2nd Quest: Spirit Tracks

The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks is a very good game. It fixes all of the problems of its predecessor on the DS, though not without adding a few of its own new ones, while keeping that game’s strengths. Despite this, I would definitely consider Spirit Tracks to be one of the lesser Zelda games. It does everything it does well, but it lacks the one thing that makes the Zelda series so notable: ambition.

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Spirit Tracks is a small game. And a familiar game. This is not the smallest Zelda game, Minish Cap feels a lot more constrained. It is not the first game to build off the set up of its predecessor, Majora’s Mask plays almost identically to Ocarina of Time. But it is the first time that a Legend of Zelda game brings almost nothing new to the table. Ocarina of Time brought the series to 3D, Majora’s Mask has that whole 3 day cycle going for it, Wind Waker has sailing, Phantom Hourglass had a completely new control scheme, etc. Spirit Tracks is a refinement of Phantom Hourglass, but little else. It does have a new setting going for it, but other than switching out the ocean for the train that setting is largely the same as Phantom Hourglass. It’s only real innovation is the games obnoxious instance on using the DS mic for playing instruments and using weapons. That is also the games worst feature, by far. The biggest fault the game has not that it fails in any way; it is that it doesn’t try.

It does fix most of the problems from Phantom Hourglass. I thought the controls worked well in PH, but they are just that much more responsive and effective here. It is mostly slight changes, like a double tap rolls instead of drawing a curlicue, but they add up for a noticeably better controlling game. It also fixes the central dungeon idea that integral to PH. While there is still a central dungeon, but all of my complaints with it are fixed. It is no longer timed and you no longer have to repeat sections of it. The stealth segments are still there, but divorced from the other elements they work.

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While the first couple dungeons are rather simple, they ramp up to a satisfying complexity. It works with a limited array of tools to make the player think his way through obstacles. Instead of relying heavily on the tool found in each of the elemental dungeons, all the previously acquired tools are put to use. From the third dungeon on they are all excellent. The one fly in the ointment playing this game are the Locomo Flute Duets. I complained about them when I first reviewed this game, but this time I didn’t have as much trouble with them. In fact, I passed all of them but one on the first try. The thing is, I have no idea what caused me to fail the one time I did. The game does not provide any feedback as to what you are doing wrong when you fail. It just makes you start over The time after I failed I just about gave up since I did so badly, but the game decided I did it good enough to pass. What is most frustrating is not the failing, it is the lack of feedback.

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The one problem that wasn’t fixed is the overworld. It is still stifling and small; a chore to explore instead of joy. Having just played Twilight Princess the contrast could not be more stark. TP has an expansive, interesting world, Spirit Tracks has a series of rail, including some that only appear when you find certain items. It is no fun. And this game has a world that I’d like to explore, but I can’t because the game sticks you to the rails

The Legend of Zelda Spirit Tracks is not a bad game. For the most part, the game is excellent. It just lacks that creative spark that makes this series one of my favorites. There are other games that I would definitely call other games in the series failures, but none exhibit the total lack of ambition that Spirit Tracks does. It just feels kind of by the numbers, which is a huge problem.

It is a Somewhat Disappointing Story

Mario and Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story is a game that, on paper, I should love. I really enjoyed the first M&L game (though I missed out on the second one) and this one brings back the best part, Fawful, and has some of the best looking sprites I’ve seen in a long time. It also has Nintendo’s trademark quality localization, being mostly witty and funny. So I am having difficulty pinpointing exactly why I found playing it to be such a chore.

Part of it I think is the premise. Mario and Luigi manipulating Bowser from the inside while he fights against Fawful’s minions sounds great, but it doesn’t quite work out as it should. All of Bowser’s insides basically look the same, meaning that nearly the entire time game Mario and Luigi are stuck in one area. Also, the globins, the anti-body inhabitants of Bowser’s body are a big miss on the writer’s part. Talking to them is simply tedious. The Mario Brothers portions of the game are simply not as good as they could be. The Bowser portions are much more entertaining. They are certainly better written. Bowser’s charmingly self-centered nature is tons of fun. He sees everything only as reflections of his importance. His goals haven’t changed, he plans to conquer the Mushroom Kingdom and force Peach to be his bride. However, with Fawful currently in power, his goals are temporarily aligned with Mario’s. Still, Bowser finds it hard to focus on the larger goal rather than instant gratification. The problem with Bowser’s portion is the other problem I’ve had with the game.

Mario & Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story tries its best to utilize as much of the DS’s functionality as possible. In this case this is a bad thing. There are many features on the DS that when uses appropriately can greatly enhance a game. The great games on the system use only the ones necessary. M&L3 uses as just about everything on the system, no matter how awkward the implementation is. The game has the player turn the system sideways to fight big battles with Bowser, you blow in the mic to blow fire, tap the screen for various attacks. It makes battles, whose timing mechanics already make them more involved than most, a chore. I found most of the tapping, sliding and other touch mechanics to be tiresome. The worst part is that the increased complexity in battle mechanics is offset by a simplification of the platforming parts, which were the best parts of the first game.

