E3 2011: The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword Preview

Tons of details for Link's new adventure surface as we spend quality time fighting and flying in Skyward Sword at E3 2011.

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Though Nintendo made much ado about the 25th anniversary of The Legend of Zelda during its E3 2011 press conference, it showed precious little of the next new entry in the venerable franchise: Skyward Sword. Fortunately, things were different inside Nintendo's booth on the E3 show floor, where three different demos offered three different experiences. The dungeon and boss battle will sound familiar to anyone who has donned the green tunic before, but bird riding? Now that's a whole different story. We also snagged some new details about Link's sword abilities from the Nintendo executive roundtable, further painting the picture for this attractive new adventure.

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All of the demos took place on a small island chain floating above the clouds. The settlements on top of these land masses had a small-town look reminiscent of other Legend of Zelda starting areas, and the craggy undersides made them seem as if they had sprung from the ground below. In the first demo we played, three great birds streaked across the sky, leaving contrails of red, blue, and green. As they came together in formation, they evoked the three Golden Goddesses (Din, Farore, and Nayru) featured in other Legend of Zelda games, who created the Triforce and the land of Hyrule. These deities have previously bestowed magical power on Link, so perhaps these birds augur the appearance of similar abilities in Skyward Sword.

The trio sped over a lighthouse, and the camera panned down to show Link standing in a line alongside three other townsfolk. Apparently not yet summoned to protect the land of Hyrule and take up the Hylian shield, Link wore a casual outfit with dark green pants, an embroidered brown vest, and a cream-colored long-sleeved shirt. Three town elders stood before him, announcing the start of the bird rider's ceremony. The first competitor to catch up with the golden bird and snatch the statue from its talons would be crowned that year's champion. When the chase began, we were prompted to dash towards the ledge, leap off into oblivion, and press down on the D pad to summon our bird. The reckless leap into a freefall turned out to be a lot of fun, so we stayed in the plunge a little longer than our competitors, reveling in the sensation. Not wanting to linger too long, we whistled and were immediately swept away by our winged mount.

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The bird was quite sizable, comfortably transporting Link on its back with only a neck harness keeping our hero in place. Bright red plumage adorned its head, back, and wings, while white feathers covered its neck, belly, and wingtips. Its neck was curved to look like a pelican, though the large beak was more ducklike, with a sharp tip on the end--kind of like an egg tooth. The field of pursuit was mostly wide open, though a few boulders floated here and there, and our opponents flew off ahead while we figured out the controls. The bird flies in the direction you point the Wii Remote, and shaking the remote causes it to flap, as well as gain both speed and altitude. A tap of the A button was good for a quick speed burst, and pulling the B button slowed the bird down to allow for tighter turning.

At first, it was a bit disorienting, and we had some trouble getting in the race. Flying a bird in Skyward Sword is one of those Wii experiences that improves the more you get into it. It was tough to steer confidently with simple wrist articulations, but when we held our arm out in front of us and began exaggerating our motions, our results improved drastically. We saw the golden bird making a broad left turn and set ourselves on an intercept course. We found that by flying high and then diving down toward the bird, we could close the gap quickly (and the bird tucking its wings in for the dive was an invigorating visual touch). Even once we had the hang of things, the pursuit wasn't easy, and some meddling from our competitors made the challenge a bit tougher. In the end, however, Link prevailed, and on his way back to the ceremony, he got a drop-in visit from Zelda (whom he had to catch after she too leapt off the cliff). The two shared a nice moment, and Zelda looked at Link in an affectionate way before the two headed back to town. Her blond hair and braids looked familiar, but her straight bangs created a distinct look for the new game.

