Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks Hands-On
The Legend of Zelda franchise steams back onto Nintendo DS. Should you board the train, or is it time to make tracks?
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I have a hypothesis about the evolution of gaming from, oh, 2002 onwards. It's called the "Grand Theft of (Creative) Autonomy", and it runs as follows: after a certain number of sequels, any moderately or not-so-moderately successful action franchise will simply become GTA 3. Levels will broaden and flow together, and such non-GTA-ish features as double jumps and moving platforms gradually give way to multiple storey car-parks, snarky billboards and bow-legged mobsters.
The disease is still in its embryonic stages in the The Legend of Zelda series, but the latest DS iteration, Spirit Tracks, is showing some nasty symptoms. I'm talking about Link's train, people. That's mechanised transport, that is. Slippery slopes, Nintendo, slippery slopes.
As the title indicates, trains are to the second Wind Waker spin-off what steamboats were to its predecessor, Phantom Hourglass, and sailing ships to Wind Waker itself: pretty damn central. As the epoch-bridging wearer of that famous green tunic, you use the train to get from quest-giving NPC A to dungeon entrance B across what will doubtless be a capacious, mystery-ridden overworld, but for obvious reasons the process is a bit more restrictive than in Zeldas of yore, navigation being whittled down to flicking junction switches left or right.
Given the developer's pedigree, you'd be foolish to assume this slim parcel of mechanics won't sprout complications down the line, but it looks worryingly like Zelda's distinctive breed of non-linear exploration has been cut out, and driving the train lacks the viscerality of turning your sail to catch a breeze or spurring a horse. Pulling the whistle in top right with the stylus is a bit of a thrill, though. You can use it to scare unwary wildlife off the track, though we found the cannon (aimed and fired, as before, by tapping) a perfectly acceptable substitute in this regard. There are two speed settings, and you can put the train in reverse.