These problems aren’t really that big. They are kind of nitpicky. Still, they added up to enough to keep me from truly enjoying the game. Mario and Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story is a well-made game with small flaws that simply rubbed me the wrong way. I wanted to like it, I really did, but I didn’t really enjoy the game all that much. I know some people were disappointed when Nintendo announced Paper Mario for the 3DS rather than a new Mario and Luigi game, but I’m perfectly happy with that series continuing over this one.

Gotta Catch’em All

I spent most of the last week or so playing the newest Pokemon release (White for me because I’m racist).  I love it.  Pokemon has lost nothing in the 13 years since it landed on American shores.  Amazingly, the Pokemon “fad” seems to have diminished slightly or not at all if the record first day sales are to be believed.  For the first time since I bought Red on a whim, I went into this game virtually blind.  I knew how the game worked, it doesn’t change drastically from game to game, but other than what the starter Pokes looked like, I knew almost nothing about this version.  Playing it blind has made me absurdly nostalgic for the old Game boy days of Pokemon.

As I said, I bought Pokemon Red on a whim way back in October of 1998, about a month after its release.  I was a newly minted teenager, flush with a small fortune in birthday money and in control of the family Game boy Pocket.  But the Game boy was a tired system, especially in the Skocy household.  The system was closing in on 10 years old at that point and while we hadn’t had it that long, we had definitely had it long enough for me to extract all the fun possible from Super Mario Land 2, Kirby’s Dreamland and Wario Blast (a Bomberman/Wario crossover).  A fortuitous Wal-Mart stop allowed me to glimpse a commercial for some game called “Pokemon.”  A kindly older, animated gentleman, who I later learned was called Professor Oak, told me how you catch monsters and force them to fight in virtual cockfights.  The screens reminded me of the Final Fantasy series, which I was already enthralled with.  I had to have this game.  After wheedling my mother for permission, as I hadn’t actually brought that birthday money with me, I became the owner of a copy of Pokemon Red.

I got in somewhat before the craze, but I soon learned that a cartoon was already airing in the morning.  So I set my VCR to record it.  Because even if I had the desire to wake up early to watch it, my mother did not allow us to watch TV before school.  To this day I have several tapes full of Pokemon cartoons.  But the cartoon was always a side attraction.  The game was where it was at.  There was so much to love about the game.  It took the gameplay of Dragon Quest and combined it with the fun of pet raising, a truly addictive combination.  The similarity to Tamogotchi and other similar virtual pets probably helped fuel the fad talk, though Pokemon has surely outlived that.  The trading aspect was the game’s crowning achievement.  There was something great about trading on the Game Boy, though I certainly do not miss the hassle of the link cable.

I can still remember my first team, the one that I first used to curb stomp the elite four into submission.  My starter was Bulbasaur.  I gave him a nickname that it kills me to not remember; he never left my party.  I used a Mankey who fell back near the end of the game, but that little pig-monkey has always been a favorite.  I had a Jigglypuff I used quite extensively despite its near uselessness.  I had a Pidgeot, the first Pokemon I caught.  My ringer, the Poke who pulled the other’s bacon off the fire when things turned south was a Gyarados, the one that an unscrupulous hiker would sell at the start of the game.  The joy of Pokemon, especially the first generation, was in the discovery.  Each of the Pokemon was a revelation.  Now everyone knows that the useless Magikarp evolves into the all-powerful Gyarados, but when I first started, I had no idea.  I hoped, guided by an already sharp grasp of video game logic, that that little fish couldn’t just be useless, but I did not know.  Each new area of the game unveiled new monsters to tame, with new abilities and skills to master.  It perfectly captured the feeling of stepping into a new world that as a player it was your job to explore.  It is no wonder it was the phenomenon that it was.

After the first game, though, the series lost some of its luster.  I played Gold and Silver, but the magic was gone.  I think a big part of that was the fact that I had scoured the internet in the months preceding the release for information about the game.  I had nothing to discover.  Then I skipped Ruby and Sapphire entirely.  I wasn’t really up on the release at the time, I had just moved on.  But when Diamond and Pearl came out for the DS is was itching for some Pokemon fun.  And Pearl scratched that itch, but it still lacked the magic of Red and Blue.

But White has recaptured that magic.  I think the key is that as soon as I decided to buy White, I stopped checking out information on it.  I made a point of knowing as little as possible about the game before I played it.  Nintendo and Game Freak helped me out by limiting the available Pokemon during the main game to only the new ones.  While many of the Pokes fall into the same archetypes as the original 150, there was enough new for it to be fresh.  I don’t think I’ll have quite as fond memories of White as I do of Red, I’m not 13 anymore, but I’m having just as much catching them all as I did back then.  The fact that it is still going strong makes me hope that there will be many future releases that rekindle this joy of discovery and collecting.

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.

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