E3 2002: The Legend of Zelda hands-on

We play the E3 demo of The Legend of Zelda for the GameCube and deliver our impressions to you.

A playable demo of The Legend of Zelda for the GameCube is on display at Nintendo's booth, and we took the time to give the game a go. This is the first time the game has been on display in playable form under its toon-shading guise, and some time spent with it seems to indicate that the game stays predominantly true to the Zelda formula where gameplay is concerned.

There are five playable sections of the game available, including The Island of the Magical Beast, Dragon Mountain, Island of Beginning, Battle with the Boss, and Vast Ocean. The Island of the Magical Beast is a stealth level where Link must avoid searchlights to keep from being detected. He can also hide in a barrel and wait for the guards to turn their backs before moving on. The camera can be manually adjusted using the C stick, and it's essential to look around corners to find hidden guards. If he's caught, he'll be placed in jail and will have to break out via a network of crawl spaces. Dragon Mountain takes place in a network of caves, where Link must use brute force to defeat enemies and special items to solve puzzles. Island of Beginning features a great deal of NPCs who ask you to perform a variety of tasks such as capturing a pig. Battle with the Boss is a boss fight against a huge, crablike creature with enormous claws. Link must use his hookshot to poke the beast in its eye. After the boss has taken a few optical shots, its head will come down, and Link can then go after the head with his sword. Vast Ocean is a sailing stage in which Link must cruise around a bay in a small ship, collecting the rupees that are perched on top of barrels. If Link cruises over the wrong barrels, they will explode and send him careening into the water.

Despite the wide variety of things to do in the playable levels, the meat of the gameplay is virtually identical to that of the two N64 Zelda games. Link locks on to enemies with the L button, and you can cycle through multiple enemies by continually tapping the button. The R button is now context-sensitive to allow for a variety of uses. Depending on the situation, it will make Link bring up his shield for defense, crouch, or grab crates to either push or pull them. Once Link is in the crouched position, pushing forward on the analog stick will cause him to crawl. The B button is also context-sensitive, and it allows Link to talk to other characters, pick up items and the weapons from fallen enemies, and climb onto boxes. Like in the N64 Zelda games, slashing with Link's sword is accomplished with the A button. Pressing the button several times performs simple combo attacks, and holding it in and then releasing it unleashes a powerful spin attack that lasts for several seconds. Link can also be moved while the attack is being performed to take out several enemies at once. While locked on to an enemy, pressing the B button initiates Link's jumping slash attack. Other Zelda standbys such as breaking pots for rupees and cutting grass for hidden objects have made a return as well.

The directional pad is put to good use, as pressing up will bring up the map, pressing left will toggle a window display, and tapping right will cycle through Link's available items. If you press down on the directional pad, it will cause the map in the bottom right-hand corner to disappear to keep your view from being obstructed. The X and Y buttons are reserved for using items such as the hookshot. Once an item is mapped to the one of the two buttons, it can be used by pressing the corresponding button. The only items included in the E3 demo are the hookshot, a magical stone, and the telescope. To use the hookshot, you must press the corresponding button once and Link will begin to swing it. Pressing it a second time will cause him to give it a toss. Once collected, the magical stone will allow Link to receive hints from his allies by pressing the Z button when prompted.

Link's health is again measured in hearts. After defeating bosses, you're rewarded with new heart containers that increase Link's maximum health. The primary quest in the game is to rescue Link's sister, Arill, but plenty of non-playable characters will supply miniquests for Link to undertake. Other innovations that were introduced in Ocarina of Time have returned for the GameCube Zelda game. The automatic jumping ability has made a return, and so has Link's ability to hang from ledges and shimmy along them. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the nuts and bolts associated with The Legend of Zelda is that there are no loading times whatsoever. When Link enters a new area, the screen will pause and then flip over. By the time this is done, the new area has been loaded. While there's a lot to the gameplay in the version of The Legend of Zelda on display at E3, it lacks the innovation that Ocarina of Time had in spades.

The Legend of Zelda is definitely one of the most visually impressive games on the entire E3 show floor. It's the closest thing to a 3D cartoon ever created, and it would be impressive even if it weren't running in real time. A level set near lava utilizes a subtle heat-distortion effect that takes up the entire screen. Another level has mist and volumetric fog running all the way through it. Plumes of cartoon smoke are kicked up every time Link takes a step, and when enemies are destroyed, they disappear into a puff of purple swirls. When Link attacks enemies, the exaggerated sparks that are produced when metal meets metal are a sight to behold, and overall, the art style is both bold and consistent. The game still has some slight camera issues during battles that take place near obstacles. But thankfully you have the ability to swing the camera manually with the C stick or hold the Z button for a first-person view. The game is brimming with real-time cinemas, and the artistic look allows Link to display a variety of emotions. The cinemas do not include dialogue of any kind and instead utilize text bubbles to move the plot forward. The draw distance in just about every playable level is impressive, and the minutest of details such as blades of grass are modeled with polygons and will sway individually in the wind. When Link cuts the grass with his sword, individual blades will fly up into the sky. The multicolored lighting in the game is truly second to none and provides a great deal of atmosphere when mixed with the game's cel-shaded visuals. Link and the other characters in the game also feature self-shadowing for an added touch of realism in an otherwise surreal world.

The Legend of Zelda includes an option to download minigames to the Game Boy Advance, but just one kiosk on the show floor supports the feature, and we have not been able to try it out just yet. But rest assured--when we do, we'll detail it in our next article on the game. The Legend of Zelda is one beautiful game that plays very well, but the demo on display here at the show lacks that innovative gameplay punch that prior games in the series included. Perhaps there are gameplay elements that haven't been revealed yet, but as it stands, the game stays very true to the franchise's heritage. Look for more reports on The Legend of Zelda over the next few days.

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