In the grand scheme of things, Zelda titles are one of the main reasons that millions of gamers invest in Nintendo systems... and we've been waiting an age for Skyward Sword. After all, the latest addition to the epic series made its debut this time last year. Thankfully Nintendo brought three short demos along to E3, and in the spirit of comprehensive coverage, I tried the lot.
The first demo level took place in the Sky Temple: an early dungeon that players will encounter in the first third of the game. Links's objective is to locate and collect a number of crystals dotted about an enormous atrium, but first, he'll need to deal with the infestation of bats, spiders and assortment of critters. The swordplay and shield work takes advantage of Wii MotionPlus' enhanced precision; using 1:1 inputs for regular swipes and stabs (which makes you feel absolutely badass, by the way), and simple flicks of the wrist to trigger radial attacks or uppercuts. Hiding behind the shield as simple as holding a button and aiming the nunchuck. A small army of goblin-esque raiders and fragile bats were quickly dispatched using a selection of jabs and blocks, bolstered by simple bow mechanics that feel both precise and powerful.
Armoured spiders presented a far more deadly challenge, as their carapaces were immune to all melee and ranged damage. What's more, they were tethered to the ceiling by their silk strands - and lay either aggravatingly out of reach or ready to swing into you (causing major damage at ground level). Luckily Link's bow is capable of severing these threads, and once brought down to his level, they could be flipped onto the backs by a simple circular flourish or raised onto their hindquarters with a quick flick. Doing so naturally revealed their weak spot, which was subsequently punished by a satisfying stab.
After caning some spiders and nabbing a few crystals, a number of important collectibles remained stubbornly out of reach. Which is where the Beetle Bracelet comes in. This nifty gadget is essentially a UAV drone that can deployed and flown around using the Wiimote's tilt controls - and can pick up rupees, heart pieces, mission-specific items and other goodies with its mandible upgrade. It's more than just a glorified bird dog, though, because the Beetle can be used to safely reconnoitre dangerous new areas, sever spider silk and cut off piranha plants at the stem. In all honestly, the Beetle is set to be one of the most useful Zelda gadgets of all time, and I hope that it becomes a franchise staple.
Along with some basic arrow targeting puzzles, the crystals were soon assembled into a single glorious whole - and the level finished with a quick fight against an enormous skeletal foe. The demo ended halfway through the battle, but from what I could make out, the objective of the exercise was to dissassemble the goliath's armoured suit followed by his skeletal structure itself. You'll need to swing your sword in the right directions to do so, which is a nice cerebral touch.
The Sky Temple dungeon is standard, meaty Zelda fare... but since Skyward Sword is set miles above the clouds that swathe Hyrule an unannounced mysterious evil land, there are going to be a fair few changes this time around. Floating islands provide the solid ground needed for dungeons and quests, and travelling between them will require something a little more versatile than Epona. You'll need a mount that can fly.
We have no idea of the scale and distance between islands, but Nintendo brought along an Eagle racing mode that shows off the flying mechanics and controls to advantage. The wholesome, teenage princess Zelda (no austere or cross-dressing malarkey so far) is offering a prize to the first person who can catch up with a golden bird and snatch a statue from its mighty claws, and after leaping off the side of the island, Link lands on the back of an obliging bird. This avian mount is steered with simple movements of the Wiimote (much like the flying minigame in Wii Sports resort and the Beetle Bracelet's control setups), and can be boosted to provide fast straight line speed or slowed down to vastly increase manoeuvrability.
And that's pretty much it, to be honest. The minigame was short, sweet and perfectly serviceable, though as an exacting fan of arcade flight sims I expected a little more precision and subtlety from the control setup. There's still plenty of time to tweak and tune the inputs, mind, and it works well enough. We're looking forward to soaring high over the enigmatic territories below the clouds (can we call it Hyrule yet?) and enjoying the unrestricted sense of freedom.
To end the session, Nintendo brought along a tough boss fight against Ghirahim: the self-styled ruler of the lower lands and this game's big bad. He's kidnapped Zelda, summoned tornadoes to kill Link and has decided to finish the job personally. Keeping him in view is as simple as holding down the lock-on button, but his range of moves make him an exceedingly tricky opponent despite his early-game status.
As well as a broad horizontal slice, Ghirahim can also teleport around the tight arena in which you fight; using the extra room to cast linear spells that have to be countered by swinging your sword in the right direction. Up close, he's also capable of grabbing your blade and delivering a humiliating finisher - which requires you to pick and choose your moments as well as to dart in and out of engagement range using the dash. I'm looking forward to kicking his androgenous, smirking ass in the full game.
Visually, Skyward Sword is smooth in motion and still shows off the handpainted art style, though the dark and gritty dungeons do a poor job of getting the theme across. The flying level, in contrast, is a symphony of colour, and we hope that a uniformly bright and vivid palette will provide a major contrast to the gritty grime of Twilight Princess.
In summary, then, The Legend Of Zelda: Skyward Sword is set to be another great Zelda game. Expect high adventure, tight combat, great gadgets and a few surprises along the way... which, of course, will come as no surprise to anyone.
And that's fine. Nintendo aren't going to fix what isn't broken. They're just going to make it more interesting this time around.