Developer: Nintendo EAD / Publisher: Nintendo / ESRB: Everyone 10+ (Mild Fantasy Violence) / Played on: DS / Price: $39.99
The Legend of Zelda is an interesting beast. The series has come to represent a number of things: exploration, immersion, creative worlds, and of course good ol’ fashioned dungeon busting. Because of this, any given Zelda game has something for everyone: combat, puzzles, or raw fantasy. The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks, the second Zelda game on the DS, aptly hits most of the high notes for which the series is known. Clever puzzles and riddles, combat with original enemies, and damned inventive use of the DS’s hardware make for enjoyable times in Hyrule. However, restrictions of the handheld system limit the game’s immersion and creative atmosphere – most notably in the game’s dungeons – which will disappoint fans of the series’ outlandish locales.
Despite what the art style may suggest, Spirit Tracks is not a direct sequel to predecessor Phantom Hourglass. Instead, the game takes place an (estimated) 70 years later, as some characters from the previous game are present but heavily aged. The game revolves around the resurgence of demon king Malladus, whom you know is evil because his name contains the root “mal-“ and ends in a hard consonant. Way back when, the first settlers of Hyrule had a dandy time until Malladus showed up, and despite fighting for ages, could only manage to imprison Malladus in a series of tracks that cover the land. Yes, the Spirit Tracks.
The game opens with a young graduating engineer (at the player’s mercy for a name, though I’ll refer to him as Link instead of the more likely “Gaynuts”) on the way to Castle Hyrule for official ordination. Link quickly runs afoul of a plot to resurrect Malladus, which involves eliminating the spirit tracks and extracting Princess Zelda’s physical body. Since Link is a standup young lad, he partners with Zelda’s freshly separated spirit to restore the spirit tracks and keep Malladus where he belongs.
Spirit Tracks’ story maintains Zelda tradition in providing just enough narration to set the stage for adventuring and throws a few tidbits to send the hardcore fans scrambling to their wikis (where did the flood go? Get speculating). In-game dialogue features an offbeat humor that rewards curious players in towns. Oddly, this game occasionally presents dialogue options, though they’re pointless aside from halting sequences that would otherwise dump the player into a dungeon – at one point the choice lay between saying “Yes” and “Of Course.”
The Zelda formula is as strong as ever in Spirit Tracks, as the game loop rotates between exploration, conversation, combat, and puzzle solving at an even keel without any one activity overstaying its welcome. After a few dungeons, the game’s pattern becomes apparent: obtain a new rail map from the game’s central dungeon, discover the location of the temple in the new area, visit that temple to defeat the boss, then return to the central dungeon and repeat. Recognizing the pattern doesn’t make it any less enjoyable; subtle permutations later in the game prevent it from becoming too systemic.
Given the central dungeon’s poor reception in Phantom Hourglass, its presence in Spirit Tracks warrants clarifications. Most importantly, there is no universal time limit or cumbersome re-treads of previous levels. Each new area of the tower can be traveled to directly. These dungeons are further livened by Zelda’s ability to possess suits of armor, causing it to turn pink and make girly poses (which is fantastic). The player can then independently direct Zelda, sending her to distract other suits of armor, carry Link across spikes, operate switches, and a myriad of other actions that offer genuinely new puzzles. Sure, we’ve all thrown a boomerang across a gap to hit a switch, but when’s the last time you had to work two characters, each with abilities and disadvantages, through a dungeon together? Think The Lost Vikings.
Spirit Tracks’ other new addition is more prominent – the train. As trains do, it can only move along pre-existing tracks. While this sounds lame as hell, the folks at Nintendo somehow made conducting a train more than horrendously boring. Pulling the steam whistle on the touch screen taps a boyish glee that has yet to depreciate, and there are always rocks and enemies to shoot at along the way. Additionally, Link will occasionally have to transport passengers that will abandon ship with shoddy driving, which requires a surprising level of attention and skill.
Spirit Tracks implements the same cel-shaded visual style of predecessors Phantom Hourglass and Wind Waker. This style masks low poly counts and geometrically basic environments behind great art direction and expressive characters, making it a great match for the DS. The most notable visual improvement in this iteration is in character shading, making the characters look even better than those in Wind Waker, display resolution notwithstanding.
The environments aren’t likewise improved, however. Perhaps due to storage size restrictions on the DS cartridges, most environments in the game feature heavily tiled textures and simple geometries. Despite the fact that the game is in 3D, many of the dungeons have a Super Nintendo-era look with repeated floor and wall textures and grid-style floor layouts.
As a result, the game’s temples don’t bristle with the character of their associated identity. This may be an unfair comparison to the series’ big siblings on the consoles, but the water temple in Spirit Tracks can only be identified as such because it is blue, as opposed to the water temple that put hair on the chest of many a gamer from Ocarina of Time. Towns are better able to express individuality thanks to unique denizens and houses, but ultimately the game’s climate-centric zones fail to stand out compared against the rest of the series. Ultimately this is like mocking one dude in a family of billionaires that has male pattern baldness. Who cares if he’s losing hair – he’s rich. Even if the game’s areas don’t pop, it still hits Zelda levels of quality that excel beyond most games.
The touch screen controls in Spirit Tracks are largely transplanted from Phantom Hourglass, with the notable change being that a roll is now a double-tap instead of a never-recognized loop. Tapping on an area moves Link in that direction, tapping on an enemy attacks, tapping on an NPC converses, and inventories are even easier to manage on the touch screen than with a controller. Simply put, the entire Zelda experience is seamlessly recreated through a touch screen, which is damned impressive when one considers how easy that’d be to screw up.
Spirit Tracks brings some wildly inventive touch screen controls as well. Features like jotting notes down on the game’s maps return while new items create cyclones by blowing into the DS’s mic. My favorite is the Spirit Flute – this game’s baton/ocarina. Players toot out melodies on this pan flute by blowing in the mic while sliding the flute back and forth on the touch screen. If I was told I’d be playing a digital pan flute when I bought my DS… I dunno, I’d probably give whoever told me that any spare change I had and walk away quickly.
Fans of the Celtic slant in Zelda’s music will love Spirit Tracks’ soundtrack. Most of the over world themes feature the energetic tunes that encourage a sense of wonder and exploration. The game’s surround sound option does a startling job of producing full sound from the DS’s tinny speakers, though any music buff should enjoy this game through headphones. Don’t scoff at the “surround” moniker, though, because more than once I’ve looked behind me trying to figure out what that weird sound was, only to realize some pirates were rolling up on me in-game.
Spirit Track’s greatest failure is that its dungeons don’t create a sense of individuality or wonder that I’ve come to associate with the Zelda series. That being said, the fact that its greatest failure is something so esoteric and metaphysical is proof that the game is excellent in every other way. To sweeten the deal, Spirit Tracks’ campaign is not only extended by typical Zelda collections (stamps, rabbits, etc.), but a simple gem-collecting multiplayer game that can offer a few more hours of fun. The only folks that won’t enjoy Spirit Tracks are those that have already tried a Zelda game and didn’t like it – a rare person indeed.