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.
Now, I suspect that some of you may be a little bemused by all this. Has Nintendo really turned The Legend of Zelda into a train-based shmup - a shooter set on rails, if not a rail-based shooter? Well... no, not exactly. It's admittedly a fairly weird idea to turn Link into a card-carrying member of ASLEF, but the core action works very well. The combat is fun, while the game world boasts all the colour and charm you'd expect from an entry in this series. The train section of the E3 demo closed with a set-piece battle against a giant spider-like monster that chased Link's chuffa chuffa (goddamn it!) through a cave. Here the player was forced to blast the creature's single eye and the occasional track-side explosive in an effort to slow the beast down. This was the only point in my playtest where the action felt purely arcadey, but the whole episode was done so well that I really didn't mind.
Besides, it's important to remember that a large part of the game will feature the more familiar Link-on-foot gameplay. The dungeon I sampled was pure Cream of Zelda Soup: plenty of monsters to bash, simple-yet-clever puzzles to solve and a selection of toys to build the dungeon around. In this case, Link was accompanied by a Phantom - a haunted suit of armour that did his bidding, last seen as a baddie in previous DS outing Phantom Hourglass. As was the case in that game, all of Link's movements and attacks are mapped to simple swipes of the stylus - but here you can also control your clanking metal servant. Draw a line from the Phantom to another spot in the dungeon, and he'll go stomping off to that destination. Send him to an enemy or to a switch, and he'll walk over to give them a smack.
As you might expect, this mechanic works beautifully well. One puzzle asks you to use the Phantom's hulking frame to block incoming jets of flame, allowing Link safe passage; another demands that you send your chum off to hit two switches while you deal with another pair yourself, hitting all four blocks in the correct order. There are also moments where you have to climb aboard the Phantom's shoulders so that he can ferry you across impassable, lava-filled pits. And though my playtest in the dungeon only extended to ten minutes or so, I really grew quite attached to my iron bodyguard.
The final part of Nintendo's E3 demo was a boss battle, pitching Link against a large flying beetle. As is traditionally the case with Zelda's big nasties, this villain can only be defeated by pulling off a particular trick. During the dungeon section of the demo I was introduced to a Deku Leaf-like weapon, a pinwheel activated by blowing into the DS microphone. Normally it's used to stun enemies to activate certain switches, but here it becomes an important form of attack. After taking a few sword hits to his vulnerable rear end, the boss takes to the air and starts to drop miniature bugs into the arena. If hit, these foes puff up into spiked balls that act a bit like insect landmines. To win the fight, Link must prime these enemies and then blow them into the beetle as it swoops down to attack. Once again, it's a neat little battle that bears all the hallmarks of vintage Zelda.
So there we go: Spirit Tracks is a mixture of the old and the new. The train seems to have gone down like a vomit sandwich with a number of Link fans, but really there's no reason why this should be anything other than great. True enough, there's a certain pressure on any new Zelda game to match the quality of everything that's gone before, but Nintendo has yet to put a foot wrong. The epic queues in LA remind us that there are a lot of people waiting for Spirit Tracks; with any luck that patience will be amply rewarded.
The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks is due out on the Nintendo DS Christmas 2009.