Hands-on at E3 / The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks

Zelda, it’s awesome. Only few game series have low points that are still regarded as some of the best gaming around. The last Zelda outing was one of those of those low points and it was still about as much fun as you can have on your DS. Now the series returns with The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks and E3 is letting us get our first glimpse at it.

I was allowed to play three things the game (and the series in general) are known for: a dungeon, a boss and a mode of transportation. The transportation is of course a train this time around and if you didn’t play the last DS game then you need to know that everything is once again in the cel-da style, which anyone in their right mind now realizes is completely frickin’ awesome. But what about this train? How does that work, and does the game play exactly like the past ones or are we looking at a shake-up of what has come before. Read on good fellows and learn all.

Let’s start with the thing that really sets this Zelda apart from all the rest. The train system is how Link will get around the world in the game. Basically, Link will hop on tracks to get form point A to point B. The train obviously follows the tracks and they’re already laid out so you won’t be making your own path like in Phantom Hourglass. Otherwise the controls are very boat like. You’ll fallow the tracks around and you have a cannon to shoot enemies that are attack your train. The train also has a horn to clear off animals that may be on the tracks and that you don’t want to hit. You can also avoid them by stopping the train or reversing. Everything is controlled via the touch screen.

So it sounds pretty boring, and also looks like it could be if the track maps don’t get more complicated. At the base you’re simply riding along at a pretty slow clip, shooting and tooting your horn, but then the other trains show up. There are other trains on the track that you can’t hit and the only way to avoid them is to switch the tracks in front of you and make sure you’re heading a way that other trains are not. So if you’re headed right and you see a train on the right track you go left. Of course there are multiple trains and the amount of track switching gets far more complicated. However, by paying attention to your map and where the trains are going you can avoid them. Thus the train mechanic really becomes a frantic puzzle in the most classic of Zelda senses. The one I played was immensely easy and got a bit boring rolling along, but if the difficulty picks up this could some of the most devilishly clever Zelda puzzling we’ve seen.

Speaking of puzzling, dungeons are of course back. However, this time Link has a little help aside from his myriad of found gadgets. In Spirit Tracks Link will have the help of a Phantom, the large rock-like knight guy from Hourglass, that he can control. The Phantom follows a line Link draws for him and when not under Link’s control will attack enemies and stay out of the way. The gameplay seemed to work very well and the Phantom was never unable to be reached thanks to a “call” button. Obviously the dungeon puzzles will be very cool and if they’re up to Zelda‘s usual snuff they should be a blast. One I played had you walking the Phantom forward so he blocked some flamethrower statues, another let link ride on top of the Phantom in order to cross a lake of lava. Some cool and clever stuff.

Finally I got to play a boss battle against a giant beatle in a round arena. Again, classic Zelda stuff. This boss was meant to be dealt with with one of Link’s new weapons a wind blower. Players will equip the weapon and then point Link in the right direction they want to send a tornado out in. They can then blow into the mic and a tornado will zoom out in a straight line blowing things over and pushing back enemies. It’s kind of like the tornado boomerang from Hourglass, but obviously the mechanic is different. I’m not sure if I’m just a bit rusty or something, but I had some trouble with the boss, especially during his second phase when I had to start blowing him up with blowing up worm things. The tornado controlled really well except for the fact that there was so much noise the mic thought I was constantly making tornados. Probably not a normal issue as most people won’t be playing on a showroom floor.

Spirit Tracks looks like it could be a real blast and with the addition of a another controllable character and the hopeful removal of back tracking from the series, the game could turn out to be another classic. So yes, it is now OK to start humming the Zelda theme in enthusiastic anticipation.