When Nintendo released the Nintendo DS and the Wii, there was an entire faction of PC gamers who instantly saw a tremendous set of possibilities. These were gamers who had assumed that their favorite games had been abandoned with the rise of console gaming, gamers left behind by a tidal wave of twitchy multiplayer shooters, sports games, and Guitar Hero. These are the gamers weaned on LucasArts, the gamers who worship at the altar of Myst—I speak, of course, of adventure gamers.
The reason that adventure games seem feasible again is thanks to the control schemes offered by these new systems. Specifically, the stylus and the Wiimote are far more acceptable replacements for a mouse than any other systems’ control pads.
Still, those of us who long for the days when games like The Secret of Monkey Island and Day of the Tentacle dominated hours and hours of our time tend to glamorize that era of PC gaming a bit. We forget that, like any genre, there were lousy examples of the genre, lazy attempts at adventure gaming that can basically be reduced to entering a room and hunting for pixels. The Hardy Boys: Treasure on the Tracks is the type of game that allows us to remember the good old days of adventure gaming while simultaneously reminding us that adventure for the sake of adventure can be a pretty hollow experience.
At first, Treasure on the Tracks presents itself as an adequate, if lightweight, adventure game. By giving the Boys a reason to be on a train while traveling through Europe and looking for clues that will lead them to the lost treasure of the Romanovs, a solid, narrative-based reason for what might in other games be considered a “hub town” is offered. Despite the wandering around various famous European cities and landmarks, there’s always the knowledge that you’ll eventually be returning to the train. The train is where you do most of your interaction with the other major players in the mystery, and it’s also the center of the mystery itself, with hidden pathways, puzzles, and even its very own set of treasures.
Still, this is where the game starts to fall flat—you will actually spend more than half of your time on this train. Aside from a couple of rooms that serve specific purposes, much of the train is a drab, all-too-ordinary setting for such a mystery. As interesting as any hub town can be, you never want to spend too much of your time there—the hub town is where you prepare for your real experiences, which in the case of Treasure on the Tracks, should have come in the various cities visited by the train on its journey. Rather than seeing the world and taking in the sights, you spend most of your time looking at walls and snooping around, over and over, in other people’s sleeping quarters.
This last gameplay element is indicative of the most egregious failing of the game: the sense of repetition that it all too willingly falls into. You arrive in a city. You hunt around on sidewalks and in garbage cans for scraps of paper with which to assemble a ticket, a flyer, or some other piece of paper that’s bound to serve as admission of some sort. You pore over a single building in that city, usually finding an important painting that holds a clue to the treasure. You find five objects in the painting, you make a star out of the objects, the center of the star tells you where to look next, and you’re back on the train. You do so over and over and over again; until all too quickly, it’s over. When the entire game is all of four to five hours long and one of its greatest failings is repetition, it becomes painfully clear that the gameplay here is extremely limited.
There are a few tacked on stylus-ready minigames that usually devolve into Elite Beat Agents-style “tap the dot!” exercises but that do help to diversify the gameplay a bit. This being a Her Interactive game, there’s also a subplot with a mysterious girl who’s on the case as well and that without whom the Boys would likely never solve the mystery; we even get to play as this girl on occasion, which tends to lead to the only moments of gameplay that inspire any sort of tension.
For the most part, however, Treasure on the Tracks feels simply like a lost opportunity. While the Wii is getting inspired adventures from the likes of Telltale Games (whose Sam & Max and Monkey Island games generated a lot of chatter, if not a ton of sales), the DS has, to date, failed to even approach its adventure gaming potential. Games like Hotel Dusk and the Phoenix Wright series do adventuring in their own charming and absorbing ways but neither are throwbacks to the days of PC adventuring the way The Hardy Boys: Treasure on the Tracks is. Unfortunately, it’s going to take a lot more than a mere resemblance to a time gone by to bring this sorely missed genre to the attention of the largely casual DS audience.