It's been too long since a home console The Legend of Zelda game. The last was Twilight Princess, at the Nintendo Wii's launch (and also for the GameCube). But don't be fooled into thinking Nintendo has forgotten about the franchise. Quite the opposite. The next major Zelda game, known as The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, has had a development period longer than any of the 3D console Zelda titles. According to Nintendo, it is one of the biggest game's they've ever developed, and due out before the year ends. Excited? We certainly were, so Nintendo of Australia kindly invited us down to go hands-on with this Game of the Year contender and get an idea of how it really plays.
Getting straight into it, we booted up the first Skyward Sword demo, which was a short but sweet introduction to the overworld. As anybody following at home will be aware, Skyward Sword is predominantly set in Skyloft, a land above the clouds, whose residents are completely unaware of the world below. The sky in Skyloft is basically your traditional Zelda overworld, and shares many similarities to Wind Waker's sprawling ocean. The difference though is that you wont just be going left, right, back and forward, you'll be going way up and way down as well.
No ship or horse is fit for the skies, so Link's got himself a new mount this time; a gigantic bird. It appears everyone in Skyloft gets around on these things, so it's only fitting Link gets one too. Our Skyloft tutorial introduced us to the flight mechanics, which like the rest of Skyward Sword are tied to the Motion Plus peripheral (or Wii Remote Plus) motion controls. Tilt up and the bird goes up. Tilt left and the bird goes left. Very simple, very fluid and very natural. Making sharp swooping motions with the controller allowed the bird to pick up some speed, while hitting A initiated a boost. The minigame we participated in was a simple introductory game of tag, and though very easy was a great introduction to how flight works in Skyward Sword.
We were sadly never given a chance to fully explore the sky overworld, though we expect that's because its secrets are being saved for the full game, and we're assuming there's a lot of said secrets, and the sky world feels absolutely gigantic with a wonderful sense of scale.
As cool as soaring through the clouds is, we were eager to get our feet on the ground, so we booted the second demo to try our hand at the more traditional Zelda we all know and love. This demo took place in an early temple (we're thinking the Forest Temple), and gave us a chance to not only play around with the combat mechanics, but also get a feel for Skyward Sword's items, both new and old.
Combat works exactly how it looks in all the videos, and anybody who has played Wii Sport Resort sword fighting will be right at home. Swing left, and Link swings left. Swing right, and Link swings right. Horizontal, vertical, diagonal, thrust - you do it, and Link will copy your gestured direction exactly. It's remarkably responsive and surprisingly accurate, and as soon as you go toe-to-toe with an enemy you'll realise why.
Previously Zelda titles have had a somewhat fast pace to combat, with Link able to quickly dispatch enemies without too much trouble. What Nintendo has done with Skyward Sword is pull back the pacing in favour of more methodical, dueling battles, where enemies play more defensively. Fighting Bokoblins is quite easy, but a good example of how integral motion controls are for battle. Armed with a crude hammer, these enemies will shift between vertical and horizontal defensive positions, countering any blow that connects with their defense. Though this is quite easy, as Bokoblins really only defend from two basic directions, combat becomes more difficult against the better armed enemies, such as the Stalfos. Equipped with two swords, this enemy is able to defend on multiple angles, forcing the player to attack in a very specific pattern. For example, the Stalfos might hold one blade horizontally above his head, and the other vertically to his left. If Link tries to attack on these sides and at these angles he will fail, and thus can only attack horizontally from the right or with an upwards vertical blow.
It is clear that combat in Skyward Sword is not about mashing the attack button to win, but instead solving the 'puzzle' of how to defeat the enemy. Interestingly, some enemies appear to have multiple weaknesses. For example, we discovered three different ways to defeat the Skulltula. Hanging from a spider web thread from the ceiling, we were able to slash at the spider's defensive surface to spin him around and attack his underbelly. Alternatively, we were able to cut his thread and cause him to fall to the ground. Now mobile, we could wait for the Skulltula to rear up and thus lunge forward at his weak point, or we could perform a fancy special attack. To do this we had to connect an upwards vertical strike against the beast, flipping him backwards onto his back, and then swing both the nunchuck and remote downwards to initiate a one-hit-kill stab attack.
Oh, and you can forget about spamming spin attacks this time around, as both a horizontal and fancy vertical spin attack are tied to the same stamina meter that dictates Link's ability to spring. Too many spins in succession will tire Link out, leaving him right open for an enemy attack.
