During E3 this year Eiji Aonuma introduced The Legend of Zelda on Wii U, the long awaited main-series entry on Nintendo's latest home console. We were shown an art style that shared some similarities with Skyward Sword, but with a slightly more nuanced, cel-shaded and detailed approach to the living painting feel that seems to be evolving as the franchise's calling card on home console. Despite the fact that all we saw was a landscape that rapidly evolved into a short action scene — apparently running off the game's engine and not CG — that was over as quickly as it begun, that segment of the company's Digital Event was quickly declared by many as the highlight of the show.
At that stage it was all about promise. A large, seamless world where you can look to the horizon and travel to that point, an open-ended adventure that allows gamers to explore and tackle challenges in an order of their choosing, and lovely visuals that would only get better. Nintendo, and Eiji Aonuma in particular, have certainly discovered the magic formula in recent times with promoting the Zelda franchise; it keeps fans keen and, just as frustration at the lack of real progress begins to fester, provides another tantalising glimpse. The video reveal at The Game Awards 2014 was a classic example of this approach — off-screen footage, no direct feed, with short slices of a demonstration to give a glimpse of core features, before smiling and asking us to look forward to learning more.
In some ways it's a treat to get this elusive, teasing treatment, as so many build-ups to games — including some from Nintendo — are so desperate for attention that practically the whole experience is shared with us before we get to play it. It was striking that Aonuma-san was so confident, for example, of a 2015 release, with the scripted moment of Miyamoto-san expressing doubt — channelling the thoughts of wary fans — and a confident reassurance being given, talking up how hard the development team is working. What we saw looked lovely, too, so there's no technical limitation — we imagine — to have stopped Nintendo giving us a full screen direct feed. It was great theatre, however, and already some are blowing up the TV to give a wonky 'full screen' version of the footage; it's all buzz, after all.
But what conclusions can we actually draw from what we saw? We're looking at a Zelda game that, for the first time, will deliver a seamless and large 3D world. Previous 3D entries in the franchise have, in their own way, presented large game worlds, albeit with subtle transitions and loading times or — with Skyward Sword — a deliberate split into separate 'zones'. These decision would have surely been driven — in part at least — by technological restrictions, and with the Wii U the developers finally have a chance to remove some load times and barriers and generate a more organic, natural world.
That's certainly been a key focus in the limited details of Zelda Wii U so far, with the demonstration showing a huge map on the GamePad, with a first-person camera used to set waypoints way off in the distance. There were some subtle cuts in the video edit that saw us jump location, but this may have been due to a desire to keep the demonstration short — the suggestion was that you can look across the land from a high point, decide where to go and simply leap down with the Sailcloth to begin the trek. We also saw a more automated horse-riding mechanic with Epona, giving the flexibility to look around and plan the next move; this, like the apparent freedom to set your own agenda in the adventure, is a progression into new territory for the series, albeit an idea that was partially realised in A Link Between Worlds on 3DS.
While the game world looked relatively bare — in characters, not environmental detail — we haven't actually been introduced, as yet, to any towns, villagers and NPCs in the game; we don't even have an idea of the plot. The focus of the video, however, was in pitching the world as a living breathing space; trees that were passed apparently had apples at another point, according to Miyamoto-san, which you can pick and eat as you please. Stumbling into an area with enemies — taken out with a stylish slow-mo dismount and bow and arrow combination — is a good sign of a dungeon nearby, and the impression given is of an evolving, dynamic world which encourages exploration. Quite how far the game will divert from linear story-telling — pretty far, based on Aonuma-san's suggestions — is to be seen, but if the Zelda franchise can take modern trends for an open-world-esque adventure into its lore and unique sense of style, it could be memorable.
Perhaps most importantly, there's a sense of confidence in Aonuma-san in this video and in his comments around the game, as he clearly feels the project is progressing well and can take the series forward. In fact, there's the continuing sense that — when not talking about finances and sales figures — Nintendo as a whole is comfortable in what it's doing. We've seen nothing but stills of Star Fox for Wii U, for example, yet Miyamoto-san happily stated that it would arrive before The Legend of Zelda in 2015; there's much progress behind closed doors, it seems.
The Legend of Zelda will, for many, be the event of 2015 on Wii U, and along with Star Fox and the exciting Mario Maker — which was shown with more multi-generational graphical palettes and features — we're already seeing the foundations of a terrific 2015. Nintendo seems to have lined up a tempting range already — we can add Splatoon, Yoshi's Woolly World, Mario Party 10 and Kirby and the Rainbow Curse to the list of sure-fire arrivals. Monolith Soft is also getting a little more forthcoming on Xenoblade Chronicles X, though a 2015 target release in Japan would still need Nintendo — surely — to pull out all the stops to localise for the West in the same year. If there's a doubt in Nintendo's 2015 line-up, it's that RPG.
There are also relatively rare third-party titles like Devil's Third, so comments from Shigeru Miyamoto that the 2015 Wii U line-up is taking shape seem to have foundation, while there will — like every year — be surprises.
What The Game Awards showed Wii U owners was that, while it's easy to fear the worst and expect release dates to slide, Nintendo is confident of delivering a 2015 full of memorable, first-class experiences. The confidence of both Miyamoto- and Aonuma-san in asserting the 2015 release windows of two enormous names was undoubtedly reassuring, and the company is — outwardly at least — fully committed to the system.
2014 has included some terrific games on the Wii U, but it's just possible that 2015 could be even better.