Every Legend Begins With A Story
The Zelda series began in the NES era, when plot wasn’t a huge part of most game design. This was a generation when developers were just starting to get technology that allowed them to create complex character models and use more than a handful of colors onscreen at once, so it’s no wonder that even an adventure game as sprawling as the original Legend of Zelda was somewhat sparse on story.
The thing is, when later entries in the series were introduced that expanded the Zelda mythos with Link’s further adventures, the fans weren’t simply going to forget about the earlier titles. Neither was Nintendo, and series creator and game design legend Shigeru Miyamoto claims that there exists a record of the Zelda timeline, twisted and gnarled as it may be by alternate pasts and side-stories from outside developers. There even exists a split-timeline theory that depends upon the events of Ocarina of Time and has been confirmed as highly accurate by Miyamoto. So when a new game in the series was announced in the form of Skyward Sword, there was doubtless a moment in which hardcore fans of the series held their breaths, crossed their fingers, and prayed to whatever deity would listen that this newest entry in the series wouldn’t muck things up too badly.
Those prayers were answered, as Nintendo came right out in stating that, chronologically, Skyward Sword is the earliest entry in the entire series. Its plot does not begin in Hyrule proper, instead joining Link and his friends in the land of Skyloft, which floats high above the clouds. Flight is a common method of transportation between the floating islands of which Skyloft is made and life is good, though the people do not know of (nor do they consider) the existence of great evil in a land below the clouds. The people of Skyloft, in fact, do not even know that such a land exists, assuming that theirs is all that there is.
Gamers who know their Legend of Zelda will not be surprised when the eponymous lead, a childhood friend of the hero rather than the princess of other titles, disappears from Skyloft. It is unlikely that they will be surprised by the discovery of the Skyward Sword, which allows Link to move between Skyloft and the deadly world below the clouds, in search of his missing friend. The Legend of Zelda, after all, has long made use of duality, with opposed worlds linked primarily by the player’s character and his actions.
No, the draw, story-wise, is not in the basic structure of the tale, but in its action, in the way it is played out and in the reveal that this tale is the one that finally tells of the origin of the Master Sword. As all Zelda fans know, the Master Sword is a series-spanning relic that can be wielded only by a Hero of Time, the power of which has been shown to conquer the darkness and alter even time and space. It can be presumed that, if this is the origin story of the Master Sword, it is also the beginning of Link’s heroic lineage, kicking off the legends of both Zelda and her hero.
With regard to gameplay, there have been notable changes that tickle one’s nerves with both excitement and apprehension. Using the MotionPlus for enhanced swordplay is something that Zelda fans have been requesting since Twilight Princess first teased our sword and sorcery fantasies with its underwhelming waggling. Now, enemies are geared to challenge your coordination, with patterns that require them to be struck at specific angles at certain times. The Zelda games pride themselves on puzzles, and the combat has always been more in line with that than with more traditional action games, lending itself to the deliberation of accurate sword-combat.
On the other hand, the traditional structure of overworld-dungeon-overworld has been tossed, with the labyrinths integrated into the overworld in such a way that progress between them is meant to be more organic, lending itself to purposeful backtracking and fluid exploration. All of this is aided by Link’s expanded (and more acrobatic) movement options. This increased agility must come with being a righty, as the traditionally left-handed hero has had his sword and shield swapped to appeal to the proclivities of the bulk of the population.
Past entries in the series have promised innovation, but, since Ocarina of Time, have offered little more than changes to art style and sparse new abilities. They have certainly been controversial, as all highly anticipated titles are (often for doing too little to differentiate themselves from their forebears), but Skyward Sword is finally polarizing for the right reasons. It’s shaking up the Zelda formula in some deep, key ways and hoping to demonstrate that a Zelda game is defined by more than just is classic rhythm and enjoyable puzzles. Will it refresh the franchise? We’ll know this holiday season when it hits store shelves.
A Zelda for a New Generation
At E3, I got to go hands-on with The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, and boy is it ever shaping up. This is the Wii’s last great swan song before the Wii U takes over, and it certainly does the console justice. The game easily shows gamers what motion control is all about, and proves that even serious action games can utilize motion feedback without degenerating into a waggle fest.
