Previews

Zelda: Skyward Sword - Dethroning Ocarina as best in the series?

The sky certainly isn't the limit...

Twenty-fifth birthdays are a time for taking stock. At 20 you reach a crossroads. By 30 you should be well on your way. At 25 there's still time for an awkward U-turn. Sure, other lives will honk angrily as you block the road, but it's worth it in the end. At E3, the honks come from the Skyward Sword booth.

Link is reinventing himself for his 25th. Skyward Sword talks the Zelda talk, but says the syntax is new. Common terms - chests, keys, dungeons, puzzles, swords, shields - are spun into Zelda beat poetry.

The demo's dungeon segment, for example, unfolds as one large, consistent space as opposed to a chain of puzzle rooms stitched together. So when Link gets trapped in a treasure room, the solution doesn't rest within its four walls, but is reached by piloting your mechanical beetle through a hole.

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MEET THE BEETLES
Like the stylus-guided equipment in Phantom Hourglass, the ability to fully control the beetle enables all kinds of labyrinthine architecture. The central dungeon chamber is lined with vents leading to door switches and rupee stashes.

And not surprising for a yarn revolving around a land nestling in Hyrule's clouds - Skyloft - there's an added verticality to this dungeon. If it's not the beetle flapping towards the heavens, it's Link clambering up vines and swinging Tarzan-style above bone-liquefying falls.

And where Nintendo do trap Link in a traditional locked room, puzzles
refuse to retread old ground. Take the new eyeball door locks. Before Link dizzies them with circular sword swirls he must first get their attention, finding the one spot in the room where all three can see him at once.

MotionPlus combat builds on innovations suggested at E3 2010. Using one-to-one swipes, spiders are flipped onto their hind legs with an upward swipe before a thrust pierces the purple goo pouch in their bellies. A later three-headed hydra must be killed with one swipe before the removed head grows back. Cleanly lopping off three aligned heads and watching the neck stumps violently squirm makes you feel all-powerful.

Combat is built around sudden death blows: identifying weak spots and striking with surgical precision. Steering a blade between a Stalfos's twin swords or skewering a Moblin's armpit as he raises his blade gives swordplay a vicious sting.

Often in Zelda, lock-on feels as if it's doing all the work. Skyward Sword puts the power back in your hands. And hands better be ready, because with fast enemy blocks and powerful attacks, this is shaping into the toughest Zelda yet.

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Swordplay's best proof of concept came in a radical new kind of boss fight: a simple one-on-one duel. No item gimmickry here, just Link's evasive dodges and a limber wrist.

Bad boy Lord Ghirahim toys with Link to begin with, catching his blade between two fingers, forcing you to tug backwards to dislodge. After a few blows he draws his blade and the fight begins proper.

There seems to be a big focus on freedom of approach: in one playthrough we focus on dodging his charges and striking his exposed back.

In the next, we wait for him to teleport behind Link (he's a demon wizard, you see) before turning and landing a quick blow. Another time we focus on batting back lines of five projectiles by swinging along their axes. Each time the fight is won differently.

After all the innovation on display, hopping on board Link's feathered Skyloft mount for a quick chase sequence seems relatively old fashioned. Flying in the cloudbank shows off producer Eiji Aonuma's
gorgeous impressionistic art style best.

The horizon is painted in smeary splodges that merge into solid colour as you near them, but the task simply mimics Wii Sports Resort's planes - although wafting the remote to flap higher is a nice tactile touch.

More importantly, racing around Skyloft hints at bigger things: skydiving, multiple realms to explore, a lovely Zelda redesign (she becomes a willowy Skyloftian babe) and a rather familiar harp... way too much, alas, to fit in this already bursting E3 issue.

Come back next month for every last story secret and more demo access than anyone on the planet - we were the only players to complete it, you know.

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