Skyward Sword has made a real comeback with its recent HD version, finally allowing motion control haters (like myself) to enjoy playing the game. But one thing that was always good about Skyward Sword was the time boat in Lanayru Desert, and it’s even better in HD.
On Link’s second visit to Lanayru in the back half of the game, he’s able to ride a boat back in time through a desert that was originally an ocean. It’s one of the Zelda series’ coolest and most visually striking moments.
What the hell is a “time boat”?
Skyward Sword’s first two areas are fairly typical Zelda — we’ve got a typical forest and a typical volcano. But the game’s third area, the Lanayru Desert, is two areas in one. The Lanayru Desert of Link’s timeline in Skyward Sword is a vast, dead wasteland filled with dried bones and unpowered robots.
But there are also Timeshift Stones throughout the zone; when activated, they pull a small area around them into the past. Hitting these Timeshift Stones allows Link to step into a past version of Lanayru, where sand pits become cliffs and dead ground is covered in grass.
Link uses the Timeshift Stones to solve a variety of puzzles, such as bringing nearby things back to life or removing barriers that have fallen after years of abandonment. The game’s third dungeon, Lanayru Mine, has Link use the Timeshift Stones to move quickly between timelines, powering and de-powering machines based on his current needs. It establishes a mechanic that Link needs to master before he can defeat the boss and escape the dungeon.
But on a second visit to Lanayru, Skyward Sword takes the familiar Timeshift mechanic and turns it into one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen in a Zelda game. After making his way deeper into Lanayru on his second visit, Link runs into a vast lake of sand. To reach the game’s fifth dungeon, he needs to find an ancient ship sailing through what used to be an ocean.
After coming across a Timeshift Stone embedded in a small boat, Link activates it, waking up the nearby boat captain and causing the sand near the boat to return to water. The Timeshift Stone lowers itself into the boat’s hull, and the captain and Link set off through Lanayru Desert, sailing on small patches of water.
When fun and function meet
This section of Skyward Sword offers some of my favorite visuals from any game, even when Skyward Sword is muddy and difficult to interpret. The dungeon you eventually sail to is very cool, but the journey is even better. The Timeshift Stone only extends to the area around the boat, so while everything under and around Link is beautiful, fresh water, the sand is always just a few feet away.
Link and his time boat cut through time one section of desert at a time, and the sand instantly shifts around them. Before Skyward Sword HD, when the game’s visuals were muddy at best, it stood out beautifully as one of the clearest visual sections in the game. With Skyward Sword HD, everything looks better. So while the time boat isn’t as stark a comparison to the rest of the game, it benefits equally from the higher fidelity graphics.
Lanayru needed a sense of scale to really sell it as a vast ocean destroyed by time. The boat ride gives Skyward Sword its open world moment, like riding Epona through Hyrule Field. When you look out into the sea, there’s nothing but sand as far as you can see. The change in time gives the ocean terrain, forcing you to maneuver through rocks that suddenly appear. But even as you’re delicately sailing in contained areas, the sand dunes around you give a sense that this was once a massive area.
The sailing itself is fine, but it’s the ambiance the time boat offers that really sells the entire thing. It’s beautiful to watch the area all around Link quickly shift from lifeless to life to lifeless again as you sail over and past it. It makes sailing through the ocean on the King of Red Lions in Wind Waker — no matter how beautiful the art style — seem unimpressive by comparison. In this moment, Skyward Sword is doing more than just letting you sail on an ocean, it’s offering you an impressive and memorable visual treat.
The time boat is such a perfect moment in Skyward Sword. It lasts only 30 minutes or so, but it makes an impression. It could’ve easily been bypassed by a simpler path to the dungeon, but Nintendo decided to reimplement the time travel players were already familiar with. And it makes for one of the coolest moments in one of gaming’s oldest franchises.