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There’s nothing like hearing the Zelda themes played by a real orchestra and choir. Nintendo kicked off its conference in fine form this year, with a live performance of bits of the Zelda soundtrack played over a montage of clips from the various games in the series. There’s no better way I can think of to kick off the last of the big three press conferences at this year’s E3. Judging by the crowd’s cheers and applause as the piece ended on the theme from Skyward Sword, I’m not alone in thinking that.

The applause got even louder when Shigeru Miyamoto, senior managing director of Nintendo, took the stage. Through a translator, Miyamoto called out the 25th anniversary of Zelda. Music is a big part of the evolution of the series; just think of the musical instruments used in each game. And since Miyamoto wouldn’t spring for a whole orchestra just for one piece, he asked the musicians to play through the various cues from the game, from opening a chest to solving a puzzle. Miyamoto even mimed out the actions for a little extra emphasis. The orchestra played melodies from our favorite bits of the games.

For the 25th Anniversary of the series, each current platform is getting a new version, starting with Link’s Awakening for the Gameboy Virtual Console, which should be released today. Next week, the 3DS is getting Ocarina of Time in 3D, complete with better framerate and improved graphics. In September on the DSi, Nintendo is giving away the four-player cooperative game as a free download.

Of course, the star on the lineup is Skyward Sword, which will be out this holiday. “It’s finally done,” Miyamoto jokes. To add a little extra to the package, Nintendo’s releasing a special gold controller in a special edition of the game. Miyamoto praised the motion controls, saying he really feels like he’s the one fighting. “It’s good exercise,” he jokes, before inviting us to play Skyward Sword and Ocarina of Time on the show floor.

Each territory will also be getting special Legend of Zelda symphony concerts this fall. More information about dates will be coming later. For those who can’t make it to the concerts, a couple of CDs are being released. The Ocarina of Time CD will be given out to the first players who register the game. There will aso be a CD of symphonic music bundled with certain editions of Skyward Sword.

Miyamoto shared the recognition by inviting out some of the folks who’d worked on the game over the years, but he extended a special thanks to the fans before leaving the stage.

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Satoru Iwata, Nintendo’s Global President, was up next. He claimed victory in Nintendo’s mission to expand the gaming population. Definitions of gamers based on age, personality, or gender are disappearing, he says. There are still distinctions between the consoles, however, and Nintendo hopes to help erase those boundaries as well. How? Two words: Deeper and wider. Hardcore gamers will want depth, casual gamers will want breadth. He teased the audience, saying that full details would be coming a little later this morning.

Nintendo’s mission, “to serve every player,” has directed the development not only of the new console, but also the existing franchises and platforms. As montage of clips from Mario Kart, Star Fox, Super Mario (complete with Raccoon suit), Kid Icarus, and Luigi’s Mansion showed what’s in store for the 3DS.

Reggie Fils-Aime, president of Nintendo of America, was up next to discuss the contradictions in the gaming market. New but familiar. Challenging but comfortable. Those contradictions are being embraced by the 3DS. Reggie showed all five of the new 3DS games. We’ll have more on these direct from the show floor later this week, but I can tell you based on what we saw that fans are going to feel right at home.

The move to 3D seems perfectly natural for Star Fox, and the idea of using the hardware itself to control the fighter seems like a great fit. Whether or not moving the system so much will impact the 3D remains to be seen. One cool new feature is that the portraits of your enemies have been replaced by pics of your gaming friends. Star Fox will be out this September.

Mario is Nintendo’s biggest hero, and Super Mario 3D is the first handheld version of the character designed completely from the ground up to work in 3D. It will be out before the year’s end.

Kid Icarus: Uprising is next. The graphics are much busier and more realistic than the other games in the lineup, and the game seems to suffer because of it. Since it’s still a work in progress, there’s a chance Nintendo will smooth things out a bit. The end of the demo featured what looked like card-based battles using the 3DS camera in augmented reality. Again, this one will be out this year.

Luigi’s Mansion 2 rounds out the lineup, as everyone’s favorite brother uses his flashlight and vacuum to explore a variety of haunted mansions. It’s an entirely new game, according to Reggie, but no release date was offered.

Reggie loaded up a montage of third party games: Mario and Sonic at the Olympics, Ace Combat, two Resident Evils, Tetris, Cave Story, Driver Renegade, PacMan and Galaga, Tekken and Metal Gear Solid: Snake Eater. There are also a number of classic downloads coming, including Excite Bike.

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See all our coverage directly from the show floor.

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Owners of Pokemon White and Black are already familiar with the Pokedex, but Nintendo’s increasing things with the 3DS. Pokedex 3D, free and exclusively on the eShop, will start with 16 Pokemon and players will have to find the rest through Spot Pass, trade or scanning codes in certain locations.

Now we’re getting to the good stuff. The new gaming system. Where the Wii was meant to be about “we,” Nintendo wants to shift the focus to “you.” That’s right; the new system is called the Wii U. It does not rhyme with anything unpleasant. The new controller features a 6.2″ touch screen along with the usual suspects – two analog sticks, a d-pad, and the regular buttons found on the current Wii controllers. It also includes a microphone, speakers, an accelerometer, a gyroscope and an inward facing camera, which also supports videochat. It’s not, Iwata stressed, a portable system; the images on the screen are generated by the console itself.

The system is designed to support the widest variety of games, but it also takes a strike at Microsoft and Sony by including full HD support and web-browsing, complete with image shopping between the handheld controller and the TV. The game applications are also quite exciting. We saw the touchpad being used to aim pitches and catch balls in a baseball game. Players simply hold the touchscreen in front of the TV and an overlay on the handheld controller shows you a reticle where the ball is going. There was also a golf demo where the player laid the handheld unit on the floor to display the ball lie and then used the Wiimote as a club.

As an added bonus, we were also promised that Smash Brothers will be coming not just to the 3DS but also to the Wii U. We’ll have a chance to play some of the Wii U software at the show this week, and you can bet we’ll bring you more information later. There are eight different experiences, not games exactly; just interactive demonstrations of what the new system can do.

The conference rounded out with some testimonials from developers, including Warren Spector and Ken Levine, and representatives from THQ, Ubisoft, Warner Brothers, EA and Namco. They’re all excited by the new system and confirmed that several new games would make their way to Wii U. Among those listed were Tekken, Darksiders 2, Batman: Arkham City, Ghost Recon Online, Assassin’s Creed, and Ninja Gaiden 3.

“This is just a first pass,” said Reggie, so we’re excited to hear what’s next. John Riccitiello, CEO of Electronic Arts, gave another hint of what’s to come next. It’s the first time Riccitiello’s been on the stage at a Nintendo conference, so it’s clear that EA has some serious plans for the console. Imagine, he says, Madden where the HUD is taken off the TV, or Battlefield on Nintendo, or online community participation beyond what’s currently available. EA wants to change games from a “thing that you buy” to a “place that you go.” It’s a corny line, but EA’s clearly behind Nintendo’s latest effort.

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See all our coverage directly from the show floor.

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