Looking into the sky during The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, the pertinent question wasn't "I wonder if there's anyone up there with that evil moon." No, no. It was "Oh, god, I'm going to die, I should probably play that tune that rewinds time."
We've gone deep underground and scaled the highest of mountains in a Zelda game before, but we've barely taken to the skies. In a series rooted in formula, even such a drastic change in setup makes The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword feel different than previous games, even if so much of the game itself is very much still traditional Zelda.
I spent time playing through the opening hours of Skyward Sword earlier this week, a game Nintendo has been working on for something like five years, encompassing the lifespan of the Wii console itself. Nintendo's embargo for that play session is extensive and nuanced, which means I'm awfully limited on what I can tell you, as my impressions would otherwise be spread out over four different sets of write-ups.
I can tell you my mindset going into playing a near-final version of Skyward Sword, though. I don't think I'm the only Zelda fan who played a slice of Twilight Princess and somehow never wound up finishing it. I wouldn't even go so far as to say Twilight Princess was bad, but nothing about the game connected with me. It just felt like another Zelda adventure--good enough for some, not enough for me. Then again, I'm the kind of Zelda fan who champions Majora's Mask as a series high.
I never wanted Nintendo to dump Link into a gritty, realistic world. Of course, "gritty, realistic world," is now a phrase so cliched it no longer provides context. And so perhaps my rejection of Twilight Princess was a subconscious eyeroll at a thing that didn't feel very Zelda at all. There are enough games that tread into the hyperbolic darkness, and I didn't need Zelda to head down that path, too. Majora's Mask was a wonderful balance of looming dread, but one that still felt very Zelda.
...it's also possible Twilight Princess was simply boring.
Having mostly skipped the last major Zelda release and never finding time to play Phantom Hourglass or Spirit Tracks, I've come to Skyward Sword with a particularly open mind. It's been years since being immersed within the Zelda formula, so the idea of playing a variation on something very, very familiar is nostalgically appealing, especially since Skyward Sword will arrive around the time Skyrim does. The two could not be any further in terms of what they're trying to accomplish in strictly RPG terms, but what Skyrim and Skyward Sword do have in common is a joyous embrace of player discovery.
There is a world beneath the clouds in Skyward Sword that I cannot tell you about today. The city of Skyloft is where your journey begins. Just before that, however, the game opens with a logo reminding players it's the the 25th anniversary of the Zelda franchise. Nintendo actually calls back to this within the game itself, as Skyloft is not-so-coincidentally celebrating the 25th anniversary of a special tradition when the game opens. The reference is just fourth-wall enough to elicit a chuckle.
The next hour is spent doing the now expected Zelda thing of playing a lengthy story intro that also functions as a tutorial. Getting eased into combat is more important this time, too, as Motion Plus means there's more finesse than spamming a button. Every slash is important in Skyward Sword, and while even after a few hours I had trouble reliably performing the "stab" move by moving the Wii remote forward, the rest came naturally. You cannot "waggle" in Skyward Sword, as the enemies are quick, smart and will block your attempts to take them out.
When you decide to swing, be quick and deliberate. You best not miss.
Skyward Sword also channels Wind Waker in distinct ways.
The visuals have a watercolor appearance that's more pronounced as objects move into the background, creating a sense of depth more interesting than simply putting things in and out of focus. The transition is not entirely consistent, with certain up-close camera producing a screen entirely watercolored.
More importantly, the journey feels like Wind Waker; upon gaining access to your air-bound Loftbird, there's an enormous sky canvas to paint on. Feel like aimlessly wandering? You can. See an island in the distance and suspect a heart piece might be in the bushes? Find out! I didn't have a chance to discover much but I did poke around the map, and it was clear Nintendo has spent the last half-a-decade making sure there are plenty to find. Completionists should be excited...and scared.
Guiding the Loftbird around is effortless, as well, and encourages players to make subtle control choices. Swinging the Wii remote around will not accomplish much, and the Loftbird responded soundly enough that I could imagine the game throwing some wicked flight challenges Link's away.
But just as as my adventure began...it was over. That really means something, given we're talking about a game Shigeru Miyamoto claims could encompass anywhere from 50 to 100 hours to fully explore.
Two hours was not enough to make many determinations about Skyward Sword, as I put down the Wii remote outside the first dungeon. The base mechanics have evolved in Skyward Sword, partially through more nuanced motion controls and some neat additions that I (shock!) can't really say much about. How much Zelda deviates, changes or twists what happens once the quest to save the world begins is what will make the real difference here, and knowing that will have to wait a tad longer.