November's The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword looks almost nothing like the old Nintendo Entertainment System Zelda II, but now that I've finished the new Wii game's first dungeon, I can say that, folks, after more than 20 years, the wait is over. We can finally call a Zelda a role-playing game again.
The last time I think the Zelda series deserved to be called an RPG was in 1989, maybe 1990, when I was playing Zelda II in my parent's house, black Nintendo player's guide at my side.
When 13-year-old me played that second-ever Zelda game, I was experiencing an installment of the series that wasn't just about exploration and combat, puzzle-filled dungeons and doing exciting things while great video game music played. I was playing a Zelda that was also about math—about stats!—and allowed for some decision-making that might make my Link, hero of Zelda, a little different than yours. I was playing a Zelda I'd call an RPG.
For years people kept trying to call new Zelda games RPGs, but the term became less and less appropriate. Zelda games have been loved, but they've hardly earned that RPG label of late. And so what? They were wonderful, mostly. Maybe they didn't need to also be RPGs.
I think gamers expect certain things of the games they call role-playing games. They expect a long adventure, a quest. They also expect choice: choice of what to say, choice of who to help or hurt, choice of which armor to wear or guns to upgrade, and choice of which items to buy and sell. People who play RPGs play with a to-do list in their head as they consciously or subconsciously make decisions about who the character they are playing will become. Their character gradually morphs from stock world-saver into someone who feels and is customized, special. Zelda games had the long quests, but they didn't offer much choice and hid the few stats that used to define their hero's abilities.
Choice wasn't abundant in Zelda, certainly not the kind that would create statistically distinct experiences from one player to the next. In a Fallout or even a Final Fantasy RPG we could bet that I set my characters up differently with different skills or weapons or levels of proficiency.
If you and I played through any post-Zelda II Zelda game we would have very similar experiences. Our Links would be the same, our experiences close to identical. I might collect more heart containers than you and finish a few more side-quests, but we'd get through the same dungeons with the same items, using the same swords and slingshots that all had the same attack and defense properties. I'd bolster my arrows to shoot fire; so would you. We both would have to finish the game. Skyward Sword, surprise, surprise, isn't exactly like that.
Your Skyward Sword Link will probably be outfitted distinctly from mine and measure up differently statistically. If we both play through the game, we'll have made different choices, maybe not in terms of quests or dialogue (I wasn't shown enough of the game to see any signs that there are branching paths), but, having played through the first dungeon and poked around in the game, I can now tell that we will have customized different Links. I didn't figure this out directly. No one told me this. I sniffed it out, and I think that RPG scent is real.
Before I get deep into what's so interesting and RPG-ish about Skyward Sword, which I played in a conference room staffed by Nintendo personnel earlier this week, I must say that I don't want try to stretch the Zelda II comparison too far. That game was a side-scroller. It starred Link in a strange adventure that introduced towns to the series and experience points, the latter of which then vanished and have not returned in this new Wii adventure.
Skyward Sword stars Link. It's no side-scroller, of course. It's a lush, modern three-dimensional Zelda. People who don't consume every Zelda in full might not even sense that this new one is that different, but in it, just under the surface are many little-discussed elements I found while clearing the game's first dungeon. These little RPG-ish things got me appreciating how different this new quest is.
The dungeon I fought and puzzled through in front of those Nintendo folks is called the Skyview Temple, or Forest Temple. It's the first one in the game and has mostly been shown already in videos (like this one) shot at June's E3 gaming bonanza. You reach the dungeon after a land sequence I didn't play which itself follows the game's opening section in a city on the clouds (our Kirk Hamilton wrote about the game's opening cloud-based adventure last week). At E3 in L.A., gamers got to rush through as much of the forest temple as they could on a 10-minute timer. They could also skip ahead and fight the dungeon boss.
There's no timer in the real game, so I played Skyward Sword's first dungeon at my own pace, swiping Link's sword through spiderwebs, battling with big spiders, fighting Stalfos (skeleton dudes), getting the remote-controlled beetle gadget, figuring out how to unlock doors guarded by giant eyeballs, chopping the heads off a tri-headed beast in one correctly-angled stroke of the Wii Remote Plus, swinging on vines a bit, finding the map, swimming, raising the water level in the dungeon (don't panic! It's no Water Temple), finding the boss key and preparing to fight the boss. I did all that at my leisure.
At my leisure, I also poked around in the game's menus. Zelda fans know that's where you learn cool stuff. In those Zelda menus I began to find more signs of how the game is RPG-like. I already knew that shields can degrade and need to be repaired. That had been shown at E3. In the menu, I could see my wooden shield's damage bar and assess whether it needed repairs. Managing the condition of an item like that? That's fairly RPGish, yes? I could also see a full page of potentially collectible items, most of them not yet found and shown only in silhouettes, mostly bugs and I think some skulls and other loot drops. I got a sense there might be a crafting system. Ah, very RPG, if true. (I didn't actually find a crafting system yet.)
