The appeal of the Legend of Zelda games has generally been described as about the joy of exploring new places and making unexpected discoveries behind every door.
In the case of Skyward Sword, the second door you open leads to a toilet.
My first reaction to this unexpected discovery was that this Wii game, to be released November 20, was that the 25-year-old adventure game series had just had its All In the Family moment. Afterwards I remembered that there had already been a toilet ten years ago in Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. But then, that was played for comic effect; there was a hand creeping out of it asking for paper. The john in Link’s boarding school is just there to be sat on.
But not to be used, of course. This isn’t No More Heroes.
To what end, this partially-interactive crapper? I’d hate to look too deeply into it. Is Nintendo trying to make Zelda, in the oft-repeated words of fans who don’t really know what they’re asking for, more “realistic?” I’m not sure that’s it. I do think it’s trying hard to be different.
Spoiler alert: A description of the first hour of the game follows.
At a recent preview event for Skyward Sword, I got to play through the first few hours of the game. It’s much better at pacing than its direct predecessor Twilight Princess. While that Wii game took its time with players, walking them through all sorts of expository quests and light gameplay before you got to go hack up some bad guys, Skyward Sword mostly dispenses with the preliminaries. It won’t be very long before you’ve got a sword and are trying out the new MotionPlus-enabled combat.
But before all that happens, Link wakes up in his dorm room at the Knight Academy, where he’s learning to be one of the guardians of Skyloft, the world in the clouds he inhabits. The people of Skyloft and the surrounding sky islands speak of the “surface” down below, but no one has ever been there or is even sure it exists. Not even the massive birds that each resident of Skyloft is bonded with at birth can dip below the cloud layer.
After you chat with your fellow knights-in-training, you can leave the Academy to find that one of your teachers needs you to climb up on the roof to rescue the headmaster’s cat-raccoon-whatever pet thing. This is where we begin to learn the basics of movement. The big difference here is that Link has a stamina meter: By holding down the A button, you can turn on the gas while your meter ticks down. If you let it empty out, you’ll be winded, unable to do much, and vulnerable until it fills again.
Sprinting around makes Link’s movements feel a little more free, a little more like the parkour of Assassin’s Creed (if not nearly as grand). Climbing up a ledge or rock used to be clunky, now it all happens gracefully if you run towards it.
Link soon realizes something not good: There’s an important bird-flying contest today, but his bird is gone. Link’s the favorite to win the chance to appear in the ensuing ceremony with the headmaster’s daughter. That’s Zelda, of course. They’ve been best buddies since they were kids, a fact of which the rest of the men in town are quite jealous. Which is why one of them ganked his bird, which he soon learns is at the end of a cave full of monsters.
How convenient for us, who want to learn about how the MotionPlus swordplay works! Through the (required) precision add-on to the Wii remote, Link’s sword matches, roughly, the orientation in which you are holding your controller. So if you hold it to your right side and swing it down, that is the place and direction that Link will attack.
In this first dungeon, where you’re mostly going up against the classic first-dungeon Zelda foes (bats and blobs of jelly), direction doesn’t matter. But as we’ve seen in previous demos of the game, eventually you go up against enemies who must be attacked in very precise places.
I can’t really be sure from my experience so far, but just those first moments made me feel like I might end up actually standing up to play Skyward Sword, so I can do the big, precise arm movements that it seems to want me to. It worked when I played Red Steel 2, although my Zelda play sessions have historically been much lengthier than those for first-person shooters. So I don’t really know how tiring this might get, or how annoying it might be to swing one’s arm on the couch, for a very long time.
But the MotionPlus does change the way you think about interacting with the world. To bust my bird out of his prison, I had to walk up to the ropes tethering the cage together and precisely aim my strikes to slash them. This wasn’t a mini-game or something that was otherwise separated from the main experience, the ropes were just there, in the game world, and I had to make sure I was properly oriented to take them out. So at this point the game was sort of a blend of Assassin’s Creed and Fruit Ninja.
Bird in hand, I went back to the contest. This turned out to be a relatively stress-free way of learning to fly the bird around the sky. You can flap your wings by flapping the controller, pointing it left and right to turn. Like your horse in various other Zelda games, you can spur your bird, causing it to temporarily speed up, a limited number of times. You can also pick up speed on a more permanent basis by flying high and doing a nose-dive towards your target.
With the race won (I did pretty bad, so there’s probably no way to lose), Link and Zelda have their little winner’s ceremony. She makes like she’s about to kiss him but instead she pushes him off a high ledge. This is how we learn about diving; once Link goes to the surface later in the game he needs to dismount by jumping off his bird and parachuting to the ground below.
Later on in the early part of the game, you’ll have to navigate to a part of Skyloft that’s not easily walkable. You’ll have to run up steep hills, shimmy with your hands along thin ledges and climb up vine-covered walls. None of these are particularly new even to this series, but each uses the stamina meter. So you can’t just hang on the ledge or hill or wall forever; you’ve got to make it across in a timely fashion. If you’re feeling impatient you can leap quickly across the handholds by shaking the controller, but this uses up a big chunk of stamina.
Stamina Fruit are scattered about the world, little green tomatillos that instantly refill your meter. Nothing like this happens in the first few hours, but I think it’s a safe bet that some of the tougher challenges in the later parts of the game will involve speed runs that involve serious acrobatics with just enough Stamina Fruit dropped onto the courses to let you make it through if you play perfectly.
That meter also plays a part in battle — you can pull off fun, devastating moves like a spin attack and such, but each one drains the meter. So you’ve got to conserve, or find yourself glowing pink, tapped out of energy and highly vulnerable, something like Little Mac in Punch-Out!!.
So here we are at the end of the tutorial (more stuff happens, but as it’s mostly storyline I will refrain from spoiling it) of Assassin’s Creed plus Fruit Ninja plus Punch-Out!!. At this point, the question most on my mind is, is this really going to feel like a Zelda game? If the mysterious doorway to a surprise toilet was any indication, then yes it will, but not in the ways you’d expect.