I know it's terribly cliched, but my favorite game series has always been The Legend of Zelda. There's something that's always appealed to me about their harmonious blend of puzzles, exploration, and combat. Despite following a familiar formula of moving from an overworld to a dungeon and back again, there's always been a unique flavor to each Zelda title. From the garish melancholy of Majora's Mask, to the bright cartoon world of Wind Waker, to Twilight Princess' earthly beauty each game has had a unique look and feel to it if not a unique structure. It's not yet apparent if Skyward Sword will rock the boat there, but it definitely feels unlike any other Zelda mechanically due to it being the first game in the series to use Wii motion plus controls.
This opens up a lot of possibilities, but for a controller that's supposed to make games more accessible, I found it rather difficult to adapt to.
In my brief hands-on demo, I was given a glimpse at how the game handles traversal. Instead of traveling by boat or train, this time Link takes to the skies by sailing on a bird. The demo began with someone instructing Link and a few other NPCs how to fly before tasking them with chasing after a golden bird, not unlike quidditch. As soon as control reverts back to Link he's able to plunge off the pier of a floating island and latch onto a large fowl while falling before climbing onto its back.
Swooping around the clouds is predominantly motion based. Players point in the direction they want Link to go and alter his pitch by adjusting the wiimote's angle. To gain altitude, you wave the wiimote up and down, causing the bird to flap its wings. You gain speed by rising up before swooping down to gain momentum. There are also three feather icons on the bottom of the screen that grant a boost, not unlike Epona's carrots in Ocarina of Time. These too refill over time.
It takes some getting used to and initially I found it very frustrating as I'd repeatedly miss my mark and have to slowly swing back around for another go. Eventually I started to get the hang of it, but I also may have just gotten lucky a couple times.
What made sailing in Wind Waker enjoyable for me wasn't the mechanics -- you weren't doing much outside changing the direction of the winds for the most part -- but the atmosphere of being lost and adrift in an endless world. I didn't quite get that effect here as clouds obscured much of my view, but if its weather system is as robust as that in Wind Waker, Link's aerial traversal could prove wondrous. While not immediately apparent, there is some detail in Skyward Sword's bright textures, giving it subtle painted look.
The next demo I tried showed off a boss battle against a monochromatic androgynous harlequin-like adversary. He'd often block Link's sword strikes or dash towards me. The idea was to catch him off guard by luring his attention to the tip of your sword before swinging around at his blindspot. I found this finicky and had a difficult time telling what I was doing differently between when he'd block and not. Maybe it'll make sense after practice, but the whole time I found myself thinking "why can't I slice him at the knees" when Link strikes him across his chest despite my low swings. It appears that you can only change your swing angle, not position. As a result, sword fighting didn't feel very authentic and instead merely confusing. I'm hoping this just takes practice.
Afterwards I played a demo of a more ordinary dungeon section of the game. Controls here have been altered since previous iterations, too. The A button no longer makes Link roll, but instead causes him to sprint. This is faster and less annoying than his constant yipping and somersaulting. Link also puts his shield up by yanking the nun-chuck up, but since there's no Wii motions plus on the nunchuck it's not tethered to his movements in the same way. Once up, it stays up. This is convenient, though it's easy to forget to draw it out after every hit makes him put it away.
Bewilderingly, the sword is grafted to your right hand, while pulling back the strings on your bow and arrow is set to motion controls on the nunchuck in your left hand. I'm not sure who this backwards setup is going to appeal to as it displeases left and right handers alike.
It pains me to say that my impressions weren't especially positive, but this isn't the first time a Zelda game has had a poor showing before being polished in time for release. Twilight Princess' E3 showing on Wii didn't fill one with confidence, and I recall not being taken by Spirit Track's demo before actually playing the final game and having it be one of my favorite Zeldas ever (and by extension, favorite games ever). In those cases it was due to new control systems being refined or showing off the easiest, least creative parts of the game's early sections to save the good stuff for later. Lets hope that's the case again.