Zelda Dungeon Marathon 2019:

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I’m really excited for Skyward Sword. More so even than I was for Twilight Princess – but more subtly in a way. This time, though, I don’t think it’s just the hype talking.

When we first saw Twilight Princess, Aonuma presented it as the “true” Ocarina of Time sequel. Naturally, due to the return to the “realistic” graphical style and the massive draw that game had from the established world of Ocarina, as well as the slew of information we had about the “darker” plot, everybody thought they knew what to expect from the game. Twilight Princess would be the new best game of all time. It would be the bigger and better Ocarina of Time. Right? Some people wound up feeling this way, but by and large the game fell flat on its face in this department. That’s not to say that it’s a bad game by any means, but even the developers themselves have acknowledged that it didn’t meet expectations.

I blame Twilight Princess‘s failure on two main things.

First, as many have commented, the game was basically Ocarina of Time 1.5, with Midna, a Wolf, and Twilight. The game tried too much to emulate the world of Ocarina and not hard enough to establish its own unique flavor. Where the developers did try to push novelty in the game world, it often came off as out-of-place. Remember that scene of Link arriving at the Hidden Village in classic Western style? That’s what I’m talking about.

Second, we knew too much about the game too soon. More than a year before the game came out, we already had received a lot of info about Midna, the Twilight, and Wolf Link, as well as seen how these elements would play into the game’s overall flow. Zant appeared in some of the earliest trailers, and we heard pretty early on about Ganon’s involvement in the game. Not only that, many of the new features such as horseback combat, the hawk, the expanded fishing system, as well as a number of cutscene clips, had also appeared. There were a few surprises that we didn’t find out about until release, such as the items that debuted in the dungeons in the latter part of the game – but none of these were especially game-making. And lest we forget, much of the content seen in the earliest trailers was completely absent from the final game; hence, Exhibit A:

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Even if Twilight Princess had been the “best thing ever,” its userbase became divided when they released the Wii version first. From a money-making perspective, it’s easy to see why they did so. They had no other strong Nintendo brand to push the Wii’s appeal to their existing consumers in time for launch day. Having Twilight Princess first release for Wii would encourage people to make the purchase, even if they already planned to buy the game for GameCube. Unfortunately the rushed nature of the Wii port to push it out before the console’s debut meant the incorporation of motion controls was by and large shallow, which wound up hurting the reception of the game.

Then there were people like me who were not willing to wait all night in line to get a Wii, but still wanted to get in on the phenomenon that was Twilight Princess – and lo and behold the power of the Internet completely spoiled any surprises the game could possibly have in store. Yes, that’s mostly the responsibility of those of us who couldn’t wait, but it would never have happened if not for the game’s initial inaccessibility to GameCube users.

On the other hand, Nintendo has shown us Skyward Sword in a completely different manner so far. There was really very little “new” information presented to us at E3. We saw how Wii Motion Plus was integrated into combat, we saw the slingshot, bow, bombs, and whip, which are all old items, and the comeback of old features like the sword beam. You could make the argument that Wii Motion Plus is new, but it’s nothing we didn’t know about before from developer statements. The only true “news” we got were the introduction of the Beetle item – which wasn’t even appropriately demoed – the graphical presentation – which definitely came as a surprise to many of us – the streamlined HUD, and the dash button and stamina meter.

In retrospect, I would sum up Skyward Sword‘s presentation as a “how to play” session, a glorified instruction manual to show off the game’s incorporation of Wii technology. This isn’t all that surprising – the Wii controls are really the only element of the game that really needs field-testing, so that they can be refined in response to demo reactions. As an added bonus, we got a little taste of their new dungeon style – they described the demo’s setting as a dungeon area but by appearances it looks to be seamlessly integrated with the surrounding area. This is not unlike the approach they took with the first demo of Twilight Princess‘s Wii controls, with one critical difference.

Outside of the on-stage performance, most of the screenshots we’ve seen have been of the area Miyamoto already showed us in this demonstration. We still haven’t seen any real story or any characters, and there’s only been one real cutscene clip – the one of Link jumping off the cliff from the end of the trailer. The slice of story that they handed out during the closed developer session was cool, but doesn’t tell us much about how the game is going to progress from a plot structure standpoint. (For a lot of people, it’s not really “news” anyway.) Even a few months after E3, the newest screenshots still don’t show much outside of that demo area.

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So when I say that I’m not excited about Skyward Sword because of the hype: I mean it. Nintendo has clearly been trying to deliver an experience that is something we don’t expect – and even after the game’s reveal I still don’t know what to expect (and therefore have very little to hype up). This is very different from the Twilight Princess approach, where the developers constantly teased us with new information and delayed release dates, and tried very carefully to meet the expectations set for the game: an ambitious story with realistic graphics and lots of items and dungeons that’s set in a big overworld. Skyward Sword on the other hand defies the rubric laid down by fans – Aonuma has commented that he has tried to say away from the overly-ambitious approach in these areas and instead to focus even more on the core of the game.

We’ve seen this approach before with Spirit Tracks – all we knew about from E3 until about a month before release was the one in-your-face novelty of the game: that of course being the Spirit Train. Everything else was mum, kept heavily under wraps until it was fully fleshed out and ready for release day. It kept expectations reasonably low, and delivered more of a punch than most of us probably expected from a sequel to the controversial (but still commercially successful) Phantom Hourglass.

And here’s the bottom-line: what we’ve seen so far with Skyward Sword‘s game engine is classic Zelda unleashed, a healthy blend of the new with the old. We get to fight monsters with a mighty arsenal of fantasy weapons and gadgets – this time with more integrated control than ever before. We get to explore a fantastic environment and use our tools to discover secret pathways. And that’s what Zelda is all about, right? Not character development, a realistic world, a deep and dark story. These are all pluses if they can be done (and done well), but Zelda‘s always been fine without them. I’d rather Nintendo not hold themselves back trying to meet unnecessary expectations and just deliver on a fine-tuned gaming experience, as they always have. Thankfully, it looks like they’re making an effort to do that with Skyward Sword.

Show me what you’ve got, Zelda team. But save the bulk of it for launch day.

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