Link's latest magical ability is the power to summon queues. Long queues, in fact. Queues that snake patiently around Nintendo's pristine white E3 booth while a lot of the other games on-show can be played with little or no waiting. After a strangely muted response to its unveiling at GDC 2009, the latest DS Zelda title appears to be picking up steam again: business as usual, then, as the mild-mannered pixie folk eclipse most of Nintendo's other offerings.
It's business as usual in the game itself, too. The playable E3 demo build is broken down into three separate sections, covering train travel, dungeon exploration, and a boss encounter. Taken as a whole, it's a surprisingly generous slice of adventuring, and one that showcases a game that's typically thoughtful, and typically traditional.
The train, replacing the Phantom Hourglass's cheerful little paddle steamer, would appear to bring the biggest changes with it, but the truth is, chuffing your way through the landscape feels almost entirely natural from the start. That's partly down to the fact that the controls - limited in the main to forward, reverse and stop - are very similar to the boat's, with a cartoon gearbox painted onto the right side of the screen.
But it's also because of the simplicity with which this particular train-set is constructed. The top screen shows a map of the local network, highlighting your eventual destination and listing the various junction points along the way. 'Switch' sections allow you to turn left or right, and a little on-screen rope can be tugged with the stylus to sound the horn, either to scatter the chunky pigs who like to sleep on the tracks or just because the chance to sound a train horn is something you should never really pass up.
And, unsurprisingly, railways are a perfect fit with the cartoon aesthetic of the Wind Waker-style Zeldas, fitting into the toybox world with little fuss as you coast past forests of papery trees, firing your cannon with sharp onscreen taps to destroy rocks and collect rupees, or battle the deadlier elements of the local wildlife, such as the snaggle-toothed boars who attack in packs of three or four.
Heading into a tunnel banishes the breezy outdoor game world, and plunges you into the dark, mysterious side of Zelda, as the craggy stones overhead glow with a strange turquoise light. And, with no switches to worry about, Spirit Tracks tosses other difficulties Link's way, throwing in a meatier enemy in the form of a huge rocky toad, who crawls along the ceiling behind you, his glowing tongue - or is it an eye? -appearing unexpectedly out of the dark and presenting a handy target.
It's enough to suggest that Spirit Tracks will have no problems holding your attention on the open road, even without a huge, surf-flecked ocean to explore, and a chance to hack through a dungeon suggests that things are looking typically confident in that department too.
The twist this time revolves around a new use for the stylus - a mechanic that, in timeless Zelda style, is introduced in simple steps, before being twisted and toyed with until you're dealing with some brilliantly devious implementations. As Link makes his way through a fairly simple arrangement of puzzle rooms, he's joined by the hulking armour-clad form of a phantom, a giant automaton with a massive sword, who can be guided about by drawing a line on the floor.
At first it's a simple matter of using him to step on one half of a double switch-plate to open a door, but the uses the game puts him to steadily build up. Some are obvious - the phantom can be sent on ahead to attack electrified enemies for you - but some are significantly slyer, and after the third room, you're using your huge bodyguard as a portable shield while you pass by a series of hot vents, sending him through walls of flames to hit switches that lie on the other side, and sending him into lakes of lava, before hopping onto his head, and walking him across to the opposite bank.
For other, less imaginative teams, it would be an idea to be wrung dry in a few simple situations - Spirit Tracks manages to get almost an entire dungeon out of it, with no sense that the developer is even close to scraping the bottom of the barrel. And when the phantom finally steps aside, there's the dungeon's special item to mess around with, a weapon called the Whirlwind, which allows you to blow powerful gusts across a room, stunning enemies, turning those familiar acorn switches, and dispelling dangerous purple smoke.
A fairly standard variation on a handful of previous Zelda toys, the Whirlwind plays a major roll in the boss fight that takes up the last third of the demo. At the centre of the dungeon lurks a giant grey insect, with the buzzing wings of a dragonfly capable of lofting his tubby form into the air, and a set of deadly mandible positioned like antlers above his pinched little face. Again, striking at the glowing weak spot on his back is hardly a novel experience, but Nintendo's team adds a little bit of twitch skill, as you expose an area to attack by switching to the Whirlwind to blow away noxious clouds, and then varies the assault with a swooping move that knocks Link from his ledge if you aren't careful.
With the train ridden, the dungeon's puzzles untangled, and the boss defeated, it's time to move on and let the rest of the queue have a shot, but we're left with a sense that Spirit Tracks, as expected, is shaping up to be another careful entry in a famously cautious series. The adventure is never less than familiar, but Nintendo's fantasy is still capable of weaving a powerful spell from the moment you pick it up, whether it's due to the Pavlovian response brought on by the ancient mechanics, or simple admiration at the off-hand brilliance with which the game is constructed. The result, as always, is another chunk of simple delight; another sweet-natured adventure.