PREVIEW: The Legend of Zelda – Skyward Sword

“Your right hand is the sword, your left hand holds the shield,” I was told. And with those few words, it seems like Nintendo might have finally got it (by George!). This is the game the Wii was designed for. Two-handed motion-controlled sword-fights and adventure, a natural intuitive combat and – of course – some of the world’s most beloved characters thrown in, as well.

But let’s start at the beginning. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword kicks off above the clouds, in a scene reminiscent of Wind Waker – but even nostalgia hasn’t made that one look as good as this. Visually, picture the more-realistic graphics from Twilight Princess, smushed with the colourful style of Wind Waker and you’re halfway there. The charming, cartoon graphics might not hold up against next-gen HD consoles, but that’s part of their charm.

Take everything you’ve learned about Wii gaming – the fact that you can trick most games into working perfectly well with miniscule movements, rather than the baseball swing it pretends to encourage. Forget that. Forget any Wii controlled game you’ve played to date. This time around, 1:1 Wii Motion Plus interpretation means that if you waggle your Wii-mote at the screen, Link will waggle his sword at the enemy – and that’s not an effective battle approach.

It’s a bit of a learning curve, trying to remember to use full, flowing sword strokes – button mashing (or the motion-sensing equivalent) won’t get you through, here – not like it did in Twilight Princess. Once you’ve learned though, you’ll be wielding that steel like Zorro, blade flashing and enemies falling at your feet.

Different enemies, of course, attack with different methods – and it’s up to you to match them. Deku Baba plants have horizontally- or vertically-opening jaws, requiring an attack in the right direction to dispatch. Skulltula spiders (quite large, quite terrifying) have a protective layer of armour across their backs, but a soft underbelly that is vulnerable to attack when, say, they’re flipped upside down by a well-placed upper-cut. Ghirahim’s magical darts can be used against him by simply swatting them back in his direction.

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It’s not all combat, though. There are birds, too – and Link can fly them (both in-game from point to point and also in assorted mini-games). Technically they’re called Loftwings, and Link is a Sky Warrior. This is all set up as part of the backstory to the game – while Link is training at the Knight Academy, Zelda is the (very beautiful) headmaster’s daughter. It’s classic stuff, but it’s great to see something more thoughtful than the traditional “Oh, hey – you’re the Chosen One!” we’ve seen before from the series.

Everything starts languidly, cute characters gently interacting as a storyline unfolds like flower petals. Things proceed swimmingly for the young pair, until – surprise! – disaster strikes and Zelda is kidnapped. I’d put that as a spoiler alert, but if you didn’t think you’d have to rescue her from something, you’re playing the wrong game.

Developer Shigeru Miyamoto is quoted as observing that “It’s not about game density, but about the density of play.” Skyward Sword looks at the lessons learned from Twilight Princess and moves on from there – less aimless wandering, better designed dungeons, and dense gameplay. The endless strolls from one side of the map to the other have been axed, with non-dungeon areas packed with puzzles and alternate routes.

Meanwhile, the world – traditionally split into overworld and dungeons, now throws an extra layer into the mix, the Sky, complete with floating islands. This new game world provides a map which ties everything else together, similar to the ocean in Wind Waker. Fly from spot to spot with your Loftwing, holding the Wii-mote like a dart you are about to throw. That 1:1 motion sensing comes in here again, the slightest movements can throw your bird off course, or plunging into a tailspin. Easy to recover, but a reminder to stay on your toes.

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Twilight Princess was many people’s first real-game experience with the Wii, back when it first launched. It’s only fitting then that Skyward Sword be released now, in what seems to be the (pardon the pun) console’s twilight.

My time with the game was all-too-brief, with all-too-long a wait before I can get my hands on it again. Hands. Both of them. One on my sword, the other on my shield. I can’t wait.

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