The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks Preview: Pigs Might Fly

We get a new Zelda this fall, as Link gets a train, a phantom friend to do some of his dirty work and a new species of animal to enrage. This week, we played more.

Announced at the Game Developers Conference in March, The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks was first playable for us at E3 earlier this month. Crecente put stylus to DS and reported back. But the man was pressed for time.

Thankfully, a build of the new Zelda was carried to New York by some Nintendo reps, so I could play more of that E3 demo and discover just how bossy Spirit Tracks' Link can be.

What Is It?
Nintendo-made action-RPG. Stars a kid dressed in green. Something about a sword, a shield. This one's on a DS, set 100 years after the last one on the platform, The Legend of Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass.

What We Saw
The E3 demo that was brought to NYC this week was divided into Dungeon, Boss and Train sections. I got timed-out by the demo in the Dungeon, skipped the Boss, rode the Train to pig-enraging victory – only to be beaten by the train's boss enemy. That's a lot of failure on my part, if you parse that out. So please don't.

How Far Along Is It?
Spirit Tracks is set for a fall release. It's clearly working with the art style – and maybe the engine – of Phantom Hourglass, so it looks solid already.

What Needs Improvement?

The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks Preview: Pigs Might Fly

Train Schedule: Yes, controlling Link on his train is fun. The player can control both the speed of the train and the switches the determine how the tracks will guide the train at intersections. Link's got a cannon he can fire at threatening enemies who ride on boarback up to his train (tap anywhere to fire that cannon, as seen in Phantom Hourglass). The player can tug a rope icon to blow a whistle. But… there's something strange about how the train missions are designed. That's just it: if the demo is an accurate representation of the structure of the final game, then note that these are missions, not moments encountered seamlessly while traveling from one dungeon to the next. The one in the demo is confined to a single-screen's worth of map, a loose spaghetti-tangle of train tracks that leads past some enemy trains and into a cave where a boss dwells. In other words, it's like a side mission. It's not an emergent part of open-world exploration, which is what Link's adventures on horseback in Ocarina of Time or on the deck of a boat in Wind Waker were. I'm the first to cheer Zelda innovating, but there's a hint here of a choppier flow for this next Zelda. I need to see more to be convinced this won't detract from the joy of open exploration found in most Zeldas.

The New Item Blows: In the dungeon, Link's got some sort of wind-blown propeller thing that shoots a breeze wherever Link is pointing. This is useful for getting keys past walls of flame. You make the item emit its rush of air by… blowing into the DS mic. Those of us who like to play their DS on major metropolitan subways with dignity intact are officially dismayed.

What Should Stay The Same?
Gold-Standard Controls: The Phantom Hourglass had one of the best control schemes on the DS. It's almost all stylus, with touches on open areas moving Link to those points, swipes at nearby enemies making him melee-attack and distant taps firing projectiles. Simple, smart, adaptable to many items and weapons, including that train cannon.

The Phantom: Crecente already wrote about how the demo introduces a Phantom partner character who patrols the demo's dungeon with Link. He can carry Link over lava and be commanded to stand on switches. Better than that, the player defines the Phantom's walking path by drawing a route for him on the screen, just as they drew the path of Link's boomerang in Phantom Hourglass. (If any close readers are noticing a number of echoes of Star Fox Command's winning RTS-lite design, I'm with you). Here's what we didn't report last time: drawing the Phantom's path into that of an enemy sets the Phantom on the attack. Let him fight Link's battles. The Phantom seemed like a more satisfyingly powerful, and more easily controllable partner, than those allies who showed up in some Wind Waker dungeons.

The Harassment of Pigs: I was tired of hacking at chickens with Link's sword in other Zelda games, anyway. Peaceful pigs wandering near the train tracks Link is chugging over are perfect targets for cannonballs. Warning: they turn red and attack the train.

Final Thoughts
Nintendo often demos its Zelda games with discrete, themed sections, as it did for the E3 presentation of Spirit Tracks. It makes it hard to determine if some of the confines apparent in what we're playing are only in the demo or representative of the structure of the full game. Either way, there was plenty that was fun in this build, even if some of it felt confining.

Those who have become fatigued of the Zelda series are weary of repetition of certain items and types of quests. Those are not elements that could be judged in the E3 Spirit Tracks demo. People who are still delighted by Zelda enjoy discovering new ways for Link to get around his world and new puzzle mechanics in his dungeons. In the E3 demo, both of those showed well.