#04: The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks (Nintendo DS)
Genre: Action RPG, Adventure
Platform: Nintendo DS
Release Date: December 2009
The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks follows on from the previous Zelda/DS incarnation, The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass, which I’ll happily go on record saying is easily the DS’ finest hour and one of the most inventive Zelda games in the history of the series. In between the awesomeness, however, nestled many flaws that plagued the experience: The endless sailing required to travel from place to place, the short lifespan of the main adventure, the repetitive trawls through the Temple of the Ocean King after every couple of hours’ gameplay, the lack of substantial sidequests; it was certainly a Zelda quest full of character and charm, but in terms of substance, it was unfortunately left wanting. Two years wiser, Nintendo stepped back from their palace of gold to take a good look at the series and propose a Zelda adventure that doesn’t just retread old glories (like Twilight Princess did with Ocarina of Time; and Phantom Hourglass continued from Wind Waker) but instead proposes its own quirks and oddities. Sure, Zelda gets kidnapped as per usual and Hyrule is once again in peril of succumbing to evil forces, but not in usual way; yes, you’ve got the same old boomerang and the same old sword ‘n’ shield, but with some completely original weapons that make great use of the DS’ innovative controls; and while the traditional Zelda dungeon mechanic is retrodden, the new features it weaves into it balance ‘familiarity’ and ‘originality’ with ease. So, Nintendo have gone against all tradition and listened to player’s criticisms and troubles by attempting to ‘fix’ what many felt Phantom Hourglass lacked, while honing those features that it excelled at, right? Well, with a couple of exceptions, yes.
Events take place around 100 years after Phantom Hourglass (and involving alternate descendants of Link and Tetra from Phantom Hourglass), where the land has dried up to reveal the ancient Spirit Tracks that allow the train system to thrive across Hyrule. In usual Zelda stylee, the Princess herself has gotten kidnapped by a guy who is too cool for just one hat in order to resurrect his Dark Master, Malladus. Link arrives as a young train engineer who, aided by the spirit of Princess Zelda herself, must travel across Hyrule with the ancient Spirit Train, reviving the Spirit Tracks to allow him to contact the remaining masters of the ancient Lokomos tribe which may help restore the Spirit Tower and recover Zelda’s body from the clutches of Malladus. So far, so straightforward. Gameplay retains the essential Zelda spirit (pun definitely intended) so that those familiar with the series, or the vague 3D RPG/adventure genre should have no trouble getting to grips with the basic mechanic. Indeed, the controls are as simple to pick as ever, and the game is so confident in this regard that it largely dispenses with a tutorial for each new action or item acquired; letting the player get a feel for how it operates themselves without spoiling the fun of discovering its potential. The main story is more developed than its predecessor, and Tracks will last a good 20 hours of charming main storyline, excluding a nice dose of side-quests for those who’re still hungry for more. For those hungry for more minigames, how about catching rabbits with a giant, train-mounted net? Or collecting stamps from every new town, village or dungeon you descend upon? Treasure-collection returns to allow upgrades to the train car, and there’s also a heap of escort side-quests to transport various NPCs and items across Hyrule on the back of your train which further unlocks regions of Hyrule with new Spirit Tracks.
In both looks and operation, Spirit Tracks resembles a slightly more refined Phantom Hourglass, and it’s nice to see some familiar sights in the sequel: The appearance of Linebeck, the pirate captain; familiar tribes and locations, like the Anouki and the Gorons; a stained-glass depiction of Tetra in Hyrule Castle. The ‘notebook’ mechanic is even more integrated than in the original, where ‘secret’ maps can be memorised and complex combinations jotted down; making Hyrule, and its many temples and dungeons, just as much a joy to traverse as it ever was. To boot, the range of NPCs in Hyrule’s vast green fields (and where Phantom Hourglass was all blue, Tracks is all very green) seems to reach ever-charming levels. The key new item in this game is, like the Ocarina of Time and Wind Waker that preceded it, musical; taking the form of the Spirit Pipes, which make full use of the DS’ microphone for blowing as one would a set of pan pipes, while moving the pipes left and right with the touchscreen to change the pitch. Despite around six songs to ‘collect’ which can be operated in normal play (such as to ‘reveal’ an item hidden underground), the only other operations are to ‘jam’ with the Lokomos elders in order to revive the Spirit Tracks in a new zone; where you’re forced to copy the rhythm and mimic the tune. The overall effect is a criminal underuse of a mechanic you’ll only ever critically need a handful of times in order to finish the game. The other new items – the Sand Wand (where the temptation to rhyme ‘wand’ with ‘sand’ is inescapable), the Whirlwind and the Whip- all nestle among the familiar items without disturbance, but also instigate key puzzles revolving around their mastery. The mix of ‘familiar’ and ‘unique’ in such balance keeps it fresh for the Zelda veterans (though not since Majora’s Mask, or perhaps the visual style of Wind Waker, has Link’s adventure seemed so fresh) while still offering newbies the much-honed ‘core’ of the series that’s kept it ahead of its competitors.
