By now I’ve had enough hands-on time with Skyward Sword that I think it’s safe to say that I know the demo backwards and forwards, and you know what? I’ve never been more impressed with a Zelda game before. Not even with Ocarina of Time, which was my very first experience with the series, or Majora’s Mask, which is to date my favorite game in the franchise, or The Wind Waker, which helped bring me out of one of the hardest times of my life, or Twilight Princess, which had the most refined gameplay engine of all the 3D games thus far.

It’s a bit of a bold statement, isn’t it? But I’m not the only one who thinks so – Miyamoto made Skyward Sword’s perfection an ultimatum for the Zelda team, and clearly he seems to think the game is good enough to refer to it as finished on-stage at the biggest gaming presentation of the year. And yesterday, Nate tackled the question himself, albeit from an onlooker’s perspective rather than a hands-on one. What is it that makes Skyward Sword tick? Is it the Wii Motion Plus? Is it its awesome story?

Skyward Sword Official Art 015Wii Motion Plus is definitely a big part of it – enough that I’m convinced that no future console Zelda title that doesn’t make use of the technology will ever hold a candle to the experience it offers. Everything has been taken into account when it comes to Wii Motion Plus – and I mean absolutely everything. Sword-fighting to arrow-shooting, Beetle-launching to bomb-tossing, shield-bashing to slingshot-slinging – it’s all perfectly tuned to motion control. It all feels right, as though Motion Plus has always been a part of the series, as though it belongs.

If you’re afraid about Motion Plus calibration issues, set those worries aside: you can quickly adjust your controller by aiming at the center of the screen and pressing Down on the D-pad at any time while the pointer is active. It’s smooth and fast and definitely a welcome improvement over the Wii Sports Resort re-calibration methods. (I only ran into problems once, and it was in the last couple hours of the convention – do you know how much abuse those show floor remotes take? Hint: a lot.)

Thumbnail image for s9.jpgThe improved control style isn’t even the half of it, though; the true excellence comes from the game design. Enemies are now harder than they’ve been in any 3D Zelda before thanks to higher aggression levels (not insanely higher, just enough to keep you on your toes) and their improved defensive tactics. Even on my third playthrough I took a few beatings from common baddies like Boboklins. A lot of people have been describing enemies as “combat puzzles,” but I don’t feel that does them their due justice – calling them “puzzles” suggests there’s only one solution, and these monsters usually have multiple weaknesses.

Bosses have been improved in similar ways. During the short battle against Ghirahim, you could try to just avoid his attacks and get close enough to hack away, or you could incorporate some of the strategies that work against other enemies and obstacles to score yourself some easier hits. Unlike previous bosses in the 3D Zelda games, there’s no set formula that you have to follow; you’re free to fight as you choose. It’s frankly the best Zelda combat system you’ll ever experience.

Speaking of freedom and choice – they seem to be the law of the land this time around. Dungeons are generally pretty open-ended. You have to complete certain rooms to finish, but in general you’re free to explore and figure things out in any order you choose. I saw all kinds of different approaches to the demo dungeon, despite its small size and scope. Some players went after the structure in the middle, some started off by scouting for hidden items with the Beetle, some ran around fighting all of the enemies before they investigated with their items. There are some parts that you needn’t attempt at all – on my last playthrough, I skipped the Stalfos battle and Beetle upgrade altogether.

It sounds innovative, but in many ways it’s all too familiar. Non-linear dungeons were a staple of the original Zelda games from The Legend of Zelda to A Link to the Past, where entire segments of the dungeon could be skipped over. Have you taken a look at our A Link to the Past walkthrough? Some of my strategies for the later dungeons involve skimming more than half of a given level. In Skyward Sword, this could take the form of clever patterns of use for or ways of finding keys so that you can enter doors you might have had to put off, finding an alternate route to reach a certain area – the possibilities are endless, really, and the fact that the exploration demos from both E3s featured non-linearity prominently likely indicates that it’s just as big a part of the final game.

03.jpgAll the other gameplay additions are excellent: the new inventory wheels work exactly as Miyamoto said they would, acting as “virtual pockets” of sorts that you dig through to find the item you need. The stamina and shield meters add an extra degree of challenge to both combat and exploration. If you run too long, you’ll tire out, leaving you vulnerable to enemies. At the same time, running can be key – and it seems it’ll feature especially heavily in the Siren World as you flee the guardians of that realm. If you hide behind your shield too much, it’ll break, leaving you defenseless – although fortunately you’ll have the option to carry spares if necessary. The map is miles better than previous Zelda games, owed largely to the massive increase in detail shown. I walked away with the impression that this game has done just as much to upgrade the Zelda experience that Ocarina of Time did almost thirteen years ago.

The story seems to be shaping up to be batshit insane amazing – and by that I don’t necessarily mean super deep or intricate or with tons of character development, I just mean that it’s primarily concerned with conveying the Hyrule world in which the game takes place. In other words, it’s a classic Zelda hero story, the kind everybody really wants. But it also does have that character and charm – we can clearly see that from Link’s rivals up in Skyloft and in the cutscenes surrounding the first encounter with Ghirahim.

The graphics? Positively stunning and ubiquitously implemented – if you look closely you can see the paint effect in almost every game world feature, and of course there’s also a sort of distance distortion that fleshes out this style even more (it’s particularly noticeable in Skyloft as you gaze off at the receding clouds). Character models and animations – facial expression especially – are better than ever before. Link’s weird run still leaves a bit to be desired, but thankfully you’ll more than likely dash for significant portions of your long-distance treks anyway. And man is Zelda cute.

I didn’t get to experience much in terms of the sound and music until I hopped online to check out the recent showcase. Link’s voice really does sound deliciously smexy – and hot damn this game has some of the best, most atmospheric music not only in the Zelda series but in any game ever. The live orchestral tracks really give life to the score – I noticed this particularly strongly in the remixes of classic Zelda jingles like the item acquisition and puzzle-completion chimes. The return of the musical blasts behind Link’s sword strokes, only seen elsewhere in The Wind Waker, is more than welcome and really underlines the key thing that makes this game tick…

s10.jpg…and that’s that it’s a unique synthesis of novelty and innovation and a sort of “Best of” compilation of ideas from all the fan favorites. Ocarina of Time, A Link to the Past, The Wind Waker, Twilight Princess, Spirit Tracks – all of them have something to contribute. We see an expansion of the mythos laid down by Link to the Past and Ocarina; the islands in the sky, clearly based on Wind Waker’s ocean overworld; the Siren World, which works as a neat blend of the Twilight Realm’s parallel world structure and Spirit Tracks’ Tower of Spirits thanks to its Tears of Light quests and stealth exploration elements. And all of these concepts seem to have been more thought-out, fleshed-out, well put together, and just plain fun than anything we’ve experienced before.

Add some of the best improvements to the series ever – even better and more impactful in my opinion than Ocarina’s jump to 3D – and you’ve got yourself what by all accounts looks like the magic formula for creating the Best Zelda Game of All-Time. And if Ocarina of Time’s acclaim is any indication – that could mean it’ll become the new Best Game of All-Time.

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