Can Link do anything right these days? For all of the critical praise that the ongoing Legend of Zelda saga has received in recent years, the online backlash towards the past few entries has been harsh. While Twilight Princess and Phantom Hourglass introduced new wrinkles to the series, the dungeon-trekking foundation that’s been in place since the original – or at least Link to the Past – is starting to feel creaky. Spirit Tracks, the latest Zelda and Nintendo’s big handheld title from last fall, suggested that cartoony locomotives might be the solution, but unfortunately riding the rails is the worst part of an otherwise wonderful adventure.
Phantom Hourglass was unusual in that it followed the events of 2003’s The Wind Waker, instead of just hitting the traditional Hyrule reset button. If you’ve seen any cel-shaded Spirit Tracks screens, then you’ve probably realized that this game is another direct sequel. Unlike PH, this game takes place 100 years after Tetra, the King of Red Lions and all of that time-consuming sailing. It’s clear that this is the same world though, with plenty of references to the old toon games sprinkled throughout.
The leap in time means that the world has dried up, so wheels are required to get to each isolated outpost. I figure we should get the bad stuff out of the way first: traveling via train is a snooze. While the boat always offered some freedom of movement, the tracks in place only allow 90 degree turns, and there’s just not much to explore in between. I know that some of you tired of changing wind direction or that heinous Triforce fetch quest at the end of WW, but if you look at it objectively, there were tons of little treasures and uncharted islands scattered around too. In Spirit Tracks, you’ve got some randomly spawning enemies, some rabbits and…well, that’s about it.
These long stretches of nothingness are made even longer thanks to the slow default engine speed and one-hit-killer locomotives patrolling near major junctions. You can upgrade parts of your train at a trading post later in the game, and warp points are uncovered if you complete side quests, but the reality is that you’ll be spending about a third of the adventure shoveling coal and fighting boredom.
The good news is that almost everything else about Spirit Tracks is wonderful. This is not the radical departure from the series’ traditions that you may have been hoping for, but it is a much more refined handheld Zelda than Phantom Hourglass (and I thought PH was great already).
From a storytelling standpoint, Spirit Tracks is surprisingly sophisticated. The villain is a toon-shaded dweeb and the imminent release of a big bad demon is familiar, but the direction of the cutscenes and the expressiveness on the characters’ faces still shine.Â This particular world always appealed to me more than the Tolkien-lite Ocarina offshoots, and this game looks really sharp whenever the camera zooms in. And while I expect nothing less from Nintendo’s localization wizards, the witty script – with plenty of old-school callbacks – endears too.
There’s still some overworld exploration (which unfortunately puts you back in that conductor’s seat), but you’ll spend most of your time solving puzzles in the handful of dungeons. Again, it’s familiar – find a new tool/weapon, track down the boss and collect your hear piece – but the designs rely less on obvious riddles compared to PH. Touch screen controls still feel great, especially when you’re swinging across a chasm with your grappling hook or blowing into your mic to create whirlwinds with a big leaf.
The main elemental dungeons are fun, but the return trips to the central Tower of Spirits are where Spirit Tracks comes closest to matching Link’s Awakening as the best portable Zelda. In each of these segments, there are no new items to collect, boss keys to find or anything else to distract you from your ascent to the top. (OK, those droplets of light might qualify, but you gather them pretty quickly.) It’s just Link and Zelda against the series’ most devious puzzles, which play with perspective and almost every ability at your disposal.
And yes, I did say Zelda. Nintendo hasn’t exactly hidden the fact that the titular princess is along for the ride as a disembodied spirit. After you strike tower guards from behind, she can possess their armor. In her clunky suit, Zelda can walk over lava and spikes. Better yet, her increased strength allows her to push hefty boulders and carry Link to safety. If you enjoyed the two partner dungeons in The Wind Waker, you’ll have a ball here.
While I wish these moments made up the entire game, the level design is strong enough to overshadow those bumpy train rides. I hope that Nintendo is using a new blueprint for the next Wii Zelda, but this DS entry shows that the old formula is still relevant.
*In case you’re wondering, I didn’t get to try the multiplayer mode. Nintendo axed wi-fi support, so if you ran a Phantom Hourglass clan, you might want to reconsider your purchase.