Taking a break from battling the beasts, we had a play around with Link's equipment. On offer in the demo were your traditional items such as the bow, slingshot, and bombs, as well a new flying beetle. We were pleasantly surprised to see both groups of items making very good use of motion plus. Flying the beetle around is no different to flying the aircraft in the Wii Sports Resort island flyby mini game, natural and easy motions navigation the mechanical critter around the game world. We were able to use the bug to chow down the aforementioned Skulltula webs, crash into distant switches, and explore the upper nooks and crannies of the temple too small and far away to reach. Later in the dungeon we unlocked larger claws for our beetle, and though we didn't get to use them, we know they're for grabbing and flying off with various items. It was nice to see a single item playing multiple roles, whether it be hitting distant switches and picking up items, or simply exploring for secrets, which hopefully means the item will remain useful right up until the end of the game.
We were a little worried about the return of so many traditional items, initially hoping they would have been scrapped in favour of more original creations, but were very happy to find that being adapted to motion controls has helped breath new life into these old tools. Both slingshot and bow work as you'd expect, the former a quicker, speedier ranged weapon, while the bow was slower to use but dealt more damage, each using motion controls to aim and fire. But it was the bombs that stole the show, mixing elements from Wii Sports Resort bowling into how they're thrown. Hold the remote vertical and Link will hold the bomb above his head, allowing them to be thrown just like they always were. Move the remote down and Link gets in a bowling position, allowing you to roll the bombs across the ground and into small crevices. You can even put spin and curve on the bowled bombs by slightly twisting the remote left and right, which is way too cool.
The final section of the demo gave us a taste of what we should be able to expect from boss encounters. We were introduced to the simply fabulous Lord Ghirahim, a delightful zany antagonist new to the Zelda franchise. For reasons unknown to us, Ghirahim wants to get his grubby mitts on our precious Zelda, and after making it clear we weren't about to let that happen, the theatrically enraged villain challenged us to a one-on-one duel. The slower, methodical pacing of combat really came into play here, as battling Ghirahim became a tactical challenge of playing defensively, learning his attack maneuvers, and finding ways to exploit them.
Ghirahim makes a point of his strength and playful villainy early in the battle, challenging Link without any weapon of his own. He struts, he smiles, and holds two fingers (like the peace sign) out in front. While in this pose striking Ghirahim is quite challenging, as he is not only able to quickly avoid Link's attacks, but even grab an incoming blow with those two measly fingers. If Ghirahim locks into your sword you'll have to wrestle the blade free, else he snaps it right from your fingers.
After landing a few blows, Ghirahim decides to even the odds are little (though we think the balance was always in his favour), by licking his chops and summoning his own blade for a more traditional duel. And by traditional we mean Ghirahim is a cheater, as he teleports out of incoming blows and summons projectiles. Much like the pre-sword sequence, this second stage of the battle requires a similar formula of play; be defensive, learn his moves, and exploit his weaknesses.
The key to defeating Ghirahim this time around was to stun him and prevent his evasive teleportation. This is where we learned an interesting use of the shield. Traditionally, all you needed to do was hold down a button and Link will activate his shield. This was slightly enhanced in Twilight Princess by allowing Link to do a 'nudge' with the shield, pushing back enemies. For Skyward Sword however the shielding system works a little bit differently. A quick shake of the nunchuck will have Link whip out the shield for defense, and though this works to deflect enemy attacks, there's an emphasis on timing, granting Link a counter ability. Essentially, if the shield is activated just before an enemy lands his strike (in this case Ghirahim) Link will perform a counter, not unlike what you might find in a fighting game, stunning the enemy and leaving them open to attack. Though a simple addition, the new shield counter ability adds a welcome level of extra tactical play to the already deeper combat system.
There's always been heavy expectations from fans regarding the Zelda series, and perhaps now more than ever. Some fans are happy for Zelda to continue as is, while some are demanding change. The problem is identifying what, exactly, that change is supposed to be. There's such a tremendous variety of reasons people are drawn to the franchise, that what one fan feels is the most important element of the franchise, and what all Zelda games should revolve around, is not necessarily going to agreed upon by another equally rabid fan. Puzzles, combat, exploration, items and treasure, adventure and story - where do you even start when trying to reinvent Zelda? So, based on our hands-on time with Skyward Sword, does it re-invent the wheel? No. It feels like Zelda, plays like Zelda, and even features many of icon elements of Zelda. But is it exactly like previous Zelda games? Absolutely not.
The philosophy behind Skyward Sword appears to be exactly what Nintendo has been spouting this entire generation, in regards to the Wii - it's a new way to play. All those things we mentioned; the combat, items, exploration and so on, it is these exact things that are being revitalised and rebuilt for an entirely new control scheme. Whether you're swinging your sword in a hundred different directions, or nose diving your bird through the clouds, this new level of interactivity and motion control depth is a completely new additional to the franchise. It's like a series of motion controlled mini-games have been integrated into every action and function of Skyward Sword, and done so in a way that feels totally natural. No arbitrary pauses or stops, as the flow from swinging your sword to curve bowling a bomb to piloting the beetle is done so without a hitch. This is motion controls done better and in a far grander scheme than any game before it, and that alone is a reason to get very excited.