quite fit where she should, that arriving at same conclusion that worked in dozens of games past feels stale and frankly insulting compared with the rest of the game. On the other hand, Skyward Sword boasts one of the most emotionally satisfying arcs for any Zelda, but only achieves this by enacting small changes that make her character feel vibrant and realized while still belonging in her traditional role. Although I love revisiting Skyward Sword Zelda's story, I can't deny that this "victory" over BOTW feels hollow because I would give anything to see a version of Zelda like the one in BOTW who is free to forge a new destiny rather than trapped by convention.
In her final moments, Skyward Sword's companion Fi recites an uncharacteristically emotional monologue about her "precious" time with Link that is as beautiful as it is sorrowful. As her consciousness fades etched with feelings of gratitude and happiness, players are warmly reminded of the numerous encounters with the Master Sword that we have experienced over the years that are still to come within the world of Hyrule, each one now a silent reunion. In light of all that BOTW is, its myriad departures from the franchise both good and bad, Fi's farewell reads like a farewell not only to Link, but to everything that Skyward Sword represents: the traditional Zelda formula pushed, perhaps, to its limit. Maybe the sentiment behind Fi's farewell is that we have so much to love about our time with this series, but like her it is time for some of its familiar artifacts to fade away.
BOTW and Skyward Sword share an inextricable link as two of the most pioneering games in the Zelda series that pull in opposite directions, and there are wonderful things in both. While I spent a considerable portion of this post airing my grievances with BOTW, I still remember how much I loved playing it during the first few months of its life. The new Hyrule felt mysterious in its familiarity, inviting in its hostility, expansive in its possibilities. For a little while I was enamored with BOTW and I miss that feeling. But the want of many of Zelda's subtle charms and a few bigger changes stains those good memories and keeps me from returning to the game. I've always loved a good origin story and as those go, I think Skyward Sword is one of the greats. It does a beautiful job of tying together three decades worth of threads through a phenomenal story in a vibrant world that punches up all of the traditional elements of Zelda games to great benefit and occasional detriment. One such detriment is that it is one of the more restrictive Zelda games in terms of exploration. Despite their foundational commonalities, BOTW and Skyward Sword almost contradict each other. I think that grants them a wonderful opportunity to learn from and bring out the best in each other.
As we prepare to return to the skies above Hyrule in BOTW2, my hopes are thus: I hope BOTW2 is able to recapture the magic of its parent and rediscover the power of its ancestors. I hope new players enjoy the the HD remake* of Skyward Sword and old players give it a second chance to make a good impression. Lastly, I hope that the series continues to take risks and evolves further than I ever thought possible. I've been playing Zelda games for almost 20 years and now that I am finally closing the book on the extremities of their timeline, all I have left to say is here's to 20 more.
Thank you for reading.
*A quick review of Skyward Sword's joystick controls: In Skyward Sword HD you can use the right C-stick to weild the sword instead of motion controls. Consequently you have to hold down the left bumper while rotating the C-stick to adjust the camera which was definitely weird, and I found drawing on the goddess walls so excruciating with the stick that I did turn the motion controls back on for those. However, the camera issue was fairly easy to get around by frequently pressing the ZL button on the move and the stick controls made almost everything else easier. While the tactile and directional actions that define Skyward Sword don't feel quite as cool to perform with the stick as opposed to swinging the controller as though it were a sword, the ease of execution may allow them to shine brighter than they did when finicky motion controls were the only option and a common source of frustration for players.
The joystick controls also increase the game's accessibility. With my wrists and hands chronically pained from computer-related stress, I had to wear a brace the last time I played Skyward Sword on Wii which made the motion controls more challenging and didn't completely stave off pain. I was sure that I never be able to play it again after that, so I'm happy to say that the new stick controls are pretty good once you get used to them. I look forward to playing Skyward Sword with them for many years to come!