Zelda: Skyward Sword First Impressions

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Zelda fans have known since last year’s E3 that Nintendo was hard at work on another Zelda title for the Wii. Then Shigeru Miyamoto himself slashed his way onto stage at E3 with a Wiimote. And it was here.

Despite a botched demo that left Link’s sword meandering all of the screen and ensuing frustration that mirrored Steve Jobs’ frustration with audience Wi-Fi at this year’s WWDC, Zelda managed to impress on stage. And it does even more when the controller actually works.

Wielding a Sword like a Scalpel

zelda skyward sword first impressions ss 01Back stage at Nintendo’s E3 booth, with the Wii Motion Plus controller resuming its normal poise, Zelda: Skyward Sword shows its true colors. The Wii remote and nunchuk act as a sword and shield, respectively. One-to-one motion mapping means that each of your sword gestures in real life translates precisely to Link’s on screen. Start a swing by your side and stop with the tip pointing dead ahead, and Link starts a swing by his side then stops with the tip pointing dead ahead. You’re not triggering pre-animated sword gestures as you did with Twilight Princess, you’re crafting them as you go, in real time.

The game worlds and enemies have been crafted specifically to take advantage of this newfound precision. Deku Babas, basically overgrown venus-flytraps, have to be slashed the direction their mouths open, or you’ll simply conk them on the hard, turtle-like shell. Other enemies will raise their own weapons to block blows from one direction, and one peculiar eye-like creature on the wall will snap its eye shut the moment you approach – unless you first confuse it by swirling the sword around in front of it.

The integration of one-to-one swordplay from the ground up makes it more than a novelty– you’ll actually start considering how to swing when you approach an enemy. And other weapons also take advantage of the Wii’s unique controls. The crossbow of course requires the Wii Remote for aiming, and a bomb can either be dropped in place or rolled across the ground like a bowling ball. Again, you don’t just “trigger” a roll by dropping your elbow and pretending to roll a bomb, you control the direction and distance. Small as the distinction seems, not many other adventure games leverage the Wii’s unique capabilities with so much precision.

No Visual Masterpiece

zelda skyward sword first impressions ss 03Nintendo saw fit to skim over any mention of the graphics for Skyward Sword – most likely because there’s not much impressive to report. The overall style has moved away from Twilight Princess’ darker, more realistic tone toward a brighter, cartoonier feel more in tune with the rest of the Wii. According to some interviews with Miyamoto, the altered art style was actually utilitarian because it made the directional weaknesses of different characters – which Link must exploit with specific maneuvers – more obvious.

The level of detail and effects remains fairly stagnant. While the world itself is inviting and whimsical, you won’t find any “wow” moments where Nintendo has found new ways to leverage the Wii’s fading graphical prowess. It works, but that’s about it.

Sitting Still, or Forging Its Way Forward?

There’s no question that the latest Zelda will fly off the shelves when it arrives there some time in 2011 – the franchise has a built-in fan base to rival any in the world. But from the looks of it, it will earn every sale it gets. Despite treading water in the graphics department, Skyward Sword exploits Nintendo’s MotionPlus innovations as well as just about any game we’ve seen to date, and should deliver an experience wholly different – and even more immersive – than its predecessors.