Skyward Sword was playable at last year’s E3, but it was basically just Wii Sports Resort with Zelda painted over it. The controls were loose, the motion tracking was accurate only about fifty percent of the time, and Miyamoto himself couldn’t get the game to work up on stage during the Nintendo press conference. The first thing I noticed about the E3 2011 build of Skyward Sword was that all of those issues from E3 2010 were fixed. There were three demos to choose from on the show floor, and in none of them did I feel like I was wrestling against the control scheme.
The first demo takes place sometime near the beginning of the game, before Link dons his familiar green tunic and cap. Link, dressed in his civvies, and Zelda, who is most decidedly not in distress nor particularly a princess at this point, are riding on the back of giant birds in some sort of village tournament.
You see, in the world of Skyward Sword, everyone has migrated to floating villages in the sky. They don’t remember what the world was like down below. All they know is that there is great evil and ruin down there, and up in the skies everyone is safe. My bet is that Gannondorf is down there somewhere, stomping around the ruins of old Hyrule. So the people in each village train giant birds as mounts to get from place to place. It’s like a greater fantasy version of James Cameron’s Avatar .
The bird was controlled almost entirely by motion. The orientation of the Wiimote corresponded 1:1 with the orientation of the bird. You pointed the Wiimote at the screen to start, and from there tilting and twisting the Wiimote controlled the pitch, yaw, and roll of the bird. It felt very natural and easy to do. It was almost like you were a kid, running around with a toy airplane in your hand and making engine noises. The B button allowed you to slow down (though there was no real reason to do that) and the A button worked like Epona’s carrots, giving your bird a short speed boost.
The next demo we saw featured some more traditional Zelda gameplay, but even this integrated motion controls into every aspect of Link’s arsenal. The bow and arrow feels almost exactly like Wii Sports Archery, only with a much more accurate targeting system. Bombs are actually rather simple to use, as you simply pick them up and put them down, but if you prefer, you can actually roll them in homage to Wii Sports Bowling. One of Link’s new tools is the remote-controlled beetle which, when launched, is controlled much like Link’s bird. You use the beetle to reach far away switches and items. It’s almost like a controllable boomerang.
However, the bag of tricks Link has at his disposal is really mostly used for solving puzzles. Battle is all about the swordplay, and I have to hand it to Nintendo for making one of the first motion-controlled swordplay systems that actually feels like there’s some skill involved. Every enemy you fight will have a certain “opening” in their stance. Monsters like the Skulltulla spider, for example, can only be damaged on their belly, while more human-like beasties, like the undead Stalfos Knights, will move their shields into different positions to defend themselves, requiring you to slash in different directions to get around their defenses. The demo even had us facing off against the game’s main antagonist (no spoilers for you) which required expert usage of horizontal and vertical attacks, thrusting, blocking, dodging, and much more. Unlike previous Zelda titles, your enemies don’t have a pattern. Instead, sword fighting is all about reaction and noticing openings in the opponent’s defense. It’s one of the most realistic combat engines I have ever seen.
Link has a bunch of other tricks at his disposal as well. For one, he seems to have learned several parkour-style moves that let him scale cliffs and jump wide chasms. He can also sprint, which makes him move very fast at the cost of a draining a stamina meter which, if totally depleted, makes Link sluggish and out of breath for a while. His shield also has its own durability gauge now, and, once depleted, the shield will shatter, leaving Link defenseless against his enemies. He will have to go to shops to get his shields repaired and/or upgraded if he wants to stand a chance in the more complex swordfights the game has to offer. Finally, Link can also use his sword as a dousing rod to find where he has to go next.
The final Skyward Sword demo was only shown behind closed doors, and it showcased the game’s “Dark World” called the Siren World. Link has to give up his sword just to enter the Siren World, so here he is totally defenseless. In addition, he is constantly stalked by ferocious “guardians” that can kill him in one hit. Luckily enough, there are safe zones in the Siren World that render Link invisible to the guardians. So the majority of the gameplay in this world is running, hiding, busting out awesome parkour moves, and getting to the next safe zone before you die. Most likely, Link will eventually find a way to defend himself in this realm, but that will probably be saved until later in the game.