The constant presence of multi-puzzle dungeons still permeates Hyrule, all filled with all kinds of nefarious traps and baddies that’ll challenge both newcomers and veterans: Baddies that emit purple death clouds which you ‘blow’ away with the Whirlwind, traps requiring quick actions and fast item-changes, creepy giant hands that chase you when you’re carried the Boss Key (somewhat resembling the Master Hand from Super Smash Bros., and no less disturbing). Just as you’d expect, Zelda’s main hook of classy dungeon design is as visible as ever, and fighty-action-puzzle bits are numerous enough to keep you interested but not descend into grindy dungeon crawl too swiftly. Less, however, can be said for the bits in between: While there’s no tedious sailing this time, tedious train-manouevring is in abundance. The innovative, but ultimately disarming, locomotive controls are difficult to get used to, and the lack of freedom to travel exactly where you want causes untold levels of frustration as you’re forced on a linear route at an often crawl-like pace. While it’s certainly nice to leave the boat at home on this outing, the change in transport can be just as troublesome, with the presence of monsters that unpredictably appear in your path and wipe out health instantly requiring either an attack with your train-mounted cannon or a sharp blast with the train’s whistle to dispatch: You can never ‘abandon’ your game and let the train take you directly from A to B, since one slash from a nasty sends you right back to the station you departed from. Hence, you’re forced to keep a watchful eye on your travel (making adjustments along the way) and constantly monitor Link’s snail-like progress with a patience that soon dissipates once you get a few hours into the game.
Similar to Navi from Ocarina of Time, it is Zelda herself that acts as your ‘guide’ in Spirit Tracks. Stripped of her physical form, she remains a spirit who accompanies you everywhere, taking on further roles in certain dungeons where she’s able to occupy the empty suits of armour formerly under the control of Phantoms. It’s a nice break from the familiar dungeon grind, since it’s one that requires a totally new perspective, and also justifies the ‘step up’ in difficulty: Where Phantom Hourglass was mostly a breeze without a hitch, the last dungeon of Spirit Tracks caused me headaches for a good few hour.: Exceedingly frustrating, but ultimately vastly rewarding, the solution requires multiple talents with all of the items and skills acquired during the rest of the game (including Zelda’s work herself, occupying different Phantom armours, each with different abilities) over puzzles stretching over multiple floors and requiring formidable planning in order to advance. Here, the strength of the Zelda series really shines through; the superb design making the game accessible to all, but challenging (although never to the point of ‘throw the console across the room’-style frustration) for fans of the series.
The DS controls still work like a charm and the honed 3D engine looks fantastic; Tracks is assuredly one of the best-looking games on the ageing handheld. The cel-shaded style inherited from Wind Waker and Phantom Hourglass seemed renewed, somehow, as if the move from the submerged Hyrule has given the visuals increased vigour with a greater range in depths and hues of a terrestrial world. Likewise, the character design and models all look great, with the main pro-/antagonists looking delightfully unique (including the irrepressible henchman Staven, who’s by far the best Zelda baddie of recent outings) and the vast array of NPCs taking on many shades of individuality and charm. The game’s sound effects and music represent a high point for the series, with some of the game’s main musical themes being fantastically catchy and seemingly immune to the effects of repetition, as they remain just as enjoyable in the last hour of the game as the first. Everything that previously had a sparkly sheen has been buffed further, so that the game typifies one that’s essentially been honed continuously over it’s twenty-odd year lifetime, and one that shows no sign of letting up in future instalments. The Legend of Zelda remains probably my most favourite game series that’s still ongoing (after Final Fantasy lost me after it’s tenth instalment and Monkey Island‘s sporadic activity fails to reproduce the glory of the first two games), and certainly Spirit Tracks does nothing to change that; if anything, re-affirming its relevance and bolstering it impact.
For a game series that’s on its fifteenth or so outing to still feel fresh and innovative, whilst defining the most integrated and polished title on a console that itself is five years old, is staggering. You’ll never find a truly disappointing Zelda game; and while some may have obvious flaws, they’re never ones that detract from the main game, or subtract enough from it to make it an unworthy title in the series. While Spirit Tracks still has a few niggling weaknesses, its glorious main game and the great swathes of improvement over its predecessor make it a decidedly essential title for anyone who’s a contended owner of Nintendo’s handheld. I still say that, overall, Phantom Hourglass is a better game, and definitely a better introduction to the Zelda mythos, but Spirit Tracks can certainly hold its own and further raises the bar that some competitors fail to reach. If you haven’t yet, get Phantom Hourglass and revel in its glory. And when you’ve finished that, then Spirit Tracks will be waiting for you; a fine locomotive companion piece to a superlative ocean cruiser. 
Next Time: Super Paper Mario (Wii)