Link will play a harp in Skyward Sword

Eiji Aonuma has announced that Link will have the chance to play a musical harp in The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword. The Zelda producer told Nintendo Power that the harp will almost identical to the one played by Sheik in Ocarina of Time. Players will use the harp to find “something important” and will be controlled by rhythmic strumming (via MotionPlus).

Aonuma said: “The harp is sort of the central instrument that you’ll see this time. With a lot of previous Zelda games it has been about inputting specific notes to compose things. Given the nature of what a harp is, and the fact that it’s an instrument that one strums, this time we’re using the Wii MotionPlus to really make it based on the rhythm of strumming to get across the musical element.”

Other details leaked in the interview include:
– The game is now nearing the final stages of development.
Shigeru Miyamoto is helping on the game’s finishing touches.
– The localization of Skyward Sword will begin shortly.
– The plot has a large focus on the creation and forging of the Master Sword.
– Skyward Sword will feature a handful of full orchestrated songs.
– In The Legend of Zelda timeline, Skyward Sword is set directly before Ocarina of Time.

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Photo diary: MCM Expo (May 2011)

Attending the MCM Expo in London is an exhilarating, tiring and joyous experience. It’s basically a convention packed to the ceiling with video game booths, anime merchandise and independent comic book artists. If you’re interested in any of the above, I highly recommend checking out this event in the future.

The photographs below show off some of the titles which I was lucky enough to play and watch.

You can’t get around it. Visually, Solarobo: Red the Hunter has a lot in common with the Star Fox franchise. Cute animals pilot giant mechs or flying airships, happily exploring a futuristic fantasy world. Developed by CyberConnect2, Solarobo is said to be the spiritual successor to Tail Concerto. The DS title uses a fairly decent 3D engine, although most of the gameplay mechanics felt fairly unimaginative. Meh.

Warner Bros continued to push Batman: Arkham City, although they were only showing an old trailer on the floor. The pod to the left was showcasing a version of Green Lantern: Rise of the Manhunters, a generic brawler with squad mechanics. It looked so boring that I didn’t even bother picking up a controller.

This was my first chance to try a Nintendo 3DS. So what better way to start than with a hands on demo of Ocarina of Time? The 3D effect was subtle but significant, dropping distant vistas into the background and pulling speech bubbles out of the screen.

Graphically the game was a small step up from its N64 origins, cleaning up some of the nasty edges and adding some vital new pixels. Although it hasn’t sold the system for me, newcomers to the Nintendo brand and Zelda fanboys will surely lap this up.

Capturing 3D footage with a standard digital camera results in some odd effects. But you get the picture… it looks quite pretty.

Dead or Alive Dimensions was just as I expected. It’s a great representation of the home console outings, but adds very little in terms of new ideas or mechanics. Scantily clad women and muscular ninjas pummel each other until one throws in the towel. If you’ve played Dead or Alive 3 & 4, you’ll know exactly what to expect from this handheld version. The 3D effect was pleasant, but rather unnecessary.

JRPGs have a hard time trying to win my praises at the moment. This tutorial of Xenoblade Chronicles was dry and repetitive, forcing me through some mundane combat scenarios and uninspired locales. The game also suffered from sub-par graphics, looking embarrassingly last generation. Perhaps this was an unfair representation of the final game, but it left me feeling a bit bewildered and let down.

The Gears of War 3 booth was crammed with gamers all throughout the day. Epic Games was only showing the multiplayer beta that was recently made available on Xbox Live, but it was still insanely popular. It’s everything that you’d expect from a Gears title; roadie runs, chainsaw kills and hilariously bad dialogue. This will inevitably sell like hot cakes when it drops in September.

This was one of my most anticipated titles of the day. Playing Child of Eden was a fantastic experience, combining unique electronic music with engaging Kinect enabled gameplay. Using both hands to track enemies and dispatch them felt incredibly natural, especially when using the right hand to swipe at highlighted targets.

This is Jane Douglas from GameSpot UK running through one of the levels. She was far more competent than me and did a great job showcasing the game during the Sunday Q&A session. Although I’m yet to purchase the Kinect accessory, this definitely piqued my curiosity and got me excited for its June release.

It was refreshing to see the MCM Expo take on a more video game centric approach this year. Trawling endless anime merchandise quickly becomes tiring and tedious – so the GameSpot UK stage was a welcome addition. If the team decides to come back I’d like to see an even greater variety of games and interviews, especially as the event now spans across three days. Ultimately I had a great day and look forward to visiting the convention again in October!

London 3DS StreetPass Event (27th March, 2011)

Britain needs more handheld social gaming events. There are dozens of portable titles that I play obsessively – but I often leave the multiplayer options untouched because I don’t know anyone else with a copy of the game.

The launch of the Nintendo 3DS is looking to change all of this. Nintendo Scene have organised a fantastic gathering at St Pancras Station (London) on March 27th; just show up under the New Olympic Rings at midday and get gaming. You can either be super discrete and walk through the area with StreetPass activated on the sly, or be bold and start discussing your new favourite handheld with other gamers.

