No nonsense, no fuss, the hands-on 3DS demo of the new The Legend of Zelda was pure gameplay goodness.
It was perfect. Me, a hammer, a sword, a shield, a bow, and 13 floors of Zelda dungeon goodness. No context. No story. Not even a subtitle to the working moniker of "The Legend of Zelda."
The demo Nintendo brought to their Software Showcase event didn't give away any of the narrative or context of the newly announced Zelda game. Instead it seemed designed to show off some of the mechanics and design thinking going into it.
For one, it demonstrated how the 3DS sequel to Link to the Past would leverage its predecessor's features. The SNES game had already featured different levels of terrain, but the new demo went vertical in an extreme way. The tower-like dungeon featured not just 13 floors to ascend, but also multiple elevations within each floor. Indeed, the open plan of the design seemed to give players plenty of opportunity to spring up to the next level (I could hammer down a special floor tile, step onto it, then launch upward when it popped back up) or fall back down one, intentionally or otherwise. Launched upwards onto a new floor, you never quite know what to expect, so it was a bit of an adrenaline rush to ascend to a new level only to find it composed of see-through mesh walkways with plenty of holes to fall through. Bumper hazards and enemies just to make things more exciting. These floors were pretty neat because their see-through nature essentially let you see seamlessly see the floor below, and seamlessly transition (aka "fall") down to it as well.
That's another thing the vertical design demonstrated well: the subtle benefit of the improved 3D graphics and effects. Since the game is inheriting a top-down perspective, all these elevations could be hard to read intuitively, if not for the subconscious depth cues that the visuals provided. The depth effect of the 3DS screen conveys not just these discrete levels within a floor, but the important depth of other elements in the game too. Whereas the SNES title had red and blue blocks that could be raised or lowered to block your path, in this game they can be walked on and used as puzzle solving tools to switch elevation.
As for the new Zelda's visual style, it definitely referenced Link to the Past. At first glance, you might not even notice that it's no longer sprite-based, but actual 3D graphics! The game is still in development, but the models and textures of the 3D game uncannily evoked the spirit of its top-down, sprite-based, 2D Zelda ancestor. In fact, the only time the 3D becomes absolutely noticeable is when you use the new "morph" ability and the camera zooms down from its bird's eye-view perspective into a closeup of Link as a painting (Hieroglyph Link?) flattened on a wall.
This new morphing ability, where Link flattens into a 2D representation of himself, and in this form walks sideways along walls, melds perfectly into the fabric of the Zelda gameplay and puzzles. Essentially a heightened form of the "sidle" maneuver from 3D Zelda games, Link no longer needs any hint of a ledge to move sideways along a wall. This means that in a room with two platforms at the same elevation on either end and no connecting walkway, Link simply needs to morph into the wall on on side, walk along the wall, and pop out at the other end. Since Link couldn't move up or down in this mode, only sideways, it really emphasized an awareness of the relative elevation levels of different sections of the level.
Additionally, almost any wall in this demo level was morphable, so not only was the mechanic widely used throughout both the interior and exterior parts of the tower-like dungeon, but its application wasn't being telegraphed by the game. If I was on a moving platform outside and a wall section all of a sudden shot out to push me off, it wouldn't be a special color to indicate it was morphable or anything. In my panic, my only hope was to realize that it was a wall, that I could morph into walls, and that I had only a split second to hit the A button and hope that saved Link from a seven story fall. Heck, not just walls were morphable, those blue and red pillars that I raised and lowered via crystal ball switches supported Heiroglyph Link too!
Aside from the A button used to make Link morph into a wall, the B button swung the sword and the Y and X buttons were assigned to two additional tools/weapons, like the hammer (used to flip over enemy turtles (terrorpins?) and pound down the aforementioned spring floor tiles) and a bow and arrow. Using either the hammer or bow seemed to take up energy from Link's magic meter instead of any other resource. Also, it appeared to me that Link's Sword Beam attack made a return, possibly tied to the player's life and magic meter levels similar to previous games. As for movement, it seemed that despite the use of the Circle Pad, the game adhered to an old-school eight-direction system with the four cardinal directions and diagonals. I know I'm in the minority as someone who immensely enjoyed the touch screen controls of Phantom Hourglass on the DS, but this return to purely button control felt just fine for me and completely natural.
In conclusion, was it fun? Hell yeah. The focus on gameplay at the event was welcome. The demo dungeon was pure Nintendo Zelda fun, featuring wonderfully tight level design and puzzles that give you pause when you encounter them, but make you feel like the smartest person in the room when you solve them. The new morphing mechanic felt like a natural part of a Zelda game. And there was definitely that feeling of nostalgia.
The demo revealed little else about the rest of the actual game, but I didn't care. There was a Moldorm waiting for me at the top of the thirteen dungeon floors. He was an old friend and I was happy to see him.