We think we can say with some certainty that the failure to announce a new Zelda game for the Wii as rumoured at the Nintendo press conference probably disappointed the odd Nintendo devotee. That said, though no new Wii game was brought into the fold there, The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks, which was announced at this year's Game Developers Conference in March, is now finally playable.
The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks represents the second iteration of the long-running Zelda franchise brought to the DS handheld, and if our time and review of Phantom Hourglass serves as any indicator of what to expect, fans should be in for another special outing with everyone's favourite little adventurer.
The demo was split to show off distinct elements of gameplay, with the first designed to show off Link and the way he will not only interact with phantoms, but control them directly to stay alive and clear puzzles. Our early experiences had us using phantoms to move to and then stand on touch plates to open doors. Like Link's boomerang in Phantom Hourglass, you'll simply need to switch to the phantom by clicking the portrait at the bottom left-hand side of screen to select and then paint on the intended path to follow. Phantoms will follow orders, so you'll need to click the call button to get them to return to you if you want them to come back rather than hold a position indefinitely. Given that Phantoms are immune to damage from fire, you'll need to control them remotely to get through obstacles and flick switches so Link can pick up keys or open chests. At one point we were required to switch constantly between the two, putting the phantom between us and a fire-spewing wall socket to inch along two narrow parallel bridges. We can see potential for this mechanic to be used frequently to avoid backtracking while still requiring some lateral thinking to solve puzzles. Opening a chest, we unlocked a tornado weapon, which we used to lower a wooden drawbridge by firing the weapon at a switch.
Considering that phantoms are fireproof, you'll also be able to use them as makeshift transport over dangerous terrain. Link isn't a fan of lava swimming, so you'll need to walk your phantom into the hazard and then double-tap its head to hop on, using your shield as a seat. From here you can simply command your phantom around, exploring the area or crossing to safety. You're not immune to damage while you ride, though, and on a couple of occasions we were knocked off by things living in the lava jumping and hitting us on the chin. Falling penalised us a heart and returned us to the place where we hopped aboard.
Not surprisingly, transport is a major theme in Spirit Tracks, and whereas Phantom Hourglass relied on a manually steered boat to get around the various islands, here we used the new train in its place. We didn't get a chance to see how you get on or off the train, but once onboard, you'll control its movement in two distinct ways. A lever on the right-hand side of the touch screen lets you determine your speed with several preset notches--the top one makes you go fastest, whereas the middle brings you to a stop, and the lowest puts you in reverse. This ability to alter your speed comes in handy when you first encounter the track switches that determine your path. The currently selected track appears in red, and the upcoming multidirection track is marked in white. A small left or right toggle on the lower screen will pop up, prompting you to either leave it where it is to follow the current path, or change it to go the other way. Tooling around on the stylus adjusts your camera view of the train.
Like in Phantom Hourglass, you'll encounter obstacles along the way, both in the form of passive and active targets to bomb. Powder kegs on the tracks need to be blown up before you hit them, and wild animals wander around and need either a blast with your horn (by pulling down on the dangling rope above your speed controls) or a paddling with a cannonball.
Spirit Tracks retains the art and charm of Phantom Hourglass, and though we've had only a short amount of time to dabble, the controls and travel mechanics will be familiar to returning Zelda fans and welcoming to newcomers alike when it ships on the DS.
Stay tuned for our continued coverage from E3 2009.