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• Legend of Zelda – Spirit Tracks

developed & published by Nintendo/2009.12.07
1-4 Players (2 save slots)/Flash ROM/Nintendo DS


The Legend of Zelda takes a detour in Spirit Tracks, the pseudo-sequel to 2007′s Phantom Hourglass.  Inspired by his son’s favorite children’s book titled The Tracks Go On and On, director Eiji Aonuma decided to include trains as a key ingredient, and the game takes off full-steam in this new direction.  Although many classic Zelda elements are present and accounted for,  half of the time you spend with the game will be aboard the train.  Zelda purists may cry foul at the changes being introduced here, so what is the end result?

Story

An evil king called Malladus was confined in the earth long ago, with the Tower of Spirits locking him away.  The Spirit Tracks, which converge at the Tower, are energized by a race called the Locomos who watch over them.  Soon enough a villain is revealed who smashes the Tower of Spirits (causing the Spirit Tracks to disappear) and steals Zelda’s body.  It’s up to Link and Zelda (in spirit form) to fix the Tower and re-energize the Tracks to prevent the resurrection of Malladus.  While not directly stated, the game appears to take place a couple of generations after the events of Phantom Hourglass, with which it shares many elements in common.

Presentation

Graphically Spirit Tracks doesn’t improve on Phantom Hourglass, a fine adaptation of The WindWaker‘s cartoony style given the graphical limitations of the system.  The characters and monsters are cel-shaded, and while they’re a bit on the chunky side they’re full of personality.  The environments are a tad boxy, and the pixelated textures are an eyesore, but the game’s bright and colorful look more than makes up for that.  The music is also very good and almost completely original, sparing us tiresome remixes of Zelda themes we’ve heard many times before.

Making Music

Spirit Tracks puts a spin on many classic Zelda game mechanics, including the ability to play a magical flute.  This time the player has to blow into the DS microphone while dragging the flute across the screen to line up the notes.  None of the songs are too complex to get started, and Link will automatically finish the hard parts.  Out of all the Zelda games to include this sort of thing Spirit Tracks feels the most authentic.  The game also uses the DS microphone for basic speech recognition in one area of the game, which is a first for the series.

Zelda: Warrior Princess

I’ve long felt that Princess Zelda ought to take a more proactive role in these games, and Spirit Tracks gives her that opportunity. Zelda helps out by possessing the Phantom Guards that protect the Tower of Spirits.  Once she has taken over an armored suit, she’ll follow Link automatically and can be given directions by simply drawing a path on the screen.  Players will have to use both characters wisely, and while strictly speaking this is nothing new to the series, it is perhaps the best example yet.

The difficulty of the dungeons and some of the bosses has been cranked up noticeably higher compared to Phantom Hourglass, and feels just right.  The Tower of Spirits will be visited several times over the course of the game, but thankfully unlike Phantom Hourglass‘ Temple of the Ocean King players can skip the floors they have already completed.

The touch-screen controls work just as well as they did in Phantom Hourglass, and the way in which you use Link’s assortment of items is particularly fun.  Simply draw the flightpath of your boomerang, or hold-and-release to fire an arrow.  You’ll keep important memos on the game’s many maps by simply jotting them down with the stylus.  I’m amazed that no one has copied this control scheme for similar games on platforms like the iPhone.

The Spirit Tracks

A sprawling web of tracks slowly regenerates as the player progresses, resulting in an addictive feeling of satisfaction.  Eventually you’ll be able to use warp points, but you’ll spend a maddening amount of time coasting around.  This can be frustrating later in the game if you’re on a schedule, but can be  a surprisingly relaxing experience as you plot the shortest route from A to B.

You’ll have to ferry people and supplies to and fro, and often upon completing these missions you’ll unlock more Spirit Tracks, allowing you to access the game’s many mini-dungeons.  These specialize in their own set of challenges, from a gauntlet of block puzzles to maze races on ice. Completionists will have to do massive amounts of backtracking if they want to see it all, but the pay off is usually worth it.

Like any responsible engineer, you’re encouraged to follow the signs’ directions (slow down, speed up, blow the whistle), avoid enemy attacks, and be sure to stop steadily and on time.  Strict professionalism is never enforced, but if you’ve got a passenger aboard failure to drive properly makes them upset.  If they get really mad they’ll return home, but it’s not too hard to keep them happy; it’s just enough to keep you on your toes.  Although this may sound like a chore, it actually helps to give the lengthy field sections a sense of importance that was lacking in previous games.

Collecting Train Sets

In the last game, you could change out various parts of your ship.  In Spirit Tracks you can customize the engine, the cannon, the passenger car, and (eventually) the freight car.  Unfortunately the train parts require rare materials meaning you likely won’t get to see what the different sets look like unless you put in hours just collecting scarce items.  This is in stark contrast to the redundant ship parts seen in the last game, and is a bit disappointing.

In true scavenger hunt fashion you’ll be rewarded for stamping a passport at all the major stops, where the stamp stations are often cleverly hidden.  For true kleptomaniacs the world is dotted with 50 stray bunny rabbits that need to be found and rescued, encouraging players to explore every nook and cranny.  Despite the ridiculousness of this task, it can be quite distracting.

Final Thoughts

Let there be no doubt that Spirit Tracks is an improvement over Phantom Hourglass. It bumps up the difficulty to a more enjoyable level and features some exceptional boss encounters, very cool new items, and ingenious puzzles.  Transporting passengers and items lends an air of consequence to your travels, and including Zelda as a secondary character that the player can control helps to spice things up.  Crossing the world map is still a slow and repetitive task that can become tiresome, but going by rail is more entertaining than sailing the seas.

Nintendo has once again outdone themselves with the hardware’s unique functionality, and it’s all woven together by a cute story and endless questing that is hard to resist.  It’s quite possibly the best game available for the platform, so don’t hesitate to pick it up.

Quick Run Down

PROs:

  • Difficulty/challenge is nearly perfect
  • Touchscreen controls work almost flawlessly
  • Plenty of fresh new ideas, secrets
  • 20~30+ hours of questing
  • Solid presentation

CONs:

  • Traveling takes too long
  • Too much backtracking
  • The speech recognition bits are embarrassing
  • Online mode from Phantom Hourglass omitted!

One Sentence Review: A welcome, thoroughly enjoyable, refreshingly unique spin on the Zelda franchise.
One Word Review: Fresh!

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