With the game pulling into the station on December 7, we visited Nintendo of America to get one last pre-launch look at The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks. The latest trailer for the game revealed the Spirit Tower, a central hub of mini-dungeons that must be cleared in order to restore the train tracks that lead to the world's main temple dungeons. What we saw was the latter -- more specifically, the second of the game's dungeons, the Snow Temple.
This dungeon made heavy use of Link's ability to create whirlwinds -- the actual mechanic behind them is blowing into the DS microphone, but, thankfully, it doesn't require you to lean in incredibly close to the system or blow especially hard for it to work. Once the ability is selected by tapping it on-screen, it stays active, and dragging the stylus around Link makes him rotate, a yellow line indicating which direction the whirlwind will go. This mainly came into play when we needed to cross pools of water atop floating blocks. Like fanning a leaf in Wind Waker, firing off a whirlwind in Spirit Tracks sends Link sailing in the opposite direction.
Unfortunately, our time with this dungeon was cut short so that Nintendo could demo the game's four-player competitive mode. On the technical side, DS Download Play can be used so that only one of the four players actually needs to own Spirit Tracks in order to get a match going. (If all four players have the game, the start-up time is much faster.)
As in past Zelda multiplayer modes, each player takes control of a Link in different colored garb. The goal of the mode, which has several different maps (more on that in a sec), is to collect as many Power Gems as possible before the timer runs out. There are a few different ways to swipe gems from opponents -- the most basic tactic is to pick up a bomb from one of the stage's bomb plants and lob it at them. The maps also have pressure pads that trigger trap doors; if your opponent falls into one, their loot is forfeit. Randomly throughout each match, special gems will drop onto the play field which, when grabbed, provide their bearer special attacks a la Mario Kart. We saw invincibility and a roaming thunderstorm that'd zap other players.
Our favorite way to mess with our opponents was to make them the target of a Phantom, a hulking suit of armor that's constantly roaming the playing field looking for a Link to chase down and slay. If one spots you, an orb appears above your Link's head indicating that you're its target. It's possible, though, to run and "tag" another player, thus making them the Phantom's prey.
Apart from different bomb and trap door placement, some of the stages have special qualities. We played on one where its entire center area was covered in water. Stepping into it turned Link invisible, so keeping an eye out for other players' footprints is the water became really important.
Overall, the multiplayer mode was a lot of fun, and something we can picture ourselves playing often when groups of friends are around (it's local-play only). As for the main adventure, we've seen some of what it has to offer before, and this last taste before release makes us even more optimistic that Nintendo has birthed another great Zelda. So far, we'd choo-choo-choose Spirit Tracks over Phantom Hourglass, but we'll hold off on any further judgment until we have the final game in-hand.