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The dungeon demo took place inside the Sky Temple. Link was dressed in full combat regalia (green garb, sword, Hylian shield) and entered a large domed enclosure. Paths circled around a central chamber and were populated by bats and goblins that we easily dispatched. The large spiders hanging from the ceiling were a different story. In one approach, we just ran up and took a whack at them. This sent them spinning off only to swing back toward us, nasty legs and all. We glimpsed a purple weak spot on the belly area but weren't able to time our sword attacks correctly with the spider's wild multidirectional swinging. Delving into our bag of gadgets, we whipped out the flying beetle we first used in our E3 2010 preview. We launched it from our wrist and then steered it toward the line holding the spider aloft. On the way, we clipped a few boxes free from the ceiling, scattering their contents on the ground before finally snipping that spider's support. Still a formidable foe on the ground, the spider blocked most direct attacks and managed to both wrap us up in webbing and leap up on us with its chitinous arms as we fought to subdue it. The character model added to the creep factor, with beady eyeballs, bristling leg hairs, and a skull-like pattern on its abdomen.

Having finally vanquished the foe, the rest of the dungeon exploration held few surprises. More creative beetle use let us collect key gems, and a battle against a big skeleton forced us to use the deliberate sword tactics we picked up during last year's demo. The Wii MotionPlus corresponds directly to your sword's movements, and enemies are designed to make simple slashing fairly ineffective. While the dungeon structure seemed familiar, the art design gave it a unique and vibrant feel. Glowing mushrooms and frilly foliage grew through cracks in the ground, and toppled pillars gave the impression of a temple long abandoned. Sunlight streamed in from above, illuminating floating dust motes that gave the atmosphere a nice sense of stillness that befits an ancient place. The saturated colors and painterly vibe combined with thoughtful environmental touches to create a very appealing visual palette.

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The final demo pitted Link against a nimble boss named Ghirahim. He was a slender, pale-skinned fellow clad in white, diamond-patterned spandex. He stood cockily with a smirk on his face and a sword in his hand, repelling many of our straightforward attacks with ease and sometimes going so far as to grab our sword with his bare hand. Throwing stars, rushing lunges, and the ability to disappear in a flurry of diamonds made him a formidable opponent; thus, we had to employ assiduous blocking and dodging tactics to avoid death. If this is one of the main villains in Skyward Sword, Link has his work cut out for him.

As if three distinct demos on the show floor weren't enough, later on that day, Nintendo revealed even more details about Link's new adventure. Series producer Eiji Aonuma, at the Nintendo executive roundtable held on the eve of day one of E3, said that beating up on bad guys wouldn't be the only thing Link would be able to do with a sword.

During the roundtable, Aonuma demoed sections of Skyward Sword from a Japanese version of the game. In the first demo, Link came across two molelike humanoid creatures (tentatively called mogmas) talking about how they had broken up the key to a massive door in the level and buried its five pieces in different locations. After dispatching the two mogmas, Link entered dousing mode. This switched the screen perspective to a first-person view, with Link's sword jutting out of the middle. Moving the Wii Remote back and forth made Link move the sword. As he got closer to the location of a buried key piece, the beeping became more insistent and the glow emanating from the center of the screen became larger. Once found, Link switched out of dousing mode and started digging (using special gloves that you'll need to find within the game, Aonuma said), finding the first piece of the key. While the first piece of the key was easy to find, the next few proved more challenging and required some clever lateral thinking (and use of conveniently placed bomb flowers).

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Aonuma's second demo showed how the environment--and how well the player knows it--will be a key component of Skyward Sword. This demo began in the forest area featured in last year's E3 demo. Link plunged his sword into the ground, a move that transformed the familiar surroundings into a strange, muted version of itself. While it was basically the same layout, the environment's coloring and inhabitants had changed--policing this area were a group of large statues called guardians. As Link's sword was still hilt-deep in dirt, he was unarmed in this section, meaning his only option was to flee from the guardians. Link's job while in this mirror world was to collect a number of green orbs, and though he was without a weapon, he was not completely helpless. Scattered throughout the environment were tear-shaped objects, which, when collected, froze all guardians in place for a short amount of time. Aonuma says this type of gameplay will occur regularly in Skyward Sword, which means players will need to become familiar with the title's environments to better cope with their limited abilities in this mirror world.

And so, though you might not have guessed it from Nintendo's Tuesday morning press conference, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword had a big showing at E3 2011. From flying on a majestic new creature to manipulating your environment with the power of your sword, there's plenty of new stuff in store for aspiring adventurers. Skyward Sword is scheduled for release this holiday season, toward the end of 2011.

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