Plenty of Street Fighter IV: 3D Edition seems to be on cards, so I recommend getting some practise in whilst you’re travelling across London on the tube. If you haven’t bought a 3DS or can’t make the event, you can keep up with the Nintendo Scene coverage in a number of ways:

Hopefully this will be the first of many successful 3DS StreetPass gatherings. I wish Nintendo Scene the best of luck with the event tomorrow!

Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light

Square Enix tries to recapture the origins of the Final Fantasy franchise in a portable adventure that is both charming and infuriatingly archaic.

Followers of the JRPG genre align themselves into two fairly distinct camps. One recognises and embraces the need for evolution, giving recognition for the fresh but often flawed gameplay mechanics in recent titles such as Final Fantasy XIII and Resonance of Fate. The other condemns these failed ideas as the reason for the genre’s recent decline, resisting the trends of linear exploration and emphasis on graphical presentation. They frequently call for a return to the ‘good old days’, where turn based combat was king and random enemy encounters were the norm.

Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light is a game built almost solely for the latter. Everything about it reeks of an adventure that could have been published in the 80s or 90s. Take the plotline for instance; the game surrounds a boy named Brandt, who is summoned by the king to rescue a kidnapped princess. The four other heroes include a spoilt girl from the royal family, a loyal soldier of the kingdom and a reluctant, brooding chap. They’re all purposefully stereotypical and pigeonholed into a journey that is predictable at every turn.

Weapons, magic and additional items can all be found and bought in the local villages. Combat is strictly turn based; party members exert varying number of action points (that act like magic of MP) for every physical attack or spell. Akin to some of the older Final Fantasy iterations, party members can obtain ‘crowns’ that change their job class as the game progresses.

Sound familiar? It should. For better and worse, Square Enix has chosen to make this portable experience incredibly traditional. Older players will welcome some of this familiarity in a similar manner to fans of Pokémon or The Legend of Zelda; retreading a well worn path can feel reassuring and comforting in The 4 Heroes of Light. Unfortunately, many of the gripes I have with the JRPG genre have been brought forward as well. In comparison with modern video game standards, it’s very hard to forgive some of the aging design choices.

The first is random encounters. One of the advancements that I’ve come to cherish in the RPG genre is the ability to pick and choose my battles. It allows players to grind only when they feel that it’s necessary and conversely push onward when they just want to progress the story. The Persona series and Final Fantasy XII/ XIII are shining examples of this.

In my opinion, returning to a random encounter system in Final Fantasy: The 4 Heroes of Light is counter intuitive. It’s irritating to become bogged down in an area with a particularly high encounter rate, increasingly hammering the attack button just to get back to dungeon exploring. Those who argue that grinding is ‘a necessary evil’ are wrong – more often than not, it’s just a cheap way of extending the overall length of the game.

The inventory system is also rather baffling. With only 15 slots per character (which include obligatory spell tomes and equipment) I found myself depositing items in the village storage hut with alarming regularity. In the more lengthy and intricate dungeons I found myself having to discard some of the weapons and health tonics that I was picking up; a wasteful and annoying consequence of the system.

Variance between dungeons is excellent, but the aesthetics within them are monotonous and dull. The repetition of textures means that it’s also easy to lose your sense of direction; the absence of a touch screen map (such as the one in the excellent The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks) is sorely missed.

The 4 Heroes of Light redeems itself with a fantastic presentation throughout. The 3D engine is very impressive, utilising a picture book aesthetic that has rarely been used elsewhere. Combining a water colour palette and cel-shaded line art, the characters really pop out from the screen and help bring some life to the adventure. The way that party members change their appearance when you swap their equipment is another neat touch. The towns are expansive and occasionally take up multiple levels, filled with interesting houses and townspeople. It all adds to the grandeur of a global adventure, something lost in many linear JRPGs.

I’ll be honest – I didn’t play this game to completion. Maybe that deducts some of the credibility of this review, but I would argue that I still experienced a thorough representation of the game. If you’re a fan of old-school RPGs, I can recommend this as a solid portable adventure for the Nintendo DS. For anyone that champions the recent advancements in the genre, you’re best looking elsewhere.

Retrospective: Nintendo in 2010

Nintendo was the company to beat this year. Sales for the Wii were slightly down from 2009, but this is understandable now that the majority of homes in the United Kingdom have the system. They’ve been effective at satisfying consumer demand and this trend is probably just a necessary dip into a normal, sustainable level of sales.

The company has shown little to combat the launch of Kinect and Move in terms of hardware this Christmas, instead relying on new software to pique some interest. The lack of high definition output on the Wii is becoming a growing problem, especially as the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 begin to come down in cost. I predict that they’ll slash the price at some point in 2011, or try and push the system with increasingly outlandish bundles. With no sign of the Vitality Sensor, Nintendo has a blank canvas for the home console market next year.

