He’s diminutive, he doesn’t say much and his dress-sense marks him as a metrosexual, but Link certainly has his fans. If anyone at E3 had cause to doubt the little chap’s popularity, a quick visit to Nintendo’s booth would have quickly set the record straight. Spirit Tracks was easily one of the most popular games on the show floor - every time I passed through the area there was a queue of at least twenty people, patiently awaiting their precious ten minutes with the game.
The worst part of this wait was that when you got to the front of the queue, you had to pick from one of three different sections: a dungeon, a boss battle and a bit where you mess about with a heavily armed train. Imagine waiting for over half an hour and then being faced with this choice. You’ve only got enough time to play one section before the DS resets itself - so which bit do you pick?. There’s no time to dawdle, and at your back your can feel the searing heat from 20 pairs of jealous, impatient eyes.
Happily, lucky hacks like us have means and ways of getting what we want - most of them wholly reliant upon kind invites from Nintendo. I’ve now had a chance to play all three of the modes, and while I’m still a little uncertain about why link has decided to abandon his usual mounts in favour of a magical steam engine, I have to say that this is already looking like a classic Zelda outing.
Since it seems like such a large departure from the norm, I actually chose the train-focused demo as my jumping-in point for Spirit Tracks. In a nutshell, it seems that Link now uses his choo-choo to travel around the world map. The upper DS screen is used as a map - a surprisingly important feature, as we’ll discuss in a moment - while the lower one gives you an above-and behind view of your train, a perspective that can be changed by touching the far edges of the touch-screen. Your speed is controlled by using the stylus to drag a lever up and down, while a handy little pull-chain allows you to blow your whistle. I didn’t find many major uses for this last feature other than using it for scaring animals off the tracks, but it’s certainly a lot of fun. “Look Mum!” you shout in pre-pubescent excitement. “I‘m a train driver! POOP POOP!” In any case, I suspect that the full game will give the whistle some greater purpose.
Due to the confined nature of locomotive transport, your movement options are relatively limited. You can move forward at one of two speeds, stop or reverse. When you approach a junction you’ve got a brief period of time in which you can choose your direction, but that’s about it for navigation options. As a result, much of the train-bound action in Spirit Tracks seems to revolve around combat. Link has a cannon at the back of his chuffer (sorry, I’m running low on alternatives for “train”), and much of my demo-time was spent blasting at wild pigs and at goblin nasties riding monster mounts. Firing the cannon is simply a matter of tapping on the villain you want to target, but since many of your enemies are more mobile than you it’s important to keep them in view by shifting the camera about. And naturally enough, you’ll also have to keep an eye on your speed.
As a further complication, it seems that you’re not the only vehicle on the tracks. If the E3 demo level is anything to go by, you’ll also have to deal with three evil trains that destroy Link if they manage to catch up with him. Direct cannon hits will slow them down a bit, but ultimately your only real solution is to reach a junction and to hope that they go the other way. Even if you do manage to throw one of these guys off the scent, it’s quite possible that there’ll be another murderous engine further up the line. It seems that you’re pretty much doomed if you get trapped between two death-choos (sorry, out of options again) so the top screen’s map becomes your new best friend, helping you to sneak past the enemy at an opportune moment.