Triforces and Choo-Choos

The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks nearly brings the console Zelda experience to the DS.  I would call the console Zelda games my favorite game series, from A Link to the Past to Twilight Princess (I do like the NES Zelda games, but I don’t love them), so Spirit Tracks’, and its predecessor Phantom Hourglass’, attempts to bring that experience to a handheld is laudable, even though they ultimately fall a little short of the goal.  That is not to say that Spirit Tracks is a bad game, far from it, just that the sacrifices required fitting the game on the system robs it of some of what makes the console games so great.

Spirit Tracks does many things well.  The graphics capture looks of Wind Waker very well despite the downgrade in technology.  The models are a little less detailed, but the beauty of the cell-shaded style is that it does not rely purely on polygon pushing power.  Spirit Tracks is one of the best-looking games on the DS.  The sound is also terrific.  The DS speakers will never be the best way to listen to games, but Spirit Tracks sounds as good as any game on the system.  The Zelda series has always done atmosphere better than any other series, and Spirit Tracks does not disappoint on this front.

The dungeons, which are the most important part of any Zelda game, are largely fantastic.  One of the biggest problems with the Phantom Hourglass has been addressed.  Both DS Zelda games are built around one central dungeon.  In Spirits Tracks, though, the dungeon is not timed, nor is the player forced to repeat large sections of it like in Phantom Hourglass.  That was Hourglass’ biggest flaw, and it has been neatly erased.  Once a section on dungeon is cleared, the player needs not to go through it again, though there are generally some secrets to ferret out with new abilities.  The central dungeon is no longer one big dungeon but 5 smaller dungeons stacked on top of each other.  It essentially doubles the dungeon count in the game, turning what was a flaw into a strength.

The other dungeons need creative use of the slightly more limited than usual inventory of tools.  Link has access to the boomerang, Bow, bombs, a whirlwind creating device and a magic rod that makes hard sand platforms.  By limiting the number of tools, the game actually forces the player to make more creative use of all of them; instead of having a few that are mostly useless (I’m looking at you Twilight Princess top).  Each of the games dungeons is focused on one of the tools, while that must be used together in the central one.  The central dungeon also has another trick: Zelda’s spirit inhabiting giant suits of armor that the player can then control.  Taking a page right out of the seemingly forgotten Lost Vikings, the two must be controlled in tandem to solve puzzles.  It is terrific.  The dungeons in Spirit Tracks are more satisfying than any in a Zelda game since A Link to the Past.

There are some problems.  The stylus controls, frequently cited as one of them, are not among them.  The controls work incredibly well.  The tools are all designed to be used with the control scheme so the game is not fighting itself on how to work.  The controls, however, do not lend themselves well to precise combat.  Most of the fighting in the game is accomplished with item use and maniacal sword flailing.  Except for the last boss fight, which requires more exact sword swings.  The problem is more with the boss than the controls though.  The rest of the game is designed with the controls in mind, but the last boss seems like it was made for more traditional controls and it does not work.

The flute duets are a big problem.  They sound like a great idea: taking the instrument playing that present from the start of the series and integral to games since Ocarina of Time and making it more real by having the player blow into the microphone to emulate playing.  It works, but the game gives no feedback as to what you are doing wrong when you fail.  And fail you will.  So the mandatory duets that open up new areas of the map become some of the most frustrating experiences in gaming.  Enough of a problem that it leaves a black mark on this otherwise mostly great game.

The other big problem this game has is the world map.  Retroactive and asinine complaints about Ocarina of Time’s big empty Hyrule field aside, exploring Hyrule, or its equivalent, is often one of the best parts of a Zelda game.  The sailing in Wind Waker was a welcome change, even if it wasn’t perfect.  In Phantom Hourglass, it was simply a cheat to get around the DS’s limitations.  The train in Spirit Tracks is the same.  It is not there because the designer thought a train would be a great method of exploration, or at least not only because of that.  Link rides a train because Nintendo could not fit an actual explorable Hyrule on a DS cart.  It is not a damning flaw; they had to cut something to get the game on the system, but I am a bit disappointed in the lack.

The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks is as good of a console-style Zelda that could be put on the DS.  It is a great game, but its flaws stop it from being in the same category and Ocarina of Time or Wind Waker (or any of the other console Zeldas).  The flaw also stops it from being the complete experiences that the Minish Cap or Link’s Awakening are.  Spirit Tracks exists in between those two experiences, but is not really one of its own.

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