We were told that the game will be very heavy on backtracking. Unlike other Zelda tittles that have you going through a dungeon and then never coming back for the rest of the game (except for optional unlockables), dungeons in Skyward Sword are integrated into the game world. As such, you’ll be backtracking quite a bit after you gain new abilities, making the game feel far more like Metroid than a traditional Zelda title.
Overall, Skyward Sword is looking like a pretty solid Zelda game. The combat is fun, the story seems interesting, and the graphics were great for the Wii. The music is also amazing. (In fact, when Nintendo had the Zelda medley played by a live orchestra at their press conference, I had to hold back tears.) If you are a Zelda fan, then you will love Skyward Sword. Be on the lookout for it when it releases later this year.
Ready to Send your Sword Skyward?
June 17, 2010 – Last year’s E3 brought with it the announcement that a new Legend of Zelda game was in development. This was definitely great news for fans, but the wait for details for this new title definitely felt long. Fortunately, the wait ended on the first day of E3, when The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword was finally unveiled. After Nintendo’s press conference, we were able to attend a special closed-door meeting with Nintendo and got some hands-on time with this hotly anticipated title.
The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword again follows Link on an adventure through a magical land filled with plenty of stylized creatures. However, instead of beginning your adventure in the fictional world of Hyrule, you begin in a city that is floating above the Earth. We were able to attend a special meeting with Shigeru Miyamoto and he said that while they can’t reveal too much about the story at this time, Link will eventually break through to the world below, and that point in the game will be a pivotal scene.
We also learned at the meeting that Skyward Sword was developed with an eye towards highly stylistic visuals. Miyamoto said that he really wanted to go towards an impressionistic, fantasy-style for the game, and he said that most of the creatures in the game will feature bright colors and intricate designs to reflect this approach.
After the meeting we were able to actually check out the game, and we definitely came away impressed. The game uses the Wii MotionPlus peripheral to deliver true 1:1 sword slashing motion. Although Link carries a whip, bow, and bombs, the sword is by far the easiest and most intuitive weapon to use.
Slashing with the sword is incredibly easy, and while I attempted to succeed in the game by performing the “Wii Waggle” we’ve all come to know and loathe, I was surprised to find that the waggle technique didn’t work at all here. If you want to slash left to right, you’ll have to pull the Wii-mote across your chest to the right. Same thing if you want to slash in a different direction. The sword fighting is very accurate, which is great news for people who were frustrated with the control in Twilight Princess.
During our time with the demo, we were also able to check out two boss fights. Both of these boss fights required you to slash your sword a certain way to defeat the enemy. The first was a skeleton who parried by holding his swords a certain way. By slashing your sword in the opposite direction, this enemy was defeated rather simply. The second boss fight worked in the same way, but instead of a skeleton, we fought a giant scorpion. We were instructed to attack the glowing pincers on the scorpion, which opened a certain way, leaving it vulnerable to a specific type of directional slash (much like the skeleton’s swords). Both bosses required the use of the sword, which led to a little disappointment, as I couldn’t put the other weapons in the game to better use.
In addition to the improved controls and the new enemies, Skyward Sword also has a completely redesigned HUD and menu system. While previous games required you to press the pause button to select new weapons and items, Skyward Sword gets rid of this problem by using a real-time menu system that keeps you in the game while you make selections. Though this can be a tad inconvenient during boss battles, it makes the game feel a little more seamless, as you never have to jump out of gameplay to drink a potion or use your slingshot.
Though our time with The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword was brief, it was definitely enjoyable. We were reminded several times that the game was still in development and they were planning to do a lot with the visuals between now and the game’s launch sometime in 2011. Still, from where we were standing, the game played well and, aside from some blurriness, it looked pretty good too. Zelda fans are definitely in for a treat with this one, and I definitely can’t wait to check this one out more when it releases next year.