In a year when Sony and Microsoft were too busy obsessing over next-generation at their pre-E3 conferences to pay anything other than passing lip-service to the current generation of consoles - you know, the ones you and I have underneath our televisions right now - Nintendo, typically, bucked the trend. The company's idea of saving the best for the final moments of its event in Hollywood was not a startling revelation regarding the power of a console that doesn't yet exist, a tech demo or a vacuous American celebrity hired to elicit some whooping from the crowd (although god knows the Nintendo conference attendees don't need help with that - where on earth do they find these people? Is there a special talent agency which exists to supply incredibly loud and embarrassingly over-excitable young men for these events?). Instead, it was a rolling video of a current-gen game, pushing no more polygons and calculated using no more teraflops than we're already used to, and set to be in our grubby mitts before Christmas.
If it were any other game, they would surely have been labelled as mad - not exactly an accusation Nintendo is unfamiliar with, I might add. Thankfully, the game they had to show off was Legend of Zelda, now sporting the helpfully distinguishing subtitle of Twilight Princess. The crowd roared its appreciation, and for a change, it seemed to have a point. The world wanted to know about Revolution, but as we battled our way through the heaving masses to the press kit desks and beyond to the promise of sunlight and air, all the Eurogamer hacks in attendance wanted to know was how the hell Link gets turned into a wolf; what the hell the strange, dark creatures dropping into Hyrule are; and most of all, how the hell it plays!
We still don't know the answers to the first two questions. If you've seen the video, your guess is as good as ours, really. Thankfully, though, we did get a solid chunk of insight into the last question, and we can confirm this - finding the answers to the first two is going to be a lot of fun. Link's back, and losing the cel-shaded look is far from the only change along the way from the wide-eyed moppet seen in the fun-but-flawed Wind Waker to the moody, handsome teen of Twilight Princess. Link's older, wiser, darker and more violent. So is Hyrule, for that matter. Even Epona has a darker streak this time around - and then, of course, there's the whole wolf thing...
Doubters might be making unwelcome connections with Prince of Persia: Warrior Within right about now, so let me reassure you on that front. The charming, mute Link we all know and love (the best kind of man, some of my lady friends assure me) hasn't suddenly started filling his iPod with bad American nu-metal and refusing to tidy his room or come downstairs and say hello to his auntie. Smouldering with generic rage is quite definitely off the menu. Trent Reznor seems unlikely to get called up to provide a soundtrack. There's some pretty hardcore evil afoot, though, and Link just needs to be a bit more hardcore himself to handle it. But first, he has to herd some goats.
That's where the first demo we played kicked off, with Link - clad in a normal tunic rather than his famous green garb - wrapping up a day's work on the farm by herding some goats into a barn on horseback. In typical Zelda-style, this whole section is really teaching you a lot of basic game skills, such as mounting and dismounting Epona, the basic horseback movement controls, how to jump fences and the fact that goats are, frankly, tricky little buggers. The graphics are crisp and detailed, with plenty of life and movement to the farm and village scenes, and the transition back to the more realistic look hasn't robbed the characters and environments of any of their quirky humour and unconventional style.
One short but amusing conversation with the mayor and his feisty daughter later, we're off to explore the village properly - although within seconds, Link is roped into helping out a woman who has managed to drop her baby, cradle and all, into the river. Sounds like natural selection in action to me, but even feeling the ghost of Darwin frowning over my shoulder, I take a trip downriver in a small boat to find the lost child. Again, this is Nintendo holding me by the hand - I'm now learning how to control a boat, carry and interact with objects, and so on. There are some rough edges on this control system which need to be ironed out, most notably where the A button fails to offer you a vital action unless you're standing in exactly the right position and facing exactly the right direction, which can make it easy to miss the solutions to problems. With several months to go before launch, though, this is a minor issue which should almost certainly be fixed - when have you ever seen a headline Nintendo game with unpolished controls, after all?
So far, everything seems comfortingly familiar. It's in the next demo that things get mixed up a bit. Link's found his green tunic and hat, an outfit which frankly only he can carry off with anything remotely approaching panache, and he's riding across a plain on horseback fending off attacks from some pretty ugly orc-like creatures riding on the backs of boars while he chases down their leader, a very ugly orc-creature who has kidnapped a small boy from the village, tied him to the end of a pike and is riding around with the child as a trophy. The combat in this section is intense, and surprisingly tactical.
Epona has limited stamina, represented by a number of gradually recharging dots at the bottom of the screen which show how many times you can spur her on for a burst of speed. Fall back, and you can swing your sword to take down the orc riders who are attempting to skewer you with arrows, but you risk being knocked from your horse - and frankly, on the ground you're mincemeat unless you can make your way back to Epona quickly. Speed ahead, jumping over obstacles to catch up, and you can take out the villain of the piece. Eventually, this demo level ended with a jousting contest on a narrow bridge over a vast chasm, where a well-timed sword swing could send the ugly chap hurtling to his doom.
We passed through a polystone tunnel in the specially constructed area of the Nintendo stand to find the next two demos, stopping briefly to be rather impressed by a giant animatronic skeleton warrior which lunged at us from behind some iron bars and a large wolf which threatened to remove the hat from the head of a ludicrously tall American gentleman. For our next treat, Nintendo had lined up something a bit more familiar once again - namely a dungeon section, filled with the kind of puzzles that every Zelda game has done so well.
As ever, though, new elements have been introduced. For this jungle-type dungeon, the standard tricks are in place - the wind boomerang being the toy we got to play with most - but heeding the cries of gamers the world over (we assume), the creators have also seen fit to equip Link with... A monkey. Yes, for this section of the game at least, our elfin hero is accompanied by a cheeky simian, which can help with certain puzzles. For example, one area which Link couldn't jump across unaided was spanned by getting our new pal to hold onto the ceiling with his feet and swing us across with his hands. Everyone should have a monkey. It's a cool section of the game, and the monkey's AI - while heavily scripted - works very well, with no getting caught on walls or what have you. We hope there'll be plenty more such companion-based puzzles in the game, as it's a great new addition to the Zelda mix.
Our final tryst with Link came in the form of a boss battle - which was simultaneously the most impressive demo, with a full-on Zelda-style boss creature occupying pretty much the entirety of a giant cavern and needing to be taken down with a combination of quick reaction times, observation skills and guile, and the one about which there's least to say. It looked great - genuinely intimidating and creative in its design - and it played well, with the controls holding up well despite the need for careful timing and manoeuvring. Killing the giant ugly chap off is immensely satisfying, and no mistake; but if you've played Zelda, you've been here before, and you know that that's no bad thing. Zelda has always done bosses spectacularly well, and judging from the evidence of this demo, Twilight Princess will be no exception.
And with that, it was out into the bright lights and noise of the E3 show floor once more with us; but given the enormous queue we walked past on our way out, I don't think I was alone in mentally marking out Legend of Zelda as one of the most exciting things on display in Los Angeles. This is unquestionably a strong evolution for the franchise, rather than a revolution, and sadly it's probably inevitable that some people will criticise the game for that very reason - but on the strength of all we've seen, Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess is shaping up to be one of the best games of the year, if not one of the best games of the generation as a whole. Prepare to dust down that Cube once again - the best is yet to come.