It's been five years since the last full Legend of Zelda game arrived on home consoles, but now Skyward Sword is ready to help usher in the Wii's twilight period before the launch of the WiiU. Far from being the twilight of the series, however, Skyward Sword acts as a prequel (as much as the word can apply) to the rest of the games, albeit mostly to Ocarina of Time. Looking to attract both those new to the series and the longtime fans, Nintendo has set some high expectations with changes that look to reinstill the shine required by something so long-running, all while keeping it unmistakably Zelda.
"Nintendo has gone all out to try and infuse Skyward Sword with the freshness needed for a memorable experience."
While Wind Waker took the series to the seas, Skyward Sword takes Link into the skies and the land of Skyloft. The game starts with Link, not yet donning his familiar green outfit, experiencing a strange nightmare before waking up on an important day. On this day Link is required to prove that he and his loftwing, the flying companion of every Skyloft citizen and effectively Skyward Sword's replacement for Epona, should be chosen to collect an offering for the Sky Goddess. Link's loftwing is a rare crimson breed, and this is the cause for much jealousy, manifesting itself early on with the capturing of Link's loftwing by one of his rivals.
Skyward Sword's world is split into two lands: the land in the skies that contains Skyloft, where Link was raised and begins the game, and another land on the surface below ruled by dark forces. Upon discovering the titular sword, Link inherits the ability to travel between both lands and throughout the game slowly discovers the reasons for the world's split. The sword is linked with Ocarina of Time's Master Sword, as well as a female figure that appears in the game's artwork. In a departure from the rest of the series, Zelda takes the role of Link's childhood friend instead of being a princess, although it is certain that Link will still have to spend at least part of the game searching for her. Initial reports are that there is a lot of closeness demonstrated between Link and Zelda early on and the plot has been compared to "something like a school drama" by producer Eiji Aonuma. Link's primary antagonist for the game is stated to be the new character, Ghirahim, ruler of the surface world.
The aforementioned early capture of Link's loftwing gives players the chance to get to grips with the basic controls and combat options, as well as explore the area and interact with the NPCs. However, as in previous games, certain areas are sealed off until certain equipment or skills are obtained. After retrieving his loftwing, Link is able to ride in races and explore the wider world. The loftwing is controlled by holding the remote similarly to a paper airplane, with motions altering its direction. Shaking the controller increases the loftwing's speed, while an attack/speed boost can be initiated using the A button. To decrease the loftwing's speed, players can press the down button.
Unlike its predecessor, Skyward Sword has been designed for the Wii from its onset, enabling it to take further advantage of the motion controls. The Wii MotionPlus peripheral is mandatory for the game, which borrows some of the technology from Wii Sports Resort for the sword fighting. In a huge improvement over the random swinging from Twilight Princess, player movements now correspond directly, so a vertical swipe of the remote is matched by a vertical swipe from Link. Charged attacks are still possible by holding the sword in a 'pre-strike' position for a few seconds, and the familiar spin attacks are performed by moving both nunchuk and remote in the same direction. The nunchuk also controls Link's shield, and flicking it will cause Link to do a shield bash that may stun enemies.
Once again Link has access to an array of extra equipment and gadgets, including some new entries for Skyward Sword and new control methods for familiar ones. Bombs can now be rolled or thrown depending on the action used, and arrows can be drawn by mimicking a bowstring with the nunchuk. New gadgets include a whip that can grab items from a distance and a beetle that Link can launch and steer using the remote. The beetle can be used to pick up far away or hidden items, or used offensively such as by dropping bombs on enemies. Those with experience of the Zelda series will find little surprising in the basic formula of the dungeons. Link must solve various puzzles in order to advance, frequently requiring use of the gadgets he picks up on his travels, before taking on the dungeon's boss. The boss battles in Zelda games are renowned for providing a sense of occasion and challenge, requiring players to suss out the appropriate method for defeating each one, and it seems Skyward Sword keeps the tradition alive and well.
Skyward Sword takes a more vibrant and colourful approach to the visuals than the considerably darker Twilight Princess. However, it certainly doesn't go as far as Wind Waker, striking an attractive balance between the two that keeps the Zelda feel. As to be expected from a Zelda game, players will visit locations of wildly varying themes including deserts, lava, forests, and lakes. In addition to flying on his loftwing, Link is also able to swim and dive in aquatic locations, as well as collect various bugs that can be used to create potions back in Skyloft. Players have the ability to customize the UI by selecting one of three options, each of which displays a different level of detail. The Standard option has been shown in most screenshots so far, with a silhouette of the controller displayed with the potential commands that can be given at all times. The Light option also displays the commands, but only at appropriate times and without the silhouette. Finally, the Pro option does not show the silhouette or commands and instead only shows essential information like the health bar.
After a long wait time, and with some believing that the series had shown indications of becoming stale with Twilight Princess, Nintendo has gone all out to try and infuse Skyward Sword with the freshness needed for a memorable experience. It's unlikely that the game will fully make up for the relatively lackluster library on the Wii for many, but could go a long way to help show that Nintendo still has what it takes in time for the launch of the WiiU. The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword is due out exclusively on the Wii on November 20, 2011 in North America, with the European release two days earlier.