In one of the game's menus I found some numbers. They were a big surprise. I was—bear with me—talking to my in-game friend when this happend. Or, I was talking to Fi, the spirit or whatever she is that accompanies you in your quest, morphs into your sword and talks a bit like a computer. In a menu for her, I found an option to ask her for advice. She'll give a hint about what you should do next. I then found an even more peculiar option to ask her for "analysis". What's that all about? I selected it and got to read some text from her. She told me that the suitability of the items I was carrying was at 75% for the area I was in and that the items in my pouch were balanced.
I'm happy to see Stephen also noticed the increased, almost RPGish depth of Skyward Sword. Hi, Kirk here, just wanted to chime in. Stephen picked up his New York demo right about where my SF demo (which we ran last week) left off. There were a few small things I saw that I haven't written about—leaving the village of Skyloft and landing in the green glens and valleys of Faron Woods and its environs. While I was there, Fi taught me about Dowsing, (first-person homing beacon following) and also met some incredibly cute little guys called Kikwis.
The more I think about the game, the more I get that feeling of possibility that marks all RPGs. Typically, Zelda games feel more like process to me than possibility. You get the tool for the job, and then you do it. It works: Nintendo's process is really fun! But it's not the same as in a full-on RPG, that feeling of "The sky's the limit!" I'm really more of an RPG Guy at heart—I like stats, I like tailoring to my own play-style. Skyward Sword feels comfortable to me in a way that some other Zelda games haven't. As Stephen points out, it's still very much Zelda—there's no leveling or experience points, and there's no branching narrative. But still, several layers of depth have been carved into the sturdy tree-trunk of classic Zelda gameplay, and for an old-school RPG fan like me, it's a welcome addition.
The Nintendo people I was playing the game in front of weren't ready to spill. I'd learn more about what that all meant the more I played, they told me. But I'd learned enough: You can have an unsuitable array of pouch items in this game! That sure sounds like a weird thing to get excited about. But if you've played Zeldas you know that the game doesn't ever tell you that you have unsuitable items. The games don't calculate the suitability of what you've stocked. The games don't do this because it just doesn't matter. In Zelda games past you either had what you needed or you didn't; you were either right or wrong. In percentage terms you were either 0%s suitable or 100% suitable. Maybe you were short a health potion, but you pretty much always were what I guess you'd have to call balanced. But Skyward Sword does calculate and weight exactly these kinds of things, somehow, for some reason. I'm sure playing would reveal more, but...
I also found another Fi menu option called "Rumors". I asked the Nintendo people if they could comment on it, which is an inside joke (loyal Kotaku readers will get it). What Rumors would Fi tell me about, I wondered? I clicked the option for her to speak. She started talking about a rumor that "medals" will give you beneficial effects as long as you're carrying them. Oh my. Effects? I can equip special items that bolster certain qualities of my hero or his gear? That's pure RPG right there. I couldn't find any medals, mind you. I didn't even have the one she described, which was a so-called potion medal that extends the duration of potion effects.
These are the exact kinds of things I wasn't expecting to find: evidence that there is more choice about the kind of Link I can be in Skyward Sword. That's not the kind of choice, underpinned by the mathematics of status effects and item balance that we've had in Zelda games just about ever. I assure you that this game hasn't gone full hardcore RPG. Not even close. You're still going through dungeons finding major items required to solve specific puzzles, all as you would in any Zelda, but on the periphery of a familiar blueprint I see options to tweak some of the finer details of this latest Link quest.
From the start, Nintendo has encouraged Zelda fans to think of Skyward Sword as something special. As the years of promotion for the game have gone by, it's become clear that much of what's special about this Zelda is how atypical a modern Nintendo game it is. The game's a little tougher and a lot longer—50-100 hours, they claim—than the kinds of easy, quick-play games Nintendo has marketed for the mainstream Wii market. It's for hardcore Nintendo fans who want a long adventure that will test them.
It has not been clear, these last few years, however, how atypical a Zelda this would be. It has long appeared to be a common one, structured with an overworld and dungeons, steadily cajoling the player to think and battle through a fantastic world while acquiring bombs, shields and swords. Typical, typical Zelda stuff. But at a more granular level this week I saw signs that there is something fundamentally different about this new Zelda game.
The marketing for Skyward Sword advertises how, thanks to the required Motion Plus tech, the game will require players to think about the deliberate directions they swing their Wii remote, so that they can enjoy relatively complex swordplay. That marketing hasn't advertised the apparent truth that gamers will also be cajoled to think about the deliberate ways they customize their hero, choosing specific ways for Link to arm himself and boost his abilities.
This isn't a full swing to BioWare or Final Fantasy role-playing game territory for the Zelda series. I saw no signs of experience points and I still expect there to be, at most, a tidy array of weapons and items.
This is, however, a clear swing toward an almost forgotten aspect of Zelda. Skyward Sword makes Zelda an RPG again, at least through the first dungeon and hopefully far beyond.
(Look for more coverage about Skyward Sword here on Kotaku in the coming weeks. The game will be out on the Wii on November 20.)