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E3 09: Hands-on with The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks

4:20 PM on 06.05.2009 // Chad Concelmo

I am going to stand up on my chair right now and shout it to the world: I think The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass is the best Zelda game since undisputed classic Ocarina of Time. Do I adore Wind Waker? Oh my goodness, yes. Do I love Twilight Princess? You bet! There was just something about the revolutionary touch screen controls in Phantom Hourglass that made everything old in the Zelda series feel brand new again.

With that being said, it may seem obvious that I was excited when Nintendo recently announced a brand new Zelda game for the Nintendo DS, a direct sequel to Phantom Hourglass called The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks.

So, how does this DS follow-up play? It looks just like Phantom Hourglass (hell yeah, Toon Link!), but does it play equally as great? And is seeing Link conducting a train weird? Hit the jump for my hands-on impressions of The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks.

How does The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks play? It is absolutely incredible!

It looks just like Phantom Hourglass, but does it play equally as great? YES!

And is seeing Link conducting a train weird? If by "weird" you mean awesome!

Okay, you probably want a little bit more than that. Check out the below impressions of the three sections of the demo (as you can tell, I liked what I played):

Demo Section #1 - Dungeon

The first part of the demo lets you play through a short dungeon -- whether this one is in the final game or not is still unknown.

Like Phantom Hourglass, all of the controls are splendidly mapped to the touch screen. You can hold your stylus down to have Link run towards it or you can tap specific things on the screen to interact with something specifically, be it an enemy to attack or a chest to open.

Right when the dungeon starts you are introduced to a brand new feature in Spirit Tracks that, I am guessing from the trailers I have seen, will play a big part in the entire experience: A giant armored knight stands right next to Link at the entrance to the dungeon and follows Link around.

This knight is an incredible new addition because he can be completely controlled by Link and adds a nice new layer of depth to many of the dungeon's puzzles! As Link walks around the knight automatically follows him. If Link ever wants to take control of him, all the player has to do is tap this little colored icon in the middle of the knight (you can see it in some of the images in this post). Once the icon is tapped, the player can draw a line on the screen and the knight will follow the exact same path. By continuing the line to touch "hot spot items" such as a switch or an enemy, Link can order the knight to interact with something.

For example: The first puzzle in the dungeon requires two people to stand on two different switches to get a door to open. The solution is simple: Order the knight to walk onto the switch, while Link stands on the other one. In a nice addition, Link can fully move around and use items while the knight performs his duties. I was thinking how annoying it would be if Link was frozen in place while all of this stuff was happening -- luckily, that is not the case at all.

But, obviously, the puzzles get much trickier from there. In my time in the dungeon, I did some really creative things with the knight. At one point Link directed him to walk along a separate parallel path to walk in front of huge spouting fire traps (since the knight is armored, he can withstand things Link can't). As he walked along the path, I had to control Link to walk past the fire traps at the exact time the knight blocked the fire. It was an interesting combination of strategy and action.

In fact, this brilliant dance of manipulating the knight while doing things with Link continued through the rest of the dungeon. In one extended, amazing sequence, I had to draw a path for the knight to walk over a huge pool of lava. Since Link can't touch the lava, I had to hop from platform to platform, sometimes even jumping on top of the knight to carry me over the molten obstacle. It was a challenging bit of gameplay, but not hard enough to ever be frustrating.

Basically, this Link and knight continued until the end of the dungeon demo. I have to say, I was very impressed by how creative the design was in this one small piece of the dungeon. I can only imagine how expansive and clever things will get in the final version of the game.

Demo Section #2 - Boss

Like all good Zelda games, the boss fights are a definite highlight. The one boss I got to battle in the Spirit Tracks demo was no exception.

Right before battling the massive creature, Link discovered a chest with a brand new item to the Zelda universe inside it: the Whirlwind. The Whirlwind looks like the Gale Boomerang (from Twilight Princess) in use, but instead of coming back to you, the Whirlwind sends a huge tornado in the direction Link shoots it. Basically you point the stylus in the direction you want to shoot, blow into the mic, and the tornado races forward. And before you freak out about having to blow at all in the game (stop the dirty thoughts!), using the Whirlwind is not a pain at all. The mic is super sensitive and, if I am not mistaken, I think I even figured out a way to shoot the tornado without needing to blow into the mic (although I am not sure how I did it).