The biggest play for them was at E3. The Nintendo 3DS has created a huge amount of hype, with intriguing launch titles and varied hands on impressions. Will people want to use the 3D effect? Does it work properly without glasses? I guess we’ll all have to wait until the system launches next spring. Kid Icarus Uprising was a pleasant surprise for long time Nintendo followers and I think that as a dedicated piece of gaming hardware, it’ll have enough novelty to distinguish itself from other multimedia devices.

In house productions such as Super Mario Galaxy 2 and Metroid Other M has reaffirmed Nintendo’s skill for making great games, but it’s consequently left the holiday season looking bare. Aside from Donkey Country Returns, only Epic Mickey has managed to create some sense of anticipation.

To go out on a limb, I predict that they’ll be announcing a new iteration of their home console at E3 2011. Without a new system by next Christmas, the Wii will look considerably outdated alongside Microsoft and Sony’s rival controllers.

We’re all looking forward to The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword next year, but it’ll be interesting to see what other franchises Nintendo chooses to revive. Pikmin and Star Fox are both sorely missed, so perhaps this is where the company will choose to innovate?

Final Grade: B

The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks

I’ve finally powered my way through Spirit Tracks and managed to get a review uploaded to the ThumbSticks website. The game exceeded my expectations and features some fantastic dungeon puzzling, so I highly recommend it to anyone who owns a Nintendo DS. There doesn’t appear to be that many high profile DS games to get excited about this year, so Spirit Tracks is well worth looking into. The preview for my review is below, but you can read the full article by just clicking on the ‘more’ button.

Nintendo has kept the future of Link surprisingly quiet over the past six months. With the next dedicated Wii Zelda still a long way off, fans of Hyrule have been treated to two hand-held offerings to fill the void.

Phantom Hourglass was released on the Nintendo DS in 2007 and now gamers have been treated to Spirit Tracks. With little marketing and an identical engine, players have been understandably sceptical that this sequel is just an unoriginal stepping stone to tide us over. So does Spirit Tracks fly like the bullet train or splutter like the London Underground? (More)

Having never finished the Gamecube title The Legend of Zelda: Windwaker, I just picked it up at my local CEX for the bargain price of £4. I’ll be doing a retro review of it next, so look out for my initial impressions here on my blog. Until next time!
JetSetNick

Spirit Tracks Nostalgia

There’s something ever so friendly and familiar about starting a new game on The Legend Of Zelda: Spirit Tracks. Whether it’s inputting your custom name for Link or visiting the Castle of Hyrule, everything feels as it should be. It’s as if your returning home after having spent a long vacation overseas. Normally I would criticise a game for resting on its laurels and refusing to improve its design structure, but somehow Nintendo makes it appealing. Many of the ‘Big N’s’ other portable franchises do the same; for example, in Pokemon you always will begin by receiving your first creature from Professor (insert random tree name here) in his laboratory. Logic yearns for me to hate the lack of creativity in these game designers but I wouldn’t want it be any other way – because it’s still incredibly fun.

The sense of nostalgia and familiarity taps perfectly into the mindset of Zelda fanboys like myself. Link is an elderly hero in the video game universe, dating back farther than most modern protagonists dare. Nods of approval in updated sequels such as Spirit Tracks act as a homage to the classics preceding it; a gaming insider’s reward for our loyalty to the house of Mario. Yet whilst the core remains the same, Eiji Aonuma walks the tightrope of originality by offering fresh gameplay mechanics, gadgets and puzzles. The first dungeon in Spirit tracks is memorable and spooky, but evolves with the whirlwind device that requires you to blow into the microphone. Traversing the world of Hyrule summons the same iconic imagery of adventure, only this time it’s aboard a train rather than Link’s trusty steed. It’s still the classic Triforce that we love and expect… just updated.

I’m a little way through  The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks (I’ve just entered the snow kingdom), but I’m already enjoying it as a portable outing. My brief session on Phantom Hourglass left me admittedly uneducated on the raw power that a Zelda title can churn out of the Nintendo DS. The size of the over world matches the scope of most rival RPG’s on the system, but trumps them by opting for a full 3D environment. By utilising the cel-shaded design that originated on the Gamecube’s Windwaker, Aonuma has cleverly managed to strip away all the detail and still retain delicate visuals. The art direction is  perfectly suited to the title’s family audience, the wide array of colours and pastels conjuring a binary scene to the grim atmosphere in Twilight Princess.

Some of the cut scenes are a little ropey due to the minimal voice acting and heavy use of text boxes. This has become a running convention in the Legend of Zelda series though and will probably be maintained for many sequels to come. Suddenly giving Link some unexpected vocal chords would understandably shock and alter the voice that gamers have been forced to imagine over the years. The soundtrack is beautifully composed, with cheerful country pan pipes running as a theme throughout. Balanced between chiptune and a full blown orchestra, it does an effective job of updating Zelda’s classic audio themes.

Until I’ve finished the title I won’t offer a full written review, but I can vouch that it’s certainly one of the best Nintendo DS games that came out last year. Whether you’re a veteran of Hyrule or a complete newcomer, the scale and care that has been put into this game is well worth your attention.

JetSetNick