My most intriguing time at the Nintendo Holiday Tour was with the Wii’s most anticipated title: The Legend of Zelda Skyward Sword. The game has been relatively low-key compared to previous entries in the series and as the only Zelda title built exclusively for the Wii (Twilight Princess was a masterful port of a GameCube game, but a port nonetheless), fans have been quietly expecting Skyward Sword to re-write the Zelda formula.
As I said way back in my review of Twilight Princess, Miyamoto-san has figuratively painted himself into a corner with Zelda; he’s taken the series’ gameplay model as far as it can go as it currently exists. Naturally he’s the only person I could imagine shifting that paradigm again, but that said I didn’t see any monumental changes to the Zelda DNA in my admittedly short time with Skyward Sword. What I did see were a lot of tantalizing hints at just how subtly different this new Zelda could be.
First, the obvious: the somewhat controversial art style. I must admit I was surprised—surprised that it didn’t smack me in the face with oversaturated candy colors as I expected it to. Skyward Sword is brighter and more colorful than the high-fantasy inspired look of Twilight Princess, but it isn’t a cartoon like Wind Waker. The subtleties and delicacy of the game’s colors, inspired by the French impressionist Paul Cezanne, make the world vibrant and dreamy but also a little foreboding, an uncomfortably inviting fantasy. I’m still not thrilled with the enemy design but I will say that they’re considerably more threatening this time.
The Wii Motion Plus element has drastically and forever changed the combat. I’m not sure how it extends to the experience as a whole, but in my playtime enemies were few and far between compared to previous games. Yes, there were bats and smaller enemies, but the big ones—Moblins, Skulltulas, Stalfos—were one-on-one duels. It’s clear that Miyamoto went full steam ahead with the complex sword combat because these guys really know how to block; if you don’t watch their movements, analyze their posture and strike at just the right time with a properly oriented attack, you aren’t landing a successful hit.
What’s more, if you mess up and let your guard down you’ll be losing a lot of health: at least a full heart for every hit the enemy gets through your defenses. This is a welcome change from Wind Waker and Twilight Princess, which were both far too forgiving when it came to damage. All in all the combat is a lot slower and more cerebral compared to the slash and waggle of older games, but I welcome it—Zelda’s sword fighting has always been solid but Miyamoto has propelled it forward into a complex mechanic on its own, and the concept is so novel that I can only vaguely compare it to Red Steel 2 or Bushido Blade on the original Playstation.
I also got to play around with Link’s airborne beetle and bow, which both opened up other hints at the new and improved Zelda. The bow, like the sword, is more nuanced and realistic, requiring that you take steady aim with the Wii remote and pull back the nunchuk as if tensing a bowstring. While I kind of miss the rapid-fire arrows from Twilight Princess I can see getting used to this slower style, at least when on the ground.
The beetle took some getting used to and it was cool retrieving hearts and rupees with it, but it’s also an able puzzle solver. During the demo I got trapped in a central room and even after killing the Stalfos inside, the doors didn’t automatically open. It took me a while to figure out but I could pilot the beetle through cracks in the ceiling, to hit a switch on the outside and open the doors. There was no load time, signifying that rooms are not explicitly segregated and sealed off from one another. Eiji Aonuma has stated that he and Miyamoto are trying to rethink the basic structure of a Zelda game world, and this small mechanic tells me that they’re opening things up quite a bit for a more contiguous, flowing environment.
My time with Skyward Sword was probably the least fulfilling, but I don’t mean that in a bad way. I just want more, much more. I didn’t have an immediate “I MUST have this!” reaction like I did with DK Country Returns or Kirby’s Return to Dreamland, but I wasn’t expecting to and I’m glad I didn’t. Zelda games aren’t something you jump into and are instantly hooked—they’re huge, immersive adventures that take at least a couple hours to get acclimated to. After years of waiting and months of skeptical trepidation, I can finally say that I’m genuinely excited for Skyward Sword. Good thing it comes out in a month.