As promised, the first port of call in my Eurogamer Expo experience was none other than The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. It certainly wasn’t hard to miss– with a huge Link statue greeting you almost as soon as you walked in and Zelda’s equally imposing blue bird hanging from the ceiling for all to see, Skyward Sword was definitely front and center of Nintendo’s expo showcase.
To my great delight I only had to wait in line for roughly 20 minutes, and there were three demos to choose from– the bird race, a dungeon, and a boss battle (the same as those available at E3). But having just watched everyone in front of me play through the dungeon demo, I decided to be brave and tackle the boss battle with Lord Ghirahim first. After a decidedly dark introduction and setup, with Lord Ghirahim openly musing about whether he might murder Link or not and generally showing that he meant serious business, I readied my Wii Remote and braced myself.
The combat itself was really engaging. The tactics employed by Lord Ghirahim and other enemies are all a lot more complex and less predictable than previous Zelda games, but that’s perhaps expected when the game is built around using Wii Motion Plus. There was a slight lag between me performing the movements and Link replicating them on screen, but not particularly noticeable in the long-run.
One thing that did bother me slightly was that Link didn’t always perform the moves I wanted him to. I’m not sure whether it was the Wii Motion Plus not picking up my movements properly, or whether it was just me swinging the Wii Remote incorrectly (probably the latter), but it’s clear that players will have to be particularly precise in their movements to avoid sustaining major damage and seeing their hearts bounce off of Link’s tunic into oblivion. Either way, it’s defintiely a lot more fun than simply swinging your Wii Remote round Twilight Princess style.
Players will have to significantly refine their battle strategy if they want to avoid Ghirahim’s humiliating finger-tip sword catch.
Combat niggles aside though, the game looks fantastic. The marriage of The Wind Waker and Twilight Princess’s art styles give Skyward Sword a really unique feel, blending the charm of Toon Link’s adventures with the more mature and grown-up sensibility of Twilight Princess effortlessly. Link is also a lot more expressive this time round, showing much more realistic expressions of fear, anger and wonder.
I also tried the Bird Race demo as I still had a bit of time left on my ten minute demo, but there wasn’t particularly anything new here in terms of gameplay mechanics to write home about. Flying your bird around is very similar to the plane-flying game in Wii Sports Resort where you use your Wii Remote to soar around the sky, but my ten minutes soon came to an end before I really got a chance to play it all the way through.
The dungeon on the other hand (when I came back for a second time) made much more of an impression. It’s traditional Zelda territory, so it wasn’t too surprising, but it was here where the newer elements of gameplay made themselves more noticeable.
These Stalfos are considerably more savvy than their ancestors (or should that be descendents?).
The first was Link’s new ability to dash. Holding down the A button allows Link to sprint across the dungeon floor like he’s wearing the Bunny Hood from Majora’s Mask, but here Link can only keep up the pace for so long. A circular stamina gauge appears and quickly disappears in pie-sized chunks as Link continues to run, but it’s not like his normal running speed is anything to sniff at. He can move around normally at a similar speed to what we’ve seen in previous Zelda games, but dashing certainly helps traversing those well-worn paths when you’re making your way back across large rooms.
The second was Link’s shield bar. The more Link uses his shield to block, the faster its durability decreases, forcing players to be more conscious of how they fight as well as encouraging them to be bold and daring instead of playing it safe. I didn’t have much cause to use my shield during the course of my demo, but it’s certainly another welcome addition to Zelda’s evolving formula.
One small niggle though is that menu navigation was sometimes a bit frustrating. I often kept opening up the item menu when I simply wanted to use the item assigned to the B button.
Speaking of items though, the dungeon on show revolved mainly around using one of Link’s newest items — the beetle. Much like the bird-race, you pilot the beetle using the Wii Remote and its main role here was to find hidden switches to open up new doors and passages.
The beetle also functions as a handy pair of scissors, letting vicious deku babas fall to their doom.
But as simple as that might sound, I saw a lot of confused players wander around for a while before the Nintendo rep hinted just where those switches were hidden, suggesting that the level design of Skyward Sword’s dungeons have stepped up a notch from what we’ve grown to expect. It certainly felt a lot more sophisticated when I was playing it myself, and even though I had the over-the-shoulder know-how from watching other players, I still had to have a Nintendo rep help me out at certain points.
All in all, Skyward Sword looks like it’s shaping up to be one of the most challenging and impressive Zelda titles we’ve ever seen. From just 20 minutes of gameplay it’s clear that this game has pulled out all the stops to make Link’s timeless adventuring feel fresh and exciting to keep Zelda veterans on their toes. In short, Skyward Sword might just be the pinnacle of what Wii is really capable of achieving; it’s what Twilight Princess should have been– it’s just too bad it’s five years too late.