Being a Zelda boss, I knew immediately I was going to have to use this item to fight it.

The boss itself was a huge beetle creature that filled both screens with its massive, armored body. Like most Zelda bosses, it had an obvious weak point on its backside. By directing the Whirlwind towards the beetle's back, the tornado blows away a protective shield of poison, exposing the boss to Link's attacks.

After knocking him down a few times, the beetle boss flies high on the second screen and tosses explosive enemies down at Link. At this point, Link has to shoot the Whirlwind into the enemies to blow them into the air and knock the beetle out of the sky. Once I did this a few times the boss was defeated.

The beetle boss felt a little simple compared to most bosses, but it still perfectly showed off the great uses of the Whirlwind and the flawless, classic Zelda design that will continue with Spirit Tracks.

Demo Section #3 - Train

The one part of Spirit Tracks that I knew nothing about was how the train was going to work. I had seen it in trailers, but didn't know how it was going to function when compared to other classic forms of Link transportation (horse, boat, etc.).

My initial thought was that players were going to be able to use the stylus to draw their own path for the train to follow (similar to the boat in Phantom Hourglass). Sadly, this was not the case in the demo. That doesn't mean that won't happen in the final version -- and, honestly, I have a gut feeling that will be implemented -- but in the demo Link followed a set path of pre-existing train tracks.

The train section of the demo basically entailed Link traveling from one side of a huge, open, beautiful field to reach a cave.

The train moves forward automatically, with players able to pull a lever on the side of the bottom screen (using the stylus of course) to adjust the speed. The four settings on the lever are fast, normal, stop, and reverse -- pretty much everything you could ask for with train controls.

Also on the bottom screen is a chain that you can pull to blow the train whistle (it needs to be mentioned how nice the animation is when you pull the chain -- it dangles with impressive realism). I thought this ridiculously cute-sounding whistle was just for fun, but then the surprising depth of the train controls kicked in.

Like the boat in Phantom Hourglass, Link can shoot a cannon from the train in Spirit Tracks by clicking anywhere on the bottom screen -- this weapon is great for defeating pesky enemies. However, in addition to the evil creatures that populate the field, there are cute, friendly creatures -- in the demo they were cows -- that shouldn't be attacked. If you do attack them (accidentally or otherwise), the cows will attack you just like the chickens in previous Zelda games.

The whistle is used to get these friendly cows out of the way when they happen to be grazing on the train tracks! It is brilliant! Instead of shooting them with the cannon or running into them (both which result in hot cow revenge!), the whistle will alert the cow and move him out of the way. Again, it adds so much depth to an already really fun sequence.

In addition to shooting cannons and blowing whistles, Link can also trigger switch tracks (using the stylus) to change directions and move onto other tracks. This became very important when Link entered a crazy grid section of train tracks and had to avoid a bunch of indestructible bomb trains that were journeying along the same sets of tracks and would instantly kill Link if touched.

After making it to the end of the train section, Link fought a miniboss, of sorts. As he traveled through the cave, the camera flipped in front of Link's train as the massive creature ran behind him. At this point, Link just had to aim his cannon to hit the beast in its giant eye a few times to defeat him.

After playing through the surprisingly tense (and tough!) train sequence I can confidently say that it makes for a cool, unique addition to the Zelda universe. I can't wait to play more.

I know it seems obvious now, but I loved my time with The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks. If you loved Phantom Hourglass you will absolutely adore this direct sequel. The controls are perfect, the graphics are gorgeous, and the tried and true Zelda gameplay feels fresh as ever due to some very welcome additions.

From what I played, I can't recommend this game enough!

Based on my hands-on time with the game, I am giving my impressions of The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks a 9.5.*

*This is a ridiculous scoring system and has nothing to do with the final game. I just thought it would be fun to score all the games I play this week based on my hands-on time with them all.

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Chad Concelmo,
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